The balance: Herbs versus modern, western medicine in field first aid

I lay out the things once more - gauze, tape, band aids, iodine, scissors, a triangle scarf, something for burns, something to ease breathing, something to calm rattled nerves, something to ease pain, a healing salve...

How many times have I put together a first aid kit? I've lost track even of the types of kits I've put together.

It probably started when I was a kid and I viewed toothpaste, duct tape and a pocket knife as "first aid." The toothpaste was for tree resin removal and cooling of insect bites, not for teeth.

Then as a young adult I packed a first aid kit in my big trek pack for trips to Ecuador, Kazakhstan, Nepal or Kosovo.

Image via Pixabay

Image via Pixabay

In those days, I got prescription antibiotics and pain killers for emergencies. I never used them, except once the antibiotics in some remote Mexican mountains.

But I did bandage a lot of cuts, disinfect many wounds, wash dirt out of scrapes and sooth a lot of distress in my time.

Some will sneer. A lot of things were beyond my skills and my kit. But the woman with infected cuts on her hands in rural Bangladesh, who had never seen a doctor, cried and hugged me when I cleaned and bandaged her wounds. Even if that were the only time, it would have been worth it.

I also doctored myself plenty. Once in the Amazon, I cut my foot on a steel grate and it bled so profusely that my local friends took me to the local hospital, which turned out to be a filthy, concrete shed, crowded with infectious disease. I opted for my own kit and bandaged it myself. I managed not to get that cut infected either, no small thing in the rain forest.

I've packed a kit for groups of kids and for family camping trips as well. This time, I'm packing it for another sort of purpose--climate crisis protests.

That mostly means that for the first time I include a large bottle of antacid. I'm told that diluted half and half with water it makes a decent anti-tear-gas eye wash. There are other things I wish I had, like an inhaler, a ventilator, instant ice packs and burn dressings. But I'll make do. Hopefully I won't need any of it.

While updating my research for this kit, I ran across the usual arguments of course. There are the staunch proponents of alternative and herbal medicine, who wouldn't have antibiotics even if they could get them. And there are the western medicine mafia, who don't care if lemon balm salve beats out Acyclovir in clinical trials because "imprecise dosage."

Never mind the fact that precise dosage isn't that important with lemon balm, given that the effective dose is relatively low and the harmful dose is unattainably high.

I don't fit neatly into either camp.

Antibiotics are not the work of the devil. Quite the opposite. They have saved countless lives from miserable, horrifying death, including my own most likely.

But the antibiotic era is still waning. Resistant bacteria are far too common now. Last year, I fought off a flesh-eating MRSA infection that didn't respond to antibiotics. And you bet I'm grateful for the oregano essential oil that finally kicked it.

Ideology ties our hands and causes harm in healing as in any other area.

How do you decide then? The main rule of thumb is to use what works. There are areas where modern, western medicine still does a better job than herbs and there are things where herbs are a better bet.

Western medicine:

  • Surgery

  • Antibiotics

  • Massive bodily trauma

  • Bleeding wounds

  • Organ failure

  • Bacterial infections

Herbs:

  • Scrapes, bruises and burns

  • Allergies

  • Systemic and chronic disease

  • Psychological distress

  • Viral and fungal infections

  • Lung and bronchial difficulties

Automatic rejection of either is nothing but stubborn ignorance that gets in the way of healing.


So, what goes into this year's first aid kit? Here's a list that may come in handy for others on the front lines of the struggle for a livable future.

Disinfectant - I prefer iodine. You can also use an herbal tincture (yarrow is good) if the alcohol content is high enough. But if you carry nothing else, this is probably the thing. I got the MRSA infection simply because I delayed disinfecting a cut for thirty minutes. And no, it wasn't because I had a low immune response. Had I not had a strong immune system I wouldn't have been able to get rid of it at all. Disinfect cuts and scrapes in the field. Just do it.

Bandages, gauze - lots of them. You will almost never need them, though protests are possibly one place you're more likely to. And when you need them you will really need them and in good supply. Use them to stop bleeding. Put them on, apply pressure, get more help.

Tape - to hold the gauze on.

Scissors - to cut the tape and bandages

Disposable gloves - Yes, this is the one area not to be environmentally friendly. Use them if there's blood. Change them each time. When we cut out all single use-plastics, this will be one of the few exceptions.

Sanitary pads - for their usual use as well as as backup bandages

Band-aids - No, not silly. Disinfect and then cover small cuts. Infection is not silly. And a cut hurts a lot less when covered and protected.

Water, Panthenol, raw honey, aloe vera or St. John's Wart salve for burns - Cool water is the single greatest burn remedy. With any burn, get it in water if at all possible as soon as possible. If that's impossible, burn dressings might help, but you aren't likely to have them unless you're a professional. In some parts of Europe, there is a foam available called Panthenol. It was developed during the Vietnam war to counteract Agent Orange. It is the second best thing to water. Other than that, raw honey, aloe vera gel and St. John's Wart salve (roughly in that order) are the next best things.

Plantain salve - Plantain infused olive oil, heated with bee's wax and some vitamin E, then cooled. Use after disinfection on small cuts, bruises and scrapes that you can't put a band aid on.

Antacid mixed with water to wash eyes and faces exposed to tear gas and pepper spray - Use a ratio of 1 to 1.

Clean rags or bandannas - to soak in water or antacid mixture for burns or chemical exposure

Mullein leaf, mallow or thyme tincture - for respiratory problems and to heal respiratory tract after chemical exposure

Lemon balm or valerian tincture or syrup (for children) - to calm nerves and panic attacks, to reduce trauma after a bad fright, to restore strength

Echinacea tincture - As an immune booster after injury or traumatic experience, which is likely to lower immune response

Garbage sacks - to isolate clothing and other materials exposed to tear gas or other chemicals

Ibuprofen - for sprains and other pain relief

Water - for re-hydration and psychological comfort

Wax paper squares - folded into sustainable emergency water cups as an environmentally friendly alternative to lots of plastic cups or bottles. They dry and can be reused. They also take up less space than traditional paper cups.

For the love of a cup of tea: Home Medicine Cycle 24

The first frost has passed and the cold and dark half of the year has come where I live. This is the time for drawing inward and the time for tea and fires on the hearth. That gives me the opportunity to write about one of the most basic of herbalist arts--making tea.

There are herbal teas that I use for their specific medicinal properties, though I find that a lot of first aid can be handled with salves, fresh herbs or tincture. But when you're dealing with something beyond first aid, a chronic illness or the need to strengthen the body or treat a systemic imbalance, tea is often the best answer. It keeps you well hydrated, which is an often overlooked facet of healing, and it can provide a long-term, sustained intake of beneficial compounds that are otherwise difficult to isolate. 

Wild oregano - Image by Arie Farnam

Wild oregano - Image by Arie Farnam

And then there's the fact that tea is simply comforting, tasty and relaxing. I have met herbalists who claim--in all seriousness--that a large part of their healing comes from the fact that they have to take the time to calmly prepare and consume tea. While tincture and a hurried glass of water gives you a lot of the same nutrients and compounds,, tea does a lot to heal beyond the immediate and the physical. The experience of sitting, breathing deeply and drinking tea by a fire is one that is almost absent from so many modern lives, and those same lives tend to be wracked with intractable, chronic and systemic health problems that western medicine has such difficulty treating. 

That's why many of the herbal teas I drink regularly come from cooking herbs, that are safe for daily consumption and are unlikely to precipitate dramatic health changes one way or the other. I specifically gather herbs that are of general benefit to the immune system and biochemical health without the intent to treat a certain ailment and then I use these for daily teas. 

The most important part about drinking daily tea is to do it in an environment where you can get the benefit of the warmth and relaxation the tea offers. Here are few tips to make it more possible to get to drink regular cups of herbal tea and to ensure that they retain as much of their nutritious and medicinal properties as possible.

  1. Unless otherwise directed for a specific herb, use about a tablespoon of dried herbs (two if fresh) to make a cup of tea.  
  2. When an herbalist or book recommends a "hot infusion" be made from a certain herb, that means regular tea, where you pour very hot water over it. (Most herbs will make better and more potent tea, if you boil water and then wait two or three minutes for the water to slightly cool before pouring it over your herbs.)
  3. If it is recommended that you make a "cold infusion," you simply pour cold water into a jar with herbs and store it in the refrigerator over night. You can also make sun tea by pouring lukewarm water over herbs in a clear glass jar and leaving it in direct sun for a few hours. Many medicinal compounds will degrade in sunlight however, so unless this is specifically noted for a particular herb, I reserve sun tea for general daily drinking, when I don't acutely need the specific medicinal properties of a plant. 
  4. When an herbal recipe calls for a "decoction," that means, you should simmer the herbs (usually roots or bark) in a pan with water.
  5. Whether you let an infusion brew or simmer a decoction, you will get more medicinal potency out of the tea if you let it brew or simmer for at least 10 minutes. For maximum effect, let it sit or simmer for 45 minutes, but this will often result in a very bitter draft and need sweetening.
  6. The herbalist tradition of "simpling" holds that the most benefit is gained by ingesting large quantities of diluted medicine, rather than small quantities of pure medicine. That is why it may be preferable to make a nice warm cup of tea and let it brew only ten minutes, drink it and make more, rather than trying to force yourself (or your child) to drink one bitter infusion that has been sitting for most of an hour. Still there are times when what you need is strong medicine and some herbs are better prepared as a strong infusion than as a tincture. So, this depends on your purpose and the herbs you are using.
  7. Many herbs react with metals and lose some of their medicinal potency. For that reason it is preferable when possible to use an enamel pot for simmering decoctions and a bamboo strainer for all kinds of herbal teas. Some will go so far as to recommend a special wooden or ceramic spoon. I again tend toward the philosophy that it is better to drink good herbal teas often rather than to be so perfectionist about achieving maximum potency that you only rarely get to drink them. But if you have special, non-metallic spoons and strainers, by all means use them.
  8. For those who are busy and truly need the comfort and stress-reduction of a cup of herbal tea, choose a few safe and beneficial herbs or a mix. Then build into your daily routine a time when you can boil water and return to it in a few minutes. This can be the routine of turning on a timed or self-regulating kettle before you get into the shower in the morning, meaning that your water is slightly cooled when you get out. Pour the hot water over your tea and again build your routine so that you have another short task that takes between five and ten minutes while your tea brews. Then ensure that your routine allows for fifteen minutes of peace (even if that means putting your kids in front of the dreaded television) and sit down in a comfortable place to drink your tea. 
  9. Other ways of getting the benefits of herbal tea are to take a travel mug full of tea on your commute or taking an extra cup to sip while you work or study.
  10. if you have small children at home most of the time, you will have to build your own tea into the routine, so that there is a time when you know you need to be making it before the time when the children will be preoccupied with their screen time allowance or other distractions. Accommodating tea in a household of small children is a significant challenge for me but it is worth making it a priority for the reduction of stress and clarity of mind that result.

As for choosing which teas to make, you can make tea out of just about every medicinal herb and many of them are quite tasty. When I list specific herbs in the Home Medicine Cycle, I usually note if a tea from some part of the plant is specifically used for a certain acute problem. But when I use teas for general beneficial purpose, I don't always include that in the specific listings. So, here are a list of my favorite tea herbs for supporting a healthy body and peaceful mind. These are also herbs which are usually easy to grow in a northern climate. All of those listed are good for making a hot infusion (regular tea).

  • Wild oregano flowers - This is my all-time favorite general purpose tea. Wild oregano is much milder in flavor than the usual cooking oregano and I use the flowering tops, rather than the leaves for tea. It grows abundantly in my garden and has a delicious flavor that aids in maintaining healthy metabolism. 
  • Primrose - Wild primroses grow in the highlands of Bohemia and they are somewhat harder to obtain for me, but they have a light, earthy flavor and make a brilliant yellow tea that is a joy to look at in a glass tea pot or cup.
  • Linden flowers - Linden or lime (not the citrus kind) treas have beautiful golden flowers, made famous by J. R. R. Tolkien's rapturous descriptions of the Elven realm of Lothlórien. They also make a very good tea in the winter months when colds and flu are a danger and they taste wonderful, light and flowery just as you would expect an magical drink to taste. I personally find the literary associations to be very relaxing as well.
  • Borage flowers - Borage is a funny little plant that some people .like to eat as a prickly sort of green, although I have read mixed research n the subject. There is no controversy about the flowers however. They are astoundingly beautiful dried--little packets of bright purple and blue that remain beautiful all through the winter. Their flavor is so sweet and good that it is often recommended as a children's tea.
  • Chamomile - There is a reason why chamomile tea figures in many old books and stories. It has been used by herbalists for hundreds of years both for acute ailments and as a general tea. Brewed correctly it is actually a bit bitter, but it can be helped by honey and then it has a good flavor. It has very beneficial effects for those with fevers or digestive troubles.
  • Huckleberry, rasberry and strawberry leaves - When you're out collecting edible berries in the late summer, don't forget the leaves. Most edible berries (those that are not sprayed with pesticides) make excellent teas with a lot of nutrients and minerals and a pleasant tangy flavor without the sour heaviness of tea made from dried fruit. Raspberry leaf tea is known as a uterine tonic which is often taken to help regulate menstruation, to help a woman get pregnant or just before giving birth, but it isn't recommended during pregnancy, because of the unpredictability of such effects.
  • Mint - Mint is one of the most common herbal teas, but brewing mint from a local plant is a completely different experience from the tea bag variety, which is not only stale but also often treated with chemicals. You haven't really had mint tea, until you have had some locally grown mint tossed into your cup. It can help to calm an upset stomach. And mint tea from fresh mint has an astoundingly different (and quite pleasant flavor) as well. Dry and fresh mint cannot really be considered the same tea at all because of their differences in flavor and content.
  • Lemon balm - Lemon balm is one of those herbs that is surprising science in recent years with discoveries about it's amazing antiviral and anti-bacterial action that is not well understood due to the lack of harsh chemical compounds. It also remains one of the mildest and most pleasant general teas. Given the research, I will probably lean toward using lemon balm in times of sickness, but I have yet to see any caution on its use as a general tea. It is wonderfully calming, delicious and popular with adults and children alike.
  • Plantain - There is no such thing as too much plantain! Plantain tea has a rough caramel like flavor particularly when sweetened a bit. It is great for sore throats, coughs, irritated stomachs and urinary tract infections but it is also good for just tea.
  • Echinacea flowers - I definitely use Echinacea tincture and even tea for flu and cold prevention specifically. You don't want to drink it all the time because that may lessen it's needed effects in the season when viruses are rampant but it is generally useful enough and delicious enough to merit a mention here. Drink it as a daily tea whenever there are colds going around your workplace or local schools. It has a distinct, hearty taste that reminds me of the pleasant smell of bee hives (not just the honey but the hives themselves). 
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I hope this list can inspire others. There are surely many more fragrant and delicious herbal teas for daily use. Let me know below if you have a special one or a particularly favorite blend. Keep in touch and happy tea drinking.

If it works it works - the controversy over Echinacea: Home Medicine Cycle 21

I had a fight with a doctor friend about Echinacea.  My family has used  Echinacea for cold and flu prevention and early treatment for decades. I now grow it in my garden. (It was very hard to start but it's pretty and stalwart once started.) But my friend who's a doctor insisted that clinical trials have shown it to be ineffective medicinally.

Creative Commons image by Arie Farnam

Creative Commons image by Arie Farnam

I looked into the studies on Echinacea and it is true that the more widely publicized studies on the plant are disappointing. If they show any medicinal benefit it is minimal. I was confused because I've had good results with Echinacea tincture. So I looked closer. What I found was that all eight of the studies cited in my friend's medical database were run exactly the same way. They all used  freeze-dried echinacea juice to treat acute upper respiratory infections (essentially colds). The age and processing of the Echinacea was not specified beyond that description. It occurred to me that it was odd that the medical establishment had not considered using Echinacea the way herbalists do--as either tea or tincture.

I can't run a large study myself but I pay close attention to the effects of medicinals I use for my family. And over the years I have seen that Echinacea tincture usually reduces the symptoms of coughs and colds within twenty-four hours. The past few years have brought some terrible flus and coughs that had us and our neighbors hacking away for weeks or even months. I am not particularly susceptible to coughs, but even I succumbed several times. Each time I started taking large doses of Echinacea tincture and the cough improved for several days, at which point I forgot to take the tincture, because I thought the infection had passed. Then the cough invariably came back. It only stayed away if I took Echinacea for four to five days after the symptoms had cleared as well as during the illness. 

It was a hard lesson but over three winters, I have learned. Homemade Echinacea tincture will work for some stubborn upper respiratory infections (both viral and bacterial), but you have to take it and keep taking it for several days after symptoms have disappeared. I have yet to find another herb or medicine that works as reliably when it comes to acute respiratory infections. It also appears to help in prevention of colds or in mitigation of the symptoms if you take it when you are surrounded by people with colds or just feel the first signs that you may have caught something.

Through further research, I have found that there are actually more studies that show that what I observe with Echinacea is clinically proven. But for whatever reason, these positive studies are not as well publicized. A meta-analysis of many studies shows that most studies do in fact show a benefit from consuming Echinacea for prevention and treatment of upper respiratory illnesses. Another study showed that Echinacea is effective in mitigating chronic autoimmune disease in mice and other trials showed that Echinacea improves the modulation of the human immune system by affecting gene expression.

Some studies use air-dried Echinacea tea for treating upper respiratory illnesses, instead of tincture and their results are okay but not spectacular. One trial used Echinacea tincture and had better results, but it was in an vitro trial, rather than one using actual people, which makes it more difficult to gauge exact results in practice. 

My thoughts looking at all of these results are that Echinacea is sensitive to processing, storage, heat and light. The best way to preserve Echinacea is in the form of an alcoholic tincture. Recovering alcoholics and children should not use such tinctures and can either use a tea or an extract in edible glycerin.

Tincture made from fresh Echinacea flowers has a good effect in boosting the immune system and in fighting both viral and bacterial infections. Tincture made from Echinacea roots can be made to be even stronger, but it requires several batches of root to be soaked in the same alcohol. Most purchased Echinacea tincture is made from a single soaking of roots and it is too weak. Homemade tinctures made with fresh flowers or roots and kept strictly away from light and heat will work best.

Dried Echinacea flowers make a nice tea for children to prevent colds and coughs in the winter, but this is also best made with local or homegrown flowers because after about nine months the flowers will lose potency. The tea has to be sealed in an airtight container, preferably ceramic or glass and kept away from light. Teas bought in stores are often in light plastic that isn't really airtight and they sit out in the light for days or weeks before sale.

The capsules of freeze-dried Echinacea juice sold in just about every health food and herbal shop in the western hemisphere are largely ineffective. Some consumer studies have shown that many "health food" products that claim to be made from Echinacea don't actually contain any molecules of the plant. (This was a fact helpfully pointed out and documented by my friend the doctor.) 

The bottom line: Echinacea is a beneficial but sensitive herb for immune support and fighting respiratory illness, which needs to be processed locally, grown at home or obtained from trusted sources. 

I will continue to use Echinacea for my family. Safety trials have shown that it is safe, even during pregnancy and breastfeeding .

The controversy over the effectiveness of Echinacea in treating the common cold is much more indicative of the difficulty of studying colds than any problem with Echinacea. Colds are usually short-term and difficult to pinpoint in source, type and length. That has always made studying these illnesses difficult. It is even relatively difficult to observe individual cases. Many pharmaceutical cold medicines have similarly mixed results in clinical trials. So, the results aren't as dramatic here as with some of the other herbal remedies I use, but Echinacea is at least as effective as pharmaceutical medicines for colds and it's probably safer. Rest and warmth also remain crucial treatments for the common cold.

Feel free to add your comments below. Ask questions and discuss. Also please keep in mind that this doesn't constitute medical advice for a specific person and I'm not your doctor. Home medicine information is intended to be used with common sense and in consultation with doctors and professional herbalists who can see you personally.