Healing from soul exhaustion and emotional depletion

Greenery surrounds the house, climbing up the fences. To get in you walk up the driveway under a canopy of oak and plum branches. Flowers peek shyly from pots or the rock walls that hold up the terraces climbing our steep hill. There are greenhouses for the vegetables, a large, semi-wild herb garden and a cluster of quacking ducks wandering around.

I test out as an introvert on those personality questionnaires and this is the world I have made for myself. It took years to build and in the winter it can be pretty rugged. But in the summer there is a balance of solitude and connection. I have friends and connections all over the world. I spend much of the day conversing long distance amid both physical and intellectual work.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Sometimes the conversation is with a friend thousands of miles away, sometimes with a forum on a particular topic and sometimes it is a one-sided conversation in which I argue with authors I am listening to through an audio book while I weed the zucchini bed. 

And this past year there has been a troubling repetition in many of those conversations. Friends, family, acquaintances and even a lot of authors talk about a deep exhaustion weighing them down. Some call it depression or burnout and some have diagnoses, but others just feel utterly depleted. Not everyone thinks it's worse than before, and some of us only struggle with it some of the time, but the spread of this malaise is worrying. 

Has the purpose and passion gone out of your world? Do you struggle to get out of bed in the morning? Is your sleep troubled and full of stressful, anxious dreams? Do you find it easier to sleep in the day time and almost impossible to get through the day without a nap? Do you just feel half asleep, disconnected or out of sync most of the time? 

If so, you're not alone. I feel it too, sometimes for weeks at a stretch.

Sometimes these symptoms can herald clinical depression and if they interfere with your daily life, it is helpful to seek out the advice of medical professionals. But often these symptoms come from a kind of deep depletion or "soul exhaustion." This may or may not be accompanied by depression. It can occur following professional or emotional burnout, significant loss and grief, major life changes or periods of intense work and activity. 

Soul exhaustion is worrying even when only one person describes it. When it is spread through whole communities the need for a change is urgent.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Ignoring soul exhaustion can lead to severe medical complications, including depression, chronic fatigue, anxiety, cancer and a host of systemic disorders. Depletion must be treated as a real expression of need and because it is so widespread in my circle these days, I have decided to address it here.

Most of my home medicine writing is about herbs and there are some herbs that can help at specific points in dealing with soul exhaustion, but much of what we need when we are depleted doesn't come from either traditional or alternative medicine. It comes from changes in our environment and routine.

First, here are a list of symptoms. A severely depleted individual may experience:

  • A desire to sleep much longer than normal,
  • Disrupted, overly light and restless or leaden and motionless sleep at night,
  • Frequent need to sleep during the day,
  • Difficulty waking up in the morning or after daytime sleep,
  • Difficulty motivating one's self to carry out basic daily functions (getting up, daily routine, work, household),
  • A sensation of body heaviness,
  • Even small movements may feel like hard work,
  • Heightened sensitivity and anxiety, being on edge,
  • Great difficulty in dealing with even minor changes in daily routine or small crises,
  • A sensation of being out of step with time, a dreamlike sensation even when awake, a feeling that everything is in slow motion,
  • Strange physical symptoms without medical explanation, such as deep aching throughout the body, tension headaches, stomach troubles, dizziness and/or ringing ears,
  • Muscle weakness and great difficulty exercising,
  • Intensified emotions and strong changes in emotion, sudden tears upon hearing a story which may not seem at first glance to be particularly sad, unbearable anger and feelings of helplessness over injustices,
  • Feelings of deep loneliness, even when surrounded by people,
  • Loss of customary hopefulness and optimism, feeling jaded and hopeless about life or one's purpose,
  • Loss of interest in hobbies, causes or passionate work, or where interest may remain energy does not follow,
  • Chronic anxiety or panic attacks.
  • Individuals who are normally forgiving and warm can become bitter, angry or jealous and have difficulty explaining exactly why or the reasons are much bigger than any momentary disagreement.
Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

It will be different in different individuals but there is a pattern to these symptoms. And moreover, a person struggling with soul exhaustion will often know there is something wrong and those around them will know it, but when asked we cannot give clear or concise descriptions of our symptoms. Yet the sense of deep change and trouble remains. 

There are a number of possible underlying causes for soul exhaustion. However, not every person who experiences these types of events will be dangerously depleted. There many factors and depending on the severity of the causes and symptoms, medical help may be needed. 

Soul exhaustion may result from:

  • Family or other significant breakups,
  • The loss of someone close,
  • The loss of a home, job or business,
  • Illness or disability in the individual or family members,
  • Life changes that drastically disrupt daily routine and goals
  • Being trapped long-term in a toxic, abusive or ostracizing home, work or social environment,
  • Unresolved past trauma, either physical or emotional,
  • An inability to say no to the constant demands of others without regard to the individual's needs,
  • Pushing one's self too hard in work or in physically and emotionally demanding circumstances until the point of burnout or collapse,
  • An unhealthy diet, substance abuse and/or electronics or other addictions,
  • Exposure to toxic substances, heavy metals or environmentally polluted areas,
  • Overwhelming past regrets or events in the past that make it difficult to focus on the present,
  • Being unable to break free from repetitive, purposeless or draining work,
  • Experiences of discrimination, hate speech or attacks based on characteristics over which the individual has no control (often but not limited to race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, economic or social class),
  • Physical, economic, geographical and social barriers to fulfilling one's potential and achieving meaningful self expression,
  • Worries and anxieties about future security, the safety of loved ones, debts or other looming problems,
  • And pressures from social injustices, extreme econimic inequality and ecological devastation.

It is unlikely that one of these causes alone will result in an individual becoming deeply exhausted and depleted, unless that one factor is extreme. However, a combination of these factors can be devastating.

This is particularly significant because many medical lists often leave off the broader social and environmental contributors. I placed them in the latter part of the list, not because they are less important but because they are more complex. In any event, this isn't a list for someone else to use, so much as it is for individuals to look at their own factors.

One theory about the increase in deep exhaustion holds that it is a biological response to our bodies' ability to sense ecological danger. Particularly with the rapidly increasing effects of climate change and extreme whether that have caused economic disruption and large human migrations in some areas of the world, our bodies are reacting to our sense of biological interconnection, which is sounding alarms that cause anxiety and--after lengthy periods in which we can't escape or make a meaningful impact to solve the crisis--soul exhaustion.

That leaves me with the crucial and urgent question of what an individual can do about this deep depletion, given the often on-going underling causes. 

Here are some things that can alleviate the exhaustion and give the individual a chance to rectify at least some of the underlying causes.

Garden gate path sunshine trees lush green - my pic.jpg
  • Prioritize time for restful and replenishing activities (sometimes called "self care"). We can not take care of those who depend on us, if we are too depleted ourselves. Replenishment isn't selfish or idle. Quite the opposite. Expecting others to pay attention to what we need, figure it out and make sure we get the needed replenishment is far more self-absorbed than taking the time to do it ourselves. Often replenishment comes from adequate sleep, reading or time spent in nature, but it can also come from engaging in one's personal interests without pressure or pursuing spiritual studies.
  • Rest as much as necessary. Sometimes--especially when rest has been neglected--this means a great deal of sleep and rest. Illness, disability, extreme types of work, previous trauma and other factors may make greater than average rest necessary over the long-term. This is not a shameful circumstance but rather a fact that cannot be denied without unacceptable costs.
  • Turn off technology and spend time doing fulfilling things that use other senses and body movements, such as reading or absorbing stories in other ways, baking, crafting, creating art, listening to music, experiencing nature, singing or playing music, exercising, immersing ourselves in water and being around people who sooth us and bring out our laughter; 
  • Take time for spiritual practices and growth. This can mean participating in a specific tradition, doing yoga or other movement-based spiritual practices, lighting candles and creating an uplifting atmosphere, meditation, drumming or chanting, going into nature for extended periods, observing the sun, moon and stars or learning about specific things like the healing uses of stones or scents and reading systems such as the Tarot or i-Ching for inner understanding.
  • Consume fresh fruits and vegetables which have not been chemically treated. We must adapt our diets to include as much unprocessed or lightly processed foods and as much locally produced fresh foods as possible. Pay particular attention to avoiding highly processed foods that don't contain a lot of nutrients, even though they may be widely regarded as "healthy" such as packaged bread or white rice. It is important to include some foods that simply bring a moment of satisfaction and joy to the individual. Eating healthy should not mean boring food. Find favorite healthy foods and pick a few favorite not-so-healthy foods as well.
  • Drink teas made with detoxifying herbs; Because people who experience deep exhaustion have often been exposed to toxic chemicals or heavy metals and because anxiety and other emotional distress actually produces toxins in the body, it is important to consider detox. Dandelion root, nettle, red clover and burdock teas are helpful and should be drunk daily for two to three weeks and then stopped for several weeks. If you have a tendency toward anemia, a blood test for anemia may be in order. In this case, caution is also advised with nettle tea, which can flush iron from the blood as it cleans other, harmful heavy metals out of the body. 
  • Take herbal teas, tinctures and extracts of herbs for energy and mood regulation. If you feel a slump of low energy in the morning or the middle of the afternoon and have a tendency to go for coffee or cola in order to power on through the work, try to schedule rest, while drinking green tea and eating lightly sweetened chocolate instead. These also contain stimulants and taste delicious but they act in a more sustainable way in the body. Rhodiola supplements can also help to stimulate the brain once a lot of rest has been had.
  • If negative thinking accompanies a lot of the low energy and keeps rest from being fully absorbed, some anti-depressant herbs such as lavender, lemon balm and St. John's Wart can be helpful. For these purposes I often use tincture because it is best to take them for several days (up to two weeks) in a row but tea will also work nicely if you can make sure you will be able to take it every day. Observe carefully because moods are a matter of delicate body chemistry. Not everyone will find the same herbs useful. St. John's Wart relieves depression for me, but a friend of mine experiences insomnia instead. Be aware of any allergies you may have, take notes on what you are trying, pay attention to any adverse reactions and consult with medical professionals.
  • When negative thoughts and critical "self-talk" intrude, we shouldn't either deepen it or push it away automatically. Feel the emotions associated with this self criticism and any assumptions of the judgments of others. Acknowledge those feelings and hold the part of yourself that is criticized gently. Spend the time necessary to understand the negative thoughts without falling into them.
  • Consider negative words you say about yourself, such as "I'm so fat!" or "What an idiot!" Even if you mean them ironically or as a kind of joke among friends, consider changes to the words that will help to relieve negativity. "That's my attempt at prepper storage" can replace "fat" comments. Or "obviously I have too much on my mind" can replace recriminations over forgotten items or errands. Those are just examples which don't deny reality or outlaw humor, but they are less blaming and judgmental. 
  • Set aside a few moments, perhaps as part of spiritual practice or at some other time when the daily routine is not too hectic, to focus on breathing exercises, smile-muscle exercises and/or meditation on loving yourself and absorbing the love around you. This may also be a time for a practice of gratitude. One year I listed at least one truly good thing that happened during the week at the end of every week in my calendar. Then I read them at the end of the year. It seemed like a bit of a hockey exercise but it turned out to be really astonishing. I know good things happen, of course, along with the hard stuff, but reading it all together was more of an experience than you might think.
  • Read jokes, tell jokes and find ways to increase laughter. Laughing really matters and in times of hardship and strife, it may be at a deficit. You may have to actually seek out jokes and plan silly things in the beginning, if you have been really depleted by difficult circumstances, but bringing back laughter is as important as anything else on this list. 
  • Practice grounding and balancing our energy. Many of the people who are so depleted today are depleted precisely because we are high-energy, active and passionate people. This energy is a great gift, but it can also come with its own challenges. Whether you currently have abundant energy or feel depleted, exhaustion can be helped and prevented by grounding. Grounding can be as simple as spending time in nature. Gardening and other sustenance-producing activities that get your hands into the earth are particularly helpful. But it can also be done even when nature is temporarily unavailable. You can stand or sit during your daily quiet time or spiritual practice, take a few deep breaths and visualize tree roots going down from your feet and/or tailbone into the earth. It may mean visualizing the tree roots twining down through a few floors of a building, through some foundations and concrete, but get them there in visualization. Continue a few more deep breaths and focus on absorbing the steady, sustainable energy of the earth.
  • Find useful things to do to improve the environment and community around ourselves, when energy permits. This last is crucial and yet it can't be done very effectively at the deepest points of exhaustion. Research and specify things you personally can do to improve the ecological and social environments. These may be very small things or large things. Use your particular abilities, talents and blessings. If you have money, that may help a great deal. If you don't, there are other ways. While you may have physical difficulties, many people who are doing the work of environmental and social justice need help with non-physical tasks. The opposite is also true. You may not know precisely what to do, but many organizations can use a pair of strong and quick hands. Doing this kind of work, either as part of your "real job" or during your off hours not only helps to elevate the conditions that exhaust you, it also plays a vital role in preventing exhaustion and rebuilding strength after you have rested. 

It is important to remember through all this that the time it takes to recover from soul exhaustion varies widely and depends on the same factors that cause depletion in the first place. Every person's circumstances are different and healing doesn't always abide by human schedules. Judging ourselves or others for a slow recovery will only slow that recovery further because such judgments contribute to depletion. In the end, resilience is fostered most by a combination of solidarity and intuition.

Be well and nurture joy. I welcome your comments and especially any typos found in my blogs. this week I am particularly exhausted as well, so you may just find some. 

Calm, rest and sleep - the gifts of Valerian: Home Medicine Cycle 38

My five-year-old daughter raced off the school bus bouncing with delight. 

"Mama! Mama! We had green jello!" she gasped in excitement.

My joyful grin froze in place. I tried not show my trepidation. We had begun to suspect that our daughter has a particular sensitivity to artificial food dyes and I'm told green and red are the worst. 

Still I could hope...

I did get her into the house at least. But when her three-year-old brother touched her she flew into a rage and hit him, then bit him. I pulled her away, but now they were both screaming. I comforted my startled and hurt son, while holding my daughter firmly on the other side. She fought and kicked, squirmed and screamed. And she tried to bite me.

For most of the next three hours, I held her on my lap while she shuddered and cried. After the first hour or so, she simply whimpered, "I can't stop! I can't stop!"

That was two years ago, when my daughter spent a few days at an American kindergarten, where things like green Jello are all too common. 

Due to the specific circumstances of our family, I know something about sedatives and their effects. Both of my children were adopted from Eastern European orphanages and my son--the little brother--was drugged with sedatives from the age of two months until we adopted him when he was ten months old. This delayed his neurological development and he went off of the drugs cold at the time of the adoption, because we were not informed about them..

The following year and a half was a trial for all of us. He was often terrified and he flew into a panic if I moved more than ten feet from him, even within our own home. For a year, we couldn't have visitors, because he was so terrified of strangers.

Creative Commons image by S. Rae of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by S. Rae of Flickr.com

For that and other reasons, my trust in pharmaceuticals is not great, but the situation with my daughter was nearing the point where I thought she might need some sort of medication for what appeared to be hypersensitivity and some fairly extreme stress reactions. 

After several very difficult years, I discovered almost by accident, that dried valerian root may be the answer we've been looking for. I found online forums where parents of children with ADHD said valerian did more for their children than pharmaceutical medications. And it just so happened that a fellow herbalist had just sent me a bit of valerian root from across the ocean. 

I researched it and found that the best way to administer it is as dried powdered root, so I learned a new herbalist skill--making capsules. It isn't nearly as difficult as I would have thought. You simply buy empty jell capsules, grind the root in a mortar as well as possible and fill the capsules with the powder. 

I could even ensure that my daughter got a child's dose this way. And the effect was amazing. If I give my daughter a capsule of valerian when I expect there to be a situation that might trigger her hypersensitivity, she is much calmer. Even in the midst of a meltdown the effects are noticeable a half an hour to an hour after she has swallowed a capsule. Getting her to swallow them is another matter. It was relatively easy at first, but then became more difficult for her to swallow the capsules. If the powder is ground finely enough, she will eat it in honey, which is another option.

Using Valerian

It is interesting that doctors may prescribe valerian for people who are trying to break an addiction to sleeping pills. It helps them sleep as they lower the dose of their pills. However, in this modern age, few doctors will do the obvious thing and just prescribe valerian in the firt place. 

Valerian is a gentle, natural sedative without the addictive side-affects of many synthetic sedatives. It helps to calm anxiety, deepen sleep and settle nerves. It is also used for nervous asthma, menstrual cramps and stress-related migraines. 

Although there are few reports of adverse effects from taking valerian, it acts on the brain much like a synthetic sedative and one should not drive or operate machinery in the hours after taking a dose of valerian. The United States Food and Drug Administration rates valerian as "generally accepted as safe," but there has not been enough research to determine if it is safe for pregnant and nursing mothers. 

The part of the plant used is the root. Besides making capsules or hiding the powdered root in honey, you can tincture the root (see my recipe for tinctures here) or dry it and use it as a tea (see my tips for brewing the most potent herbal teas here). It makes a very bitter tea and powdered root may be more effective than tincture for some people.

Growing Valerian

To my great sorrow, valerian is not easy to grow, or more importantly, it is not easy to germinate. I have tried to grow valieran for four years now and I have never been able to raise a good-sized seedling.

Valerian seeds require stratification, which is a process that simulates the effects of a winter spent outdoors. The general directions for stratification are that you should place the seeds on a piece of wet gauze, enclose it in a plastic bag and freeze it for a week, then refrigerate it for a week and repeat this two more times. Then take the seeds out and plant them. 

I have tried this for four years now without success, but I know of one herbalist who got these directions from me and followed them and grew valerian. So, it may be more to do with the specific growing conditions of my garden than with the directions for stratification. Good luck to you, if you do try to grow it. I wish you much success, and please come back and tell me if it works. I would much rather grow my own herbs than buy them from unknown sources.

Please feel free to leave comments below about your experiences with herbs, home medicine and growing medicinals. I love hearing from you.

Soothing lavender packs a punch: Home Medicine Cycle 16

Lavender is one of the most beloved herbs of all time. Gentle, soothing, beautiful and cleansing, its uses are many and surprisingly varied. You can use lavender to make your own cosmetics, to replace harsh and unhealthy synthetic scents. It's the only essential oil that most people can apply directly to their skin and thus it makes a great natural perfume. But it also has clinically tested calming and cleansing properties

Creative Commons image by Proimos from Sydney, Australia

Creative Commons image by Proimos from Sydney, Australia

I use most of my fresh lavender to make infused oil and salve. I also use purchased lavender essential oil. Repeated clinical studies have shown that massage with lavender oil or salve has a significant effect in calming anxiety, much better than massage without lavender. It is particularly indicated for premenstrual stress as well as menstrual pain. 

In one of the studies it was found that massage with lavender oil improved emotions and relieved depression in terminally ill hospice patients. Another found that it calmed children who had been hospitalized. And other studies have found that aroma therapy with lavender essential oil relieves insomnia and promotes deep sleep. Lavender can be added to tea as well and many of these same effects can be achieved by breathing in the steam and drinking a cup of tea with fresh or dried lavender blossoms added.

Note: It is important to obtain high-quality essential oil. Many producers, especially producers of high-demand oils like lavender, use unethical processing and other ingredients that result in low-quality oils that can be ineffective or harmful. 

Lavender also cleanses with gentle disinfectant qualities. It can help to regulate oily skin and relieve acne. As a result, I use it in most general salves for everyday skin care. It makes you smell nice and has a general calming and cheering effect. I also use the essential oil as a quick perfume because it can be applied directly to the skin, unless you have particularly sensitive skin (in which case it is better to dilute it a bit with almond oil). 

In the past I considered lavender mild but not particularly heavy duty. I would only include it in first aid salves if I had plenty of it (which is rare). However, given the latest research about lavender's ability to kill the bacteria that cause staph infections, I will be growing more of it

There are two exciting, recent discoveries concerning lavender: 

Creative Commons image by @sage_solar 

Creative Commons image by @sage_solar 

  1. A controlled trial in 2012 found that breathing in the aroma of lavender essential oil had a significant impact in reducing migraines when compared with breathing in a neutral aroma. 92 percent of those who were in the lavender group experienced full or partial relief, as opposed to about half in the placebo group.
  2. New research on lavender has found that it has powerful and possibly very specific ability to kill the bacteria that cause staph infections, including those that have become resistant to conventional drugs through the overuse of antibiotics (MRSA). These bacteria are one of the great terrors of today's medical profession, spreading uncontrollably through hospitals and causing significant suffering and even death. Initial findings show that lavender contains highly specialized compounds that specifically attack these bacteria. I hope there will be more research, but I intend to start adding lavender oil to my first aid salves in the meantime. Click here for my salve recipe.

I love your comments on these posts. Keep in touch with the comment icon below and let me know your story of adventures with home medicine. Ask questions, share and exchange info as people have done for centuries. That's how we know what we know about herbs today.

Please note that I am not a doctor and I can't prescribe specific remedies for individuals. Everyone is responsible for making their own decisions to try out herbal home medicine or not.

Store some sunshine for next winter: Home Medicine Cycle 15

In the heart of winter, the sun doesn't rise here until 8:00 and it goes down promptly at 4:00 in the afternoon. Add to that the thick, smothering cloud cover that blankets the land eight months out of the year, and seasonal mood disorder isn't just a theory in this land. It's a fact of life.

Oh, to be able to bottle a bit of the precious summer sun that is so intense just now!

St. John's Wart in my herb garden

St. John's Wart in my herb garden

Wait a minute. You can do just that or the next best thing. There is a plant that does a very good job of capturing and preserving the essence of the sun.

That's St. John's Wart. As if to cue herbalists to start watching for sunbursts in the grass, the Christian calendar made June 24 the feast of St. John. And that's about right. By mid-July St. John's Wart is in full bloom--little five-petaled bursts waving back to the sun. 

St. John's Wart has many uses but it's signature use--the thing it does that few other plants do is lift spirits in the dead of winter, just as if it preserved the rays of the summer sun. Whether as a tea or a tincture, St. John's Wart in small doses is the herb for low-energy depression, fatigue and sagging passion.

A cup of tea or a few drops of tincture can be taken daily in the cold season to energize you and preclude depression that is chemically or biologically based. It can even help with depression caused by problematic circumstances. However, a strict schedule has to be kept where the herb is used for three weeks and then there is a rest of one week before using it for another three weeks. It's an herb with intense compounds that can be harmful if overdone. 

Note the distinctive clumps of St. John's Wart on both sides of the Atlantic.

Note the distinctive clumps of St. John's Wart on both sides of the Atlantic.

St. John's Wart is also one of the best antiviral herbs. The tincture (look here for the recipe) can also be used to fight viral infections that antibiotics can't touch. If using St. John's Wart for depression or to increase energy, you want to take about a spoonful per day (with the three weeks on, one week off schedule). For an anti-viral dose, take three teaspoons per day for no longer than a week and stay out of intense sunlight. (High doses of St. John's Wart will tend to make you more susceptible to sunburn. In winter, this may help to increase the benefit of what little sunlight you get but you should still be careful.) 

St. John's Wart is also used as a salve for burns, particularly sunburns, and for wound disinfection. I shy away from using St. John's Wart for sunburns, even though I am sure it is effective in its own right. The fact that one has a sunburn means that one is likely to go out in the sun again soon and St. John's Wart salve on the skin will also make you more sensitive to the sun. But I do put infused St. John's Wart oil in my salve for immediate first-aid use on wounds. (See here for an infused oil and salve recipe.)

My photo of red St. John's Wart juice came out too blurry. I'll try again later, but for now here is a picture where you can see that my fingers are stained red from gathering just this little bit of St. John's Wart. No, I wasn't picking berries.

My photo of red St. John's Wart juice came out too blurry. I'll try again later, but for now here is a picture where you can see that my fingers are stained red from gathering just this little bit of St. John's Wart. No, I wasn't picking berries.

St. John's Wart is relatively easy to identify. It grows in sturdy plants in meadows and grassland where there is full sun. It has clusters of yellow flowers and the lower part of the flower head is a distinctive mix of brown and purple. But when you're beginning there is a  foolproof test for identifying St. John's Wart. If the plant looks like St. John's Wart and you take a blossom between your fingers and squeeze it, the yellow flower will bleed a deep crimson liquid that will stain your fingers.

Historically herbalists noted that the tincture and the tea of St. John's Wart isn't yellow like the flower but rather a deep beautiful red, and they associated the energizing and cleansing effects of the herb with being useful to blood disorders. I haven't seen a lot of modern evidence between St. John's Wart and blood issues but the color that comes out of the yellow flowers is very startling. 

Enough musing. It's the height of herb season! Now get to gathering.

Before you go, share your herbalist experiences and ask questions below using the comments icon or share this article with your friends. 

Please note that I'm not a doctor and this is not a prescription for treatment of a specific medical problem for a particular person.

Ad for blog headers 4.jpg

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. 

I would like to invite you to 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. This is my protected, spam-free corner of the internet, so that's all you'll receive. 

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.