Most people don’t realize the incredible therapeutic (healing) qualities of herbs. That’s a shame because their therapeutic benefits can enhance our lives and benefit our health fairly dramatically. This lack of knowledge and understanding makes herbs an underutilized — and under-appreciated — resource that most of us have literally at our finger tips, hiding in our spice cabinets.
The fact is, many if not most of our culinary herbs also have medicinal qualities. Here are just a few you may want to explore.
Savory seed herbs such as anise, cumin, fennel, fenugreek and caraway are known as “carminatives,” which means they help normalize the digestive system and peristalsis to prevent, eliminate or relieve gas. These particular herbs are also anti-spasmodic, which means they help muscles that are spasm-ing, or cramping to relax. So, if someone is suffering from a stomach virus, for example, brewing up an herbal tea of several of these seed herbs, and a touch of honey, would help stop the stomach spasms as well as cut down on any gas. (Note: While other anti-spasmodic herbs are usually used instead, those same antispasmodic culinary herbs could be used for muscle spasms elsewhere, say from PMS, or leg cramps.)
Other herbs such as peppermint, licorice, cinnamon, ginger or thyme could be added to the brew both for the their own carminative effects, as well as to enhance the flavor. (And don’t forget that honey!)
Peppermint, in fact, is a wonderful alternative to popular antacids. Anytime you find yourself lamenting, “Oh, I ate too much,” or feel bloated and uncomfortable as a result of what you’ve eaten, peppermint can calm all that down in 20-30 minutes. Some people keep a bottle of therapeutic-grade peppermint essential oil on hand and just dot a drop or two on their abdomens when needed. Or they keep peppermint tea from the grocery on hand — Celestial Seasonings is a popular brand — and brew up some herbal tea, or an “infusion” in herbspeak. (If you use antacids daily, this is not your best choice, although there are herbs and dietary changes that can help.)
Ginger is excellent to have on hand for another reason. In addition to its carminative effects, it’s useful for nausea, whether from morning sickness, motion sickness, stomach flu, etc. It’s available in so many forms you can have it with you anywhere — dried (in spice jars in your grocery), fresh root (in some markets), fresh finely chopped ginger in jars (refrigerated section of your market), crystallized or candied ginger (usually available around Christmas in most groceries, but any time of the year from spice merchants and others online), and even ginger ale (canned as a beverage), though it’s important in the latter case to make sure real ginger is being used, not ginger flavor. So it’s possible to have ginger both at home and when you travel.
Cayenne is such an extremely valuable though surprising herb that most people should make an effort to cook with it more. It’s helpful for the heart and the entire circulatory system, and helps normalize blood pressure (though it will unlikely perform these therapeutic activities at recipe doses), and it’s also an anti-inflammatory. That means it will help reduce inflammation internally (always a good thing because our S.A.D. – Standard American Diet – causes so much internal inflammation). But it’s good to use externally as well. Here are two important uses.
First, you can make a liniment to apply externally to bruises and sprains and any pains you have (pain = inflammation). If applied soon enough after the bump or trauma, you can prevent the bruise or sprain, or at least seriously lesson it.
It’s easy to make, too: Buy a glass (not plastic) bottle of organic apple cider vinegar. I’d suggest buying a quart and using it all, but you can make less if you like. Pour the vinegar into a non-reactive (glass or stainless steel) pan, and for a quart of liniment, add a rounded tablespoon of dried, powdered cayenne (from the grocery spice department). Bring to a boil, cover and simmer gently for 20-30 minutes. You can then either leave the cayenne in the linament, or filter your new herbal remedy through a coffee filter or multiple layers of cheese cloth. Rebottle and label clearly (IMPORTANT!). This will keep nearly forever, and any time you’ve got a bruise or sprain happening, or other pain — arthritis, for example — give the liniment a try. Obviously, you will not want to use this on broken skin!!
To use, rub on the traumatized area with your hands. Or moisten a sterile gauze pad or natural fiber cloth and leave on the site a few minutes — but only until the skin underneath starts to warm and approaches the uncomfortable stage. That’s an indication that the liniment is bringing blood to the surface, exactly what helps heal.
The second external use is going to surprise and maybe shock you. Since cayenne is a hemostat, meaning it stops bleeding, you can apply it to cuts. Yes, it smarts — butonly for a second and then the pain goes away faster than otherwise would, and the cut also seems to heal more quickly. Try it yourself on a paper cut, after reminding yourself that they often hurt for days, and see how quickly the paper cut stops hurting and actually heals. Or apply to a small kitchen cut. If it doesn’t stop the bleeding immediately, reapply a time or two.
As a matter of educational interest, cayenne also stops internal bleeding, and can be given in case of shock (a bit of cayenne in a glass of water). Obviously, these are extremely serious conditions requiring immediate medical attention, but in true life-threatening emergencies, they might help save a life until medical help arrives.
A final remedy that you’ll want to have handy in the kitchen but is not itself usually considered a kitchen spice is therapeutic grade lavender essential oil. It performs better for most people than aloe vera or ice cubes or any other “home remedy” for minor kitchen (or workshop) burns. An immediate drop — that’s all it takes — on the site usually stops the pain in under a minute, and also usually prevents blisters. Slightly worse kitchen burns might require a second application in a few minutes. Try it — again, with a high quality therapeutic, not health food store, essential oil — and you’ll never be without again.
There are so many more ways herbs can help, so many more things to learn and know about their use. Perhaps this will spark your interest.