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Archive for the ‘Essential Oils’ Category

Stretch marks are something that many many women are keen to avoid in pregnancy and there are a number of ways we can support the integrity of the skin to minimise their presence. Stretch marks in themselves are not harmful to us and could be seen as a beautiful testament to our journey to motherhood but, for better or for worse, we live in a culture where the archetype of the ‘maiden’ is held up as the ideal of beauty and most of us are not keen to loose it too quickly. Leaving aside such philosophical debate, in this post I hope to share some information with you about what stretch marks are and how we can help to prevent them, as well as sharing some nice recipes for bump balms and oil blends that you can make up at home.

Stretch marks, or striae, occur in somewhere between 50 and 80% of women during pregnancy, depending on which sources you believe, and result from a tearing of the dermis. This is the middle layer of the skin which is made up of connective tissue and contains collagen and elastin fibers which help the skin to stretch and heal. The tears leave scars which appear purple or red to begin with but usually fade to silvery white. Our skin is designed to be able to stretch and if there is adequate support in the dermis then marks will not occur.

Despite youth being on their side, stretch marks are most likely to appear in teenage mums, possibly because of the hormonal changes that are already going on in their bodies. Steroid hormones called glucocorticoids limit the production of collagen and elastin leaving skin more likely to tear as it becomes less elastic. This is why stretch marks can also occur as a side effect of prolonged use of steroid creams.

Many books and websites claim that whether or not you get stretch marks is entirely genetic and no amount of applying creams or oils will make any difference. This is not completely accurate as, though genetics do play an important role, the few studies done have shown that topical application does help to prevent stretch marks occurring. A German study found that one third of women using a specially formulated cream developed stretch marks as opposed to two thirds in the control group and in one review, two studies were compared and both showed beneficial results. The conclusion was, “stretch marks may be prevented in some women by daily massage but it is unclear if any particular ingredients bring special benefits.” You can read the full review here if you so wish.

Luckily there are foods, herbs, base oils and essential oils which all help to prevent stretch marks and aid in keeping skin supple and supported.

Two of the most important herbs used to prevent stretch marks are calendula (Calendula officinalis) and gotu kola (Centella asiatica). These can both be used in massage as herbal infused oils. Antioxidant rich herbs such as hawthorn, elderberry and bilberry are useful in preventing the breakdown of collagen and these can be taken in teas whilst other deeply coloured berries can be enjoyed as part of the diet. Vitamin C is an important co-factor in collagen production and is found in peppers, tomatoes, dark green leafy veg, berries and many other fruits. Anyone pregnant at this time of year is in luck as rosehips are abundant in Vitamin C as well as abundant in the hedgerows right now. Adequate protein intake is also very important.

Calendula

Bump Rub Recipes and Ingredients:

Here are two simple recipes that you can make up with a variety of different ingredients to suit yourself. First I’ll give the basic outline of the recipe and then a list of possible options below. In the past many people have asked me if they can substitute some of the ingredients in a recipe for others so hopefully this will show you some of the many possibilities. Of course there are many more base oils that you could use but these are the ones I have found to be most useful.

Mama’s Bump Rub Massage Oil:

Massaging your abdomen is such a beautiful way to connect with your own body and your growing baby and is the perfect opportunity to send love to you both.

To make 100ml:
40 mls light oil such as jojoba (or substitute any of the light oils listed below)
30 mls macerated oil such as calendula
20 mls rich oil such as rosehip and/ or avocado (or substitute any of the rich oils listed below)
7 ml GLA rich oil – borage or evening primrose
2.5 mls vitamin E Oil
0.5 ml Essential oil – optional. (Usually this works out to be about 15 drops per 100ml though this depends on the size of the dropper in the bottle. It is always wise to measure essential oils in a pipette until you get to know how much your droppers dispense.)

Mix all ingredients together and bottle. Massage onto abdomen hips and breasts once or twice a day.

Mama’s Belly Butter:

22ml light oil such as jojoba (or substitute any of the light oils listed below)
20 ml herbal macerated oil such as calendula
20 ml rich oil such as rosehip and/ or hemp seed (or substitute any of the rich oils listed below)
30 g Shea Butter (or any of the butters listed below)
5 g beeswax or candellia wax
2.5 ml vitamin E oil
0.5 ml Essential oil – optional

This makes for a rich balm so only a small amount is needed but it’s very nourishing and one I really enjoy using.

Melt the butters in a bain marie then add the liquid oils in a slow drizzle until fully incorporated. Let cool a little but not enough to begin setting then add the vitamin E oil and essential oils. Mix well, pour into jars and allow to set fully before using.

Variations:

One tip when choosing base oils is to check for the smell as some high quality oils will have a strong smell of nuts or seeds. If so make sure to mix small quantities with other oils that don’t smell so strongly otherwise you will mask the aroma of the essential oils as they are in a low dilution. Be aware that no oil should ever smell off or rancid however.

Rich Oils: These oils are particularly nourishing and high in nutrients that can literally work to feed the skin. They have a thick texture however which is why I always recommend mixing them with lighter oils. Rich oils that would be particularly nice in a bump rub include avocado, rosehip, macadamia nut, hemp seed and wheatgerm.

GLA rich oils: Evening primrose or borage both contain high levels of GLAs and are a useful addition to a bump rub in small quantities. Make sure you buy these oils very fresh as they have a shelf life of only six months. It is always wise to store them in the fridge before use.

Light Oils: Jojoba, apricot, almond, hazelnut or grapeseed (refined) would all work well as lighter oils to make your finished product easier to apply. They also contain many nutrients of their own.

Macerated Oils: herbal infused oils such as calendula or gotu kola are the obvious ones to go for but chamomile, lavender or rose would also be lovely choices here.

Butters: Coconut, cacao, shea or mango butter are all lovely on the skin. Choose coconut or mango if you want something lighter, cacao for a firmer texture and shea for a creamy feel.

Essential Oils: Many essential oils are best avoided during pregnancy until the birth itself when they can play an important role. However there are several that are very safe and fine to use from your second trimester on in low percentages like in this recipe. For these rubs I would stick to one or a combination of the following oils; mandarin, neroli, tangerine, lavender and ylang ylang. If you want something refreshing I would use mandarin and tangerine or something more relaxing for the evening could perhaps contain lavender and neroli. Ylang ylang gives a beautiful floral and exotic smell. Neroli is a very expensive essential oil but it is prized for it’s regenerative abilities so is ideal in preventing stretch marks.

Do leave a comment below if you have any queries or anything I have said is unclear.

Happy bump massaging!

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With the weather staying mild so late this year, Christmas has snuck up on me before I am ready for it and I realise now, with just three weeks to go, that it’s time to get into action.

Since beginning this blog, the topic I have been questioned about more than any other is how to make creams. Unlike simple salves and balms  cream making can be notoriously tricky as it requires mixing together oils and waters which naturally want to separate. There are a number of ways to achieve a nice cream with a good consistency and, over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting the main recipes I have used, hopefully in time for you to make some for your own Christmas presents too.

In this post I want to introduce some of the ingredients which can be used in cream making to enable you to adapt the recipes more to your own specifications. There are so many different base oils, herbs, essential oils etc. that its impossible to cover them all here, but I’ll include the main ones I have found useful after much experimentation. If you have any questions or want anything clarifying then do ask in the comments section and I will try to answer if I am able.

The three recipes I will post are:
A simple cream involving no emulsifier – my own variation on Rosemary Gladstar’s classic.
A cream using emulsifying wax – as seems to be most popular in herbal recipe books.
A cream with VE and MF emulsifiers – as used by many UK herbalists and popularised by Aromatic in their courses.

In my experience, different recipes work better for different people. I’m a firm fan of the first but others I have met prefer to use emulsifying wax. It’s all down to personal preference as some like a richer cream whilst others like something lighter with a higher water content. If your cream is for therapeutic use then you need to consider whether the condition you are treating is dry, flaky and in need of protection, in which case a richer cream with a higher oil content is preferable, or whether it is red, itchy, weeping  and hot, in which case a lighter cream with a higher water content and cooling, astringent oils will have better results.

Ingredients used in Creams include the following:

Base oils and herbal infused oils – Base oils are usually vegetable oils, pressed from nuts, seeds, kernels and other fatty parts of fruits and vegetables. Things to be aware of when choosing base oils include the consistency and smell. Some oils are rich and moisturising and good for drier skins like avocado, hemp, macadamia, argan and rosehip. Often you would only use these in a smaller percentage along with a lighter oil like almond or apricot. Oils like rosehip, hemp and macadamia can have quite a strong aroma, especially if they’re high quality and unrefined so factor this into your recipe and don’t use too much. Lighter oils that are good for oiler skins include hazelnut, grapeseed and jojoba. Sensitive skins respond well to apricot oil. As this topic is something of a vast one, I will dedicate a post to exploring some different base oils in further detail soon. Be aware that some wonderfully nutritious skin oils like borage and evening primrose have a very short shelf life, around 6 months, so ensure you get them from a good supplier and store them in the fridge. Never buy oils that smell rancid and be aware of using nut oils on those with allergies. Herbal infused oils are simply vegetable oils infused with herbs. You can read my post on how to make them here.

Solid oils and butters – These include cacao butter, coconut oil, avocado butter, mango butter and shea butter and they are rich and moisturising as well as adding body to a cream. For a lighter effect which sinks in to the skin easily use coconut, or for a rich, nourishing hand cream opt for shea. Cacao is nice in both body and face creams and, if you get it food grade, it lends a delicious chocolatey aroma to your finished product.  Somewhere between a liquid oil and beeswax or plant waxes in consistency, fats will partly absorb into the skin but will leave something of a protective film behind.

Beeswax and plant waxes – These thicken and add body to creams and also help a little with emulsification. They are not well absorbed into the skin creating a protective barrier that helps it maintain its own moisture and keeps it hydrated, especially during these wintery months with their high winds.

Waters – These include spring water, floral waters, herbal teas and aloe vera. You can vary them endlessly to suit your purpose. If you are making a plain base cream try using just spring water or if it’s a luxury face cream then use rose floral water. If you want a soothing cream with anti-inflammatory properties then try a strong tea of chamomile and calendula.

Vegetable Glycerine – Glycerine is a sweet, syrupy, clear liquid that helps draw moisture to the surface of the skin. In very dry climates it can apparently take the moisture from deeper layers of skin so best to avoid using it, but if you live in the damp UK, it can be a nice addition and improve the consistency of your creams.

Tinctures – A small proportion of a suitable herbal tincture will add therapeutic value as well as helping to preserve your cream. Try calendula in a soothing cream, comfrey in a bruise healing cream or yarrow in an anti-inflammatory cream. Do beware though that alcohol can irritate sensitive skins.

Essential Oils – The volatile oil content of the plant is distilled, pressed or extracted with solvents leaving a highly concentrated and powerfully aromatic liquid that can be used for strong therapeutic benefits or simply to make the product smell delicious.

Emulsifiers – These help the water and oil parts of a cream to mix and leave a homogenous finish. Common ones include emulsifying wax, vegetal and VE/MF emulsifiers all derived from vegetable sources, albeit after some intense processing! Another commonly used and readily available emulsifier is borax, though I have heard mixed reports of its safety and prefer not to use it myself.

Vitamins and minerals – These can be added to creams and usually come as a powder or in liquid form. Vitamins A, C and E are the ones most commonly used as they are good anti-oxidants and can help prevent oils going rancid.  Sometimes minerals like zinc are added to sun creams to create a barrier against the suns rays.

Natural preservatives – These include rosemary extract and grapeseed extract. Both are powerful anti-oxidants that can increase the shelf life of creams. They also have some anti-bacterial action but many say it is not powerful enough for products sold commercially. Grapefruit seed extract is more powerfully anti-microbial but there is much evidence out there that suggests it is quite problematic so I suggest reading the research yourself before using it.

Synthetic preservatives - If you are only making creams for friends and family you have no need to go down this route but if you are making creams to sell you may need to add a synthetic preservative which will protect against moulds, yeasts, bacteria etc. Though there is conflicting evidence as to whether all types are carcinogenic, I would avoid parabens altogether myself. The safest ones seem to be Preservative 12 and Preservative Eco, both sold by Aromantic. I often avoid using these where possible but for creams with a high water content they are necessary if you want your product to last longer than a couple of months in the fridge.

I will post the first recipe in the next couple of days so check back soon.

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I love to make up blends of herbal oils and often give the people I see a little bottle of something to use externally alongside taking their herbal tinctures or teas. It could be a neck and shoulder rub, a stomach massage oil, a foot massage oil or something for helping to heal scar tissue. I believe that taking some time to massage a part of your body that needs some love and attention is a wonderful technique for healing as it brings our awareness to the places that need it and encourages an attitude of self care and nurturing. The blend I have given out more than any other is my breast massage oil so I thought I would share the recipe with you here.

Before I started to see clients I don’t think I was really aware of how many women suffer from sore or tender breasts, often with lumps and swellings, which can vary a lot with hormonal fluctuations throughout their cycle. The breasts are made up of glandular tissue (which includes lymph nodes and milk producing lobes), fatty tissue and fibrous or connective tissue. The lymphatic system does not contain its own pump so it relies on the movement of muscles to keep it flowing nicely around the body. As there are no actual muscles within the breasts themselves, massage becomes even more important for healthy breasts and lymphatics.

You can use any nice base oils to perform the massage but herbal infused oils add extra therapeutic value alongside that special something which I like to think of as the plant’s own consciousness. The base of my breast massage oil is violet (Viola odorata) infused in sweet almond oil, though a good quality, organic sunflower oil could also be used quite happily.

If you don’t have any violet infused oil (and now is of course the wrong time to be making it from fresh) you can use dried plant material infused into the oil using the heat method which I outlined in this post. I personally prefer the fresh oil because the flowers impart a delightfully gentle aroma but using the dried leaf will still be effective.

Calendula oil, which can be found in many health food shops, makes a lovely substitution, especially when mixed 50/50 with lavender infused oil which can be made from dried flowers all year round. A small amount of yarrow or chamomile infused oil makes a useful addition if there is inflammation. Rosemary infused oil can be added at about 25% if there is a need to increase circulation and many people also recommend dandelion flower infused oil. Rose infused oil is another delightful addition, though I tend to stick with a few drops of the essential oil as it has a stronger aroma which resonates so much with the heart and with feelings of self-love. You can also add castor oil which is useful for removing congestion but, as it’s ridiculously sticky, I’d keep it to around 5%.

If you really want to keep things simple then stick with a plain almond, apricot or coconut oil, all of which have wonderful healing properties of their own.

The recipe I use as an all purpose breast massage oil is as follows:

28ml Violet infused oil
2ml vitamin E oil
2 drops each geranium and rose essential oils
Combine all the ingredients in a 30ml bottle and use to massage the breasts regularly.

Geranium essential oil is one of the best oils for balancing the endocrine system so is lovely for sore breasts due to fluctuating hormone levels. It also has a very balancing effect on the mind and emotions too.

When massaging the breasts I like to do a combination of circular movements with gentle kneading and a sort of pulsing action which is great at getting the lymph flowing. There is a good video here which outlines some techniques for this lymphatic pumping action.

Another great tip for getting the lymphatics flowing well in the breast area is to splash them with cold water after a hot bath or shower. Alternatively you can alternate a few splashes of hot water (though not unbearable of course) with cold water for a few minutes.

Finally, (in something of an aside) while we are on the subject of lovely ladies with voluptuous breasts, regular readers of this blog may remember the rescue hens we adopted during the summer. One of them, the delightful Primrose, has shot to stardom and is appearing in the British Hen Welfare Trust’s 2012 calendar, having fought off hundreds of other hopefuls to become Miss June.

This is how Primrose looked when we first got her:

And this is her calendar girl shot, only a couple of months later.

All the money from the sale of the calendars goes to support the charity, so if you or someone you know is a hen lover, you can pick up a copy here!

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I finally managed to get out onto the top of the Downs last week to collect my harvest of yarrow. It was the prefect day for it, with bright sunshine to dry off the dew without being so hot that the volatile oils were too quick to evaporate. Now the tincture is steeping away and the flowers are dried for teas so it seems like the perfect time to share a few words about this most valuable of healing remedies.

Yarrow atop the South Downs.

Despite being one of the most important medicines in my healing repertoire, I have been avoiding posting about yarrow for quite sometime. This is for the simple reason that it is useful for many things it’s hard to know where to start, yarrow really requires an entire book to itself! For simplicity’s sake I will stick to the basics here but I will revisit this wonder herb with more specific information in the future.

Yarrow is a common weed native to the Northern hemisphere that grows freely in grassland, chalk land, roadsides and other sites with well draining ground. It is instantly recognisable due to its feathery leaves, strong stems and broad white flower heads made up of many small individual flowers.

Yarrow as a Wound Healer:
This is perhaps yarrow’s most famous and most ancient use. Yarrow was found amongst other medicinal herbs in the Neanderthal burial site in Iraq which dates from around 60,000 BC and has become famous in herbal medicine as one of the earliest indications of human’s use of medicinal plants.  Myth tells us it was given to Achilles by the centaur Chiron so he could use it on the battlefield and its Latin name, Achillea millefollium, still reflects this tale. Its common names too included Soldier’s herb, herba militaris, Knight’s milfoil, carpenter’s grass and nosebleed. Yarrow is one of the most useful wound herbs we have as it staunches bleeding and is antimicrobial and pain relieving too.

Yarrow for Colds and Fevers:
It’s next greatest claim to fame is it’s ability to make us sweat. When fever is building, drinking hot teas of yarrow can help it to break by relaxing the circulation and the pores of the skin, allowing us to sweat freely and ridding the body of infection. Dr Christopher once wrote, “Yarrow, when administered hot and copiously, will raise the heat of the body, equalise the circulation and produce perspiration.” It may seem inadvisable to raise the body heat in cases of fever but by using yarrow we are supporting the body in responding to infection naturally. The classic formula for colds and flus is yarrow, peppermint and elderflower which should be drunk as a hot tea as soon as possible. The the patient should then wrap up warmly, keeping a hot water bottle at their feet and wait to sweat. When there is a high body temperature but no sweating, this formula is especially useful to help release the heat via the skin. Now is the time to get these herbs in stock before the cold and flu season strikes.

Yarrow for the Circulation:
Yarrow’s affinity for the blood and circulation can be seen internally as well as externally. It tones the blood vessels at the same time as dilating capillaries and moving the blood, thus giving it a wide range of applications. It has been used to treat high blood pressure, often in combination with Hawthorn and Lime blossom and it has a reputation for being able to prevent blood clots. It’s tonifying action makes it particularly useful for treating varicose veins and haemorrhoids. Yarrow really is a great equaliser, it moves where necessary and tones where needed. This dual action is what has given it is reputation for being able to both cure and cause nosebleeds!

Yarrow for the Digestion:
Being bitter, pungent and aromatic means that yarrow is particularly useful for stimulating the digestion and getting the bile and pancreatic juices flowing. Because of it’s affinity to the circulation as well it can help move congested blood in the portal vein which, in turn, helps the liver. Matthew Wood talks about using it for colitis and diverticulitis because of it’s ability to tone and heal the mucus membranes of the digestive tract. It was also an old traditional remedy for bloody diarrhoea and dysentery.

Yarrow for the Reproductive and Urinary Systems:
Maria Treben considers yarrow “first and foremost… a herb for women” and quotes Abbe Kneipp in saying “women could be spared many troubles if they just took yarrow tea from time to time.” It is such a wonderful herb for the reproductive systems because it can both staunch heavy bleeding and stimulate scanty bleeding. It is also wonderful when there is congestion resulting in dark clotted blood and period pains. It is useful for vaginal infections or irregular discharge as well as spotting between periods.

Yarrow is a good urinary anti-septic and, when drunk as a warm or cool (rather than hot) infusion, the diuretic properties are emphasised making it a useful remedy for cystitis and urinary tract infections. It has also been praised for helping cases of urinary incontinence. Culpepper informs us that it “helps such as cannot hold their water.”

If we think about some of the ways in which yarrow might work we can start to draw together all these different facets of it’s healing ability. When you taste yarrow it is pungent and aromatic with quite a bitter aftertaste. The volatile oils which make it so aromatic and warming are dispersive in nature and therefore are one of the things that gives yarrow this wonderful ability to move congestion and stagnation, equalise the circulation and open up the skin. Volatile oils are also often anti-microbial. The bitterness balances it’s warmth with more cooling qualities and also stimulates the digestion. Though the bitter gets our juices flowing and the aromatic qualities get things moving, you can also tell yarrow is an astringent which is what makes it so helpful for toning blood vessels. It may seem like a plant of contradictions but yarrow is just another example of how wonderfully complex our herbs can be. They demand that we know them, rather than just a list of their actions, and that we let go of linear thinking and delve into the realms of experiential understanding instead.

Preparations are usually made from the areal parts including leaf, flower and some stem, though I usually leave out the toughest bits. They can then be used in a variety of ways:

Tea – Take hot for colds and flus and warm or cool for cystitis. Or use as a wash for grazes or rashes.

Tincture – For chronic congestion in the reproductive system and high blood pressure (teas could also be used here).

Baths - For skin irritations.

Sitz baths – For cystitis, vaginal infections, bleeding fibroids, haemorrhoids, post-partum healing, heavy periods etc.

Footbaths – For chilblains.

Infused Oil – For first aid healing ointments or soothing creams for irritated skins.

Poultice or Compress – Spit poultices for wounds and first aid situations, compresses for larger areas of grazed skin.

Wound powder – Finely powdered dried herb can be sprinkled on minor wounds.

Spray – The tincture or herb infused in witch hazel can be sprayed on to varicose veins to tone and move stagnant blood.

Flower Essence – Said to be protective for those who are overly sensitive to their environments and the emotions of others.

Essential Oil – A wonderful anti-inflammatory for skin conditions.

Please note, yarrow is best avoided during pregnancy.

Yarrow was also considered a sacred herb by many cultures of the world and has lots of interesting folklore attached to it. I’ll save that for another post though!

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For many people anxiety and stress go hand in hand with a tense stomach and disturbed digestion. Whilst stress affects digestion in everyone, some people are particularly prone to experiencing problems.  All digestive issues, from gas to inflammatory bowel conditions are affected by stress, even if there are many other contributing factors.

Our digestion is controlled by the enteric nervous system which is linked to the central nervous system by millions of nerves. When we are stressed we enter the ‘fight or flight’ response which priorities blood flow to the brain and muscles in case we have to run from or outwit a possible danger. This is, of course, useful in situations where there is a real threat but for many of us, our constant deadlines, hectic schedules and million and one expectations lead to a chronic state of stress in which the blood flow to the digestive organs is seriously impaired.  Stress causes everything to contract and constrict and can therefore affect the production of  digestive juices, cause the stomach and or intestines to spasm, create inflammation and encourage infection. When stress becomes chronic, so do digestive problems.

Chamomile

Goethe believed that the gut was the centre of all human emotions. When I used to practice as a massage therapist I would always ask people first if they wanted me to massage their stomach as many people dislike being touched in this area. I can notice this in myself too, if I am feeling anxious at all then my stomach feels far to sensitive to touch. This is because the nerves are all activated, leaving us with sensations such as ‘butterflies in our stomach’ or that awful knot of fear in our solar plexus.

There are many herbs that work on the interface between the nerves and the digestion- Chamomile, Cardamom, Rosemary, Lavender, Lemon Balm and other Mints to name just a few. All these are aromatic, therefore diffuse stuck energy and tension at the same time as stimulating digestion. A calming cup of chamomile tea, taken 2 or 3 times a day, is a great way to gently soothe your nerves and digestion. Specific conditions will need individualised treatment but for those who suffer more general digestive disturbances related to stress these herbs can be very useful.

Catmint

At the moment, everyone I am seeing has some level of stress related digestive disturbance, even if that is not the primary reason they are seeking treatment. Recently I saw someone who was so tense that their appetite had disappeared almost completely, a sure sign that the digestive organs are very constricted. I came up with this tummy rub as a way of not only relaxing the digestive system but also encouraging people to take a few moments in their hectic schedule to be fully present with themselves, take some deep breaths and become mindful of their state of being. It’s easy to gulp down a tincture or tea on your way to work but you have to take a bit of time to massage your stomach and even if you feel like it’s an extra thing to do in the morning, once you have begun you cannot help but calm down a little.

When massaging the stomach, always move in deep rhythmic movements in a clockwise direction (as if the clock were on your abdomen rather than facing you!) as this is the way the intestines move waste along. Take a moment to breathe deeply and become a little more mindful of yourself and the present moment. This need only take a few minutes but that can be enough to relax the digestion, the nervous system and the mind.

Soothing Tummy Rub:

50ml base oil (almond, sunflower, apricot etc)
10 drops Neroli essential oil
5 drops Roman Chamomile essential oil
5 drops Cardamom essential oil

This makes a blend of approximately 2%, perfect for adults and children over 12. For children between 4 and 12, halve the amount of essential oils and for babies to 4 year olds use 5 drops chamomile only to make a 0.5% blend or stick to chamomile infused oil instead. You could also make it into a salve or balm (see my previous post) if that is your preference.

Chamomile is a fabulous essential oil for calming the nerves and soothing digestion, helping to expel bloating, flatulence and gas. Cardamom is warming, carminative and antispasmodic and also has a relaxing and uplifting effect on the nerves. Neroli is one of the best essential oils for the nervous system being deeply relaxing and uplifting. It’s also good for promoting flow of digestive juices.  All three are considered children’s oils as they are safe, supportive, caring and calming.

I’ve had very positive feedback from those trialling the oil so far and I encourage those of you who also suffer from a tense stomach to give it a go too. The perfect way to soothe, nurture and let go.

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For a long time I was confused about the difference between salves, ointments and balms. Some writers use all three terms interchangeably whilst others have separate definitions, many of which contradict those from other sources. In this post I wanted to tell you a little about how I make salves, ointments and balms with the intention of sharing some hopefully useful tips and practical information.

Salves, ointments, unguents, balms, call them what you will, what all these preparations have in common is they are primarily a semi-solid mix of fatty ingredients such as oils and waxes, usually with no water part at all, though they may contain a small amount of herbal tincture or similar. This differentiates them from creams and lotions which contain both fats and waters.

Generally, ointments and salves are considered much the same thing; a healing external preparation made with medicinal substances in a base of oils and waxes. According to the Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health an ointment is “a semisolid preparation for external application to the skin or mucous membranes. Official ointments consist of medicinal substances incorporated in suitable vehicles (bases). Called also salve and unguent.”  All in all the definitions are pretty vague which is probably why we find discrepancies.

Suitable ingredients for a salve include many vegetable oils (such as olive, sunflower, sweet almond, apricot) and beeswax or vegetable wax such as candelilla or carnuba. In older herbals lard or animal fats were often used and these are enjoying something of a comeback amongst some traditional herbalists but, as a vegetarian, they don’t feature on my radar so I won’t be talking about them here. Many herbal books include recipes made with mineral oil byproducts such as petroleum jelly or vaseline but again, as I don’t work with them, I will not be including any information here.

As making salves involves some degree of heat it’s best to use oils that are fairly heat stable, the main ones to avoid are oils like flax seed, evening primrose and borage. If you want to include these then stir them in after the other ingredients have been melted and are beginning to cool.  Coconut oil is the most heat stable vegetable oil but as you will not be heating it very high, oils like olive, sunflower and apricot kernal can be happily used.

Beeswax comes in two varieties, white and yellow but the white is bleached and processed so I never use it, it’s always better to stay as close to nature as possible. Candelilla wax is derived from the leaves of a shrub native to Mexico and is slightly harder than beeswax so you generally want to use a fraction less in a recipe. Carnuba is a similar product derived from a Brazilian Palm. The advantages of these two is that they are vegan so products can be made that are suitable for everyone. The disadvantage is that they come from a very long way away (at least if you live here in Europe!). It’s a tricky choice as some producers of bee products are far from ethical or kind to their bees. I do use beeswax but always try to get it from a local supplier that I know I can trust.

Basic Salve Recipe:

90ml herbal infused oil
10g beeswax

Basic Vegan Salve Recipe:

92 ml infused oil
8g candelilla wax

Medicinal Salve Recipe:

75 – 80ml infused oil
10g beeswax
10ml tincture
2 – 5 ml essential oil

Method:

Weigh or measure out the wax (preferably grated or cut into small pieces) and the herbal infused oil and place in a double boiler or bain marie. Heat over a low heat until the wax is fully melted and then stir well. If adding tincture drizzle it in slowly now whilst whisking lightly with a fork. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly but not set. You can test the consistency of the salve by dipping the tip of a teaspoon into it. Such a  small amount will set quickly and will show you how the finished product will be. If you are not happy you can return it to the heat and add a fraction more oil/wax until you get it just right. Whilst the salve is still liquid, stir in the essential oils, pour into glass jars and cap immediately to stop the volatile oils from evaporating. Allow to cool and set completely before using.

You can make salves for use as chest rubs, for treating aches and pains, for protecting and healing dry and sore skin and many other uses. The recipe can be easily adapted according to your preferences or required ingredients. A very simple skin healing salve can be made with calendula infused oil and beeswax or a chest salve with olive oil, wax and 5% suitable essential oils. The possibilities are limitless!

Balms are similar to salves, some people class them as the same thing entirely whilst others make a slight differentiation.  According to James Green who wrote The Herbal Medicine Makers Handbook, “a balm is simply a salve that contains a relatively high amount of volatile oils. Upon application is delivers a notably intense cloud of aromatic vapours.”  My understanding of a balm is that it is a salve that also contains butters such as cacao or shea butter making for a creamier end product. These are just individual definitions though so you can use whichever you prefer.

Cacao is fairly hard at room temperature so makes for a slightly firmer end product where as shea is very creamy and therefore a lovely addition to lip balms or body butters. Mango butter is also delicious and has a lower melt point and a more slippery consistency.

Basic Balm Recipe:

67 ml infused oil
25 g cacao butter
5 g beeswax
2 ml vitamin E
1 ml essential oils of choice

Basic Body Butter Recipe:

57 ml infused oil
20 g shea butter
20 g cacao butter
2 ml vitamin E
1 ml essential oils

These balms can be made as above by melting the oils, butters and wax in a bain marie then adding the essential oils and vitamin E at the last moment so they will not be affected by the heat.

I hope that was helpful rather than just confusing the issue further! Happy making.

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It’s been exactly a year since I started writing this blog, a year in which I’ve learnt lots and made some lovely blogging friends, at home and abroad. I thought I’d mark the occasion with a small giveaway and a little retrospective of some of my herbal highlights from the year past.

I mentioned in our last blog party how I like to make up blends of oils in little rollette bottles that can be easily carried around and applied in a moment of need. This month I’ll be giving away one of my favourites, a blend of rose petal and tilia infused oils with 5% organic essential oils of rose otto, geranium and tangerine. You can apply it to your pulse point or rub a little under your collarbone to experience the heart opening and uplifting effects. As it’s a strong blend of essential oils you wouldn’t use it on your face but more as a natural perfume and instant aromatherapy. Also, the rose petals are infused in sweet almond oil so best to avoid this if you’re allergic to nuts.

I wanted to make something small enough to send easily so this is open to everyone, wherever in the world they live. To enter the giveaway just leave a note in the comments with your name. I’ll pull the names out of a hat in 10 days time, that’s Wednesday the 23rd.

Now I shall cast my eye back over the last year of nature gazing and medicine making, just click on the links to read any of the posts that interest you.

Last February I enjoyed getting to know the Yews in our local area.

In March I was picking cleavers and having fun in the kitchen with oranges.

By April my garden was waking and there was an abundance of Ramsons in the woods.

In May I had fun musing on Comfrey, getting to know Speedwell and delighting in Hawthorn.

June rolled around and I was to be found in the company of Horsetail and Linden.

July had me blissed out in fields of Chamomile and discovering Wild Marjoram.

Then in August we finally moved out to the countryside and I had fun harvesting nettle seeds along the track leading to our house.

In September I got carried away writing posts on Elder

Whilst in October I was back spending time with the Hawthorns and warming up with Cardamom.

November brought the first frost and with it the sweeter rose hips and sloes. It also saw me digging Nettle roots and enjoying Rosemary medicine.

The year ended with a thick fall of snow and I stayed warm with Ginger and calm with inspiration from our ‘no time for stress‘ blog party.

Then in January I mused on detox, enjoyed back pepper and listed some of my favourite herbal hugs.

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this blog and continue to do so as we see what 2011 will bring.

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With Valentine’s Day around the corner I thought it was about time I posted a suitably romantic recipe for these quick and easy, yet delightfully decadent massage bars. Whatever your feelings about this particular festival, a massage bar makes a lovely gift for anyone and can be used to pamper yourself too as it makes a delicious body moisturiser after the shower or bath

Ingredients:
50g Cocoa Butter
15g Shea Butter
15g Coconut Oil
10g Mango butter (or just use 25g Coconut and omit the mango)
10 ml Base oil
2ml Vitamin E Oil
20 drops essential oils of choice

Add the solid oils to the base oil of your choice (any relatively thin oil like apricot, hazelnut, jojoba or sunflower would do nicely) and melt over a low heat in a bain marie. Remove from the heat and stir in the vitamin E and essential oils of choice. Pour into massage bar moulds (I actually just used large chocolate moulds) and set in the fridge or freezer. That’s it.

If you live in a warm climate you’ll want to increase the amount of solid oil you use or possibly add a little beeswax or candelilla wax to make it more heat stable as these are designed to melt easily on contact with the skin. Alternatively you can keep them in the fridge. Also beware of using nut oils like almond for people with allergies.

Some ideas for essential oils you could use include the following:
Romantic and floral blend – Rose 5 drops, Ylang Ylang 8 drops, Sweet Orange 7 drops.
Relaxing and uplifting blend – Lavender 7 drops, Neroli 8 drops and Green Mandarin 5 drops.
Earthy and sexy blend- Sandalwood 10 drops, Jasmine 5 drops, Black Pepper 5 drops.
Beautifully balancing blend – Geranium 10 drops, Bergamot 5 drops, Lavender 5 drops.

I used the earthy and sexy blend and it turned out deliciously though you have to take into account your personal taste in oils and the effect you wish to achieve. I recommend consulting a good aromatherapy text to get a clearer idea of which oils will suit your purpose.

And incase you’re still not in the mood for love, here is a selection of my favourite love poems to win your heart.

The Innocence of any Flesh Sleeping – Brian Patten

Sleeping beside you I dreamt
I woke beside you;
Waking beside you
I thought I was dreaming.

Have you ever slept beside an ocean?
Well yes,
It is like this.

The whole motion of landscapes, of oceans
Is within her.
She is
The innocence of any flesh sleeping,
So vulnerable
No protection is needed.

In such times
The heart opens,
Contains all there is,
There being no more than her.

In what country she is
I cannot tell.
But knowing – because there is love
And it blots out all demons –
She is safe,
I can turn,
Sleep well beside her.

Waking beside her I am dreaming.
Dreaming of such wakings
I am to all love’s senses woken.

Untitled – Rumi

Love swells and surges the ocean
and on your robe of storm cloud
sews rain designs.

Love is lightning,
and also the ahhh
we respond with.

Untitled – Simon Armitage

Let me put it this way:
if you came to lay

your sleeping head
against my arm or sleeve,

and if my arm went dead,
or if I had to take my leave

at midnight, I should rather
cleave it from the joint or seam

than make a scene
or bring you round.

There,
how does that sound?

Love – Pablo Neruda

So many days, oh so many days
seeing you so tangible and so close
how do I pay, with what do I pay?

The bloodthirsty spring
has awakened in the woods.
The foxes start from their earths,
the serpents drink the dew,
and I go with you in the leaves
between the pines and the silence,
asking myself how and when
I will have to pay for my luck.

Of everything I have seen,
it’s you I want to go on seeing:
of everything I’ve touched,
it’s your flesh I want to go on touching.
I love your orange laughter.
I am moved by the sight of you sleeping.

What am I to do, love, loved one?
I don’t know how others love
or how people loved in the past.
I live, watching you, loving you.
Being in love is my nature.

You please me more each afternoon.

Where is she? I keep on asking
if your eyes disappear.
How long she’s taking! I think, and I’m hurt.
I feel poor, foolish and sad,
and you arrive and you are lightning
glancing off the peach trees.

That’s why I love you and yet not why.
There are so many reasons, and yet so few,
for love has to be so,
involving and general,
particular and terrifying,
joyful and grieving,
flowering like the stars,
and measureless as a kiss.

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Black Pepper (Piper nigrum) is a wonderful spice with a rich history and many uses in the kitchen and in the medicine chest. In Sanskrit it is known as Marich, one of the names for the sun, as it is thought to be filled with solar energy. It is currently the world’s most widely traded spice appearing on the tables of cafes and restaurants everywhere.

Native to India and Sri Lanka, I saw a black pepper plant in the flesh for the first time when I visited Kew Gardens last year, it was incredibly lush and attractive. In Ayurvedic medicine it’s actually the long pepper or pippali (Piper longum) that is most often used medicinally but we still see black pepper being used in remedies since antiquity. Black peppercorns are the dried fruit of the plant whereas white peppercorns, which have a milder flavour, are it’s seed.

Black Pepper in the glasshouse at Kew Gardens in London.

Stimulating to the digestion, pepper is seen primarily as a remedy for indigestion, bloating, gas and malabsorption. Studies have shown that it not only increases the appetite and production of hydrochloric acid but improves digestion of many key nutrients such as the B vitamins, beta-carotene and selenium and various phytochemicals from other spices and green tea. This is primarily due to the piperine content which is also anti-carcinogenic, due both to this ability to increase absorption of other beneficial compounds and partly in its own right as it’s anti-oxidant and inhibits pro-inflammatory cytokines that are produced by tumour cells.

The taste is pungent and stimulating with heating and somewhat drying properties. As such it’s been used for treating colds and flus either as a decoction or as a powder mixed with a bit of honey or ghee. It is mucolytic and expectorant so helps break up congestion in the chest and sinuses. It’s a warming diaphoretic so best used when there is fever but without a productive sweat and with cold extremities. It boosts circulation throughout the system but is especially nice for people with cold hands and feet. It’s also thermogenic, increasing fat metabolism and helping weight loss.

Pepper is analgesic and has a history of traditional use for toothache where the powder is applied to the sore tooth. I sometimes like to add a little of the tincture to mouthwashes for its antibacterial effects and its ability to protect against tooth decay.

A decoction drunk several times a day is also thought to help with constipation though it would be best suited to chilly types whose constipation is not caused by constitutional dryness but by lax muscles, poor assimilation or low digestive ‘fire’.

Lovely botanical illustration of Black Pepper courtesy of good ol' Wikipedia.

In large quantities it can be irritating to the mucus membranes so I always stick to low doses; a few peppercorns in tea, a pinch of powder in honey or a good sprinkling on food. Because of this it’s contraindicated in very hot people or in conditions where there is a lot of inflammation in the GI tract, though externally it’s nice for inflamed joints or muscles.

The essential oil, in small amounts, is surprisingly gentle considering the nature of the plant. I tend to avoid many of the spice oils externally such as clove, nutmeg and cinnamon as they’re very potent, though I do enjoy them in my oil burner. Black Pepper, ginger and cardamon however are all lovely in salves and baths and pepper is especially nice for sore muscles, aches and pains, arthritis and pre or post sports rubs.  It can be used with cardamon and chamomile diluted in a carrier oil to make a lovely stomach rub for indigestion, gas and bloating and to improve peristalsis. It’s also a lovely detoxing oil due to its stimulating and metabolism boosting properties, I like it with juniper and grapefruit oils for a detoxifying bath mixed with some epsom salts and a little carrier oil before being added to the water.

Pretty, pungent and peppery.

 

Here are some of the other ways I use black pepper:

Decoctions and Infusions- I always add some peppercorns to my chai spices either in decoction or infusion.  I also like a few brewed with rose petals as an infusion. If I’m infusing rather than decocting the peppercorns I always grind them up in a pestle and mortar first to release the volatile oils and aid extraction of the other medicinal compounds.

Vinegars – A few peppercorns make a luscious addition to a fruit vinegar such as blackberry, raspberry, rosehip or hawthorn berry lending it just a little pungent kick.

Elixirs and Syrups- Again adding a few peppercorns to a winter elixir such as elderberry, hawthorn or sloe gives it a lovely warming boost and pepper in elderberry syrup is one of my all time favourite additions.

Infused oil- Pepper infused oil is gentler than the essential oil so is lovely used liberally over large areas such as in a sports massage oil or salve.

Tincture- I only make small quantities of tincture, using the folk method of infusing the peppercorns in vodka, as I don’t use it that often. I do like to add a small amount to people’s formulas on occasion and add it to my mouthwash as I mentioned above. It also makes a lovely liniment for achy muscles mixed with some rosemary infused oil and rubbed vigorously over the body. Perfect for grey January days when you feel a bit under the weather.

Hope you all had a lovely weekend!

References:
The Yoga of Herbs – Dr. David Frawley and Dr. Vasant Lad
The Directory of Essential Oils- Wanda Sellar

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‘Tis the season to be jolly, though it can be a challenge to bear this in mind when trailing round the shops, delirious from the sensory overload and fluorescent lighting and sore from having your feet run over by stressed out mums with hi-tech, double-decker buggies balancing 10 shopping bags off each handle. Sometimes it’s hard to remember quite what you’re supposed to be doing, or even your own name. I have mostly managed to avoid this particular stressor by making all my presents or buying them on line but still this time of year is inevitably hectic. So it was a wise choice by Brigitte to give this month’s blog party the title of “No Time For Stress.’ Everyone’s submissions will be posted on her blog on the 20th so do make sure you take a few moments to make yourself a cup of relaxing herbal tea and peruse the pearls of wisdom that my fellow herby bloggers will undoubtedly share.

Stress can be defined as the body’s response to the demands life places on us. It can be both positive or negative as any heightened emotional state from euphoria to despair can cause stress to the body and mind. This time of year can include a lot of potential stressors, from the excitement of social gatherings and seeing relatives, to many people’s increased intake of alcohol and sugary or rich foods, to the pressure of buying presents and creating the perfect atmosphere or the increased stress placed on the immune system by cold weather and germs.

I wanted to share a few of the ways that I find plant medicine helpful in calming stress and anxiety, at any time of year, and bringing balance to the over-adrenalised jittery feeling that results when my to-do list begins to extend too far down the page.

Calming Tea Blends:

Danielle has written a list of some lovely relaxing herbs for teas in her post for the blog party which you can read here and, like her, making a nice cuppa is my default response to anything even remotely stressful. I thought I’d share some of my favourite tea blends with you here, some of which I have also made up as little extra presents for people.

Many herbs that help to relax us are considered cooling in nature. This doesn’t necessarily mean they make you feel cold but that they calm and cool body processes rather than exciting them. Still it can be useful to add some more warmth to our teas at this time of year so each of these blend contains at least one warming herb or spice to balance the cooler ones.

Lavender, Vanilla and Oatstraw – This my evening time tea of choice at the moment and my husband is also a big fan. It’s calming, comforting, restorative and helps to pacify the restless mind. I add a teaspoon each of oatstraw and lavender to the pot along with half a vanilla bean, finely chopped.

Chamomile, Rose and Vanilla – This makes a lovely soothing after dinner tea and is delightfully fragrant and aromatic helping to disperse tension and anxiety.

Tilia, Oatsraw, Rose and Cinnamon – A little more spicy, this tea is great at work or during a busy afternoon as the calming herbs are somewhat balanced by the warmth and revitalising action of the cinnamon.

Orange peel, Cardamom and Rose – Another lovely balancing brew, I adore this combination of flavours which is like a big loving hug.

Lemon Balm and Rosemary –  A perfect balance of heart lifting herbs, I have written about this tea before… more than once me thinks!

Chamomile, Tilia and Oatsraw –  A very gentle tea to aid a peaceful nights sleep. More powerful herbs can be useful if insomnia is a problem but generally these would need to be selected with the individual’s constitution in mind.

Footbaths and Massage:

I’ve been meaning to write about the magic that are footbaths since I first started this blog last winter but I thought they’d be worth a mention here for their wonderful ability to calm and ground the nervous system and promote better circulation and a good night’s sleep. Most of us are far too ‘in our heads’ at this time of year and there’s nothing like payng attention to your feet to bring you back down to earth. I particularly like a strong infusion of Tilia, lavender and chamomile in a footbath. Great for children and adults alike, you absorb the healing qualities of the herbs through the soles of the feet and also get to breathe in the wonderful, calming aromas of these volatile oil rich plants. Followed up with a foot massage of lavender or chamomile infused oil you are almost guaranteed to have forgotten your cares and enjoy a deep and restorative night’s sleep.

Herbal Tinctures:

Tinctures are really best formulated on an individual basis as different herbs will have an affinity with different people. However I do like to make a very general Autumn/Winter Tonic with seasonal plants from my local area. This year it includes elderberry, hawthorn berry, rose hips and nettle seeds, all collected within a few meters of my garden gate. This medicine helps guard against winter stresses by nourishing my immune system, adrenals and cardiovascular system, all of which come under pressure at this time of year. The formula is also packed with antioxidants from the berries which help to protect every cell of the body. It also connects me to the land in which I live, bringing with it the subtle medicine of inter-dependence and belonging.

Flower Remedies;

Flower remedies can be wonderful allies in helping us to regain our sense of centre. Again they are best chosen with an individual in mind  but the following remedies from the Bach system are particularly useful in times of stress.
White Chestnut – When there is excessive mental chatter or preoccupation with certain worries that get in the way of relaxation.
Aspen – For vague, non-specific fears of unknown origin or anxiety with a sense of apprehension or foreboding.
Cherry Plum – For when you’ve reached the end of your tether and fear mental collapse or loss of control.
Elm – For normally capable people who are overwhelmed with responsibility.
Impatiens – For impatience and stress with irritability.
Mimulus – For fear of ‘known things’ such as flying, spiders (or Christmas!).
Olive – For complete exhaustion and when everything becomes an effort.
Red Chestnut – For excessive concern with the well being of others.
Rock Rose – For states of extreme fear and panic attacks.
If in doubt Rescue Remedy, a blend of 5 remedies which is now widely available, is helpful in a huge range of stress related problems.

Essential Oils:

Lovely in baths or massage oils, there is a wide range of relaxing essential oils which can help with stress such as lavender, chamomile, rose, sandalwood, frankincense, bergamot, neroli, patchouli, benzoin, geranium and mandarin. I particularly like making up a 2% blend of my favourite relaxing oils in a carrier such as sweet almond oil and adding to a 10ml rollette bottle that I carry in my bag and roll onto my temples, collar bone, neck and wrists whenever I start feeling stressed. I make a different one each time but a blend of lavender, chamomile and frankincense is a particular favourite.

Hydrolats and Floral Waters:

I love adding a good swig of lavender, neroli, rose or lemon balm hydrolat to my water and sipping throughout the day to calm and centre my nervous system. Neroli is my absolute favourite though nothing feels as decadent as rose. I have been known to have them in a shot glass when the going gets really tough.

Nourishing Infusions:

Susun Weed style nourishing infusions are great at this time of year for adding extra vitamins and minerals to our diets and supporting our nervous systems. We use up many more nutrients in times of stress so it’s important that we replenish them regularly. I love oatstraw best for its affinity with the nerves. Look here for Susun’s instructions on how to make them.

Staying centred in yourself when the pressure is on can be a challenge. Sometimes the hardest thing can be actually taking the time out to have a relaxing foot bath, mix some calming teas or choose a flower remedy. But, as one of my teachers once said, ‘herbal medicine works, you just have to take it.’ Just as stress begets more stress, in ourselves and others, a moment’s relaxation creates the space for a deeper relaxation to occur.

Luckily for me I have a shining example in my three cats, who have made relaxation and comfort into an art form. Take a leaf out of their book and make sure you take time out this Christmas to chill!

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