Herbs evoke a multitude of responses in the body. In addition to the more obvious, taste is an essential piece of this process. It inspires a chemical reaction which may calm, stimulate, dry or heat. These energetic effects are felt body-wide, and are foundational when it comes to improving our health.
All tastes are beneficial, and have medicinal effects on the body when used in their proper form, and with clear intentions. Internally, they each inspire a reaction that can be healing. In part one of this two part series, we examined the basic response that flavors lacking in our American diet have on the body. They were bitter, pungent and sour.
Tastes that will be discussed here are two that the Western diet is abundant in: salty and sweet. While it is easy to assume that salty and sweet are merely ones to be overindulged in with some consequence, they are medicinal as well. It is the manner in which they are over-processed and consumed that exempts them from their healing power.
In this article I will outline the medicinal benefits as well as the imbalances of sweet and salty and how to use these tastes beneficially. Because these two tastes are the foundation of many internal imbalances, strategies for reducing cravings will also be addressed.
I grimace when I taste salt. It is a strong flavor. But salt is a mineral our bodies need to function daily. It is best consumed in unprocessed forms, such as sea salt, seaweed, celery or other foods and herbs that have a significant amount of sodium balanced with other minerals.
Medicinally, plants of a salty taste increase the cells water content, which cools, relaxes and calms function immediately. They soften hard and atrophied tissues, help to clear lumps in the lymphatic system and loosen phlegm that is dry and thick. Things that are salty in taste are effective muscle relaxants, which is part of how they relieve constipation.
But because of the extreme yin effect of salt on the body, causing one to retain fluids and build mass, salt can become congestive, thereby creating heat by increasing mass. High blood pressure and water retention are a few of the complications of excess salt consumption, with adverse effects on kidney, liver and adrenal function.
When used for specific reasons, and in the proper forms, one can avoid these nasty side effects. Herbs of a salty taste are specifically indicated for a dryness of the tongue, skin or respiratory tract, with constipation. A few herbs that are considered salty in taste are cleavers, nettle leaves, plantain leaves, burdock root, mullein leaf, marshmallow root and the seaweeds. All of these herbs are high in minerals, and are typically used for nourishment. They are also potent healers topically and internally.
An excellent salty tonic is cleavers (Galium aparine). It is a diuretic, lymphatic and nervine. While many refer to its medicinal value as being weak, I have seen the opposite. Its anti-inflammatory effects are witnessed in the lymphatic system, and urinary tract, and it soothes sensitive nerve endings.
Cleavers must be used fresh, and I find it most convenient to employ a fresh plant tincture, as opposed to picking it and juicing it to freeze. I make a 1:2 fresh plant tincture, meaning 1 part fresh plant by weight, to 2 parts alcohol by volume. While some use vodka to tincture fresh plants, I prefer a higher percentage of alcohol. My first choice for tincture making is 98% organic grape alcohol. But pure grain is acceptable for the highest possible alcohol content purchasable in a liquor store.
I have used cleavers often. The system was so over stimulated and inflamed that the response to many other plant therapies was minimal. Symptoms included eczema as a result of food intolerance, celiac disease with little relief felt from the gluten free diet, inflammation in the lymph nodes, excess water retention with urinary tract infections, constipation, a constant feeling of fullness in the colon, and pain in the stomach. After using cleavers fresh plant tincture for 4 weeks, symptoms were greatly improving, and response to other herbal medicines was increased as well.
While a bitter taste brings forth a shudder, sweet flavors bring a smile and a relaxed look to the face. Sweet is a dominant flavor by nature in our diets, and not just in deserts. The taste sweet can be found in grains, dairy, fruit and some vegetables.
Energetically, sweet is cooling and moistening to the body. It calms thereby bringing balance to an over excited nervous system, and soothes an angered disposition. It nourishes the tissues by increasing the cells water content, thus encouraging tissue growth and repair. Sweet brings harmony to a thin, dry and emotionally overextended constitution.
Sweet has an important use in the application of medicines as well. In conditions that are hot and dry, it helps to deliver medicines to the cells, and aids their absorption. To benefit from sweet in this way does not always mean using honey in medicines. It can be as simple as applying an herb that is considered sweet. In this way, you don’t throw the tissue state out of balance by using something that is excessively sweet. And you also enlist the supportive and medicinal value of a plant that will be more greatly benefit your formula and enhance the healing process.
There are many herbs considered to be sweet. And they give us a perfect opportunity to make the point that herbs have more then one flavor, thus showing us the balance of nature. Milky oats are sweet and salty, fennel is sweet and pungent, chamomile is bitter and pungent in tincture, and sweet and slightly pungent as a tea, marshmallow root is salty and sweet, and licorice is sweet and pungent.
Here is an excellent example of a sweet plant at work. Hot dry coughs associated with viral and bacterial infections can become pernicious very quickly. Their irritating nature complicates the recovery of even minor respiratory illnesses. It is therefore important to apply an herb that will cool and moisten the tissues.
An excellent herb for a hot dry cough is marshmallow root (Althea officinalis). It has two predominant flavors, salty and sweet. It is in question which is dominant, some say sweet, others say salty. But it is a powerful demulcent and works quickly. It cools and soothes the mucous membranes by increasing the water content of the cell. This relieves inflammation and can be mildly anti-spasmodic. I have used as an adjunct therapy not only for coughs, but for inflammation of bladder and in the presence of a urinary tract infection, and for soothing irritation and heat in the digestive tract.
While sweet is beneficial in specific instances, when consumed in foods and plants in excess and disproportionate to other tastes the effects become detrimental. Sweet creates an anabolic state in the body, thereby causing the tissues to hold onto excess water. Our bodies become heavy and wet. With the excess fluid around the cells, the lymphatic system is less capable of absorbing nutrients properly, not to mention the imbalance of bowel flora that occurs. Over time, immune and nervous system function are depressed, exacerbating mood disorders and leaving us prey to illness. Hormonal imbalances occur, which adversely affect the kidney, pancreas, liver and heart.
The Balance of Taste
We learn and are trained in taste from a young age. It is an emotional, physical and environmental relationship. Once the habit is established, we grow up, and erect our adult environment and lifestyle around it. We know our comfort foods, that when we are hungry we need to eat, and we make choices that are emotionally based and convenient.
Many imbalances in the Western diet stem in part from an overconsumption of sugar. It is therefore important to recognize that herbs cannot do the work alone. Dietary adjustments must accompany an herbal protocol. What follows are a few general ideas to help get you thinking about what your protocol may look like. Please remember to check contraindications of herbs before combining medications with herbs, and be aware that a successful treatment plan is designed specifically for the individual.
Candida albicans is a yeasty fungus that takes over the mouth causing thrush, the vagina, causing yeast infections, and the intestinal tract wreaking havoc on the balance of bowl flora and digestive health. It is a reason so many people give up eating any form of sugar, including fruit, and grains. I view candida as a symptom of a bigger imbalance. While strategies for dealing with this fungus and the imbalances it highlights internally is very involved, here are a few herbs that may help.
The best and most effective treatment plans for candida are based in bitters. Bitters do many things. I’m not going to repeat from the past article what was said about the importance of bitters. You can reference it at redrootmountain.com. Two bitters that are anti-fungal and anti-bacterial are Black walnut hull and Oregon grape root. Many practitioners and lay people alike use these for candida.
I have also found bitters to be very effective at retraining taste. My youngest daughter is a good example of this. While her sister would delight in all tastes, she would prefer bland or sweet. I began giving her a drop of different bitter tinctures once in a while. She began to like them, and she began to dislike very sweet things. She still loves sweet things, but in moderation.
One of my favorite herbs for sugar cravings and mild candida infections that is not a bitter is Osmorrhiza longistylus, common name, American sweet cicely. It has a sweet favor. And when I was first introduced to it by a fellow herbalist many years ago, I learned that it was anti-fungal.
The Native Americans used the pounded root topically for wound healing, and afflictions of the eyes in humans and animals. It’s demulcent and expectorant qualities also made it effective for coughs.
I began taking it myself for sugar cravings to test it out. And it helped. I had friends who wanted to try it as well. And they felt it effective for reducing sugar cravings.
With infections in the gut, be it candida, bacterial, viral or food allergy related, there also comes irritation and inflammation. We often believe by eating something we will feel better. Due to a lack of nutrition and proper absorption, there is a craving for sugar.
It is important to incorporate an herb that lessens inflammation and soothes the gastro intestinal tract. Sweet cicely does nicely here, but chamomile tincture works beautifully, especially if there is a white coating down the center of the tongue. It is a nervine as well as a bitter with a hint of sweet. Marshmallow root tea is a good short term solution, but over time is not tonic, and increases imbalance. It causes too much water to be held by the cells, and disallows the absorption of other herbs and nutrients. Another long term solution may be cleavers, especially when there is eczema and lymphatic inflammation.
Reaching for something sweet to give energy in the end has the opposite effect. With the rise in blood sugar soon follows the crash. Ayurvedic medicine believes the way to increase energy is to ingest something spicy; that spicy foods inspire the release of stored sugars to be used by the body, thus giving energy.
Interestingly, the Ancient Egyptians may have believed the same thing. Slaves responsible for building the pyramids consumed large amounts of garlic and onions for strength and endurance.
While garlic and onions are very healthy foods, I have found that drinking a strong cup of fresh ginger root tea with a little raw honey to be an excellent energy booster. Another nice tea formula might be one that includes fennel seeds, cinnamon sticks, powdered ginger, and peppermint.
About 15 years ago I had the pleasure of being introduced to a plant that was little known in Western herbal circles. It was an Ayruvedic herb called Gymnema sylvestre. This plant has been historically used in India to treat diabetes, is anti-inflammatory, astringent and diuretic.
Its common name, Gurmar translates as “sugar destroyer”. There is still little known about how this plant actually works, but it literally anesthetizes the taste of sugar on the tongue. It only takes a drop or two for the action to occur. While the effects only last for about 15 minutes, it does lessen sugar cravings.
As mentioned, the diet must be modified to successfully deal with health issues. Here are a few recommendations that I make for those dealing with sugar cravings. Some may seems obvious.
- Stop drinking soda, diet and regular. Most people are unaware of how much sugar is in a can of soda. I believe it is 11 teaspoons. But they are also unaware that because it is sweet, diet soda elicits a chemical response in the body that is similar to sugar. The blood sugar spikes causing a sugar crash. Instead, drink herbal teas. If you need to sweeten with little raw honey, do. It’s still better then soda. And one day you won’t even want to honey.
- Eliminate foods that you are allergic to or intolerant of. While this recommendation seems unrelated to sugar cravings, it’s not. When damage is done to the intestinal tract, the uptake of nutrients is impaired. The body begins to crave sugar, further destroying health. To stop the perpetual cycle one must eliminate offensive foods, and begin the healing process. A solution for elimination that I always recommend to my clients is once you eliminate a food, you must replace it with something healthy to take its place. In this way you are not denying yourself something, you are simply exchanging. It takes some practice, but it works.
- After you have done two, rotate grains still agreeable to your system.
- Eat vegetables raw, or lightly steamed, and plain. Yes, easier for some then others. But it is an excellent way to retrain taste buds.
- Eliminate processed foods, and eat a whole foods diet that is mostly seasonal.
The Politics of Taste and Nutrition
There are other factors that drive our tastes and nutritional lifestyle. They are issues that I am not prepared to address in depth, for they are too big to do justice to here. They are the social issues of taste. The lack of proper nutrition is also based in a lack of education, and lack of funds. The government does not help on the education part. They set up a food pyramid that is based “nutritionally” but driven by the processed food industry. And processed food, while nutritionally poor, is inexpensive by and large. Eating a whole foods diet costs more, takes more planning and more time to prepare meals. Time, money and education are all resources that lack in certain demographics. And it is a sad truth of our country.
To truly begin to understand how a plant works in the body, it is important to study herbal energetics according to taste. As I recommended in the end of the last article, facilitate your own experience around taste. Sample plants in tea and tincture form, and make observations about their effects. Taste the difference between nettle leaf tea, which is salty and high in minerals, and dandelion root tea, which is bitter and a little sweet. Observe where the plant moves in the body, and how it makes your stomach feel.
As you begin to learn taste through plant medicines, your taste for food will change. You will begin to crave foods that are less processed and more nutritionally rich. And slowly, over time, that relationship once had with taste and food that was emotional, learned and habit, blossoms into a relationship that improves our health and sustains our body. And perhaps it all began with the taste of a plant.