Your Medicine is in Your Pantry
by Karta Purkh Khalsa
Green Med Info. 27 May 2016
Food has been the medicine of humanity since the dawn of time. Many herbs that we associate only with seasoning our food are, in fact, potent herbal medicines.
The distinction between herbal food and herbal medicine is actually quite subjective. There is a wide area of overlap with the two categories. If you think of all the plants we consume, for whatever purpose, as being on a spectrum, from food on one end, to medicine on the other, you will see what I mean. On the food end would be plants like potatoes and carrots- potentially medicinal, but mild and safe. The other end of the spectrum contains medicine plants like opium poppy and foxglove, the source of digitalis- definitely not food, but clearly serious medicine.
The gray area is in the middle. Take echinacea. None of us would consider sitting down to a delicious bowl of echinacea soup. Yuck. But you could. And it would be safe. How about parsley? In a salad, it’s a food. Used as a juice to treat edema, it’s a medicine.
The truth is, herbal medicines have about the same chemical components as food plants. Herbal medicines are just selected from plants that have greater concentrations of active ingredients, making them more convenient to use.
European herbal medicine, the tradition from which contemporary American herbalism mainly derives, does not see much overlap between food plants and herbal medicines. Foods you eat, spices make the food taste better, and herbal medicine you take in a tincture. Asian medical systems, however, make no distinction between the two. Food is just less concentrated herbal medicine, and every meal is viewed as a chance to get in more healing herbs. In fact, the Chinese word for the medicinal brew that people use daily to maintain their health is “soup.”
The complex cuisines of China and India began, thousands of years ago, as recipes to get healing herbs and foods into people. Gradually, as the process evolved, complicated mixtures of food ingredients, herbal medicines, and flavorings coalesced into a tasty amalgam that warms the soul, heals the body, and pleases the palate.
For example, Indian food typically starts with a combination, a “masala”, of onions, garlic, ginger, and other various spices, selected for their medicinal virtues, and taste. Since many of these herbs can cause gas, additional herbs, such as fennel and coriander seeds, are added to counteract that tendency. Ginger and mustard, for example, speed up the digestive process, so that the meal is efficiently processed and moved through the digestive tract.
Although the list of herbal medicine foods is huge, here is a selection of remedies that are easy to find, and particularly effective.
The carrot and parsley family (Umbelliferae), in particular, is a huge source of edible plants and good tasting medicines. These plants grow all over the world, and are used in a broad range of cultures. This group of plant medicines has unusual chemistry, so they make their way into the kitchens and medicine chests of many native medical systems. The seeds are typically the medicinal part, but various parts are used, depending on the plant. Some well-known members of this family include parsley, coriander (cilantro is coriander greens), fennel, anise, cumin, and dill.
Plants in this family contain compounds that act like calcium channel blockers, benefiting angina. Herbs in this family generally have estrogenic action, especially the seeds. The popular Chinese herb dong quai is in this family. These parsley relatives are prized around the world for treating intestinal gas, a property herbalists call “carminative.”
In my personal clinical experience, I would pick fennel seed as the premiere carminative in the world, especially for adults. Literally, I have never seen a case of painful gas that was not relieved by fennel seeds, provided of course, that the dose was high enough.
Fennel contains creosol and alpha- pinene, substances that loosen lung mucus and help clear the chest, benefiting asthma. (1) Recent research shows that this spice also lowers blood pressure. (2)
This herb has been used for centuries to promote lactation, which makes sense, from what we now know about its hormonal action. It will also hasten a period. As a bonus, it increases libido.
For gas, try chewing 1 Tbs. of the tasty seeds, or brew a tea with 1 Tbs. seeds in a cup of water. You may use the powdered seeds as a seasoning, or in capsules.
Of course, you can also steam the stalk as a delicious celery-like vegetable. The properties are similar, but milder than the seed.
Dill seed is, for gas, for children, what fennel seed is for adults. Called “the secret of British nannies,” dill is the active ingredient in the famous “gripe water,” the colic remedy taken round the world in the British empire.
Dill seed is truly miraculous for infant colic. It can save a parent’s sanity. Dill promotes menstruation, so it can be used to encourage a late period. For adults, dill, along with fennel, treats heartburn. (1) The weed is milder. In a pinch, fennel and dill can be interchanged. For infant colic, brew 2 Tbs. dill seed in 1 cup of water, cool, sweeten, put in a bottle or dropper, and serve to the screaming baby. You will carry a sleeping tyke back to bed.
Ever notice that green sprig of garnish at the edge of your plate? Usually discarded, that parsley is one powerful herbal medicine. While the seeds, leaf, and root of this plant are all used for food, the main herbal uses come from the leaf.
Parsley is a source, as you might expect, of phytoestrogens, so it has potential for treating osteoporosis and amenorrhea, and for promoting lactation.
This medicine has a long history of use with the urinary system. Research shows that it is diuretic (3), and it has a long history of herbal use in treating bladder infection.
Parsley treats angina. (1) Crushed, and applied to a bruise, it heals. It inhibits the release of histamine, so is useful for allergies and hives. It prevents and treats kidney stones. (4)
Parsley is a treasure trove of vitamins and minerals. It is a rich source of boron and fluorine, critical minerals for bone health. It contains 3.5 times as much vitamin C as oranges, and twice as much calcium as broccoli.
Because parsley is a rich source of calcium, magnesium, and potassium, it is an effective treatment for cramps, such as leg cramps. (5)
Three ounces of parsley contains about 3 mg of boron, the dose suggested for bone health. In my clinical experience, a dose of about 2 ounces per day of parsley juice treats edema very well.
Parsley leaf is widely available in capsule form, both as a single herb, and in combination. It works well as a digestive aid combined with turmeric. A typical dose would be 2-9 grams per day, but, of course, this herb is very safe at any dose.
Thyme contains anti-aging chemicals. (1) Historically, this herb has been used for headache.
Thyme is known as a general antimicrobial, especially for bacterial infection, and an expectorant, which also treats fever, so it is a well-known treatment for diseases like the flu.
One ingredient, thymol, has antiviral properties, and is also antispasmodic, so it is used in headache and cramps. (6)
Use thyme as a tea, or gargle.
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