Have you ever talked with someone who thought that herbs didn’t work because they did little for them despite all their commercial hype? Or have you ever taken (or given) an herb and you (or the person) not only didn’t improve but got worse? The reason for these experiences may actually be simple – the energy of the herb was not matched to that of the person or the condition experienced and so it wasn’t effective.
The energy of herbs is extremely important to consider when choosing herbs. Some herbs are cooling, others warming; some are drying, others moistening. Some drain while others build. As well, people have energetic constitutions, too. Some folks have coldness, or heat; others dryness or dampness. Some have an excess state (too much of something – think about how you feel after eating too big of a meal for example). Other people are weak, deficient, or depleted.
Thus, which herb you choose depends not only on its own energies but also that of the person taking the herb. If the person has a condition of coldness, for instance, they need herbs with a heating energy. If they are dry, they need moistening herbs. And if they’re weak, they need herbs that build strength, immunity, or blood. If herbs are not energetically matched to the person in this way, either they’ll have no results or else problems can arise.
For example, when I mention the herb, turmeric, what first comes to mind? That it’s great for pain? Perhaps, but it actually might make you dizzy instead. How about black cohosh? Think it’s mainly great for menopause? Think again. It may help some women but others might experience no benefit at all. And how about feverfew? Use it for headaches? It might work, but it only treats one type of headache. Since there are as many as five or more causes for headaches, each requires a different herbal energy and feverfew may not match that.
To be even more specific, if you give a building herb, such as ginseng, to someone who has stagnation with symptoms of burping, belching, mood swings, nausea, pent-up emotions, headache in the temples, or is easily angered or irritated, it would just make them feel worse. That would be like adding more cars to rush hour traffic. On the other hand, if someone is weak, tired, or perhaps even anemic, you wouldn’t want to give them elimination therapies as those would only weaken them further.
I learned the importance of the energy of herbs very early when I first started using herbs. Like many beginner herbalists, I began with the typical allopathic approach, that is, “this herb is good for that condition.” Then one day I got a very bad flu. A friend told me garlic is good for flu, so I took garlic. I got much worse. I was curious why and soon learned that my flu was a condition of heat (high fever, sweating, feeling hot) and garlic itself is a heating herb. Taking garlic meant I only got hotter and my symptoms intensified
Let’s take turmeric again as another example since it’s such a popular herb today. Because it’s the best anti-inflammatory available to forestall heart and brain problems and to treat pain, many people consume it regularly. While that helps some folks, others actually have reactions they don't even realize occurred because of the turmeric. I have seen many such cases over the years.
This is because turmeric is warming and drying in energy. That means it’s perfect for folks who have pain and swelling from heat and dampness such as heavy, swollen joints, yellowish and smelly diarrhea, urinary tract infections with pain and even bleeding, herpes, or yellow leukorrhea for example. But those who have dryness, anemia, or Blood Deficiency with such symptoms as dry cough, stools, skin, mouth or nails, dizziness, blurry vision, night sweats or heat flushes, can get worse since the cooling, drying turmeric only depletes these substances more. If taken for extended periods or overdosed, it can lead to insomnia, burning in the hands and feet, hypertension, or heart palpitations, for starters. [Note: Turmeric tuber (yu jin) is cooling while turmeric rhizome (jiang huang) is heating. Both promote the flow of Qi and Blood, but the rhizome treats painful obstruction (arthritic conditions) while the tuber does not. Both herbs relieve gall bladder jaundice, but the tuber is stronger than the rhizome. Turmeric found in the grocery store is probably the rhizome.]
Each herb has specific energies that determine its true use. Start observing the energy of herbs and the conditions they treat rather than using one herb for a specific condition. Giving herbs allopathically regardless of the energy of the herb or the person taking it is what causes others to believe that herbs don't work. Even worse, it gives herbs a bad rap. Learn to use herbs energetically and you’ll more efficiently and effectively experience the wonder of herbs and their healing powers.
Lesley Tierra is teaching a 4-hour intensive on herbal energetics Oct 5, 2017 before the AHG Symposium held at the Oregon Garden Resort (in Silverton, outside of Portland, Oregon). Come learn about the differences between cooling, warming, moistening, drying, eliminating, and building herbs, their flavors and directions, and how all of these affect a person’s body and the disease experienced. This class is valuable regardless of your herbal training or background and may be applied to all herbal approaches.
In summer we often graze through the garden, feast on fruit, or skip meals altogether because we’re too involved with various activities to stop. Who doesn't want to race outdoors first thing to enjoy the sunshine, cool morning weather, or a luscious garden? However, not eating, or eating insufficient amounts of food for your body’s needs, can cause lots of health problems down the road.
I was reminded of this recently when I saw a teen in my clinic with chronic kidney infections. The doctors had already given repeated rounds of antibiotics, but while the infections would go away, they kept returning. When I examined her tongue, I noticed that her kidney/adrenal region was extremely depleted (the far rear region was deeply indented), especially for someone her age. I also noted that she was quite thin.
So I asked her – did she skip breakfast? I was not surprised to hear her answer – that not only did she skip breakfast but often lunch, too. The reason for her recurring kidney infections clicked – she had depleted her body’s resources. She hadn’t given her body enough food to support its needs, causing the recurring kidney infections. In other words, this teen was not putting enough fuel in her body, so she was running on fumes.
What happens if we skip breakfast, lunch or just graze throughout the day? The body has to obtain energy from some place and if it’s not coming in through food, then it scrounges for it within. That means the body dips into its own reserves to access the energy it needs. Those who carry more weight have fat reserves to obtain the stored sugar there. This glycogen is converted to glucose and then there’s power to run all the needed functions. Bodies that have little fat have to find energy from elsewhere. Translated into Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), this means the bodily essence is consumed, compromising its Qi, Blood, Yin, and Yang. At first this translates to mild symptoms most people ignore. But eventually, the more the body’s essence reserves are depleted, the more severe symptoms occur down the road.
The body’s essence can be likened to a combined trust fund and savings account. The “trust fund” is the inherited constitutional strength you receive from parents and grandparents. The “savings account” is derived from the food and drink you consume after birth.
Some folks receive a strong “trust fund” and can do anything or eat nothing and still have plenty of energy and health. Others who inherit weaker constitutional strength more easily develop illness or degenerative conditions, often earlier in life. Likewise with diet – some eat healthily during childhood and so have more “savings” to draw upon, while others who were fed poorly have less to use.
While symptoms start out with tiredness, poor appetite, poor muscle strength, anemia, dizziness, blurry vision, frequent urination, scanty menses, depression, anxiety, or insomnia, eventually low reserves lead to hypo-functioning of various organ systems and then burnout, like running the engine without enough oil. In time this can cause hormonal problems, low libido, premature aging, bad or loose teeth, weak knees and legs, hair loss, impotence, habitual miscarriage or infertility, brittle or softening of bones (collapsing joints, spine, hips, and so forth), poor memory or concentration, and senility. Not a very pretty list!
Since there’s nothing you can do about your inherited constitution or how you were fed when young, guarding your “savings account” is crucial to maintaining good health and preventing illness through the rest of your life. That means what you eat and drink has a huge impact on your well-being and what you can do. Eating three meals a day, consuming sufficient protein for your body’s needs, and limiting intake of health-robbing foods such as sugar and caffeine can make all the difference not only in your health, but also your quality of life.
When we’re young, we think these things won’t happen to us and we merrily go on our way continuing our current habits. But clinically I often see the other side where young women – and even men – in their twenties already experience hot flashes or infertility, and older women who can no longer enjoy hiking let alone gardening because of painful joint collapse.
It’s easy to forget to eat balanced meals during summer. And yet, while you may feel lighter, freer, lose weight, and/or have more time on your hands, just snacking on easily obtainable food exhausts your body over time. In fact, slipping out of the house without breakfast at any time of year is one of the most common depleting habits today. I see plenty of adults who skip breakfast and/or lunch so they can continue working through the day and they come in to my clinic with health problems.
Herbs can help supplement your essence, although they won’t replace eating sufficient healthy food and meals. The best herbs to use are Blood, Qi, Yin, and Yang tonics combined, adaptogens, rejuvenatives, restoratives, or herbs that support hormones like rhodiola, maral root and shilajit.
But the best treatment of all? EAT – three meals daily, especially breakfast!
This spring, plant an herb that is not only an ornamental but also a powerful medicinal: ophiopogon. Known as Japanese turf lily or mondo grass, it is usually planted as a decorative border for its long, narrow, downward pointing and curling leaves. Few know that the tuber, a small white bulb, is filled with a sweet juice that has many healing properties.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, ophiopogon is classified as a Yin tonic. That means it is cooling and moistening for Heat symptoms due to Dryness and Deficiency, similar to “burn-out,” like running a car low on oil so the engine heats up and eventually burns up. In the body, the person may feel hot or feverish in the evening or night, on and off exhausted, dry burning eyes, dry tongue, mouth and lips (especially at night), a burning sensation in the chest, palms and/or soles of the feet, chronic dry cough, and thirsting and wasting disorders (pre-diabetic and TB-type conditions). I have listed more symptoms of Yin Deficiency here:
Yin Deficiency is a lack of cooling, moistening Fluids with resulting depletion (fatigue, exhaustion, emaciation or thinness) along with specific types of Heat and Dryness signs, including: night sweats, malar flush (redness and burning heat along the cheeks and nose), burning sensation in the palms of the hands, soles of the feet and in the chest, afternoon fever or feelings of heat, restless sleep, dry throat or thirst at night, agitation, mental restlessness, dry cough, dry stools, and scanty dark urine.
Ophiopogon is specifically used as a Yin tonic to promote the secretion of fluids in treating dry coughs (with or without thick or bloody, difficult-to-expectorate sputum), fevers, palpitations, insomnia, constipation, excessive thirst, and dry throat, tongue, mouth, or stools.
I have definitely found it to be the very best herb for a dry cough, either during an acute condition or after. The person usually feels some lung congestion, but the phlegm is difficult to expectorate, or there’s no evidence it’s even present. As well, there’s probably also low energy. Those who have ever experienced Yin Deficient Heat (a dry condition) concurrent with Phlegm (a wet condition) know how tricky treatment of these can be. To have an herb that clears Phlegm while moistening at the same time is a gift indeed.
Ophiophogon works brilliantly in these cases because it cools the Heat that dries the Phlegm, making it congeal so it doesn’t expectorate. It also moistens the stuck phlegm, making it easier to pass through and out. Afterward, the person will experience energy again and their chest will feel normal.
I’ve also used ophiopogon at the first signs of fever in those with Yin Deficiency as well as the aftermath of those fevers. It is classically used for this in the formula, Ophiopogon Combination (listed below). As well, it is given to moisten the intestines for dry constipation, and treats dry mouth, throat, lips, and eyes. However, it has many other valuable uses.
I have found ophiopogon reduces restless leg syndrome, especially at night, to improve low energy (without fever or an acute condition), and to moisten dry, burning eyes (especially at night). It is fabulous for sleep problems as well, when sleep has an “in and out” or trance-like quality so you feel like you’re not asleep and yet you are at the same time. Sometimes it can also help when one wakes at night but has difficulty falling back asleep, particularly if there’s also thirst or a dry mouth/throat present.
Whether or not you need ophiopogon’s specific healing properties, it is a beautiful ornamental to have in your garden and you never know when someone else might benefit from it. So plant ophiopogon this year and enjoy its beauty while knowing it holds potent medicine under the ground for those who need it.
Mai men dong (Chinese) Family: Asparagaceae
Also named: Japanese turf lily, turf lily, mondo grass, Ophiopogonis Radix
Energy and flavors: Slightly cold, sweet, slightly bitter
Organs and channels affected: Lung, Stomach, Heart
Chemical constituents: Ruscogenin (steroid sapogenin), B-sitosterol, stigmasterol, B-sitosterol-D-glucoside, ophioside, sugars, mucilage
Properties and actions: Tonic, antibacterial, sedative, antitussive, lowers blood sugar, diaphoretic; tonifies Yin
Contraindications: Loose stools, acute stages of Wind-Cold pathogenic diseases, Cold or Damp conditions
Ophiopogon (mai men dong) 15–20g
Rice, Oryza (jing mi) 15–20g
Ginseng, Chinese (ren shen) or American (xi yang shen) 6–9g
Pinellia (ban xia) 6–9g
Licorice (gan cao) 3–6g
Jujube dates (da zao) 5 pieces
(As pinellia is only available to practitioners, substitute with chickweed aerial parts (Stellaria media) or marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis). Chinese herb substitutes include glehnia root (Glehnia littoralis - bei sha shen) or lily bulb (Lilium brownie - bai he).
Place all ingredients in a pot and cover with 5 cups of water. Simmer until reduced to 2 cups. Strain tea; set liquid aside. Now add 3 cups of water to the cooked herbs and simmer again until reduced to 1 cup. Strain and add liquid to the first 2 cups of tea. Drink 1 cup, three times a day.
This formula treats nausea, vomiting, thirst, dry throat and mouth, dry skin, dry, non-productive cough, spitting of saliva, dry mouth and throat, hiccups, five palm heat, red tongue with no coat, and a weak and rapid pulse.
Do you experience weight gain, fatigue, brain fog, hormonal imbalances, sleep problems, gut imbalances, high cholesterol and/or blood pressure, digestive problems, chronic headaches, regular illness, depression, anxiety, pain, or autoimmune conditions? Have you sought help for these issues and nothing helped, or perhaps even told you were a difficult patient or that your symptoms were “all in your head?”
Chances are you are experiencing adrenal and/or thyroid challenges in what Dr. Aviva Romm calls, SOS, or Survival Overdrive Syndrome. This is a state of being in repeated or chronic stress, which puts the body into “survival mode” to protect itself. Because the brain doesn't differentiate between a perceived danger or threat (that endless to-do list and deadlines) and a real one (life-threatening situations), it instructs the body to react in the same way with both.
The results are chronic inflammation, under-functioning of the internal detoxification systems, poor sleep, dietary allergies, blood sugar imbalances, disruptions in gut health, autoimmune conditions, and even viral infections. Dr. Romm divides these further into SOS-O – being caught in constant activity overdrive – and SOS-E – when you hit the wall and are deeply exhausted.
Whichever it is, when we are stuck in unrelenting stress, our protective mechanisms get stuck, too, causing a mass of symptoms such as those listed above. In time we don't recognize the source problem as being chronic stress but search for other answers. Many find results with herbs and natural remedies but most end up on endless medications.
This and more is dealt with by Dr. Aviva, a 30 year herbalist and mid-wife – and East West graduate – who decided in her 40s to become a medical doctor. Her marriage of Western medicine sciences with herbalism and natural remedies gave birth to her newest creation, The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution, (HarperOne, 2017).
In this book, Dr. Aviva provides a thorough and easy to understand explanation of how the body responds to stress and what to do about it. It also demystifies the crucial roles of the adrenals and thyroid in the stress response and their impact on health. And it shares how to deal with the many symptoms that result, along with even more importantly, their five root causes.
This book is packed with informational charts, questionnaires to decode your SOS types, and multiple solutions for a number of related health problems, all personally tailored to fit your unique symptoms and needs. It takes the holistic perspective of replenishing “cell to soul” to outline in detail a three-week SOS program following the five approaches of reboot, reframe, repair, recharge, and replenish. It addresses the all-important microbiome gut repair along with how to get a good night’s sleep as well as boost immune support, detoxification, and hormone balance.
Written not in a preachy manner but from a very supportive perspective of one woman to another (although I believe this book is important for men, too), it is clear, easy to understand, and thorough in its explanations and resources. It provides a lifestyle approach rather than a “quick fix” plan for lasting health changes and benefits.
List upon list of herbal and natural remedies are provided for different root cause conditions along with multiple day-by-day guides, charts to track your patterns and progress, a self-care repair kit, shopping lists, sample menus, and recipes for all dietary approaches. The entire three-week plan is completely laid out so there is no guesswork. Dr. Romm even provides charts on various lab tests with guidance for how to read and understand them.
Beyond that, there is an entire chapter on how to hit the pause button, one of the hardest things to do when living with chronic stress. As well, her remedies address the root causes for lasting results rather than giving short-term cures. This book is especially for those who want to take charge of their own health and lives, who have not found the final answers from traditional Western medicine, or who want to find natural alternatives to multiple medications.
The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution provides women with a way to think about their symptoms and medical conditions as well within their power to control – not as something beyond their control with life limitations, medications, and the downward decline Western medicine likes us to think is inevitable without dependence on medications. It teaches women to recognize, address, and reverse the five root causes of diseases that affect metabolism, hormones, mind, mood, immunity, and inflammation with natural tools that are within our hands. It also provides a blueprint for MDs and other professional who want to change their approach to be more woman-centered and chronic disease prevention savvy.
I have personally seen in my own over 33 years clinical experience how such a whole-person approach can bring renewed health and change people’s lives. If you follow The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution’s guidance, it can definitely change your health and your life. I give it a highest recommendation!
Introduction from Lesley: If anyone should know how to study efficiently it is Kristi Shapla, who as a mother, teacher, product formulator and producer, and wife is also a doctoral student. She has figured out techniques to help acquire effective study skills so you not only retain information better but also cut your study time down.
As well, she addresses important self care while pursuing intense or long-term studies. Studying long term, or even excess reading in general, consumes Spleen Qi and Heart Blood. To address this Chinese practitioners and scholars take herbs to nourish Spleen Qi and Heart Blood.
Kristi addresses this below, but as well the traditional formula typically used by scholars in China is Tian Wang Bu Xin Dan(Ginseng and Zizyphus Formula), sometimes today called “the Students Formula.” As well, some practitioners eat a handful of longan berries (pinyin, botanical name, “dragon eyes”) after studying or at the end of a long clinic day to replenish Heart Blood. Kristi has other wonderful suggestions for self-care.
We are finding that there are a lot of similarities in how people approach their lessons. Reading and highlighting are common, and are the least effective strategies for short term or long term retention (1). This is because it is a passive method. You aren’t engaging on a meaningful level. If this is your typical study protocol, try this method alone, and take the quizzes at the end of the lessons. Then try the next lesson with the strategies detailed below and compare not only your outcome, but the amount of time spent. Your goal here is to be able to answer the questions without flipping through the lesson.
Research is also showing that the very popular “learning styles” method is not a valid means of retention either. If you aren’t familiar, this is a method that requires that you take a test to see which particular kind of learner you are, and then you proceed with your studies according to that style. Psychologists gave subjects these quizzes, then set up random learning style experiences, and then gave them a learning experience that catered to the “style” that they tested for. They were unable to show any improvement between random and tested styles of learning (2).
Before I even get into effective learning strategies, I want to discuss some self care tips for those embarking on a path of endless learning. This is, after all, an herb course! In terms of Chinese Medicine, overthinking, overstudying, and sitting for extended periods of time is harmful for the Spleen. So let’s look at how we can be kind to our Spleens:
Diet: The Spleen, in Chinese medicine, involves digestion: turning food into Qi and Blood. And to do this, it needs warmth and dryness. Eating cold, dampening foods will only further the stress we are putting on our Spleens. I like to have homemade chai simmering on the stove while I study, getting a fresh cup during study breaks. Here is a great recipe from an East West graduate (and one of my dearest friends), Melanie St. Ours. Sweeten lightly with honey if you must, but don’t go for the instant chai teas at the grocery, unless they don’t have any added sugar. And of course, if you avoid caffeine, They are usually sweeter than soda, and while a little sweet flavor directs to and tonifies the Spleen, too much sweetness harms the Spleen! Puerh tea is another nice warm beverage that has digestion-improving qualities.
For a study snack, I like to make a small bowl of goji berries and walnuts at hand. Don’t walnuts look like brains? This is called Doctrine of Signatures, where the properties of herbs can sometimes be evident in how they look. And goji berries are a Chinese medicine to tonify yin and Blood, and brighten the eyes. Often poor memory is linked with Blood Deficiency.
As far as foods go, limit sweets, cold beverages, and processed foods. And be sure to get plenty of daily exercise, even if it is a short walk outside before and after study sessions.
For a more thorough discussion on the Spleen, see Lesley Tierra’s blog post.
The main idea here is to not create hurdles for yourself. Start with small goals, like 10-20 minutes/day. Usually when I sit down for ten minutes, I decided to sit for ten more. But maintain achievable goals. Create an objective for the month, for the week, and for each study session. For monthly goals, you might want to finish one lesson each month. Then just get your planner and schedule your study sessions. Break that lesson down into smaller, weekly objectives, and voila! you have a manageable system in place. For each session, it can be something as simple as, “I want to really focus on the properties of shatavari.” Or, “I want to review 5 flashcards”. The idea is to never sit down to study without an objective.
If you are really trying to get organized, I suggest a bullet planner (3) or an app like Todoist (4) to help keep you on track with your goals.
I know it is obvious, but I am going to say it anyway. Get rid of distractions! Lose the laptop if at all possible, hide your phone, tell the kids or roommates that you are only to be disturbed for emergencies. Or better yet, arrange for a daily sitter or go somewhere without distraction. If this proves too difficult, and the timing is never right, just study in 10 minute bursts. Above all else, keep reasonable goals! And since our sense of smell is so closely linked to memory (5), I light the same type of incense every time I study to cue my brain that it is time to focus.
Research shows that keeping your study sessions limited to 20-30 minutes is ideal for retention. If you are lucky enough to have more time, take a 10 minute break and then have another 20-30 minute session. This is known as the Pomodoro technique. There are apps that can help you with the timing, but I use a kitchen timer since I don’t want the distraction of a device near me.
This is the title of a book written by Peter C. Brown (6). In it, he compiles the latest research in making your study time both efficient and successful. Two of his strategies are self testing and memory retrieval. The idea here is that you would read a page or two, stop, and retrieve from your memory as best you can what you just read. The learning happens with this attempt at retrieval, and you will get better at it over time. Write down what you can remember, then go to the lesson and fill in what you left out in outline form. Another key concept of this book is to space these retrievals out. Try and recall the material the next day, but then wait a week before you revisit it. And then in two weeks. As you work, also continue to review past material and integrate with the new material to see how it fits together.
If this sounds like a lot of work, there are some shortcuts! But even without the shortcuts, this type of learning is a lot more efficient than reading and highlighting and not retaining any of it. One shortcut I couldn’t live without is an App called Anki (7). This is a flashcard app that is set to the perfect algorithm for memory retention. What this means is, it will show you a card in perfect intervals to set it in long term memory. Then you have these flashcards at your disposal when you have a few minutes to review. The key about using flashcards is to have one fact and one question, not a long list of information. It should be a quick process to get through a stack. The best thing about Anki is, you can share these stacks with classmates, and there are a ton of stacks available for free. It would be fantastic to have an East West Materia Medica flashcard swap on our student forum!
Aside from flashcards, I have several different techniques I employ here. And by the way, the more different strategies you use, the more you will retain the information in a meaningful way. Flashcards are great for simple questions and answers, but learning the materia medica requires a lot of different facts for one plant. This is where the memory palace comes in. A memory palace, sometimes called Method of Loci, is a mnemonic memory strategy, where you use visualizations and spatial memory to effortlessly recall complex information. This method was developed in ancient Greece, first written about by Cicero. You create these images or scenarios in your mind, and they are proven to build long term memory like nothing else can (8). Did you know there are memory competitions? People are given a long list of numbers or facts to remember, and they are able to recite them back in perfect order. Well, the memory palace is their secret! What you do is construct a different setting for each type of herb. You could be at a racetrack for blood moving herbs. The cool energy herbs have blue jockeys and the warm energy herbs have red jockeys. The horse itself will represent what the herbs treat. Below, I will create a memory palace for myrrh, a blood moving herb.
Myrrh, or Mo yao is a bitter herb, so the jockey will have a ‘bitter beer face’. It is neutral in temperature, so the jockey will be purple (red and blue combined). It generates flesh on chronic wounds and treats abdominal masses, and so the horse will be old and slow to heal, with abdominal masses and pain.
See number 8 on the resource list for more details about how to construct memory palaces.
Also, there is a set of flashcards that build memory palaces for each herb, called HerbZoo (9), but they only contain Chinese herbs and I think creating your own is where the learning happens.
The ancient Chinese way of memorizing the materia medica is through song. Physicians memorized and sang these songs daily to keep them memorized. My Classical Texts teacher, Sabine Wilms, has translated some of these songs from the Golden Cabinet (10). A few herbalists are creating modern songs as well (11), go to the Listen tab for a sample song. And of course, you can create your own songs!
Not into music? Why not create an album of collages, one collage for each herb? It would be beautiful to have, and this type of creative expressions is very healing for your Liver. Whatever you enjoy doing as expression, whether it is poetry, dance, art, or sculpture, can all be applied to learning herbs. If you don’t have this type of creative outlet, this is a perfect opportunity to get started. Being creative with your learning internalizes the big picture stuff.
One last aspect of learning herbs is to get to know them in real life. Botanical gardens, woodland hikes, and local plant walks are all opportunities to introduce yourself. There are also plenty of resources where you can buy plants and seeds and grow them yourself if you have the space (12). If you need some help getting acquainted with plant identification, this course comes with Botany in a Day (13). There is also a free online course, with a suggested donation if you have it (14).
And of course, using the plants as food and medicine is the very best way to make them a part of you!
If you say you have no time, you won’t. If you are determined, it will be a priority.
If you say you are too old to learn, you are. But research suggests that after some practice to get back into learning, you are just as able as anyone. And being a lifelong learner prevents age-related memory loss.
Kristi Shapla is an East West Certified Herbalist, a registered herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild, and is currently a graduate student of Oriental Medicine at NUNM in Portland, OR. Check out her book on brewing herbal beers: Brew Your Medicine
I always love to make gifts when I can and especially love to receive handmade ones, too, as do many people I know. If you do as well, or are wondering what to give someone, here are a couple of holiday herbal treats you can easily make that are not only tasty but also healthy – fruit leather and trail mix. Now before you turn up your nose at these seemingly prosaic ideas, read on for they are not made with “normal” ingredients and are extremely nutritious and medicinal.
HERBAL TRAIL MIX
What could be easier than stirring together three items and pouring into a bag? All that’s left is the wrapping! This herbal blend can be eaten anywhere, anytime, even as an afternoon office snack or a dessert. As well, you can add the mix to cereals, soups or cookies. Together this mix replenishes energy and nourishes blood. It is especially good for teachers, students, sales folks, or those who study and/or talk a lot.
Mix together in desired ratio. For an especially tasty mix, first blanch the walnuts for five minutes in boiling water, strain, cool and dry. Then add to mix.
Goji (Lycii) berries
This small, red, sweet berry tonifies Blood, treating anemia, dizziness, poor eyesight, night blindness, blurred vision, sore back, knees and legs, impotence, seminal and nocturnal emission, tuberculosis and peri/menopausal complaints. Very high in beta-carotene, lycii promotes regeneration of liver cells, inhibits fat deposits in liver cells, lowers cholesterol, prevents atherosclerosis, and enhances immunity.
Longan Berries (Euphoria longan)
These delicious berries quickly tonify Heart Blood like no other herb I know, alleviating palpitations, anxiety, forgetfulness, and insomnia, particularly due to overwork or from excessive thinking, studying, reading, or talking (all of which use a lot of Heart Blood and blood sugar in the brain). These berries are high in glucose and sucrose, which quickly replenish blood sugar.
The Chinese use walnuts to strengthen the Kidneys for alleviating low back and knee pain and frequent urination. They also warm the Lungs, treating chronic cough or wheezing (the type that occurs when it’s harder to inhale than exhale, there’s dribbling of urine upon sneezing, or there are accompanying symptoms of low back ache, frequent urination and/or night-time urination).
Walnuts also act as a mild laxative, particularly in the elderly, anemic or those who feel cold. Constipation that doesn’t respond to normal herbal laxatives in people who are tired, anemic, cold, have clear, frequent urination, low back pain, low sex drive, lowered metabolism and/or edema of the legs usually respond to walnuts since they lubricate the intestines and provide enough heat and energy to move the stools.
While fruit leathers can be made from all sorts of fruit, this one is made with a fruit that is also quite medicinal and good for you: jujube dates (Zizyphus sativa, da zao). These plump red dates (or shriveled if they’re dried) are high in vitamins A, B2, C, calcium, phosphorous, and iron, and are great for quick energy.
They tonify both energy and Blood, treating poor digestion, weakness, low energy, nervous exhaustion, insomnia, clear watery diarrhea, and poor appetite, digestion and memory. Nourishing to the Spirit, they calm and stabilize emotions when feeling irritable, sad or crying for no reason. They are added like licorice to sweeten and harmonize other herbs in a formula. After cooking the dates in a tea or soup, eat them for their full medicinal value (remove pits first). They help weight gain and help malnourished children thrive.
Cook dates with water, covered, over low heat for 20 minutes. Cool. Remove pits from dates. Puree mix. Cook down again if needed to thick pudding consistency. Spread over parchment paper on oven or dehydrator trays about ¼- ½” thick. Slowly dry in oven at 140 degrees for about 12 hours or in food dehydrator for about 8 hours. The fruit leather is ready when it’s smooth and no longer sticky.
For sweeter fruit leather, add honey to taste. If desired, use a strained herbal tea for the water, such as astragalus, to give more energy and boost immunity.
Goji berries and walnuts are easy to find as most health food stores carry them now. As well, many health food stores carry jujube dates and longan berries. If not, you can usually find them quickly by going to your local acupuncturist or they may be ordered from the following places:
There is one kitchen spice most of us could use more of in our lives: cardamom.
While there are different types of cardamom (see end for details), just the plain old spice you have in your kitchen cabinet will do. It is a powerful digestive aid that comes in quite handy, for maintenance or acute distress. But it’s best as a preventative, too.
Cardamom is a very ancient spice. It is the seed of the perennial tropical vine in the ginger (Zingiberaceae) family. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it is in the category of herbs called, “aromatic dispel dampness.” This means its aroma plus drying nature help to eliminate dampness in the digestive tract.
Symptoms of dampness include anywhere from a feeling of heaviness or edema to loose stools, diarrhea, poor appetite, nausea, vomiting, acid reflux, abdominal distention, chest fullness or an oppressive sensation in the chest, and lethargy.
Further, when dampness congeals over time it forms phlegm, which in turn creates tumors, cysts, soft lumps, nodules, cancer, numbness, tremors and paralysis.
As well, cardamom alleviates food stagnation, or food that is poorly digested and so congests and collects in the body. This condition may be either acute or chronic. The acute type is similar to the after-effects of over-eating at a holiday meal and can even cause pain in the heart region; the chronic type occurs when digestion becomes impaired and the body can no longer fully digest or absorb nutrients.
When food overwhelms the stomach, it results in such symptoms as sour regurgitation, reflux or vomiting, belching and/or hiccupping, and foul breath, or it passes on to the intestines causing foul gas, loose stool, or foul-smelling diarrhea. The partially digested food then lingers in the body, congesting the organs and channels and slowing the circulation of Qi, Blood and fluids.
Acute food stagnation in the upper part of the body can cause palpitations or stuffiness around the heart and in the epigastric region. Many folks go to emergency care thinking they are having a heart attack, but what they are really experiencing is acute food congestion in the stomach.
In the middle part of the body, acute food stagnation can cause lack of appetite, fullness and distention of the epigastrium relieved by vomiting; insomnia with a full feeling in the stomach region, unrelieved hiccupping, epigastric spasms, nausea, foul breath, sour regurgitation, belching, abdominal fullness, bloating, and poor distribution and/or assimilation of nutrients.
Still wonder if you have dampness? Stick out your tongue in front of a mirror. If it’s swollen and/or has teeth indentations on the sides (called scallops), then you have dampness. If you have a white or yellow coat, that’s also dampness. The thicker and greasier the coat, the more the dampness has turned to food stagnation or phlegm.
So, are you inspired to find a solution?
This is the reason I’ve outlined so many symptoms here: cardamom can treat them all and this is one spice to have on hand. It will save you many a discomforting hour and perhaps even a trip to some sort of emergency care.
And yet, cardamom is a great herb to include on a daily basis. Most people include a long list of dampening foods in their diets: iced drinks, cold foods directly from the refrigerator, smoothies, dairy, soy, soy milk, rice milk, oatmeal, cucumbers, flour products (muffins, bagels, bread, pasta, chips, crackers, pastries), excess raw foods, salads, yogurt, ice cream, potatoes, fruit juices, excess fruit in general, specifically bananas, citrus and persimmons – I could go on and on.
TCM uses true cardamom, or sha ren (Amomum villosum, A. xanthiodes, Elettaria villosa, Cardamomum villosum)) for the above symptoms as well as morning sickness and a restless fetus. It is also frequently added to formulas with cloying herbs to aid in their digestion.
Ayurveda also widely uses cardamom. It is given to eliminate mucus and for colds, coughs, bronchitis, hoarseness, asthma, and a loss of the ability to taste.
For those who want all the specifics, here they are:
Cardamom Fruit, Round (Amomum cardamomum, Elettaria cardamomum)
Bai dou kou (Chinese) Family: Zingiberaceae
Also named: cardamom cluster, Amomi Fructus rotundus
Energy and flavors: warm, acrid
Organs and channels affected: Spleen, Stomach, Lung
Chemical constituents: d-camphor, d-borneol
Properties and actions: carminative, stomachic, antiemetic, expectorant; aromatically transforms Dampness, directs Qi downward
Contraindications: Deficient Blood or Yin
Dosage: 3-6g in decoction (added in the last five minutes); 2-5g as a powder; 20-60 drops tincture (1:10 @40%ABV), TID
Cardamom Seed, True (Amomum villosum, A. xanthiodes, Elettaria villosa, Cardamomum villosum)
Sha ren (Chinese) Family: Zingiberaceae
Also named: grains-of-paradise fruit, Amomi Fructus
Energy and flavors: warm, acrid
Organs and channels affected: Spleen, Stomach, Lungs
Chemical constituents: 2-8% volatile oil comprising limonene, terpinene, dipentene, camphor, borneol
Properties and actions: antiemetic, carminative, antidiarrheal, aromatic, stimulant, stomachic, antiemetic; aromatically transforms Dampness, regulates Qi
Contraindications: Deficient Yin with Heat signs.
Dosage: 3-6g; Because of its essential oil content, Cardamom is added in the last five minutes of a decoction; 2-5g as a powder; 30-90 drops tincture (1:10 @40%ABV), TID
Gao Jelly is a black, jelly-like substance made from Chinese herbs. Sometimes called Gui Ling Gao Herbal Jelly, it was traditionally comprised of 30-50 herbs. Today it is a popular chilled dessert, obtained from Chinatown shops in cans, plastic containers, or as a powdered concentrate. Because it has a bitter flavor, sugar is often added.
Legends abound around Gao Jelly, the most famous of which concerns the Qing Dynesty Emperor Tongzhi, who ascended to the throne at the age of five upon his father’s death (he reigned from 1861 to 1875). His mother, Empress Dowager Cixi, overshadowed his rule (from “behind the curtain”), and apparently all other aspects of his life as well, for when he had smallpox, he improved by taking gui ling gao but she convinced him to quit. He died soon after and she ruled as regent. (While she apparently used the country’s money for her own lavish desires, she did ban the binding of women’s feet.)
I don't know if gao jelly heals smallpox, but its traditional ingredients do nourish the Yin and Blood and clear Wind-Heat and Heat toxins. These qualities treat red, itching skin disorders, including acne, which is often what gao jelly is now used for. Supposedly its original main ingredient was the Yin tonic turtle shell from the plastron (bottom shell) of the golden coin turtle (the three-lined box turtle).
Instead, herbs such as honeysuckle, chrysanthemum, forsythia, siler, and schizonepeta are included, all of which clear Wind-Heat. Dandelion is added as it clears heat toxins, plus other herbs such as cooked rehmannia, atractylodes, or reishi for their tonifying properties. Pearl may be added, which enhances its skin beautifying properties. After the herbs are cooked, rice and corn flours are stirred in to thicken the mass to a jelly-like consistency.
In China today, gao jelly is prescribed by doctors who practice herbal medicine. At the Shanghai Longhua hospital where our East West group studied in May 2016, the doctors said the jelly is mainly sold in the winter, as that’s the best season to nourish the body. Even then, it is individually prescribed, including herbs specific for each person’s constitutional health needs. According to our Hong Kong graduate, Peggy Zih, there are different gao jellies for Qi, Blood, or Yang deficiencies and the base of the jelly varies accordingly. Usually the hospital makes up a month’s supply at a time and then the jelly may be re-prescribed and possibly changed if so needed. Overall, the turtle shell jelly is still the most popular one in China, as turtle shell nourishes the Yin and Blood.
An acupuncture friend of mine told me a story about a similar substance she found when studying in China in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. In most food stores she’d see a big pot containing a thick, brownish-black substance. People would come in and get scoopfuls in paper packages and take it home to add to soups and stir-fries. She asked about it and learned that it was made of herbs, bones, eggshells, vegetable cuttings and so forth, all thrown into the pot and cooked a long time.
Rich in nutrients and therapeutic properties, people would use it as a basis for stock, much like an herbally-fortified glace de viande (a concentrated reduction made by boiling meat juices until they are reduced to a thick syrup and used to add flavor and color to sauces, like an ordinary brown stock). She used it herself and upon return to home, made her own and taught her patients to do so as well.
This is similar to old European or pioneer cooking where people kept pots of soup simmering on the stove (or in the stove “well”) for several days. They’d toss in all leftover food scraps, bones, eggshells and so forth to make a rich stock.
You can do the same! Make your own gao jelly by tossing together bones from leftover meals, eggshells, your desired herbs, and cook together on low for a day or so, scraping off any foam as you do so, just as you would make a bone broth (be sure to add vinegar at the beginning to leech the calcium from the bones and eggshells). When it’s done, add rice and corn flour to thicken, strain into a container and cool. Use as soup stock or add to stir-fries or other dishes. In this way you can choose your gao jelly’s therapeutic properties as desired to suit your family’s health needs or to keep you strong through seasonal changes.
Turmeric has become increasingly popular over the last decade, first for blood purification and then for joint pain. As it's hit the mainstream, its uses have narrowed at the same time. While turmeric is a fabulous herb with many beneficial applications, it's also quite powerful and can strongly imbalance the body if over-used or misused. Most people aren't aware of this and definitely should be.
First, the good news. While both turmeric tuber and rhizome are considered medicinal, the rhizome specifically is both the spice used in Indian cooking and western herbalism. It has a warm energy with a spicy and bitter taste and enters the Spleen, Stomach and Liver. It invigorates the Blood and Qi and has analgesic, emmenagogue, cholagogue, antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties.
Turmeric rhizome treats amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea, sports injuries, trauma pain and swelling, flank, gastric or abdominal congestion and pain, and eases painful obstruction due to Wind, Cold and Damp with Stagnant Blood, particularly in the shoulders. It's also used for gallstones, hepatitis, wounds, bruises, toothache, hemorrhage, arthritis and cataracts. Further, the rhizome is anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and purifies the blood and liver. It also strengthens digestion, improves intestinal flora, aids in digestion of protein, and treats gas, colic and jaundice.
With all these great uses, what could be harmful about turmeric? Well, now for the bad news. Turmeric is very bitter and so strongly dries the Blood and Yin. If taken for extended periods or overdosed, it can cause dizziness, blurry vision, insomnia, dry eyes, burning in the hands and feet, steaming bone disorder and night sweats.
I have had many a patient come in with such symptoms, uncertain as to what may have caused them. Because they didn't have a typical Yin Deficient constitution, we investigated further and found high doses of turmeric supplements often the culprit.
Because it is so highly touted in the western marketplace for pain relief, people tend to take tons of turmeric. It's not unusual for people to take supplements indiscriminately. If such and so is good for this or that, then people automatically take it and for extended periods of time. As well, they think if some is good or helpful, then more is better. And then they continue to take it preventatively when it may no longer be necessary. While either of these approaches is fine for many supplements, for turmeric it is not.
Turmeric does indeed reduce pain and swelling, but overdosing with it or taking it for prolonged periods does deplete the Blood and Yin. This is even more true for vegetarians, vegans and women during menses and so these folks should be particularly careful with this herb. It takes a long time to nourish Yin again, and the dampening herbs that do so put the digestive system at risk.
When recommending any herbs and supplements, first consider a person's constitution along with all their signs and symptoms before making your choices. Further, it's best to not use most herbs for a single commercial use. This may cause subsequent negative impact on other aspects of the body, which in turn, can give a bad reputation to that herb because it now has dangerous "side effects."
Most herbs are mild in nature and don't have side effects, just improper use. Narrowing an herb's use to one famous commercial application not only loses the knowledge of the herb's other effects and can harm people, but also endangers herbalism for us all. Let's keep our traditional knowledge of herbs alive and use them within the context of the whole person's needs and not just support its one commercial use. This not only benefits people, but also supports herbal medicine for us all.
How to use moxa: If using purchased moxa, remove its commercial paper wrapper first (but not the white inner paper) and light one end. Hold about ½” above the skin over your chosen area, the distance varying with the person’s tolerance and the amount of heat stimulation desired.
There are three methods of using moxibustion:
1) Hold the stick still and move when heat tolerance is reached, returning after a few seconds and repeating the process
2) Move the stick in a circular fashion to warm larger areas – this is especially good for soft tissue injuries, skin disorders and larger areas of pain
3) Rapidly ‘peck' the moxa stick at one small area without touching the skin. This enables the heat to especially penetrate deeply, very beneficial when strong stimulation is desired.
If several areas need treatment, alternate between them with one of the above methods. Continue until each area turns red, about 5-15 minutes.
While doing moxa, it’s extremely important to periodically scrape ashes off the stick into a container, so they don’t fall on the person's skin (or carpet, clothing, etc.) and burn.
How you extinguish moxa is extremely important; otherwise it can easily continue smoldering and cause a fire. To put it out, either gently twist the stick into a small jar of uncooked rice, or place it directly into an empty jar and screw on the lid. Alternatively, you can tightly wrap the lit end into a wad of tin foil. Sometimes the stick fits into a small-holed candleholder and placing the lit end inside that effectively puts it out. Whichever method you choose, do NOT try to put moxa out in dirt as it will continue to smolder, possibly causing a fire.
Do not burn moxa:
Take care not to burn the skin. If a burn does occur, immediately apply an herbal salve or aloe vera gel to prevent blistering; if a blister does occur, dress to prevent infection.
More uses for moxa
Moxa ashes very effectively stop bleeding (put 1 tsp. in water and drink for internal bleeding, or apply topically for external – beware, this can tattoo the spot for several months).
Moxa smoke beneficially treats sinus infections and blockages. Close one nostril and inhale the smoke into the open nostril. Alternate this process between both nostrils and continue for 3-5 minutes.
Moxa on ginger: For internal coldness, cut up a root of fresh ginger and place the pieces along the spine. Cut moxa sticks into ½” thick slices and set on mesh screens in boxes or cans (about 1” above their bottoms) with holes punched in the box or can bases. Place these boxes or cans over the cut ginger along the entire spine and light the moxa. After, cover this entire assembly with towels. The penetrating moxa-ginger heat will warm the entire body. Alternatively, this process can be done over smaller areas such as the abdomen. Moxa boxes may be purchased or self-made.
Make your own moxa
Moxa sticks may be made at home by picking and drying mugwort (usually from 7 to 14 years – the older the better - although you may use it within a few months), grinding it into a fine powder, sifting and filtering this to remove coarse materials, and repeating this entire process until a fine, soft, wooly powder results. Tightly roll this resulting “wool” in tissue paper to form a foot-long 'cigar'. A regular stick is about 1” in diameter whereas thunder moxa is about 3” thick.
Other: If moxibustion is not available and heat is needed, a hot water bottle, hair dryer, heated stones, or bags of sand or salt heated in an oven or on a wood stove are useful alternatives, although they can’t be used on inflamed areas like moxa can.