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


  • 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.

Fed up with artificial colors, fragrances and taste enhancers

Science is complicated.

Just because something happens at the same time as another thing or just after another thing does not mean one caused the other. Sometimes it does. But sometimes they are just two things happening at the same time. Correlation is not causation.

But when something happens only when (or much more intensely when) something else happened right before it in many different places and at many different times to many different subjects, then the first thing probably does in some way, direct or indirect, cause the second thing.

That is what is happening and being reported by parents all over the world when it comes to artificial food coloring, fragrances and taste boosters—food additives with those indecipherable names clogging the ingredients lists of most packaged foods. One thing happens (a child eats something containing these substances) and then another thing happens (the child shakes, cries, screams, throws extraordinary tantrums, breaks out in unaccustomed skin rashes or has other reactions). Parents have reported these observations again and again, in every parenting forum I have ever come across.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

But medical studies claim the evidence is “inconclusive.”

Granted, the spectrum of substances suspected of causing reactions is broad and the reactions caused are diverse. And not all kids react. Kids with attention and sensory issues tend to react more… a lot more.

It is also difficult to differentiate the energetic boost delivered by sugar and other simple carbohydrates almost always contained in the same foods from the effects of other additives. Most studies have tried to separate the two. But we don’t actually know that it isn’t the combination of sugar and the additives that is a problem for these children.

Many of the substances used to create colors, fragrances and taste boosters have been progressively banned in more safety-conscious countries in Europe, usually due to vague neurological effects, but new ones—all too chemically similar—are continually being invented.

As a parent with one child with high sensitivity to food additives and another child without particular sensitivities, I can clearly see the differences. One child doesn’t make a study, but the experiences of thousands of parents routinely dismissed and belittled by the medical establishment make for a very suspicious situation.

Given the massive lobbying capabilities of the food industry and the extreme profits garnered by these cheap substances added to foods to make them instinctively addictive to children, I call foul. I have not seen adequate research and investigation into this area yet, but the past few weeks have lit a fire under me.

Due to various allergy-type reactions to milk and other foods, I had both of my children tested for all standard food allergies about a month ago. Both of them tested negative in every category. The test did not include a test for lactose intolerance, which isn’t actually an allergy. But as soon as I got my son lactose-free milk, his symptoms cleared up.

My confidence in the allergy testing system is shaky at best, if they aren’t even with it enough to refer a kid with allergy-type reactions to milk for a lactose intolerance screening. I have also seen my ten-year-old daughter collapse, screaming with shaking hands for two or three hours at a stretch after eating a moderate amount of green food coloring on several occasions. I’ve seen her exceptionally irritable and impulsive after eating everything from a single piece of candy to a few handfuls of fake-cheese-flavored chips.

Then just recently, in the month since the allergy testing, she acquired some much coveted children’s lipstick with chemically induced “cupcake” flavoring. She smeared it on liberally and by her own admission ingested a small amount. This was after a day of eating only very familiar foods, but after a few hours she was covered with extreme allergic eczema from her knees to the knuckles of her hands.

Fortunately, anti-allergenic mint salve (see the recipe here) stopped the itching within thirty minutes and cleared up the eczema in two days, a result the doctor proclaimed “miraculous.” Our pharmacist told me antihistamines generally soothe the itching within 24 hours and clear up that level of eczema in seven days.

(Caveat and disclaimer: There has not been enough study of mint extracts for eczema. There are few side effects reported, but skin rashes should be consulted with medical professionals. If your doctor agrees, mint salve might help. I have seen it help in many cases, but with other types of allergies it had no effect.)

The lack of rigorous research on the harmful affects of food and cosmetics additives continues to be problematic. This is not a difficult issue. There is no need to color foods or cosmetics or enhance fragrances or tastes. What if companies were forced to compete based on the actual basic quality of their product, plain and simple, rather than relying on manipulative manufactured substances?

How does a company making lipstick marketed specifically to young children get away with including heavy-duty fragrances and taste enhancers that make children obsessively want to eat a product that has not been tested as a food?

I am constantly under attack from these products. My kids beg for the products they see in advertisements on children’s TV shows or that their friends have. Other adults gift them to my children. The worst of them are very dangerous. But beyond that many of them are just damaging and hazardous to long-term health. Some sensitive children react to these harmful substances immediately. But that does not mean that they don’t still silently harm the health of less sensitive children as well. It is altogether possible that children with sensory and attention “disorders” are our canaries in a coal mine.

Because I want to protect my children from hazardous substances contained in most of the products on the supermarket shelves and I actually stand my ground on it, I am called an “extremist” or accused of having “extremely high standards.” These shouldn’t be considered high standards.

Just make food. Just make lip gloss. I can grow the ingredients and make both from my own home with no chemicals and they taste great and they last.

Substances must be thoroughly investigated, including long-term health and neurological effects, before being approved for food or cosmetics use. Even more fundamentally, there is no reason for substances which manipulate and deceive the senses. No manipulative or addictive product should ever be marketed to children.

It is not that I want to control what other people do. I don’t want them around me. I don’t want them invading my space. I don’t want to be pressured over them. I don’t want my children manipulated by them or given them by friends.

If it isn’t cupcakes, it shouldn’t taste and smell like cupcakes. Cupcake flavor and smell should be what it is—flour, sugar, butter, real strawberries, in season, brief and real. Period.

Sunbursts of healing Calendula: Home Medicine Cycle 20

In the Czech language the name for Calenula flowers means "little moon," yet these brilliant yellow-orange blooms most resemble the sun. When I first came to Bohemia I had never heard of Calendula and yet I quickly ran into references to it among mainstream doctors and conventional pharmacists. In Europe this is one herb that has been solidly accepted by establishment medicine, particularly for use in burn ointments, and it's as well-known among lay people as mint. 

An opening calendula blossom - Creative Commons image by Arie Farnam

An opening calendula blossom - Creative Commons image by Arie Farnam

Calendula is an excellent addition to a home herb garden. It is bright and beautiful and it has powerful healing properties. Calendula flowers combat bacteria and fungal infections, help to heal burns or otherwise injured skin, and have some anti-cancer action. 

Infused calendula oil isn't difficult to make at home and you can keep it in the refrigerator and use it for numerous remedies, including:

Calendula plant - Creative Commons image by KENPEI of Wikipedia

Calendula plant - Creative Commons image by KENPEI of Wikipedia

While I have read that it is best to use just the petals of Calendula flowers for maximum potency, it can be very difficult to keep the tiny petals submerged when making infused oil. If they float to the top, they will tend to mold. As a result, I now prefer to make Calendula oil with whole flowers. The stay down better. Use the infused oil recipe in the first part of my salve making recipe

An infusion of dried Calendula flowers in hot water (basically a strong tea) can be used as:

May you have good fortune and cool breezes in your summer herb gathering! Do you have home medicines and remedies that you can share with others? I love your comments on these posts. Drop a line below and keep in touch!

Magical healing with comfrey: Home medicine cycle 19

The heroine lies wounded by a sword strike, while her friend the ranger frantically searches for the herb that will save her life. He finds the precious leaves and rushes to her side, pressing the magical green stuff into the wound. The bleeding stops and the wound closes before his eyes. She blinks her eyes and sits up. 

This is what I grew up on. Fantasy books... often with an herbalist in them. In those stories, skin knits itself back together in moments with the touch of a miraculous plant. Or a dab of a potion on the tongue can bring characters back from the brink of death.

I knew this wasn't real. It was just fantasy. In real life, herbs are mild--a less-effective but natural alternative to pharmaceutical drugs for times when your medical problem is minor and you have plenty of time to wait for their slow action to kick in. Right?

Not exactly.

That is what I believed about herbs when I reached adulthood and what most people still  believe today. But I've seen a few things that are very hard to explain on the theory that herbs are less-effective and slow-acting. 

Comfrey - Creative Commons image by Finchj of Wikipedia

Comfrey - Creative Commons image by Finchj of Wikipedia

One incident stands out sharply in my mind. My husband had tried everything that modern medicine had to offer to deal with his painful and exhausting chronic cough. Finally, we found an herbal mix that helped, after years of trying antibiotics and various drugs. He was slowly coming around to believe that my interest in herbs was a bit more than a foolish hobby.

So, one evening when we were visiting his parent's farm he went out with me to gather herbs. He brought along a pair of sharp branch clippers and he was using them to cut yarrow stalks, when he somehow managed to clip his finger. It was a significant enough cut that many people would have gone to the emergency room to get stitches. It bled profusely and when he flexed his fingers it looked like a gaping mouth of muscle. 

But my husband strongly dislikes trips to the emergency room and he would have had to drive himself there, given that I can't drive. His fingers still moved fine if painfully, so I was reasonably sure the clippers had not cut anything crucial. I told him to press one of the yarrow blooms against the wound to help stop the bleeding. Then I went for some strongly alcoholic tincture to disinfect the wound. Once the bleeding had slowed and the cut was very clean, I took comfrey leaves, softened them a bit with a mallet and wrapped them around the wounded finger. Then I bandaged the leaves in place.

We had small children and two elderly people to take care of and the rest of the evening was moderate chaos. It wasn't until the next morning that I managed to persuade my husband to let me look at his hand again. When we unwrapped the bandage and makeshift comfrey poultice we both stared in confusion. There was no cut. 

Had I been alone I would have doubted my own memory of how deep the cut was. But my husband was equally astonished. All that was left on his finger was a fine pink line, like that of a cut that healed well several days or a week previously. I probed at the scar and it was only the tiniest bit painful. There was no redness around it and my husband could move his hand freely without the bandage. 

Growing up on a homestead in the mountains and having a father and a brother who build houses and work with wood for a living, I have seen my share of cuts and lacerations. I have cut my own hands in the kitchen and dealt with the resulting sliver of pain for a week or two afterwards. I know how fast cuts usually heal, even with the help of antibiotic ointments from a pharmacy. And this was ridiculously fast--on the level of those fantasy epics I used to read. How can a deep cut heal in twelve hours?

A coloured etching by M. Bouchard, 1774 - Comfrey has been used by herbalists for centuries

A coloured etching by M. Bouchard, 1774 - Comfrey has been used by herbalists for centuries

I started researching comfrey in greater detail and what I found is truly amazing. Comfrey has been called knitbone historically, because it was used to treat sprains and broken bones. (It's also called boneset but that's misleading because there is another herb called boneset which is different.) 

Comfrey has an amazing capacity to soak through skin and muscle and affect bones, if applied with a generous fresh poultice. In addition, a recent clinical trial has shown comfrey root ointment to be more effective than some pharmaceutical ointments in healing sprains. Another double-blind study has found comfrey to be effective in treating osteoarthritis of the knee

It's ability to heal cuts is nothing short of stunning. And in fact sometimes comfrey heals cuts too fast. The first warning herbalists usually give about comfrey is that it can heal the skin over cuts and wounds so quickly that the body's natural function of expelling small bits of foreign matter (dirt, sand, bits of plants or cloth and so forth) from an open wound doesn't have time to work well. Some people have developed blood poisoning because comfrey's rapid-action healing sealed debris inside of a cut.

So, my story about speed healing my husband's finger comes with a caveat. Had i not flushed the wound out well enough or had it not bled so profusely, I could have made the situation worse by applying comfrey immediately. Generally, I now apply comfrey only after a cut is a few days old, just to be on the safe side. But that doesn't apply to sprains, arthritis, bruises and other injuries where the skin isn't broken. 

The primary reason for comfrey's healing power is a delicate combination of chemical compounds in the plant that promote rapid cell growth. 

Herbalists have experimented with using comfrey to treat certain types of cancer and there are several cases in which a patient with terminal cancer consumed large amounts of comfrey root powder and later miraculously recovered from the cancer. This briefly led to enthusiasm among herbalists for comfrey as a miracle herb. But then a study in Japan found that consumption of a large percentage of comfrey in the diets of rats was linked to liver cancer. And so the enthusiasm of herbalists has turned to caution and comfrey is usually not recommended for internal consumption. 

My mother had a comfrey plant by her garden water faucet when I was a child and I ate quite a few of its leaves. They were juicy and mild. The plant isn't poisonous in the conventional sense. However, there is a chemical found in most parts of the comfrey plant (less in young leaves) that is linked to liver damage if consumed in large doses. You would most likely have to eat a huge amount of comfrey for it to be a problem, but it's good to remember that  there is a warning against it.

Here is my homegrown and wildcrafting approach to comfrey:

  • I haven't used the root because the leaves provide a ready source when the plant is local and you can control the amount of processing, although I think the use of comfrey root in commercial ointments may be a good choice for those who can't grow it. (Some people find that the bristles on comfrey leaves irritate sensitive skin. If you want to use fresh comfrey leaves instead of ointment, you can wrap a poultice in a light cloth.)
  • Whenever possible I use a poultice of fresh comfrey leaves on sprains, strained muscles, bruises and the like. (Just take fresh leaves and mash them up with a bit of water. You can apply them directly to the skin or wrap them in cheese cloth. You can lightly heat the poultice to sooth muscles and bruises.)
  • I use softened comfrey leaves to bandage cuts after they have been well cleaned and had a day or two to heal with disinfectant salves.
  • I dry some comfrey leaves for making rehydrated poultices in the winter and for making comfrey infusions to soak sprains in the winter.
  • I make comfrey infused oil to make salve (with this recipe) for older cuts and scrapes that are healing slowly.

Use the comment icon below to leave a message and share some of your stories of herbalist adventures, questions or experiences. I love your comments on these posts. Please remember that this doesn't constitute medical advice for a specific person with a specific medical condition. 

Soothing lavender packs a punch: Home Medicine Cycle 16

Lavender is one of the most beloved herbs of all time. Gentle, soothing, beautiful and cleansing, its uses are many and surprisingly varied. You can use lavender to make your own cosmetics, to replace harsh and unhealthy synthetic scents. It's the only essential oil that most people can apply directly to their skin and thus it makes a great natural perfume. But it also has clinically tested calming and cleansing properties

Creative Commons image by Proimos from Sydney, Australia

Creative Commons image by Proimos from Sydney, Australia

I use most of my fresh lavender to make infused oil and salve. I also use purchased lavender essential oil. Repeated clinical studies have shown that massage with lavender oil or salve has a significant effect in calming anxiety, much better than massage without lavender. It is particularly indicated for premenstrual stress as well as menstrual pain. 

In one of the studies it was found that massage with lavender oil improved emotions and relieved depression in terminally ill hospice patients. Another found that it calmed children who had been hospitalized. And other studies have found that aroma therapy with lavender essential oil relieves insomnia and promotes deep sleep. Lavender can be added to tea as well and many of these same effects can be achieved by breathing in the steam and drinking a cup of tea with fresh or dried lavender blossoms added.

Note: It is important to obtain high-quality essential oil. Many producers, especially producers of high-demand oils like lavender, use unethical processing and other ingredients that result in low-quality oils that can be ineffective or harmful. 

Lavender also cleanses with gentle disinfectant qualities. It can help to regulate oily skin and relieve acne. As a result, I use it in most general salves for everyday skin care. It makes you smell nice and has a general calming and cheering effect. I also use the essential oil as a quick perfume because it can be applied directly to the skin, unless you have particularly sensitive skin (in which case it is better to dilute it a bit with almond oil). 

In the past I considered lavender mild but not particularly heavy duty. I would only include it in first aid salves if I had plenty of it (which is rare). However, given the latest research about lavender's ability to kill the bacteria that cause staph infections, I will be growing more of it

There are two exciting, recent discoveries concerning lavender: 

Creative Commons image by @sage_solar 

Creative Commons image by @sage_solar 

  1. A controlled trial in 2012 found that breathing in the aroma of lavender essential oil had a significant impact in reducing migraines when compared with breathing in a neutral aroma. 92 percent of those who were in the lavender group experienced full or partial relief, as opposed to about half in the placebo group.
  2. New research on lavender has found that it has powerful and possibly very specific ability to kill the bacteria that cause staph infections, including those that have become resistant to conventional drugs through the overuse of antibiotics (MRSA). These bacteria are one of the great terrors of today's medical profession, spreading uncontrollably through hospitals and causing significant suffering and even death. Initial findings show that lavender contains highly specialized compounds that specifically attack these bacteria. I hope there will be more research, but I intend to start adding lavender oil to my first aid salves in the meantime. Click here for my salve recipe.

I love your comments on these posts. Keep in touch with the comment icon below and let me know your story of adventures with home medicine. Ask questions, share and exchange info as people have done for centuries. That's how we know what we know about herbs today.

Please note that I am not a doctor and I can't prescribe specific remedies for individuals. Everyone is responsible for making their own decisions to try out herbal home medicine or not.