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. 

The Acyclovir versus lemon balm debate: Cold sores vanquished

Our local doctor and I didn't get off to an easy start. He said he'd seen far too many "enthusiasts" who thought they could do without medicine and "just use herbs." He was besieged by middle-class mothers balking at immunizations.

And then there was the fact that I was about the strangest parent he'd met--legally blind, a foreigner and with two adopted kids of a background he considered at best "suspicious." He told me at one of our first meetings that I was the kind of person who would get reported to child protective services at the slightest provocation. But the only other local pediatrician had already thrown us out on even flimsier grounds, so I stuck it out.

But eight  years on, after many bumps and jolts we now have an exemplary relationship in which, if I need help, I call and he trusts my descriptions of symptoms over the phone, asks me to bring a child in or helps come up with a home solution. We brainstorm herbal medicines together when we can and I trust his recommendations when we have to use potentially harmful antibiotics.

Creative Commons image by Tristan Ferne of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Tristan Ferne of Flickr.com

This past spring there was a major outbreak of chicken pox in the local school. Czech doctors are not as quick to vaccinate against the disease as those in the US are now, claiming that the vaccine is low on effectiveness and high on unintended consequences. So, I set about researching chicken pox symptoms and discovered that one of my favorite herbs--lemon balm--can help to mitigate the symptoms.

When I was sure that my children had been exposed to chicken pox by paying sympathy visits to the sick, I started giving them lemon balm syrup in hopes that they would not have to suffer with too many blisters. And then my kids were the only ones in their classes who didn't get chicken pox.

The next time I talked to the doctor, I thought back on our first meetings and had to smile. He leaned eagerly across the desk, swapping information about medical trials with lemon balm. He was as curious as I was. 

Did we actually fight off chicken pox with lemon balm syrup? Given the research, it seems at least possible. But there are plenty of other possibilities. The children may already be immune one way or another. And sometimes you just get lucky--or unlucky if you actually wanted your children to get chicken pox over with in cool weather.

I told the doc how I have used lemon balm salve to deal with herpes cold sores for years and found that it is just as effective as the antiviral drug Acyclovir.

"I've concluded that it is actually more effective," he said. "And Acyclovir has so many side effects. If you know how to use lemon balm correctly, that's superior."

Lemon balm was long thought to be a very mild herb, used as an anti-anxiety tea. But then a German medical trial in 1999 showed that a cream made with dried lemon balm extract could significantly improve cold-sore symptoms and increase blister-free intervals.

Dried extract may be more easily quantified, stored and sold commercially, but it is far less effective than fresh and otherwise minimally processed plants. I have found that lemon balm salve made with fresh leaves and olive oil doesn't just improve cold-sore symptoms, it can essentially vanquish them, driving the herpes virus into a decade or more retreat. After suffering from many cold sores in my twenties, I haven't had a full blown one in ten years and only even had the mild beginnings of a sore, when I neglected to use lemon balm salve at the first sign of a potential flare up. 

Over the past two decades new research has confirmed and expanded upon the original studies, showing lemon balm to be an exceptionally powerful antiviral medicine. When even my conservative local doctor, who didn't used to like "herbal frippery," sings its praises and denigrates Acyclovir, I'd say the jury is in. 

For a salve recipe that can be used to make lemon balm salve for cold sores and chicken pox blisters click here.

For a more detailed discussion of lemon balm's herpes-fighting capabilities click here.

For more lemon balm recipes (including delicious popsicles) and uses in treating strep throat, anxiety and insomnia click here.

Soothing a sore throat while beating infection: Home Medicine Cycle 32

The immune system is our defense against infection. But it is not one monolithic shield. Instead it is a system that works together with the other systems of the body. And as such it has stronger and weaker points. There are often--in specific individuals--weak points that provide infections with an easy gateway to the body—a literal Achilles’ Heel. 

Image licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Image licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

For many the vulnerable place is some section of the respiratory pathways and infection creeps in through colds. Others have vulnerable inner ears. For me the weak point is my throat. 

Most viral illnesses begin with a sore throat, even if that isn’t among their primary symptoms. And if I am weakened by a viral infection, the chances are high that I may develop bacterial strep throat. Almost all antibiotics I have ever taken were for strep throat. 

As a result I’ve made a study of the herbs that are useful for sore throats and throat infections. And in the last few years, my throat troubles have largely evaporated. 

There is a difference in how I treat a tickling in the throat or a raging inflamed throat. And there are things I do to prevent sore throats when other illnesses are around. Here are the things that work for me, which have resulted in two years without any significant sore throat, despite my personal vulnerability. 

Prevention:

When there are viral infections around or particularly if others have an illness involving a sore throat, I am particularly careful. I use echinacea tincture (recipe here) and echinacea flower tea for general prevention. Beyond that I drink strongly brewed lemon balm tea. See this page on how to brew potent herbal teas. I personally like it without honey and I use honey for acute infections, but that’s optional.

A tickling in the throat

Whenever I get a tickling sensation in my throat and feel that something might be coming on, I do the same as with prevention—echinacea and lemon balm. Plus I take a dose of plantain syrup. You can find the recipe for that here

Acute sore throat

If an infection takes hold and the throat is inflamed and painful, I will make strong lemon balm tea with added raw honey and fresh lemon juice. This will often cut the pain very effectively. Another option is lemon balm popsicles. Simply brew a strong lemon balm tea with honey, add yogurt and lemon juice and freeze. While some infections do better with hot treatment, popsicles are sometimes the only way to get a child to take medicine and it may be worth it. 

In an acute situation I also take lemon balm tincture. New studies are showing some surprising results with lemon balm, which appears to be specifically active against the bacteria that is responsible for most bacterial infections in the throat.

A simple herbal antibiotic is fresh garlic, either eaten in food (without cooking) or drunk as juice. It works both topically and systemically so the more the garlic or its juice touches the inflamed parts of the throat the better. The difficulty with raw garlic is that many people cannot swallow enough of it for it to work as a systemic antibiotic. Even a small amount of raw garlic eaten in food can help to prevent or treat throat infections however.

Another effective treatment is propolis tincture. It's made with 80 proof alcohol and must be diluted in water. When treating a sore throat it is best to gargle with the water and propolis tincture solution for as long as possible. Those with bee allergies should be very careful of propolis, since it Is a bee product.

Some people may find gargling with propolis to be unpleasant due to its distinctive taste. I am not sure why I dislike the taste of propolis. It smells good to me but I find the tincture to be unpleasant and it is hard for me to gargle with it. Still I do it because the combination of propolis and lemon balm tinctures is the one way I know of to prevent the need for synthetic antibiotics for strep throat.

There are herbal antibiotics which may be effective against strep throat, however most of them are not available locally and I haven’t been able to grow them myself or gather them in the wild yet. Purchased herbs are highly variable in their effectiveness and strep throat can become very serious and lead to permanent health problems if left untreated. Therefore I would only rely on herbs to treat a bacterial throat infection if I could see a professional herbalist with reputable supplies.

A sore throat that continues for many days or is accompanied by a significant fever should be treated as a potentially serious illness. Medical and healing professionals should be consulted. 

Herbs to help you breeze through cold season: Home Medicine Cycle 28

In many places winter is already coming on. The weather is wet, cold and grayish. The season brings plenty of physical problems - from driving conditions to cutting wood - and then there is the chaos around family holidays. The last thing you need is a cold. 

It may not be the worst illness to have, but unlike a lot of illnesses you usually don't get to stay home in bed and watch reruns when you have a cold. You just feel worse, have less energy and have to deal with a runny nose, headaches, a sore throat and some coughing, while doing all the other things you normally do.  That make colds highly unpleasant and the lack of rest makes them hang on for weeks sometimes. 

One of the first things to do in cold season is to make sure you're getting enough rest and fresh air. Both will help to prevent and cure colds. Rest is the most important component of any strategy to boost your immune system and fresh outside air doesn't carry viruses as well as the air in buildings full of people. If the weather is actually freezing, your risk of catching a cold can go way down if you bundle up warmly and spend at least an hour outside each day. Viruses don't do well with frost. 

That said many of us live in climates where several months out of the year are more dank, cold and rainy than frosty and viruses love this weather. Beyond that, if you work or study in a crowded environment, your immune system would have to be spectacular to avoid the latest cold virus going around. So the chances are that most of us will get a cold at some point. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

If you use pharmaceuticals to beat back the symptoms you will often prolong the cold and while your nose may not run, you will still have less energy. That will often cause you to drink more caffeinated drinks and that will disturb your sleep. And less sleep will mean more colds.

Beyond that, synthetic medicines often suppress the immune system over the long term and have other systemic side effects that aren't listed officially because they are caused by the overall intake of pharmaceuticals rather than by one specific drug. Colds are one area in which you can use herbs very effectively and thus reduce the need for harmful pharmaceuticals. 

Here are the basic steps to using herbs to deal with colds:

Prevention

The primary preventative herb today is still Echinacea. It stimulates white blood cells, which make up the best-understood part of the immune system. It also includes virus-fighting substances and boosts the ability of immune cells to engulf and destroy invaders. 

There is controversy in medical circles about Echinacea largely because there have been some studies conducted using commercially available pellets of freeze-dried Echinacea juice, which showed that the pellets were not very effective in preventing colds. There are studies showing the effectiveness of Echinacea in other forms, however. I took those freeze-dried pellets for a few years because I was traveling and I hoped to get some herbal medicine even when I couldn't grow my own or brew concoctions. And I have to say that I didn't notice any dramatic effect by taking the expensive Echinacea pills. Combine that with the problem that many commercially available Echinacea "supplements" contain only a tiny percentage of actual Echinacea (and sometimes none at all) when they are subjected to lab tests and you could become very skeptical about this herb.

However, none of these facts have any real bearing on the herb itself. Poor use of an herb doesn't make the herb itself ineffective. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

The best way to use Echinacea is to grow your own or find a local supplier of fresh or freshly dried herbs. Then use dried Echinacea flowers (stored in an air-tight, non-metallic container) as a cold prevention tea for children and adults. It has a very pleasant, almost spicy taste reminiscent of the smell of bee hives.

For adults, Echinacea tincture is also excellent. It's best taken as needed the moment you notice a tingling of a cold in your throat or nose. I personally prefer Echinacea flower tincture and have found it most effective in cold prevention. If I can take a large spoonful of Echinacea flower tincture within an hour or two of the first signs of a cold or when other people around me have colds, I almost never end up with a real cold and if I don't take it my immunity to colds is not very good.  Here is a basic recipe for tincture.

I have read that many herbalists prefer Echinacea root tincture. However, in order to make a tincture with enough potency they must use several batches of Echinacea root for each batch of alcohol. This means soaking finely chopped roots in alcohol, then straining the alcohol after a few weeks and pouring it over another bunch of roots for several more weeks and repeating the process at least three times. The process is complicated but the results may be even better than Echinacea flower tincture. 

Echinacea works best if taken at specific times when immune support is needed. The immune system may become too accustomed to that support if it' s taken constantly. I use Echinacea flower tea when flu and cold season is in full swing on a regular basis and take Echinacea tincture as needed within hours when I can feel something coming on.

Treatment 

Even herbs don't provide an actual cure for colds. Once you have a cold, rest is the closest thing to a cure and often rest is hard to come by. Most herbs for colds treat specific symptoms and you can choose the best ones based on the symptoms you have. Treating symptoms is far from useless when it comes to curing a cold because many cold systems will interrupt your sleep and sleep is key.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

One general anti-viral herb to take after a cold has set in is St. John's wart. St. John's wart helps to fight a wide range of viruses and it gives the body energy needed in fighting an infection.

There is a myth that one should stop taking Echinacea once a cold has set in. I have found that this is bad advice. First of all your immune system doesn't just prevent infections, it also fights ongoing infections. So, the need for the immune support of Echinacea doesn't end simply because the cold temporarily got the upper hand. I have also experienced long-term colds and coughs that hung on tenaciously and would only recede when i took Echinacea tincture each day and for several days AFTER the symptoms disappeared. I stopped several times once the symptoms had disappeared and the infection returned, until I had the discipline to continue taking Echinacea tincture daily until about a week after the symptoms had cleared up. This has happened to me enough times that I consider it to be a pattern.

Herbs high in vitamin C are also good for general treatment. Rose hip tea and even more so buck thorn syrup  contain vitamin C (as does homemade sauerkraut).

Treating congestion

Now we get into the nitty gritty of treating specific symptoms.

One of the best herbs for treating the congestion that comes with a common cold is elder, particularly the flowers. My family uses dried elder flowers for tea (which is quite pleasant). And the adults use elder flower tincture as a powerful decongestant. If you do have to continue working when you have a cold, elder flower tincture is essential. It will clear out congestion as effectively as many pharmaceutical cold medicines but without the negative health effects associated with those. 

If you don't pick all the elder flowers off of your local elder bushes in June, you can also make a syrup from the elder berries themselves. This contains many of the properties of the flowers plus vitamins that are helpful for recovering from colds.

Another way to deal with stubborn congestion is to put a drop of thyme or eucalyptus essential oil and a few table spoons of salt into a bowl of hot water and breathe in the steam from it. You can put a towel over your head to catch the steam and clear out built up congestion that keeps the infection inside and interferes with rest.

Treating sore throats 

Lemon balm leaves and linden flowers are both excellent for treating sore throats. Lemon balm has been recently found to specifically fight the bacteria that cause strep throat. This is essential when you have a cold because while a cold is minor by itself it will often weaken the body and allow a bacterial infection to set in. I drink lemon balm even if I don't have a sore throat with a cold in order to prevent strep. Making lemon balm syrup (with this recipe) is one excellent way to combat sore throats.

Raw honey is also good for a sore throat. Gargling with salt water or a bit of propolis tincture diluted in water are also useful methods. You can even chew a piece of propolis if you don't have propolis tincture although it will temporarily stain your teeth bright yellow. 

Treating coughs

I covered the treatment of coughs in another post which you can find here. In brief, the best herbs I have found for coughs are thyme, mullein, marshmallow, longwort and plantain. 

I love hearing about your experiences with herbs. Let's have some discussion on what really works in the comments section below.

The easiest herbal syrup recipe: Home Medicine Cycle 27

It can be tough to get kids to take herbal medicine, especially if they haven't been brought up with it from day one. Herbs have taste and herbal medicines often retain a bit of earthy sediment. They are natural after all and today's kids are used to candy that looks like it's made of plastic, as well as food items that have been shaped, pressed and specifically colorized to look synthetic. 

Creative Commons image by  Susy Morris    

Creative Commons image by Susy Morris

 

Add to that the problems of rendering alcoholic tincture safe for kids to consume and the homecrafting herbalist parent has a lot of technical issues to deal with. 

One of the best tools for conquering these problems is herbal syrup. It's sweet and with proper straining it can be sediment free and have a texture that kids associate with commercial medicine and candy. It is often dark brown or black in color, which can be an issue until they've tried the first taste. But once a child is convinced that "black honey" is like caramel, the struggles over medicine will dissipate. 

The other good thing about making herbal syrup is that it is simple and relatively forgiving of the novice. For one thing, you can safely start with either fresh or dried herbs, which means you can make a fresh batch of syrup at various times of the year. Here's how to go about it:

Creative Commons image by  Angelina Earley    

Creative Commons image by Angelina Earley

 

  • Find a source of good-quality honey. Organic honey is good if you can get it, but the primary issue is to make sure that the honey does not include added sugar syrup, which many brands of honey purchased in grocery stores do. The easiest way to make sure your honey is good is to find local beekeepers and buy their honey. It may be a bit more expensive, but beekeeping is so crucial to your local environment that it this is one cost that is well worth it, even if your resources are limited.
  • Obtain fresh or dried herbs. The most basic syrup can be made with plantain, which is found in many lawns, and it is excellent for sore throats, upset stomachs and coughs and will cover a wide variety of children's health problems safely and without a battle. Other common herbs for syrups include lemon balm, mullein leaf, marshmallow flowers and thyme. Lemon balm is good for sore throats, anxiety and hyperactivity, and the other herbs are all specific to coughs and bronchitis. If possible grow your own herbs, even if it's just in a pot on the window sill. If not, gather them in wild places or get to know an herbalist and make sure that the herbs you get are no more than a few months old and stored carefully.
  • Now you're ready to make syrup. Pour a cup of boiling water over a double handful of your chosen herbs in a small saucepan (use enamel if possible or second-best stainless steel, as many medicinal compounds react with metals and lose potency). Add more herbs if they will fit and still be covered by the water. 
  • Simmer for 5 minutes.
  • Strain the herbs out of the water. What you have now is a strong infusion. 
  • Measure your infusion with a cup (as some of the liquid will have evaporated) and add an equal amount of honey.
  • Set your stove on a very low heat and simmer the syrup until all the water has evaporated. The time involved will depend on how hot your stove is. If you keep it at a regular simmer, you will have to stand over it and stir to ensure that your honey doesn't burn or boil over. And then you may be able to evaporate the water in just a half an hour. If you can set your stove to a very low heat, however, it may take hours to evaporate the water but require little supervision. 
  • Don't boil the syrup too long or too vigorously. Not only will this reduce the potency of some herbs. At times I have also accidentally turned the syrup into candy, which would be okay, except that I poured it into a jar and then couldn't get the resultant mass of hard candy out of the jar once it cooled. If you do boil the syrup more vigorously, you can then drop it into greased molds and have candy of various consistencies. I prefer to simmer at a lower heat in order to retain as much of the herbal potency as possible.

A syrup that is about the same thickness as honey is ideal and primarily depends on how long you are willing to evaporate the water. The infusion of herbs will then be left in the honey, usually turning the honey a rich dark color. You should store this syrup in the refrigerator, but it can then last many months if properly evaporated. Both children and adults will enjoy it.

Be sure to share this simple recipe with your friends. It is one that even those without much herbalist experience can use to good effect and get a little of the earthy goodness of herbs to counterbalance pharmaceuticals and processed foods. Drop me a line in the comments below if you have any ideas or questions about this. Thanks!