October 3, 2013 - Sometimes herbs can deliver up healing powers that pharmaceutical companies can only dream about.
Can't sleep? Try lemon balm. Suffer from anxiety? Lemon balm. Want to boost your immune system? Lemon balm. Cold sore? Lemon balm. And this lemon-scented mint relative is also antiviral, good for fevers, and great for indigestion, gas, and bloating.
Find it surprising that one plant can do so much? Herbs are not always as multipurpose as lemon balm - not to mention delicious, safe, and effective - but sometimes herbs can deliver up healing powers that pharmaceutical companies can only dream about. And if that sounds crazy, then give it a try with an open mind and see for yourself.
In my own case, after trying every pharmaceutical around, I've found two fixes for my migraines. One is Percocets, a controlled, Schedule II substance that cannot be used too frequently because of dependency issues. If you use Percocets regularly, you'll find that the same dose no longer delivers the same amount of pain relief.
My other migraine fix is peppermint essential oil. Safe, cheap, non-prescription, and non-addictive. I smear the stuff all over the part of my head that hurts, keeping it well away from my eyes, and within minutes my headache dissipates. For me, that's an herb I cannot live without.
Each of us is unique, with different health problems and needs, and sometimes the best herb for you depends on where you live and what grows nearby. In the Pacific Northwest, Oregon grape is likely an herb you can't live without, whereas in Southern California, you'd find use after use for white sage or creosote. But there are a few herbs that are fantastic across the board, no matter who you are or where you live. These plants can help you take your health into your own hands.
1. Lemon Balm: As noted before, lemon balm is a highly versatile herb that is useful for a number of different conditions. The fact that it's safe for all ages and tastes good makes it a great choice for kids. In fact, herbalist Rosalee de la Foret recommends it as an ideal choice to help teething babies deal with pain. She also uses it for cold and flu, particularly when you've also got a fever, digestive complaints, cold sores, and stress. (The only note of caution here: don't use lemon balm too much if you suffer from hypothyroidism.)
2. Ginger: You've likely sipped ginger ale or ginger tea when you've had an upset stomach. Ginger's fantastic for nausea - and so much more. Because it gives your immune system a boost, it never hurts to add ginger to your cooking if you like its flavor. It's also antimicrobial and pain-relieving, properties you can take advantage of both internally or externally - for example, by applying cooled ginger tea to burns. Its expectorant and diaphoretic properties make it a great choice for colds, coughs, and fevers. De La Foret also recommends ginger for menstrual cramps.
Drinking a tea of ginger alone can be overwhelming, so you might wish to combine it with other herbs so your tea has a little zing without making it too difficult to drink. Try an immune-boosting blend of equal parts ginger, lemon balm, rose hips, and dandelion, for example. Pour one cup of water "just off the boil" over one teaspoon of herbs and steep, covered, for 20 minutes. Then sweeten with honey, add lemon if you wish, and enjoy.
3. Turmeric: Turmeric is another herb - well, a spice technically - that acts like one-stop shopping. What doesn't turmeric do? This curry ingredient is used for everything from eczema to Alzheimer's. It helps with heart health, digestion, liver function, and more. You can find many resources on turmeric online, from a scientific analysis to sites telling how to use it as everything from a natural dye to a tooth whitener.
One word of caution about using turmeric: some sources say that the active ingredient is fat soluble (meaning you have to consume it with some fat in order to get its benefits) and works best when combined with a small amount of black pepper. In other words, maybe consuming turmeric in a curry is a good idea!
4. Dandelion: This scourge of suburban lawns everywhere is actually a superfood. And every single part of the plant is useful or edible, from the root to the flower. Even the sap can be used topically on warts. In herbal medicine, the root and the leaf are used most often. Dandelion leaf is bitter, especially after the plant flowers. Herbalists say the bitterness of the leaves stimulate digestion, making dandelion leaf a good choice as a salad green to eat at the start of a meal.
Dandelion leaves are also highly nutritious. But watch out - the French word for this diuretic herb is pissenlit ("wet the bed"). While it will send you to the bathroom, it won't actually make you wet the bed.
Both the leaf and the root - especially the root - are great for your liver. Dandelion root is a fantastic detox herb. One way to enjoy it is as "coffee," by roasting the dried root until it changes color and becomes fragrant. Then use the roasted root to make a coffee-like, caffeine-free beverage. You can even add cream and honey like you would to real coffee.
5. Elder: Although elder is used for fewer purposes than the other herbs on this list, it makes the cut because they are such a delicious introduction to herbal medicine. You might be familiar with elder only through pop culture references in Harry Potter and Monty Python, or maybe you've heard of elderflower cordial and elderberry wine. But did you know that elderberries are an herbal powerhouse for boosting your immune function? Before cold season begins, make a batch of elderberry syrup to help your family keep from getting sick. Elderberry syrup blurs the line between medicine and dessert.
Before delving into treating yourself with herbs, it's a good idea to check out a book or at least a website like LearningHerbs.com to familiarize yourself with the basics. And be sure to check with your doctor, especially if you are treating children or you are pregnant, breastfeeding, taking prescription drugs, or suffering from a medical condition.
However, you might already use ginger and turmeric in your cooking, and odds are you use other potent herbal remedies in the kitchen as well. Garlic, cinnamon, onions, thyme, shiitake mushrooms, peppermint, black pepper, cilantro, cayenne, and lavender are all useful for both culinary and medicinal purposes. So even if you don't plan on becoming a guru of herbal remedies, go ahead and spice up your cooking. Or expand on your culinary use of herbs and spices by discovering how to take your health into your own hands.
Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It..