Practical Kitchen Table Herbalism
By Charley Downey MH
A History of Herbal Medicine and Safety
Common Herbs and their Uses
Teas, Infusions & Decoctions
Tinctures & Glycerites
Common Essential Oils & Their Uses
Suspensions, Syrups & Recipes
A Short History of Medicine
"Doctor, I have an ear ache.”
2000 B.C. - "Here, eat this root."
1000 B.C. - "That root is heathen, say this prayer."
1850 A.D. - "That prayer is superstition, drink this potion."
1940 A.D. - "That potion is snake oil, swallow this pill."
1985 A.D. - "That pill is ineffective, take this antibiotic."
2000 A.D. - "That antibiotic is artificial. Here, eat this root!"
Herbal medicine was pretty much the only available medicine for most of our history, augmented with bloodletting, leeches, rudimentary surgery and various naturopathic practices. Modern medicine was originally created from herbal extracts, though compounds which are chemically identical to plant extracts are now usually created in a lab – like Digitalis, a popular cardiac drug which was originally developed from the plant Digitalis – better known as the Foxglove. Other modern medicines are chemical in origin, but mimic the effects of plant extracts- like Valium, which is designed to work on the same centre of the brain as the herb Valerian (hence the name), and Tramadol and other opioid analogues, designed to work in the same way as opium, derived from poppies.
The main differences between a herbal medicine and an allopathic medicine are:
⦁ Herbal medicines are made from natural plant-based materials, whereas allopathic medicines are synthesised in a lab.
⦁ Allopathic medicine use only active compounds, whereas a herbal medicine will usually contain the entire plant or the entire contents of part of a plant (like the leaves or petals).
⦁ Allopathic medicine is standardised: A 500mg paracetamol tablet contains 500mg paracetamol exactly. A 500mg St John’s Wort tablet will contain 500mg of St John’s Wort extract, but the active compound content may vary, dependent on the natural potency of the plant it came from. Some herbal medicines are sold as ‘standardised’, but it is impossible to be completely accurate.
The benefit of the allopathic drug is clear- you know exactly what you’re getting and you can be sure of getting the same time and again. The benefit of herbal medicine is less obvious, but no more important: plants contain literally thousands of individual alkaloids, antioxidants, trace elements and other compounds, which all interact with each other. We cannot begin to know what each of these is and how they interoperate. By contrast, allopathic medicine isolates a single active ingredient or combination of a few active compounds in some cases. By ditching the other components, how do we know what we’re missing? Some compounds need others for our bodies to metabolise them. Others offer protection from side effects. By selecting a single substance, we lose the benefit of thousands of years of evolution and the benefits of a micro-ecosystem we lack the knowledge to appreciate.
The other key difference is the practice of herbal medicine – it is one of the therapies we call ‘holistic’, because they treat the whole person, as opposed to treating the symptoms of a disease of attacking the cause of the disease.
A good example of the difference in approach is the treatment of a simple urinary tract infection. An allopathic GP will confirm a diagnosis through a urine test or simply taking the patient’s symptoms. They will then prescribe a course of antibiotics. If they don’t work, they’ll try a different antibiotic. If the disease proves problematic and becomes chronic, then they’ll put the patient on a long course of a low ‘maintenance’ dose of antibiotics.
Conversely, a herbalist will talk to the patient a lot longer. They will ask about their general health, sleep patterns, diet, lifestyle and feelings. They will then consider the most likely factors causing the infection – the bacteria which cause bladder infections live harmlessly in the body all the time, so what caused the bacteria to grow out of control? They might discover that the patient is stressed and not sleeping, which has hurt their immune system, or that their diet is currently poor which is affecting their body’s ability to fight the infection, or causing blood sugar excess which the bacteria are able to feed from. They might find a diet rich in alkaline substances, whereas the naturally acidic pH level of urine keep alkaline-favouring bugs in check. They might find that the patient has recently taken medication like broad-spectrum antibiotics, which wipe out the body’s natural flora, which may mean that a different bacteria which normally keeps the other under control is not present to do so.
Whatever they discover, the herbalist will make suggestions on how to treat the person. They may recommend seeing your doctor for antibiotics, or they may prescribe a herbal antimicrobial agent, such as goldenseal. They will also give the patient advice on their lifestyle to help prevent the situation which caused the problem in the future, as well as help solve the current problem. This might involve drinking cranberry juice to make the bladder walls less receptive to the bacteria and making the bladder environment more acidic, cutting down on refined sugars to take away the food which the bacteria use to multiply, or meditation or other stress-reducing activity or suggesting stress relief techniques or tonic herbs.
Choosing herbal medicine doesn’t mean rejecting 300 years of technical medical advances. Herbal medicine is known as a ‘complementary medicine’, as it fits comfortably alongside modern allopathic medicine. For instance, a patient with cancer might use radiotherapy and chemotherapy to treat the cancer, but use herbal medicine to counter the side effects of the medication, or a HIV patient might use allopathic antiretroviral treatment to manage the virus, but then use herbal medicine to strengthen their immune system and improve their overall health, making the retroviral treatment much more effective.
Today’s talk is not a replacement for your GP and the entire NHS. If you are in any way unsure about your symptoms or those of your family, please consult your GP or local pharmacist. We’re going to look at ways to help you treat minor ailments at home, but does not teach medical diagnosis – that’s what 5 years of medical school is for!
Lots of people assume that natural equals safe, but there are plenty of completely natural substances which are extremely toxic. There are also a great many plant alkaloids which, like allopathic medications, have therapeutic dosages and toxic dosages. A smoker might enjoy the nicotine in a cigarette when inhaled, but a potentially fatal dosage of nicotine in the bloodstream is surprisingly small: around 1mg per kilo of body weight, so the nicotine in one ‘light’ cigarette would be enough to kill a child if it was injected. The same is true of the alkaloids of the opium poppy. Other naturally-occurring plant alkaloids include:
⦁ Strychnine (from Strychnine Nux Vomica plant seeds, with an oral LD50 of 1-2mg per kilo of body weight.
⦁ Atropine (found in Deadly Nightshade, Mandrake and Jimson Weed – which kills hundreds of cattle every year), with an oral LD50 estimated at around 453 mg in total for an adult.
⦁ Cocaine (from the Coca plant), which has an LD50 of around 95.1mg per kilo.
⦁ Caffeine (from several plants, including tea, coffee and cocoa beans) is a popular food and drink flavouring, but has an LD50 of 140mg per kilo.
Most of these figures are taken from lab animals, so it’s not certain exactly what the human equivalents are. To compare these to an artificial drug known for its toxicity, the LD50 of paracetamol is 338mg per kilo of body weight.
Herbal Safety Rules
1) Treat herbal medicines with the same respect you would any other medicine.
2) Pay attention to stated dosages and follow them where applicable. More is not necessarily better!
3) Some herbal medicines (such as St John’s Wort), can affect the action of some allopathic medicines (in the case of St John’s Wort, this includes blood thinning medicines and the contraceptive pill) so consult a herbalist, your GP or pharmacist (bearing in mind that they may not have all the information on all herbal medicines) or read up on a herb before using it if you’re taking other medication.
4) Most herbal medicines have not been tested on pregnant women, so be especially careful if you are pregnant – it may be wise to avoid using anything you are not prescribed or have not checked with a herbalist or your midwife.
5) Children are smaller than us, and they need smaller doses. Halve adult doses for children under 12, half again under the age of 6 and take specialist advice in case of children under 3.
6) Essential oils are incredibly strong and can cause skin irritation and even burns. Never put undiluted essential oils on the skin (with one or two small exceptions which we’ll come to) and wear gloves when handling undiluted essential oils.
7) Label everything! When you make a tincture, syrup or balm, always label it with what it is and the date it was made. Make sure you keep a list of the ingredients you used.
Seeing the Doctor
No home treatment is a complete alternative to seeing a GP. Whilst natural home treatments can be used alongside allopathic medicine and can be used as ‘first aid’ in the home to treat both minor ailments and ongoing chronic conditions, they don’t change the fact that, when you need to see a doctor, you need to see a doctor.
If you are ever in any doubt about your symptoms or health, then you GP or Pharmacist should be your first port of call.
Common Herbs and Their Uses
A hardy herbaceous perennial bush, native to the UK. A well-known and popular culinary herb which is easy to grow and often drunk as a tea. It is believed to have been used medicinally for over 10,000 years. It has antimicrobial, pain relieving and carminative properties.
It is an excellent remedy for stomach cramps, nausea and digestive disorders, as well as IBS and similar complaints. In 2007, Italian investigators reported that 75% of the patients in their study who took peppermint oil capsules for four weeks had a major reduction in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms, compared with just 38% of those who took a placebo.
It’s also an excellent topical pain reliever, particularly with regard to dental pain. This is one of the undiluted essential oils exceptions – place 1-2 drops on the site of toothache, mouth ulcers and similar problems. For digestive disorders, indigestion, and stomach cramps or trapped wind, the tea can be drunk freely, or place a few drops of the oil on a sugar cube and allow to dissolve in the mouth. I’ve also found that keeping a bar of Kendal Mint Cake (which is made with peppermint oil, rather than artificial flavourings) is a pleasant and quick way of treating a stomach ache!
Lavender is a popular English garden herb. A woody shrub, it’s easy to grow and attracts bees and butterflies to gardens. It is well known as a calming, soporific and relaxing herb, but it has many other uses. It can actually be stimulating in large quantities so, when putting it on your pillow, less is more!
Lesser known than the essential oil is the use of lavender as a culinary herb – it makes a lovely relaxing tea, on its own or mixed with green or black tea, peppermint, whatever you fancy!
Lavender is also a powerful antibacterial agent and pain reliever. Our second exception of the undiluted essential oil rule, a drop of neat lavender on a minor burn eases the pain, disinfects and promotes healing. A couple of drops mixed with a moisture cream or oil and rubbed into the temples can help relieve a headache. The herb also repels moths and other flying insects, so popping little bags of lavender (or even reusing an old sock as a bag!) in your drawers and wardrobes can ward off the dreaded moths!
Related to the common daisy, chamomile is a hardy flowering perennial, again native to the UK. It’s most popular use is as a calming agent – both the herb, usually taken as a tea, and the oil, used in baths and inhalants, are used to promote sleep and calm stress.
Chamomile is also an antispasmodic, which means it helps to soothe and calm muscle cramping. This makes it excellent as a topical treatment for sports injuries, sprains and strains, muscle aches and period pain. The oil can be diluted for massage, or a strong tea can be applied to the affected area as a hot compress. You can also use chamomile flowers in oat poultices and washes to help calm skin complaints, but we’ll come to that later.
A persistent herb, often seen as an unwanted garden pest, it is native to the UK. Known by the slang term ‘piss-a-beds’, the old wives tales and schoolyard stories about it causing unwanted urination are rooted in fact – dandelion is a strong diuretic, making it a very useful treatment for water retention, bladder infections and kidney and liver problems.
It’s also packed with a wide variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidant phytochemicals, including vitamins A, C and K, calcium, potassium, iron and manganese. The root can be roasted and eaten or drunk as dandelion ‘coffee’, and the leaves are edible in salads as well as taken as a tea. It can also be made into a tincture.
Another hardy and persistent UK native plant which is often considered to be a weed. It is extremely rich in iron and has more vitamin C per gram than oranges or spinach. The stings are destroyed by drying or cooking the plant. The leaves can be sautéed, steamed or boiled like spinach and eaten as a vegetable or made into a tasty soup, and it’s a popular tea. Rich in the antioxidant quercetin, it inhibits histamine, making it an excellent treatment for hay fever and other histamine-based allergic reactions.
The tea is nice on its own or with peppermint, or even with a stock cube in it! If children are not keen on the taste and you want to give it to them to help with hay fever, it can be cooled, then mixed with cordial and even frozen into ice lollies!
Nettle is also an anti-inflammatory, making it a handy herb for arthritis sufferers, and is used as a tonic and to help treat kidney and urinary tract disorders.
An herbaceous perennial which grows in the UK where it was introduced from North America, it’s a continually-popular cold remedy with plenty of evidence to back it up – numerous clinical studies have demonstrated that Echinacea can cut the chances of catching a cold by more than half, and shorten the duration of a cold by an average of 1.4 days. It isn’t just for colds, though – Echinacea is a powerful immune system tonic, and can help the body recover from a wide range of illnesses, as well as lessen the chances of succumbing to viruses and bacterial infections.
There are concerns that by stimulating immune function, Echinacea could potentially exacerbate autoimmune disease and/or decrease the effectiveness of immunosuppressive drugs, but this warning is based on theoretical considerations rather than clinical trials. However, if one has a serious autoimmune disease, it is worth considering whether you want to run that clinical trial on yourself – I’d probably suggest not!
Valerian is another common English garden perennial, and the herb is made from the dried root of the valerian plant. Don’t let the sweet-smelling flowers fool you, the herb smells like you left your dirty rugby kit in a hot car for a fortnight!
Valium was named after this herb, as it works on the same centre of the brain, and has very similar effects, but without the addictive qualities. It’s a strong herb and not recommended for use with under 12s. It is a sedative and anxiolytic (anti-anxiety agent).
The herb can be taken in capsules, as a tea, in tincture form or the oil can be inhaled (if you’re feeling brave – we disguise it in our aromatherapy blends with lots of sweet florals!) It is also used as an anticonvulsant, migraine treatment and pain reliever, as it interacts with the body’s GABA neurotransmitter receptor system.
WARNING! If you leave this in reach of a cat, they will go crazy for it and destroy anything in the path to get to it. It’s perfectly safe for them, just treat it like catnip, but be aware that it will make your house smell quite horrific!
Also commonly known as Maidenhair, the Gingko Tree is one of a kind, with no living relatives. It’s also pretty special – those 6 trees that were one of the only things to survive being within 2km of the Hiroshima blast – those are Gingko trees, and they’re still alive today!
Gingko is native to China, and it’s a popular herbal supplement as a mental and physical tonic. Clinical trials have shown it to improve cognitive function in Alzheimer’s patients (although it does not slow the disease’s progression or reverse its effects) and further studies have been inconclusive. Other studies have suggested that it is useful in improving concentration and mental acuity, although the research is somewhat unclear.
The more everyday uses of Gingko include improving circulation and treating allergies – it’s rich in quercetin, like nettle, so it has a similar effect in that regard. A word of warning: Gingko’s circulatory benefits can cause problems for patients using blood thinners like Warfarin, or for haemophiliacs. Its attention-improving capacities are connected to its action inhibiting monoamine oxidase, so patients taking antidepressants or pregnant ladies should steer clear, too.
St John’s Wort
St John’s Wort is a very well-known herb, but it has far more uses than commonly known. It’s also very strong, and can interact quite badly with some allopathic medication. It’s a flowering herb native to Europe, which also grows freely in many temperate regions around the World.
It is well known as an antidepressant, and great successes have been had treating moderate to severe depression with St John’s Wort alone. However, it works in the same way as many antidepressants, so taking St John’s Wort and other antidepressants together is not advisable – it’s an either/or scenario!
In addition, St John’s Wort should not be used with children without GP or specialist supervision, should not be used in pregnancy, and shouldn’t be used by people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder as it can stimulate mania in both conditions. It can also decrease the efficacy of the combined contraceptive pill, although the mini-pill and injection/implant are fine – its oestrogen related). Finally, and this is anecdotal only, so I only mention it for completeness, but I’ve been reading a lot of reports lately to suggest that St John’s Wort has been implicated in post-surgical complications connected to blood pressure and coagulation. There’s no evidence for or against this other than anecdotal clinician reports at present but, if you’re expecting to have surgery, it’s almost certainly worth avoiding St John’s Wort in the run-up to the surgery – better safe than sorry.
Raspberry leaf is just that – the leaves of the red raspberry bush which grows wild and domestically all over the World, including in the UK.
Recommended by midwives to help tone the womb in preparation for labour and to help start a labour once a pregnancy reaches full term, it has been shown to shorten labours and make them less painful. It is also high in magnesium, potassium, iron and B vitamins which make it helpful for nausea, leg cramps, and improving sleep during pregnancy. But it’s good for more than late pregnancy:
It’s full of vitamin C, making it a useful addition to any cold remedy, and its use as a gum disease treatment has been going on for centuries, in the form of a strong decoction used as a mouthwash. It’s useful as a warm compress or wash for sores, rashes and eczema, and it’s also used by many women to help reduce the symptoms of endometriosis. It’s gentle enough for all ages, but should be avoided in early pregnancy. The tea can be drunk or used topically.
Another popular British culinary herb, which goes really well with chicken and leek and potato soup! On a more medicinal level, thyme is a warming herb with powerful antimicrobial properties, killing all manner of bacteria and viruses. The essential oil is fantastic as an inhalant, where it acts as a bronchodilator, helping to ease the symptoms of colds, sinusitis, congestion, asthma, sleep apnoea and other respiratory conditions.
As well as offering a great deal for respiratory conditions, thyme has been shown to be more effective at treating acne than many proprietary acne creams. Dabbing the tincture on acne can help soothe and heal spots, and is also useful as a topical antiseptic.
Finally, studies have shown that thyme’s antimicrobial properties help to guard against food poisoning by being added to food. Finally, the tincture can be diluted and applied topically to yeast infections such as thrush.
Milk Thistle is, as the name suggests, part of the thistle family. It grows wild all over most temperate regions (and is often considered a weed), but it is also cultivated as a pharmaceutical plant. Its greatest use is as an antiheptotoxic – it protects against liver damage caused by toxins, including alcoholic liver disease, cirrhosis, hepatitis B & C, jaundice and gallbladder disease, as well as help to reduce the effect of some poisons which affect the liver.
For this reason, it’s often used as a treatment for hangovers, the rationale being that it helps to cleanse the liver. Whilst this is true, I think it working fast enough to remove the effects of a hangover (like the nausea and headache) are quite remote! On a more serious level, it’s currently used as a preventative treatment for type 2 diabetes patients with cirrhosis, to reduce their insulin resistance and slow the progression of both diseases, with good success rates. It is also used to lower cholesterol and cleanse the blood of toxins.
Senna pods are seed pods from the Senna plant. They have an aniseed-y taste, and are widely used as a laxative. The herb is available in tablet form widely, and can also be made into a tincture, tea or syrup. Syrups and teas are gentler and weaker than the tablets or tinctures.
Senna has quite strong effects, and so it should be avoided under the age of 6, and used sparingly with children under 12. It should only be used in cases of short-term constipation as, while it is safe for occasional use, chronic use and abuse can cause organ damage.
Simply the dried leaves of the tea plant which, unlike our common black tea drunk in the UK, have been steamed instead of fermented. The polyphenols in tea are more potent in green tea, and are used to inhibit cancer cell growth as well as reduce cholesterol. It is also rich in quercetin, assisting in the treatment of allergies.
Whole books have been written on the health benefits of green tea, right down to it killing the bacteria that cause dental plaque and food poisoning. It’s also said to aid weight loss, help manage blood sugar levels and is used as an anti-aging ingredient in skincare products.
A tropical spice growing in Sri Lanka and similar warm countries, clove is a natural topical pain reliever and antimicrobial agent. Another of the exception on neat essential oils, both the tincture and essential oil can be applied to toothache directly (with a single drop on a cotton bud). The tincture can also be used on cuts and grazes and diluted as a gargle for laryngitis and sore throats.
Aside from its pain-relieving properties, cloves are used for several other medicinal purposes. The plant has excellent warming properties, which makes it useful in topical application for arthritis and other musculoskeletal problems. It is also used for stomach complaints, as it can aid digestion and act as a carminative. It’s a useful anti-nausea treatment when taken as a tea, and is used in herbal medicine to treat morning sickness for this reason.
Clove is generally considered to be safe in normal usage quantities, although eugenol can be a sensitiser if you have sensitive skin, so care should be taken and it should always be diluted. It is toxic in doses of around 5ml of pure eugenol. Whilst clove cigarettes are popular in many countries, clove smoke can cause lung irritation.
The dried rhizomes of the ginger plant is a popular culinary spice, ginger has two very popular uses in both Western and Eastern herbal traditions. Topically, the essential oils is used as a counterirritant— a warming agent which helps relieve the pain of arthritic joints and aching muscles.
Aside from its pain-relieving properties, ginger is also a very successful anti-nausea agent. Regardless of whether the nausea is caused by illness, motion sickness, morning sickness or various other similar causes, the spice is effective at soothing stomachs. The gingerols in the spice (both fresh and dried) increase the motility of the gastrointestinal tract and have analgesic, sedative, antipyretic and antibacterial properties. You can get the benefits of ginger as a stomach soother through any food or drink with a reasonable ginger content—stem ginger cookies, ginger beer, ginger wine, or the candied root itself. It’s also said to help relieve headaches.
Ginger is generally considered to be safe in normal usage quantities, although it can contraindicate with Warfarin and it should be avoided by people with gallstones. It can occasionally cause heartburn, and should be used in moderation by people with IBS/IBD and similar gastrointestinal complaints.
Myrrh is a tropical tree resin, which was traditionally used for embalming. It is used in fine fragrance and to flavour food in its native North Africa and the Middle East (my husband swears by a few drops of the tincture to jazz up a bourbon and coke!)
From a therapeutic perspective, it’s an excellent antimicrobial agent – the ancient Greeks used to carry it onto the battlefield for use in emergency medicine for that reason. The tincture can be used as an antiseptic and an excellent sore throat gargle mixed with honey, hot water and lemon.
Finally, myrrh is a topical anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic agent, making it a useful addition to any rub or massage oil for muscle aches.
Making a Tea, Tisane, Infusion, or Decoction
A tea, a tisane and an infusion are the same thing – a solution where fresh or dried herbal material is steeped in hot water, then strained. It can be drunk, or used as an ingredient in something else. A decoction is effectively a stronger version of the same thing where, instead of steeping the plant in the water, you bring it to the boil and simmer. This is especially useful for hard, woody plants and spices, or where you need a strong tea.
You can make a tea with one herb, or several. To make a tea for a therapeutic purpose, decide what you want it to achieve, then select your ingredients accordingly. It’s important to consider the flavour – a treatment won’t be successful if the patient refuses to take it, which is especially common with children! Don’t be frightened of experimenting – try mixing small amounts and taste what you make, keeping a note of the proportions you use, whether you measure in grams or teaspoons.
An example of this would be one of the infusion blends we make in my company. ‘Mental Clari-Tea’ is designed to help with headaches, focus, and getting rid of ‘brain fog’. So, we use lavender mixed with feverfew, to reduce inflammation and ease the headache, alongside peppermint to aid focus and refresh, as well as to calm any nausea that often comes with headaches, marjoram to warm and comfort, chamomile to relax and ginger to fight nausea. With practice, you can trial different proportions until you find something perfect for you.
Tinctures and Glycerites
Tinctures and glycerites are like teas in that they are herbs and plant material which have been immersed in a solvent to release their active alkaloids and other component compounds. In the case of teas and decoctions, the solvent is water. In the case of tinctures, the purpose is to make a stronger, longer-lasting solution, so the solvent is alcohol – any spirit can be used – brandy or vodka are the most common. A glycerite is less strong than a tincture, and is made with glycerine instead of alcohol. These are used where alcohol is inappropriate, either with a treatment designed for very young children, or where alcohol is undesirable for lifestyle/religious reasons, medical reasons (some pregnant women avoid alcohol altogether) and personal choice.
Both tinctures and glycerites are made in the same way – by submerging plant matter in the solvent, missing daily and stewing for 2-4 weeks, before straining and bottling. Some tinctures are used by the drop, like clove, whereas some, like myrrh, can be used by the teaspoon. Glycerites are sometimes heated to release more active components.
Tincture strength is measured by the proportion of plant to solvent, so a 1:3 tincture would be 1 part plant material to 3 parts solvent. The solvent is usually diluted with water dependent on the type of plant matter used- resins require 100% spirit, whereas spices need 2/3rds spirit to1/3rd water, and herbs/flowers are fine at a 50/50 dilution. Tinctures are usually made of a single plant, but there’s no reason why they have to be.
Here are some examples of tinctures and their uses:
⦁ Peppermint – for use cooling sunburn, soothing stomach cramps, easing nausea and dental pain.
⦁ Clove - for use as a topical anaesthetic, sore throats, dental pain, teething and as an antiseptic.
⦁ Myrrh – For treating colds and laryngitis.
⦁ Ginger – for treating nausea, morning sickness and circulatory difficulties.
⦁ Turmeric – as a maintenance dose to reduce asthma attack frequency and ease arthritis.
They are really strong, and sometimes have an unpleasant taste. The finished product can be sweetened with honey (but not for babies under 12 months old), sugar, agave or stevia if desired, and can be taken as drops, in a drink, on a sugar cube or made into a syrup.
Common Essential Oils and Their Uses
In addition to the oils we have touched on above, there is a wealth of different essential oils which can be used for many purposes. The word ‘essential’ in this instances means the essence of a plant. They’re not ‘oils’ in the sense of fixed oils, such as olive or sunflower, although they do blend better with oil than water. If you want to mix essential oils with a water base (for instance, for a pillow spray or body spray), it’s easier to dissolve the oils in alcohol – vodka is fine, or surgical alcohol, before topping up with water.
The following oils are in common usage, with some of their properties.
⦁ Eucalyptus: Decongestant, antimicrobial, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, astringent, deodorant, diuretic, expectorant & stimulant.
⦁ Rosemary: Analgesic, anti-depressant, astringent, carminative, digestive, diuretic, emmenagogue, hepatic, hypertensive, stimulant, and tonic.
⦁ Ylang Ylang: Anti-depressant, antiseborrhoeic, antiseptic, aphrodisiac, hypotensive, nervine and sedative.
⦁ Rosewood: Anti-depressant, mildly analgesic, antiseptic, aphrodisiac, bactericidal, deodorant, insecticide and sedative.
⦁ Pine Needle: Antimicrobial, antiseptic, deodorant, diuretic, expectorant, hypertensive, insecticidal, restorative, adrenal cortex stimulant as well as stimulant to the circulation and nervous system.
⦁ Lemon: Antimicrobial, astringent, carminative, diuretic, hypotensive, insecticidal, tonic.
⦁ Camphor: Analgesic, antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, cardiac, carminative, diuretic, hypertensive, insecticide, laxative, stimulant & decongestant.
There are many methods of applying aromatherapy. The most common and easiest to use are:
⦁ Inhalants – from a bowl with hot water or purpose-built inhaler
⦁ Diffusing – usually with a burner, diffuser, radiator humidifier or lamp ring (less common with energy saving lamps which do not give off heat)
⦁ Salves/Balms – for pulse-point or targeted use.
Concentrated essential oil blends can be designed for use in oil burners, lamp rings, or as inhalants. They can also be diluted for use in massage, or even added to your favourite body products to fragrance them. They can be added to boiling water for use as inhalants, or can simply be inhaled from a handkerchief. They are heavily concentrated and need to be diluted before contact with skin.
The easiest way to use and enjoy aromatherapy at home is through massage – ensuring that you dilute your oils well into a base. A 1% dilution is ideal, halving that for children or pregnant people. So, if you have 50ml of carrier (basic kitchen olive oil is fine, or you can use any carrier oil or even unscented moisture cream), 20 drops of oils in total will be more than sufficient.
You can also just add your chosen blend to a diffuser. Alternatively, steam inhalation can be very useful, particularly for colds or crisis moments. Most of us will have used a decongestant blend, such as Olbas oil, for inhalation, but you can do the same with other oils, too. If you put 10 drops of your chosen oil or oils into a bowl with a kettle-full of boiling water, place a towel over your head, close your eyes and inhale the steam from within your towel ‘tent’, this can be a very effective way of applying aromatherapy. Peppermint, lemon, clove, thyme, eucalyptus and/or camphor can be excellent for a cold, whilst lavender, ylang ylang, frankincense or chamomile can aid in stressful moments, and the act of closing oneself off inside a haven and focussing on your breathing can be very calming.
As well as herbal medicines to treat specific ailments, there are a wealth of self-care and wellbeing options you can make at home, often with simple ingredients you’ll find in your kitchen.
One of the simplest, yet most effective, is a simple oat wash. These are ideal for dry, damaged and itchy skin, as well as more significant skin complaints like eczema and dermatitis. Oats contain a compound which reduces the itching sensation, which is why tepid baths with ground oats are indicated for children with chicken pox, but you don’t need an infectious disease to benefit from oats.
To make a simple oat wash, you can use raw coconut oil (the solid white stuff you’ll find in the Word Foods aisle at the supermarket), old good kitchen olive oil, or a combination of the 2. If you’re using coconut oil, you’ll need to melt it gently over a low heat first – it has a very low melt point and will melt quickly in a saucepan, microwave or porringer/double boiler. Then, take simple porridge oats. If you have a liquidiser or blender, you may find you get better results by giving the oats a blitz first to reduce them to powder. Then, mix your oil or oils with the oats to make a thick paste. Then, you can get creative! If you have very sensitive or itchy skin, you may prefer to avoid essential oils and just add a handful of chamomile flowers (or snip open a couple of chamomile tea bags and pour the contents in), as chamomile is soothing, gentle and anti-inflammatory. If you enjoy a more fragrant wash, you can add a few drops of lavender, frankincense, chamomile, or whatever you like or whatever will be helpful to your specific skin concerns.
Then, simply use this paste with a washcloth in the shower or bath in place of your regular soap or shower gel for smooth, moisturised and calm skin. The oil will cleanse your skin, but be aware that it can also make the bath or shower slippery!
For really itchy and damaged skin, you can use the same blend as a poultice – put the mixture onto a washcloth or old tea towel and apply directly to the affected area, leaving it to soak.
Epsom Salt Baths
Epsom Salts, or to give their full chemical name, magnesium sulfate, are an excellent base for a wellbeing-enhancing bath. There are many anecdotal claims to suggest that Epsom salt baths are beneficial to ease the symptoms of fibromyalgia and arthritis. However, the research ‘jury’ is still out on whether this is the case. However, they are known to be excellent at easing aches and relaxing muscles.
However, the greatest benefit is the magnesium content. Modern intensive farming methods can mean that a lot of the food we eat doesn’t have the same level of nutrients it once did and, as a result, it’s estimated that over 70% of people in the western world do not meet recommended dietary intake levels of magnesium. Magnesium is also poorly absorbed through the gut compared to transdermally (through the skin), so an Epsom salt bath can improve magnesium levels.
Magnesium is an essential mineral and deficiency can cause muscle twitches and spasms, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, fatigue, muscle weakness, sleep problems, anxiety and depression.
You can get the benefits of Epsom salts by sticking a mug full in your bath or a foot bath, but you can also jazz them up to create your own herbal remedies in bath form! Here are just some ideas for how you can make your own blends:
⦁ To a kilo of Epsom salts, try adding 100g sodium bicarbonate and mixing well, to make your bath salts effervescent! It’s a good idea to add 50g citric acid if you’re going to do this, to balance the pH level.
⦁ Fancy a milk bath Cleopatra-style? Leaves the cow’s milk to one side, and instead, use 100g coconut milk powder mixed with a kilo of Epsom salts. The coconut milk adds a luxurious feel, and is gently moisturising.
⦁ How about a bath of petals? You can add a handful of dried rose petals, chamomile or lavender flowers for a luxury feel, or dried herbs such as rosemary. You can also add oatmeal as we discussed before to ease itching.
⦁ Why not get creative with aromatherapy? Adding lavender and chamomile oils for a sleep-enhancing soak, rosemary and tea tree to help heal spots or blemishes, sandalwood and ylang ylang for a sensual soak, or peppermint and lime for a revitalising bath – or have some fun with it and make your own signature blend!
You’ll find Epsom salts in most chemists, places like Home Bargains, as well as online.
Home Face Masks
There’s nothing more relaxing than a good pampering session, and you can make your own fresh skincare products at home. You can tailor them to suit your skin type and preferences, but here are some ideas:
⦁ Ground coffee is an excellent ingredient to exfoliate skin, with caffeic acid to brighten and plenty of antioxidants. Try mixing it with honey, mashed pumpkin or mashed avocado.
⦁ Oatmeal with sodium bicarbonate, slowly mixing in a few drops of water or witch hazel can help unblock pores. Add a few drops of lemon oil for oily skin.
⦁ Mashed cucumber with aloe vera gel can be a calming, cooling mask for sensitive skin.
These are just some starter ideas. There are loads of great ingredients from turmeric to mashed banana or papaya. Why not create your own signature recipe?
Suspensions and Syrups
Suspensions and syrups are basically traditional medicines, in their true sense. They are usually high in sugar and are quite pleasant to take. They are normally taken by the spoonful. The active ingredients are extracted, if necessary, and then suspended in a syrup, which may have ingredients like sugar, honey, vinegar, treacle and glycerine. They may also have plant extracts in the form of juices, and may include essential oils, decoctions or tinctures. Here are some typical recipes for traditional syrups (each makes around 200ml):
Sore Throat Gargle
Lemon Juice 60ml
Lemon Oil 1.5ml
Myrrh Tincture 50ml
Clove Tincture 5ml
Lime Oil 1ml
Goldenseal Tincture 3ml
Marjoram Oil 0.5ml
Heat the honey in a saucepan with the water until dissolved, then add the essential oils. Remove from the heat and add the tinctures. Allow to cool and bottle. Keep in the fridge and use within 2 months. Add 2 tsp to a shot glass of hot water, gargle and swallow.
Liquorice, Lemon & Marshmallow Cough Syrup
Black Treacle 40ml
Liquorice Juice Sticks 2
Liquorice Roots 20g
Lemon Juice 20ml
Lemon Oil 1.5ml
Marshmallow Root 10g
White Wine Vinegar 20ml
Break the liquorice juice sticks into pieces, and heat in a saucepan with the brandy until dissolved. In a separate pan, put the roots and herbs and bring to the boil, then simmer for 15 minutes and strain to make a decoction. Add the treacle, honey, lemon juice, vinegar, sugar, brandy mixture, glycerine and lemon oil. Bring to the boil and stir until dissolved. Simmer to a syrup, cool and bottle. Keep in the fridge and use within 2 months. Take 2tsp for adults and 1tsp for children as required.
Ginger, Chamomile & Lemon Digestive Cordial Makes 500ml)
Ginger Root 150g
Chamomile Flowers 15g
Lemon Juice 75ml
Lemon Oil 1.5ml
Cider Vinegar 50ml
Brown Sugar 200g
Grate the fresh ginger root and place in a saucepan with the water and chamomile and bring to the boil, then simmer for 15 minutes and strain to make a decoction. Strain the liquid and discard the plant material. Add the sugar, lemon oil and juice, honey, vinegar and glycerine. Bring to the boil and stir until dissolved. Simmer to a syrup, cool and bottle. Keep in the fridge and use within 6 weeks. Add a splash to water, soda or lemonade after a meal to aid digestion and prevent heartburn.
Rosehip & Ginseng Syrup (Traditional Children’s Winter Tonic)
Rosehip Shells 120g
Cinnamon Sticks 5g
Break the cinnamon sticks up and place in a saucepan with the water, rosehip shells, Echinacea and ginseng and bring to the boil, then simmer for 15 minutes and strain to make a decoction. Strain the liquid and discard the plant material. Add the honey and sugar. Bring to the boil and stir until dissolved. Simmer to a syrup, cool and bottle. Keep in the fridge and use within 6 weeks. Give 1 dessertspoonful every morning to children during winter to help them fight off colds and bugs.
Traditional Gripe Water
Put the herbs and seeds in a saucepan with the water and glycerine. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 15 minutes. Strain, allow to cool and bottle. Keep in the fridge and use within 6 weeks. Add 5ml to bottle feeds or give up to 5ml orally by syringe to babies to soothe colic and ease trapped wind – Natural Infacol!
Charley Downey MH
68 Brackenwood Drive, Leeds, LS8 1RJ
Tel: 07952 231105