Mugwort: Home Medicine Cycle

Plant identification can be tricky and it is the biggest safety concern for the herbalist. While it is possible to hurt yourself with too much of a known herb or by using an herb improperly, it is much more likely that harm from herbs will result from incorrect identification.

For me, there's the particular issue that I'm more than 90 percent blind. I've always had trouble gathering herbs in the wild because everything in a meadow just looks generic green unless I put a leaf up two inches from my eye.

That's why most of my work with herbs focuses on things I can grow. My herb gathering is a lot more efficient that way. And when I plant and nurture an herb through the seasons, I am sure what I'm getting and I learn it's smell, texture and taste long before I have to go off and identify it in the wild

My mugwort plant top

My mugwort plant top

But even growing your own isn't always a sure thing. Some years ago, I planted what were supposed to be mugwort seeds and a plant sprouted. The leaves looked a bit thinner and wispier than the online photos of mugwort. The flowers were also greenish brown, rather than the dusky red shown in must mugwort pictures in books and online, so I asked some of the women from the local village who had a little knowledge of herbs. Two of them insisted that it wasn't mugwort but possibly something related.

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is related to wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) but this didn't appear to be that either. I had read that mugwort is occasionally mistaken for poisonous hemlock, which can be deadly, so I was more than a little cautious. 

For several years, I let the plant live in the corner of my herb garden and each year it got bigger, beating out other hardy plants. Finally, I decided I had to fully research the identification for once and for all or get rid of the plant. The main markers for differentiating between mugwort and hemlock are the smell, the silvery sheen and small hairs on mugwort leaves, and later in the year, the flowers. 

Smell would someday be key for me but first I had to know the plant intimately to identify the smell. It was too early in the year for flowers (and mugwort is usually harvested before it blooms, so this is a common problem in mugwort identification) and relying solely on the hairs and a silver sheen of the leaves seems a bit shaky when your life is literally at stake. 

My mugwort stem

My mugwort stem

First, I carefully picked each individual part of the plant--the leaves, buds and stems--photographed them and put them through a plant analysis program. That program quickly proclaimed it to be mugwort. But I wasn't convinced. There were still the village women, who weren't exactly experts but they were local people with some experience in the natural environment.. So, I sent my samples in to a plant identification group. Finally, I got back my answer. 

It is mugwort. Several members of the group explained more clearly the most crucial identifying characteristics. The stem of my plant is clearly ridged and purple all over. Hemlock has a stem that is barely ridged at all and only spattered with purple (like when someone does an ink spattering art project). The flowers are quite different and I could confirm from previous years that while my flowers are a bit pale, they do match some photos of mugwort and most certainly are not hemlock flowers. 

It was a relief to finally make the determination and not have to uproot my plant. But I don't regret any of the time and caution spent to confirm it. Even with a plant I grew myself, the risk of dealing with a poisonous plant is there and always worth considering.

My mugwort buds

My mugwort buds

As soon as I was sure of it, I used some mugwort leaves to settle a sour stomach I had been struggling with for several days and made a bath of it for my kids who had bug bites all over their arms and legs from summer camp in the woods. My son also had a weird rash that might be bug bites, an allergic reaction of some kind or possibly skin parasites. Mugwort soothes bug bites and some other allergies but more importantly it is one of the best remedies for skin (and stomach) parasites.

I doubt the rash was parasites in this instance. But again, it's better to be safe than sorry. Now at least I have mugwort on my side for that.

Mugwort leaves and buds are used in teas, tinctures, washes and salves for a variety of discomforts and diseases, particularly stomach acidity, ulcers, constipation and intestinal parasites as well as skin infections. Mugwort is strongly antibiotic and anti-microbial. The tea has a calming effect on nerves and can help regulate abnormal hormone levels, which could be helpful for insomnia and obesity.

Women with light or sporadic periods can use mugwort to regulate menstrual flow and reduce the related pain of menstruation. Yarrow and/or red raspberry leaf may be better herbs for those with heavy menstruation, but mugwort has also been shown to bring relief during menopause. 

My mugwort leaf

My mugwort leaf

Still, while mugwort isn't poisonous, it does have a low level of toxicity that could cause temporary sickness if more than three cups of the tea are taken per day for several days in a row. It is best used as a short-term treatment for digestive problems, even though thousands of people drank it daily during WWII when tea was difficult to obtain in Britain and people drank mugwort tea instead.

The most important warning on mugwort is that it has been used to bring about abortions and to stimulate the uterus while giving birth. Given that, it isn't at all appropriate for pregnant women, and due to the low level of toxicity, shouldn't be ingested by nursing mothers either.

A less worrying application of mugwort is for the skin. Just as it rids the body of intestinal parasites it can fight skin parasites that few modern medications are effective against. It also alleviates itching and reduces the inflammation of bug bites. It is a particularly effective bug repellent, so salves and oils infused with mugwort leaves or a few drops of mugwort essential oil can keep the bugs off of you in the first place. 

Compounds contained in mugwort have been found to combat cancer in a Chinese study and other studies point to possible uses for joint pain associated with arthritis. But these uses will require further research to be fully realized.

What is clearly scientifically demonstrated is the antibiotic and antimicrobial properties of mugwort. As well as preventing infections as a skin wash, the dried plant can be used as a smudge to kill airborne bacteria and prevent the spread of disease both at home and in places of business where incense is burned, such as massage parlors, where the pleasant smell of a mugwort smudge will blend right in.

Both mugwort tea and mugwort smoke have a history, dating back to Aztec religious ceremonies, of being used for lucid dreaming and astral travel. Compounds in mugwort are psychoactive but the effect is not one of dramatic hallucinations. There are many reports of predictive dreaming connected to mugwort and experiments with dreams might benefit from its use.

As with all posts on medicinal herbs, this is not intended as specific medical advice for any particular person. Allergies to mugwort do exist and those with serious symptoms of disease should seek medical attention.

When fiery cayenne takes the pain away - Home Medicine Cycle 37

It's counter intuitive. If you've ever bitten into a cayenne pepper or even eaten something with too much dried cayenne powder in it, you surely are no stranger to pain. And yet cayenne pepper can also take pain away and combat some of modern medicine's most distressing foes.

Creative Commons image by Chris Vaughan

Creative Commons image by Chris Vaughan

Many herbalists carry cayenne tincture in their first-aid kits to stop heart attacks. Some go so far as to say that if you want to know only one herb, you should know cayenne because it simply saves lives. Here is a recipe for tincture which can be used with cayenne.

In emergencies patients have also been saved from heart attacks by a teaspoon of cayenne pepper from the spice shelf mixed in a cup of hot water to make a kind of cayenne tea. Cayenne pepper has been used by doctors for heart disease and as a supplement for cardiovascular health.

Several studies have shown cayenne to be effective in preventing heart attacks, managing diabetes and mitigating painful symptoms caused by chemotherapy treatments. One study in 2005, even showed cayenne killing cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed. 

On the tongue cayenne may burn, but on unbroken skin or even the lining of the stomach the burning turns to a soothing, tingling warmth. Certain types of stomach discomfort--including dyspepsia and ulcers--can be quieted with capsules of cayenne pepper powder taken both immediately for first aid and as a regular supplement for people suffering from chronic conditions.

One of the most widespread uses of cayenne as an herbal medicinal is for the treatment of joint pain, including arthritis. Rubbed on the skin, cayenne juice or ointments made with it feel warm or even hot. The sensation is generally soothing but the skin technically registers pain from the burning of the cayenne and a neurological process causes the nerves under the skin to suppress the sensation of pain in the joints below. 

With it's heating properties, cayenne also breaks up congested mucus. Cayenne can thus be effectively used to treat viral infections like the flu whenever there is a lot of mucus congestion. The spicy juice or tea made with cayenne can also sooth a swollen and painful throat when sweet lozenges have a much smaller effect. And some of the most irritating dry coughs can be stopped with cayenne. Some use it to prevent migraine headaches. 

Cayenne has been found to be effective against some fungal pathogens. Still I must bust a few myths here. An old globetrotter's legend claims that cayenne and other hot peppers kill food-born bacteria and parasites and thus eating spicy food may be a way to stave off traveler's diarrhea or even food poisoning in areas where the sources of food may be sketchy. Unfortunately, this myth is baseless. Cayenne, despite all its fire is much less effective as a disinfectant herb than many humbler plants. 

However, the rumor may have been started by the fact that many cultures have used cayenne as an aid to digestion for hundreds of years. The hot peppers in your food, particularly cayenne, do provide health benefits to the stomach, but this has much more to do with aiding metabolism, relieving intestinal gas and encouraging the healthy motion of the intestines. That feeling you may have that bland food makes you stuck and some hot peppers tend to get things flowing... well, that actually is based on some amount of fact.

The fact that cayenne boosts metabolism hints that it might be helpful in maintaining a healthy body weight but the issue goes further than that. A study at he Laval University in Quebec found that test subjects who included cayenne pepper in their breakfast later felt less appetite for further food and thus had a lower calorie intake over the whole day. Cayenne appears to suppress appetite over a matter of hours, although many people enjoy the taste of it initially.

Cayenne can be eaten in food. The dried powder can be added to water or tea or put into capsules and taken as a supplement. For joint and muscle pain a massage oil can be made from 1 tablespoon cayenne, 2 tablespoons crushed mustard seed, 1 tablespoon fresh ginger and 1 cup olive or almond oil. Set the mixture in the sun in a glass jar to infuse for two weeks. Then strain the oil and use it to massage painful joints and muscles. DO NOT use this oil on broken or raw skin. Even so, it may sting initially but is often found to relieve pain better after multiple uses. 

Fresh Aloe Vera for skin and mouth healing: Home Medicine Cycle 34

Aloe vera was my first medicinal herb. When I was a child, my mother always kept an aloe vera plant on the window sill and I can't remember a time when I didn't know how to use it. Whenever I had a small scrape or burn I would go to the plant and cut off a small length of a squishy, thick leaf. I slit the leaf to expose the wet gel within and smeared it on the burn or injury. The relief from pain was usually instantaneous, especially with sunburns. 

Now I've had many years of experience with aloe vera and seen the mixed evidence from clinical trials. It's clear that aloe vera has some powerful medicinal properties, especially for skin issues and mouth diseases. However, the mixed results point to one important difference when compared to other herbs. Aloe vera loses nearly all of its potency when it is processed and/or stored for more than a day or two. The vast majority of supplements and cosmetics that claim to contain aloe vera are medicinally ineffective and have little impact other than that of their carrier agents. 

Aloe vera is the quintessential homecrafter's herb. It works very well fresh from the plant and not at all once processed or stored. Pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies have tried for decades to bottle, can and market the soothing, healing and anti-aging powers of aloe vera. They put it in toothpaste, skin cream, makeup, shampoo and even food and pills because the name alone evokes a sense of healing. But you only need one product to use the power of aloe vera and it will never make anyone rich. You need an aloe vera plant on your window sill. Period.

Creative Commons image by ER and Jenny of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by ER and Jenny of Flickr.com

Fresh aloe vera gel is one of the best treatments for sunburns and it has been shown in controlled studies to improve wrinkles and even reverse the effects of aging skin. But it isn't just a gentle and healthy balm for skin. It can also be effective at healing some of the most difficult-to-treat skin ailments.

One study found that it is effective in the treatment of skin cancerA 1996 study showed that even a weakened, processed aloe vera extract in a cream was better than a placebo in treating psoriasis. The study also documented the safety of its use. The fresh gel directly fro the plant has many times the healing power of such a cream.

In addition, multiple studies have shown aloe vera to be effective in treating mouth diseases such as oral lichen planus and periodontal disease. Aloe vera is even proving to be useful in dressing wounds, as well as combating some bacterial infections

I look forward to your comments, stories and ideas about herbs and homecrafting. Drop a line below and join the discussion.

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!

Healing where the whole is greater than the parts: Home Medicine Cycle 31

When speaking and writing about herbs, I often encounter argumentative people who promote pharmaceuticals as inherently "safer" and "better" because they can be more strictly controlled from a chemical standpoint than herbs and other naturally occurring medicines. And these discussions can quickly devolve into a contest of citing studies on which specific remedy is better or safer, if the pharmaceutical proponents set the rules of debate.

Creative Commons Image by  Aotaro of Flickr. com

Creative Commons Image by  Aotaro of Flickr. com

I wish I had all the answers to settle the controversy, but I don't. There aren't as many studies about herbs as there are about pharmaceuticals because herbs are more difficult to patent and more complex to process. The profit margin will never be as high with herbal medicines as it is with synthetic and isolated chemicals. And so they aren't as widely studied in big laboratories with the resources for lengthy medical trials with large test and control groups. This fact alone leads many to dismiss herbal medicines out of hand. If it hasn't been through that expensive process of established medicine it is seen as worthless and potentially dangerous.

But let's look at this for a moment, most of these medical trials take six weeks. Only a few go on for a few years and almost none watch patients over a life-time. Very few of these pharmaceutical studies look at the overall effect of a mix of pharmaceuticals on the body over time. And yet there are clearly effects, beyond the side effects of a certain drug. The use of synthesized, isolated chemical compounds as medicine (i.e. pharmaceuticals) increases the acidity of the body and causes a variety of long-term and systemic problems. When medical people complain that herbs have not been studied enough to be "safe," I worry that the long-term and cumulative effects on the immune system and delicate biochemical balance of the body of the many synthetic pharmaceuticals we consume today are not known either.

Herbs haven't been studied by many modern studies but what has been done almost always confirms the observations of generations of herbalists concerning the particular use of an herb. Some of herbalist records are more meticulous than others, but over many centuries and a wide variety of sources, patterns emerge that are usually confirmed when they are put to a modern medical trial. The peer criticism of other herbalists has generally been enough to root out insubstantial claims about an herb. 

As a result, we know that yarrow has anti-inflammatory and anti-septic effects both from studies and from the battlefields of history. But more importantly, we know from the combined experience of many herbalists that taking moderate doses of medicinal herbs over a lifetime, strengthens the body rather than weakening it. We know that some herbs can cause liver damage if taken too often and too much. We know that others can become ineffective if the body builds up a resistance to their effects. And we know which herbs are safe to consume regularly as food, partly because they have been consumed as food for thousands of years without ill effects.

Creative Commons image by Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia

Creative Commons image by Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia

I certainly don't want to spread a myth that herbs are inherently safe because they are "natural." Herbs have to be treated with the same respect we treat any medicine. And it is worth remembering that any time we tamper with the balance of the body, we are likely to do more than just what was intended. That is true with pharmaceuticals and with herbs. There is some evidence that herbs sometimes carry compounds that act to compensate for the wider systemic effects of their medicinal compounds, thus mitigating some of the unintended effects. But this can't be counted on to simply fix everything. It is only a hopeful sign that should be suited further. Some of the effects of herbs may be helpful in one context but harmful in another. For example, sage tincture can be used to deal with low-blood pressure attacks and thus modulate blood pressure. It doesn't necessarily raise blood pressure on a continuum as a simple synthesized chemical might, but It could be adverse for peope with high blood pressure to take a lot of sage in a concentrated form.

My journey in learning about herbs and taking back my health over six years, when I had become very sick and vulnerable to infection due to a lot of pharmaceutical use during several rounds of in vitro fertilization, taught me many things about herbs. But the most important thing it showed me was the importance of the residual and cumulative effects of medicines.  None of the pharmaceuticals I consumed had labels warning of adverse effects on immune function and yet their cumulative effect was that I had wide-spread fungal infections and a simple cold would lay me out as hard as the flu. I was sick more days than I was well for two years.

But here's the crucial bit. I didn't take any specific herbs to "fix" my immune system either.

Creative Commons image by Bogdan of Wikipedia

Creative Commons image by Bogdan of Wikipedia

At that time, I didn't dream that herbal medicine could really help with the severity of my problems. I simply hoped that if I stopped taking pharmaceuticals, the problems would recede. I took herbs for simple things--for cold and flu symptoms that I had constantly, for cuts and scrapes and for fungal infections. And I saw that unlike the pharmaceuticals I had previously tried to fight these problems with, the herbs helped while I experienced very  few negative side effects. And instead of getting sick with something else after using them, I gradually got better over all. Over three years my immune response improved and I was sick less and less often.

At first, I thought this was simply because I had stopped taking harmful pharmaceuticals, and I am sure that helped. I noticed that if I broke down and took an Ibuprofen for a headache, I would get infections quickly in the next day or two and I would have a rebound headache two days (almost to the hour) after taking the pill. But I also noticed some of the opposite general effects when I took herbs. Not only did elder flower help with congestion as I'd hoped, I also felt stronger after taking doses of herbs and was unlikely to get sick soon afterward. If I simply suffered through an illness (as I did sometimes in the days before I had seen enough proof of the efficacy of herbs), I was much more likely to have a relapse than if I used herbs to help with the symptoms. Even though those herbs were not supposed to "cure me" or "fix" my immune system, they helped to support general health as well as deal with specific symptoms.

I never took just one herb in isolation for weeks at a time. I never overdosed on any particular "miracle" herb. Those who get overexcited about inflated claims concerning the curative powers of a specific herb sometimes end up with liver damage or other health problems. Herbs can be abused, and if they are, they won't promote overall health very well. But the moderate, well-considered and diverse consumption of medicinal herbs has wide-ranging benefits beyond just the specific condition or symptoms the herbs were taken to aleviate.

I believe this is why we find many families who use herbs as their primary medicines, who are very rarely sick. Those who use them consistently believe strongly in the abilities of herbs to benefit our health, even though there may not be a modern medical trial showing that these specific  herbs can be used in ways found to be effective by herbalists. We observe in short that the whole is greater than the parts when it comes to health. And herbal medicinals, used thoughtfully and moderately, have an overall beneficial effect on health.

That concept is unlikely to be studied in a large medical trial, even though it could be logistically. Even the part of the pharmaceutical and dietary-supplement indudstries that sell herbal remedies will not be very interested. Because the only way to reliably reap these overall benefits from herbs is to grow and make your own medicines, to make your medicine as local, fresh and individually designed as possible. While a skilled, professional herbalist may be able to provide this kind of medicine to local patients, that won't make for large-scale corporate profits.  And in many cases, health is best achieved by simply homecrafting herbal medicinals and consulting with doctors and professionals in an intelligent way. No one has found a great way to profit from the quiet, perennial craft of the home herbalist and no large, expensive trials will be funded to prove the efficacy of such a grassroots method.

Instead the individual has to rely partly on observations of what works for you as an individual--employing caution, common sense, herbalist experience and the advice of medical professionals to steer a balanced road. Eight years after I was brought to my knees by the combined effects of many pharmaceuticals, I am now as healthy as I have ever been. My children who were expected to have poor immune response and constant infections from having spent time in orphanages before being adopted are now the ones at school who are "never sick." 

We treat those things that do inconvenience us with things we grow in our own backyard. There is no one thing I did to cause this result. Instead it's a case of the whole being greater than the parts. It has come from an overall lifestyle to promote health and the careful use of herbal medicinals.  Please feel free to comment and add your own experiences on the topic of promoting general health.