Why herbal teas?
Recovery from acute illness using the methods and drugs of modern medicine is received with such gratitude that the long term effects of the treatments are seldom considered, let alone researched or investigated. One has to talk to only a few people in a modern western country to find someone who has been “saved” by modern medicine. This helpful intervention may occur at any age. The birth of a child after receiving such intervention may result in the inheritance of a miasm. In homeopathic theory, this is “a general weakness or predisposition to chronic disease that is transmitted down the generational chain”.
The constitutional weaknesses which result for both the user of the drugs and the subsequent generations are creating the need for a different kind of medicine today than that which has been used traditionally in the past. The Chinese medical system, which served so well when modern drugs were unavailable, may not be totally transferable to modern usage, says Simon Mills, the well known herbalist in his book The essential book of herbal medicine [Mills 1993]. “The indications, applications and dosages used in Chinese herbal medicine, for example, recently popular in the west, are largely aimed at dealing with the most acute case-load of modern life” [Mills 1993: 208]. This stronger kind of therapy is not appropriate or applicable to the scourge of chronic and low-grade unwellness which is so prevalent today. Lower dosages of herbs may be more appropriate.
Using the gentler herbs in teas may offer a sensible, inexpensive and supportive approach which is easily available to the average person. Traditionally, herbs were used not as extracts or tablets but as water based medications brewed at home. The gentlest herbs from the western herbal medical tradition may offer a great reward for home use in rectifying some of the problems associated with the more unpleasant after-effects of modern drug regimes, or the inherited constitutional weaknesses derived from a hundred years of modern medicine, and perhaps third generation miasm. Gentler remedies are safer. They may be used on an ongoing basis, although it may be advisable to alter the formula in order to diversify action and prevent repetition. With diet and lifestyle, these herbs may assist in returning the body progressively to a less symptomatic state. There may be a pleasant and refreshing experience after each dose that makes continued use easy to build into a daily routine.
Where to start?
If the functioning of the digestive system is optimized, a benefit may be felt throughout the body. Indeed, some seemingly unrelated symptoms may even disappear. Natasha Campbell McBride’s book Gut and psychology syndrome [Campbell-McBride 2004] makes the link between the gut and the brain. Michael D Gershon is “..a neurobioligist who has devoted the whole of his career to the part of the nervous system that runs the bowel” [Gershon 1999: vii]. He presents a complex and scientific understanding of how this is possible. In his book The second brain he says “Discoveries are made and claimed that are really rediscoveries — not new advances at all, but history lessons” [Gershon 1999: 2]. The link between the digestive system and the brain has been firmly established in traditional medicine. In 1952, Bernard Jensen [1952: 21] wrote “A psychiatrist would be fighting a losing battle trying to develop sweet thoughts in the mind of a patient with a sour stomach.”
All ingested substances must inevitably pass through the stomach. As the start of the digestive system, it makes sense to say that improving the health and function of the stomach has the potential not only to affect the remainder of the digestive process, but may have a flow-on effect for the health of the entire organism. Many modern drugs cause irritation and aggravation to the stomach. The commonly used non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs [NSAIDs] in particular have well known adverse effects on the stomach, from mild irritation through to gastritis and, in extreme cases with long term and persistent use, even stomach ulcers [The Merck Index 2003: 452]. Inflammation of the stomach may directly or indirectly be exacerbated. NSAIDs, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, are some of the most common culprits. Alcohol, caffeine and antibiotics are not friends to the stomach. A vulnerable stomach may be further inflamed by idiosyncratic factors which are found in commonly eaten foods, which could previously be eaten without a noticeable problem. Any processed food may prove a culprit, for these frequently incorporate cheap and unhealthy fats, refined carbohydrates and a variety of sugars, many of which are promoted as “natural”. Even common spices, which would normally be beneficial, such as cumin or turmeric, may be poorly tolerated.
The digestive herbal remedies may prove of benefit in revitalizing the stomach. These remedies produce some of the most successful results in herbal medicine. Mills and Bone, in Principles and practice of herbal medicine comment, “The fragmentary nature of research support for herbal therapeutics is always a major limitation but fortunately in the area of the digestive tract there is a more than usually reliable experience of efficacy; the digestive tract is one of the most accessible organs in the body and most traditional treatments relied on immediate clinical effects” [Mills & Bone: 2000: 168].
Generally speaking, foods or remedies that bring a warm glow to the stomach and have a pleasant feeling are more beneficial than those that give a cold feeling. There is an accepted tenet of herbal medicine that this increase in circulation is beneficial, despite the inability to completely explain all of the mechanisms [Mills 1993: 93].
Reducing inflammation, healing and increasing the digestive capacity of the stomach itself needs to be achieved before more sophisticated techniques, such as enhancing liver function, detoxification and re-inoculating the intestine with probiotics. To engage prematurely in the use of stronger supplements designed for these functions may result in worsening the damage, if commenced before the stomach is able to accept them without aggravation. The naturopathic view of health as an interconnected whole includes the realization that the healing of one part of the body will prove beneficial for all parts of the body. Therefore these other “downstream” functions may be assisted by helping the proper functioning of the stomach. After restoring the stomach to health, one may start to support other aspects of the digestion. Although it is important to maintain the integrity of the stomach as a priority, the digestion will not be optimized until all parts of the system are functioning adequately. Vogel [1991: 208] points out “Whenever the stomach is upset we immediately blame it for the problem, but very often the liver is actually at fault. If fruit acids and fatty acids cannot be digested, causing discomfort, the liver is not functioning as it should. Since in such cases the stomach is not the basic cause of the problem, but only indirectly connected with it, the disorder will be corrected as soon as the liver is treated”. This reflects the truth that an accurate diagnosis is crucial to the appropriate selection of a remedy. Without appropriate selection of a remedy, good results cannot be expected. The closer a particular remedy matches the individual symptom picture, the better the result. This is not to demean the broad spectrum of results that can be expected from a herbal remedy, due to the complexity of the chemical structure of individual herbs within a formula.
The herbal actions
In herbal medicine, herbs are categorized under particular actions. An action is the effect that the herb has on the body. For example, a herb that heals wounds is called a “vulnerary”. One herb may have many actions, but also a primary action for which it is renowned. A general herbal principle is to build a formula bringing together herbs from a number of different categories of actions. The resulting formula has greater benefits than each herb on its own. By choosing one or two herbs from each category and putting them together in a tea, you may achieve a broad spectrum result which maximizes the benefits for the conditions being treated.
Herbal actions for the stomach
Which herbal actions will help general stomach problems resulting from irritation? Demulcent- soothing; amphoretic — toning the organ; astringent- healing the wound; antispasmodic- relieving spasms. These are some of the herbal actions which may be incorporated into a formula for the stomach.
Soothing the stomach is an essential part of healing. There is an initial category of herbs to include known as the Demulcent. Mucilage is a complex carbohydrate constituent of plants which has a slimy characteristic. The demulcent action of mucilage may have a number of results. Demulcent herbs soothe, reduce inflammation and assist in healing with the potential to benefit the mucous membranes of the digestive system. For example Marshmallow [Althea officinalis] has mucilage in all parts of the plant “located in specific mucilage cells” [van Wyk & Wink 2004: 44]. Roots harvested in late autumn give a mucilage of about 15% [van Wyk & Wink 2004: 44]. William Smith in his book Wonders in weeds says of marshmallow, “It has been named Mortification Root, because of its reputation in removing all inflammation and mortification” [Smith 1977: 109]. Tilgner [2009: 121] says “internally, it is used for acute respiratory tract disorders, inflammation of the mouth, throat, stomach, intestines, bladder, kidney and urethra.” Marshmallow has a specific indication for “gastric or duodenal ulcer” [British Herbal Medicine Association, Scientific Committee 2009: 23]. It is the demulcent action of marshmallow that gives it far reaching therapeutic effects, with the potential to soothe and restore damaged tissue.
The leaf of the plantain [Plantago major or the closely related Plantago lanceolota or Plantago media] has many qualities. It contains tannins and is therefore astringent. Although not its primary constituent, plantain contains 2% mucilage, which makes it soothing, in addition to its astringent wound healing abilities. “The protective effect of mucilage isolated from Plantago major leaves against aspirin-induced gastric ulcer has been demonstrated in rats” [Mills & Bone 2000: 26]. These plantains are not to be confused with several other species, whose seeds or seed husks are commonly known as psyllium and available in health shops, recommended as a bulking fibre.
Slippery elm [Ulmus fulvus] deserves mention under the heading of demulcent. Slippery elm bark has mucilage as a main constituent. The mucilage in slippery elm is partially broken down by bowel bacteria into short-chain fatty acids. Short-chain fatty acids have benefits such as a possible diminishing of faecal loss of calcium and magnesium and maintenance of mucosal integrity [Jamison 2003: 191], and in improving bowel health may provide antimicrobial compounds and stimulate the immune system. Slippery elm is considered a nutritive demulcent, because it contains starch, glucose, calcium, iron, vitamin C, thiamine, zinc, magnesium and potassium [Braun & Cohen 2010: 865]. It is often available as a powder, and consumed separately.
Amphoretic or “organ tonic” is not a herbal action commonly talked of in the modern era. Somewhat looked down on today, the term “tonic” was used frequently, and tonics were considered an important contributor to the practice of traditional herbal medicine. An amphoretic has the possibility of restoring function. Amphoretics assist in recovery from illness and are slow in their actions. They have a sustained effect, normalising, rejuvenating, and healing tissue.
Goldenseal and meadowsweet are amphoretics. Chamomile is also an amphoretic, although it is also antispasmodic and I have included it in that section.
Golden seal is a North American amphoretic herb which has particular significance and unique characteristics. As a consequence it has become well used. “When taken internally the herb does not appear to stimulate the immune system directly but rather the healthy functioning of the mucous membranes of the body and, as a result, the level of active immunoglobulin A antibodies [IgA] in the mucous. IgA… infuses the mucous membranes in order to fight infections that seek to get a toehold there. Stimulation of the mucous membranes and the IgA antibodies then helps prevent infections” [Buhner 1999: 39–40]. Very little research has been done on golden seal. Native Americans used it, amongst other uses, for stomach disorders and as a tonic [Bone 2003: 251]. “Golden seal was specifically indicated for sub-acute or chronic inflammation of the mucous membranes… In general, golden seal was contraindicated by Eclectic physicians in acute inflammation of the mucous membranes” [Bone 2003: 251]. “It is an invaluable tonic stimulant for over-relaxed, profusely secreting mucous membranes…” [Green 2000: 32]. Buhner [1999: 39] says that with extremely large doses “… some clinicians insist that side effects such as excessive drying of the membrane systems, severe abdominal cramping, vomiting, possible liver damage, and nervous tremors will occur…”. The doses he refers to are many times greater than those seen in normal use. He says that in Chinese medicine, relatives of golden seal such as Coptis chinensis are “…contraindicated for people that tend to be dry and thin” [Buhner 1999: 42]. Modern research on a constituent of golden seal might give it the potential for use in the context of gastritis and peptic ulcer [Bone 2003: 250]. Heliobacter pylori [H. Pylori] is a bacterium that causes some ulcers of the digestive system. Berberine, an active constituent of golden seal, cleared H. Pylori and improved gastritis in H. Pylori associated duodenal ulcer [Bone 2003: 253]. Importantly, golden seal may not just act as an antibiotic, killing pathogens, it may also have an anti-infective ability. That is, it may block the adherence of micro-organisms to host cells. This may occur at doses much lower than the doses required to actually kill cells or inhibit cell growth [Murray 1995: 165]. The roots or the dried leaves can be used. In The herbal medicine maker’s handbook, James Green [2000 110] says, “The properties of goldenseal root are not soluble enough in water to be efficiently prepared as a tea”. However Green [2000:110] lists the dry leaf as “well prepared as an infusion”. The fresh herb is unsuitable for internal use as it may cause gastric irritation [Tilgner 2009: 97]. Golden seal is more powerful than the other herbs and may be added to a tea at about one third of the amount of each of others. Goldenseal is only slowly released from the liver and it may accumulate under some circumstances.
Goldenseal may be subject to adulteration due to its high price. It is also endangered in the wild. For this reason, the European herb Barberry is often recommended as a substitute. Barberry may assist in the control of gastrointestinal infections, as it too contains berberine as a main active constituent. However it may not have an equal ability to restore the mucosal membranes of the gastrointestinal tract.
The British herbal pharmacopoeia 1983 [British Herbal Medicine Association, Scientific Committee 2009: 91] gives meadowsweet a specific potential use for “peptic ulcer, used for [prevention] and treatment”. Salicylates are a chemical constituent of meadowsweet. The drug aspirin [acetylsalicylic acid] was originally derived from meadowsweet. Tannins and salicylates in meadowsweet make it plausible that meadowsweet could inhibit the inflammatory process [van Wyk & Wink 2004: 144]. The actions of meadowsweet cannot just be defined by the salicylates it contains. Experiments using a decoction made from the flowers showed a reduction in acetylsalicylic acid [aspirin] induced ulcers and also healing of chronic stomach ulcers induced by ethanol alcohol [Braun&Cohen 2010: 692]. No effects were seen for ulcers produced under high-acid environments or due to stimulation by histamine [Braun & Cohen 2010: 691]. Mills [1994: 147] says “it is soothing and healing to the gastric mucosa, also reducing gastric acidity.” Traditional western medicine uses include “Atonic dyspepsia [a disturbance of digestion] with heartburn and hyperacidity; gastric ulcer [prevention] and treatment, diarrhoea” [Bone 2003: 324].
To support the action of the demulcent, an astringent may be added to the mix. Astringents, often containing tannins, cause contraction of tissues, binding and wrinkling of skin and mucous membranes, and drying up or reducing exudations, including bleeding. They form a thin, protective surface against toxins and irritants, restoring and strengthening damaged and inflamed mucosal membranes. Although I have talked of golden seal as an amphoretic, it is also astringent.
Yarrow, an astringent, “exerts a tonic and stimulatory influence on the …gastrointestinal tract mucous membranes” [Tilgner 2009: 164]. The modern use of yarrow is “…nowadays mainly recommended for lack of appetite and minor dyspeptic complaints” [van Wyk & Wink 2004: 30]. Yarrow “has been used in Europe in the treatment and rehabilitation of chronic hepatitis” [Mills & Bone 2005: 639]. This result occurred as part of a complex therapy that saw a decline in the free radical oxidation which is evident in this disease, no matter what the cause.
Agrimony is an astringent herb and Mills recommends it “to irritations of the intestinal tract, especially in children” [Mills 1994: 16]. The British herbal pharmacopoeia 1983 [British Herbal Medicine Association, Scientific Committee 2009: 17] gives it a potential for use in “mucous colitis”.
Weiss’s herbal medicine: classic edition [2001: 102] talks of the therapeutic effects of the bilberry on the digestive system. Bilberries have a blue pigment which has an affinity for bacterial cells. The pigments damage, although probably do not kill, the bacteria. A strong decoction of bilberries has been used against diarrhoea. Talking of the use in this way of a powder made from bilberries, Weiss [2001: 102] says “The blue pigment enters into the epithelium of the intestinal mucosa, forming a firmly adhering greyish black protective layer, shielding against all mechanical irritation and reducing inflammatory secretion”. Weiss explains that fresh bilberries may have the opposite effect, for in large quantities they are laxative, although, “It may also be that [fresh] bilberries have a healing effect on the inflammation of the intestinal mucosa that commonly accompanies chronic constipation” [Weiss 2001: 102]. Some dried bilberries added to a tea give a delightful ambience.
An antispasmodic, but perhaps in a class of its own, is chamomile. Chamomile is one of the most easily available and extraordinary herbs. It has a complexity of actions and a range of applications. Although the chemistry of chamomile is complex, the chief constituent of the flower is claimed to be a volatile oil. “The medicinal value of chamomile is largely due to three actions: it reduces inflammation, relieves spasm and counteracts flatulence and the pain resulting from it” [Weiss 2001: 25]. Weiss further explains, “The three actions make it clear why chamomile can have such a beneficial effect on acute stomach complaints. Relief is quite rapid, with pain reduced and the stomach and intestine settled down” [Weiss 2001: 25]. However, chamomile goes beyond this simple relief. “Chamomile has also been found to encourage the healing of wounds…it is easy to see why chamomile is one of the best remedies for acute and chronic gastritis…[and]…promotes the healing of ulcerative lesions” [Weiss 2001: 26]. Persistent daily use taken at least three times a day is required for this powerful healing phenomenon. Weiss gives explicit instructions: 2 teaspoons to a cup; water not to be boiled, so as to retain the volatile oil, and the glass steeped with a cover, once again to retain the volatile oil; the first before breakfast, the second between meals, the last before bed sipped slowly and in a relaxed position [Weiss 2001: 27].
Although this persistent therapeutic approach may be unsuited to the modern age, Weiss gives testimony to the strength of this gentle herb.
Preparing herbal tea
Select one or two herbs from each category to give a total of four to six herbs. You may want to do some further research to choose a herb from each category that matches your particular symptoms most exactly. The herbs discussed are not necessarily suitable for an individual, and are discussed for educational purposes only. Always be aware that some herbs do have contra-indications and a particular herb may not be suited to everybody. Mix equal amounts of the herbs you have chosen. If you choose to use it, use only one third the amount of golden seal, instead of an equal amount, as it is a stronger herb.
After selecting and mixing together the herbs, you may store them in a jar. When you are ready to use them, add one teaspoon of plant material to 500ml of boiling water. You may change this amount to suit personal needs. In preparing the herbal infusion, after covering with boiling water “…the tea should steep for 10 to 20 minutes to allow the therapeutic phytochemicals to pass out of the herb and into the water” [Duke 1998: 22]. It is best to keep the pot covered in this time to prevent the loss of any aromatic oils, which have therapeutic properties.
Herbal Safety Note
In the 1980s and 1990s there was a rapid increase in interest in herbal medicine. At first dismissed by mainstream medicine as irrelevant, in more recent years there have been growing concerns about quality and safety.
It should be noted that although they are rare and isolated events in susceptible individuals, allergic reactions are possible to plants belonging to the Asteraceae or Compositae family.
In their Essential guide to herbal safety, Mills and Bone say “A manual on herbal safety should assume a readership that is inclined to take the remedies seriously” [Mills & Bone 2005:.4]. Theirs is just such a book, aimed at the professional level. They say that “Poor herb quality has probably been the main safety problem” [Mills & Bone 2005: 5]. Issues which impact upon safety include substitution, contamination and adulteration. Therefore, herbs should be sourced from a reputable supplier. Much of the information on toxicity of herbs has been derived from research of components of the whole herb. A component of a herb may have a level of toxicity which reaches far beyond that of the whole herb. For example, “…chamomile [Matricaria] contains approximately 0.5% volatile oil; therefore, the pure oil is 200 times stronger than the dried herb” [Mills & Bone 2005: 94]. Therefore whole herbs have a greater margin of safety than isolated constituents. Regarding pregnancy, Mills and Bone [2005: 93] say, “Although in general it is often safe to prescribe certain herbs during pregnancy, this should only be done if there is a worthwhile need.”
Full therapeutic doses for the herbs, except for bilberry, are listed in the British herbal pharmacopoeia 1983 [British Herbal Medicine Association, Scientific Committee. 2009].
Agrimony. [Agrimonia eupatoria]. Family: Rosaceae. Avoid in known sensitivity.
Barberry. [Berberis vulgaris]. Family: Berberidaceae. Avoid during pregnancy and lactation.
Bilberry. [Vaccinium myrtillus]. Family: Ericaceae. Sugar content of berries, diabetics need appropriate guidance.
Chamomile. [Matricaria chamomilla]. Family: Asteraceae or Aster or Compositae. Avoid in known allergy. May cause sensitivity in those susceptible.
Golden seal. [Hydrastis Canadensis]. Family: Ranunculaceae. Avoid during pregnancy and lactation. Not recommended for jaundiced neonates. May be contraindicated in hypertension.
Marshmallow. [Althea officinalis]. Family: Malvaceae. Take away from prescribed drugs. May impair absorption.
Meadowsweet. [Filipendula ulmaria]. Family: Rosaceae. May interact with warfarin. Avoid in salicylate sensitivity. Take away from other supplements or drugs.
Plantain. [Plantago lanceolota]. Family: Plantaginaceae. Avoid in known sensitivity.
Slippery Elm. [Ulmus spp.]. Family: Ulmaceae. Avoid in known intestinal obstruction. Take away from other drugs and supplements. May impair their absorption. If consumed as a powder, make sure that adequate liquid is taken.
Yarrow. [Achillea millefolium]. Family: Astreaceae or Aster or Compositae. Avoid in known allergy. Contraindicated in pregnancy.
Avoid any herb in known sensitivity.
At high levels, herbs that contain tannins may cause hepatic dysfunction. Many herbs contain tannins.
Very high dosages of many herbs may cause adverse events.
Idiosyncratic reactions are unpredictable. However, “Increasing age, polypharmacy, and liver and renal disease” are known risk factors for idiosyncratic reactions to herbs [Mills & Bone 2005: 34]. Malnutrition and chronic intake of alcohol create vulnerabilities. Some general risks exist for individuals who may be identified by their reduced body weight or hypoalbuminaemia [Mills & Bone 2005: 35].
For Educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Therapeutic Goods Association, or any other regulatory body. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
Readers are advised to confirm the information complies with both legislation and standard of practice. This information is not intended as an alternative to medical counselling.
Bone, Kerry. 2003. A clinical guide to blending liquid herbs. Churchill Livingstone, St Louis, Missouri.
Braun, Lesley & Cohen, Marc. 2010. Herbs and natural supplements: an evidence based guide. [3rded]. evolve, Sydney.
British Herbal Medicine Association, Scientific Committee. 2009. British herbal pharmacopoeia 1983. BHMA, Exeter, UK, 2009.
Buhner, Stephen Harrod. 1999. Herbal antibiotics: natural alternatives for treating drug resistant bacteria. Storey, North Adams, MA.
Campbell-McBride. 2004. Gut and psychology syndrome: natural treatment for autism, dyspraxia, A.D.D., dyslexia, A.D.H.D., depression, schizophrenia. Medinform.
Duke, James A. 1998. The green pharmacy: the ultimate compendium of natural remedies from the world’s foremost authority on healing herbs. St Martin’s, New York.
Gershon, Michael D. 1999. The second brain: a groundbreaking new understanding of disorders of the stomach and intestine. Harper, New York.
Green, James. 2000. The herbal medicine maker’s handbook: a home manual. Crossing, Berkeley, California.
Jamison, Jennifer. 2003. Clinical guide to nutrition and disease supplements in disease management. Churchill Livingstone.
Jensen, Bernard. 1952. The science and practice of iridology: a system of analysing and caring for the boy through the use of drugless and nature-cure methods. Bernard Jensen, Escondido, CA.
Mills, Simon. 1994. The complete guide to modern herbalism. [3rd ed]. Thorsons, Hammersmith, London.
Mills, Simon Y. 1993. The essential book of herbal medicine. Arkana, London.
Mills, Simon & Bone, Kerry. 2000. Principles and practice of phytotherapy. Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh.
Mills, Simon & Bone, Kerry. 2005. The essential guide to herbal safety. Churchill Livingstone, St Louis, Missouri.
Murray, Michael T. 1995. The healing power of herbs: the enlightened person’s guide to the wonders of medicinal plants. [2nd ed]. Prima, Roseville, CA.
Smith, William. 1977. Wonders in weeds. Daniel, Saffron Walden, Essex.
The Merck manual of medical information: second home edition. 2003 Pocket, New York.
Tilgner, Sharol Marie. 2009. Herbal medicine: from the heart of the earth. [2nd ed]. Wise Acres, Pleasant hill, OR.
Van Wyk, Ben-Erik & Wink, Michael. 2004. Medicinal plants of the world. Timber,Portland , OR.
Vogel, HCA. 1991. The nature doctor: a manual of traditional and complimentary medicine. Keats, New Canaan, Connecticut.
Weiss, Rudolf Fritz. 2001. Weiss’s herbal medicine: classic edition. Thieme, Stuttgart.
Links are to the edition of the text as quoted in the article. Sometimes, a later edition is available.
digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/gastritis/. Accessed 4/6/2013.
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aspirin#History. Accessed 6/6/2013.
klemow.wilkes.edu/Hydrastis.html. Accessed 26/12/12.
medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Miasm. Accessed 4/6/2013.
ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10626466. Accessed 5/6/2013.