Monday, December 12, 2016

Nervines: herbs and the nervous system!

A “Nervine” is an herb that has a direct effect on the nervous system.  This term can cause some confusion as ALL herbs act on the consciousness in ways that can be observed through the nervous system.  On the most mundane level all herbs have a taste, which a direct impression on the nervous system.  More subtly, herbs seem to act directly on the consciousness of the organism in ways that are nearly fantastical.  For instance the herb yarrow acts incredibly to stop bleeding, close wounds, disperse bruises and relieve inflammation.  I have seen Yarrow do all of these things, and so quickly that it seemed unreal.  The rapidity of the effects led me to believe that Yarrow acts directly on the general consciousness of the body and more specifically on the consciousness of the blood.  It doesn’t seem to force the body, but instead to awaken something within the consciousness of the body.

Taken internally yarrow has a sharp impression on the nerves.  It wakes me up, and releases excess heat.  I can feel it shift the blood from the center to the periphery.   It focuses my attention and makes me feel fearless.  Yarrow has a powerful affect on my mind as well.

However, yarrow is very rarely discussed in terms of being a nervine.  It effects the nerves through the blood, rather than acting more directly on the nerves.

To keep this class within a manageable scope of focus I will limit our discussion to herbs that more directly effect the structures of the nerves.  Many of these will also be heart remedies.  Many traditional cultures and healing modalities place the heart at the center of consciousness, and consider what we would consider psychological disturbances as diseases of the heart.

Holistic herbalism is very different than pharmaceutical medicine in many respects.  The two cannot be used interchangeably and the perspectives they take are very different.  Each of these modalities (to say nothing of many others!) is particularly suited to certain things and very much ineffectual at others.  My clinical experience leads me to believe that simple herbs often are exceedingly effective for what is often diagnosed by psychiatrists as “anxiety, depression, etc.”  Two friends of mine have been able to use herbs in place of psycho-meds and seem all the better for it.  Of course I don’t advocate anyone ever to recklessly stop taking any medication. Also, I believe it’s best to talk with doctor skilled in pharmaceutical medicine for any issues involving a pharmaceutical.  Lastly every body is different and has different needs, not all of which are necessarily best addressed through herbs or any other healing modality.


While an extensive discussion of the anatomy and physiology of the nervous system is beyond the scope of this class, a few points are of immense importance to using nerviness competently.
The nervous system is comprised of about 100 billion neurons located throughout the body.  These nerve cells are unevenly distributed in the body, having large concentrations in the brain, enteric nervous system, and spinal cord. 

An individual nerve looks something like this:


Many herbs appear to act directly on the structure of the neurons.  Generally, nutritive tonics, which are high in phosphorus, help to build the myelin sheath that is comprised of phospholipids (milky oat tops, nettles).  Nutritive tonics, which have magnesium, calcium and potassium, provide neurotransmitters for improving communication between cells (nettles, sweet birch, oat straw, burdock root, cleavers).  

Agents which are diffusive (or 'tingly') act on the electrical signals of the cell and can do much very powerful signaling (lobelia, liriodendron, ginger, yarrow, cayenne, spilanthes, echinacea).

The nervous system can be divided into several very important segments. Most relevant to the herbalist are the two branches of the autonomic nervous system.  The autonomic nervous controls bodily actions not directly controlled by the mind.  To grossly over simplify, the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system controls digestion, sleep, and rest whereas the sympathetic nervous system controls the fight or flight response and the release of adrenaline.  Someone who is parasympathetic dominant will be more relaxed, sometimes with more fat, and perhaps more jolliness and mirth, although sometimes you may see depression and anxiety.  A sympathetic dominant person may be thin and dry with difficulty eating and digesting food; they might have sweaty palms and anxiety.

Herbs that act on the parasympathetic are usually rich in aromatic volatile oils.  Aromatics apparently relax and perhaps tone the parasympathetic, improving digestion and relaxing the diaphragm.  Some examples are chamomile, orange peel, thyme, and spearmint.  Acrid remedies are best for relaxing the sympathetic nervous system.  The acrid taste is like bile on the back of the throat.  Sometimes it causes shivering as it moves through the sympathetic.  Acrid remedies include valerian, catnip, hops and liriodendron.


LEMON BALM (Melissa officinalis):  this agent is the most easily usable of all herbs.  It is of ancient repute as a rejuvenator; Paracelsus believed that its use would completely revivify a man saying that it recharged the mortal oil from which the fire of life burns.  Maude Grieve in her Modern Herbal (1931) notes that several people living to over 100 years old had breakfasted every morning on melissa and honey.  There have been double-blinded placebo controlled experiments that have established that lemon balm improves memory and helps to protect against Alzheimer’s.

Lemon balm is superlative for when there is anxiety, depression, insomnia, nervousness with sweaty palms, heart palpitations or irregularity.  Basically it can be used well whenever people are freaking out.  It is contraindicated for the most part in people who have cold hands and feet.

Nicholas Culpeper, the eccentric British herbalist and astrologer, writing in 1653, conveyed the folk-medical concept that mental disturbances are caused by hot vapors rising from the heart and troubling the brain.  He discusses in his Complete Herbal its uses by Greek and Arabian herbal physicians to make the heart merry by expelling melancholy vapors from the heart and arteries, mentioning that it is also very good to help digestion.  A good friend uses lemon balm to good effect when they have the sense that their blood is boiling.  The contemporary herbal master Matthew Wood uses melissa as a sedative when there is sympathetic excess; sweaty palms, rapid raised somewhat irregular pulse, pointed red flame shaped tongue, anxiety etc. David Winston (2007) claims that lemon balm combined with st john's wort is effective for seasonal effective disorder, which I've verified in my practice.

Michael Tierra wrote in his The Way of Herbs (1990) that lemon balm helps release nervous tension from the skin.  From this indication I have found that melissa can be highly effective when someone has episodes of intense, debilitating anxiety and panic, while also having less salient background anxiety.  It works on both, helping in acute freak-out as well as those who are chronicle high strung.  It's a good thing to have in every house during times of stress.  Matthew Wood in his magisterial Earthwise Herbal Repertory (2016) shares with us a delightful recipe: warm up some milk in a saucepan; add some honey and some fresh-leaf melissa tincture.  Drink and let it wash away the whole hard day.

TULIP POPLAR (Liriodendron tulipfera): this beautiful tree makes a fine and beautiful medicine.  It is the plant herself, rather than a book, that I believe taught me of its use.  I was living in the overcrowded attic of punk house along with an ex-lover who seemed to be beaming pure hatred towards me.  This combined very neatly with my own feelings of heartbreak. My guts felt twisted, I was tense, and was on a 'bad-trip.'  I went to an herb workshop on herbal support for pregnancy.  I saw the liriodendron tree on the way there and stopped to pick a branch.  I took a nibble and knew that I had found my cure.

Very soon afterwards someone else working through a breakup took some on the tincture and asked if he could buy 4 ounces!  Tulip poplar is a remedy that people will taste and immediately buy if they need it.  It works so well with heartbreak, which is such a prominent part of being human.  I think it works more generally, as well, on the feeling of "twisted guts."

Later I saw several other similar situations in my practice that convinced me further that liriodendron is a specific for agonizing heartbreak.  It is acrid and sweet and a bit diffusive.  Matthew Wood (2009) relates that it is used in Cherokee medicine as a heart tonic, and Eclectic physicians have found experimentally that it relaxes the voluntary muscles while strengthening the heart. 

NETTLES (Urtica diocia) - While nettles aren't usually considered to be nervines, I find them to be an important agent in cases of longterm nervous depletion.  This can manifest in different ways, but the keynote is that there is a hungry quality to the person.  They might be 'wilted' or 'hangry' or wired, but there is a subtle sense that they need more food and it is making them nervy.  Nettles contain phosphorous and I believe they help feed the nervous system.  

The Peterson Field Guide (2014) says that nettles has central nervous system depressant effects and inhibits adrenaline.  My mom claims that eating nettles, taking the tincture or even using nettle infused vinegar in her cooking makes her "high".  I've noticed that nettles give what I call a "mineral buzz," I feel immensely soothed and relaxed after taking nettles.  The feeling is very similar to taking magnesium supplements.  Sweet birch twigs taken as decoction in the spring also have this effect, but are significantly more powerful. 

Milky oat tops have a similar effect and have been used for nervous exhaustion or neurasthenia.  I find that oat tops combine well with skullcap and a little lobelia for when someone is quitting smoking.

REISHI (Ganoderma spp.) Reishi is one of the most universal of all herbs.  I believe that it works by feeding the soul, or nourishing the indwelling spirit of the heart.  Its name in Chinese is ling zhi, or 'spirit plant'

David Winston relates in his book on adaptogens how the Chinese have the concept of shen, which is one's emotional balance and is said to reside in the heart.  Symptoms of disturbed shen include moodiness, listlessness, anxiety, bad dreams, and bad memory.  Reishi helps with all of these.  I've heard from friends that Taoist monks use reishi to improve meditation.  It also helps the immune system, improves blood sugar issues, and reduces autoimmune excess.  I've found that almost always reishi helps whatever is going on.  It is difficult to overstate the enormous value of this fungus.

I've met one person who didn't like reishi.  This person had excessive heat, allergies and cool extremities.  they responded well to lemon balm but said that reishi always made them feel worse.  I'm still pondering this one, perhaps it is a digestive issue; reishi can cause mild indigestion

CATNIP (Nepeta cataria)/HOPS (Hummulus lupus): some people are catlike; they are graceful, cool-headed, and tense.  They have a good sense of humor and like to laugh, but don't get too excited or hotheaded about much.  When they freak out there isn't the sense of hot vapors rising, but instead tension causing coldness.  Giving them lemon balm can weaken their pulse and would probably contribute to poor peripheral circulation and coldness.  For these people one can give hops or catnip.  Check the pulse.  If there is a weak somewhat tense pulse and a drop of lemon balm tincture on the wrist makes it worse try hops or catnip.  

Catnip is more specific when there is internalized stress, or stress congested in the nerves as Michael Tierra so poetically describes.  Often the stomach is involved, sometimes with an upward motion.  Catnip is both acrid and aromatic; it works both on the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous systems. Matthew Wood (2008) relates that it is helpful when there is bullying involved either as victim or perpetrator.  I've not found this in my practice, but would immediately think 'catnip' in such a situation.  The dark side of the cat is its bullying nature.

Hops is more specific when there is pain, or when there is insomnia.  It is painkilling and sleepy-making.  In this way it is very similar to its cousin cannabis, although hops seems less druggy and habit forming to me.  

MOTHERWORT (Leonurus cardiaca) to understand motherwort it is good to turn to our old friend Culpeper: "There is no better herb to take melancholy vapours from the heart, to strengthen it, and make a merry, cheerful, blithe soul than this herb...besides it makes women joyful mothers to their children, and settles their wombs as they should be, therefore we call it motherwort" My teacher in herbalism Brittany Wood Knickerson considers it to be excellent for menstrual issues that have liver involvement.  She warned her class that one should never use it with hormonal birth control because it can make people pregnant.  I used it in an herbal blend with a young woman on a hormonal IUD.  Within a week she had her period again.  Western Massachusetts herbalism Chris Morano emphasizes its action on the solar plexus. At class I asked him what herbs he would give to someone who wants to make changes in their lives but feels blocked, unable to.  "herbs that act on the solar plexus," he said "st john's wort for when there's a depressed feeling, blue vervain and motherwort when there's anxiety"

Another young woman came to me with a history of menstrual irregularity with flushing on the face.  Matthew Wood (2008) mentions leonurus as a remedy for draining heat from the upper half of the body.  She struck me as somewhat anxious.  She wrote me in a few days to express her love for motherwort!  She even picked some for her mother after hearing what Culpeper had to say.

THYME (Thymus vulgaris): sometimes there is tension in the parasympathetic.  I'm not sure the specifics of how it develops, but there is almost always a lot of emotional stress in the picture.  With this you see nightmares and spasm, especially hiccoughs.  Thyme is immensely good in these sorts of situations.  If someone is having retching emotional hiccoughing give them a leaf of thyme under the tongue or a drop of tincture.  It works amazingly fast.

MUGWORT and WORMWOOD Artemisia spp: David Hoffman calls mugwort a tonic for consciousness in Medical Herbalism (2003).  Matthew wood considers mugwort to be excellent for women who have experienced abuse and its cousin wormwood for people who have suffered unwinnable situations and have a certain hard, closed down aspect.  What I find is that there is certain dead quality in people who benefit from these remedies.  It may be in their face, their pulse or their energy.  Interestingly, many old authors consider mugwort good for the "overmuch taking of opium."  Matthew Wood clarifies that it helps bring back nerve function after opiate abuse.  I've lived with addicts and think that mugwort would be excellent to counter the sort of cold, dead affect that junk creates.  Artemisias can help bring that dead part back to life.  Mugwort helps one dream, and dreams connect us to the land of the dead.  Artemisias literally help bridge the world and thus help to retrieve lost parts of the self.  Wormwood is exceedingly bitter; I wouldn’t take more than one drop a day.  

LINDEN FLOWERS (Tilia Spp.) the leaves of tilia looks like an anatomical heart.  The crown of branches likewise looks like a heart, and I'm sure that the roots look like a heart as well.  It is closely related to mallows and if you chew on a twig you'll get a mouthful of slimey mucilage.  My teacher in herbalism, Brittany Wood Knickerson, emphasizes the balancing aspects of linden flower, and used them as a teaching tool to open the mind to imagination.  In my practice I find that they are good when there is tension in the pulse, perhaps from over consumption of coffee.  They will strengthen a pulse that is too tense, i.e they relax arteries to carry blood more effectively.  As such they have a long history of use for arteriosclerosis.  As a mucilage they would be particularly good at this; moistening and lubricating hard arteries.  There is a spiritual dimension to this plant; I think that it helps people trust more.  This would fit the physical body of the tree; it is heart like but makes fragrant white flowers that evoke to me the crown chakra.  Trust is an energy channel between heart and crown and thus tilia restores this energetic pathway.  

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Kitchen Mysteries

The intention of this class is to familiarize you with the basic concepts of herbal energetics using commonly eaten foods that are also used in healing contexts.  Energetic systems are employed in the vast majority of the world’s healing modalities for the simple reason that they provide basic language to elucidate conditions that would otherwise remain obscure.

Studies have found people are able to differentiate between different colors much better when they have words for describing the different colors.  “Aquamarine,” “cerulean” and “indigo” could all be called “blue,” but having the extra language allows for a deeper conscious understanding of the richness of experience.  Likewise, having language to describe various forms of imbalance is an invaluable tool.
This is especially important when one is practicing herbalism outside the framework of modern pharmaceutical medicine.  I can’t practically give formal diagnoses as much as legally.  I can’t say “you have lyme disease,” or “strep throat.”  Instead, I must carefully observe another human being, taking notes on the pulse, the appearance of tongue, and the look of skin, and carefully listen to the client themselves.  After this I make a read of energetics, and use herbs as a part to correct observed or intuited imbalances.

A recent example from my own life helps illustrate the process: This winter I travelled in Argentina. Since Argentina is in the Southern Hemisphere our winter is their summer is during the northern winter months.  This meant that I went from a hot and sweaty summer in Massachusetts to a hotter and sweatier summer. I developed many symptoms of damp heat including rashes around my fingers with blistering.  One of these blisters opened up and immediately began to take an infected aspect; pus formed, redness was increasing rapidly.  I was concerned, this resembled the onset of blood poisoning I had experienced while living in New Orleans.  A friend had given me a few essential oils, and I took lavender with me to the shower, put a few drops on my bar of soap and washed my body with it.  Lavender has a cooling and drying energy, and is stimulating as well.  Immediately the redness went away, and by morning it had scabbed over healthily.

This is what an understanding of energetics allows.   It gives a person the conceptual tools needed to manage their own health and well-being on a day to day basis.  Of course in a medical emergency it may be best to go to a doctor, and herbs can’t replace a doctor, and you should of course talk to your doctor before taking an herb, but also I’ve read many accounts of turn of the century herbalist doctors using an energetic understanding to cure emergency conditions.  So at least theoretically this sort of ability is possible.

Healing is a journey, and fortunately, for the vast majority of conditions that can be addressed with herbs, one only has to journey one or two steps.  It’s simply a matter of knowing which direction you wish to go.


If you already know you’re way around a kitchen, cook food from scratch, and come up with menus intuitively then, congratulations! You’ve already been inducted into the Mysteries.  At its heart, herbalism is a healing modality that seeks to gently restore, maintain and improve health and wellbeing using plants.  Therefore to cook plants to eat with the intention of gently restoring, maintaining and improving health is likewise a form of herbalism, if herbalism is to have a reasonably expansive definition.

What I find compelling about using food as herbs is people use dietary choices and ‘cravings’ all the time in an energetic way to balance their organism.  To eat a slice of watermelon on a hot day is as natural as drinking mulling spices in the depths of winter as it is to eat oatmeal and raisins while convalescing.

In general humans act intuitively all the time because our bodies’ instincts are simply deeper and more powerful than our relatively rickety and recently evolved neocortex. This creates a dynamic where we know more than we think, for what else is intuition?  We eat from a deep and primal part of who we are, which is connected inextricably with our intuitive self.  What we eat literally creates our bodies.  Logically it follows that imbalances either in the body itself or in the diet can best be addressed by changing the diet towards what is missing from the body.

This is why you are already inducted into the mystery.  People instinctively change their diet all the time, both seasonally and in response to illness.  Since foods are herbs and you feed yourself you are already using herbs to your benefit.

Before we go any further I should note that I am personally critical of the idea that there is one diet that is best for everyone.  In general, we humans display a stunning array of diversity and diet is no exception.  Many traditional and not-so-traditional diets are comprised of a dizzying array of different food stuffs.  All of these diets have produced at least some long lived, healthy, beautiful and productive individuals.  This indicates to me that this is no one size fits all diet that one can simply advocate out of hand as superior.  As such no specific diet will be highlighted here.

On the whole people don’t want to change their diets.  People have tremendous emotional investments in how they eat, and people will often sacrifice every other aspect of their health to avoid changing their diets.  One yoga book I read said that “most people dig their graves with their teeth.” What I see is that people eat because it allows them to function on a day to day level and there’s a lot of fear and inertia with that. People, however, are often receptive to changing one small aspect of their life, especially if it involves something non-threatening to them.  This is an important place where using foods as agents of healing comes in.  Foods are for the most part non-threatening, and act to create the body in a direct physical way.


In the physiomedicalist style of herbalism there are 6 pathological tissue states that can effect the body.  Often people experience combinations of the pathological states and they can combine in complex ways.  That being said, they provide a basic language for describing conditions within a system that helps one find the potential herbs systematically.  The 6 tissue states, and their counteracting flavors, are as follows:

Counteracted by: SOUR

Counteracted by: PUNGENT


Counteracted by: BITTER

Counteracted by: ASTRINGENT

Counteracted by ACRID (taste of bile in back of throat with a shiver)

Matthew Wood, in his fantastic Earthwise Herbal Vol. I, goes into excellent detail about the physiomedical tissue states.  How they appear and can be recognized:

HOT/EXCITATION: Overstimulation, overactivity of the organism, resulting in heat, redness, tenderness, swelling, a rapid or raised pulse, an elongated, carmine red, pointed tongue, or restlessness.  When the heat goes deep into the organism the tongue color is dark red.

COLD/DEPRESSION: Inability to respond to simulation, hence tissue depression, lack of sensation, insensibility, cold extremities, cold, inactive skin, poor digestion, fatigue, sluggishness, tissues pale or dark, purple, gray or black, pulse slow or low, tongue pale or dark.

DRY/ATROPHY: Lack of fluids (water and oil) hence inability to receive nutrients or carry away waste products, resulting in a thin emaciated condition with nervousness (because the nervous system doesn’t waste), weakness, lack of trophism (function) in organs, dry skin, dry colon, constipation, poor digestion with gas and bloating, pulse tense and weak, tongue body thin, long and in bad cases withered.

DAMP/STAGNATION: excess of fluids caught in the tissues, not able to excrete or eliminate, thickening and collecting, with collection of waste products as well, resulting in cold (water is cold), indigestion, lymphatic congestion, tendency to easily get sick (low immunity), or tendency to fevers and sicknesses to run exaggerated, longer course than usual (to burn off the accumulated toxins), lack of expression of the tissues, lack of facial expression, thickened mucus on the mucosa, pulse obscure (filminess obscures the sharpness of beat), tongue coated, body enlarged, pale

DAMP/RELAXATION: Continuous loss of fluids from the body due to open pores and collapsed or prolapsed tissues, resulting in excessive perspiration, salivation, mucus expectoration, diarrhea, clear, copious urine, or menstrual bleeding, with exhaustion, fatigue, pale skin with blue veins showing through, sometimes with red on the cheeks, anemia from the kidneys not signaling the bone marrow to produce red blood cells, pulse nonresistant, tongue moist with streamers down the side between the midline and edges.

WIND/TENSION: Psychological or physical tension or both, nerves and muscles taunt, conditions that come on suddenly or leave suddenly, or alternate back and forth, especially diarrhea and constipation, or fever and chills, resulting in a tense, hard, or wiry pulse.

 What I love about these categories is how well contained they are.  I find that it is fairly easy to imperfectly translate between systems as well, as Matthew Wood shows in his The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism: Basic Doctrine, Energetics, and Classification (p. 17-19 2004)
In Traditional Chinese Medicine the language of yin and yang can be readily translated into analogous tissue states:





The Doshas of Ayurveda are translated as such:

Vata:                                     air, wind                                    atrophy, constriction

Pitta:                                     fire, water                                    irritation, excitation, relaxation (water flowing)

Kapha:                                  water, earth                                torpor (water stagnant), depression

While I find the idea of Doshas indispensable in my practice, I usually limit my use of them to describing tendencies towards imbalance on the level of individual constitution. For this they are ideal because they carry a certain numinous quality. When I’m more focused on supporting a specific condition (such as a cold, fever, lymphatic congestion, etc.) I  tend to use the tools of the 6 tissue states.  This is just something that works for me.


BLOOD BUILDERS: This is a category of food that helps to build up energy stores.  In Traditional Chinese Medicine these are called “nourishing yin tonics.”  They include the dark berries (blackberries, elderberries, blueberries, raspberry, goji berry, and hawthorn), roasted winter vegetables (beets, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, carrots) and dark, nutrient dense leafy greens (nettles, seaweed, and spinach).

These foods are said to help build the latent energy of the organism so that extensions into the world can be made.  These foods “fill the well” as Brittany likes to say.  Furthermore, she pointed out that colorful foods contain antioxidants.  We perceive many of the antioxidant chemicals as rich and beautiful colors.  These antioxidants act generally beneficially on various organ systems, especially the cardiovascular system which receives a lot of oxidative stress.

It’s pertinent to me that human eyes evolved to see color, and to see the bright and deep colors of fruit, roots and greens as beautiful and appetizing.  These foods connect us with a primal fountain of cosmic energy that we can hardly live without.

GARLIC: Is hot and spicy, salty, sweet, bitter and astringent.  The only flavor it lacks is sourness.  Being a highly nutritious and tonic food as well, garlic works with its flavor profile in a general tonifying way way.  It is of course warming.  It is so pungent that its volatile oils move through the lungs and skin, purifying as they go. This leads to expectoration as old phlegm is removed from the lungs and elsewhere, leaving a new coat of highly immunoactive mucus.  In Kitchen Pharmacy we read “…it is also recommended for bronchitis, coughs and asthma with thick and persistent mucus” (p. 57). The oils purify cholesterol from the blood, and functionally aid the cardiovascular system.  David Hoffman writes in Medical Herbalism:

Garlic has a range of effects upon cardiovascular health.  It reduces serum cholesterol and triglyceride levels while raising levels of high-density lipo-proteins (HDL).  It can also act as an effective inhibitor of platelet-activating factor (PAF).  Garlic’s antioxidant properties help prevent the peroxidation of fats, yet another contributing factor in the development of atherosclerosis.  Taken together, these properties provide a potential way to prevent atherosclerosis, thrombosis, hypertension, heart attack, and stroke. (p. 526)

The bitterness of garlic makes it eliminating, while the saltiness makes it work as a diuretic, Mrs. Grieve writes that it has been used to remove excess water in dropsy (edema).  She notes that some cases have resolved themselves with garlic alone.

Garlic is used in a very general way to improve immune function and ward of illnesses.  Matthew Wood writes that garlic appears to kill invading bacteria and other microbes while supporting good bacteria living within us.  Relatedly Mrs. Grieves gives us the historical account of the development of fire cider:

“Garlic formed the principal ingredient in the ‘four thieves vinegar,’ which was adapted so successfully at Marseilles from protection against the plague when it prevailed there in 1722. This originated, it is said, with four thieves who confessed that whilst protected by the liberal use of the vinegar during the plague, they plundered the dead bodies of its victims in complete security”

The Ayurvedic perspective from The Yoga of Herbs is that garlic “…is a rasayana (regenerative) for Vata, and also, to a lesser degree, for Kapha, for the bone and nervous tissue.  It is also a powerful detoxifer and is good for chronic or periodic (Vata) fevers.  It cleanses Ama and Kapha from the blood and lymphatics.  Yet its heating attribute can aggravate the blood and cause or aggravate bleeding. Its quality is tamasic. Garlic can increase dullness of mind while, on the other hand, may increase ‘groundedness.’” (p. 120)

It has a long history as a vermifuge, good for killing parasites.  Externally is has been used for wound care.  Mrs Grieve writing in 1931 says: “in the late war it widely used to control suppuration (process of pus formation) in wounds.  The raw juice is expressed, diluted with water, and put on swabs of spangum moss, which are applied to the wound.  Where this treatment has been given, it has proved that thre are no septic results, and the lives of thousands of men have been saved by its use.”
Personally, I have found that if I feel something coming on and I take about one half (4-6 cloves) of a head of garlic raw and well-chewed I don’t get whatever is going around.

LEMON: is very sour and cooling and a bit drying.  Lemonade is a time-honored remedy for the heat of summer.  Lemons contain vitamin c, which accounts for much of their healing powers.  Most animals can synthesize their own vitamin c, but humans lack the final enzyme and so we must find it.  The daily recommended amount of vitamin c is what is required to prevent scurvy, not to have the most vibrant health. Some scientific studies conducted in the 1950’s that seem to indicate that vitamin c is an effective antibiotic and antiviral (a good write up of these studies can be found at:  This alone may help explain lemons traditional use in a wide spectrum of common acute illnesses.

The taste of lemon is sour.  It is highly effective at cooling the body.  As such it is indicated in fevers, sore throats (ideally taken with sage and honey), and if there is any sense of excess heat or excitation in the body.  Matthew Wood notes that it helps overheated skin and the skin to better respond to the sun, and cites a case history where a middle aged man urinated less frequently, especially as night, and had less leakiness after drinking lemon juice in water for three weeks (p. 198). I can verify this use, especially combined with nettles.

Lemon are also antiseptic.  The juice kills microorganisms on contact.  An ex-partner used post-squeezed lemons to clean surfaces, and especially cutting boards.  She claimed to have learned this technique working in restaurants.  

OATS: are sweet and mucilaginous. David Hoffman gives us a vivid description of the primary logic of oats: “oats is one of the best remedies for ‘feeding’ the nervous system, especially when the patient is under stress.”

Matthew Wood writes: “milky oatseed is a very important tonic for the nervous system depleted by stress, prolonged illness, sexual excess, drug use or protracted illness. It was first introduced for these purposes in the early twentieth century.” He later suggests that it’s specific for “neurasthenia,” a medical term from the 1800s meaning essentially “deranged vata in the nervous system,” while also noting that it is contraindicated in heavy, kapha people. He also mentions that different parts of the plant have different applications; the seeds are more restorative to depleted people, whereas oatstraw is more indicated for musculoskeletal issues and especially arthritic complaints. I imagine that oatstraw would work especially well in vata arthritis and bone issues, given its profoundly kapha energy. When a friend of mine told me of tendon pain in her foot I gave her a 50/50 mix of oatstraw and nettles tincture. She said that the pain went away while she was taking the tincture, and returned after she ran out, perhaps indicating at least a palliative action in some musculoskeletal issues.

Vishnu Dass writes : “Avena is pacifying to vata and pitta doshas and is a nourishing tonic to the nervous system, adrenals and heart. It also helps to buffer the nerves from stress and overstimulation of daily life that can eventually lead to depression, low vitality and immunity. The unripened milky tops and green stalks are especially rich in silica, calcium, chromium, and magnesium, as well as B-vitamins. Whenever there is exhaustion and the withering of vital energy, avena makes a nice addition to the overall treatment.

“It’s vata pacifying properties help to ease anxiety, restlessness, and nervous tension…it is quite effective for insomnia caused by high vata…For pitta individuals with the tendency towards irritability, anger and to drive themselves too hard or be argumentative, it combines well with equal parts gotu kola or skullcap to cool and calm the mind.
“As a digestive aid it combines well with carminative herbs like chamomile, cardamom, fennel, and ginger. It is also helpful in the recovery from the abuse of amphetamines, coffee, tea, or nicotine…a nourishing porridge during convalescence.”

The indications he gives for oats are: weakness, stress, anxiety, asthma, incontinence, convalescence, old age, diseases of the nervous system, adrenal burnout, and anger.

 A very vata friend of mine recently suffered a minor concussion. While still recovering, I visited her. She had a glycerine tincture of milky oat tops which I encouraged her to take, also hinted that eating oats regularly might help her “feed the nervous system.” A week or so later she contacted to thank me for the encouragement – taking oats allowed her to sleep again.

We are starting to see a portrait of oats emerge oats carries profound kapha. Eating oatmeal has been likened by 6 year olds everywhere as the same as “eating snot.” Kapha is Sanskrit for “phlegm,” or “that which holds things together”. Kapha is substance and form. Oats build the substance and form of both the gross meat body and the more subtle nerve body. As such it is an indispensable herb for derangements that can be balanced by increasing kapha.

WILD FLOWER HONEY: One of the most indispensable items of my pharmacopeia, as I use it more than any other herb except maybe plantain on wounds.  Honey powerfully stimulates wound healing while essentially acting like a very powerful antibiotic ointment.  Stephen Buhner writes “I have used honey in healing for over 20 years now; there is nothing comparable for treating wounds of any sort, no matter how infected or bad they are. It is the premier wound healer on the planet”(p. 191) Stephen Buhner emphasizes the importance of wild flower honey.  He claims that most honeys made from a single species (or sugar water…) aren’t as powerful as those made from a great abundance of different types of flowers.

Honey is a tried and true remedy for a sore throat, colds, flues etc.  For this purpose Stephen Buhner suggests taking 1 tablespoon 6-10 times a day within or without tea.

The lovely herbal, Kitchen Pharmacy, goes into more detail about the observed effects of honey: “Honey is neutral and moist.  It lubricates the intestines and lungs, relieving symptoms such as constipation, dry coughs and sore throats; it also soothes inflammation, especially in the digestive and respiratory organs.  Honey gives energy whilst at the same time soothing nervous tension, so it is helpful for people who are tired and stressed.  Honey is not advised for people who are lethargic and overweight, or who have conditions such as hypoglycemia or diabetes.”

Honey can be used as a medium (or menstruum) for extracting or preserving other herbs.  Last summer I made a honey with Saint John’s wort flowers and use it for St. John’s wort’s indications, especially pain from wounds in nerve rich areas of the body and puncture wounds.  I also made some calendula flower honey which I use when there is inflammation without a vent.  Both honeys work splendidly on wounds.

SEAWEED: the seaweeds carry the primordial “mineral salt” taste.  When we speak of nettles or dandelions being “salty,” we are speaking of this seaweed taste rather than something more resembling table salt.  Seaweeds contain large amounts of iodine, which is well indicated for indications of hypothyroidism (stagnancy).  Seaweeds also contain certain chemicals called olginic acids, which appear to help the body remove heavy metals such as barium and strontium.  It was noted that the Japanese doctors who ate miso soup with seaweed in the aftermath of Nagasaki and Hiroshima didn’t develop radiation sickness.

When people display the tendencies of hyperthyroidism (palpitations, restlessness, weight loss, poor sleep etc.) seaweed should not be taken more than once a week.

WATERMELON: Watermelon is sweet and wet, with a slight saltiness and sourness.  Working two seasons on an organic vegetable production farm I learned firsthand how well watermelon can help beat the heat.  Watermelon is specifically indicated when heat creates the feeling of a tired back, and possible tired feet.  That is to say, when the heat begins to effect the kidneys.  The fruit will very rapidly bring coolness and nourishment to the kidneys, allowing for more fieldwork, in the case of the farm at least.

Maude Grieve writes: “the fruit should be eaten cautiously by Europeans, especially when taken in the heat of the day, but it is much used in the tropics and Italy.” There are many traditions which suggest against mixing watermelon with other food.  When I lived in middle Tennessee there was the old fashioned belief that it is best to eat watermelon alone, as eating it with other food causes indigestion.  

My teacher in Herbalism, Brittany Wood Knickerson, says that according to Ayurveda with watermelon one should “eat it alone or leave it alone!”  Mrs Grieve continues: “In Egypt, it is practically the only medicine the common people use in fevers; when it is ripe, almost putrid, they collect the juice and mix it with rose water and a little sugar.   The seeds have been employed to considerable extent as a domestic remedy in strangury (dryness in the urinary system) and other affections of the urinary passages, and are regarded as having diuretic properties.  The Russian peasants use them for dropsy and hepatic congestion, also for intestinal catarrh.

The seeds of both watermelon and the common musk melon are good vermicides, having much the same constituents as those of pumpkin…which have long been a popular worm remedy and in recent years has been used in tapeworm. ” (pp. 528-529)

MUSHROOMS: have a similar meaty taste to those of the nettles.  Mushrooms however, appear to act more directly on the immune system.  The contain chemicals called beta-glucans which appear to powerfully influence the immune system to regulate it, from Pubmed:

These polysaccharides increase the number off Th1 lymphocytes which help protect organisms from allergic reactions.  A number of beta-gulcans, for example pleuran from oyster (Pleurotus spp.) or lentinan from shiitake (Lentinus edodes), have shown marked anti-carcinogenic activity.  In addition to having an immune stimulating effect, beta glucans may participate in physiological processes related to fats in the human body.  Their application results in a decrease in the total cholesterol content in the blood and may also contribute to reductions in body weight. (

Brittany Wood Knickerson emphasizes the universality of beta-glucan content in mushrooms, including the sliced white mushrooms from the supermarket.  To access these powerful substances she advocates slow boiling, ideally dozens of hours in a crockpot.

HOPS: The taste of hops is ‘acrid,’ there is a valerian aftertaste.  This is highly noticeable in high hops IPA beer.  This acridity switches the body from the sympathetic autonomic nervous system (fight or flight) to parasympathetic (rest and digest).  This is why people seem to favor high hops beers, they act strongly on the nervous system to reduce stress.  Mrs Grieves writes: “Hops have tonic, nervine, diuretic and anodyne (painkilling) properties.  Their volatile oil produces sedative and soporific (sleep-producing) effects and the Lupamaric acid or bitter principle is stomachic and tonic.  For this reason hops improve the appetite and promote sleep.” (P. 414) I find stouts generally and oatmeal stout more specifically to have blood building properties.

Many wild foods are excellent used as “alteratives,” or agents which help “purify the blood” of toxins and stagnant mucus.  As their use is somewhat different than the other foods listed here I’ve decided to put them into a different category. 

DANDELION: Dandelion is very bitter, and acts deeply upon the detox organs in the body. The taste of bitter creates salivation.  The body increases all secretions, helping stagnant energy move. Dandelion also has a mineral salt taste.  The leaf contains substantial amounts of calcium, phosphorus, iron, and vitamins a and c.  The taste and energetics of dandelion leaf is very similar, although much stronger, as lettuce, which is closely related. Dandelion is a powerful and reliable diuretic that is reported to work as effectively as prescription diuretics.  It, however, contains inflammatory components which help soothe the kidneys and ample potassium, which conventional diuretics tend to deplete.
Dandelion has a powerful effect on the liver as well.  Mrs Grieve recommends it for “the hepatic complaints of persons long resident in warm climates” saying that a broth of the roots taken daily for some months “have been known to cure seemingly intractable cases of liver congestion.” (p. 254)
The leaves of dandelion are a traditional spring tonic, used to help cleanse the body of the toxic accumulations of winter.  After returning from Argentina I found myself at a local punk house eating handfuls of dandelion greens.  I felt enormously soothed, and was relieved of the constipation of travelling. Since then I’ve found them growing outside and find their influence to extraordinarily healing.

In Kitchen Pharmacy we find: “Dandelion has many beneficial properties and its importance is noted in natural healing traditions all over the world.  Both its leaves and the root can be used, the root as a decoction and the leaves in salads, soups or tea.  They improve the digestion and reduce inflammation in the digestive tract, helping ulcers, colitis, diverticulitis and similar conditions; they cleanse and cool the blood, thus helping to soothe skin inflammations; they reduce swellings in the spleen, and they cleanse the lymphatic and eliminate nodules.  Dandelion leaves and roots also increase the flow of milk in nursing mothers.” (p. 108)

BURDOCK:  is used throughout the world as a food – the root is sweet and if picked the first year, tender as a parsnip. The Japanese call it “gobo” and use it as food to strengthen the constitution. In Traditional Chinese Medicine it is used as an aphrodisiac and to disperse excess nervous energy – both uses I can confirm from personal experience.

Burdock is an excellent example of a common weed that ranks right up there with the most exotic and sought after herbs. While not usually regarded as an “adaptogen,” I think of it in this category on the strength of David Hoffman’s assertion that it will “move the body to a state of integration and health” and Matthew Woods extrapolation that “Burdock helps to restore the primal blueprint of health, so to speak, when it has been lost in persons suffering from long, chronic illness. It was thus once an important remedy for syphilis, a disease which attacks the basic integrative forces of life, the primal essence, or genetic material, and the hard and supportive structures of the body.” (Earthwise Herbal Vol. I pp 103-105)

Burdock, according to Jim McDonald, “seems to have a balanced action on all metabolic organs and processes.” Matthew Wood believes this action to be through burdock’s action on lipid movement through the body. Thus burdock acts beneficially on dry skin conditions, lack of appetite and poor digestion caused through lack of bile secretion.

He goes on: “The liver is also affected. With a lack of fats and oils, there is reduced anabolism of lipids for the body to use, with wasting and dryness. In order to get nutrition there may be dependence on “quick fixes” of sugar. Thus, it is a remedy for sugar imbalances. Since steroid and sex hormones are made from oil and require oil for transmission through the body, and all hormones of any kind require adequate fluids for movement, burdock comes up as something of an endocrine and female remedy.” On his website he mentions combining borage with burdock for adrenal fatigue (

M. Grieves calls burdock “one of the best blood purifiers,” and goes on to say “in all skin conditions it is a certain remedy”.(p. 144) It is usually on the short list of western alteratives, being nourishing, normalizing and having eliminatory actions through diaphoresis and diuresis. Most herbals mention it being indicated in sciatica and arthritis. It has been used to break fevers, especially fevers with “excessive oily sweating and worry.” (Earthwise Herbal Vol. I p. 106).

NETTLES: the taste of nettles is peculiar, while it is certainly salty has a touch of astringency, most prominent is a strange “meatiness,” the taste of proteins.  This taste gives nettles a unique range of actions – it acts very profoundly on, as Matthew Wood calls it, “the protein pathways of the body.”  This includes the immune system, digestion, the liver, kidneys, and endocrine system in general.  He has observed that nettles appear to have the ability to transform irritating waste proteins into coherent proteins with a healthy place in the body.  I had the opportunity to verify this indication when I burned my hand rather badly last summer.  I drank copious nettles tea and put a poultice of the boiled leaves on the wound.  I felt that it helped transform the deranged proteins from the burn into healthy proteins which turned quickly enough into more skin.  The burn healed quickly and now there is no scar.

Nettles appear to do the same thing internally. I’ve found it very useful in herbal formulas for seasonal allergies.  From a holistic perspective, many autoimmune issues have their root in an underactive liver which fails to adequately process proteins.  This in turn puts a strain on the kidneys which can’t eliminate the long protein chains.  The proteins circulate around and around in the blood causing low level immune system agitation, which can lead to allergies, rheumatism, asthma, etc.  Nettles is very well indicated here to help take the burden off.  My mom finds nettles to be a powerful nervine that helps with her anxiety.  Since the liver also breaks down stress hormones I've wondered if there is a connection although more data is needed for me to make a stronger assertion.

Mrs. Grieves notes the seeds of nettle being used in goiter, and quotes an article from the daily press, April 1926, where a diabetic man used a nettle fast to lose 6 stone (84 pounds)  and after which reported that his condition had vastly improved.  Matthew Wood relates a story of nettle bringing back thyroid function to a woman that had her thyroid removed by radiation and later regretted the surgery.
Nettles is nutritive and blood building.  It is well indicated when someone is pale and appears anemic.  Using nettle tea as a hair wash is an age old remedy for preventing hair loss and making hair beautiful.  My friend Ruby attested that washing daily with nettle helped hair grow back and generally beautiful.

CHICKWEED: has the tastes of sweet, salty, very mildly sour, soapy. I was first introduced to chickweed when I was living on a queer commune in Tennessee.  One of my communards was Sandy Katz, the great populizer of fermented foods. We were making a salad for potluck, and he pointed out a luxurious patch of chickweed growing right by the kitchen and we gathered some for dinner.  I was just getting into herbalism and I asked if it had any medicinal properties, he said something to the effect “I like to think of it as a spring cleanser like dandelion, burdock and yellow dock”

Searching the available literature I’ve yet to find a better description.  Matthew Wood mentions it as useful for reducing excess water and fat, with a special affinity for lipomas.  He claims that it acts to cleanse the body through kidneys, lymph, liver, and bowel – every category of “alterative”.  He also claims that it is one of the specifics for hypothyroidism, including wild carrot and black walnut hull. 
Susun Weed goes into further detail: she claims that it reduces fat through the presence of saponins which are able to break down cell walls, and facilitate their removal from the body.  She cautions skinny women from taking too much chickweed.  It is known to reduce appetite as well.  She relates that it is excellent as a woundwort and poultice on account of the saponin content as well – it breaks down the cell walls of pathogens.  I’ve used chickweed as a poultice for hot wounds and find its action admirable, although plantain is still my first choice.

Chickweed is rich in vitamins and minerals, evidenced by its mineral salt taste.  It occurs early in the spring and when the summer heat abates.  It is well suited to help clean up the thick, dirty, deficient blood of late winter as well as the overheated, pitta blood that is engendered in summer heat. Its proclivity for urine soaked earth indicates that it helps the body deal with urates and other substances excreted in the urine.  Chickweed appears as thick mats of green with little white starry flowers and helps us connect to Mother Nature, the abundantly thick web of life that we are enmeshed in.  More specifically it is a powerful ally in attuning ourselves to seasonal rhythms. This attunement is felt especially in the blood.  Just as the earth turns through the stars giving periodicity to the seasons, so does chickweed come rhythmically and just in time to gently help us to balance our inner waters.
In The One Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka lists chickweed as one of the seven herbs of spring, writing; “When you gather and eat the seven herbs of spring, your spirit become gentle.”

VIOLET: Moshe Ben Maimon, the great rabbi and physician to Saladin, the then Sultan of Egypt recommends in his work The Regimen of Health to always start with gentle remedies, one of which is violet for “softening the belly.” He goes on to write:

‘All of these are light remedies; if they hit their mark they benefit and cure the mild illnesses, and they can in turn cure severe illness. If they miss their mark, they do not kill of cause great damage; you find therefore that most physicians resort to these and their like among the remedies in seeking security’ (

Culpeper the great Renaissance herbalist wrote:

'It is a fine pleasing plant of Venus, of a mild nature and no way hurtful. All the Violets are cold and moist, while they are fresh and green, and are used to cool any heat or distemperature of the body, either inwardly or outwardly, as the inflammation in the eyes, to drink the decoction of the leaves and flowers made with water or wine, or to apply them poultice wise to the grieved places; it likewise easeth pains in the head caused through want of sleep, or any pains arising of heat if applied in the same manner or with oil of Roses. A drachm weight of the dried leaves or flowers of Violets, but the leaves more strongly, doth purge the body of choleric humours and assuageth the heat if taken in a draught of wine or other drink; the powder of the purple leaves of the flowers only picked and dried and drank in water helps the quinsy and the falling sickness in children, especially at the beginning of the disease. It is also good for jaundice. The flowers of the Violets ripen and dissolve swellings. The herbs or flowers while they are fresh or the flowers that are dry are effectual in the pleurisy and all diseases of the lungs. The green leaves are used with other herbs to make plasters and poultices for inflammation and swellings and to ease all pains whatsoever arising of heat and for piles, being fried with yoke of egg and applied thereto.' (Modern Herbal, p. 838)

The choleric humor that Culpepper speaks of is the “hot and dry” constitution, which would correspond to vata/pitta in Ayurveda. It is clear from his description that he used violet in conditions needing either cooling or moistening. I have validated his use of violet for irritated hot external conditions; it is one of my go to herbs for sunburn and is greatly beneficial in relieving heat and soothing pain and irritation, often leaving my skin softer and moister than before the burn. Culpepper also mentions an action ignored in contemporary herbals, which is using violet to clear jaundice. We’ll return to this point shortly.

W.T Fernie remarks that violet is a “capital laxative for children.” (Earthwise Herbal Vol I, p. 518)

Maud Grieves relates an important and overlooked attribute of violet: “Violets were mentioned frequently by Homer and Virgil. They were used by the Athenians 'to moderate anger,' to procure sleep and 'to comfort and strengthen the heart.” She goes on to describe violet’s use in various oral cancers. Susun Weed has said that “violet loves breasts” and there are reports of women using violet to eliminate very aggressive breast cancers from their bodies very quickly.

Matthew Wood explores violet as a lymphatic remedy, thus uniting its time-honored use as an alterative, expectorant, and cancer remedy. This ties in nicely with Culpepper’s use of violet as a treatment for jaundice; 25-50% of the lymph in the body is produced by the liver and the most common sites of liver fibrosis, cirrhosis and cancer are in direct proximity to the hepatic lymph vessels ( Violet, as a subtle but profound lymphatic, could very well help clear stagnant lymph in the liver, helping to relieve not only jaundice, but also toxic accumulations that could foreshadow cancer and other serious disease. Anger is traditionally associated with the liver, and I wonder how much of the Athenian’s use of violet for moderating anger has to do with the cleansing effect that violet has on hepatic lymph.

As an alterative, violet is ideal because it combines a flushing of lymph with a mild laxative action. It both frees toxins and helps to facilitate their exit from the body. I find that a quart or two of violet infusion has a definite and noticeable aperient action. Euell Gibbons my spirit mentor into the wondrous realms of the natural world wrote that “A half-cup of violet-leaf greens has as much Vitamin C as four oranges,” (Stalking the Healthful Herbs) indicating perhaps violet’s most important use as a powerful nutritive tonic.