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.

Waiting for the first herbs

 

When the fragile light first glides,

whispering across the land,

the cold sunlight of March,

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

 

as sleet still stings like sand,

I walk in the bare woods,

before the first buds awake.

Tiny rosettes of nettle nestle

amid the leaves I rake.

In the garden little pokes

above the still cold dirt

but tiny chickweed leaves

to heal some small hurt.

Still the tops of most herbs

stand dry and winter browned,

waiting past the last April snow

safe beneath the ground.

Then coltsfoot and lungwort,

brave and hearty those two,

raise their faces to the sun

pale yellow and purple blue

Rosemary and lavender,

as your leaves slowly green,

beware the last blast of winter

that we have not yet seen.

I’m waiting for the leaves

to wave green flags of spring

I’m waiting for the flowers

and breath to rise and sing.

The world needs more poetry these days. I may not be able to do all the things I have wished to. But I heard that we now have a local chapter of Extinction Rebellion. My post is short because I’m off to check out their website and sign up to do my bit on the home front.

Camping tip: Forage for tea and enjoy a vitamin boost

Nine years ago I packed food and video equipment in to a Greenpeace blockade camp in a military zone in the Czech Republic, dodging patrols and slipping up unmapped trails. The goal of the camp was to protect a couple of tree-sitters and thus to occupy a strategic hilltop marked for a US radar base that would put the first foreign troops in the country since the Soviets were kicked out in 1989 and destroy a fragile ecosystem in the process. 

Creative Commons image Yoppy of Flickr

Creative Commons image Yoppy of Flickr

I'm delighted to report that Greenpeace and local activists won that fight. 

I don't recall our packs containing anything like tea or even coffee when we carried supplies in and maybe this wasn't actually an oversight by the more experienced blockaders. In the end, other than a renewed sense of what can be accomplished by non-violent activists and the unsung little victories of environmental and social justice, I came out of the Brdy Hills with an item I no longer needed to carry in my camping kit - tea. 

I'm a tea drinker--herbal, black, green, you name it--and especially on camping trips, a hot drink in the morning is essential, though I can live with or without caffeine. As a result, I have always carefully stocked and refreshed a tea supply in my camping kit and I suffered greatly a few times when it ran out at an inopportune moment. 

The Greenpeace campers taught me how incredibly easy it is to forage for tasty, drinkable leaves if you're out in the woods anyway. After learning this, it seems almost silly to pack the stuff. 

Creative Commons image by  Woodley Wonder Works 

Creative Commons image by  Woodley Wonder Works 

The basic thing to remember is that if you are used to eating the berries, you can usually brew the leaves. Wild huckleberry, raspberry, blackberry and strawberry leaves make a great base for tea. Raspberry and blackberry taste pretty similar to black tea and you can treat them much the same. But instead of caffeine you'll get an extra dose of iron and other nutrients, which is particularly useful for when you're outdoors and active. 

Beyond these, the year's newest fir needles are an excellent addition to make a more fragrant tea. Mint and wild thyme or wild oregano flowers can usually be found as well.

Fresh forage tea is particularly high in nutrients and flavor, and you'll enjoy the break from dried teas. However, there are a few cautions to observe while you're doing this:

Creative Commons image by Julie of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Julie of Flickr.com

  • Don't eat or brew plants you can't identify or are not sure are edible.
  • Don't eat or brew plants found within a few yards/meters of an established campsite. First of all, the campsite will become stripped. And second, the males of our own species and those of one of our most friendly species (dogs) have a habit of marking the edges of such campsites with their urine. You can't be sure who has been there before you.
  • Don't eat or brew plants found within 20 yards/meters of a minor road or 100 yards/meters of a major road. You don't want toxic heavy metals along with your iron supplement. 
  • Don't pick plants in protected areas, national parks, high mountain meadows or particularly fragile habitats. If planning to camp in these areas, you do need to pack in everything. (And pack everything you brought in out again, of course.)
  • When harvesting wild plant leaves for tea, be careful to take only a few leaves from each plant. Don't pull or you may damage the roots. If possible use scissors. Take only what you need. Harvest for future use, only if there is a great abundance of a particular plant and then be careful that you don't damage the plants or topsoil. 
  • Before harvesting wild plants, sit a moment in the area and get a sense of it. Does it smell right?  Do you have a relaxed feeling or an uneasy feeling? Any sense of disturbance or unease you feel could indicate that you should not pick plants there. Human beings are still quite capable of instinctively sensing the health of plants without knowing logically why. The area could be polluted or too fragile and your body might pick up on that.  
  • Give your thanks to wild plants you harvest from, whether silently or out loud, when you are finished.

Next time you're camping and have access to hot water out in the woods, brew up fresh forage tea and you will have an immediate connection to the local land and the earth itself.

Feverfew: A tenacious friend to guard against migraines

The first thing I noticed about feverfew is that it is one tough plant. I planted feverfew in a pot early on in my gardening adventures, partly because the flowers are known to repel wasps and we were having a problem with wasps invading the back veranda where we like to sit. 

Unfortunately for the feverfew, I was not a very good gardener all those years ago and because this pot was by the picnic table, away from all the other beds and plants, I often forgot to water it for weeks at a time. It was under the veranda roof, so this was really a problem. It lookedcompletely dried up several times, and I thought it was dead. Then my toddler children over-watered it on many other occasions, drowned it in mud, dug its roots out and tipped it over. 

Creative Commons image by  Swallowtail Garden Seeds

Creative Commons image by  Swallowtail Garden Seeds

Twelve years on, the feverfew is still alive. 

It does have some ability to dissuade wasps from congregating, but only if you take care of it well enough to allow it to make flowers. The more flowers the better, when it comes to repelling wasps. They have a bitter smell. 

Relief for those suffering from migraines

However, the real gold in feverfew is in its ability to prevent and subdue migraine headaches. While the name of the plant suggests it as a treatment for fevers and it has been used that way historically, modern medical studies have proven its worth specifically in treating migraines. In Canada, the use of feverfew to treat migraines has been legally recognized. 

The flowers and leaves of feverfew can be collected and dried, powdered and put into gel capsules for natural headache pills or the fresh leaves and flowers can be tinctured in 40 percent alcohol. The dried-leaf capsules will only have full potency for a few months, so if you can tolerate a small amount of alcohol, tincture may be the better option. 

The short shelf-life is also a good reason to grow your own or find feverfew locally. It will not stand up well to industrial processing or the length of time necessary to distribute commercial capsules, so supplements with feverfew may not be as effective.

Creative Commons image by Graibeard of flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Graibeard of flickr.com

Warnings

There is one consistent warning given about feverfew. Chewing the fresh unprocessed leaves may result in mouth sores or loss of taste. It has a pungent and bitter taste that is not particularly pleasant, so I don't really recommend it. I did once chew a leaf as a test and suffered no strange effects, but people with greater sensitivity may well suffer from sores and the taste doesn't help matters.

I have found no report that tea from feverfew leaves or syrup made from an infusion would be likely to cause sores, but the taste is so repulsive that I doubt either would be a popular remedy. 

Other uses

Feverfew is also still used to treat fevers, irregular menstruation, colds and sometimes infertility, but these uses have not been studied in modern times and documentation of their traditional use is sparse. Given that there are usually more well-known herbal alternatives for these issues, I generally use feverfew only for headaches. 

Standard dosages

Studies have shown feverfew to be safe if 50-150 mg of leaf powder is taken daily for less than four months. Longer use has not been studied. These dosages are standard and individual reaction and individual plants may vary widely. This isn't specific medical advice and consultation with professionals as well as careful self-observation is recommended.

Feverfew is a tenacious herb and a steadfast friend when you the world is too much for you.

Linden: Golden comfort in myth and medicine

As a child my heart was captured by the songs and poems in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

Creative Commons image by Bixentro of Flickr. com

Creative Commons image by Bixentro of Flickr. com

I learned by heart the song Legolas sings of Nimrodel and I wondered over the light leaves of linden, which I imagined to be a mythical tree of Middle Earth, since there were no such trees in the semi-desert where I grew up.

When Galadriel sings of an eternal golden tree in the land across the sea, I thought this too must be the linden, so often referred to as golden by Tolkien. 

As a young adult, I was delighted to find that linden trees are real, though sometimes called lime trees in the US. They don't bear limes and I assume there are also lime trees of a completely different sort that do. And while linden trees have a stately and magical beauty to them, they are not usually golden. They turn bright yellow in the fall.

Creative Commons image by  Alexis Lê-Quôc

Creative Commons image by  Alexis Lê-Quôc

Yet they also turn gold for a brief moment in the late spring, or early summer. The tree gives an impression of burnished gold for the week or so when the blossoms are in full bloom and the tree is surrounded by an ecstatic cloud of honey bees--and often as not an herbalist or two.

Tea made from linden flowers and leaves is so widely accepted as a cold and cough remedy in Central Europe that even the most medical-model doctors may suggest it. Linden tea is very pleasant and a light, pretty yellow in color. It can be a great comfort for anyone with an upper respiratory infection. It loosens phlegm so that it is easier to expel. 

The tea can also be used to help with insomnia and migraines. In some situations it has been used to help with certain circulatory problems, including high blood pressure and rapid heartbeat, but it should be noted that there is an unconfirmed suspicion that it may exacerbate preexisting heart disease if drunk too often. 

Creative Commons image by CameliaTWU of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by CameliaTWU of Flickr.com

Linden is said to ward off bad luck and it is holy to Slavic peoples. It was often planted in town centers centuries ago in western Slavic countries and even in Germany. It's a national symbol of the Czech Republic as well as of Slovakia and Slovenia.

The wood of the linden tree is very fine grained so it can be sanded exceptionally smooth. It also resists warping once cured and it is relatively soft for a hardwood. This has led to its use as a carving wood for statues, musical instruments and barrels throughout the centuries.

In Lithuania women prayed to a goddess of the linden tree called Laima. Even the seeds of the tree are treated with respect and once they were spoken to as if they were human.

For me linden symbolizes my new land across the sea and the changes that have made me part of this country. It does not grow in the dry land of harsh and expansive beauty that I left behind. I have planted a linden tree at the top of my property here in this softer, smaller land. Now I wait for the day when it will bear flowers. It can take as long as fifteen years for the tree's first flowers. No wonder it is a tree marking the deep roots of people in a place. These things take time.