An in-depth look at a selection of my favourite and most commonly used herbs.
For me, herbal medicine is truly special for the fact that you don’t have to be sick or afflicted by disease to utilise it. In modern medicine, symptoms are often mistaken for disease. Symptoms are in fact just the body’s way of letting you know something is out of balance and if left unattended, may develop into a more serious condition. Herb and plant medicine has a unique way of gently modulating and nudging the body back into balance. Most plants also work wonderfully when taken prophylactically by an otherwise healthy individual. One of the main problems encountered with modern prescription medicines is that they usually only target one specific organ or area of the body. However, illness is usually the culmination of several imbalances because the causes of disease are often multi-faceted. As all ancient medical practitioners have taught us, the body must be treated as a whole. We must admire and accept the complexity of the human body. As a Naturopath, I define health as spiritual, mental and physical wellbeing. In this way, perhaps the cornerstone of plant medicines is their ability to influence all three.
Chamomile ~ Chamomilla recutita
Gentle and soothing springs to mind when I think of sweet chamomile. Suitable for every family member, from babe to grandparent, it’s considered one of the most versatile herbs for its ability to calm both the digestive and the nervous system. Isn’t nature clever? According to legendary herbalist, Dorothy Hall, Chamomile has a particular affinity with the Vagus nerve. Anatomically, the Vagus nerve and all its branches stem from the brain, affecting all facial areas, continuing down into the chest, heart, lower stomach and pancreas. Disturbances to any of these branches can result in many different forms of allergies and is commonly accompanied by fear or anxiety. Chamomile is highly indicated for anyone who seems to produce an allergy type reaction to various foods stemming from emotional exhaustion. For the nervous system, Chamomile works wonderfully on its own or with Lemon Balm or Lavender. For digestion, try combining with Ginger. Very small doses work well for babies with colic. A warm cup of chamomile is recommended after dinner and before bed.
Nettle ~ Urtica dioica
Nettle is mostly utilised for its astringent, diuretic and stimulating properties. Personally, I appreciate Nettle for its tonifying, nutritive and anti-inflammatory benefits. It’s most suited to someone who is tired and appears in need of rest but will actually benefit from and be energised by more movement, not less! Nettle may improve sluggish arterial circulation, thereby giving the person the little boost they crave.
Perhaps its greatest use is for improving oxygen delivery to vital organs. In a nutshell, you should reach for Nettle if you are iron and oxygen deprived. This usually presents as a pale pallor, low blood pressure, puffy eyes, thinning hair and poor concentration and memory. It is also ideal for those feeling as though they are aging prematurely!
In the tenth century, it was considered one of the nine sacred herbs alongside Mugwort, Plantain, Watercress, Chamomile, Crab apple, Chervil and Fennel. Benefits relating to the kidneys were reported as far back as 1926. As a gentle diuretic, it is effective at improving fluid retention. How amazing that it can stimulate and improve arterial circulation while regulating sodium output! Outside of it’s therapeutic value, Nettle also has a history of use in textiles. It was successfully used as a cotton substitute during war time. Nettle fibres are considered equal to the best Egyptian cotton! It was also used in France to make paper.
Preparations of Nettle are high in iron and many other trace minerals which makes it a fabulous tonic, internally and topically, for hair and scalp health. The dried leaves can be brewed like a tea, left to cool and used as a hair rinse weekly. Oil infusions are also great for massaging directly onto the scalp. Hay fever sufferers may also find regular consumption of Nettle useful. It is quite good at reducing inflammation, acting in a similar manner to an anti-histamine.
More often than not, I recommend taking Nettle as a tea infusion rather than a herbal tincture. It has a pleasant, earthy, almost grass like taste. Enjoy one to two cups daily or every few days. A natural nettle balm or ointment is useful for insect bites, burns or any minor skin irritations that itch, particularly ones that form red, hive-like weals.
(Please never handle fresh nettle leaves without thick gloves on. To render the stinging hairs on the leaves harmless, they must first be cooked to be edible. You may interested to know the juice of Nettle proves an antidote for its own sting.)
Parsley ~ Petroselinum crispum
Carl Linneaus, a prominent Swedish botanist, states that garden parsley is a wild inhabitant of Sardinia and has suggested it was brought to England and first cultivated in 1548. However, the use of Parsley dates all the way back to the ancient time of Dioscorides. Parsley was highly regarded in Greece. It was used to adorn wreaths, the tombs of the dead and was supposedly fed to chariot horses by warriors.
While Parsley is mainly considered a culinary herb, it still has some medicinal virtues when used in this way. Traditionally, it was used to soothe an irritable stomach. Today, we now know Parsley is rich in antioxidants and Vitamins A, C and K. These nutrients support cardiovascular, bone and immune health. It is also a good source of Chlorophyll which is wonderfully cleansing and purifying. I recommend adding parsley (leaves and finely chopped stalks) to salads, butter, mash, soups, mince, rissoles and stuffings. It can also be steeped in boiling water and consumed as a tea.