by Gaia U MSc Graduate, Liam McDermott
People have recently become more conscious of the food they are putting in their bodies. They are eating organic and local to both maximize their health and vitality and minimize the toxicity and pollution of the industrialized food system.
Sadly, however, mainstream culture still seeks the magic pill from an allopathic doctor promoting synthetic drugs to cure your maladies. Highly processed and synthetic foods lacking nature’s vitality fill our gas station mini-marts while customers refill themselves and their cars with petroleum-based fuel (nitrogen fertilizer/ synthetic insecticides). This consumptive reductionistic view sees humanity as purely a machine.
As our energy models turn toward sustainable solar, micro-hydro and wind power, so too must we nourish and heal ourselves with natural and vital foods and medicines grown in sunlight rather than laboratories. Our craving to believe that another can give us the magic pill that will make us ‘better’ contrasts with the minuscule effort actually required to move toward one’s own health and well-being.
Herbalism is a wonderful place to begin to reclaim our health. I encourage amateur herbalists and indeed everyone, to begin to slowly make friends with one or two or even a dozen herbs. Indeed, relationships with medicinal herbs and time in nature may both be beneficial to the medicinal phytonutrients that the herb is supplying. I don’t say this in order to minimize the efficacy of herbal medicines but rather to highlight that both time in nature and relationships with the natural world (plants, animals — even humans) is sorely lacking in our highly digitized culture. Creating a relationship with the food you eat, whether it’s grown by farmers or in your own backyard plot, and the medicines you take is a great first step towards increased vitality. In time, hopefully, we begin to cultivate our own perennial polycultural food and medicine forests to nourish and heal our physical and spiritual bodies.
Here, I offer my own herbal first aid kit. There are many other plants with which I have wonderful relationships; these merely represent the essential few medicines in my toolkit that I am rarely without. In addition, these herbs primarily represent medicines that are quickly effective against acute infection as opposed to daily tonics with which we may form relationships over many years.
I also offer basic medicine-making techniques so that you begin to make your own salves and tinctures, or even simple teas. Many herbal medicines are simply infusions (most people are familiar with teas as the simplest infusion) – that we can use internally or externally – in any extractive menstruum: water, vinegar, fat or alcohol. Go ahead and start playing with herbs: nibble a little, infuse herbs into different mediums, explore herbal teas, salves, tinctures and vinegar infusions. Play with your favorite plants and allow these relationships to blossom.
Herbal First Aid Kit
Garlic — Cold/Flu
Propolis tincture — Cold/Flu
Fire Cider — Cold/Flu
Triphala – Assists regularity/constipation
Bitters — Digestive aid/constipation
Curing pills – Indigestion, Good for hangover
Oregano oil – Food/water poisoning
Arnica (homeopathic pills) — Trauma, Strain/sprain
Arnica gel — Trauma Strain/sprain
Zheng gu shui — Sore muscles
Cool water until heat dissipates
For sunburn, I like Aloe, but I like staying out of the sun during midday the most
Alcohol or Sanitizer
Notes on Herbal First Aid Kit
Garlic is the epitome of food as medicine. It is antifungal, antibiotic and antiviral. I use garlic for many different conditions. It can be used on the feet for athlete’s foot, in the ear for ear infections and my favorite is to eat a raw clove of garlic when I feel a tickle in my throat. This is a powerful first attack against any invading microbes.
Propolis is processed by bees from trees. Bees take the resin that trees exude when cut or wounded in order to decrease microbial infection and then the bees use it as a glue to also decrease the chances of microbes or other invaders from entering the hive. Humans then use this powerful medicine, often in tincture form, again to ward off unwanted microbes; it is wonderful for many bronchial conditions.
Fire Cider is a vinegar infusion of garlic, horseradish, ginger, turmeric, onion, chili. There are many different recipes and styles. I like about 1/2 cup each onion, ginger and horseradish: 1/4 cup each garlic, turmeric and 1-2 peppers (depending on heat). I stuff this in a quart mason jar and cover with apple cider vinegar. Take this at the first sign of infection or a tickle in the throat. Even if you are highly congested, this very hot formula will burn through tons of mucous. I always say that it’s the easiest to take when you can’t smell it and by the time you can smell it you probably don’t need it anymore.
Triphala is a wonderful combination of three ayurvedic fruits. This is reported to have many beneficial effects and it is certainly heralded as a wonderful digestive tract regulator. Triphala can help form loose stool and, simultaneously, it will relieve constipation. It is a non-addictive laxative, which is completely safe and healthy for daily use.
Bitters is a wonderful digestive tonic. There are many bitters formulas and I make my own as well as keeping the swedish bitters on hand.
Curing Pills have many applications in traditional Chinese medicine. I find them particularly effective in dealing with mild digestive upset.
Oregano oil is a very powerful herbal antibiotic. I try not to overuse this; however, when I am traveling in Asia or Mexico, I always have a bottle with me and at the first signs of food or waterborne illness, I take a few drops in a glass of water. I occasionally use this for bronchial infections; however, this truly is an antibiotic and should not be taken regularly.
Arnica is a flower that either as a gel or a homeopathic pill is wonderful for easing minor traumas and soft tissue damage like sprains and strains.
Zheng gu shui is an excellent traditional Chinese medicine liniment for easing sore muscles. It is like the great grandfather of Ben-gay with more herbs that do amazing things for sore and tight muscles.
Burns Cool water is a great remedy for kitchen burns; and cooling the tissue after any 1st or 2nd-degree burn is essential — including sunburn. Aloe is another great moisturizer that helps cool the body after burns, however, for sunburn, I mostly recommend staying out of the intense midday sun.
‘HERBS’ often include many parts of the plant: flowers, buds, leaves, seeds, roots
Infusion is a key term in the herbal medicine world. We infuse herbs into different menstruums = water, vinegar, alcohol, glycerin, oil.
Teas (water) – Steep herbs in water that has just boiled for 3-5 minutes (also referred to as draughts) 1 oz/2 TB powdered herbs : 1-pint water
Decoction (water) – Boil (15-90 minutes) and reduce the water while infusing — similar to tea but used for roots/bark more commonly than fragile leafy herbs.
Syrup (water & honey) – Infuse herbs into water then add sugar or honey.
Fire Cider (vinegar) – Horseradish, ginger, onion, garlic, turmeric and cayenne for bronchial support
Oxymel (vinegar & honey) – Sweetened herbal infusion in vinegar taken as a daily tonic.
Tincture (Alcohol/glycerin/vinegar/water) – 2-6 week infusion of herbs. For fresh herbs, I fill the jar 3/4 full and then pour over 100 – 190 proof alcohol. For dried herbs, I fill the jar 1/2 way and use vodka (40%). Always make sure the alcohol covers the herbs by 1/4 inch. Blending herbs and alcohol helps release phytonutrients like rubbing the basil to release the aromatic flavors.
Baths (water) – Infuse herbs into a concentrated tea or decoction into a bath.
Compress/Fomentation (water) – Make a tea or decoction. Dip a washcloth in the decoction and rub on the body. I like ginger fomentations on my kidneys to rejuvenate kidney chi and warmth.
Liniments (vinegar/alcohol) — External application of herbal vinegars.
Salve (oil) – Oil infused with herbs thickened with beeswax primarily for skin conditions: bug bites, scrapes and bruises.
Cream (oil) – Similar to a salve, however, is an emulsion of oil and water. Used as moisturizer or medicinally.
Prep time — 20 minutes
Infusion time — Moon cycle (2-6 weeks)
Blend dried or fresh herbs in Vita-mix or blender with alcohol to release all of the phytonutrients from plant tissues.
Make sure all the herbs are under 1/4 inch of alcohol when the mixture settles.
40% alcohol for dry herbs
50%+ alcohol for fresh herbs (can do higher proof if it is highly resinous or very moist like comfrey)
Stress Reducing – Soporific/anxiolytic
California Poppy, Matillija Poppy, Lavender, Kava, Rosemary, Valerian root, Ashwaganda, Lemon Verbena, Hawthorne, Licorice root
Digestif/Bitters – Formula
Artichoke Leaf, Anise Hyssop, Yarrow, Gentian, Elecampane, Thyme, Chamomile, Sage, Rosemary, Calendula, Fennel, Ginger, Ashwaganda, Licorice
Cardiac/Courageous/Wholehearted – Tonic
Hibiscus, Hawthorn, Roses, Tulsi, Rosemary, Motherwort, Calendula, Gingko, Hawthorn, Lemon balm, Licorice, Mugwort, Myrrh, Night blooming cereus, Osha root, Yarrow
- Harvest fresh herbs.
- Dry herbs (dehydrator for 1 day at 108) or hang in an area out of direct sun with sufficient air flow until dry.
- Garble herbs — Remove the useful parts (often flowers and leaves) from the less useful parts (like stems and branches).
- Pulverize to powder.
- Wet with 95% alcohol to a consistency of a wrung out sponge. This is very little alcohol in the herbs — barely moist. Leave for 30 minutes to 4 hours.
- Blend with Vita-mix on high speed for 3-4 minutes (mixer should feel WARM to HOT 130 – 140 degrees – Note: Some/most alcohol will evaporate.)
- Strain the herbs out of the oil. Squeeze all oil out of herbs in cheesecloth or nut milk bag.
- Heat infused oil in a pan (or a double boiler can be SAFER to not burn oil or ignite beeswax) with pellets of beeswax (4:1 oil to beeswax by volume) until the beeswax dissolves.
- 2 drops of essential oil per 1 oz salve jar. Put this DIRECTLY in the jar as you don’t want the essential oils to evaporate in the heating process.
- This is ready to use immediately. You can even clean out the bowl with your hand and rub the excess on your body, which is better for your drain as well than pouring beeswax down it.
40 oz oil (I like Olive oil)
1.25 cup beeswax (more beeswax will make lip balm, less beeswax will make jelly/looser texture)
8 oz dried Herbs:
2 oz yarrow
2 oz plantain
3 oz calendula
1 oz rosemary
Wet 8 oz of herbs with 6-7 oz of 180 proof alcohol for the 1-hour maceration to open the herbs up. Blend oil and macerated herbs in blender. Strain herbs and add beeswax on the stove until dissolved. Pour into the containers you wish to use. Add essential oils if desired.
Get outside and play in your garden.