This month’s blogpost has been written by a good colleague of mine Jane Robinson who is also, like me, a medical herbalist. The link to her Foxglove Apothecary website and homepage is also at the bottom of this post along with a recommendation to subscribe to her newsletter and articles packed with useful information on natural, herbal remedies.
It's been an unforgettable year so far and here we are in the middle of summer. I hope you & your loved ones are well! As we begin to return to a more normal world this is a good time to look at how we approach dis-ease and wellness from a refreshed perspective, I firmly believe that we have the ability to manage our health in a more natural and sustainable way, using holistic methods which are mostly easy to do and these practices give us a better physical and emotional connection with our own healthcare. I'm not an epidemiologist and don't know all of the answers from a natural, scientific or spiritual perspective but as a herbalist I repeatedly see how a natural approach to disease prevention, treatment & recovery can make a very significant difference.
I wanted to share some principles of practice that I apply in clinic and give an overview of things you can do at home. I've gone into more detail about herbal medicine and it's application because I speak to many people who have some confusion about herbal medicine, often people think we're homeopaths (this is a different discipline altogether) and many people don't realise it's the oldest and most natural form of medicine and still used extensively today across every continent. I've concentrated on tips relevant to Coronavirus protection but these can also be applied for protection against the range of illness's that commonly circulate throughout the year. Importantly, we should remember that we're built to heal from within, if we nourish our physical, mental and energetic bodies, most of us have the ability to maintain good health. The layers of our immune system and our ability to adapt are integral to how we stay healthy & we can easily enhance these processes with diet and plant medicines. We have an abundance of plants readily available to give us medicine, food & oxygen and though they don't always completely prevent or cure an illness, when used correctly, they assist our physiology to work to a fuller potential and do this without causing own side effects.
Even the smallest good habits you introduce make a difference and they don't need to be complicated, most of these recommendations just require a little bit of organisation and maybe adding a few things to your stock or medicine cupboard.
Eat well - decrease sugar, carbohydrate, fat and protein, small amounts of these are good but don't need to be eaten with every meal. Decrease processed foods and increase plant foods. Increase grains, nuts, seeds, pulses and fungi and if organic or local is an option, even better.
- Eat your rainbow of food every day. Red, yellow, blue, purple and green fruits and veg contain an abundance of varied substances and compounds which are used by the body to stay in good shape.
- Maintain good levels of hydration with plenty of decaffeinated drinks and don't forget you can chill herbal infusions in hot weather.
- Oats actually nourish our nerve fibres, eating oats regularly can help with functional nerve problems such as pins & needles.
- Excess weight makes us more vulnerable to certain conditions, if you need to lose weight remember that exercise is as important as diet.
Microbiome health - can affect our overall health, some of the negative influencer's on our microbiome include sugar, sweeteners, yeast, antibiotics, stress and lack of exercise. The good guys include pre & probiotics, fresh fruit & vegetables, allium foods such as garlic & onions, fermented food and drinks and herbal bitters.
- Traditional Herbal Bitters are a mixture of bitter tasting herbs which are are taken in dropper doses every day, normally before meals. They directly stimulate our digestive juices, enzymes & liver, which helps food breakdown, digestion, excretion and intestinal flora.
Supplements - The question of supplements for me, concerns diet, environment and body function. If your diet's lacking something specific or there are issues such as digestive disorders which may impair absorption of vitamins and minerals then supplements might be appropriate. Age is another consideration, as we get older we absorb and assimilate nutrients less optimally and a lack of sunlight in winter months may leave us low on Vitamin D.
- Vitamin D is necessary for many cellular functions and a deficiency can affect muscles, bones & joints. Importantly, Vitamin D enhances immune system responses to bacteria and viruses by its influence on the various cells of immune defence. Lack of vitamin D may also increase the risk of Diabetes & Hypertension. Our skin makes Vitamin D on exposure to sunlight and small amounts are found in mushrooms, eggs, oily fish, cod liver oil & fortified foods.
- Extensive Vitamin C studies show assistance in prevention of colds and flu, in addition, Vitamin C may help prevent respiratory infections. It's found in citrus fruit, strawberries, red peppers & chili peppers, kale, broccoli, watercress, cauliflower, cabbage. Because Vitamin C is water soluble some prefer liposomal vitamin C, which is encased in tiny lipids making absorption easier. This can be good for the elderly & people with decreased digestive function but beware with raised lipid disorders.
- Zinc is found in every cell in our bodies and is essential for a huge range of cellular processes. It can interfere with viruses and may help reduce the duration of the common cold. It's found in grains, nuts, seeds, shellfish & offal. Beware of not taking too much in supplement form.
- Mushroom's contain compounds called beta glucans which stimulate the immune system to defend the body against viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungal infection. Maitake & Shiitaki may be particularly useful.
Respiratory health - our defence against many pathogens begins in the upper respiratory system so keeping the tissues of our nasal passages, mouth and throat healthy can directly enable these parts of our barrier defences to prevent microbes from penetrating the body. Salt or herbal gargles, nasal flushing, throat sprays, good oral hygiene and promoting tissue health from within can be beneficial.
- An excess of dairy foods can promote mucus formation and therefore congestion, limiting dairy intake and using alternatives as well as increasing fluids can actually thin the consistency of mucus which allows the body to breakdown and expel an excess.
An overview of Herbs
Many herbs work to increase our natural barrier systems and innate defences. Using herbs regularly can improve your overall health and enhance physiological processes in a safe and gentle way. Mother nature is a far more competent pharmacist than we're led to believe and the myth that herbal medicines don't work, are inferior as drugs, or are dangerous is propaganda spread by those who wish you to believe that the medicine freely found in nature is not scientific or effective.
The beauty of our herbal allies is that they can be easily used to help prevent infections or as direct treatment during illness. All plants have a range of active constituents, most have more than one specific use and when used in their whole state the plant's chemical profile gives a balanced effect on our bodies so we experience less unwanted additional actions which we refer to as side effects. Plants work with the body to moderate health and maintain optimum function, they're often so effective but gentle it's hard to distinguish why we simply feel more normal, this is truly harmonious healing!
Herbs can be immune stimulating or modulating, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-oxidant, diaphoretic, adaptogenic, detoxifying, anti-congestive and much more. This means we can apply herbs for specific purposes as well as for general health and in doing so we're using the best of both a holistic approach and a targeted purpose. An example is Elderflower & Elderberry which are anti-inflammatory and immune mediating, they're also diaphoretic, which means they enhance sweating but keeps it at a controlled and sustainable rate. This helps to ensure a fever is more healing than harming and at the same time Elder (flower and berry) helps the immune system function better.
Top 10 herbs for immune defence:
- Echinacea - is an immune modulator, it actually help's to regulate the body's innate immune responses creating faster responses where are needed and slowing overactive responses which may be detrimental. It has particular influence over certain cells of the immune system and is anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and topically healing. Traditionally used for respiratory infections and is safe to take for prolonged periods.
- Elderberry - good antiviral properties and has been shown to improve immune system activity. It stimulates certain immune cells which combined with an anti-inflammatory action, improves the defences of our innate immunity. Elderberry extracts are traditionally used for colds and flu and have an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant & diaphoretic action.
- Astragalus - an adaptogenic herb (helps the body overcome & adapt during stress), it's used especially for respiratory infections and can increase respiratory function with asthma. Immune enhancing, immune modulating, anti-viral, anti-oxidant. It has a positive effect on the heart, endothelial function and the liver. In Chinese medicine it's called Huang Qi & is used in menopausal preparations and as a blood tonic.
- Andrographis - a bitter tonic which stimulates and modulates the immune system, an effective anti-viral which also protects the liver and is hypoglycaemic. Adrographis is used for respiratory infections and the bitter element helps strengthen a weak digestive system.
- Liquorice - has a wide ranging profile and is truly multi-purpose herb! It's soothing both internally and externally and is used extensively in mixtures for respiratory infections, especially conditions that produce mucus. Shown to have anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and anti-allergenic actions, another immune modulator, liver herb and supports the adrenal function. It has a mild hypertensive effect so large amounts should not be used in high doses for prolonged periods by people with high blood pressure.
- African Geranium - the root can help decrease excess mucus in the lungs and it's valuable for acute respiratory and sinus infections as it actually helps the body expel excess mucus. Has immune cell enhancing properties is anti-viral.
- Ginger - has been shown to have immune & antiviral activity, ginger heat is useful for increasing body temperature and the anti-platelet and anti-inflammatory actions can help keep blood vessels healthy. Ginger aids digestive function and is good for nausea, rheumatic conditions and migraine.
- Marigold - is a great external remedy which promotes skin healing and often used internally for gastric disorders. In addition it has a mild oestrogenic effect making it very useful for gynaecological conditions. It's anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and is a mild immune stimulant.
- Eucalyptus - often forgotten about as a herb, eucalyptus has an affinity for the lungs and upper respiratory system. Its good for all respiratory complaints including infection, asthma, catarrh & bronchitis and is anti-tussive which helps stop a cough. Its anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic. Do not use for young children, in pregnancy and for very frail people.
- Turmeric - this plant has wide ranging benefits and has become known a bit as a wonder herb in recent years, with good reason. Turmeric is excellent for pain and inflammation, for both chronic and acute conditions and regular use can give outstanding relief. It has a powerful anti-oxidant activity and influences cell life cycles in a positive way to be helpful in cancer prevention. Also being an immune modulator, anti-microbial, cardio & liver protector and digestive herb, turmeric is useful to include either via the diet or supplement.
All of these herbs can be taken individually or in a combination. When it comes to infusions, blending a drink that's tasty and medicinal is as important as is the quality of the product, which is why I spend so long perfecting my range of pre-blended teas, they're made to be enjoyable as well as for a purpose. Or you can have individual dried herbs to drink on their own or blend your favourites. Dried or fresh herbs (loose, good quality herbs) can be made into a Decoction, which is a method that simply involves simmering the herbs in a pan with water for 5-10 minutes, this by far increases the availability of all the helpful active compounds responsible for the medicinal effects and makes a stronger tasting drink. If you need to sweeten you can add a little bit of honey or any plant based unrefined sugar.
Tinctures are stronger liquid extracts of individual herbs and herbalists normally make a combination of several tinctures when making an individual prescription or remedy. Because tinctures are much stronger than teas they're taken in much smaller amounts, usually between 1-5ml at regular intervals (5ml = one teaspoon). Tinctures are fairly safe to take but as with anything you're ingesting, you should know what you're taking, make sure you're taking the correct dose and if you have pre-existing medical conditions, are on medication or are not sure of dosage then seek advice from a professional.
The level of support needed when it comes to taking herbs will be individual, it's a matter of choice as to whether you take a remedy every day for immune modulation and virus protection or if you take a remedy when you begin to feel ill, show symptoms or have had exposure to a pathogen. The sooner herbal treatment begins after exposure to a pathogen has occurred the better, from this point of view I encourage having these herbs at hand for when you need them.
For herbal medicine to be effective it's best to take herbal teas, decoctions, tinctures or capsules for several days (to weeks or even months for chronic medical conditions) as you will need more than one dose for it to be efficient. Natural remedies work in a gentle and accumulative way, to put into context, immune stimulation or modulation would not occur from a single dose or a sub therapeutic dose (not enough) just the same a single antiviral or antibiotic tablet would not work.
If you buy herbal remedies from a herbalist apothecary or a health shop you'll be given guidance on the best dose. Just be aware that over the counter remedies available from chemists, supermarkets & online often prescribe very small drop doses for safety reasons, sometimes these doses are sub therapeutic and not properly effective. If you buy an over the counter remedy you should do a bit of research or check with someone who knows to make sure you're taking the right dose. Herbal Medicine books are useful and as your local herbalist I'm always happy to give guidance if you're unsure. Growing and foraging your own is a lovely thing to do and really connects you with your food and medicine and you can store your bounty by drying or even making your own tinctures, oils, oxymels and vinegars.
Looking at natural options and holistic health has never been more important. As we emerge from global lock down we'll be much better off if we harmonise more with nature and use a lighter touch toward our health and our environment, with mindful thinking we can all learn to take better care of ourselves using less toxic and more sustainable self-practices. To share these ideas and knowledge with each other sits with the true nature of herbalism and brings us back to more natural and grounded thinking. Take care, be well and practice Ahimsa* towards yourself and the beautiful planet we share!
*the practice of non-violence in all aspects of life from physical to mental and emotional
With grateful thanks to Jane Robinson, medical herbalists. Please go to her website homepage to subscribe to her newsletter if you want to see more articles like this: