Part one of this article series, Kitchen with Medicine Cupboard, gave examples of what a healing arts kitchen would contain, and described the basics of using herbs for medicine. Included was a brief definition of herbalism, classification and basic terminology for use of herbs, methods of preparation, and Materia medica. Part II will make the case for using herbs to treat acute illness, instruct on formulation, better define specific medicinal actions of plants, and give sample formula recommendations for a few acute illnesses along with possible symptom pictures.
The kitchen is the heart of a home. Our kitchen is a cheery bright green, about the color of freshly steeped green tea. A beautiful rosemary plant sits in the sunny picture window. The room is fragrant and pleasing. Our kitchen is where we plan and prepare meals, and a family gathering place.
As an herbalist with a family of 4, our kitchen is also where the medicine cabinet is. If someone has a woe or complaint I go to the kitchen. It is the place where healing concoctions are made for everything from sore throats and fevers, to splinters and bug bites. While our family has its share of chronic conditions, the focus of this article will be on acute illness
The Nature of Acute Illness
The definition of an acute illness is one that comes on suddenly and runs its course quickly. Examples of acute illnesses are colds, flues and respiratory tract infections of a viral or bacterial nature. They all have a fairly constant symptom picture, with some variation based on the individual. For example, not all who contract the flu have diarrhea. But for those who have a weak intestinal tract, it is not unusual for them to have diarrhea as a symptom.
By definition, acute illnesses are not considered chronic. However, if an acute illness is recurrent, its root may be a chronic imbalance. I learned early in my practice that once we reach our 20’s, our body can repeat a pattern of acute illness, becoming ill similarly over and over. To break that cycle, we need to look for and support the root of our body’s weakness or imbalance.
Acute illness plays other roles in our health as well. That cold may be telling us to take better care of ourselves. We become ill when we eat poorly, need to slow down and get more rest, or better manage emotional stress.
Stress is not merely emotional. It has a spiritual nature as well. I won’t go too deeply into this, as it is grounds for its own article. But many in the spiritual healing field believe illness arises when our soul and spirit feel challenged or pained. When someone we love passes, it is not unusual for the grieving party to be stricken with a respiratory illness of long duration. Or when an event that encourages personal growth occurs, it has been documented that a fever will follow.
Regardless of the reason, illness is our body’s tool to learn and develop. When we support that process with alternative therapies, we allow our body to process and learn what it needs. Our immune system learns and grows by defending and rebalancing the body. Our body is given a break from its daily grind, and perhaps gains much needed perspective. We are forced to contemplate what it means to take better care of ourselves, or to process emotions that are difficult.
With that being said, it is also important to know when to call a doctor, or someone trained in alternative therapies. It does not mean you have failed the process to seek intervention, it just means more support is necessary to safely proceed.
A formula is a group of several plants that we use in combination to address a health issue. While there are times a simple (a single plant) would be appropriate, the complex symptom picture presented by an acute illness needs a formula more often then not.
There are several factors to consider when formulating for acute illness. I’m going to keep it simple here. For this can be a detailed process. In the next section, I will define terms of energetics and list herbs accordingly. This list with the Materia medica will make formulating easier.
- When suffering from a cold or flu we want some relief. So chose herbs based on the symptom picture. For example, if there is a bone chilling fever, be sure to include a diaphoretic in your treatment plan. If there are profuse wet secretions accompanied by a sore throat, consider sage.
- Choose plants that support the organs of elimination to ensure the toxins released by die off are appropriately excreted.
- Include a good lymphatic to support the bodies fight.
- Don’t forget anti-viral or bacterial plants. They work directly to shorten the duration of the offending agents stay in our body. They also protect us from contracting secondary bacterial or viral infections, something essential oils come in handy for.
- Be sure to know when to use something to calm the nerves. Our body’s immune system works best when we are relaxed, and, better yet, asleep. Certain individuals may tend towards agitation. Give the nervous and immune system a break with a good nervine. Essential oils are an indispensable tool here as well.
There are times when an illness will respond immediately to an herbal protocol, and times when the body just has to be ill. If you feel the formula is ineffective, change a plant or two instead of the whole thing. If after 3-4 days you feel yourself worsening, or unable to turn a corner, call for help. You may have contracted a secondary illness. As stated before, consult with a doctor if you are concerned.
Herbal Terms of Energetic Function
Defining the theory of herbal energetics is a book. And there are many excellent books on the subject. But for now, here is a quick list of energetic terms with complimentary herbs from the Materia medica. The terms that are obvious I will refrain from defining.
I also like to apply plants according to taste. For more information on this topic, look for the article The Energetics of Taste and Herbs for Digestion in the November issue of Sustainable Times.
Adrenal adaptogen: an herb that improves the ability of the body to adapt to stress based on the effects it has on hormonal secretions from the adrenal glands; schisandra, licorice root
Anti–bacterial: usnea, barberry, sage, thyme
Anti-fungal: barberry, cardamom, thyme, usnea
Anti-histamine: peppermint, elderberry
Anti-inflammatory: chamomile, cleavers, elderberry, ginger, licorice root, marshmallow root, raspberry leaf, red root, sage, yarrow
Anti-microbial: plants that can inhibit the proliferation of a virus or bacteria, and stimulate the body’s innate ability to recover; ginger, licorice, elderberry, thyme, usnea and echinacea.
Anti-spasmodic: relieve small muscle spasms; chamomile, ginger, wild cherry bark, marshmallow root (mild), plantain, skullcap (when nerve related), black cohosh, hawthorn
Anti-viral: licorice root, lemon balm, thyme
Astringents: tighten mucous membranes thereby decreasing inflammation, in the tissue. This provides a barrier, preventing leakage out or large molecules getting in; yarrow, raspberry leaf, sage, red root, sage
Carminatives: herbs that relieve spasms and gas in the intestinal tract and gut; chamomile, peppermint, yarrow, cardamom, fenugreek, ginger, thyme
Demulcents: a plant that soothes and moistens irritated mucus membranes and decreases inflammation in the mucus membranes; marshmallow root, licorice root, plantain
Diaphoretics: yarrow, ginger, lemon balm (mild), fenugreek
Expectorant: a substance that stimulates the release of mucus from the lungs and bronchial mucosa; licorice root, ginger, plantain, red root, thyme
Immune stimulants: stimulates white blood cell counts and other processes of the immune system that support us in warding off illness; echinacea, ginger, and elderberry
Bitter liver tonic: burdock root, barberry root, chamomile, fenugreek, yarrow
Lymphatics: Echinacea, burdock root, red root, cleavers
Nervine: the job of nervine is to nourish and restore function to nerve tissue and calm the reaction that occurs through over stimulation of the nervous system; chamomile, skullcap, lemon balm, blue vervain
Here are acute conditions, possible symptom pictures, and sample formulas. You may use what is listed, or merely use the examples as a guide for your own formulations. The aromatherapy recommendations are appropriate for headaches, relaxation, prevention of secondary infection, and sinus and respiratory congestion. I have included a few homeopathic remedies.
While I would love to go as far as to include urinary tract infections and other bacterial infections, there is not room. But check the Materia medica, and formula your own remedies.
Symptoms: nasal discharge, sore throat, congestion, sneezing, clear discharge, fever up to 103, chills, watery eyes, coughing, ear pain, swollen lymph glands in neck.
Can morph to become bronchitis, croup, sinusitis, laryngitis
Colds need heat, so use diaphoretics to heat the body. A strong and steamy cup of ginger tea with honey can assist the fight of the common cold very well.
Tincture formula: burdock root, elderberry, fenugreek or horseradish
Tea: ginger, sage, chamomile; or yarrow, thyme, ginger
Aromatherapy formula: eucalyptus globulus, thyme, cinnamon, lavender
Symptoms: bone chills, fever up to 105, headache, sore throat, cough, diarrhea and vomiting in children with abdominal cramping, extreme fatigue, eyes feel as if they are burning and stinging,
Can morph and become a bacterial infection: bronchitis, yellow or green mucus, pus in eye, ear infection, pneumonia.
Just as with the common cold, heat the body to get natural defenses up. Strong cup of hot ginger tea with honey is great for this.
Tincture formula: yarrow, elderberry, cardamom, echinacea, licorice root; add boneset for bone chilling pain
For extreme diarrhea: raspberry leaf tea if a break is needed. We often use this for overnights, when getting rest is most important. It’s best to let it run its course.
Tea: ginger, linden blossom, yarrow
Vomiting: take Emergen-C or herbal tincture mix by the tablespoon full every 20 min. until able to hold more down
Homeopathic: for abdominal cramping use magnesia phosphorica
Aromatherapy: thyme, eucalyptus globulus or radiata, geranium, oregano, frankincense, cinnamon
Symptoms: fever, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramping.
The approach is to let it run its course, but support with herbs and therapies. I also love to use a good nervine, for it lessens discomfort.
Tincture: yarrow, cardamom, chamomile, blue vervain
Teas: yarrow, chamomile, licorice, cardamom, raspberry leaf, marshmallow root for burning or irritation
Homeopathic: magnesia phosphorica for cramping is much better tolerated when vomiting then herbs for cramping
Stomach viruses usually need to run their course. Vomiting makes managing symptoms like fever difficult. I recommend using tinctures for the fever. Try something as simple as yarrow and chamomile.
Once teas are tolerated, I usually do one plant or maybe two plants at a time.
Avoiding dehydration is tricky. But I learned long ago that all it takes is a small portion of fluid to absorb to make a difference. One teaspoon-tablespoon of fluid, I recommend Emergen-C for electrolyte loss, per 15-20 minutes is appropriate.
With diarrhea, my rule is through the day, but if it interferes with sleep or relaxation, it should be managed. Therefore, for my own children and clients, I let them have it until bed time, and then I get out the raspberry leaf tincture or tea. I give them 15-20 drops in a small amount of water.
Sinusitis is an inflammation and infection of the sinuses. Pain and swelling of the face, headache, stuffed nose, opaque to yellow-green mucus, fever, cough, sore throat if post nasal drip
Tincture: barberry, Echinacea, licorice root, fenugreek or horseradish (if something stronger is needed)
Green discharge: barberry root, elecampane; yellow discharge: barberry, goldenseal; clear secretions: sage and raspberry leaf
Tea: ginger, peppermint, plantain
Aromatherapy steam inhalations are a very effective treatment for respiratory or sinus infections. The vapors penetrate the tissue directly, which speeds healing and lessens the risk of infection going deeper or mutating. You may use dried plant material, or essential oils. I like essential oils. When using them, I combine the choice ones in a bottle together, and add 2 drops of this to the heated pot of water. Turn off the heat, put your face directly over the pot, cover your head with a towel to keep the vapors in, and breath. Essential oils I recommend: thyme, cinnamon, chamomile, lavender, eucalyptus globulus, rosemary.
Headaches and Pain relief
This is a future article. There is much to say on this front. But for general relief of acute headaches, there are many alternatives to reach for.
Worry Wart Headache relief tea: chamomile, skullcap, lemon balm, meadowsweet; if heat is needed add ginger, if cooling add peppermint (first action is to heat and stimulate, and then it cools)
Noggin Numbing Aromatherapy Formula: chamomile, lavender, eucalyptus, peppermint (add 3 drops of chamomile, 3 drops of lavender and 2 drops of eucalyptus, 1drop of peppermint to a ½ oz. of carrier oil. Apply at temples every 15 minutes and inhale deeply until desired result is achieved.)
I recommend this tea for the person in need of a stress relieving tea that addresses nervous tension and is soothing. If support for the heart is needed, try adding hawthorn berries.
Tea: chamomile, peppermint, lemon balm, licorice root, skullcap, rose
To prepare this tea, add the licorice root to the water, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down, and let simmer covered for 30 min. Turn off the heat, add the other herbs, and let steep for 5 minutes. Strain and sip.
Tinctures for nerves and anxiety: motherwort, blue vervain, oats, holy basil
General tincture: burdock root, Echinacea, licorice root
Tincture for lymphatic swelling: red root, burdock root, cleavers
Soothing Tea: marshmallow root
Profuse clear secretions with sore throat: sage with honey tea
A few desert plants I dearly miss for sore throats are yerba mansa and osha.
There are many simple things we can do to strengthen the overall health of our bodies and prevent most acute illnesses. It would be nice if it were as simple as applying a few herbs. But prevention begins in the gut, and with a balanced whole foods diet. Here are a few guidelines and tips.
- Use probiotics and eat fermented foods. They are food for healthy bowel flora. It is said that spicy kimchee was found very effective in keeping Asian’s healthy at the time of the bird flu.
- Clean up your diet, and eliminate processed sugar and hydrogenated fats that stress the body, and increase inflammation; lessen dairy consumption; eat an adequate amount of protein(the building blocks of the immune system), and eat plenty of fruits and veggies. Consume whole foods as much as possible.
- Limit caffeine intake.
- Drink cleansing teas like burdock root, dandelion root with ginger and honey.
- Employ aromatherapy in your daily rhythm.
- Exercise, eat, sleep and be merry.
Herbs I use for prevention are generally based on the person. For holistic approaches to be effective, they should be as personally specific as possible. This would take into account many of the things addressed in the section Nature of Acute Illness.
Here is an example of a recent recommendation I made. A woman e mailed me about her husband. His history of recurrent pneumonia, heart disease, and poor diet were of great concern to her this flu season. Based on what was presented, I recommended a tonic formula which included the tinctures hawthorn berries, schisandra, burdock root, and skullcap.
For a more comprehensive account of herbal medicines and their applications, refer to the following books: anything by Matthew Wood, Encyclopedia of Natural Healing for Children and Infants by Mary Bove, N.D., The Herbal Medicine-Makers Handbook by James Green, Making Plant Medicine by Rico Cech
Herbs support the natural rhythm of our lives. When we treat acute illness with them it may seem we are merely addressing a symptom picture, which is not seemingly holistic at all. But by supporting the natural process of illness with natural products, we have inspired a physical, emotional and spiritual growth and learning. We align our energy with our true nature, ensuring a more whole self for our future. That is holistic healing. And it is also a part of the magic of plant medicines.
To view past articles that support material found here, visit my website, www.redrootmountain.com. Ones to consider are Aromatherapy: Another Approach to Cold and Flu, The Portable and Natural First Aid Kit, and Herbs for Acute Respiratory Illness.
Kathy Eich has over 14 years experience working with people and plants. She has studied with various shamanic healers, and incorporates clinical and spiritual plant work with shamanic healing techniques. She is former co-owner and founder of Weeds of Eden Herb Store and Clinic in Louisville, KY. Her last teaching post was head of the Herb and Aromatherapy Department at the New Mexico College of Natural Healing. She currently resides with her family in Madison, WI. Messages can be sent through her web site at redrootmountain.com.