The herb of northern winters: Pine needles

Where I live there is so little sun at the dark of the year that I can't even keep a pot of chives green on a warm window sill, let alone grow any herbs outdoors. Even the Siberian buckwort has given up for the year and its berries turned to mush. The ground has been frozen for weeks and it will be frozen for another two months yet, though there isn't any snow.

Creative Commons image by Melissa Gutierrez 

Creative Commons image by Melissa Gutierrez 

You might think an herbalist has nothing to do but read dusty herbal tomes at this time of year. And some of that definitely does happen, but there is still one plant that gives its medicine in this season. And it is one you are likely to bring indoors one way or another. You might as well make some immune-boosting tea while you're at it

That is, of course, pine needles. 

However, with pine and other conifers a warning has to be put out right up front. Not every Yule tree is a pine and there are conifers related to pines that are toxic, even lethally poisonous.

Yew, a wonderfully magical but deadly tree, is the primary danger for humans. Consumption of the needles or berries, even in small amounts, can kill. Yew is often used as a decorative hedge and could be confused with spruce or fir. 

When I was a child, I often ate the new growth of fir needles while walking in the woods. We called them "friends" as a slurring of "fir ends." And they were piquant but generally tasty as well as high in vitamin C. Fortunately, we didn't have many yew trees in our climate or this might not have ended well. (Yew does reportedly taste much better than most poisonous plants, which is why animals are sometimes found dead beneath yew trees with needles in their mouths.)

Anyone planning to harvest conifers as an herb or for food should become familiar with the differences between a fir and a yew tree. Here is a video that should help.

Some pine species also contain substances that are harmful to other animals. Ponderosa pine is significantly toxic to livestock and other species can cause sickness in dogs and cats. However, chocolate is also toxic to dogs and unhealthy for cats. So they just need different holiday treats. 

For humans the needles of pine, particularly white pine, are a good source of vitamins and immune-boosting compounds. While the needles are best for eating when young and tender in the spring, they will release a significant amount of vitamin C and other immune boosting compounds even from tough, frozen winter needles. 

Pine needles can be brewed into a pleasant tea that provides vitamins and acts as a decongestant for coughs and colds. For more serious congestion, it is possible to boil the needles down into a soup. And for a little boost, some people add them to spiced cookies. 

While it is possible to dry needles and retain some of their medicinal effectiveness (as long as they are protected from sunlight while they are dried and stored), harvesting them fresh is no trouble at any time of the year in most places.

In the warmer months, pine trees can provide other essential medicines, primarily sap to cover cleaned, open wounds at risk of infection. Once a wound is thoroughly cleaned, coating it in pine sap is one of the best ways to ensure that it heals without infection. The disinfectant and protective properties of pine sap rival what modern medicine has to offer. 

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.

Superhero of the natural healing, propolis takes down viruses, bacteria and possibly cancer: Home Medicine Cycle 29

It isn't an herb but it comes from the sap of conifers and poplar trees. It's so effective that the name essentially meant "defense of the city" in ancient Greek. And unlike many natural healing substances it was specifically designed for the purposes we use it for. It just wasn't designed by humans.

That's propolis, the superhero of natural healing.

Public domain image of propolis in a hive

Public domain image of propolis in a hive

It's concocted by bees specifically to be antimicrobial and anti-fungal. To them it's literally the "defense of the city." They form a kind of gunk from sap and other specially selected plant materials and use it to patch their hives and cover up anything gross or infectious in the hive. Sometimes called "bee glue," it's sticky and eminently unwashable but for all that it can be used for serious medicinal power.

There are two words of caution about propolis. First of all, it can be an issue for people with allergies,. particularly bee allergies. It is never entirely free of bee products and enzymes, no matter how purified it is. So, be cautious with it if you have any sort of bee allergies or other serious allergies. 

The second issue is simply the practical considerations of use. Propolis doesn't dissolve in water much at all. It dissolves reasonably well in alcohol and some in glycerin. As such, it's most effective when used as a tincture. Some people also just chew a piece for mouth infections and colds. But tincture is the most common form and the resulting mixture is very potent and usually bright yellow. It will coat anything it touches with an unwashable layer of bright yellow, including your teeth.

Mind you, it's very good for your teeth and would be great for preventing cavities, but your teeth would look horrible for a couple of days. So, most people try to knock it back to the back of the throat and swallow it without letting it touch their teeth. This is tricky and even the glass you use will be impossible to clean with anything but strong alcohol. (Paper cups are a good option with proplis.)

Yes, there are sanitized versions of propolis you can buy that aren't sticky and don't turn everything they touch bright yellow. But I suspect those preparations have so little propolis in them that they don't contain enough of the medicinal qualities. I have a toothpaste that supposedly contains propolis and it's okay but nothing spectacular. It also is only very mildly yellow. 

I like the taste of many bitter herbal remedies but I'm not personally fond of propolis, even though many people describe the taste as pleasant. I do take it, however, because there is nothing that will deal with fungal infections or a sore throat like propolis. It can compete well with many synthetic antibiotics and fungicides and is far better for you. 

You can usually obtain propolis from bee keepers. The best way to process it is:

Propolis chunks - Creative Commons image by Rade Nagraislovic

Propolis chunks - Creative Commons image by Rade Nagraislovic

  1. Freeze the pieces.
  2. Then crush them with a hammer or mortar and pestle while they're still frozen and brittle. 
  3. Put the resulting powder into a jar you are prepared to devote to propolis tincture forever.
  4. Pour 80 to 100 percent alcohol over it. About one part propolis to two parts alcohol is recommended.
  5. Shake well and let it sit for a couple of weeks.
  6. I've been told that some people strain the stuff but I have never found anything that will strain the liquid without becoming immediately plugged by the propolis itself. Instead, I let it settle and skim the more liquid tincture off the top of the jar for use. 

Here are some of the ways natural healers are using propolis extracts, according to the latest research.

  • Gargle with propolis tincture diluted in water for sore throats, thrus, cancer sores and other mouth infections. The tincture applied topically in the mouth and throat is very effective. Swallowing it also has systemic immune boosting and antimicrobial results.
  • A study found that propolis is superior to the drug acyclovir in fighting genital herpes. It is also used for cold sores around the mouth for the same reason.
  • Propolis shows significant antimicrobial activity in the treatment of peridontitis, a stubborn mouth infection.
  • Propolis is used for sores and bacterial infections (including tuberculosis). It is also active against many viruses (including influenza, H1N1 swine flue and common colds)
  • Propolis fights fungus and infections of single-celled organisms called protozoans. 
  • People sometimes apply propolis directly to the skin for wound cleansing abd as an oral rinse for speeding healing following surgery around the mouth, nose and throat.
  • Propolis is used to treat chronic ear infections in children with a history of ear infections and no known cure.
  • A study from the 1990s showed the usefulness of propolis extracts in preventing viral respiratory infections or colds in children in preschools and schools.
  • Studies are ongoing with exciting findings about how propolis and its flavonoid constituents protect human white blood cells from radiation sicknesses.
  • New research is showing incredible anti-cancer potential in propolis compounds. It is already being used to treat cancers of the nose and throat; for boosting the immune system; and for treating gastrointestinal problems. 
  • Caffeic Acid phenethyl ester (or CAPE) is a molecular compound found in propolis and almost nowhere else. CAPE has grabbed the interest of researchers for its medicinal properties, but its anti-cancer capacity is the most stunning. A study from the "Journal of Radiation Research" shows that only two days after being exposed to a medicinal compound with CAPE, "46% of lung cancer cells had been destroyed and the cancer growth was reduced by 60%. Three days after the treatment 67% of cancer cells were dead." Other studies have found that CAPE prevents the growth of colon cancer cells and induces cell death of the malignant cells without harming healthy cells. Other types of cancer cells also respond to treatment with the CAPE in propolis, including breast, gastric, skin and pancreatic cancer and glioma cells, a form of inoperable brain cancer. When propolis is used as a whole the effects are even better than with isolated CAPE compounds.

Propolis is one of the more advanced medicinals I have featured here. I do so simply because of the fantastic results, though I do caution that it is more difficult to use than many herbs and it's good to get a licensed herbalist's or doctor's individualized advice with a lot of these health concerns. 

I love to hear from you and I'd especially like to hear of the experience of other homecrafting herbalists with propolis. Drop a note and be sure to share this post in order to spread up-to-date information.