I was recently interviewed for the herbal podcast Listen on the many benefits of lime blossom.
If you are interested in finding out more you can listen to it here.
I hope you enjoy it!
Midsummer is upon us and with it that wonderful sense of aliveness that comes with the long days and warm evenings suffused with golden light. After our cold, wet spring everything seems particularly lush as nature rushes to catch up.
Speaking of catching up, I am somewhat behind myself and the post on herbs for breastfeeding that I promised is still half written and awaiting my attention, though I promise to finish it soon!
The little one and I have been enjoying walks to the woodland where his still maturing sight is captivated by the interplay of light and shadow in the sun dappled glades and my own gaze is also delighted by the sun through beech leaves and bracken. I love how it looks so different through the long silvery fingers of willow and the broad green hands of sycamore, the young freshness of hawthorn and the dark majesty of yew.
Whether it be summer, winter or season-less where you are. I wish you many blessings on this solstice.
After a very wet summer and autumn and a similar start to this year, everything is feeling decidedly damp. Our snow melted after a couple of days and it seemed that was the only taste of real winter we have had. Now everything has returned to the general dampness that has characterised most of the last year, a perpetual grey autumn leading on to a somewhat murky spring. The path from our house hasn’t dried out in months, the few bright days we have had not being enough to combat the effect of months of wet!
Whilst it may sound like an obvious point to make, the environment and weather patterns outside our door play a vital role in the patterns of health and disharmony that we experience at any given time. So it’s little wonder than this year has been especially prolific in damp, phlegmy colds, chesty coughs and stuffy noses. The milder temperatures also allow bacteria to thrive and the general feeling of stagnation that comes from a water logged environment contributes to stagnation in our own bodies. So many people I have spoken to this winter have had colds and coughs that have hung on stubbornly for longer than usual and, even after they are feeling much better, there has still been some lingering phlegmy-ness!
While mucus is a natural and important part of our bodies, lining and protecting delicate membranes, phlegm is essentially the mucus of the respiratory passages gone bad! Whilst a balanced amount of mucus is essential to health, phlegm is often thicker, stickier and more related to states of disease or disharmony. Often when there is infection, the body will produce more mucus to help cleanse out the membranes but this can become congested or stuck leaving us with blocked passages along with a general sense of tiredness and malaise.
In TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) conditions of ‘phlegm’ often arise from excess ‘damp’, but whereas damp is thin and watery, phlegm will be thick, sticky and cause obstructions. There will usually be a more obvious thick coating on the tongue along with other signs of congestion. Phlegm can also cause a whole host of other symptoms from dizziness and swellings to palpitations and a feeling of detachment. Dietary measures are often recommended to combat excess damp or phlegm including reducing or eliminating damp causing foods like dairy, bananas, pork, wheat products, beer and sugary foods. Foods to add in often involve root vegetables, garlic and onion, warming spices and teas of orange or lemon peel.
In Ayurvedic medicine phlegm would be seen as a disorder of kapha and treated with warming, drying herbs and lifestyle advice, as it would in Western energetics where the appropriate term, ‘phlegmatic’ sums up the constitution that is prone to an excess of the humour ‘phlegm’.
Depending on the nature of the client and their disharmony, there would be a few herbal categories that we would want to consider when treating people with excessive phlegm including mucus membrane tonics, immune tonics, expectorants, anti-catarrhals and possibly diaphoretics.
Firstly, if possible we would want to think about eliminating causes. This is relatively easy if they are dietary but much harder if they are environmental (a nice long holiday perhaps?). Then we would generally think about treating symptoms with a mix of herbs. Bearing in mind that everyone is different and each person’s unique symptoms and constitution must be considered, here is a list of a few herbal helpers that you may find useful when phlegmy-ness strikes.
Warming spices and aromatics: For many problems involving phlegm, these will be our first herbs of choice. Most warming spices will also have a slightly drying quality and many of the best ones can already be found in your kitchen cupboard such as ginger, cayenne, cinnamon and cardamom. Regular doses of these as tea or tincture will help to warm your whole body which will thin mucus and enable it to be expelled more easily. You can also add them to foods- think of how your nose runs after a spicy curry!
Aromatics will open up the channels and move stagnation and some are still harvestable over the winter months, even though they may not be at their peak in terms of taste or constituents. In particular I have been using rosemary and thyme from the garden this winter to add to foods or to make simple teas that warm body and mind and disperse congestion. Among the most useful of the aromatic herbs for phlegmy coughs is elecampane, Inula helenium, which has a wonderful combination of warming stimulating essential oils and soothing relaxing mucilage.
Mucus membrane tonics: In this category, goldenseal reigns supreme for treating the sinuses, however it is not a native herb and is highly endangered in the wild. Luckily there are some who are trying to grow it in this country. If you do use goldenseal, make sure you always buy from reputable suppliers who are making efforts to protect this valuable herbal ally. Elecampane is once again a very valuable asset for the lungs, as is hyssop, another wonderful aromatic with expectorant, anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic properties.
Anti-catarrhals: These include elecampane, aniseed and goldenseal as well as goldenrod, eyebright and elderflower. Elecampane and aniseed are wonderful where phlegm has settled in the lungs whilst the others are more helpful for upper respiratory congestion and sinusitis.
Immune stimulants and anti-microbials: These herbs can help stop infection from occurring and turning a stuffy nose into a full blown sinus infection. Echinacea root is wonderfully useful as an immune stimulant in general but I find it particularly useful where problems of the upper respiratory tract are involved – you can often feel a good extract tingling all through your sinuses. Once again goldenseal is especially helpful being highly anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory and immunostimulant. Garlic and onion are also very valuable allies, lots of chopped, raw garlic sprinkled on food is wonderfully anti-microbial and very warming.
As always if you are unsure of anything or have pre-existing health concerns it is wise to consult a local herbalist. Bearing that in mind, I hope this has given you a few ideas for how to help yourself feel bright and well during these dark, damp days.
I have just spent a lovely few days away visiting my parents and attending Sarah Head’s Sanctuary Herbs Festival which is wonderfully inspiring and highly recommended for those of you who fancy a herbal adventure next year.
Now I am back I wanted to let you know about a couple of new ventures starting this month which those of you in the general vicinity may be interested in.
A Series of Herbal Talks in Brighton:
Firstly I have a series of talks coming up in the next few months which will be held at Brighton and Hove Therapies which is very close to Brighton station. You can see the details by clicking on the link to the attached flyer below.
Brighton Low Cost Clinic:
I will also be joining with medicial herbalist Sara Jane Glendinning for a low cost herbal clinic every Thursday morning from 10am to 1pm at The Coach House in Kemptown, Brighton.
The Coach House was started up by Sara Jane and is an inspiring venture promoting creative living through the arts and sciences. There are talks, workshops and music running throughout the year and an apothecary garden in the making. For more information see the Coach House website here.
The clinic will be open to everyone and consultations will be by donation though there will be a charge for the herbal medicines given. We suggest booking for appointments.
At lunch time Lucinda
Went down to the kitchen
To make for herself a wee snack,
But when she got there
The fridge it was bare
And the outlook for lunch it was black.
There was nothing in view
but a carrot or two
She said ‘I’d better think fast.’
With nothing to eat
Neither savoury or sweet
My health it is sure not to last.
So off to the hedge
she went with her knife
To see just what could be found.
Of nettle and Jack*
There sure was no lack
And ground elder growing all around.
From the garden she got
Some lovage for the pot
Then oregano, marjoram and chives.
‘Well this little bounty
On which I was counting
Will be sure to keep me alive.’
She cooked it all up
In a big iron pan
With the half a potato not green,
And when it was done
She said ‘oh what fun’
It’s the best lunch that ever I’ve seen.
* Jack by the hedge.
This time of year is wonderful for enjoying an array of wild foods and medicines. In March we had the first harvests of the nettles, cleavers, chickweed and violet leaves, all of which are full of minerals and cleansing to our bodies after the stagnancy of winter. Though this year has seen an exceptionally cold, wet April following on the heels of an exceptionally warm March, it is not uncommon for April to be a chilly and rainy month in this part of the world, associated as it is with showers and late frosts. So it is just at the right time that we have a lovely array of pungent herbs available to us for blasting away some of the damp and the chill.
Sour is considered the flavour of spring in Traditional Chinese medicine even though many sour foods are fruits and berries that don’t arrive until the late summer and autumn. Many of our spring greens do have some sourness to them however, most obviously the sorrels which have a deliciously tart lemony flavour. The salty flavour is also common in springtime with many mineral rich herbs like nettle and cleavers being considered to have a salty taste.
Pungent herbs are those that taste aromatic, spicy or acrid. Many of our favourite culinary herbs are pungent like oregano, rosemary and sage and all the kitchen spices like ginger, coriander, cumin or cayenne. Pungent herbs help to stoke the digestive fires and are stimulating, warming, drying and dispersing. They produce sweating so can help to release a fever and improve the circulation. They dry and dispel mucus helping to relieve cold, damp conditions as well as relieve bloating, gas and nausea. Too much of the pungent taste however can damage sensitive mucus membranes and easily overheat people who are already of a hot constitution.
There is an array of pungent herbs available to us in spring which will help to thin mucus and get our circulation moving as well as helping to dispel the stodginess of our winter bodies. These include ground ivy, garlic mustard and ramsons or wild garlic.
These herbs have their differences but what they all share is an affinity for warming the digestion, expelling mucus, aiding the lungs and cleansing the blood. Ground Ivy (which you can read more about in this post) is wonderful for stuck catarrh and congestion and can be used in tincture or tea for getting things moving. Garlic mustard and wild garlic make delicious and nutritious additions to salads. soups, stews and pestos and are lovely infused into apple cider vinegar then sprinkled liberally on foods.
I have been adding a little pungent and a little sour to our nettle soups with a generous portion of chopped fresh garlic mustard and a few sorrel leaves to incorporate all those lovely spring flavours.
Just the thing for spicing up these grey old days!