Michael and Lesley Tierra's Blogs
Herbal, health and inspired life ramblings
Above: Richo Cech in Zanzibar
Just as a horse whisperer understands the particular needs and psychology of horses, a plant whisperer is one who can receive the subtle communications from plants revealing their special needs for successful cultivation.
In both instances, only someone with a unique aptitude who is willing to invest years of patient observation and trial and error may attain such a gift. I would certainly designate Richo Cech, herbalist, horticulturist, world traveler, archaeologist, linguist, author, founder and owner of Horizon Herbs, as just such a 'plant whisperer.' He has patiently mastered the secrets of cultivating wild medicinal herbs, some of which have never been successfully cultivated before, such as Osha (Ligusticum porteri) and Mandrake (Mandragora species) to name only two.
Simply put, Richo is an herbalist who knows plants from the ground up '“ and that is very rare.
Richo recently spoke at our annual East West Herb School Spring seminar. Students had an opportunity on two occasions to appreciate Richo's profound wisdom and understanding regarding the cultivation of wild medicinal herbs. His second presentation focused on his recent trip to Zanzibar where his ability to speak Swahili allowed him to converse with natives of the region.
Richo works with an incredibly diverse range of medicinal, edible, rare, and all organic plants at his farm located in a small temperate region of Southern Oregon where he lives with his family and associates. Horizon Herb Farm has grown to become the country's leading source for hard-to-find medicinal herbs. He is occasionally smitten with the passion of wanderlust that, besides seasonal appearances at various herb conferences around the country, includes forays into exotic distant lands in search of medicinal plants and the people of those regions who know how to use them.
As a master herb gardener, Richo knows the optimal placing, sun exposure, watering, soil conditions and other requirements that go into successfully cultivating plants, especially non-cultivar species of wild medicinal herbs. Many of us whose focus has been in other areas of involvement with herbs such as education, clinical practice, research and product development, have only limited time for such gardening ventures. The result is that each year we expend considerable time and money to purchase and attempt to grow the same plants or seeds that we were unsuccessful cultivating in previous years. Fortunately, Richo's new book, The Medicinal Herb Grower: A Guide for Cultivating Plants that Heal (Volume 1), is the next best thing to having a master gardener like Richo by your side.
What sets medicinal plants apart from the rest
In The Medicinal Herb Grower, Richo describes how food crops called cultivars are loaded with nutritious and tasty primary compounds, such as starch, sugar and proteins. But in the case of medicinal herbs, their desired properties mostly come from secondary compounds consisting of aromatic, acrid, bitter or even toxic compounds such as alkaloids, terpenoids, saponins and glycosides in relatively low concentration. These secondary compounds arise as part of the process of "attracting pollinators, repelling browsers, defending themselves, or communicating with other plants, insects, and vertebrates - including humans."
What distinguishes plants used for food from those used for medicine is food plants' comparative lack of secondary compounds as compared to medicinal herbs. It is these secondary compounds evolving out of the stress and struggle for a plant's existence that make them useful for treating imbalances and diseases within our own psycho-physiological systems.
Richo declares himself "leery of hybridization, tissue culture, and genetic modification of medicinal plants" because they alter the concentration of naturally evolved secondary plant compounds. He asserts that these practices render an herb "less predictable and less dependable for medicinal use" and consequently diminish our ability to rely on traditional wisdom to inform us of its use.
Personally, I don't think this is a sufficient reason to not avail ourselves of the ability to alter plants to suit our perceived needs. In fact, through selective cultivation, hybridization and other methods, people have always altered plants to suit their needs. Even Richo points out how certain strains of medicinal plants such as German chamomile, garden sage and valerian have been selected for higher levels of those secondary compounds associated with medicinal properties. Just as the greatest horticultural advance in history has been the cultivation of cannabis over the last 40 years, from a weed during the late 1960s to a plant today that literally reeks of mind-altering tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), similarly there is a long history of intentional cultivation to produce the most effective medicinal plants.
Working with nature
Richo's book reminds us of how to work with, rather than against, nature; and it reminds us that this practice is best both for medicinal plant cultivation as well as a strategy for healing. Both healer and plant whisperer must first acknowledge the need inherent in any cultivation or healing problem. It is out of that need, based on passive observation, that one can plot a strategy to work with the life force. It is always a task best done with humility and respect, and as such may require a considerable amount of patience.
Two stories from The Medicinal Herb Grower illustrate the patience it takes to make a plant thrive. One is the author's attempt to cultivate eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), considered an adaptogen tonic in the ginseng family. Richo describes how, after getting off to a good start in his open garden area, by midsummer in hot and dry southern Oregon "the leaves crisped on the plant like bread left too long in the toaster." He considered how the plant grows in Siberia, "flourishing in thick stands around the margins of cold lakes." So in the Fall he decided to transplant the suffering plants into a tree-shaded area near the creek. In subsequent years "the ants danced on the eleuthero flowers, and the branches grew heavy with fruit." From this he learned how the placement of plants can be critical to successfully growing them.
Another story relates how he was able to fulfill a perhaps ancestral yearning to grow mandrake. This rare plant of European origin has a long history dating back to biblical times for use in magic and medicine. It is considered rare and difficult to grow. At first, Richo planted the seeds in gallon containers and set them in the best spot in his shadehouse. Each year the sprouts would appear in the early spring and mysteriously die back in a couple of months. By the third year this was still happening! He asked a friend who had lived in the Middle East about their native habitat, who said they grew "out in the open, among the rocks, in alkaline soil," without much rain. Richo placed his seeds accordingly, and now is the proud steward of thriving five year-old mandrakes.
The Medicinal Herb Grower: Practical and a pleasure to read
The Medicinal Herb Grower is no dry manual; Richo's prosaic flair makes reading the book a delight. In a section entitled 'A Tour of the Horizon Herbs Seed Farm,' he writes, "The creek flows through the year, in the summer slurring over slimy boulders, in the winter chattering whitewater, boulders scrubbed clean, periwinkles holding on beneath for dear life. There's a secret western garden under the shade of a maple that reaches her arms up from the yin-soaked streamside to clasp to her breast, like a yearning mother, a shade garden of her own making."
From a practical standpoint, I particularly loved Chapter 5, 'Rules of Green Thumb.' I think if someone who sincerely believes that they don't have the ability to grow things reads and follows all or some of the 17 suggestions (by my count) of this chapter they can't fail.
There is something so universal about this book that it is destined to become a real classic for anyone interested in cultivating medicinal herbs. It offers everything one needs to grow a successful garden, whether it be of flowers, vegetables, fruit trees, medicinal herbs, or a mixture of all of the above. Richo flat out states that the best protection against pests is diversity.
The Medicinal Herb Grower is chock full of practical information about every aspect of gardening, from seed preparation, to building a green house or a shade house, to various methods for making compost, to proper plant positioning, watering and drainage, along with more advanced methods for growing. All of it is drawn from the author's personal experience which, in my opinion, is the secret of a good book. It's hard to believe that so much practical information can be presented in such a short space and still have room for the author to express his poetic and philosophical life views and even tell stories of his working as an archaeologist where he explored the early roots of gardening at the Koster site in southern Illinois which dates back to 7500 B.C.E.
Richo's book has been celebrated and recognized by other prominent herbalists and horticulturists. Jim Duke, PhD, herbalist, botanist, formerly with the Department of Agriculture, and author of 20 books on herbal medicine, says The Medicinal Herb Grower is "a very different book, no bibliographic echoes, all good gardening and nature first hand. This book is a pleasure to read, and a treasure of valuable cultural information."
Christopher Hobbs, renowned herbalist and botanist, himself an author of dozens of books and articles on herbs, describes Richo's book as "the most definitive herb grower's guide on the planet, a book that breathes with aliveness, humor, and how to really do it!"
I recall my first childhood attempts at gardening on small a plot my mother gave me to 'grow things.' Each day I would lovingly return to my small plot and fuss with the plants, instinctively digging and loosening the soil around their bases (a technique called 'Rubber Fingers' by Richo in Chapter 13, which goes to show that if we want to acquire a green thumb, we must first be willing to have dirty thumbs!). I seem to remember how wonderfully everything grew without the addition of soil nutrients.
I've been gardening ever since that boyhood plot and couldn't stop even if I wanted to. Through The Medicinal Herb Grower and his visit to my home and as a guest teacher to our seminar I personally find Richo to be rich source of useful information and inspiration that has made a positive difference in my gardening this year.
Each spring, the honeysuckle flowers gather at the end of their stems to trumpet their sweet, gentle scent of purification and renewal. When I lead an herb walk in my backyard, I always pause with my students in homage at the woodbine (honeysuckle vine). After a discussion of the powerful antibiotic, antiviral, anti-inflammatory and not least, anticancer properties of this gentle herb, I facetiously tell my students to pick a dry weight pound of honeysuckle blossoms as part of their initiation into the world of herbs.
The painstaking task I suggest to my students is something I've never personally undertaken. Generally, I don't pick honeysuckle flowers myself, with the excuse that it's too much work. Probably it is for this same reason that despite the herb's fantastic properties of purification and detoxification, it is seldom used by Western herbalists. (This moment does not pass with a feeling of silent gratitude for some poor Chinese peasant who invested hours of time and patience to pick a pound of jin yin hua for a pittance so that I could in turn purchase the flowers at a cost of just a few U.S. dollars.) It's impossible to only use herbs I personally grow or harvest in my clinic, but in an attempt to complete the cycle from nature to nurture, I always try to harvest some part of the herbs I use every year. This spring, I could not resist the temptation to pick some fresh honeysuckle flowers for personal use and for some clients in my clinic.
Honeysuckle flowers tend to grow in small clumps of up to eight or more blossoms. At first, they are luminescent white; then, as the heat of the sun bears down on them, they begin to yellow with age. I don't know it for certain, but I imagine that the white flowers are more potent. I single these out for harvest.
Well, in the space of 30 minutes I probably harvested eight to 10 ounces, that is fresh and wet, not dry! Still, the effort is worth it. I think of ascetic monks who charge themselves to the repetition of a mantra counted on a rosary (mala) of hundreds to thousands a day, how much more transcendent and connecting of heaven and earth would it be, if they were put to the task of picking honeysuckle flowers while quietly repeating their prayer? Imagine the even greater healing spiritual energy prayer-picked honeysuckle blossoms would take on!
Medicinal Applications of Honeysuckle Flowers and Leaves
Jin yin hua, the most common species of honeysuckle used in Asia, is Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). With over a hundred species worldwide, ranging in a wide arrange of sizes and colors (including red!) the plants are all in the Caprifoliacea family along with Sambucus (elder). According to herbalist Christopher Hobbs, elder has chemistry and properties similar enough to be used interchangeably with honeysuckle flowers. Lonicera fruit can be red, blue or black and contain several hard seeds. In most species the berries are regarded as mildly poisonous with the notable exception of L. caerulea whose berries are edible. Nevertheless, it is not the berries, but the flowers and leaves that we are after when we look to honeysuckle as a medicinal.
Jin yin hua, which aptly translates as 'golden silver flower,' is one of the first herbs considered for the treatment of infections, inflammation, fevers and toxicity. It is an herbal antibiotic effective against a broad spectrum of bacteria including Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, Bacillus dysenteeriae, Vibrio cholera, Salmonella typhi, Diplococcus pneumonia, Diplococcus meningitides, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Chlorogenic acid and isochlorogenic acid in the herb has the strongest antibiotic effects. According to Chen and Chen (Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology, 2004, Art of Medicine Press Inc.), the fresh herb only soaked in water has a stronger antibiotic than an herbal decoction, with the leaves having an even stronger antibiotic properties than the flowers.
Honeysuckle flowers are classified as sweet and cold and enter the Lung, Stomach and Large Intestine meridians. They are effectively dosed anywhere from 10 to 60 grams and are used for the common cold with symptoms of fever and thirst, upper respiratory tract infections, boils, furuncles, enteritis and dysentery. For diarrhea and dysentery with watery stool, honeysuckle is taken dry fried and carbonized.
One of the most common formulas using honeysuckle is the famous Yin Qiao San, widely used for treating colds and influenza. However, its broader detoxifying and heat-clearing properties makes it useful for inflammatory skin conditions, inflammations of the upper respiratory tract and is taken both internally and externally for mastitis as well as lung and breast cancer. Several studies (1, 2, 3) have shown that extracts of honeysuckle promote apoptosis and inhibit tumor growth. For more on the anticancer uses of Lonicera and other herbs, I recommend my book Treating Cancer with Herbs published by Lotus press.
The flowers are not the only part of Lonicera that are useful medicinally. While not specifically designated, the leaves have even stronger antibiotic effects than the flowers. This may inspire herbalists to personally harvest and try using more generous doses of Lonicera aerial parts for all infectious diseases. In this regard, though I've not tried it, one might consider the use of strong honeysuckle tea, perhaps with added fresh ginger and a little licorice for recalcitrant infections like Lyme's disease.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has a specific through similar anti-inflammatory use for Lonicera stems which are called jin yin teng or ren dong teng. This part of the plant has milder anti-toxin effects but is specific for arthritic and rheumatic conditions, described in TCM as bi pain or 'wind-dampness.'
While many contemporary western herbalists regard honeysuckle as exclusive to the domain of Chinese herbal medicine, the Roman naturalist writer Pliny recommended it mixed with wine for the treatment of 'disorders of the spleen.' This may suggest yet another possible use for honeysuckle: depression. In ancient Greek humoural medicine, the spleen is associated with the black bile humour which in turn is associated with melancholy, or depression. To my knowledge there is no contemporary use of honeysuckle flowers for the treatment of depression unless one considers its use as a homeopathic Bach flower remedy for a certain kind of depression associated with nostalgia.
I've always been eager to incorporate and use any herb or healing principle so long as it is safe and effective. This is why I came up with my own approach to herbalism, Planetary Herbology, embodied in the East West Herb Course. If I were an Ayurvedic herbalist or a curandero living in the Amazon jungle, if I learned about the fantastic uses of an herb like Lonicera, I'd have a hard time not wanting to put it to immediate use. If you've got a honeysuckle vine giving its profuse blooms over a fence or trellis in your yard at this time of year, I hope you're inspired to snip some leaves and flowers for medicine; it'll come in handy later this year!
During the 1970s on one of my trips to Bangalore in southern India, I made it a point to seek teachers, schools and hospitals that were exponents of Ayurvedic medicine, which at that time was still barely known in the western world (particularly the United States).
One Ayurvedic hospital I visited was a multi-story building with many departments dedicated to specialty treatments. Doctors in the leech therapy ward showed me how a patient with severe psoriasis lesions was nearly completely cured after an application of a single leech in the center of the lesion. They explained how the leech selectively drew out the 'bad blood' causing psoriasis and allowed for fresh new healing blood to circulate.
With its entrance situated on a busy street, the eye treatment ward was open to walk-in traffic and the usual session took only a few minutes to complete. It consisted of walking in through one door, where one used an eye cup to bathe each eye in well-strained triphala tea, followed by the application of a single drop of honey in each eye. Finally, after completing a simple series of eye exercises (rolling the eyes around clockwise, then counterclockwise, then quickly up-down, left-right, and diagonally) the patient walked out the next door.
India has always been concerned with maintaining eyesight, and cataract surgery was performed there as early as the 6th century BCE by the physician Sushruta.
Our vision is among the things that we all take for granted, until something goes wrong. Unfortunately, the deterioration of vision is one of the inevitable consequences of many actions, including aging.
The major source of eyestrain doctors once warned against was reading too much, especially in dim light. But with the advent of cameras, movies, TV, and computers, there is an increasing demand on our eyes and the need to maintain their health.
Check out the statistics on 'Americans Affected by Age-related Eye Disease' on Prevent Blindness America's website. The numbers of Americans affected by blindness and cataracts, among a host of other diseases, is staggering.
Turning 71 years young, I've had occasion to think about my eyes a lot lately. With years of abuse including long hours at the computer and yes, I must admit, TV, what can be done to help heal and preserve eye health?
(Pause as I interrupt the writing of this with an eye exercise, perhaps you might be persuaded to join me? Look away from the computer, roll your eyes a few times in both directions, and then in both diagonal directions. Rub your palms together and place them over both eyes for a minute. Now that is what I consider a refreshing break for the eyes! Anyone who works at a computer for long stretches should make it a point to do this every 30 minutes to help preserve your eyesight. Students in classrooms staring intently at a board, PowerPoint, teacher whatever should also be encouraged to practice such an eye break.)
Triphala eye treatment
The following is used as treatment of all the eye diseases mentioned in the link above as well as the more common eyestrain.
You will need the following:
- Triphala powder or you can use triphala tablets (I'm proud to say that under my direction, Planetary Herbals was the first company to introduce Triphala to the West and has the finest quality triphala available under the name 'Triphala Gold.')
- An eyecup, you can purchase this at a drug store
- Fine linen or cotton cloth for straining
- Potassium sorbate, an extremely safe food grade preservative that will prevent mold, fungus and bacteria from forming in the triphala eyewash solution. This is very cheap and available in most supermarkets or online.
- A small sterile jar with a tightly-fitted cap
Add one teaspoon of triphala powder or 4 Planetary Herbals Triphala Gold tablets to one cup of boiling water. Allow to stand covered overnight.
Strain the triphala water carefully through a fine cloth and be sure to remove all the solid particles.
Dissolve a quarter teaspoon of the potassium sorbate into the strained mixture.
Store your triphala solution in a small, sterile, tightly covered jar in your bathroom.
Partially fill the eyecup with the triphala solution and bathe one eye. Repeat this process on the other eye with new solution. There may be a very slight smarting sensation, but your eyesight and vision should feel immediately relieved and better afterward. In fact, you may not realize until after doing the triphala eyewash how much stress and tension you were carrying in your eyes.
Why use triphala?
Triphala is a formula that I consider the greatest in the world and that everyone should be taking not only for treatment but for maintaining health and wellness. Triphala is routinely prescribed by Ayurvedic physicians as at least part of a treatment for nearly all diseases. It is a common Indian household remedy so famous that one saying is 'No mother? Don't worry so long as you have triphala!'
Triphala consists of three medicinal fruits. Their English names are as follows: Belleric myrobalan, Chebulic myrobalan and Emblic myrobalan (Indian gooseberry). The popular Sanskrit names for the three herbs in triphala are Vibhitaki (or bibhitaki), Haritaki and Amalaki (or amla), respectively.
The advantages of triphala taken both internally and externally are its powerful, antioxidant-rich, nourishing, rejuvenating and detoxifying properties that work on the digestion, stomach, liver, kidneys and intestines and have no contraindications or adverse side effects. Triphala is safe for all ages. It can be taken daily or weekly as one so desires.
Taken long-term, triphala controls and reduces blood lipids, relieves high blood pressure as it improves blood circulation generally, reduces excess weight, regulates bowel movement even for those who suffer from laxative dependency, and gently treats IBS and other intestinal diseases. It helps detoxify the liver, is an effective treatment for acid reflux disease, and improves colon health by creating a chemical environment favorable to the proliferation of beneficial colon bacteria, either complementing or lessening the need for other probiotics. It heals ulcers, has extremely potent antioxidant activity and promotes the production of red blood cells.
As if all of this were not enough to expect of a single herbal formula, triphala is also good for the respiratory system, improving immunity, preventing and treating colds and coughs and helping to remove mucus accumulation from the chest. For the nervous system, triphala improves brain function, strengthens the nervous system, and prevents diabetic neuropathy. It helps counteract fatigue because of its ability to remove lactic acid, which is the main cause of fatigue. Triphala is anti-inflammatory and anti-viral as it stimulates bile secretion and normal peristalsis.
It may seem to many of you that I'm indulging myself in hyperbolic excess but I assure you, thousands of years and thousands of Ayurvedic physicians past and present can't be all wrong. If there ever was such a thing as an herbal panacea, triphala would be at the top of the list.
However, in most cases, and this is a plus, its benefits are not immediately felt (except for improved digestion and bowel function). This means that the effects of triphala are foundational and deeper. This is why all Ayurvedic physicians prescribe triphala as part of a treatment for all diseases and it is why it should be a mainstay of all health disciplines, conventional western, naturopathic, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), chiropractic and so on. The integration of triphala into all forms of health care is the beginning of the creation of what I teach as Planetary Herbology: the integration of Western, Chinese and Ayurvedic systems of herbal medicine.
Honey for Eye Diseases
The use of honey as a treatment for the eyes extends far back in antiquity. As early as 350 BCE, Aristotle wrote that 'White honey . . . is as good as a salve for sore eyes.' Even as recently as 1945, in India, lotus honey was described as a panacea for the eyes. In places as distant as India and Russia during times when drugs were scarce, honey was used as standard practice with high efficacy for the treatment of all forms of inflammatory diseases of the eyes and styes. Honey for eye diseases is also used in Islamic medicine.
This page provides the most succinct and comprehensive presentation for the use of honey for treating eye diseases I could find.
As mentioned above in my recollection of the eye ward at the Ayurvedic clinic, they simply inserted a single drop of honey in each eye. However, the protocol outlined on the site given above seems much more systematic and beneficial. The entire process can take up to six months, but remember that most of the eye diseases described above are considered incurable. So the question is, how much is your eyesight worth?
Finally, another easy to apply natural eye remedy is castor oil. This is particularly good for treating dry eyes and cataracts. Simply apply two drops of pure castor oil in each eye before retiring to bed.
Almost exactly one year ago today, I published a blog post, 'Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Flu,' about the corporate-made H1N1 fraud.
Now, according to Digital Online, the German news source Der Spiegel published an exhaustive article describing how 30 representatives of Big Pharma met with WHO Director-General Chan and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon at WHO headquarters for the sole purpose of discussing how to move the H1N1 threat to a phase 6 or pandemic level.
Once upon a time, the term 'pandemic' represented a critical worldwide health threat; somehow it was downgraded to simply mean a world disease.
Hopefully this will awaken more people to the threat of the takeover of the world's economies by multi-national corporations generally, and by Big Pharma in particular.
Few of us can fathom the threat posed by these companies. Having no allegiance to any country and so glutted with wealth, they can shift at will, moving their base from one part of the globe to another. In this way, they are able to benefit from lower operational costs and can bypass national regulations because international regulations, are weaker and more difficult to enforce. While this is true to an alarming extent for all large corporations, it is especially an issue with Big Pharma, whose particular power can hold the people of the world hostage to their mostly 'toxic' wares.
The Der Spiegel exposé, depicting Big Pharma's ability to cloud and influence the judgment of the director of the World Health Organization and of the United Nations for their personal profit, vividly illustrates the power and persuasion unique to that industry. It also makes credible the stories that assert, based on an analysis of the DNA strands of the H1N1 virus showing origin from various parts of the world, that the virus was deliberately created giving this entire hoax an even more Orwellian dimension than most of us are able or willing to embrace.
|The pomegranate (Punica granitum), highly touted these days as an antioxidant-rich superfruit, has an ancient metaphysical and culinary history. In fact, the image of the celebrated pomegranate was carved on the pillars of King Solomon's temple and was referenced several times in the Bible's Song of Songs of Solomon, as in the following verse:
Your cheek is like a half-pomegranate
Behind your veil.
(Song of Songs, 6:8)
The pomegranate has forever been likened to the shape of a woman's breast. An age-old herbal principle called the Doctrine of Signatures suggests that if an herb resembles a part of the body, it is likely a medicine for that part of the body. Perhaps this recent report published in the January 2010 issue of the American Association for Cancer Research journal Cancer Prevention Research lends some credence to this bit of herbal folklore. Researchers at City of Hope Hospital in Duarte, Calif., discovered a suppressive effect of compounds found in pomegranate on the proliferation of estrogen-responsive breast cancer cells. Earlier research showed that ellagic acid in pomegranates inhibits the enzyme known as aromatase that converts androgen to estrogen hormones which fuel a common type of breast cancer.
Similar anti-cancer ellagic acids are also found in other fruits such as raspberries and besides their use to inhibit breast cancer, it seems that they are also effective for prostate cancer.
It might be a bit too early to say exactly how much pomegranate should be consumed to help fight estrogen-responsive breast cancer, but we may be encouraged to find that more and more research shows that all long-feted pomegranate's recent grocery-store fame is more than just hype.
|In the marketplace, it is often more difficult to sell the general public on an herbal formula as opposed to a single herb. This is understandable, because people are usually driven to single herbs when they hear of some sensational effect associated with it.
For example, Ligusticum porteri (now available as a Planetary Herbals extract), commonly known as "osha," has been found to lower viral count in chronic hepatitis C patients. Traditionally, the herb is considered "big medicine" by southwestern natives who widely utilize this herb in ceremonies and as treatment for a wide variety of conditions including sore throat, and all viral diseases including the flu.
In the marketplace, a typical consumer presented with the choice of capsules of pure lomatium versus capsules of lomatium blended with other herbs would most likely choose the former.
Are formulations better than singles?
Assuming that it is well crafted by an experienced herbalist, a formula consisting of two or more herbs can often more effective than a single herb. The operative word here is 'can' not always.
Strange how often the first things you hear on your learning path often prove to hold the greatest weight in life. My first Chinese herb teacher, a Taoist named Foon Lee Wong who operates a curio shop on the outskirts of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, once off-handedly said that herbs used together represent more than anything we find in nature -- in other words, herbal formulations are 'unnatural' or perhaps 'supernatural,' as in beyond nature.
In a very real sense an herbalist uses herbs as a musician uses individual notes or an artist uses colors and shapes to create something unique and hopefully therapeutically effective.
Herbs are combined in formulas with particular objectives in mind. For example:
To complement or augment a primary intended therapeutic action: For instance, we might use more than one antiviral herb together to have a wider range of effect in treating viruses. Or we might use several complementary tonics together for a wider range of tonification.
Or, we might add some herbs because we can see the need to support an internal organic function in order to help the body achieve relief of a specific symptom. In other words, extra support for the digestive or urinary systems will help more effectively treat the underlying cause.
We might add in a smaller amount of an herb that slows down the liver's ability to neutralize any strange substance that enters its portals. Usually this would be a small amount of a spicy herb to bypass the liver P450 enzymes. This allows the active principles of an herb to remain in circulation longer than if it were used alone.
Or we might add a small amount of an antispasmodic herb to relieve any physiological resistance to the unique qualities (taste, texture, etc.) of an herb.
However one of the most fascinating phenomena around herbal formulation is how a particular combination, even a ratio of two or more herbs can biochemically optimize the primary ingredients in the herbs themselves.
Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine includes thousands of preparations, sometimes in exact prescribed rations and amounts that have been passed down over millennia because of some unique experientially proven benefit.
Given today's research capabilities, it is difficult enough to try to understand biochemically why some herbs do what they do. Each herb contains thousands of unique compounds. Compound this with trying to analyze an ancient traditional herbal formula containing two or more herbs, and you can see what a challenge this would be! (And that's assuming that there is a will and funding for such research - which by and large in the West there is scant little of either.)
Over 50% of all pharmaceutical drugs were or are derived from plants. Are there miracle cures in the vast but dwindling Amazon rain forest? Absolutely, but thus far only a handful of drugs have made it to market (including quinine, codeine, morphine, and cocaine). While visiting the Amazon, I spoke with one of the leading Western ethnobotanists whose job it is to discover and send back plants to pharmaceutical companies that may have a value in medicine. He said he's sent them hundreds but because they are unable to isolate, synthesize and therefore patent a single active constituent, all of this traditional knowledge of therapeutic plant usage goes to waste.
In the case of herbal formulas, the challenge to isolate and synthesize is exponentially greater.
Finally, research that supports formula synergy
So given all of the above, you can imagine how excited I get when I find a research paper that substantiates the value of an herbal formula over a single plant, in this case where the herbs work on each other to optimize certain therapeutic properties and effects.
While researching the effects of the Chinese herb dang gui (Angelica sinensis) as a blood tonic especially for women, I accidentally came upon a study of a famous ancient Chinese two-herb formula Dang gui bu xue tang (DBT) which consists of one part dang gui and five parts huang qi (astragalus root). This formula has a wide range of use and is traditionally prescribed alone with other herbs or in soups for anemia, uterine bleeding, post-partum bleeding, fatigue, and symptoms due to hormonal deficiency including osteoporosis.
The odd thing is that the formula is for blood deficiency but dang gui, the herb regarded as the sovereign blood tonic in Traditional Chinese Medicine, is used in a much smaller amount than astragalus root, an herb used as a qi tonic. Why?
The study "Verification of the formulation and efficacy of Danggui Buxue Tang (a decoction of Radix Astragali and Radix Angelicae Sinensis): an exemplifying systematic approach to revealing the complexity of Chinese herbal medicine formulae" demonstrated the higher therapeutic efficacy of the two herbs together with the primary herb being a one fifth the ratio to its secondary counterpart.
The researchers speculated as follows:
"The saponins may liquefy and make the primary properties of ferulic acid and ligustilde in dang gui more bio-available. When boiled it seems that the ferulic acid and ligustilide in dang gui are oxidized and degraded which is far less when astragalus is combined in the 5:1 ratio with dang gui. Finally it's possible that the stability of the active constituents are improved by having the different plant chemicals together."
While none of this is conclusive, it sure supports Foon's notion that an herbal formula is more than the sum of its parts.
The Naming of Names: The Search for Order in the World of Plants by Anna Pavord (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2005) is hardly a new book, but it's new to me and worth mention. This book reads like an exciting true life adventure -- a Raiders of the Lost Ark-type romp through 2,000 years of plant taxonomy (an enthusiastic description which, I confess, oversimplifies the subject matter somewhat).
I found this book to be a gem in its description of the history of how people came to tell one plant from another. Humans have needed to positively identify plants because of plants' usefulness as food, fuel, shelter, clothing, and last but not least, medicine. As an herbalist, this last part is of particular interest to me.
Consider how the discovery of North and South America and all the Pacific islands was the result of a search for herbs (i.e., a more direct spice route to the Far East). Consider how the first industry of North America was the export of vegetables and medicinal herbs that were quickly assimilated into the fabric of European culture. But despite this, it took until the 18th century and the system of taxonomy by Linnaeus for people to develop a way to to identify, name and classify plants!
From this wonderfully unique angle, Pavord weaves a fascinating and little known story, complete with beautiful illustrations. In The Naming of Names, we learn about most if not all of the most important herbals since the time of Dioscorides throughout the medieval period.
The book addresses several nagging questions that had been bumping around in the back of my mind for years. It also affirms at this crucial time the vital role Islamic scholars played in preserving and evolving the wisdom of the ancient world while Europe was mired in the anti-intellectual Christian "Dark Ages."
One question I had was: Why did the many versions of the old medieval manuscripts of Dioscorides' herbal have such primitive depictions of herbs described in the text? It turns out that such books were copied from original Arabic translations of Dioscorides by Islamic scholars, and enlightened as these scholars were when it came to preserving this knowledge, they were prevented from rendering real-life depictions of anything -- from Allah to his creation, including plants and animals. Thus, they had to resort to a more decorative rendering that often had little resemblance to any of the plants described in the text.
Of course this changed with the great herbals of the Renaissance and Enlightenment period, whose gorgeous and detailed botanical drawings and paintings are featured in The Naming of Names.
Pavord's book represented for me a fascinating 2,000 year-journey that helps us western herbalists to establish a connection with our past and perhaps even piece together the long-lost record of our own Western Traditional Medicine. Without the luxury of a written record like the Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine systems, we need all the information we can get, and this book provides it beautifully. You can find it at Amazon here.
P.S. Maybe you'd like to read another review of mine -- this one on my other love, music. These are my impressions of the recent Mozart Festival at Cabrillo College in Aptos, CA.
It's no secret that acid reflux is a widespread condition. Just think of all the antacid, Nexium or Prilosec advertisements you've seen lately. Some people eat Tums, an alkalinizing form of calcium, like candy.
But you don't have to resort to taking expensive prescription drugs or chewing bushels of antacids. If any condition is made to be treated by herbal therapy, it is acid reflux (or GERD, or heartburn).
What causes acid reflux? Among common causes are the following:
- an imbalanced diet, too high in irritating, hot, spicy and acidic foods (not including vinegar or lemons, however)
- stress and worry
- eating too fast
- not chewing well enough (chewing allows your saliva to predigest the food before it even reaches your stomach)
- erratic eating habits
- not enough water (especially after a meal)
- insufficient stomach acid
The most prevalent reason by far is insufficient stomach acid. When we don't have enough digestive secretions in our stomach, food is allowed to stay in the gut too long with resultant fermentation and gas. This is one reason that just about every culture in the world has its own bitters recipe. For example, I often recommend the Italian liqueur called Fernet-Branca to patients as a digestive bitters. A tablespoon before and/or after meals stimulates the secretion of saliva, bile and stomach acid, which in turn aids digestion. Ayurvedic medicine has a traditional wine called Draksha used for a similar purpose.
The old standby of a teaspoon each of pure, undistilled apple cider vinegar and raw honey stirred together in a small glass of warm water is a very effective treatment for about 85% of the cases of GERD.
In Ayurveda, a primary formula to aid digestion is called Avipattikar Churna. It consists of trikatu herbs (black and long pepper and ginger), cyperus, cardamom, cinnamon leaf, clovers trivit (Operculina turpethum), vidanga (Embelia ribes) and raw sugar. It is specific for hyperacidity, heartburn, biliousness, vomiting, indigestion, dropsy, rheumatism -- in other words, for any pitta (fire) type disorder. One to four grams or two to eight tablets are taken two or three times daily, after meals with warm water. This remedy is commonly available from Ayurvedic supply companies such as Bombay Bazaar of India in Berkeley or Banyan Botanicals.
Planetary Herbals has two products that can be used to aid digestion: Digestive Comfort Tablets and Digestive Grape Bitters.
If you have money to burn, you can try the pharmaceutical alternatives to the above simple remedies listed above. You may already know that pharmaceutical companies get to have an exclusive right to the sales of the products they produce for a period of seven years. When this term expires, other companies can manufacture similar products as 'generics' at a greatly reduced cost. The heartburn drug Prilosec is one of the best-selling prescription medicines in history. Sales in the past five years alone amount to $26 billion. The reason is not only its popularity but its steep price: about $4 per pill.
As it so happens, the patent for Prilosec expired April of 2001. Still there is no inexpensive generic on the market to take its place. This is because in 1995, a team of lawmakers and scientists, aptly called (I kid you not) 'Shark Fin,' seeing the end of its Prilosec cash cow coming, began a list of nearly 50 possible solutions to the patent-expiration disaster facing the company.
One list item was to find a new heartburn remedy that would work better. No, it's not apple cider vinegar and honey, nor Digestive Comfort, nor a digestive bitters and not even Avipattikar Churna. It is the successor to Prilosec known as Nexium, and like its predecessor was originally sold for $4 a pill, but you can find it available at varying discount market prices averaging around $1 a pill. Now the successor to Prilosec and Nexium is called Prevacid and it is sold for, you guessed it: $4 a pill.
The fact is all of these products produce pretty much the same results. None of them are curative in any way; in fact, by suppressing digestive acids, it's a question as to whether they will ever treat the underlying cause of the disease.
The problem is that an otherwise simple-to-treat condition like acid reflux is often mismanaged or allowed to linger so long as to cause physical damage that takes a lot longer to repair.
Those with an advanced case of GERD may find pharmaceutical products necessary (but shop around for generics and check off-shore sales on the internet). If your esophagus is not badly eroded, it is possible to eventually heal your condition. For some, the questionable choice of laparoscopic anti-reflux surgery is an option. Ironically, assuming all goes well with the surgery, for the rest of your life you will have to eat very slowly and smaller than usual amounts -- something that should have been done before GERD ever became a degenerative, chronic condition.
How do you know you have bad digestion even before you experience heartburn? Bloating, swollen abdomen after meals, and sometimes a lot of gas. Charcoal tablets are the most immediate remedy to stop farting and gas but they are not a true fix. If these problems are allowed to persist, you may eventually end up having to treat the more serious condition of GERD.
The moral of this blog is: If you have digestive problems of any sort, don't wait until they cause damage that is impossible to reverse. Give the natural remedies suggested here a try or visit your local herbalist.
For a good 'romp in the hay' this Valentine's Day, be sure the hay is oat straw!
Wild oat straw and its seeds foster the right balance of relaxation and enhanced libido for both men and women.
Sowing your Wild Oats
For their aphrodisiac effect, it's the milky sap of the green unripe grain (shown at right) that gives the most 'bang for the buck,' so to speak. Wild oats have been known to act as a noticeable sexual stimulant for horses and other animals, which seems to suggest that they have the same effect on humans of both sexes. Avena sativa extract contains an amorphous alkaloid which acts as a stimulant to the nervous ganglia producing an increase of 'ready to go' excitability of the muscles in horses and humans.
Testosterone means increased sex drive
One of the main effects of testosterone is increased libido. While often associated with males, testosterone is also produced in women's ovaries. Studies show that a low libido in either sex is most likely caused by low testosterone.
Let's get something straight here: no herb contains identical human hormones. Claims that wild yam, dang gui or black cohosh contain estrogen are false. Similarly, wild oats contain no human testosterone. Considering that only 2% of human testosterone is in a free state, the remaining 98% is in a state bound to protein molecules. It is thought that Avena sativa acts to increase libido by freeing bound testosterone.
Because Avena sativa is a restorative, (as opposed to Viagra which is contraindicated by men who are at risk for cardiovascular disease) it is an effective and safer alternative to male-female virility drugs. Besides, not accounting for the placebo effect which is likely to be considerable with any intended sex drug, Viagra has been found to work on only 42% of the men who take it, according to published studies.
For more chronic sexual debility, one may need to take Avena extract on a daily basis over the course of several days to weeks. Over long term use, the benefit is more systemic, with oats being beneficial for lowering cholesterol (especially true of the high fiber cereal), restoring a burned out nervous system, and promoting an overall feeling of health and well being.
Avena sativa may even help your love life by getting rid of bad smoker's breath!
Bad breath is an instant turn-off and desire diminisher. This could be due to hyper-acidic Stomach Heat (as the condition is patterned in Traditional Chinese Medicine) or, very commonly, from smoking.
In the case of the latter, an effective remedy to help break the tobacco habit is Avena sativa extract. Simply take a dose of 20 to 30 drops of the liquid extract whenever you feel the urge for tobacco.
Planetary Herbal Formulas for Increasing Libido
I developed two special Planetary Herbals formulas, Avena Sativa Oat Complex for Men and Avena Sativa Oat Complex for Women.
Herbalists know that when taken in formula, herbs become more than a sum of any of its corresponding parts. When a formula is carefully blended, the sum combination of all the herbs working on different systems of the body, bringing into play hundreds of biochemical constituents, is stronger than a single herb taken alone.
Avena Sativa Oat Complex For Men has additional benefit for the prostate and the buildup of seminal fluid. It combines milky oat tops extract with saw palmetto berry, stinging nettle root, damiana, epimedium ('horny goat weed'), Asian ginseng, sarsaparilla, rosehip, cinnamon bark and ginkgo leaf extract.
Avena Sativa Oat Complex for Women combines milky oat tops with dong quai root, white peony root, ligusticum root, circuligo orchid, ginger, alfalfa, vitex seed, jujube fruit and cinnamon bark.
Remember, a healthy libido is a life-affirming indication of overall health and well-being. It is usually accompanied with a general zest and interest for life. Rather than simply trying to treat a problem such as erectile dysfunction, pain or lack of feeling during intercourse, or low libido, it is wiser to look to the cause in terms of diet, stress, emotional and other aspects that directly or indirectly contribute to our nature as vital sexual beings. Herbs such as Avena sativa can be considered a 'special food,' first for our nervous system overall and specifically for increasing sexual desire.