When I first learned about herbs in the late '70s, they were usually taken as capsules, with food, or smoked! As I began to study Chinese herbs I learned that they were typically prepared as teas. Then the explosion of natural medicine occurred and a wide variety of herbal remedies became available – pills, capsules, tablets, tinctures, powders, syrups, and more.

Today there are so many different delivery methods for taking herbs. How do you know which is the best for your clients’ or your own health needs? You may actually feel that just getting herbs down people in whatever way they’ll take them is best – and there’s definitely truth and practicality to this. Yet, the delivery of herbs also does matter. It depends on knowing your herbs AND the person taking them.

I was recently reminded about this when I made a sleep tea for my elderly mother. I only had the formula she needed in “teapill” form (a Chinese patent medicine where the herbs are cooked as a tea, dehydrated and then formed into tiny pills). This was too dangerous for her to swallow as they could have become stuck in her throat so I dissolved them in hot water. When she ended up refusing the herbs, I drank the tea myself. And powerful it was! It was easy and quick to make, tasty, and most effective. But even more, this tea was much easier to digest than the concentrated dry extracts I normally take.

Some forms of herbs can actually aggravate symptoms regardless of the herbs used. Others may not be strong enough to create the desired effect. Still more might not even fully metabolize so there’s less impact from the herbs. For instance:

  • Is your client a child? That generally rules out alcoholic tinctures, pills, tablets or capsules.
  • Is your client elderly? That means small pills may be too difficult for them to handle. They might also have problems swallowing them, too, as well as tablets and capsules.
  • Does your client have Heat or Stagnation in their Liver (hypochondriac pain, sighing, hiccupping, depression, PMS, irregular or painful periods, nausea, vomiting, sour belching, splitting headaches, migraines, hard to fall asleep, or tight neck and shoulders)? Then tinctures could aggravate these symptoms.
  • Does your client have weak digestion (poor appetite, slow metabolism, gas, bloatedness, sleepiness after meals, tiredness, loose stools, fatigue, lethargy, weakness of the limbs, or acid reflux)? Then tablets, powders, pills, and concentrated dry extracts may create even more digestive sluggishness.

Your herbal delivery method is not just about patient compliance, although that is important to consider. Ideally, you find the best delivery method that extracts the most out of a particular herb AND that a person can most easily assimilate without causing other problems.

Following is a list of possible herbal delivery methods along with their uses, pros, cons, and shelf life so you can choose what best fits for your clients’ and your needs. Note that taking herbs is NOT like taking medications, quick-fix pills with lots of side effects. 


Uses: for the entire body or specific areas such as the hands, hips or feet; stimulates blood circulation; warms; treats colds, flu, chills, fever, aches, pains, cramps, spasms, headaches, some infection and inflammation; calms nerves and relaxes muscles 

Pros: fair absorption of herbal properties; especially useful and effective for treating infants and the elderly

Cons: only used topically; can be messy; takes time; person has to have a bathtub or access to one

Shelf life: none – make as needed


Uses: treats anal conditions and hemorrhoids plus vaginal infections, cysts, irritations and tumors

Pros: effectively treats localized health problems (anal/vaginal/genital)

Cons: can be messy; doesn’t travel well

Shelf life: none – make as needed; if frozen can last up to 6 months


Uses: treats internal conditions

Pros: useful for taking herbs in small amounts or for herbs that taste bitter, are strong or are high in mucilage; the small "0" size is user-friendly for many children and the elderly; convenient; travels well

Cons: quickly loses potency; can be difficult to digest (avoid if there’s poor appetite, slow digestion, gas, bloatedness, sleepiness after meals, tiredness, loose stools, fatigue, lethargy, weakness of the limbs, or acid reflux); not for vegetarians since most capsules are made from animal gelatin

Shelf life: short – about 1 year


Uses: treats internal conditions

Pros: highly digestible; potent with increased biological availability; especially beneficial for the elderly, infirm or those with poor digestion

Cons: takes time; can be smelly; may not be tasty

Shelf life: short – up to 3 days


Uses: treats internal conditions

Pros: highly potent with increased biological availability; preserves well; 2-5 times stronger than powdered herbs, so less needs be taken; convenient; easy to take for most people (put in hot water or directly into the mouth and swallow with water, or mix with honey and eat as an electuary/paste); can take in small or large doses; travels well

Cons: expensive; can’t use with herbs high in volatile oils, as these constituents may be lost during the preparation process; may be difficult to digest for some

Shelf life: long – lasts up to 5 or more years


Uses: treats internal conditions  

Pros: tasty; easy to take; great for children; travels well; easier to digest (from the honey) and assimilate (if ghee is added); helpful for taking strong-tasting herbs

Cons: messy; takes time

Shelf life: short from 3 days to 3 months 


Uses: treats swellings, pain, coldness, sprains, injuries, sore throats, colds, and swollen glands and organs (neck, breast, groin, kidney, liver, prostate, bladder); helps restore circulation to an area that’s been immobilized or weakened

Pros: stimulates fresh blood circulation; warms the area where placed; great for the elderly or infirm

Cons: only used topically; takes time; can be messy; can’t travel; only used topically

Shelf life: none – make only as needed


Uses: treats throat, gum and mouth conditions

Pros: treats localized conditions; can use strong herbs; convenient; travels well

Cons: only used topically

Shelf life: varies – can last up to 3 days if a tea; 10 years if made with alcohol


Uses: treats strained muscles and ligaments, muscle spasms, bruises, arthritis, rheumatism, injuries, trauma, swelling, some inflammations; stimulates blood circulation

Pros: potent topical treatment of localized conditions; good delivery for strong or potent herbs; convenient; travels well

Cons: only used topically; can be messy; can be smelly 

Shelf life: varies – up to a year (made with oil) or 10 years (made with alcohol)


Uses: treats nasal and throat conditions, sinus infections, allergies, post nasal drip, plugged ears, poor sense of smell, colds, flu

Pros: potent treatment of localized conditions

Cons: only used topically; can be messy, smelly, and irritating

Shelf life: none – make only as needed 


Uses: for sore and aching muscles and joints, cuts, stings, swellings, and pain; calming and relaxing or stimulates blood circulation

Pros: potent topical treatment of localized conditions; convenient; travels well; good delivery for strong or potent herbs

Cons: only used topically; can be messy; can be smelly

Shelf life: short – up to a year 


Uses: treats internal conditions of all types; certain ones may be sucked to treat the throat

Pros: potent; generally good for vegetarians; generally easy to swallow (except for the elderly and some children); herbs don’t need to be as finely ground as those for capsules; can be made into a tea; can be tasty

Cons: may have to take a lot for proper dosage; can be difficult to pick up for the elderly or those with motor dysfunction; may not be tasty; may be difficult to digest for some

Shelf life: medium – from 1 to 5 years


Uses: muscle spasms, swelling, arthritis, rheumatism, tumors, fevers, mucous congestion in the chest, bronchitis, pneumonia, enlarged glands and organs (neck, breast, groin, kidney, liver, prostate, bladder), various eruptions (boils, abscesses); fibrous tissue

Pros: treats localized or internal conditions

Cons: potent topical treatment of localized conditions; takes time; can be messy; can be smelly; takes time; can’t travel 

Shelf life: none – make as needed


Uses: treats skin aliments, cuts, stings, bites, eruptions, bleeding

Pros: treats localized conditions

Cons: only used topically; can be messy; can’t travel 

Shelf life: none – make as needed


Uses: treats internal or external conditions

Pros: can use to make any number of other delivery methods

Cons: can be difficult to digest (avoid if there’s poor appetite, slow digestion, gas, bloatedness, sleepiness after meals, tiredness, loose stools, fatigue, lethargy, weakness of the limbs, or acid reflux); messy; if not able to purchase desired herbs already powdered, need strong equipment to powder herbs and some herbs can’t be powdered fine enough or are too gummy to powder

Shelf life: short – 6 months


Uses: reduces pain; stops itching; treats bites, stings, cuts, sores, scrapes, burns, itching, dryness and skin problems

Pros: treats localized conditions; easy to use; travels well

Cons: only used topically; can be messy

Shelf life: short – lasts 1 year


Uses: treats cough, sore throat, tickling and irritation of the throat, lung conditions; loosens phlegm and helps its expectoration

Pros: potent; easy to take; can be tasty; easy to digest; great for children

Cons: can be messy

Shelf life: short – about 1 month refrigerated 


Uses: treats internal conditions; as a wash treats certain external conditions, too

Pros: potent; highly digestible; most herbal properties are extracted in water

Cons: takes time; can be smelly; can be messy; might not be tasty; difficult to drink if using very bitter or stimulating herbs; doesn’t travel well; often teas are not made strong enough to be effective – it is necessary to use 1 oz dried herbs/1 pint water; 2-3 oz herbs fresh herbs/pint water; or 1/2 oz herbs/1 cup water

Shelf life: short – up to 3 days


Uses: treats internal conditions; depending on the herbs, may be used as a liniment for external conditions

Pros: potent; highly digestible; good delivery for herbs that taste bitter, are too strong to drink in teas, are taken over a long period of time, and that don’t extract well in water but do in alcohol; easy to take; convenient; travels well

Cons: avoid with children, people with alcohol sensitivity, or those with Excess Heat or Qi Stagnation (hypochondriac pain, sighing, hiccupping, depression, PMS, irregular or painful periods, nausea, vomiting, sour belching, splitting headaches, migraines, hard to fall asleep, or tight neck and shoulders); often tinctures are not taken in high enough doses to be effective (1 teaspoon doses are frequently needed for best results, much higher than a dropperful); can be expensive if proper dose is taken

Shelf life: long – up to 3 years (vinegar or glycerin) or 10 years (alcohol)


Uses: treats swellings, pain, coldness, injuries, sore throats, colds, fever, chills,

Pros: can be potent for infants, the elderly or the infirm

Cons: only used topically; can’t travel; can be messy

Shelf life: none – make as needed

wanhuaoilI first learned about Wan Hua Oil over 20 years ago when my seven-year old son ran into a doorpost. A huge lump immediately rose on his forehead above his right eyebrow, turning black and blue before my eyes. Thankfully, I was at a friend's acupuncture clinic and he immediately pulled out a bottle of Wan Hua Oil and dabbed it on. Within 10 minutes the bump was nearly gone and the next day there was no bruising at all.

While arnica oil is similarly effective for bruising and trauma, Wan Hua Oil has many other applications. In fact, the name Wan Hua Oil means "Traumatic Injury Ten-Thousand Flowers Oil," which may refer to its "thousands" of potential applications just as much as to its multiple flower ingredients.

I have used it on people with 20-year old lumps the size of a fist and seen it substantially soften and shrink over a couple of months. I've used it on people with severe bruising weeks after an accident when nothing else worked and had it clear the black and blue lumps. I even recently put it on my stubbed toe and felt the pain immediately recede and swelling diminish. As well, it is excellent for arthritis, aches, sprains, fractures and torn or inflamed ligaments with or without swelling and used on septic and necrotic infections following an open wound and on burns, even if they're infected.

Wan Hua Oil is a type of dit dat jiao medicine used by folk and martial arts traditions. Like most of these liniments, it is loaded with Blood-moving herbs that also stop pain, such as tien qi, safflower, frankincense and myrrh, as well as drynaria to heal bones and some less well-known herbs that are hardly mentioned in various Chinese material medicas, such as emilia and pyrolusitum.

Wan Hua Oil ingredients (by Jing Xiu Tang Brand, Guangzhou Jing XiuTang Pharmaceutical Company Limited):

  • Wan Hua Oil Ingredients "" by the Jing Xiu Tang Brand, Guangzhou Jing Xiu
    Tang Pharmaceutical Company Limited:
    Carthamus (hong hua)
    Moutan (mu dan pi)
    Sparganii (san leng)
    Drynaria (gu sui bu)
    Ledebourella (fang feng)
    Gardenia (zhi zi)
    Clematidis (wei ling xian)
    Oleum eucalypti (an ye)
    Cortex Gossampini (mu mian hua)
    Hylote lepphir verticillati
    Radix Rumicis japonica (yang ti)
    Radix Berchemiae lineatae (tie bao jin)
    Flos Chimonanthi praecocis (la mei hua)
    Oleum Terebinthinae (ma you "" turpentine oil)
    In a base of plant oils
    Carthamus (hong hua) 7.25%
  • Moutan (mu dan pi) 1.81%
  • Sparganii (san leng) 3.62%
  • Drynaria (gu sui bu) 5.43%
  • Ledebouriella (fang feng) 5.43%
  • Gardenia (zhi zi) 3.62%
  • Clematidis (wei ling xian) 5.43%
  • Oleum eucalypti (an ye) 5.43%
  • Cortex Gossampini (mu mian hua) 5.43%
  • Hylote lepphir verticillati 3.62%
  • Radix Rumicis japonica (yang ti) 5.43%
  • Radix Berchemiae lineatae (tie bao jin) 7.25%
  • Flos Chimonanthi praecocis (la mei hua) 5.43%
  • Oleum Terebinthinae (ma you "" turpentine oil) 13.04%
  • In a base of plant oils 21.78%
  • Wintergreen (Note: This ingredient has JUST been added to the formula above, so this oil is no longer odorless! -- edited 8/29/11)

Another incredible benefit of Wan Hua Oil is that it doesn't contain strong-smelling herbs or oils as do most liniments, such as camphor. It is very mild and so may be used by those taking homeopathy. Because it is oil-based instead of alcohol-based, some use it on open wounds.

If your are not up to making this on your own, Wan Hua Oil may be purchased at Chinese herbal pharmacies or from our East West store. To apply, rub directly into the affected area two or three times a day. If desired, put on cotton first and then apply. For septic burns, apply to gauze and cover the affected area.

Cautions: Caution must be taken with those who have sensitive skin. Wan Hua oil should be removed if someone reacts with heat or itching. As well, avoid contact with the eyes and do not place over the lower abdomen and lumbar areas of pregnant women. Do bear in mind that Wan Hua Oil is oily and can stain; take necessary precautions for clothing and bedding (remove with rubbing alcohol).

Calendula (Calendula officinalis) is an amazing herb. It is probably under-utilized and under-appreciated, so I'm going to give it its due thanks!

Calendula is a very old herb, employed since the 12th century in Europe and even earlier in Egypt, where it originated. It is often used as a dye; in fact, cheese was originally dyed yellow by its flower. The larger flowers are more medicinal and make beautiful garden plants. Calendula is sometimes called 'pot marigold,' but the common garden marigold is a distinctly different plant.

The volatile oils of calendula stimulate blood circulation and cause sweating, thus lowering fevers and assisting skin eruptions to come out faster. For this reason it is specific for the beginning stages of measles, rashes and other eruptive diseases. When my son had the chicken pox, I only had to apply calendula tincture once to each pox for the itching and eruption to stop.  Within the day he was feeling much better and the chicken pox rapidly cleared. Calendula oil or wash works well for this, too.

In general, calendula is a wonderful herb for cleansing the liver, and as it is neutral to warm in energy, it may safely be used for any type of liver condition without overheating it. As well, it is a great lymphatic cleanser, moving lymphatic congestion in the chest, under the armpit and in the groin area.

It is hands down one of the best herbs for any skin problems, and I have seen it useful for fungal conditions (take internally and apply topically). Many mothers find it wonderful for diaper rash. Used as a salve, oil or poultice it promotes the rapid healing of slow-healing wounds and eases persistent ulcers, burns, bruises, boils, rashes, injuries, varicose veins and bleeding, including bleeding hemorrhoids.

Like mullein, calendula flowers can be made into oil and used for earaches and other infections. As a natural antiseptic it prevents the growth of harmful bacteria. Cooled calendula tea can be used as eyewash for sore, red and irritated eyes.

Calendula officinalis

Parts used: flowers

Energy, taste and Organs affected: neutral to warm; spicy, bitter; Liver, Heart, Lungs

Actions: invigorates Blood

Properties: vulnerary, emmenagogue, astringent, diaphoretic, antispasmodic, stimulant, antifungal, antiviral, antiseptic, demulcent, anti-inflammatory, cholagogue

Biochemical constituents: essential oil containing carotenoids (carotene, calenduline and lycopine), flavonol glycosides, saponins, triterpene alcohols, sterols, carotenes, xanthophylls, polysaccharides, tannins, resin and bitter principle

Dose: 3-6 g; infuse 2-3 tablespoons per cup water, drink 3 cups a day; for acute conditions, drink 1 cup tea every hour until symptoms lessen, then drink 1 cup 2-4 times/day until problem is gone

Precautions: pregnancy

Other: This herb is similar in action, but weaker than, safflower.

Indications: fevers, skin eruptions, measles, rashes, chicken pox, skin fungus, diaper rash, wounds that will not heal, ulcers, burns, bruises, boils, injuries, varicose veins, sore, red and irritated eyes

For years I have known and used DMSO for the topical relief of inflammation and pain. It's unfortunate that even after learning of the wonderful healing powers of a particular herb or substance such as DMSO, for some reason in the pursuit of new or different treatments sometimes we allow those that we once knew to be effective get lost in the fog of the past.

I recently had a problem with my left foot that affected my ability to walk. The verdict by a podiatrist was that it was an inflammation caused by wearing shoes that did not give my feet proper support. I discarded my old shoes which were evidently the culprit and purchased new ones fitted with properly supportive insoles to relieve the pressure on my foot. This gave immediate relief, but any time I failed to wear shoes with the insoles or even walk barefoot, the pain returned. One podiatrist offered a cortisone injection which he said "might work" and recommended I go on a course of acetaminophen (available over the counter in the form of Tylenol).

Aside from knowing the potential damage that acetaminophen can wreak on the liver,  I generally don't use drugs before exploring other avenues of known relief. A substance I had not used for years came to mind: dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO). I used to use it topically a lot with patients suffering from painful inflammatory arthritic and joint problems, and it was effective when used along with other therapies (acupuncture, moxabustion and herbs).

Derived from wood pulp, DMSO is an industrial grade solvent, able to penetrate and carry any substance with which it is combined through the skin. After washing my foot, I applied the DMSO at first three times, then twice a day for several days. Even after the first application the pain was noticeably relieved. After a week or so, I found I only needed to apply it one or two times daily for relief. I have since used it successfully on some minor repetitive injuries to my thumb from hours of piano practice. 

Like many wonderful natural remedies, DMSO is not an approved remedy for use on humans. It is sold specifically as a solvent not intended for human use except as an injection directly into the urethra for interstitial cystitis and as a preservative of organs intended for transplant. With over 40,000 articles on its chemistry published in respected scientific journals and 11,000 articles written on its medical and clinical applications, one could hardly say that DMSO is just another unproven quack medicine. In fact, despite thousands of people successfully using DMSO for injuries and pain throughout the world, DMSO just missed FDA approval because of a single reported death of an Irish woman in 1965 who happened to be using it when she died. While the FDA banned it based on this isolated occurrence, DMSO was approved and continues to be used by medical doctors throughout 125 countries around the world including Canada, Great Britain, Germany, and Japan. The range of conditions for which DMSO is used is wide and varied beginning with pain, inflammation, gout, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, sports injuries, back pain, fibromyalgia, and scleroderma, and it has even been found to relieve intercranial pressure caused by closed head injuries. Last but not least, it is commonly used on prized race horses.

So I have to say, at least insofar as DMSO relieving inflammatory pains is concerned, if it is good enough for your horse (even if you don't happen to own one), it's probably good for you.

DMSO has been called the first nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory substance discovered since aspirin. Unlike acetaminophen, it has no liver-damaging side effects. In 1978, after it was found to bring significant relief to nearly all of 213 patients suffering from inflammatory genitourinary disorder, DMSO was recommended by Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio for all inflammatory conditions not caused by infection or tumor.

Recently I have been treating a woman with painful interstitial cystitis. I began with a course of herbs and acupuncture treatments that were very successful but I also gave her a one ounce bottle of DMSO to rub over her lower abdomen twice a day. This stuff only costs a few dollars and she said it will probably last months. She's been pain-free and instead of having to rise nearly every 15 or 20 minutes to urinate each night, she now only needs to go four or five times. You can imagine how much better she is feeling from having that much more sleep.

DMSO's powerful ability to dissolve and carry anything with which it is mixed (or whatever happens to be on the skin) into the muscles, ligaments and blood can be an advantage when one wants to carry drugs or herbal extracts into the body through the skin. It has been used medically to optimize the absorption of medicines such as antibiotics, insulin, cortisone and other drugs. In fact, one popular treatment that some people on the internet have sworn by is to mix 15% DMSO with Vitamin B 12, a vitamin that is poorly absorbed orally, and apply it to the wrist or inside of the arms whenever you need a lift. I would recommend this to all patients to do immediately after chemo or radiation therapy to counteract the crippling debilitating effects of the drugs.

By the same reasoning, if you want to avoid the risk of absorbing undesirable contaminants, it is very important to wash the area where it is to be applied first, and to use gloves especially when applying DMSO on animals. Another point to consider is that DMSO may increase the effects of blood thinners, steroids, heart medicines, sedatives, and other drugs and this could be harmful or dangerous in some cases. In general, however, DMSO is very safe for use.

Some people may experience temporary moderate redness and itching when they first apply DMSO. I think it depends on the sensitivity of the individual and the area to which it is applied. In all cases I have seen this completely clear up within a few hours. However, as with any other substance applied to the skin, it might be good to first try it on a small '˜test patch' and see how you react.

Recently I prescribed DMSO topically to be applied to a bad case of athlete's foot. It was applied in the evening after washing the foot and in the morning the itch and inflammation was completely gone.

When purchasing DMSO remember that the sellers cannot give any advice or recommend it for human use in the USA. DMSO is sold as an industrial solvent (Like its near relative, turpentine, it will dissolve and remove paint from the walls). There are three grades of DMSO: industrial grade (contains toxins and is not for use with humans or animals); veterinary grade (widely used for race horses); and medical grade which is classed as a prescription drug. In the USA, it is sold as an industrial solvent which may or may not be the best quality.

There is much information on the internet about the healing benefits of DMSO. I encourage you to do your own online sleuthing and decide if it is something you could use.


Now that I'm on to ginseng-like herbs, here's another one that can be taken during the summer. Its real name is Panax notoginseng, known in Chinese pinyin as san qi, but is best known by its commercial name, Tien qi ginseng.

It is definitely in the ginseng family, but has quite different properties from the ones we usually associate with other ginsengs.

Rather than tonifying Qi, this herb moves and builds Blood. But even better, while it moves Blood it also stops bleeding. This makes it a perfect application for any trauma from falls, fractures, contusions, wounds, cuts or sprains (for this reason it is used extensively by martial artists) and to stop bleeding in vomit, urine or stool along with nosebleeds and hemorrhaging.  

In fact, it is used for any internal and external bleeding and should be taken frequently for this, both internally and externally placed on the wound in powder or liniment form. It is called Yunan Bai Yao in its patent form, which is widelyused to stop bleeding, specifically from gunshot wounds.  

San qi also reduces swelling, alleviates pain and dissolves blood clots. I have seen it dissolve large blood clots and slow excessive menstrual bleeding and hemorrhage (high doses are needed for both).  It is used for chest, abdominal and joint pain and diabetic retinopathy. As well, it lowers blood pressure and increases coronary artery flow. Because of its tonic circulatory properties, it is one of the most popular of all herbs used by the Chinese. 

Image of San qi tubers from: ITM Online.

San Qi

Latin: Panax notoginseng, P. pseudoginseng

Family: Araliaceae

Part Used: root

Energy, taste and Organs affected: warm; sweet, slightly bitter; Liver, Stomach, Large Intestine

Actions: stops bleeding

Properties: hemostatic, cardiac tonic

Biochemical constituents: arasaponin A, arasaponin B, dencichine

Dose: 1-3 g powder; 3-9 g whole root, decoction; apply topically as needed

Precautions: pregnancy; Deficient Blood or Yin

Other: also known as pseudoginseng, notoginseng, tienchi, tien qi and tian qi

Indications: internal and external bleeding, nosebleed, blood in urine, vomit, mucus or stool, traumatic injury due to falls, fractures, contusions and sprains, chest and abdominal pain, angina, coronary heart diseases, joint pain, hemorrhage, injuries, wounds, excessive menstruation, diabetic retinopathy

eyesDuring 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.

To use:

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.


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?

Castor Oil

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.

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? 

onionsThis 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:

  1. Finely chop two or three onions (you may also add a few cloves of chopped garlic for increased antibiotic effect).
  2. Steam these for a short while in a steamer.
  3. Remove from steamer, place in a large bowl, and add a half cup of corn flour and a couple of tablespoons of apple cider vinegar to help hold the poultice together. Mix well.
  4. Place the entire mash in a natural fiber cloth, large enough to wrap and keep the entire mash over an area roughly the size of your patient's chest.
  5. Apply the wrapped mash to your supine patient, as hot as can be tolerated without burning, over the chest, from the base of the neck down as far as you wish.  If the cough seems more on the back then apply it over the upper back. (If you are putting the poultice on yourself, you might need assistance from a friend or family member.) 
  6. Place a hot water bottle or heating pad over the top of the poultice to maintain heat for greater penetration.
  7. Rest with the poultice on for at least 20 or 30 minutes. 

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 I was sitting in my garden one late afternoon trying to pull myself together after a very scattering day. (You know those days, the ones when you plan to do certain things, but instead, everyone and everything else draws your attention away?) I happened to look down and see the great Puller-Together herself, comfrey. 

But I didn't see the normal comfrey plant I usually find. Instead, late afternoon sunlight shone through the side of the leaves revealing one of the most incredible patterns I've ever seen. It looked like a garden of emerald crystals tightly woven together. And each of these encased multiple smaller crystals and so on down. It was amazing. 

The pattern in each leaf seemed to tell me comfrey is used for '" knitting together, not only skin, muscle and bone, but also the very network of the plant itself. What a great demonstration of the Law of Signatures (from homeopathy), where what a plant looks like suggests what it is good for. Ginseng is a good example, for the root looks exactly like a man, complete with head, arms and legs; of course, ginseng is good for the energy of the entire body. 

So here I am, trying to pull myself together and comfrey gives her gift again. It immediately sparked such creativity '" I had to photograph and write about her immediately '" that it pulled me together from my scattered place and I felt much better. Plants provide such meditative spaces '" what a gift! No wonder so many people love to garden.

Uses for Comfrey

Comfrey's nickname, knitbone, is highly appropriate as one of its constituents (allantoin) actually causes cellular proliferation, quickly healing broken bones, fractures, torn skin (try it on torn perineums after childbirth, using the fresh herb poultice daily), and strengthening tendons, bones and ligaments (take internally and apply externally).  It is the fastest wound healer around. Comfrey also stops bleeding from the stomach, lungs, intestines, kidneys, ulcers and piles.

Because comfrey has the highest mucilage content of any herb, it is very moistening and lubricating. As a poultice or salve it soothes burns, wounds, psoriasis, eczema, inflammations, ulcers, varicose veins and draws out poisons from boils and insect bites or stings. I have found comfrey, along with perhaps plantain and echinacea, to be incomparable in drawing out the poison from spider bites, healing them quickly and painlessly.

A wonderful herb for the lungs (tonifies Lung Yin), comfrey's cooling moistening effect heals bronchitis, tonsillitis, pharyngitis, pleurisy, pneumonia, pulmonary TB, coughs (including whooping cough), expels phlegm, soothes the throat, lowers fevers and overall, rejuvenates the Lungs and mucous membranes.

It helps the pancreas regulate blood sugar levels and promotes the secretion of pepsin, thus aiding digestion. 

The root can be used as well as the leaf, and is stronger in tonic properties for healing lungs and mucous membranes, especially in cases of Dryness, Heat, Deficient Yin and inflammation. The leaves are more astringent and anti-inflammatory.

The Comfrey Controversy

While comfrey is a powerful nourishing tonic that rapidly promotes tissue growth, it is a controversial plant because of its pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA's) which may cause liver disease in humans. Many herbalists feel the plant causes no threat to humans if consumed only as needed and avoided in prolonged high doses, while others have stopped using it altogether.

It is important to realize that a constituent with a negative effect may be neutralized, or greatly diminished, when combined with other herbs in formulas. To help make your own choice, those with a personal and/or parental history of alcoholism, hepatitis or mononucleosis, a history of drug use (recreational or otherwise) and caffeine users should all probably avoid using this herb internally. However, it may safely used externally by everyone. Further, certain herb companies offer PA-free comfrey products.


Symphytum officinale; Boraginaceae        W

Parts used: leaves and root

Energy, taste and Organs affected: cool; bitter, sweet; Lungs, Stomach, bones, muscles

Biochemical constituents: 
leaves: allantoin, pyrrolizidine alkaloids, tannins, mucilage, starch, inulin; 
root: allantoin, mucilage, tannins, starch, inulin and traces of oil

Actions: tonify Yin

Properties: demulcent, vulnerary, expectorant, nutritive tonic, alterative, astringent, antitussive

Biochemical constituents: allantoin (this constituent increases cell proliferation), mucilage, tannins, starch, inulin, traces of oil, pyrrolizidine alkaloids; steroidal saponins in root

root: 6-15 gms; decoct 1 tsp./cup water; 
leaves: 3-9 gms; infuse 2 tsp./cup water, acute - drink 1/2 to 1 cup tea every hour until condition lessens, then drink 2 cups a day until problem is gone; 10-30 drops tincture, 1-3 times/day

Precautions: Because of its pyrolizidine alkaloids (PA's), it should be avoided internally in pregnancy, children, nursing and liver disease. Mainly use the leaf from S. officinalis, as both are lower in PA's than other species or plant parts.

Indications: fractures, skin wounds and tears, bites, stings, boils, sores, ulcers, hemorrhage, bleeding from stomach, lungs, bowels, kidneys, ulcers and piles, broken bones, diarrhea, bronchitis, tonsillitis, pharyngitis, pleurisy, pneumonia and consumption, coughs, including whooping cough, expels phlegm, sore throat, fever, poor digestion rejuvenates the lungs and mucous membranes

While summer is one of my favorite times of year, I could do without mosquito bites, scraped shins and bee stings. That's why I usually carry a tin of herbal salve with me wherever I hike (or travel, for that matter).

A salve is a thick herbal oil applied to the skin for reducing pain, stopping itch and quickly healing such conditions as bites, stings, cuts, sores, scrapes, burns, and other skin problems. Salves are made with fresh, dried, whole, or powdered herbs.

To use it, you simply scoop out a dab of the salve and spread on the desired area. You can make a salve to address a single condition, such as itching, dryness, cuts and so on, or create a general all-purpose one for many situations.

Oils that readily absorb into the skin are used, such as sesame and olive oil. Non-drying oils are best for dry skin and massage, since they don't absorb as readily as semi-drying ones. Try combining both types, for instance sesame and olive. Castor oil is a nice addition to salves, as it is very thick and an excellent healing oil (but only add in small amounts as it's very sticky). Possible oils include:

  • Non-drying oils: coconut, avocado, castor, apricot, cocoa butter, olive
  • Semi-drying oils: wheat germ, sesame, safflower, sunflower
  • Drying oils: soybean, linseed (flax)

In addition to these ingredients, herbal tinctures may be included to enhance the salve's healing power. For example, calendula tincture added to calendula flower salve makes its healing properties stronger.

Lastly, some Vitamin E oil, or tincture of benzoin (a tree resin), should be included as a preservative. Both also heal the skin.

Summer Salve ideas

Sore Muscle Salve: To help sore, aching muscles, combine equal parts chamomile, elder, gardenia, lavender, mint, mugwort, mullein flower, rose, rosemary and St. John's Wort.

Salve for Itching and Rashes: This single-herb salve is made with fresh chickweed, and very effectively treats itching and rashes. It is even more powerful if you extract fresh chickweed juice and use it along with the herb.

General Healing Salve: My favorite salve, this treats many skin conditions including rashes, swellings, wounds, eruptions and bites. Combine one part each echinacea, yarrow, comfrey and calendula with a half part each plantain leaves, St. John's Wort and chickweed.

Amounts: For about 4 oz. salve, use 2 oz. dried or powdered herbs, or 4 oz. fresh herbs to 1 cup oil, and 1/2 oz. beeswax. Add 1/2 tsp. Vitamin E oil or benzoin tincture as preservative.

Dose: Since salves are rubbed directly on the skin and not taken internally, there's no dosage limit. However, too much salve can be messy.

Storage: Salves keep up to five years or more.

To Make a Salve:

1) Bruise herbs first by rubbing fresh/dried herbs between palms of hands.

2) Place herbs in glass jar.

3) Pour chosen oil(s) over herbs. Cover jar with tight lid and prevent the oil's exposure to air or light.

4) Shake jar daily so herbs and solvent mix together. Do this for at least two weeks.

5) Strain by covering a kitchen colander with a piece of cheesecloth. Place the colander in a big bowl and pour the herbal solution into the colander. If there are still herbs in the strained liquid, strain again. Squeeze the herbs in left in the cheesecloth to extract any remaining liquid.

6) Add a about 1/2 tsp. of tincture of benzoin or break a capsule of Vitamin E into your oil to act as a preservative.

7) Pour the strained oil into a clean glass jar and cover tightly. This is your oil. You will add melted beeswax to this oil to make your semi-solid salve. Continue from step 3 below:

Quicker method:

1) Bruise herbs first by rubbing fresh/dried herbs between the palms of your hands.

2) Place bruised herbs in your chosen oil in a deep pan. Slowly heat and cook herbs gently, covered, until crispy, about 1/2-1 hour (cook roots first, then add leaves and flowers last).

3) Melt beeswax shavings or beads over very low heat in a separate old pot (use one you don't care much for; wax is very messy and leaves a residue).

4) When beeswax is melted, pour into your already-made herbal oil. Mix well.

5) Add Vitamin E oil or tincture of benzoin (if you have not added it already).

6) Test salve for consistency: blow on one teaspoon of your oil/beeswax mixture until it hardens, or put a teaspoon of it in the refrigerator for a minute. When it looks solidified, test it with your finger. If it's too hard, you won't be able to spread it on the skin easily; add more oil. If too soft, it will be too runny and will not stay in place on the skin; add more melted beeswax. In either case, keep testing your salve until your desired consistency is achieved.

7) When this consistency is reached, immediately pour your oil/beeswax mixture into small jar or tin before it begins to harden to room temperature (this hardening process will begin immediately as it cools). Wash out pots with hot water as soon as possible. Put a tight lid on your salve container(s).

Making an herbal salve using the quick method:

Bruising herbs

Simmering aerial plant parts and roots separately

Straining the herbal oil

Testing for consistency after beeswax has been added

After pouring immediately into containers, salve hardens as it comes to room temperature.

Pictures from the medicine-making class with Debra Maya and Dov Shoneman at the East West Herbal Seminar 2009 by intermediate student Inga Bilinkina.

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