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. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basic recipe for tumeric tea

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

Tumeric-milk tea with extra punch

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

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

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

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

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

Ginger root - Creative Commons image by  Andrés Monroy-Hernández 

Ginger root - Creative Commons image by  Andrés Monroy-Hernández 

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

Ginger.

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

Ginger's easy and proven home remedies extend to: 

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

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

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

Detail of ginger - Creative Commons image by Miran Rijavec

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

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

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

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