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.

The healing draft - A poem on home herbalist medicine

I have trusted my life to doctors and surgeons and I have trusted my life to dusty herbalist tomes along and my own brain. I've done each in its time and with a lot of forethought. 

I have written these experiences about reclaiming my own health and I've debated in minute detail with proponents of the "medical model" approach. 

My family depends on our herb bed for 90 percent of our medicine and health care. We're lucky to have built up a good perennial supply and the skills to use it. We're also lucky to avoid most chronic illnesses requiring medications with unpredictable interactions.

Still we've seen time and time again that herbs grown and used at home are far superior in action to pills and drugs bought from the pharmacy. We are as careful about the pharmacy as we are about the herbs (and we have a good friend who is a pharmacist to advise us when we do go that route). 

Even with this experience, the drumbeat of advertising and skepticism about herbal medicines is so constant that we have the same discussion every year--just me and my husband as well as with our extended family. We've seen herbs work again and again. And yet there is a resistance to believing that something so simple could be so powerful or that if it is so powerful that it could ever be used safely. 

After a recent skiing trip--during which my husband was too apathetic to put herbal salve on his sore muscles or take echinacea tincture to stave off an encroaching cough, while I breezed through both with the help of these simple medicines--I am tired of the endless argument. I am tired of citing studies and debating with a behemoth industry with my relatives as surrogates. 

This is the season of inspiration and intuition, the days just before Imbolc, and so instead of another detailed treatise, I put it into a poem:

Every day an anecdote,
Sickness, headache, injury or pain
Washed away as if through clear water.
You've got two wore legs-
One rubbed with salve,
The other left to rest and ache.
One is new again in the morning,
one is stiff and swollen.
But it is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind.

It means nothing, they say.
A child crying in pain,
Blisters raised on the skin.
A six-year-old sister goes to pick the leaves,
to brew the tea, to place the cool cloth
against the flaming skin.
And the child smiles,
the blisters disappear
in ten minutes by the phone clock.
But it is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind.

How many times must you see it?
I ask my brother, my friend, my doctor, my dear one
How many times makes a study?
How many people sick with a lasting cough,
How many who drink the garden draft,
who get up and tend those who took pills instead?
How many times before you understand
that medicine is not in an ad?
It isn't Big Pharma or Big Natura.
It is in the hands, the care, the knowledge.
It is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind. 

The questions fall heavy and predictable
like the drum beats of a campaign.
What if you make a mistake?
What if it doesn't help? 
What about the things you cannot fix or cure?
What about all the studies with freeze-dried herbs?
Who are you to say?
You have no double blind or placebo.
You have only whispers
gathered over a thousand years.
You have only the bright faces of your family.
You have only this little plot of growing things.
You have only your own health taken back.
It is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind.

This is my wish to all in this season--health, healing and inspiration. May your home be snug and your well of strength brim full.

4 herbs to soothe side effects of drugs and chemo: Home medicine cycle 39

I rarely visit my local doctor. I treat myself, my family and sometimes my friends primarily with simple herbs that I grow myself. I’ve successfully dealt with a lot of cuts, bruises, sprains, rashes, allergies, ear aches, stomach trouble, strep throat, anxiety. depression, parasites, viral infections, chronic coughs, flu, fungal infections, nerve and muscle cramps, immunological problems, ADHD, chronic eczema and more. 

But there a few things I can’t handle. First on that list is surgery. When it comes to surgery I have to put on a paper nightie and surrender all control to the medical establishment. And that is definitely not my favorite thing.

Creative Commons image by Jacqueline of flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Jacqueline of flickr.com

This past month I had to undergo high-risk eye surgeries on each eye with a two-week break in between. I was born with a congenital eye condition and I’ve always been legally blind. Now at 40, it finally caught up with me and it was a choice between losing what vision I have or undergoing surgery. The surgeon admitted my case was very difficult and he felt like he was setting out to “discover the North Pole.” 

This meant that there was no room for experimentation or error. For the first time, my herbalist knowledge seemed completely useless.

From experiences when I was younger, I already knew I don’t react well to anesthesia but the surgeon said it would be necessary. In fact, the first surgery entailed about an hour and a half of anesthesia, much longer than I’ve ever undergone before. It took me about two hours more to even become fully awake again. And then I was sorry I was. 

My operated eye barely hurt at all, but I was sick to my stomach and all around miserable from the toxins in the anesthesia for five days. Even ten days after the surgery, I still wobbly and easily tired, as if I was recovering from a serious illness. 

During the first two days all I could really stomach was salt crackers and ginger tea. In my groggy state, I was not very good at treating my own discomfort, but I did manage to remember and ask for ginger. The ginger helped and soon I could eat a bit, if I first drank a cup of very strong ginger tea.

When my brain started working again, I remembered my herbalist research and specifically some studies that mentioned that ginger is used to reduce nausea and mitigate the effects of toxins in chemotherapy, surgery and radiation treatments. I wondered if ginger could help with the toxins in the anesthesia and topical antibiotics I was dealing with. However, the results of the research appeared to indicate that high doses of ginger right BEFORE toxic exposure may have much greater beneficial effects than merely consuming ginger after the fact.

So, for three days before my second surgery, I consumed about eight ounces of fresh ginger per day in tea and food. And after that second surgery, the grogginess of the anesthesia was gone within an hour. I barely felt nauseated at all. I continued to drink ginger tea and be gentle to my stomach. But my energy and strength returned much more quickly, resulting in a recovery less than half as long as the first.

The surgeries were successful. My world-class surgeon Petr Novak did an excellent job in a complex situation. My family and friends provided much needed physical and emotional support. In all this, And I learned a bit about how herbs can help work together with modern medicine, rather than separate from it.

Detoxifying herbs

I have read a lot about detox treatments and natural medicinals for those undergoing chemotherapy or taking pharmaceuticals with potentially harmful side effects. Many posts and books on the subject list less than organic compounds and almost all push certain products and brand names. Some list things like colloidal silver, which while possibly a useful natural antibiotic is still a heavy metal and more likely to be part of the problem than part of the solution in this case. These are red flags for me. My approach to home medicine is based on the use of simple herbs that can be grown or found near your home. 

Creative Commons image by Alex Graves

Creative Commons image by Alex Graves

While these herbs are not without risks and I carefully note warnings or potential problems in my posts, they are herbs that have been used medicinally for thousands of years and have been proved in the ultimate test of time across many different cultures. They are also herbs that I have tried myself or seen in action.

While I encourage all herbalists, whether professionals or home herbalists, to keep up on the ongoing research on herbal medicinals, there is nothing like personal experience to give a deep understanding of what an herb can do. Before I used large doses of ginger to protect myself from a known reaction to pharmaceutical toxins, I had read the optimistic-sounding research but I had little understanding of how it would actually work. 

I have four herbs to list that I use for detox and protection from toxins. These are all considered low-risk herbs which are consumed by many people as foods. Certainly, each individual is different and you should exercise caution with any herbal medicine and consult with your doctor, particularly if you take any regular medications. However, these herbs are among those that are usually safe and protective in action. Unlike many herbs and other detox treatments, these four can often be consumed by pregnant women and those with fragile health.

Ginger

Ginger acts in the body as a gentle stimulant and protector. It protects the integrity of cells and helps to flush out toxins, particularly many of those connected with pharmaceuticals.

Several studies have shown that women who underwent chemotherapy for the treatment of breast cancer used ginger aromatherapy effectively to curb resulting nausea. In other chemotherapy studies ginger extracts have been found to significantly reduce post-chemo nausea. Many herbalists say holding a piece of ginger in your mouth while undergoing chemotherapy markedly reduces nausea.

Another study has found similarly beneficial effects for patients experiencing nausea after surgery involving anesthesia. Radiation therapies also entail similar cell damage and exposure to toxins. 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. 

My own experience bears out these results. And even more exciting to me is the fact that I was able to achieve these results without having to depend on a processed ginger extract or essential oil. I was able to eat pleasant ginger curry and drink three or four cups of strong ginger tea per day (brewed by grating fresh ginger into hot water and letting it steep without boiling). The use of ginger as a simple was sufficient to significantly improve my recovery after my second surgery. 

Ginger has a vast array of other medicinal uses beyond detoxification and protection. Further studies and recipes for everything from coughs and migraines to cancer and Alzheimer's can be found in my home medicine post on ginger here

Red Clover

Red clover is a humble, almost ubiquitous plant with some surprising properties. Some studies claim it fights breast. prostate and skin cancer. Other research shows its effectiveness in mitigating the side effects of chemotherapy as well as toxic inflammation associated with cardiovascular disease. It has also been used for women's health during menopause.

My only personal experience with red clover is in preventative skin care. I am at an age where it is a good idea to monitor one’s skin for strange new moles or bumps that grow instead of going away. Some years ago, I had such a mystery bump on my leg and I was considering going in for testing. 

But then I read about the efficacy of fresh red clover in preventing skin cancer. I thought I’d just try it out while I waited for my dermatology appointment. But when I mashed up a fresh red clover bloom and stuck it on the bump with a band aid, the effect was dramatic. This bump which had grown and itched and bugged me for months despite all the other herbal sales I tried, subsided and nearly disappeared within three days. And it stayed gone. I occasionally put another red clover bloom on it for prevention, but it has never troubled me since, though it has returned to the normal-sized mole it used to be. 

I can’t generalize from such a one-off personal experience. I definitely suggest you take any suspicious moles and bumps to be tested. Skin cancer is nothing to play around with. The red clover treatment also works far better in the summer when red clover is fresh and in bloom, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Nettle

Nettles are often considered a noxious weed and a mere annoyance. However, they have some powerful beneficial effects and are delicious steamed and seasoned with butter and lemon.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Stinging nettles lose their sting when cooked, steeped or dried. The chemical compounds which cause a localized allergic reaction in many but not all people (the sting) break down when exposed to heat or UV rays. What is left is beneficial in many ways and strongly anti-allergenic.

I use nettles in my home primarily as anti-allergy medicine, often with dramatic results. See my post on nettles and allergy rashes here.

But there are other uses for nettles. Many herbalists use them for spring detox protocols. The usual recommendation is a cup or two of nettle tea every day for three weeks, no longer. This will flush an amazing amount of heavy metals from the body and often leave the patient feeling significantly more energetic.

However, there is an important warning to go along with this. The compounds in the nettles that help to rid the body of toxins make no distinction about iron. Iron is a heavy metal and toxic in larger amounts. Nettles flush it out. If you do have too much iron in your body, this could be helpful. But some people have an iron deficiency, leading to anemia.

The only time I have tried a nettle detox, it exacerbated my preexisting anemia and I was chronically tired and had to take iron supplements for weeks afterward. I don’t recommend longer nettle detoxes for anyone who struggles with anemia. I would recommend it if you are concerned that you may have been exposed short-term to toxic heavy metals and want to ensure that they don’t accumulate in your body. 

The action of nettle tea and nettle greens used as food to flush put heavy metals is well documented and unquestionable. It’s just a good idea to take it seriously and exercise caution. They are delicious but they are also real medicine.

Dandelion

Dandelion has been considered a "detoxifying" or "tonic" herb for centuries. Many herbalists recommend a "spring tonic" which consists of drinking dandelion root tea (sometimes combined with nettle leaves or burdock root) for a couple of weeks in the spring to cleanse the body of the chemical residues of winter smog and mold. This can be very helpful and result in a burst of energy.

The chemical reactions that make this tonic work, lead to even more startling uses. 

A study has found that dandelion and other herbs protect DNA against damaging toxins. Dandelion is particularly valuable in protecting the liver from toxins, including alcohol poisoning. This is why dandelion is used in drug and alcohol detox and rehabilitation.

Dandelion root has also been found to combat the formation of cancerous tumors in mice and to assist in the treatment of prostate and breast cancer. Even more exciting is a study that shows dandelion to be potent in treating chemo-resistant melanoma, one of the most dangerous cancers for younger people. It may also protect against chemically induced lung injuries.

In short, science is just beginning to make use of the wonderful ability of dandelion root to mitigate the harmful effects of the toxins that have proliferated in our modern environment. How fortunate that dandelions are as prolific as the dangers.

Dandelion also acts as an anti-viral, anti-microbial, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory agent. It can help in the treatment and prevention of a list of digestive problems including intestinal infections and chemical-induced pancreatitis. Further details about dandelions can be found in my home medicine post on the herb here.