All posts tagged botanical medicine

My Favorite Ginger Recipes

There are so many things to love about winter…soft, fluffy scarves to bundle up in, holidays to celebrate with loved ones, and of course all the many traditional dishes filled with hearty ingredients and warm spices.

The ingredient that symbolizes this time of year more than any other for me is ginger.  It’s a spicy spice in the best kind of way…one that warms you from the inside out.  It works in everything from a Thanksgiving cranberry chutney recipe to a simple herbal tea.  And ginger is not just about flavor and spice, it’s also one of the most well studied herbs in botanical medicine, with an impressive body of research to support its use for a variety of health conditions including improvement in muscle and joint pain, nausea due to pregnancy or chemotherapy and a variety of other conditions where inflammation plays a role (which is almost everything).

Fun fact: Dried ginger is ten times more heating than fresh

Here are a couple recipes with ginger that I love to make this time of year:

Simple Ginger Tea

I make this tea when I’m feeling cold and a bit lazy.  It leaves me feeling instantly warm and healthy.

  • Thoroughly wash a chunk of fresh ginger rhizome (root) and use a carrot grater to remove the outer skin
  • Slice lengthwise into two or three thick pieces and add one to two slices to a cup of very hot water or tea (green or raspberry leaf are some of my favorite choices)
  • Steep for 3-4 minutes and enjoy

Superfood Muesli

I’ve modified this recipe from one I was introduced to while in naturopathic medical school.  I love it because you can make a big batch that will last for weeks and it’s fun to get creative with different spices and ingredients.  Although this dish can be eaten warm or cold, I like to warm it up in the winter for a stick-to-your-ribs breakfast that provides excellent whole food nutrition and energy.

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups rolled grains (e.g. oats, rye, barley, and/or rolled rice flakes)
  • 2 cups oat bran
  • ½ cup dried, unsulphured fruit (e.g. raisins, dates, blueberries, cranberries)
  • 1 cup sunflower seeds and/or pumpkin seeds (can be ground)
  • 1 cup raw nuts (e.g. walnuts and almonds)
  • 1 cup seeds (e.g. ground flax seed, chia)
  • 1 tsp each of one or more of the following spices: ginger, cinnamon, coriander, fennel, turmeric

Combine all ingredients, mix well and store in an airtight container for up to two weeks.  To make a single serving, scoop a ½ cup into a bowl and add 1 cup liquid (e.g. water, soy, nut milk or dairy milk are all good options).  Soak overnight and then heat in microwave in the morning or, to prepare right away, heat in a saucepan until grains are soft and ingredients have absorbed most of the liquid.

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Image by Muy Yum

Your Seasonal Guide to Food as Medicine: September Produce

Over the past few weekends, my sister-in-law and her family have made over 20 gallons of cider from some of the pie apple trees that grow on the pasture of our family’s Iowa farmland.  Nothing says autumn like apple cider!  And so it is here…the end of summer.  Luscious berries and delicate flowers are fading as hearty leaves and roots make their entrance into our farmers markets and recipes.  Whether you are in Arizona or Maine, I’m sure you’re noticing the changes all around you.

However, because the expression of the seasons is not the same in every state, what’s “seasonal” in terms of produce can vary quite a bit.  I recently came across this interactive map that allows you to choose your state and see what’s in season where you live.  There are lots of tools like this out there, but this one happens to be especially easy to use.

For this month’s seasonal guide to food as medicine post, I’ve chosen to focus on some of the edible herbs that also act as common botanical medicines and then, of course, I must talk about the amazing properties of apples.  If you’d like to start at the beginning of this series, you can find the first article here.

Horseradish – A hardy root that’s been cultivated for over 2000 years with long list of traditional uses for everything from acting as a blood cleanser to treating headaches.  From a modern science perspective, compounds in this spicy root have shown benefit as an antibiotic.  In a 2006 study, a constituent of horseradish was found to decrease symptoms from acute sinusitis, bronchitis, or urinary tract infections as effectively as standard antibiotic therapy.  From my own personal experience, I also believe a nice-sized bite of this raw root does an excellent job of opening up congested sinus passages!

Lemon balm – This herb gets its common name due to its lemon scent although it’s not related to the citrus fruit itself.  An edible plant, the leaves show promise as an anti-viral medicine, specifically indicated for the virus, Herpes simplex, as well as showing benefit for symptoms of anxiety.  You can crush up the leaves to make a hot tea or find dried versions in capsule form at your local health food store.

Borage – This plant is native originally to Syria, although it has spread throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean and can be grown in many temperate climates.  The leaves and beautiful lavender flowers may be eaten, but it’s the seeds that get the most attention in the natural medicine community.  According to a retrospective review of more than 2,000 supplement and medication records for elderly Americans (60-99 years), borage oil supplements are one of the most popular herbal products among elderly women, likely due to their relatively high level of gamma-linolenic acid, an essential fatty acid linked to improvements in inflammatory conditions and menopausal symptoms.

Elderberry – This plant has an incredibly long and impressive history as a medicinal plant.  Native Americans used elder for infections, coughs, and skin conditions. Ancient Egyptians even used elder flowers to improve complexion and heal burns.  From a modern science perspective, elderberries show promise as an anti-viral medicine, decreasing viral load in the body as well as improving flu-like symptoms.

Apples – Last but not least, apples!  We all know the famous apple saying relating to health and it’s true that this little miracle from Mother Nature is packed with goodies like fiber and vitamin C.  However, what I find especially exciting about apples are some of the amazing compounds, called phenolic phytochemicals, found primarily in the skin of the fruit that are currently undergoing scientific investigation.  An emerging theory is that these phenolic compounds may protect against certain neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s by acting as an antioxidant in brain tissue.

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The Incredible Benefits of Green Tea

Green tea is made from the leaves of the plant, Camellia sinensis, which is a beautiful but rather unassuming-looking plant native to Southeast Asia.  Interestingly, Camellia sinensis is also the source of white, oolong and black teas.  In fact, any naturally caffeinated tea is Camellia sinensis.

Beyond being a relatively common beverage, green tea is powerful medicine.  The research on this plant is wide-reaching and highly promising.  From acting as a mouth-wash to prevent dental cavities to reducing heart disease risk and all-cause mortality, it is about as close to a natural panacea as I can find (can you tell I’m a fan?).  But for all the promise green tea holds, it is for three specific reasons that I especially appreciate a cup (or four) of green tea each day:

Anti-anxiety – An amino acid compound, L-theanine, found in green tea has been found to have relaxing effects on the nervous system.  Studies suggest that L-theanine increases brain serotonin, dopamine, and GABA levels…all hormones associated with feelings of calm and wellbeing.  Given the fast-paced life most of us live in these days, a cup of calm and wellbeing sounds like a pretty excellent idea.

Stimulant – Similar to coffee, green tea contains caffeine.  Unlike coffee, however, green tea also contains other stimulant compounds beyond just caffeine.  The net effect of this broader spectrum of stimulants is a more gentle energy lift.  Whereas I often crave a cup of coffee to kick start my day, I find if I switch to green tea from there I still get an energy lift but avoid the narrow, zippy feeling that can come from too much coffee.

Anti-oxidant – The benefits of antioxidants are so broad and impressive, they really require their own post to do justice.  Suffice it to say, antioxidants delay aging, help prevent disease and prolong life.  And wouldn’t you know green tea happens to be packed with them.

So, to recap – a cup of green tea contains compounds that make you feel less anxious while simultaneously pepping you up and potentially extending the length and quality of your life.  See?  It’s about a close to a panacea as I can find!

If you’re new to green tea or have tried it and not liked it in the past, here are a couple tips:

  1. Have a tasting party and try some different brands and varieties.  From mild to bold, fruity to smoky, there are many options.  My current favorites are Gunpowder Organic Loose Leaf Green Tea from Teas Etc (it has a mild earthy flavor), or when I need bagged green tea on the go, I use Organic Green Tea from Trader Joe’s.
  2. Brew green tea between 140-180 degrees Fahrenheit.  If it’s too hot, it will be bitter and taste bad.  If it’s too cold, the flavor and medicine is not well extracted.  Here’s a site I found online with more brewing tips.

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Image by Will Spark

Your Seasonal Guide to Food as Medicine: May Produce

The arrival of May means that no matter where you live, warm days are finally beginning to outnumber cold, daylight is beginning to stretch into the evening hours, and Pinterest boards are likely filling with recipes for barbeques, tasty salads, and Sun Tea.

In the plant world, spring is a time for new growth. Flowers introduce sweet berries, and delicate green shoots grow into edible leaves for salads and sautés. I love this time of year, and as a naturopathic doctor, I especially love the healing properties of fruits and vegetables that are seasonal in May. Here’s my sample guide to what’s in season this month and how each edible plant acts as medicine in the body:

Dandelion leaves – You may be thinking, “Wait, this is a weed not a food, right?” Actually, young dandelion leaves are an edible, slightly bitter addition to any spring salad or sauté and contain a compound, aesculin, which supports the tone of our vessels and can help with issues like swelling, puffiness and poor circulation.

Fava beans – Like large sweet peas, fava beans can be found in pods and are a beautiful rich green color. They are a substantial addition to any recipe and a great vegetarian/vegan option. In addition to providing a spectrum of vitamins and minerals (thiamin, folate, calcium, magnesium and zinc to name just a few), these beans are an excellent source of fiber. That means that in addition to filling you up, they also help to clean you out!

Mint leaves – Plants in the mint family (peppermint and spearmint are two common examples) contain menthol, a compound that provides the cooling quality these leaves are known for. Used in a tea or even rubbed on the skin, mint is used to calm digestion and may be soothing when fresh leaves are crushed and applied to insect bites or itchy skin.

Onions, sweet Vidalia – As medicine, onions are most commonly thought of for their sulfur-containing compounds that have been researched for a range of actions in the body from supporting liver function to inhibiting cancer growth. I love the sweet, mildly spicy flavor of these beautiful onions…a great addition to a vinegar-based potato salad.

Oregano leaves – A staple in most spice racks, dried oregano leaves are a common addition to all kinds of recipes. When in season, fresh leaves can be used to provide a spicy and beautiful pop of flavor and color. Oil of oregano provides a broad spectrum of anti-bacterial, viral and fungal activity and can even be found in some natural insect-repellent recipes.

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Natural Remedies to Beat Spring Colds and Flu

Just when you think you’ve successfully made it through cold and flu season without getting sick, you get hit with a virus.  Congestion, headache, cough, fatigue.  Yuck!  Although fall and winter months tend to be the most common times for cold and flu infections, we’re never truly immune to catching these irritating viruses.

As a naturopathic doctor, my aim with any treatment plan is to find an optimal balance of therapies to provide symptom relief and enhance the body’s innate immune function.  Here are some of my tried and true tools for colds and flu:

Sleep – Not sexy advice perhaps, but considering that your body does the majority of its healing as you sleep, prioritizing this activity when you’re feeling sick is incredibly important.  If napping isn’t an option, then get to bed early, aiming for at least eight hours of sleep per night.

Herbal teas – Many herbal teas contain a range of helpful compounds that can both support your immune system and help take the edge off of your symptoms.  Organic, single ingredient teas are best to maximize these benefits.  Some examples of teas I like for colds and flu:

  • Green tea – Although the mechanism behind how antioxidants support immune function is not completely established, they do seem to play an important supporting role and green tea is packed with antioxidants known as catechins.  Green tea also contains a mild form of caffeine which can help clear the brain fog common with colds/flu.
  • Mint tea – Full of volatile oils, when mint leaves are added to hot water these oils are released into the steam and become a gentle way to relieve sinus congestion (just breathe deeply over your steaming cup).  The same oil compounds also possess anti-viral activity, so this tea serves a dual benefit.

Netti Pot – These porcelain genie-in-a-bottle shaped pots may seem strange, but they can be a powerful tool to deliver medicine directly to congested, inflamed sinus tissue.  Here’s a link to a video demonstrating how to use a netti pot.  If you’re experiencing sinus congestion, try mixing two cups of lukewarm Goldenseal tea (Hydrastis canadensis) with 1 teaspoon sea salt.  The salt is anti-microbial and helps to decrease congestion and the Goldenseal is a full-spectrum anti-microbial herb with astringing properties to support immune function and tighten tissues. (Tip: The closer the temperature of the water is to the temperature inside your nose the more comfortable the treatment will be.)

Contrast hydrotherapy shower – Just like the heart pumps to move blood through our bodies, we can use contrasting hot and cold water to cause the vessels near the surface of our skin to expand and contract as well.  This technique further supports the action of the heart to move damaged cells and inflammation into the lymph system and out of the body and bring fresh blood with oxygen, nutrients and virus-fighting immune cells into our tissues.  Here’s how it works:

  • At the end of your shower, rapidly turn the water temperature down (it should be cold enough to take your breath away)
  • Slowly rotate your body under the flow of water to directly expose all of your skin to the cold temperature.  Lift each arm to expose the skin on either side of your chest and submerge your head as well.  Complete this process slowly over the course of 1-2 minutes.
  • Return the water to hot and repeat the process of exposing all of your skin to the water, again taking 1-2 minutes to complete the process
  • Repeat the hot and cold cycles as many times as you like, ending on a cold cycle
  • When you get out of the shower, dress warmly, trapping in the heat as your body re-heats itself

With any treatment, you should always talk to a licensed health professional about your symptoms and work together to develop a safe and appropriate treatment plan.

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Image by The Neti Pot

Stinging Nettle Tea: A Natural Remedy to Fight Spring Allergy Symptoms

I don’t know how you fare this time of year, but it’s usually right around now that I start to experience seasonal allergies.  For me that means itchy eyes and throat and sneezing, especially in the morning.  However, seasonal allergies can present in many ways, with symptoms that span from a mild runny nose to severe chronic headaches.

For the past few years, I’ve mostly just toughed it out (thankfully my symptoms are mild enough that this is an option), but this year I have a natural medicine plan – Stinging Nettle tea.

In the United States, Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) is considered a weed by many given the ease with which it grows.  Its funny name comes from the Latin verb urere, meaning “to burn,” because of its urticate (stinging) hairs that cover the stem and underside of the leaves.  So, while walking through a field of this plant is probably not a good idea, using it for its anti-allergic activity can be an effective way to manage seasonal allergy symptoms.  It has a nice amount of published research demonstrating positive benefit for a host of allergic and inflammatory conditions.

Stinging Nettle contains a set of compounds that act on the immune system to provide anti-inflammatory action and block histamine release.  Perhaps you are familiar with over-the-counter medicines called “anti-histamines”?  Well, Stinging Nettle works in a similar fashion, blocking the release of histamine compounds that alert our immune system and stimulate inflammation, redness and all those pesky symptoms those of us who are sensitive to pollen, etc. experience this time of year.

Because Stinging Nettle doesn’t contain caffeine, you can brew it as tea and exchange it for your water source throughout the day.  Here’s my recipe/plan:

  • Add 1tsp dried Stinging Nettle leaf to 16oz hot water.  Steep for 2-3 minutes.
  • Drink right away in the morning when I experience the most symptoms
  • Re-fill tea infuser with hot water and re-use same team leaves a couple more times throughout day (although most of the anti-histamine activity will come from the first steep, there is a mild benefit from re-using the leaves)
  • Continue as I feel like I need symptom relief throughout day

I order my bulk herbs online from Starwest Botanicals, but depending on where you live you may be able to find quality bulk herbs at your local grocery or health food store.  The key to buying dried herbs is to make sure they are quality and have been stored properly.  In the case of nettles, the leaves should be dark and smell slightly sweet.  Just like spices in your kitchen, you want them to have color and scent…that’s a sure sign they are still good.

With any treatment, you should always talk to a licensed health professional to make sure the products and medicines you are using are appropriate for you.

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Image of Urtica dioica by John Tann