What is St John’s Wort good for?

St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)

Mahalia Freed, ND

Hypericum

For many years, St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) has been a top selling plant in the marketplace for depression. Long an important herb in European medicine, settlers brought it with them to North America and Australia, and it can now be found in sunny, dry fields around the world. It is well studied, and meta-analysis finds the herb more effective than SSRIs or placebo in treating mild-to-moderate depression. Hypericum can be an excellent herb for depression, and I regularly incorporate it in my treatment plans for people seeking mood support. But, look at the incomplete list of causes of depression, above. St John’s Wort (or St Joan’s Wort, as herbalist Susun Weed calls it) is not for all depressions. It is for healing.

Viewing at St John’s Wort as an antidepressant limits the power of the herb to what can be understood from an allopathic linear paradigm. An allopathic paradigm question is, what herb can act as an SSRI? But, herbs are not substitutes for drugs. Plants are living medicines, crossing body systems to heal people, rather than addressing diagnoses. St John’s Wort is no exception, and looking at the history of its use along with modern phytotherapeutic trials reveals the breadth of its role in healing.

This herb has long been used in topical applications for wound healing, and it is great for this. Think of it for scrapes, and think of it for healing the perineum post-partum. It is also antiviral against herpes, shingles, and even against HIV. It is famous in homeopathic  form for its efficacy in addressing nerve pain, whether from dental surgery or due to a skeletal issue like disc compression. Hypericum has been studied for PMS, and found more effective than placebo for physical and behavioral PMS symptoms. In clinical trial, it is also effective for menopausal symptoms in combination with Black Cohosh (another misunderstood herb!).

So, what is St John’s Wort for?
For healing.

Who is St John’s Wort for?

Since herbs treat people, this is a question with a juicier answer. Hypericum is for someone with Type A blood more than Type O blood. For someone who needs more sunshine (eg depression in winter), for frayed nerves. For a “weak” stomach, for normalizing stomach acid whether too high or too low, for liver support, for disinfecting and healing wounds (including deep wounds), for nerve damage, for third chakra issues, for emotions influencing the bladder, for radiation burns.

Who Shouldn’t Take St John’s Wort?

Anyone taking any prescription medication, including oral contraceptives, should consult with their herbalist or naturopathic doctor. St John’s Wort is metabolized through the liver and interferes with/decreases the effectiveness of many drugs. If taken at the same time as oral contraceptives, St. John’s Wort can diminish their effectiveness. i.e., this could – and does – lead to an unexpected pregnancy. So please ask your herbally-trained health care provider!

Additional Effects (Cautions):

Cows who graze excessively on Hypericum are known to get sunburns. This is almost never seen in people, as we do not consume it as a dietary staple.

Conversely, St John’s Wort oil is in fact an excellent sunscreen when applied topically (Per Susun Weed).

Selected Sources:

·      Bruton-Seal, Julie and Seal, Matthew. Backyard Medicine: Harvest & Make Your Own Herbal Remedies. New York, NY: SkyHorse Publishing. 2009.
·      Kaminski, Patricia & Katz, Richard. Flower Essence Repertory. Nevada City, CA: Flower Essence Society. 2004.
·      Weed, Susun. Lecture at the Association of Perinatal Naturopathic Doctors annual conference. Toronto: Oct. 13, 2012.
·      Wood, Matthew. Earthwise Herbal. A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books. 2008.
·      Wood, Matthew. Herbal First Aide. Accessed online at http://www.woodherbs.com/Indispensable.html. July 7, 2013.

urban herbalism: nettle joy

Mahalia Freed, ND

I live in the city.

10 minutes by public transit and I am in the downtown core. There is a highway very close to my house. And also, there are green spaces, and there are wild plants. Medicinal, weedy, wild plants. The blessing of using medicine from the earth, the beauty of it, is that the medicines we need are very often right in our (metaphorical) backyards.

Today I harvested wild nettles. I truly love nettles. They are not only a medicine I prescribe often – for everything from seasonal allergies to low iron – but they are delicious and nutritious as food. Allergic to spring pollens? Nettle tea to the rescue! Pregnant? Nourish with nettles! Gathering this particular weed, then, brings me great joy.

Urtica dioica (Stinging Nettle)

 

By their sting, nettles teach us to be fully present, fully aware of our bodies in space. If your mind wanders, and your shirtsleeve doesn’t entirely cover your forearm, nettle will bring you back with a sting that lasts and lasts. I was reminded. Thank you, nettle. If you are thinking about gathering nettles yourself: wear long sleeves, long pants, and gardening gloves, and make sure to pull the gloves up over your sleeves!

 

Because I was harvesting near home in a well-used public park, I happily engaged in quite a bit of impromptu herbal education. I answered people’s friendly queries as to why I was choosing to pick a stinging weed with musings on potential recipes I could choose for dinner, and I expanded on some of nettle’s uses in addressing inflammation, seasonal allergies, pregnancy, and more. I learned from one woman passing by that she grew up eating nettles in India (different species, same idea), and another couple paused their workout to tell me about a raw nettle eating competition in England (don’t do it. Remember, it stings!)

 

transporting the urban nettle harvest

 

Wildcrafting guidelines teach that one should never harvest things that are endangered or rare in the area in question. Pick plants that grow abundantly, and then take no more than 30% of the stand in that place. But please, harvest only what you will use. Depending on the plant, a little may go a long way. Lucky for me and the other urban harvesters, nettle is prolific. I harvested nearly the maximum I could fit in my bike’s panniers, which in this patch was maybe 2%.

 

 

Drying Nettle

A Wildcrafting ND’s Office

While in the past I have preferred to dry herbs spread out on a screen, our current space doesn’t allow for this. Hanging herbs in bunches is another easy, reliable way to dry them in any (indoor, ventilated) space. I strung some twine across the bay window in my treatment room, and tied bunches of 5-9 stalks across it. When that row was full, I moved onto the hallway.

 

Prep Tip

Gather any loose leaves and put them aside for dinner. If the loose leaves don’t add up to enough for your pesto or soup or frittata or sauté plans, keep some stalks aside. Wearing your gloves (you always wear gloves when handling raw nettles!), grasp the stalk near the top and strip off the leaves from top to bottom. They should come off easily this way. Strip as many stalks as you & your crisper drawer need. If you aren’t using them all right away, store fresh nettles in the fridge in a plastic bag, like most produce.

 

Wild Nettle Pesto with Rice Linguini

Ingredients

  • ~5 cups fresh raw nettles
  • 2-4 cloves raw garlic, finely chopped or pressed (4 was intensely garlicky)
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ½ cup walnuts or pine nuts (or sunflower seeds or almonds)
  • 1 tsp celtic sea salt, or to taste
  • juice of ½ a lemon
  • Pasta of choice (I used organic brown rice “linguini-style” noodles, and made enough for two generous servings of pasta. We have pesto leftover)

 

Preparation

Nettle Pesto

Bring a big pot of water to a boil. Wearing gloves, add your nettles to the water to blanch them. Simmer 1-3 minutes, then remove and drain off excess water. Reserve the nettle-blanching water to cook the pasta. Add pasta to the boiling water. While pasta is cooking, roughly chop your squeezed out nettles and measure them. You should have about 2 cups now. If not, adjust other ingredients as needed. Dump nettles into a food processor along with pressed garlic, olive oil, sea salt and nuts/seeds. Process until smooth-ish. Add lemon juice and process again. Taste it. Isn’t it delicious? Adjust seasonings as desired. I ran out of olive oil so I increased the nuts, and then had to add salt to balance out the bitterness in the walnuts. Delicious results, though!

 

Dump cooked, drained pasta into a big bowl, and toss with pesto to generously coat. Add more pesto. People never use enough pesto.

Top with whatever you fancy and have on hand.

Nettle Pesto Linguini with Grilled Chicken & Sun-dried Tomatoes

 

My choice today: chopped leftover grilled organic chicken breast and sliced sundried tomatoes. Would also work with other leftover meat, grilled veggies, marinated tofu.

 

I gathered weeds instead of going grocery shopping today, and I had a delightful day. I highly recommend taking a week-day afternoon off from your to-do list, and getting to know a local weed. And your neighbours :)

 

Flexible Strength: Willow Medicine

Salix spp

Willow is a distinctive tree that many people recognize, and many more are drawn to.

Willow’s story offers many examples of the power of tree medicines, and the difference between living plant medicines and pharmaceuticals or isolated extracts.

There are over 400 species of Willow, growing all through the Northern Hemisphere. In botanical medicine, White Willow (Salix alba) is most commonly referenced, although other species like Black Willow (Salix nigra) and Crack Willow (Salix fragilis) can be used interchangeably in many cases.

Willow has a long history of medicinal use. Indeed, I first learned about willow at age 12, when I did a science fair project on what was then referred to as “alternative medicine”. Willow was – for me – a gateway plant to the world of plant medicines. Perhaps it has played this role for you as well, or perhaps it still may!

Experience & History
There is a calm elegance to willows. Their comforting, flowing grace draws us to sit beneath them and share their ease. They prefer damp areas, often growing along river banks or lakes’ edges. The notion of flow is reflected in their form and in the water beside them. Willow’s historical use for rheumatism, a condition worse with dampness, mirrors its habitat of choice as well as its chemical action.

The flexible branches have long been used in making baskets, as well as wicker furniture. Elsewhere, willow wood is used for clogs, and for cricket bats.

Phytochemistry
Willow bark contains salicin, the precursor to salicylic acid. When we ingest willow tea or tincture, we convert salicin to salicylic acid in out digestive tract. From salicylic acid you can manufacture acetyl salicylic acid, or ASA, the active ingredient in Aspirin. Willow bark is in fact one of the plants from which Aspirin was originally made! It follows, then that like ASA, salicin has an anti-inflammatory effect in our body, making willow an excellent medicine for muscular and joint pains, fever pains, and gout.

Flower Essence
Willow flower essence helps us to find flexible strength. The essence is used for stiffness in body and mind, helping to address rigidity in thinking as well as in our muscles or joints. Willow helps people to let go, to accept, to forgive, to adapt. It addresses feelings of resentment or victimization. It supports the our feminine – or yin – nature.
From the FES flower essence repertory,
“Willow restores a more “spring-like” disposition, helping the soul to respond with greater resilience and inward mobility to challenges and problems. In this way, the Self takes more responsibility for its condition, and learns to flow more gently and graciously with rather than against the flow of life.”

Actions
Analgesic, anti-inflammatory, astringent, antipyretic

Indications
Arthritis, rheumatism, low back pain & other general muscular aches and pains, period pain, gout, fever, diarrhea

Preparation
Tincture or decoction of bark.

Cautions
Plants are not like drugs, and here is another example. You cannot use willow bark as a substitute for Aspirin if you are taking the drug for blood thinning. Willow does not thin the blood. And while Aspirin is notorious for causing stomach side effects (it increases ulceration & bleeding in the gut), white willow does not.

References:
Conway, Peter. Tree Medicine: A Comprehensive Guide to the Healing Power of Over 170 Trees. London, UK: Judy Piatkus Ltd. 2001.
Godfrey, Anthony & Saunders, Paul (with Kerry Barlow, Matt Gowan, Cyndi Gilbert, Rebecca Blok & Mahalia Freed). Principles and Practices of Naturopathic Botanical Medicine. Volume 1: Botanical Medicine Monographs. Toronto, ON: CCNM Press. 2012.
Hoffman, David. Medical Herbalism: The Science & Practice of Herbal Medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press. 2003.
Kaminski, Patricia & Katz, Richard. Flower Essence Repertory. Nevada City, CA: Flower Essence Society. 1986/2004.

Hawthorn: Heart Healing from Physical to Spiritual

by Dr Mahalia Freed, ND

Crateagus oxycantha, flower

Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) is medicine for the heart on all levels. Indigenous to countries across the northern hemisphere, this small thorny tree has a long-recorded history of medicinal use in both Europe and China, as well as in North America. Poetically – and significantly – Hawthorn is a member of the Rose family.

Hawthorn’s place as heart medicine was noted by Greek physician, Dioscorides, in the first Century AD. Medical herbal research has validated this use, finding hawthorn to be effective for increasing the strength of heart contractions, increasing blood flow to the heart, decreasing blood lipids (ie decreasing bad cholesterol (LDL), and triglycerides) and modulating blood pressure (AltMedReview, 2010). A Cochrane review of trials on hawthorn for chronic or congestive heart failure found that Crataegus extract decreased fatigue and shortness of breath and improved exercise tolerance relative to placebo. And while the traditional context is different, the Traditional Chinese Medicine use of Hawthorne for fat or rich meal digestion highlights the ability of Haw/berry antioxidants to prevent cholesterol deposits from oxidizing.

Additionally, hawthorn is used in the form of an energy medicine for the heart.
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Shiitakes & Greens Sauté

This quick, simple dish is flavourful, and deeply nourishing.

If you have shied away from Shiitake mushrooms in the past, now is a chance to enjoy them. Their rich flavor provides an ideal counterpoint to the bitter freshness of Dandelions. Shiitakes are immune-enhancing and antiviral. For more about Dandelions, see http://www.drmahaliafreed.com/weeds-as-nourishing-spring-food-dandelion-greens/ .

Ingredients

  • 1/2 lb or so of fresh Shiitake mushrooms, sliced (can use dried – soak in just-boiled water first)
  • 1 large bunch dandelion greens, washed and chopped (or substitute kale or collard greens)
  • 1 large onion or 2 small onions, chopped
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp fresh grated ginger (optional)
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt, or to taste

Instructions

Heat olive oil in a sauté pan. Sauté onions, garlic and ginger in oil, adding water as needed, until onions are very soft. Add salt, shiitakes, with more water if needed, and let simmer at medium heat, covered, for about 8 minutes. Add dandelion greens/kale/collards and more water if needed, cover, and continue saute/simmering until greens are cooked (about 5 min).

Weeds as Nourishing Spring Food: Dandelion Greens

by Dr. Mahalia Freed, ND

Dandelions, ubiquitous indicators of warmer weather, are perfectly positioned to support our health – especially our livers – through the transition to spring.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

The greens are deeply nourishing. Rich in vitamins and minerals including beta-carotene, B vitamins, calcium, iron, and potassium, dandelion greens have an alkalinizing effect on the body. These much-maligned weeds are safely diuretic, and contain nutrients that specifically support detoxification pathways via the kidneys and the liver. Additionally, their bitter flavor stimulates digestive function, from the stomach down to the intestines, including stimulating bile production in the liver. For those of you thinking of a spring cleanse, guess what? Dandelion is truly a detoxifier, as enhancing bile production allows for enhanced elimination of wastes from the body.

Find dandelion greens at your local supermarket, or harvest them from any chemical-free patch of grass. If harvesting, note that they get more bitter as the season goes on.

Holly & The Holidays

Holly (Ilex aquifolium) is one of those plants classically associated with Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere. Gorgeous and festive with its shiny green and red, Holly is more than just decoration. While it isn’t common in herbal medicine materia medica, it is one of the original flower remedies used and researched by Dr. Edward Bach.

What is a flower remedy? Similar to homeopathy, flower essences are created using a specific technique that extracts not the physical constituents but the energetic essence of the plant. Flower essences are most often prescribed for emotional or spiritual states, rather than physical concerns. For example, Rescue Remedy is a popular retail formula for anxiety and shock. Essences may be prescribed to help with confidence, self esteem, stress, depression, or even for smoking cessation.

In the spirit of holiday healing, here is some information about Holly as a flower essence (from the Flower Essence Repertory, 2004 Edition). Isn’t it interesting, how the medicine we need is so often right near us?

Holly essence nourishes the heart, and is used to cultivate loving and inclusive gestures to others, ability to express gratitude to others, and compassion. Holly helps to broaden our sense of self to one that knows that we are connected, that “love is an infinite resource that is available to all.[…]When we feel separate from others we can take no joy or compassionate interest in their affairs; instead our isolation is compounded into negative states of jealousy, envy, suspicion or anger”. Holly is about community, and joy, and the joy of shared love. Holly “restores the soul’s ability to feel unity and wholeness”.

Sound like a good addition to your holiday gatherings? I think so. Thank you Holly, for your festive spirit (pun intended)!

Backyard Medicine: Calendula officinalis

Calendula is still blossoming here in Toronto right now, donating sunshine to the cold grey rain of late November. Every time I walk by some, it induces a grateful smile. What a beautiful reminder of the abundant medicine accessible to us, even as winter rolls in!

Calendula

Uses

This is another herb that is popular for good reason: used externally in creams, salves or herbal oils, Calendula is anti-inflammatory, wound-healing, supportive to the lymphatic system’s circulation, antibiotic, and anti-fungal. It is unsurpassed for treating local skin problems due to infection and for treating wounds, burns, bruises, and muscle strains (physical damage).  Internally (as a tincture or in tea), it has a similarly soothing & healing effect on the mucus membranes of the gastrointestinal and genitourinary tract. Continue reading

Backyard Medicine: Chamomile (Matricaria chamomila or Matricaria recutita)

“….. Peter was not very well during the evening. His mother put him to bed, and made some chamomile tea and she gave a dose of it to Peter.”

~ from The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (England, 1901)

History

Chamomile is one of the more familiar medicinal herbs, with a high profile in literature and a long history of use. This plant’s popularity is well-deserved.

Chamomile (dried flowers)

Chamomile’s earliest recorded use goes back much further: according to the Eber’s Papyrus, dated to 1550 BC, ancient Egyptians used the herb to honor the gods, embalm the dead and cure the sick. In Europe, medicinal use of Chamomile has been recorded since the 1st century AD.  Today, Chamomile remains a top-selling herb in the tea market place.

Uses

So what is chamomile good for, anyway?

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Remedying Overeating and Holiday Strain

By Mahalia Freed, ND

The December holiday season is upon us, and for many, that means a series of large, rich meals, combined with intense (and sometimes tense) family or social interactions. Beyond knowing your individual limits regarding eggnog and chocolate treats, what can you do to enhance digestion? How can you soothe frazzled nerves? What will help keep you from succumbing to a Christmas cold when you finally have time off? This month’s article highlights the wisdom of herbs as complex living medicines that cross body systems to provide us with just the support that we need. Did you know that there are herbs that soothe both the digestive tract and the nervous system? Did you know that there are herbs that decrease gut inflammation and are also antiviral?

Melissa officinalis (Lemon Balm)

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is one such herb. A common weed in the mint family, lemon balm is traditionally used to soothe indigestion, especially when related to emotional stress. The herb is helpful for relieving spasms of the gastrointestinal tract, gas pain, and flatulence. As well, it has a restorative, calming, and uplifting effect on the nervous system. Finally, laboratory studies confirm that the water extract (as in, tea) is antiviral, particularly against the cold sore virus and some types of ‘flu. For calming your stomach and nourishing your nerves, around the holidays or any time, try the following tea:

Nerve Nourishing Tummy Tea

Combine loose herbs

  • 1 Part Licorice root
  • 1 Part Chamomile flowers
  • 2 Parts Lemon balm aerial parts

Place herb mixture in a French press or teapot with strainer and add boiling water. Let steep 5-15 minutes, and drink as desired. Herbalist Rosemary Gladstar recommends this combination for heartburn, to be consumed 30 minutes before and after meals.

Cautions: If you have an under-active thyroid, consult your naturopathic doctor or medical herbalist before regularly using lemon balm. If you have high blood pressure, consult your naturopathic doctor or medical herbalist before regularly using licorice root.