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.

Feverfew: A tenacious friend to guard against migraines

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

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

Creative Commons image by  Swallowtail Garden Seeds

Creative Commons image by  Swallowtail Garden Seeds

Twelve years on, the feverfew is still alive. 

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

Relief for those suffering from migraines

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

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

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

Creative Commons image by Graibeard of

Creative Commons image by Graibeard of


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

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

Other uses

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

Standard dosages

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

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

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. 

If it works it works - the controversy over Echinacea: Home Medicine Cycle 21

I had a fight with a doctor friend about Echinacea.  My family has used  Echinacea for cold and flu prevention and early treatment for decades. I now grow it in my garden. (It was very hard to start but it's pretty and stalwart once started.) But my friend who's a doctor insisted that clinical trials have shown it to be ineffective medicinally.

Creative Commons image by Arie Farnam

Creative Commons image by Arie Farnam

I looked into the studies on Echinacea and it is true that the more widely publicized studies on the plant are disappointing. If they show any medicinal benefit it is minimal. I was confused because I've had good results with Echinacea tincture. So I looked closer. What I found was that all eight of the studies cited in my friend's medical database were run exactly the same way. They all used  freeze-dried echinacea juice to treat acute upper respiratory infections (essentially colds). The age and processing of the Echinacea was not specified beyond that description. It occurred to me that it was odd that the medical establishment had not considered using Echinacea the way herbalists do--as either tea or tincture.

I can't run a large study myself but I pay close attention to the effects of medicinals I use for my family. And over the years I have seen that Echinacea tincture usually reduces the symptoms of coughs and colds within twenty-four hours. The past few years have brought some terrible flus and coughs that had us and our neighbors hacking away for weeks or even months. I am not particularly susceptible to coughs, but even I succumbed several times. Each time I started taking large doses of Echinacea tincture and the cough improved for several days, at which point I forgot to take the tincture, because I thought the infection had passed. Then the cough invariably came back. It only stayed away if I took Echinacea for four to five days after the symptoms had cleared as well as during the illness. 

It was a hard lesson but over three winters, I have learned. Homemade Echinacea tincture will work for some stubborn upper respiratory infections (both viral and bacterial), but you have to take it and keep taking it for several days after symptoms have disappeared. I have yet to find another herb or medicine that works as reliably when it comes to acute respiratory infections. It also appears to help in prevention of colds or in mitigation of the symptoms if you take it when you are surrounded by people with colds or just feel the first signs that you may have caught something.

Through further research, I have found that there are actually more studies that show that what I observe with Echinacea is clinically proven. But for whatever reason, these positive studies are not as well publicized. A meta-analysis of many studies shows that most studies do in fact show a benefit from consuming Echinacea for prevention and treatment of upper respiratory illnesses. Another study showed that Echinacea is effective in mitigating chronic autoimmune disease in mice and other trials showed that Echinacea improves the modulation of the human immune system by affecting gene expression.

Some studies use air-dried Echinacea tea for treating upper respiratory illnesses, instead of tincture and their results are okay but not spectacular. One trial used Echinacea tincture and had better results, but it was in an vitro trial, rather than one using actual people, which makes it more difficult to gauge exact results in practice. 

My thoughts looking at all of these results are that Echinacea is sensitive to processing, storage, heat and light. The best way to preserve Echinacea is in the form of an alcoholic tincture. Recovering alcoholics and children should not use such tinctures and can either use a tea or an extract in edible glycerin.

Tincture made from fresh Echinacea flowers has a good effect in boosting the immune system and in fighting both viral and bacterial infections. Tincture made from Echinacea roots can be made to be even stronger, but it requires several batches of root to be soaked in the same alcohol. Most purchased Echinacea tincture is made from a single soaking of roots and it is too weak. Homemade tinctures made with fresh flowers or roots and kept strictly away from light and heat will work best.

Dried Echinacea flowers make a nice tea for children to prevent colds and coughs in the winter, but this is also best made with local or homegrown flowers because after about nine months the flowers will lose potency. The tea has to be sealed in an airtight container, preferably ceramic or glass and kept away from light. Teas bought in stores are often in light plastic that isn't really airtight and they sit out in the light for days or weeks before sale.

The capsules of freeze-dried Echinacea juice sold in just about every health food and herbal shop in the western hemisphere are largely ineffective. Some consumer studies have shown that many "health food" products that claim to be made from Echinacea don't actually contain any molecules of the plant. (This was a fact helpfully pointed out and documented by my friend the doctor.) 

The bottom line: Echinacea is a beneficial but sensitive herb for immune support and fighting respiratory illness, which needs to be processed locally, grown at home or obtained from trusted sources. 

I will continue to use Echinacea for my family. Safety trials have shown that it is safe, even during pregnancy and breastfeeding .

The controversy over the effectiveness of Echinacea in treating the common cold is much more indicative of the difficulty of studying colds than any problem with Echinacea. Colds are usually short-term and difficult to pinpoint in source, type and length. That has always made studying these illnesses difficult. It is even relatively difficult to observe individual cases. Many pharmaceutical cold medicines have similarly mixed results in clinical trials. So, the results aren't as dramatic here as with some of the other herbal remedies I use, but Echinacea is at least as effective as pharmaceutical medicines for colds and it's probably safer. Rest and warmth also remain crucial treatments for the common cold.

Feel free to add your comments below. Ask questions and discuss. Also please keep in mind that this doesn't constitute medical advice for a specific person and I'm not your doctor. Home medicine information is intended to be used with common sense and in consultation with doctors and professional herbalists who can see you personally.

Store some sunshine for next winter: Home Medicine Cycle 15

In the heart of winter, the sun doesn't rise here until 8:00 and it goes down promptly at 4:00 in the afternoon. Add to that the thick, smothering cloud cover that blankets the land eight months out of the year, and seasonal mood disorder isn't just a theory in this land. It's a fact of life.

Oh, to be able to bottle a bit of the precious summer sun that is so intense just now!

St. John's Wart in my herb garden

St. John's Wart in my herb garden

Wait a minute. You can do just that or the next best thing. There is a plant that does a very good job of capturing and preserving the essence of the sun.

That's St. John's Wart. As if to cue herbalists to start watching for sunbursts in the grass, the Christian calendar made June 24 the feast of St. John. And that's about right. By mid-July St. John's Wart is in full bloom--little five-petaled bursts waving back to the sun. 

St. John's Wart has many uses but it's signature use--the thing it does that few other plants do is lift spirits in the dead of winter, just as if it preserved the rays of the summer sun. Whether as a tea or a tincture, St. John's Wart in small doses is the herb for low-energy depression, fatigue and sagging passion.

A cup of tea or a few drops of tincture can be taken daily in the cold season to energize you and preclude depression that is chemically or biologically based. It can even help with depression caused by problematic circumstances. However, a strict schedule has to be kept where the herb is used for three weeks and then there is a rest of one week before using it for another three weeks. It's an herb with intense compounds that can be harmful if overdone. 

Note the distinctive clumps of St. John's Wart on both sides of the Atlantic.

Note the distinctive clumps of St. John's Wart on both sides of the Atlantic.

St. John's Wart is also one of the best antiviral herbs. The tincture (look here for the recipe) can also be used to fight viral infections that antibiotics can't touch. If using St. John's Wart for depression or to increase energy, you want to take about a spoonful per day (with the three weeks on, one week off schedule). For an anti-viral dose, take three teaspoons per day for no longer than a week and stay out of intense sunlight. (High doses of St. John's Wart will tend to make you more susceptible to sunburn. In winter, this may help to increase the benefit of what little sunlight you get but you should still be careful.) 

St. John's Wart is also used as a salve for burns, particularly sunburns, and for wound disinfection. I shy away from using St. John's Wart for sunburns, even though I am sure it is effective in its own right. The fact that one has a sunburn means that one is likely to go out in the sun again soon and St. John's Wart salve on the skin will also make you more sensitive to the sun. But I do put infused St. John's Wart oil in my salve for immediate first-aid use on wounds. (See here for an infused oil and salve recipe.)

My photo of red St. John's Wart juice came out too blurry. I'll try again later, but for now here is a picture where you can see that my fingers are stained red from gathering just this little bit of St. John's Wart. No, I wasn't picking berries.

My photo of red St. John's Wart juice came out too blurry. I'll try again later, but for now here is a picture where you can see that my fingers are stained red from gathering just this little bit of St. John's Wart. No, I wasn't picking berries.

St. John's Wart is relatively easy to identify. It grows in sturdy plants in meadows and grassland where there is full sun. It has clusters of yellow flowers and the lower part of the flower head is a distinctive mix of brown and purple. But when you're beginning there is a  foolproof test for identifying St. John's Wart. If the plant looks like St. John's Wart and you take a blossom between your fingers and squeeze it, the yellow flower will bleed a deep crimson liquid that will stain your fingers.

Historically herbalists noted that the tincture and the tea of St. John's Wart isn't yellow like the flower but rather a deep beautiful red, and they associated the energizing and cleansing effects of the herb with being useful to blood disorders. I haven't seen a lot of modern evidence between St. John's Wart and blood issues but the color that comes out of the yellow flowers is very startling. 

Enough musing. It's the height of herb season! Now get to gathering.

Before you go, share your herbalist experiences and ask questions below using the comments icon or share this article with your friends. 

Please note that I'm not a doctor and this is not a prescription for treatment of a specific medical problem for a particular person.

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