Archive for the ‘Adaptogens’ Category

My Herbal Hugs

I have often observed that most herbalists have their own style, that is the herbs they gravitate to most often which tend to reflect the lens through which they see health and healing. Some always focus on detoxing, others believe regulating the digestive fire is key to most health imbalances. Some nearly always add an adaptogen to their formulas, others a liver herb or a nervine. Whilst these will be chosen according to an individual’s constitution and specific health issues, most herbalists that I have observed still seem to  have their own angles of approach to treating their clients. You could say this says more about the practitioner than the patients but we all bring something of ourselves to our treatments, whether we acknowledge it consciously or not. For a long time I pondered what my ‘style’ was and couldn’t initially find a pattern. Then, one day recently, as I was looking over past formulas it came to me… I’m a herbal hugger.

What I mean by this is that I particularly enjoy a gentle, nourishing and loving approach to herbal medicine and most of my formulas will include one or more herbs that I consider to be supportive, comforting or uplifting, in other words, ‘herbal hugs’. So many people I see are low, confused or have a feeling of alienation that giving herbal hugs has become an integral part of my philosophy. Of course this approach isn’t suited to everyone as each individual is unique but herbal hugs can be found to treat most constitutions be they cold or hot, moist or dry, grounding or uplifting.

Lots of us need a good hug from time to time and these are some of my favourite herbs for doing just that; Avena (milky oats/ oatstraw), Tilia (lime or linden blossom), Hawthorn, Chamomile, Rose, Melissa, Lavender, Ashwagandha, Tulsi, Cardamom, Rosemary, Chen Pi (orange peel) and Vanilla.

Wild Rose

Hawthorn Blossom

As well as using them therapeutically, I love to use herbal hugs in the kitchen, making tea blends, elixirs, herbal powders, infused honeys and electuaries. I also like to use the infused oils and essential oils in the bath or as massage oils to give me a lift after a long day.

Here are some of my favourite herbal hugs, I hope you enjoy them too.

Teas- A nice cuppa is the simplest and often the best way of giving yourself a herbal hug. Most of the herbs listed above make lovely teas as either simples or combinations. I already posted many of my favourite herbal hug teas in December’s blog party but, for those of you that missed it, they include; Lavender, Vanilla and Oatstraw; Rose, Orange peel and Cardamom; and Melissa with Rosemary. Anything with Avena in is usually a big hit with me too as it’s one of my favourite herbal hugs and Rose and Tulsi is another lovely combination.

Rose petal and Avena tea.

Eixirs and Infused Honeys: Honey, bandy and delicious herbs, this is a combination that’s hard to get wrong. Elixirs are a lovely way of talking plant medicines , especially in cases when the sweet taste is desirable to build and nourish. Most of us are over sweet-ed these days so I often take these in small quantities, more as a treat than as medicine, though truth be told, when they are lovingly prepared with healthy ingredients, treats themselves can be healing. To make an elixir you need to lightly fill a jar with plant material, I like fresh when I can get it but this works just fine with dried herbs too, then cover with 1/3 honey and 2/3 brandy to fill the jar. Lid and leave to infuse for a month, though some delicate plants like fresh rose petals or lemon balm only need a few days. If I’m using dried herbs, like at this time of year, or several herbs in combination I usually leave for a month. Strain and re-bottle when the plant material has finished infusing. I love Tilia as an elixir, click here for my post on making it last summer.

Some of my favourite combinations for elixirs are; Ashwagandha, Rose, Cardamon and Vanilla; Tilia, Melissa and Rose: and Orange peel, Lavender and Avena but you could combine your favourite herbs to make a personalised ‘hug in a bottle’ elixir.

A lazy persons elixir can be made by combining tinctures and infused honey. I made this blend as a cooling, calming sweet medicine for my father in law last year to support his cardiovascular health. When I tasted it however I had to make some up for myself immediately and have been enjoying it immensely ever since!

Ultimate Hug in a Bottle:
Hawthorn Berry Tincture 25ml
Hawthorn Blossom Tincture 25ml
Rose 1:1 Tincture 10ml (if your rose tincture is weaker than this up the quantity and lower the others to balance it).
Rosehip Tincture 20ml
Tilia Blossom Elixir 20ml (Use Lime flower honey or regular raw honey if you don’t want to wait a month for the elixir).

The sweetness of the Tilia elixir with the fragrant quality of the rose and fruitiness of the berries makes for something quite special! As a medicine this would be a little cooling for some people at this time of year but as you want this more for the energetic effect rather than the physical (unless it’s suited to your constitution) just a few drops in a small amount of water is a sufficient dose.

Infused honeys are often like hugs in themselves, especially when made with delicious aromatic herbs like Melissa, Rose, Chamomile and Lavender.

Chamomile infused honey.

Herbal Powders and Electuaries: Blends of powdered herbs make a really convenient way to include a little herbal hugging in your daily diet. One of my absolute favourites is a combination of rose, ashwagandha root and vanilla powders.

Powdered Rose, Vanilla and Ashwagandha Root.

When all mixed together they can be added to smoothies, porridge or mixed with honey into a paste to make a delicious herbal electuary. This can be used as a spread or enjoyed in small quantities straight off the spoon. My favourite way to take it is in almond or hazelnut milk.

This delicious drink used 1/2 litre of freshly made nut milk (1/2 almond, 1/2 hazelnut), 1 heaped teaspoon of the powder mix and 1 teaspoon raw honey. It was divine.

I also make a blend of adaptogenic herbs that I always have to hand to add into foods and drinks when I need a bit of support. It’s made with equal parts Tulsi, Eleuthrococcus, Ashwagandha and Maca. Though I try to use local herbs the majority of the time, I do have a soft spot for this powder which always helps me stay centred and connected when things are stressful.

From the bottom; Eleuthro, Tulsi, Ashwagandha and Maca.

Essential Oil Blends: Lots of essential oils are comforting and uplifting but my favourite herbal hug blend is rose and tangerine. I make up a 2.5% blend in a carrier oil such as sunflower or sweet almond and use in the bath or add to a bottle with a rollette ball for easy application. A delightful way to use these oils is to rub a few drops under your collar bone and then take a few deep breaths. You can immediately feel your shoulders and chest opening out and your heart relaxing and opening. This technique was taught to me by my colleague and I’ve been a fan of it ever since. A beautiful herbal hug indeed.

Flower Essences: Lots of flower remedies could be classed as herbal hugs but my favourites are Chamomile, Calendula, Rose, Hawthorn Blossom and Tilia all of which are balanced, nurturing and uplifting, just like the best hugs.

Chamomile flower essence.


Big herbal hugs to you all!

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It’s been a busy week so far gathering the last of the blackberries, the first of the rosehips and lots and lots of lovely hawthorn berries. I don’t think I really have a favourite herbal plant, there are so many to love and admire, but if I had to choose one then hawthorn would certainly be a strong contender.

Beautiful Hawthorn, abundant with berries

The Hawthorn is a beautiful and elegant tree, with a rich lore of mythology and magic behind it, however it still remains very much human in scale. Growing in practically every hedgerow, it’s easily accessible and offers us medicine in the form of its flowers, leaves and berries. Whenever I see hawthorn, which is pretty much everywhere round here, I think ‘friend’.

Hawthorn Berries

Hawthorn is fascinating medicinally because it’s one of the few Western herbal adaptogens, loosely meaning it helps to bring the body into balance, irrespective of whether it is over or under functioning whilst being safe and non-toxic. Widely used as a heart tonic it can help lower high blood pressure and will benefit almost any problem that affects the heart or circulatory system, from high cholesterol to chilblains. It helps to dilate coronary arteries, improving circulation and bringing relief from angina. It also increases the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively by improving the contractility of the muscle and its high levels of antioxidants help to protect the capillaries.

A cascade of berries

What is particularly interesting though is that whilst here in the West hawthorn is used almost exclusively as a heart tonic, it has been used quite differently by other cultures and in other ages. Culpepper, writing in the 17th Century, tells us it is ‘singularly good against the stone and… for the dropsy’ implying it was mainly used as a urinary tonic, possibly because, being a member of the rose family, it has some astringency. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, where it’s known as shān zhā, it’s been used predominantly as an aid to digestion, to help the body assimilate fats and as an aid to liver function. In Ayurveda the berries are considered sour and heating, so not suitable for Pitta types in excess. In the Yoga of Herbs the authors write, ‘Hawthorn berries are a good example of the stimulatory power of sour herbs for both circulation and digestion. They have a special action on the heart, strengthening the heart muscle and promoting longevity. They are particularly good for Vata heart conditions like nervous palpitations, or the heart problems of old age (the age of Vata) like cholesterol and arteriosclerosis.’

The flowers are soothing and nervine and many herbalists combine preparations of flower and berry to get the benefits of both. You can read more about the flowers in my earlier post here.

Red and shiny and perfectly ripe

I like to prepare my berries in alcohol or vinegar as well as drying a good number for use in decoctions. To make a decoction simmer two teaspoons of dried berries in a cup of water for 15 mins and drink three times daily.

A delicious herbal vinegar can be made by filling a jar with hawthorn berries, either alone or combined with rosehips and covering in apple cider vinegar then leaving to infuse for a month or so before straining and rebottling. Remember to use a plastic lid as metal with go black and nasty.

Tincture can be made in a similar way by covering the berries in vodka or brandy. This year I made a simple hawthorn tincture in vodka and another in which I combined the berries with rosehip and ginger in a mixture of port and brandy, yum. Let infuse for 2-3 weeks before straining and rebottling.

A lovely way to use hawthorn berries is to dry and powder them. They can then be used in numerous ways by adding a little of the powder to smoothies, soups, cookies, breakfast cereal or just about anything else. They are tough though and have a stone in the middle which needs removing (due to toxicity) so it can be easier to just buy them already powdered from a good herbal supplier. If you want to make your own powder you can mash the whole berry with you hands and the tiniest bit of water then push through a sieve, removing the stone, and spread the resulting pulp out to dry on baking paper or silicon sheets. When completely dry, powder in a high power blender or grinder.

Left to right – hawthorn and rosehip vinegar; (top) hawthorn, rosehip and ginger in port and brandy; hawthorn tincture in vodka.

Hawthorn, you truly are a heroine!

Lusach has a beautiful post on making hawthorn berry decoctions here, which is well worth a read.

Culpepper’s Complete Herbal – Nicholas Culpepper
Medical Herbalism – David Hoffman
The Yoga of Herbs – Dr. David Frawley and Dr. Vasant Lad

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Nettle Seed

I passed a lovely afternoon recently in harvesting my first nettle seeds of the year. They are so abundant right now and so helpful during these busy periods that it was a real pleasure to get out gathering them.

There are a couple of great articles on the internet describing how to harvest nettle seeds along with their uses which I highly recommend reading, notably those by Henriette here and here and Kiva Rose here and here. Though many people know how beneficial nettle leaf can be, until the recent revival of interest in nettle seeds it was a little used remedy in modern herbal medicine. Even now it seems to be much more popular amongst traditional herbalists and herbwives rather than medical herbalists, not that the distinction is always so clear.

The benefits of nettle seeds have some overlap with those of the leaf, both being strengthening, mineral rich, great for skin and hair and for supporting the kidneys and urinary system. Whereas the leaf is gentler and more nourishing however, the seed packs more of a punch.

Abundant and ready to harvest.

According to Henriette, ‘Nettle seeds are adaptogens. They help with the general stress response, they strengthen the adrenals, and they’re loaded with minerals and trace elements’. As most of the hype around adaptogens has centred on exotic plants from far away lands it’s particularly nice to have such a great example growing abundantly here in the UK. I always think that the medicines we need most are the ones which are most abundant near where we live and in these stressed-out, sped-up times, for many of us nettle seed is no exception.

Useful for chronic exhaustion, adrenal fatigue and burnout, nettle seeds have also been used to aid kidney function in both people and animals with degenerative conditions. David Winston writes here, ‘I discovered Nettle Seed could be used as a kidney trophorestorative – literally a food for the kidneys. I have used the seed tincture to treat over 30 cases of degenerative kidney disease and the results have far exceeded my expectations. A recent study published in the Journal of The American Herbalist Guild [4(2):22-25] confirms my clinical experience, showing that Nettle Seed increases kidney glomerular function and reduces serum creatinine levels. Many herbalists have seen significant benefits from using Nettle Seed tincture in patients with glomerulonephritis, chronic nephritis with degeneration, and to protect the kidneys from nephrotoxic medications.’ Impressive stuff.

As the endocrine glands work together to maintain a subtle balance in the body, often a medicine that affects one of them will have a knock on effect throughout the entire system. So nettle seeds can help harmonise the whole of the endocrine system, though their primary action is to balance the adrenals.

Last year, Sara Jane of Brighton’s Green Aprons group told me that taking just a small amount of the fresh green seeds had kept her awake the whole night. Kiva Rose has also spoken of the overstimulating effects of the fresh seed. They don’t seem to affect me in quite the same way, so perhaps it’s constitutional. From an Ayurvedic perspective I imagine Pitta types would find them quite stimulating but Kaphas could benefit from their energising effects. I’m pretty Vata and, as I say, they haven’t ever kept me awake, though they did give me  a surprising and uncharacteristic motivation to do lots of housework! Perhaps I shall make my fortune marketing them as the new ‘mother’s little helpers’. Or perhaps not.

To be on the safe side, it’s best to take the dried seeds as they have a more gently restorative action and are energising without being too stimulating.

Harvest now will the seeds are hanging in strands

The first time I harvested the seeds I ignored Henriette’s advice and, like many a young herbalist who disregards the voice of experience and wisdom, I came a-cropper. As she suggests, nettle seeds do seem to harbour a remarkable amount and variety of insect life, so it’s really best to do as she says and cut whole stems rather than just the seeds and hang them for a few days to allow the wildlife to escape. I take them down before they are completely dry and finish them in the dehydrator but that’s just because years of living in damp houses have made me cautious of air drying anything. Once dry, strip off the strands of seeds and rub them through a sieve, you’ll be left with a beautiful harvest of dried nettle seeds.

Most of the nettles growing near me are the perennial Urtica dioica but if the annual Urtica urens is more abundant near you then do remember when collecting seeds that the success of next year’s new plants depends on them. If you have only a few plants in your area, look elsewhere for your bounty. This lovely nettle patch, and a couple more like it, are just outside my house so I’m lucky not to have to worry about over harvesting!

Nettle Patch

Nettle seeds are so easy to incorporate into your daily diet and can be thought of as much as a nourishing ‘superfood’ as they are a medicine. Sprinkle them on salads, soups, in sandwiches or blend in smoothies. Take up to a teaspoon a day and see how you go, you can use more or less depending on how they affect you.

I make a delicious seasoning from nettle seeds, hemp seeds, nutritional yeast, mixed herbs and a pinch of salt and pepper.

This amount of nettles filled an average size jar with dried seeds. I’ll need to do another few harvests in order to make a tincture from the fresh seed and stock enough dried seeds to see me through the year.

Nettle Seed Harvest

For more detailed info on when to pick and how to process nettle seed see this post here.

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There are two things that nearly all students excel at, and they are procrastination and snacking. With a big exam coming on Wednesday I realised I’d have no chance of studying without a pile of suitable snacks to keep me going and so I decided to combine these two well refined art forms in order to make some tasty treats. They are based on Rosemary Gladstar’s recipe for Zoom Balls which contain guarana and kola nut and are a bit too stimulating for a wee sensitive soul such as myself! So I’ve changed it about a bit and added some more suitable herbs and come up with these two varieties, the stress soothers and the brain boosters.

Brigitte also has a lovely recipe for Energy Balls here which utilises more everyday kitchen ingredients and is great if you don’t want to fork out for lots of herbal powders.

Basic Ball Ingredients: (For both variants)
* 1 cup nut butter. I like to make my own with a combination of almonds and hazelnuts- the hazel being the Celtic tree of wisdom, I figure it’s a good addition to any study snacks!
* 1/4 cup tahini.
* 1/2 cup reasonably runny honey. Preferably good quality and local. I like to use Borage honey as borage has such an affinity with the adrenals and nerves.
* 1/2 cup walnuts- broken into small pieces. Walnuts are thought to be good for the brain because of the beneficial oils they contain as well as their ‘signature’ or resemblance to it.
* 1/4 cup hulled hemp. You could use sunflower or other seeds instead.
* 1/4 cup carob powder.
* 1 tsp cinnamon powder.
* 1 tsp cardamom powder.
* Small pinch sea salt or himalayan crystal salt.
* Enough dessicated coconut for rolling.

For the Stress Soothers;
Add the following herbs which will help you feel mellow and grounded.
1/2 cup Eleuthro powder
1/2 cup Gotu Kola powder
1/2 cup Ashwagandha powder
1 Tbs Liquorice powder

For the Brain Boosters;
Add the following to boost memory and aid circulation.
1/2 cup Gotu Kola powder
1/2 cup Brahmi powder
1/3 cup Rhodiola powder
1/3 cup Gingko powder

You can also make your own variations depending on what you have around.

First mix your nut butter, honey and tahini in a large bowl.

Then add the powders, carob, nuts, salt and seeds and mix thoroughly.

Pull off bits of the mixture and roll into balls about yay big.

Finally, cover the surface of a plate in dessicated coconut and roll the balls in it until coated.

Enjoy immediately or leave to chill in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Now thats done, my brain is boosted, I’m calm and centred… I suppose I should get down to some work 🙂

The trouble with studying herbs, is that the wonder of the plants themselves are always distracting me from my books.
I’m reminded of these lovely lines from Rumi;
Love lit a fire in my chest, and anything
that wasn’t love left: intellectual
subtlety, philosophy
books, school.
All I want now
to do or hear
is poetry.

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I’m very happy to be joining in the UK Herbarium’s monthly blog party, the topic of which is ‘emerging from winter with herbs’.

This immediately makes me think of fresh spring growth to tonify and cleanse the system after the stagnancy of winter months. However it’s still a wee bit early for harvesting nettles for soups, cleavers for green juices and chickweed and young dandelions for strengthening salads. So I decided to think about this topic practically instead of intellectually. What am I actually taking at the moment?

It’s still cold outside, though the first glimmers of spring are tantalisingly close, whispering of new shoots and green buds and the gentle stirrings of our own awakening senses. As a constitutionally chilly being I’m still loving my warming herbs but have been drinking less spicy teas and can’t seem to get enough of one of my favourite all time brews, Rosemary and Melissa. Rosemary is a wonderful warming herb and Melissa is also said to improve the circulation and the two together have a lovely, balancing effect on the emotions. Rosemary is a herb of the Sun and Melissa of Jupiter, so they are both joyful and cheering on a gloomy day when we are beginning to wonder if winter will ever end. I often team them up as essential oils too, for use in the bath and massage blends. Together they smell divine!

The other thing I’m having a lot of at the moment is the adaptogenic herbs, especially the Ayurvedic herbs Tulsi, Shatavari, Ashwaganda and Gotu Kola. Though the latter is not always classified as an adaptogen, it has many of the same properties and is classed as a rejuvenating herb, or rasayana, in India. Though I primarily use western herbs that I can grow or forage myself, I do have a somewhat guilty love of Ayurvedic plants, probably born of many happy months spent in India. I had a somewhat unsuccessful attempt at growing Ashwaganda last year but my Gotu Kola has done well so far and, as all my gardening currently takes place in pots, I shall be sure to try again when I have a more suitable situation. Adaptogens are so great during these strange ‘inbetween’ times, neither winter nor quite yet spring, when energies are starting to move in us and runny noses and colds can result from the body ridding itself of the congestion of winter. Inbetween times have a special magic all of their own, like twilight or those strange, still moments during a break in a long journey. Adaptogens are great to strengthen and support the system during times of change as they help us cope with mental, physical and environmental stresses as well as being wonderful for our immune systems.

As one of our feline companions, and soon to be guest blogger, goes by the name of Tulsi, I thought I’d say a little more about this beautiful herb.

The first time I saw Tulsi, often referred to as Sacred or Holy Basil, (Ocimum sanctum, Ocimum gratissimum) it was growing plentifully in a temple in India. Revered as the holiest of plants it is seen by some as the physical incarnation of the Goddess, reborn on Earth for the benefit of mankind. A leaf held in the mouth at the time of death is said to ensure passage to the heavenly realms and watering the plants is thought to purify one of many sins.

Tulsi is antiviral and antibacterial which, along with its immunomodulating properties and high levels of antioxidants, make it protective and strengthening. Energetically it’s classed as pungent, sweet and warm, perfect for this time of year and it has been shown to help rid the body of mucus, aid in the treatment of bronchitis and lower fevers. It’s also antidepressant, so good for banishing those winter blues. Add into the mix its hepatoprotective (liver protecting) qualities and its ability to balance blood sugar and you can start to see why it’s valued as one of the most important herbs in Ayurvedic medicine. Ancient writings also speak of its efficacy in treating kidney disease, arthritis and skin disorders and its use in purifying polluted air and as an antidote to insect and snake bits.

David Winston and Steven Maimes write in their book on adaptogens that Tulsi is “capable of bringing on goodness, virtue and joy in humans.” I have certainly found this true for both the varieties of Tulsi pictured below. 🙂

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