Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Herbal Healing on the Go! Build Your Own Natural First Aid Kit

By Maria Noël Groves, Clinical Herbalist & Co-op Wellness Educator

A few weeks after I graduated from college, I stuffed a backpack to the brim and headed across Europe. I’d just begun to delve into herbal medicine, and one of my traveling companions had a new degree as an athletic trainer. We both squeezed first aid kits in our packs with remedies for similar purposes, but the actual contents varied according to our philosophies. She carried Neosporin and antiseptic wipes, I carried honey and tea tree essential oil. When someone got nauseous, they could choose Dramamine or crystallized ginger. And although my medical-minded friend poo-pooed most of my kit’s contents, 15 years later she admits I was on to something.

No home is complete without some kind of first aid kit. Stashing a kit in the linen closet, car, purse, or suitcase provides a little extra security no matter where you are. It’s easy and invaluable to incorporate herbs and natural remedies into your kit, but it’s still only useful if you actually have what you need in an emergency. Before you compile your kit, first ask yourself some questions so you can create the most useful kit for your family.

Location & Shelf Life: Your home kit has the most flexibility because you have plenty of space, good storage conditions (cool, dark, dry cabinets and closets), and even access to a refrigerator. But if you plan to stash your kit in the car, you’ll need something smaller with remedies that can withstand the elements. Water-based liquids will freeze and break containers. Oil-based remedies go rancid quickly in a hot car, salves will melt, alcohol might explode (unlikely but could happen at 170°F or higher, depending on the proof), and dry herbs and teas will get cooked to oblivion. Tinctures work well for car kits because they will last for a few years and the combination of alcohol and water makes them unlikely to freeze or explode. If you’re traveling or always carrying your kit, just bring the bare bones necessities and nothing that requires refrigeration. When I go on 120-mile kayak/portage treks, I carry just a few tiny bottles and think creatively about what wild plants I can use in a pinch. Keep small servings of your most-needed remedies in your purse. For kits-to-go, keep 1/4- and 1/2-ounce dropper and spray bottles on hand for easy packing and administering. I prefer glass, but plastic may work better in some situations. Poke around herb shops and online (or break out your sewing equipment) for cute cloth carriers that hold bottles so they’re unlikely to break, or just wrap the bottles and store in Ziploc baggies. (If you don’t, something’s sure to break or leak!) Individually wrapped products from the natural food store are great for first aid kits: tea bags, herbal candies, homeopathic remedies, electrolyte and magnesium packets, natural antiseptic wipes, blister packs of probiotics and other natural remedies, etc. Homeopathic remedies are also perfect for first-aid kits.

What You Will Need:
 Where are you going, and what will you need? When I traveled to Guatemala, I knew my normally rock-solid digestion would be challenged. I packed shelf-stable probiotics, hard ginger candies (which held up to the heat and humidity better than chewy candies and crystallized ginger), ginger capsules, and electrolyte packets. But if you’re packing for summer vaca with kids, remedies for bumps, bruises, wounds, splinters, bug bites, and poison ivy will more likely be in order. Think about what kinds of ailments are most likely to pop up for your family in a variety of situations, and stash remedies where you think you’ll need them. It’s easy to go nuts and pack everything under the sun… only to have it all go unused and get tossed a year or two later when it’s out of date.

Multitask: When possible, choose remedies with more than one purpose. For example,
lavender essential oil helps with almost any topical ailment you can think of: rashes, itchy skin, infections, burns, general sanitization, repelling bugs, etc. (Store-bought lavender wipes work in a pinch, but the straight essential oil also works well.) The scent of lavender also aids anxiety and insomnia. Echinacea/goldenseal/propolis throat spray does double-duty for topical infections. Lemon balm tincture (made with fresh leaves) helps heal cold sores externally while soothing nerves and digestion internally. Kava tincture works across the board for most adults with anxiety or insomnia. For children, go for chamomile, which also helps with indigestion and teething. I keep homemade calendula and St. John’s wort salve in lip balm tubes for itchy rashes, diaper rashes, wound healing, and hemorrhoids; remove salve from the tube with your finger or a cloth so you can use one tube for multiple purposes without contaminating it.

The Basics:

Almost every first aid kit should include the following. Pick the one(s) that you prefer and work best for your family.
  • Anti-nausea: Ginger candies, crystallized ginger, and peppermint candy or gum quell motion sickness, morning sickness, and nausea from cancer treatments. Gum’s handy for airplanes because it helps keep the air pressure from building in the ears.
  • Antiseptic, Disinfectant & Wound Healer: Lavender and/or tea tree essential oil, essential oil wipes (ie: lavender, tea tree, oregano, or thyme), echinacea/goldenseal “throat” spray, or Kloss’ liniment can help with a variety of skin infections and may also soothe itches. Alcohol and vinegar can disinfect. Raw honey cleans and heals wounds. Comfrey heals/seals skin very quickly but does not disinfect and shouldn’t be used on deep or infected wounds. Seek medical attention if an infection continues to worsen or doesn’t get better within 24 hours.
  • Pain Reliever: Powdered magnesium (mixed in water) helps with muscle pain, spasms,
    headaches, and migraines. White willow bark acts as a mild, natural aspirin. Turmeric and ginger help relieve inflammation. I make my own “loose muscles” tincture with a variety of herbal pain relievers including pedicularis, California poppy, and small amounts of corydalis, wintergreen, and birch. Look for pain formulas at the herb shop or natural food store, too. But, be sure ahead of time that the remedy actually works for your family. Natural pain remedies are finicky, milder than conventional NSAIDs, and may cause stomach upset.
  • Sedative: Chamomile for children. For adults, try kava has the broadest, fastest action, but also consider valerian, skullcap, lemon balm, or passionflower to help induce sleep and calm anxiety. Also consider flower essences like Bach’s Rescue Remedy or FES’s Five Flower Formula, which can be used topically and internally for stress, anxiety, trauma, and rashes.
  • Standard Supply: Bandages, tweezers, thermometer, etc. I still keep Benadryl and ibuprofen on hand, just in case. If you'll be somewhere warm, don't forget the natural bug spray and sunscreen.

Extra First Aid Remedies for Common Ailments:

Definitely don’t feel like you should have ALL these remedies. Only stock for ailments that tend to afflict your family (or that you anticipate with travel), and choose a remedy or two that best works for your family from the options. Unless specified, most of the herbs can be used internally as teas, tinctures, or capsules; or externally as an herb-infused oil, salve, poultice, or wash.

Topical First Aid (External use unless specified)
  • Bumps & Bruises: Arnica (not on broken skin), gotu kola, Rescue Remedy. Rescue Remedy, gotu kola, and homeopathic arnica tabs can also be taken internally.
  • Rashes, Poison Ivy, Bug Bites: Lavender and/or tea tree essential oil or wipes, calendula oil or salve, plantain poultice or oil/salve. Apple cider vinegar, jewelweed, or grindelia specifically ease poison ivy rashes.
  • Infections: Berberine-rich plants (organically cultivated goldenseal, coptis, barberry, Oregon grape root, such as in a throat spray or Kloss’ liniment), oregano/bee balm, lavender, honey. Chaparral and thuja are particularly helpful for fungal infections.
  • Blisters: Apply under a bandage or overnight: almost any salve (calendula, lavender, plantain…), plantain poultice, honey.
  • Hemorrhoids: Calendula oil or salve, witch hazel, yarrow.
  • Sunburns & Burns: St. John’s wort oil can prevent and treat, lavender essential oil, apple cider vinegar, calendula, fresh-cut and applied aloe or cactus pad, cool green tea, self heal, or chaparral wash, ice or cool water.
  • Herpes: Lemon balm tincture (internally and externally) or cream, St. John’s wort oil, licorice powder, cayenne/capsaicin oil or salve (will burn at first, don’t get in eyes or on genitals). Calming herbs internally.
  • Splinters & Stings: Remove splinters with sterilized tweezers or needle or attempt to draw out with clay paste, plantain poultice, pine/fir pitch, or ripe banana peel. Plantain is specific for stings and other bites. Consider echinacea tincture topically and internally if there is concern of infection (classic remedy for snake bite) or apply a berberine-rich remedy and then apply a compress of aloe for the day. Of course, get to the hospital immediately if there is a severe reaction, dangerous bite, or significant infection.
  • Topical Pain: St. John’s wort oil relieves nerve pain including rashes, burns, and sciatica. Arnica or Rescue Remedy for trauma and bruising. Cayenne salve or cream for many types of pain including arthritis (will burn at first, don’t get in eyes or on genitals). Diluted wintergreen essential oil has aspirin-like effects, and peppermint essential oil/menthol serves as a counter-irritant and pain reliever.

Digestive Distress
  • Gas, Pain & Bloating: Peppermint (especially internal essential oil preparations), fennel seeds, cardamom, probiotics, digestive enzymes.
  • Constipation: Yellow dock root, Triphala, Smooth Move or senna tea (short-term only), digestive bitters (milder), probiotics.
  • Diarrhea: Cinnamon, carob, electrolyte packets, miso soup, probiotics.
  • Nervous Indigestion & Colic: Chamomile, catnip, lemon balm.
  • Indigestion: Peppermint, balm tea, digestive bitters, Neutralizing Cordial, digestive enzymes, nervous indigestion remedies.
  • Acid Reflux, Heartburn & Ulcers: Licorice or DGL tablets, slippery elm, Throat Coat tea, plantain. Raw apple cider vinegar helps some cases of reflux. Comfrey leaf tea can heal digestive wounds quickly but may also be liver toxic and is not generally recommended for internal use. Ulcers will probably still require medical attention.
  • Food Poisoning: Activated charcoal capsules, betonite clay, cinnamon, beberine-rich plants. For support: probiotics, ginger, electrolyte fluids, miso soup, fermented foods.

  • Headaches & Migraines: Magnesium powder (in water) or butterbur/Petadolex help prevent and stave off an oncoming headache or migraine. Feverfew helps preventively. Kava can help in a pinch for tension headaches. Coffee may stop an early migraine. (Regular coffee and NSAID use will ultimately cause withdrawal/rebound headaches and migraines.)
  • Aches & Pains: Turmeric, ginger, tart or black cherry, boswellia, magnesium, bromelain or fresh pineapple juice. Also see pain relievers in “Basics” and topical pain relievers.
  • Menstrual Cramps: Cramp bark (tincture is best, taken every 15 minutes) is the most widely effective. Also ginger, dong quai, magnesium, apply heat.
  • Gout: Tart or black cherry juice/extract, celery juice, celery ribs. (Best taken regularly.)

Stress, Insomnia & Anxiety

  • Energy: Caffeine works quickly and temporarily; green tea, chocolate, and yerba mate are my preferred forms. Adaptogen herbs have better energy benefits over time. For more stimulating energy, try rhodiola, ginseng, and/or eleuthero. For calm energy, try holy basil, gotu kola, milky oat seed, and/or bacopa. In the middle, try schizandra and/or ashwagandha.
  • Anxiety & Insomnia: See Sedatives in “The Basics.” For sleep, especially while traveling, try an eye mask and ear plugs.

  • Cold: Elder syrup, ginger, echinacea, umckaloabo (Umcka), andrographis, garlic, chicken or miso soup, cayenne, rest.
  • Flu: Elder syrup, rest, hot teas (or tincture added to hot water) of ginger, elder flower, yarrow, boneset, and/or peppermint to break a sweat.
  • Sore Throat: Echinacea/goldenseal/propolis throat spray, raw garlic, honey, lemon, oregano/bee balm, ginger, elder syrup, echinacea, slippery elm, Throat Coat tea, salt gargles or salty broth.
  • Throat Coat tea does double duty to soothe throats and acid reflux. True licorice candies may also help.
  • Sinus: Salt wash/neti, berberine-rich plants, goldenrod, horehound, or herbal steams with thyme, eucalyptus, peppermint, and/or oregano/bee balm herbs or essential oils.
  • Cough: Honey, wild cherry bark syrup, horehound, elder syrup, menthol candies.
  • Plain honey - preferably raw - does a nice job for sore throats, coughs, AND as a topical remedy to disinfect and heal wounds.
  • Allergies: Horehound, goldenrod, nettle, quercetin, bromelain, eyebright and berberine-rich plants, specific homeopathic remedies.
  • UTI: Cranberry juice, blueberry juice, blueberry leaf tea, uva ursi, juniper berries. Also watch your sugar and alcohol intake. Stop using the herbs and see a doctor immediately if it moves into the kidneys (lower back pain, fever, cloudy urine).

This is a BIG LIST. Remember: Try to pick just 5-10 of your own top-need items that your family likes best, for example...

Here's a sample Travel Kit that I put together for a recent return trip to Italy:

  • Elderberry Syrup - To bolster my immune system (planes, lack of sleep, and visiting four children - oh my!), soothe sore throats, quell coughs. Should've brought more! This was surprisingly difficult to find for resupply in spite of an Erboristeria (herb shop) in every town. 
  • Calendula Salve - For itchy, dry skin issues like rashes, cracks on my feet, dry skin... also good for diaper rash, hemorrhoids, etc.
  • Lavender Essential Oil - For almost anything topical. Great to mix in with the calendula salve before applying. 
  • Lavender Wipes - For almost anything topical, including quick hand sanitation. 
  • Valerian Tincture - My go-to for sleep (as well as an eye mask and earplugs). 
  • Cramp Bark - For menstrual cramps, unfortunate timing.
  • Ionic Fizz Cal-Mag Packets - To keep my muscles and bones happy during hill hikes and long days of walking around the city. 
  • Gin Gins Hard Ginger Candies - Almost ran out of these on a windy drive up to Cortona - it's amazing none of the kids (nor I) puked! 
  • Ibuprofen and Benadryl (just in case), bandaids, tweezers.

Click here to learn how to make your own remedies.

The statements made on this blog have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, prescribe, recommend, or offer medical advice. Please see your health care practitioner for help regarding choices and to avoid herb-drug interactions.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Brain Boosters: Favorite Memory Herbs

by Maria Noël Groves, Clinical Herbalist & Co-op Wellness Educator

Whether we realize it or not, most of us to don’t function with optimal mental clarity. It might be a forgotten lunch date or afternoon brain fog at work or school. As we get older, we become more aware – and fearful – about our mental wellbeing. What can we do to undo the state of our brain so that we think clearly and remember everything?

First, the basics: A healthy, low-glycemic, whole foods diet with a range of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant foods is crucial. Adequate omega 3 fatty acids and B vitamins in the diet and/or supplement form also help. Living off stress, multitasking, and skimping on sleep are some of the worst things we can do for our brain function. Exercising (both your physical body and brain-teasing activities) and spending time in nature give it a boost. Beyond these basic tenants of healthy living, several herbs hold the power to enhance memory, focus, and function.

Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) is safe, gentle, and lovely multitasker for the multitasker. In India and Asia, people have long relied on the herb to enhance memory. It enhances circulation, improves connective tissue support, decreases anxiety, and improves the body’s resistance to stress, all of which benefit memory and cognition. Studies also suggest that gotu kola improves the brain’s ability to use glucose for energy when blood sugar levels are low. The herb is generally safe, even for children, though you should be cautious combining it with blood-thinning medications.

Ginkgo Leaves

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) standardized extract – available mainly as capsules – research has found that the herb generally improves memory and brain function for both healthy adults and those with memory-based disorders. Compounds in ginkgo increase circulation in medium and small blood vessels, which increases blood flow to the brain. It may help slow the progression of conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s. The effects are not always immediately noticeable, so you may need to be patient to see results. Some people get a headache when they begin to use ginkgo, but this usually passes after a few weeks or with a reduced dose. Use caution with blood-thinning medications.

Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri) is helpful for mental function and focus. It’s a nootropic (“smart drug” or memory enhancer) that promotes memory and focus, relieves anxiety, slows the progression of Alzheimer’s, and improves recovery from brain trauma. Both bacopa and gotu kola are called “brahmi,” so check the Latin name to confirm.

Freshly Harvested Sage

Chocolate Mint (a variety of Peppermint)

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), a common culinary herb, shines for cerebral circulation. “Rosemary for remembrance,” is the classic catchphrase. Though this may be due to the intense fragrance, which perks up the senses and is not easily forgotten, rosemary is a powerful antioxidant herb that can help fight the oxidative damage that inhibits brain function. Recent research confirms the historical use of the antioxidant-rich herbs rosemary, sage (Salvia spp), and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) for mental clarity. These herbs appear to improve short-term memory and slow dementia and Alzheimer’s in old age, perhaps by inhibiting acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that degrades neurotransmitters. You can eat these herbs, drink them as tea, or take them as supplements. For a simple mental perk, simply inhale the scent of the fresh rosemary or its essential oil. The invigorating scent of peppermint (Mentha x piperita) has also been noted to improve brain function in studies. (Do not ingest the essential oil form of these herbs.) Use caution with blood-thinning medications.
Fresh Turmeric Root (Dry is Good, too!)
Fresh Carrot-Pineapple-Turmeric-Orange-Lemongrass Juice
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) has achieved stardom due to its many benefits including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, vascular, and liver support, and general protective properties. It may be particularly helpful in staving off diseases like Alzheimer’s, which is poorly understood but characterized by oxidation, plaque buildup in the vascular system, and inflammation. Populations in India and Okinawa that consume turmeric regularly tend to have long, healthy life spans and exhibit significantly less incidence of these brain diseases. Turmeric is more bioavailable if you cook it with some oil. Adding a bit of black pepper improves absorption by 2,000 times! Use caution with blood-thinning medications.

Organic blueberries from Blueberry Gardens

Blueberries (Vaccinium spp) are arguably one of our most delicious brain foods. Researchers at Tufts’ Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging published a decade’s worth of human, animal, and lab studies demonstrating the diminutive blueberry’s ability to reverse age-related decline in mental function, fight oxidative stress, and improve symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Cultivated blueberries are helpful, but wild blueberries possess significantly more activity. Frozen blueberries offer the highest antioxidant content. Bilberry supplements can be substituted; they’re simply a European blueberry species.

Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) root is useful for someone who just needs a kick in the pants (or brain) to get off the couch and have better mental and physical energy. It’s a stimulating, fast-acting herb that helps reduce the effects of stress. Clinical research support its traditional energy and longevity uses. Studies found that it helped night shift workers and those taking exams perform better, and it can uplift the mood. But it can bother people who are easily agitated by stimulants, have bipolar disorder, or have sensitive stomachs.

These are just a few of the many brain-boosting herbs, foods, and supplements available to us. Others include omega-3 fish oils and fatty fish like salmon, B vitamins, vitamin C, holy basil, eleuthero, schizandra, gogi berries... While nothing is a guarantee, the healthier your overall lifestyle, the better your odds for optimal brain function now and as you age!

For more about stress and memory herbs, click here.

The statements made on this blog have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, prescribe, recommend, or offer medical advice. Please see your health care practitioner for help regarding choices and to avoid herb-drug interactions.

All photography by Maria, except the blueberries, courtesy of Blueberry Gardens.