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!
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 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!
No matter what name you give it (or what animal you name it after), we're now full swing into the flu season. Michael's written on the great benefits of onion poultice; how can I pass up touting one of my favorite flu/lung/cough herbs '" garlic? So while you're plastering your chest with an onion poultice, eat or drink some form of garlic as well.
Garlic is said to be a cure for every ailment but the one it causes: bad breath! Its delightful fragrance comes from the presence of sulfur compounds, nature's own antibiotic (but if you eat parsley after the garlic, much of its undesirable odor is eliminated). Garlic is a rejuvenating herb because it both stimulates metabolism and detoxifies. In fact, the body absorbs it so quickly that if you were to rub a clove on your feet, you would be able to taste it within seconds!
Garlic is one of the very best herbs for respiratory conditions, colds, flu, sore throats, infections and earaches. Because it so powerfully heals lung ailments, I recommend it to most all patients with coughs or mucus (especially white or clear mucus).
I have found two methods to be particularly effective for lung ailments: garlic juice or garlic appetizer.
Once when I visited my parents I developed walking pneumonia (and didn't know it). I tried a variety of different herbs but had no results. Finally, I purchased a bottle of garlic juice at a chain grocery store and drank one teaspoonful every two to three hours. Within the first day I was well on the road to recovery and by the end of the third day, completely healed.
Another time I had a terrible debilitating cough on Mother's Day. My son and husband wanted to take me out to lunch to celebrate and since I didn't want to disappoint them, I went along thinking I would keep them company but not eat. Luckily we found an Italian restaurant where, as we waited to order, a large appetizer of bread with raw garlic in olive oil sat on our table. Knowing garlic would help me, I coated several pieces of the bread with masses of the raw garlic dipped in olive oil and ate them with relish. By the time our meals had arrived, my cough was nearly gone and the next day I had fully recovered. I have seen had many a patient experience similar results using garlic juice or appetizer.
Of course, garlic has TONS of other great medicinal uses. It's a specific for regulating blood pressure, both high and low, and lowers blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels and plaque in vessels, thus treating atherosclerosis. The deodorized garlic capsules work well in this case, which is a blessing, for it is quite convenient and of course, odorless (in fact, the aged garlic may be superior for these actions).
As well, raw garlic effectively improves weak digestion, stimulates circulation and treats arthritis, rheumatism, lower back and joint pains, genito-urinary diseases, nervous disorders, cramps and spasms and heart weakness. For any of these eat the raw cloves, or drink the juice or syrup. It may also be used in food poisoning due to shellfish.
The Chinese use garlic as a preventative and treatment for parasites and intestinal worms, particularly hookworms, pinworms and ringworm of the scalp. Either insert an oiled garlic clove in the rectum, use garlic enemas (made from garlic tea), eat 3-5 raw cloves of garlic, 3-6 times daily, apply the paste (mashed garlic in sesame or olive oil) topically for ringworm, and in general, use heavy doses for these indications.
Garlic is also good for amoebic dysentery, and an effective antibiotic for staphylococcus, streptococcus and bacteria resistant to standard antibiotic drugs. It is effective for vaginitis and leukorrhea (coat cloves in oil, wrap in muslin, saturate in olive oil and directly insert into vagina) and anti-fungal for the treatment of Candida albicans and yeast infections.
Allium sativum; Liliaceae; da suan; Sanskrit: lasunam
Part Used: bulb
Energy, taste: hot; spicy
Organs affected: Lung, Spleen, Large Intestine, Stomach
Actions: expels parasites
Properties: stimulant, diuretic, diaphoretic, hypotensive, alterative, digestant, carminative, expectorant, antiseptic, antispasmodic, parasiticide, antibiotic, antibacterial, antifungal, anticoagulant, lowers cholesterol
Biochemical constituents: volatile oil (about 0.2%) including allicin and aliin, B Vitamins, minerals
Dose: 6-15 gm; Since the volatile oils hold its active ingredients, garlic must be taken fresh for acute ailments rather than deodorized in capsules. For acute conditions, take 1 tsp. every hour of syrup, oil or juice; 3-5 cloves, raw, toasted or as paste/day; 30-60 drops tincture, 1-4 times/day
Precautions: avoid in high doses during pregnancy; do not use with Excess Heat or Yin Deficiency with Heat signs, acute inflammations, or take with problems of the mouth, tongue or throat; prolonged direct contact to the skin of fresh garlic can cause irritation; excessive use can irritate the stomach
Other: purple-skinned garlic has a stronger effect against parasites; eat with food as a preventative
Indications: respiratory conditions, colds, flu, sore throats, infections, earaches, cough, high and low blood pressure, high cholesterol and triglyceride levels, atherosclerosis, weak digestion, poor circulation, arthritis, rheumatism, lower back and joint pains, genito-urinary diseases, nervous disorders, cramps, spasms, heart weakness, parasites, intestinal worms (particularly hookworms), pinworms, ringworm of the scalp, amoebic dysentery, staphylococcus, streptococcus, vaginitis, leukorrhea, Candida, yeast infections
Have you ever had one of those lingering, deep-seated coughs (often the last hanger-on symptom after a cold or flu) that just continually and gradually wears down your reserves of strength?
No matter how long or hard you hack, regardless how many pints of cough syrup or handfuls of pills you swallow, despite all the sessions of acupuncture you sign up for, it's the cough that just refuses to budge. That nasty little wad of phlegm that managed to drain from your sinuses and slip down deep into your bronchioles just won't come up. It's annoying and downright exhausting!
What to do?
This is where my favorite home remedy comes to the rescue. It is the time-honored onion poultice -- or if you wish to add garlic for extra antibiotic effect, it's the onion-garlic poultice.
Whenever I think of onion poultice I think of one of my favorite movies, "Where the Lilies Bloom" (1974), about four suddenly orphaned backwoods kids who have to fend for themselves and call upon all their ancestral knowledge about herbs. There is a pivotal scene where some authority figure is stricken with something like pneumonia with a severely debilitating cough, and the children literally encase the stricken person in a bath of finely chopped (and I presume steamed) onions. The patient recovers, which adds greatly to the esteem of the kids who are trying desperately to conceal the fact that they are without parents but want to remain together.
The point is that this remedy really does work like a charm. It's the best treatment for pneumonia and stubborn coughs like the ones that seem to stick around after a bout of cold or flu.
There's any number of variations on how to prepare it, but I'll share mine which works for me:
This treatment can be repeated once or twice a day until relief is obtained. Applying the hot onion poultice before bed will help allay the cough enough to produce a more restful sleep. If you want to accompany it with a simple homemade antibacterial internal medicine, you can blend several cloves of garlic in olive oil and take a teaspoon to a tablespoon at least every hour. You can also make a tasty instant cough syrup by grating raw ginger and mixing it in warm liquid honey with the juice of a lemon.
The antibiotic and antiviral sulfur compounds of onion and garlic, when applied directly over the lungs, will ease inflammation, loosen and break up hardened mucus, and help expectoration. You may experience immediate benefit from even one application, but for some this may be accompanied with shorter bouts of somewhat more aggressive coughing fits as the hardened phlegm is loosened and gradually works its way out.
This simple folk remedy is golden and should never be forgotten! Best of all, it requires no exotic ingredients -- just items you probably already have in your pantry. I know of no pharmaceutical drug, medical treatment or internal herbal formula that is more effective.
Recently a friend of mine called to say that she had a terrible bladder infection. Her doctor prescribed an antibiotic, but it had no effect; in fact, the infection worsened. She also said she tried drinking cranberry juice, but that had no effect on the condition either.
Women's bladder infections are one of the most common complaints in the health world, and they probably account for the brisk sales for cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon, pictured above) supplements. An article that described 10 randomized controlled trials published by Cochrane Collaboration in January of 2008 concluded that cranberry products may prevent recurrent urinary tract infections in women. I'm sure this helped boost cranberry sales as well as the belief that it can help a woman with a UTI.
I wouldn't disparage the proven value of unsweetened cranberry juice, but I remember the study only seemed to indicate that it prevented recurrent urinary tract infections. By implication, the public and marketers read "cure" and that is an entire different realm to consider.
There are flagrant misrepresentations in the marketplace for the use of herbs and various nutritional supplements, but the public also knows that these things, when used appropriately, can work for situations like my friend's antibiotic-resistant cystitis, when no standard medical procedure or tested natural therapy such as cranberries, do.
(Most studies, even preliminary trials, are expensive. We need to ask ourselves how they were funded, and naturally, this leads us to question who is likely to gain from the study. Given this, I would not be surprised that just as studies of pharmaceutical drugs are funded by the manufacturer, the same could be true, and that studies of the medicinal value of cranberries could be funded by cranberry growers.)
But, as I stated above, cranberry didn't work for my friend, and I bet it doesn't work for a lot of women who've had the same problem. She turned to me and asked what she might do.
I told her about a few other herbs which I know are more powerful for treating bladder infections. I directed her to an uva ursi-based formulation (generally herbal formulas are more effective for more people than are single herbs). Uva ursi (Arctostaphylos uva ursi, pictured at left) is not as strong as pharmaceutical-grade antibiotics and does not cause the same side effects. It works locally, purely with the body fluids, as a urinary antiseptic. It also enhances the liver's powerful role in treating inflammations. These actions, combined with other herbs in the formula, make for a more positive outcome. I also suggested the use of parsley tea which is an old time remedy for urinary tract infections, and cherry stems in the specific treatment of urinary tract infections.
Cherry stems are high in potassium, salts and tannin. Traditionally, when women in Europe were troubled with bladder infections, they would steep a handful of the stems in one or two cups of boiling water and drink the strange-tasting brew. Lesley and I have found that cherry stems work for bladder infections when antibiotics and even most herbs may not.
I think my friend wound up doing a combination of cherry stem tea and the uva ursi formula and within a couple of days her intractable urinary tract infection was gone.
In conclusion, it's good for the herbal consumer to look to the use of herbs as a first line treatment for most diseases. However, it's also important that they learn the value of different herbs and supplements in the event that one may not be enough, that if possible they educate themselves on the wise use of herbs singly and especially in formulations.
To that end I and my wife, Lesley, have published several books on herbal medicine, including the top-selling herb book in the world today, The Way of Herbs, published by Pocket Books, and Lesley's book, Healing with the Herbs of Life, now published by Random House.
It's also obvious there is a need for qualified and skilled professional herbalists. Lesley and I personally make an effort to fulfill this need with the East West Herb Course. It is partially correspondence and partially online, and one can complete it at his or her own pace. Students learn Planetary Herbology, which is a combination of the best global herbal systems from the Western, Ayurvedic and Chinese traditions. Check these and our other herbal products out elsewhere on this site.
Have you seen those PSAs for MRSA (methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus) that have made their way onto primetime television lately?
'Staph' infections are among the most common type of skin and soft tissue infections and may appear as a small infected pimple, boil under the skin, sore or insect or spider bite. Initially they generally cause swelling and redness with or without pain. The MRSA variety is one that is particularly difficult to eradicate even with the use of strong pharmaceutical antibiotics, and an infection can be fatal.
Carvacrol, a phenolic compound found at a level approaching over 93% in Mediterranean oregano oil, may be effective against MRSA, the antibiotic-resistant "superbug" that is appearing in hospitals throughout the country.
This news has been making the rounds of the mainstream press throughout the UK since November of 2008 and is based on the research of scientists at the University of the West of England in Bristol working with partners in India. They found that "tiny quantities of Carvacrol, a naturally occurring compound in oregano, is a more effective antimicrobial agent than 18 pharmaceutical drugs it was compared against."
But -- treating a dread infection such as MRSA with oil from a spice you sprinkle on salads and in pizza, rather than using an expensive space-age antibiotic? Really?
It's generally believed by botanists and biochemists that the components that are found in plants that result in their pungent, spicy or bitter flavors were developed to protect the plant from pathogens and to prevent various animals from grazing them into extinction.
In a similar protective manner, spices were used on meat and various foods to slow spoilage in the days before refrigeration. People soon learned that by taking them internally and applying them topically as extracted oils, poultices or fomentations, these same stimulating antipathogenic properties were imparted to animals and people.
Before pharmaceutical antibiotics, staph infections were effectively treated both internally and topically using anti-inflammatory, 'heat clearing' herbs. Throughout the first three decades of the 20th century, North American echinacea probably became the most popular herb used for treating such conditions. Herbs such as thyme and oregano were similarly and widely used in Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Italy where they naturally grow.
So what happened?
Personally, I conjecture that one could practically mark the eclipse of medicinal herbs with the discovery of penicillin and consequent widespread use of antibiotics.
Even before the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928, since ancient times people learned that certain 'greenish' molds found on grains and fruit had antibiotic properties. It was Fleming's accidental discovery that led to his being able to strip away the penicillin which is a byproduct of these certain types of molds, and introduce his powerful discovery to the scientific medical community.
At first and for several decades after, penicillin was a virtual panacea for all sorts of complaints.
But one thing that Fleming and his researchers either did not know or refused to give needed recognition is that bacteria, even in a relatively static environment, evolve and adjust very quickly. This allows them to develop antibiotic resistance. In response to this, many subsequent derivatives of penicillin-based antibiotics were developed to counter the new, stronger strains of bacteria.
Now, in the beginning of the 21st century, this concern has come full circle with the increasingly widespread occurrence of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria labeled as MRSA.
But even before MRSA, increasing numbers of medical doctors and patients have come to recognize the downside of antibiotics, namely that they not only destroy the virulent bacteria strains but the millions of friendly bacteria that live in our gut and are responsible for healthy digestion and a healthy immune system. (People wise to this fact have learned to always take probiotics -- friendly bacteria -- found in fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut and miso for general health but especially when taking antibiotics.)
Considering all of these factors, herbs such as oregano, echinacea, thyme and many others too numerous to mention have much to offer.
Unlike synthetic antibiotic drugs targeted toward a specific action or type of bacteria, herbs usually combine both bactericidal (bacteria-killing) as well as bacteriostatic (bacteria proliferation-stopping) properties and are relatively independent as to what kind of bacteria are present or whether they have evolved resistant strains or not. This is not to say that there are not some virulent strains of bacteria with which herbs may not be particularly effective (such as gonorrhea, syphilis and tuberculosis, for which I would look to using a strong antibiotic drug). However, most common staph and strep infections are relatively easily treated with herbs and a diet low in refined carbohydrates.
Rather than damaging digestion like antibiotic drugs do, many of the spicy herbs such as oregano are known to specifically help digestion, suggesting that they are not so damaging to the beneficial flora of the gut.
Further, many of these herbs are broadly classified as "heat clearing," meaning that their value as an anti-infective is not merely limited to bacteria but assist the body in fighting off viral infections as well. Thus, regardless as to whether one decides to use antibiotics or not, there is a complementary value in using heat clearing herbs synergistically to possibly promote improved recuperation and health.
In general, it's been a slow uphill battle convincing even natural remedy-friendly people to use herbs for infections instead of going to the '˜doc' for a prescription of antibiotics. Unfortunately, the first thing most people think about when they have an infection, sore throat, flu or cold is to get some antibiotics. (This is true despite the fact that many of these conditions are viral and antibiotics are not effective against viruses.)
While the value of echinacea as an alternative to antibiotics is yet to be corroborated by scientific research (currently it is still mired in dead-end studies trying to prove its efficacy for colds and flu), oregano, specifically oil from wild Mediterranean oregano, has had considerable research supporting its use as an antibiotic alternative. In addition to the Carvocrol study mentioned above, studies conducted at Georgetown University, Cornell University, and the University of Tennessee have shown oregano oil to rival the effectiveness of standard antibiotics such as Streptomycin, Penicillin, Vancomycin, Nystatin, and Amphotericin.
Do we really need more proof that herbs such as oregano still have a place even in crisis medicine, offering a safe alternative to pharmaceutical antibiotics?
The adult dose of 4-6 drops of 100% pure essential oil of oregano diluted with approximately three parts olive oil can be taken by mouth and applied locally about 10 times daily. Children may take less according to age, 1 to 3 drops mixed with milk or juice.
The course of treatment should not exceed 10 days total.
If taken undiluted, oregano essential oil may cause minor gastric discomfort. Otherwise, if it is mixed with a carrier oil, it poses no problem.
It is probably better that it not be used during pregnancy but nothing is known regarding any possible contraindications.