Using tumeric as a simple, medicinal herb and tea: Home Medicine Cycle 33

Tumeric is a wonderful plant that has been used as a spice and a medicine for thousands of years. It has now become very fashionable among health-conscious people in the West because of recent research into its many medicinal qualities. And as with many fashion trends, this one comes with its caveats. 

Tumeric plant - Image by  J.M.Garg  under a GNU Free Documentation License

Tumeric plant - Image by J.M.Garg under a GNU Free Documentation License

Yes, tumeric contains compounds which have been shown to combat Alzheimer’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis and unhealthy cholesterol levels among about six hundred other health problems—primarily through anti-inflammatory and antioxidanteffects. It isn’t all made up.

But it isn’t all well-understood either. And the dosages needed to treat serious illnesses can be difficult to obtain from safe sources.

Exciting research is progressing to find practical ways to use tumeric as a supplemental cancer treatment and to fight Alzheimer’s disease. But at present there are a plethora of supplements and powders on the market that all claim to be the best sources of tumeric and curcumin, the main medicinal active compound in tumeric. Unfortunately many of these supplements and spices are diluted with useless and sometimes hazardous fillers and coloring agents. It can be very difficult to obtain undiluted tumeric supplements or tumeric extracts that have been safely processed to retain beneficial qualities. 

My focus on the Practical Herb Lore blog has always been to give you herbs that simply work, that you can grow or process on your own and ensure the quality and safety at the source. That’s partly because I’m not selling herbs or supplements but rather trying to document my struggle to take back my own health. It’s also because I’ve observed that using fresh, locally grown herbs isn’t just romantic and ecological. It really makes a substantial difference in the health benefits of herbs.

As a result I can’t give you a cure for cancer or diabetes based on tumeric… yet. However, what I can give you is a recipe and guidelines for using tumeric for broad prevention of illness and specifically for anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits.

Analysis of a wide variety of sources concludes that you can take a preventative dose of about 1 tsp of fresh or dried tumeric root daily without side affects. Higher doses can be used to fight specific inflammatory diseases or cancers. High doses over the long term may lead to ulcers. 

Most research on tumeric is focused on powder extracts of the compound curcumin which is the most medicinally active compound in tumeric. While it may be easier to take supplement capsules, it is much more difficult to be sure of the quality and safety of what you are taking. Tumeric has been used successfully in many countries in Asia for centuries as a whole food but the use of an isolated compound such as curcumin hasn’t been studied for so long. There may be side effects to using the isolated compound, as has been found with many synthetic pharmaceuticals.

It may be difficult to grow tumeric root in many parts of the world but you can often buy fresh tumeric root or dried, powdered tumeric root. It may be difficult to tell if the powdered tumeric root has been diluted with useless or potentially harmful fillers and coloring agents. But the fresh root is widely available in grocery stories and can be grated and used as a spice or made into tea—while roughly adhering to the one-teaspoon-per-person-per-day rule.

In a pinch you can put high-quality tumeric spice powder into gel capsules and swallow your one teaspoon per day that way. It is helpful to swallow a couple of corns of black pepper with the capsules as the compounds in tumeric are not well absorbed by the body and black pepper contains compounds that assist in absorption.

Tumeric rhizome - image by  Simon A. Eugster  under a GNU Free Documentation license 

Tumeric rhizome - image by Simon A. Eugster under a GNU Free Documentation license 

But a much more certain and probably more enjoyable option is tea.  One study documented the use of tumeric tea in some villages in India where the population has the lowest incidents of Alzheimer’s disease in the world. Some reports indicate that the key to tumeric’s preventative powers is the consistency of the long-term use of small amounts of tumeric on a daily basis, rather than a one-off drink from an expensive juice counter.
Here are two recipes for tea, one simple and one more complex but quite delicious.

Basic recipe for tumeric tea

Bring four cups of water to the boil. Add a teaspoon of turmeric powder or fresh grated tumeric root (for better flavor). Add a pinch of black pepper to aid in absorption of medicinal compounds and simmer for about ten minutes. Strain the tea and flavor with honey, ginger, cinnamon or lemon.

Tumeric-milk tea with extra punch

The medicinal compounds in tumeric don't dissolve well in water, which is why it's good to strain the basic tea with a fine seive. But curcumin and other compounds do dissolve in fats far more readily. That is why a combination of milk and cocoanut or almond milk makes a good base for tumeric tea.

Gradually warm a cup of coconut or almond milk. Add a half a teaspoon of turmeric, a pinch of black pepper, a teaspoon of finely chopped ginger root, a pinch of cinnamon and a teaspoon of raw honey. Mix vigorously to remove lumps. Strain before drinking.

I love to hear from you and I would particularly be interested in the experiences of others in using tumeric medicinally. Drop me a line in the comments. Thanks!

Ginger - the great protector and comforter: Home Medicine Cycle 30

It can feel like a hostile world out there. It seems like every other day that I read about a new substance, product or pollutant that threatens my family with cancer, toxicity or liver damage. Gone are the days when I drank water from free-flowing streams as a child and ate wilderness snow without fear. From packaged foods to pharmaceutical (some of them very necessary) to  the very air we can't help but breathe, carcinogens and toxins are everywhere. 

Ginger root - Creative Commons image by  Andrés Monroy-Hernández 

Ginger root - Creative Commons image by  Andrés Monroy-Hernández 

Wouldn't it be wonderful if you had a strong and comforting defender that could protect you and your family from many of these hazards. Research is showing that you might have just such a friend, and unlike so many herbs I feature here, this is one you can buy fresh at most grocery stores. 

Ginger.

That's right. The knobbly root that you may have overlooked as a nice spice, tea or at most an addition to Tai soup has some serious defending and comforting powers. Not all of the uses are fully understood yet and the research is ongoing. But there are a couple of things you can be sure of.

Ginger's easy and proven home remedies extend to: 

Fresh ginger and lemon tea - Creative Commons image by Jacqueline of Flickr.com

Fresh ginger and lemon tea - Creative Commons image by Jacqueline of Flickr.com

  • Ginger tea for coughs, colds and flu: I used to think I just loved the taste and warming feel of ginger when I had a cold or the flu. As it turns out ginger also eases coughs and fights many respiratory viruses. Not only is ginger tea (made by grating fresh ginger root into a cup of hot water) a good idea (and delicious) for coughs and colds, ginger syrup and even tincture can help too.
  • Ginger syrup, ginger candy or fresh ginger root as a food for stomach troubles and nausea: Ginger is most famous among herbalists for being a nausea calmer.As the results of scientific studies come in, we are finding out that it isn't just nausea it helps with. It helps to heal difficult-to-treat-stomach ulcers through antimicrobial activity. It is specifically helpful for nausea during pregnancy and for post-operative and chemotherapy-induced nausea. Of course, it also helps many children with motion sickness, though not all children can handle enough of the spicy taste.
  • Ginger tea or powdered ginger root for  menstrual cramps: Ginger tea  (made with grated fresh ginger root) can be a great help with menstrual cramps of the inflammatory variety. I've read that some preparations of powdered ginger root are as powerful as Ibuprofen in mitigating cramps, but I always take any preparation I can't make myself at home with a large grain of salt, because buying herbal preparations from non-local sources is always a gamble. You might get lucky and find ginger root powder that is fresh enough and as effective as the studies show it can be, but you could easily buy over-processed and aged preparations and have nothing. For now, I stick to a combination of yarrow tincture and ginger tea for cramps.
  • Ginger essential oil aroma therapy for post-operative and chemotherapy induced nausea: Several studies have shown that women who underwent chemotherapy for the treatment of breast cancer used ginger aromatherapy effectively to curb resulting nausea. Another study has found similarly beneficial effects for patients experiencing nausea after operations.
  • Ginger tea or powder for migraine headaches: Ginger tea can be a great comfort for migraines. A study has found that ginger root powder (if properly stored and kept fresh) can be as powerful as pharmaceutical migraine medications.
  • Ginger tincture for muscle soreness and inflammation: Ginger is strongly anti-inflammatory and it has been taken by competitive athletes in many countries to reduce the wear and tear of training. It can also help with joint and muscle inflammations and strain.
Detail of ginger - Creative Commons image by Miran Rijavec

Detail of ginger - Creative Commons image by Miran Rijavec

There is exciting research showing new areas where ginger shows great potential, but it is less clear in these areas how a homecrafting herbalist could make the right kind of herbal extract from ginger to achieve these effects. It is very likely that with some experimentation and work we will soon be able to tap into the amazing protective qualities of ginger.

  • Ginger treating diabetes: Ginger extracts are being used in trials to treat type 2 diabetes in people and type 1 diabetes in animals. Ginger powder and extracts have been studied in several trails and found to be effective against type 2 diabetes and found to be an "effective treatment." Considering the number of studies in this area, it is too bad that there isn't more information on the use of dietary ginger or ginger tea to treat diabetes.
  • Ginger fighting cancer: Ginger extracts have been shown to be effective in treating many types of cancer, particularly in animal studies. Some of the specific types treated by ginger are liver, pancreatic, gastrointestinal, skin, lungprostate and breast cancers. Ginger has been shown to stunt the growth of cancer sells and prevent the spreading of cancers to other areas of the body. Ginger has been found to assist in treating cancers that are chemo-resistant or inoperable. It is particularly interesting, given that almost all studies are done with powdered ginger root, that some of the compounds  most helpful in treating cancer in ginger are best accessed when the root is steamed (i.e. made into tea rather than dried and powdered). And yet, we don't know exactly what does are needed in these treatments because studying a simple tea wouldn't make for an expensive drug and high profits. 
  • Ginger helping with chemotherapy: In addition to the aromatherapy studies, ginger extracts have been found to significantly reduce post-chemo nausea
  • Ginger protecting against radiation: Several studies have shown treatment with ginger extracts before exposure to radiation helped reduce the risks to animals (including severe radiation sickness and death) of the exposure. 
  • Ginger helping the brains of middle-aged women: Due to its amazing antioxidant qualities ginger extracts have been used in studies to protect against oxidative stress that causes mild cognitive impairment in many healthy women. The medical industry isn't particularly interested in studying how fresh ginger tea compares to the expensive ginger extracts used in such studies, but the amounts of the compounds involved suggest tea may work just as well.
  • Ginger preventing Alzheimer's:  Ginger root extract has been used to prevent Alzheimer's symptoms in animals. More study is needed but the right compounds are present in ginger and it clearly would make a good supplemental treatment at the very least.
  • Ginger wiping out microbes:  Ginger extracts have been shown to have a lot of antimicrobial power in test tubes. It's not entirely clear how it can be applied to daily use in the right concentrations.
  • Ginger battling HIV and other dangerous human viruses: Some studies have shown ginger to be effective in the fight against difficult-to-treat viruses that infect humans. However, these studies have mainly been done on animals or in test tubes. So, it isn't clear how to replicate these results at home.

It's great to see so much scientific research being done with a medicinal herb. On the other hand, one of the significant problems with medical studies in this day and age is the bias of profit margins. Even if a simple herbal tea has fantastic and easily demonstrable effects, you aren't likely to find a study proving that it does because that would cut into the profits of the pharmaceutical companies that finance such studies..Many of the studies show that a small amount of ginger powder has a great effect, but there is no study on using fresh ginger or ginger tincture, which are much more easily obtained by individuals and less easily marketed as an expensive "dietary supplement" or pharmaceutical. At the same time, some of the best medicinal compounds in ginger are best accessed when the root is steamed, rather than dried. It is possible that ginger tea is actually more effective, despite the lack of studies looking into it. It is important to remember that while the presence of favorable scientific studies is a good sign, the absence of scientific studies isn't proof of a lack of usefulness. It is often a sign that a medicinal is too easy to use at home and thus not a good bet for marketing.

I love to hear from you. Drop a comment below and share your experience.

A balm for bruised spirits, cold sores and sore throats: Home Medicine Cycle 13

My mother and I are running a bit of a competition between lemon balm and her antiviral prescription medication. The issue is that we both have the herpes virus which causes periodic cold sores. In my twenties and early thirties I used to have terrible cold sores every other month. I just slathered on Carmex (to very little effect),  tried not to touch them and felt depressed at the idea that this was to be my fate for the rest of my life.

Lemon balm leaves - image licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Lemon balm leaves - image licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Then I read that lemon balm, that most mild and unassuming herb is specifically indicated to combat the herpes virus. I was initially very skeptical, needless to say. Modern medicine would love to be able to conquer herpes and here the answer is supposed to be in a neglected corner of our herb gardens. 

Well, nothing gets my attention like dramatic results. So far, I've had one cold sore that got away in the past ten years. My mother has been using pharmaceutical antivirals during the same period and she has had only two or three bad cold sores that she's mentioned to me. So, both of us have seen vast improvement.

The fact that she has had more cold sores than me can't necessarily be entirely put down to lemon balm being better than pharmaceutical antivirals, because both are very dependent on how quickly you manage to apply the medicine. The pharmaceutical antiviral is a pill that you swallow. Lemon balm is either a salve or a mashed-herb poultice. I have found that lemon balm salve is definitely most effective if applied at the first tingling feeling that a cold sore is on its way. The same thing holds true for my mother taking pharmaceutical antivirals. A cold sore can be prevented but she has to take the pill immediately as soon as she notices the first sensation. 

I now carry a small jar of lemon balm salve everywhere with me because if a cold sore starts to develop, I have usually no more than two hours to put the salve on or I'll suffer the consequences. Certainly, lemon balm salve is helpful even with run-away cold sores. Even the one that broke out because I didn't put the salve on quickly enough was small and dry (rather than large, brilliantly red and pussy, like they are normally). But still I'd rather not have a cold sore at all. 

Whether or not my mother and I ever resolve our difference of opinion over which is absolutely more effective, I can say for certain that lemon balm salve works well enough for me.  The lemon balm grows in my herb garden for free, while the antivirals are quite expensive. I know what's in the lemon balm and none of it is bad for you. I can't guarantee the same thing about the antivirals (and I wouldn't trust their manufacturers at the end of a ten-foot poll). And if I did have any doubts, the fact that lemon balm is applied topically rather than taken internally is always preferable. I usually only have to apply the salve once to prevent a cold sore, so there are really no disadvantages to the salve that I can think of.

This illustration of lemon balm can help you to identify the plant - public domain image by Gideon Pisanty

This illustration of lemon balm can help you to identify the plant - public domain image by Gideon Pisanty

Now there are several clinical studies to prove that lemon balm is effective against herpes. This one is unequivocal in stating that lemon balm is effective. (Even though it calls it balm mint, which is a less common name, it is correctly botanically identified.) And that is actually surprising given that the lemon balm treatment given during the study was a very diluted and heavily processed cream. A salve made at home by my recipe (click here to get it) is likely to be a bit more dramatic in effect.

Other studies have indicated that lemon balm may actually have wider antiviral uses, including against HIV-1 and HSV-2 viruses. I would use lemon balm tincture, if I were trying to fight a system-wide viral infection.

Traditional herbalists claim that lemon balm syrup is helpful with strep throat. I haven't personally seen clear effects with strep throat and strep isn't a viral infection, though it may be exacerbated by viral infections. Even so lemon balm is soothing on a sore throat. Given that strep throat piggybacks on a lot of viral infections and other types of sore throat often are viral, taking lemon balm either as tea or syrup when you have a sore throat may help to relieve symptoms. (Check with a doctor if you have a sore throat for more than three days.)

Lemon balm is also useful as a tea or tincture (recipe here) for the following problems:

  • Stress and anxiety (Studies confirm it)
  • Sleep problems, particularly in menopause (A study)
  • Radiation protection (Radiology operators have used it for protection.)
  • Alzheimer's disease (A study)
  • Infant colic, diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome (in this case the nursing mother should drink lemon balm tea herself and the effects will be transferred to the infant through breast milk.)

Take altogether, I've had to seriously reevaluate my assumptions about this mild and humble member of the mint family. It will always be a staple herb for my family and I eagerly await further research into its uses.

Feel free to comment, ask question and add your own experiences using the icon on the lower left. And please share this article with your friends using the icon on the lower right. 

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Note: This does not constitute medical advice for a specific person with a specific problem. We are all individuals and I'm not a doctor who can prescribe treatments for you. 

The raw power of sage: Home Medicine Cycle 12

Sage is ancient and helps ground me in those things I love best. Sage reminds me of the land where I was born in dry Eastern Oregon. And now it recalls years of cooking for my family. When in doubt, toss in a handful of sage! Beyond that it has antioxidant properties and can help build strength and energy.

In 2007, a medical study found that smudging with sage for an hour can clear 94 percent of bacteria from the air in a closed room. Not only is this useful in preventing the spread of disease when someone in your household is sick, it also helps to fight lower levels of bacteria that build up in the air. They might not make you overtly sick, but you may be more tired than you need to be because your immune system is battling a blend of cooped up bacteria.

As it turns out, indigenous cultures that smudge with sage to purify a sacred space were on to something. That's the way it often is. Empirical studies end up confirming what ancient herbalist practices hammered out over the centuries.

Sage flowers - image by Kurt Stuber with GNU Free Documentation License

Sage flowers - image by Kurt Stuber with GNU Free Documentation License

The common garden sage that we use most for medicine and cooking is actually native to the Mediterranean area of Europe and the Middle East. In mid-June it is finally starting to really get going in our climate a bit further north. It is a low plant with soft, gray-green leaves and woody stems. It's smell is distinct and, to me, instantly comforting. I believe that ancient people must have known instinctively that sage would be a beneficial herb because the smell is so enticing. 

The most common way that I use sage is simply in cooking. It is pungent enough that you don't want to put it in everything, lest all of your dishes taste the same but when I use sage I use at least three times the amount called for in cook books. It is one of those things like garlic. Some people consider it a spice to be used sparingly. I consider it to be a vegetable, if a strongly flavored one. Bland chicken noodle soup for sick days will become instantly fantastic with a handful (or two) of sage. Essentially any gravy or broth can be vastly improved with generous amounts of sage.

One of my favorite busy-mama recipes for weekday nights when we've run out of leftovers is to make a thick gravy out of some chicken stock from the freezer (easiest way is to heat the broth, mix 3-4 tablespoons of flour in a cup of sour cream and add the sour cream to the boiling broth while stirring briskly). Also add generous amounts of fresh or dried sage to your gravy. Cut long strips of red bell pepper and let them soften a bit in the gravy. Then pour the finished sauce over whole-grain noodles. Kids love it and it' s very fast. Like mac and cheese, but a bit more healthy.

Sage leaves - image by  Jonathunder  of Wikipedia with GNU Free Documentation License 

Sage leaves - image by Jonathunder of Wikipedia with GNU Free Documentation License 

For a bigger dinner I will often rub a chicken or half a turkey with butter, garlic, salt, pepper and copious amounts of sage, thyme and rosemary. There are people who will eagerly come a hundred miles or more for one of my turkey dinners based on this recipe. (For best results, melt butter and combine with crushed garlic, salt and pepper to taste depending on size of the turkey and a couple of handfuls of crushed sage and then lift the skin of the turnkey and rub this mixture in everywhere you can reach before baking.)

All this delicious cooking has more medicinal benefit than you might think. Sage contains exceptionally high levels of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds. Cooking with sage can help protect the cells of your body from damage caused by free radicals, those nice-sounding but ultimately unfriendly atoms that cause cell death, poor immune system response and chronic disease. Tossing sage in your soup is more than just yummy. It's like taking an expensive antioxidant, immune-support supplement from a high-end health food store (except, of course, that many of those supplement are over-processed and don't actually work very well).

Sage can also be used as a tincture and is useful in that form for three primary purposes:

- to mitigate or prevent Alzheimer's (There has been a clinical trial showing its effectiveness.)

- to lower harmful cholesterol levels and support "good" cholesterol

- to regulate glucose in people with diabetes or to prevent diabetes

- to raise dangerously low blood pressure (I have tried this personally to good effect.)

This painting of the sage plant and its parts (from  Koehler's Medicinal Plants - 1887) is particularly helpful in correctly identifying sage. (Public domain image)

This painting of the sage plant and its parts (from Koehler's Medicinal Plants - 1887) is particularly helpful in correctly identifying sage. (Public domain image)

Dosage with sage tincture should be small (half a teaspoon daily) and closely monitored. Any of the conditions listed here should be discussed with a doctor as well. To make an effective tincture for these problems, see my post on making vodka tinctures

As is made clear by the study on cleansing harmful bacteria out of the air using sage smoke, this herb also has antimicrobial and antiviral properties that make it useful in treating sore throats as well as cuts and scrapes. In Europe, sage is used in many pharmaceuticals for the treatment of sore throats. You can make your own at home which will be far more effective, if you make honey syrup or candies including a lot of strong sage tea. In a pinch, just brewing a strong sage tea and adding honey will also help. 

Stubborn sores or cuts on hands or feet can be helped by soaking in a strong sage infusion (tea). And finally, I always make a disinfectant salve during my annual salve making bonanza, which includes a large portion of sage infused oil.

Sage salve is particularly helpful with raw scrapes that are likely to be a bit dirty (such as if you fall off your bike on gravel). Disinfectants such as iodine often won't go deep enough into the skin if small particles of dirt have been embedded in the skin. Wash the cut or scrape out as best you can and use a liquid disinfectant (iodine is good but so are a lot of tinctures I describe in these posts - sage, St. John's Wart or Yarrow tinctures are all good choices for emergency disinfectants) . Then dry the area and rub in sage salve to reach a deeper layer of skin.

See my infused oil and salve making recipe to learn how to make your own homemade healing salve that is less-processed and thus far more effective than those you can buy commercially.

I hope these herbal recipes and tips are helpful. My goal is to take back my health and live on the earth in a sustainable way. I am happy to share what I'm learning on the journey with others because the more of us who do it, the better our future will be. Feel free to add your own experiences using the comment icon on the lower left and share this article with your friends using the icon on the lower right.

I would also like to invite you to join my hearth-side email circle. This is a small group of readers with whom I share the occasional virtual cup of tea and links to my latest writing. That way you won't miss the next post in my Home Medicine Cycle. As with every part of my website and communication systems, I have invested in strong protection from both Squarespace and Mailchimp, in order to make this my spam- and virus-free corner of the internet where you and I are both safe.

Please note: This doesn't constitute medical advice for a specific ailment in a specific individual. It is always a good idea to discuss your health problems with a doctor because we're all different.