The use of herbs for healing and medicine has been in practice for thousands of years. This knowledge has been handed down through generations in cultures throughout the world, and the effectiveness of using plants as medicine has stood the test of time. Herbal medicine, along with many other forms of alternative and holistic medicine all made a comeback of sorts during the “New Age” movement in the eighties, however, most folks don’t have a clear notion of exactly what herbs have to offer us, let alone how they are used, where to buy them, how to prepare them, etc.

What attracted me to studying herbal medicine was the holistic approach to healing that goes with it. In addition to the radical attitude that each one of us is different with different health histories, different body constitutions, different needs, that all have to be considered in working with illnesses, there are also often a number of herbs that can be used for one symptom or illness, and it is in the choosing and matching of the herb with the person, that herbal medicine also becomes an art.

So, where does one start with herbs? A good place to start is in your kitchen and medicine chest. I always like to tell people about safe, easily available herbs that can be used on a first aid level. It’s always good to have chamomile, peppermint or fennel around for upset stomachs and indigestion. Chamomile is also an anti-spasmodic, and can be used for menstrual cramps, and before bed if you are wound up. It has a high calcium content as well, steep it covered for 45 minutes and you’ll get quite a large supply of your daily requirement. It’s also great for cranky kids, and breast feeding moms can drink it so nursing infants can reap its benefit through breast milk. Fennel is also good for colicky babies.

For sunburn, rashes, cuts, and scrapes that aren’t infected, you can soak the affected area with comfrey root or leaf tea. Comfrey is not recommended if you are pregnant, nursing or have advanced liver disease; in these situations you can substitute plantain leaf. If you’ve just come back from the beach, you can brew up to a quart or two of either comfrey or plantain and add it to a cool bath for sunburn. Comfrey has a cooling, soothing quality to it, and also helps repair and regenerate cells, which is why it’s good for surface cuts. When you brew up the root it has a sticky, gel-like quality to it, which you will feel on your skin as well. You can rinse off with plain water; the cooling effect will stay with you. Plantain has similar qualities, but you may not feel the gel-like feeling. If the cut is deep and/or dirty, add calendula, or yarrow, both of which are strong antiseptics, and are specifically good for deeper wounds. Aloe vera is also good for sunburn, and is a great plant to have in your home. When you burn yourself you can break off a piece of the pant and apply the gel to your skin. You will feel its cooling effect immediately.

Sage is very antiseptic, as is thyme. Yes, these are the very spices you have in your kitchen cabinet, and can be used as gargles for sore throats. I prefer the taste of sage, which, to me, feels great on an irritated throat. It is also part of my herbal protocol for colds, especially when glands are swollen.

Herbs can be used for things beyond first aid. I have used herbs with my own symptoms of stress, excema, PMS, memory, and asthma, to name a few! There are herbal protocols to build the immune system, for cancer prevention and arthritis, as examples. Many folks with HIV and AIDS use herbs along with other alternative health care options to work with their symptoms and build up their immune system. There is an herbal protocol for any illness that you would to go an MD for, it is a matter of choice and whether you are willing to take the extra time needed to follow an herbal route. Herbal medicine, as well as most holistic and alternative options, require you to be much more participatory than western medicine in your healing.

For preparing the herbs I have talked about above, you can use 1 teaspoon of the herb for 8 oz. of water. Steep anywhere from 10 – 20 minutes. This is not a standard preparation guide for all herbs however! Preparation methods vary greatly. I chose herbs for this article that use similar quantities for preparations, for simplicity’s sake. In addition, they are all quite safe, so variations in measurement are OK.

The herbs that I have talked about are all available at health food stores and some at regular grocery stores. ‘Mainstream’ brands such as Celestial Seasonings make peppermint and chamomile. If you don’t have a health food store near you, feel free to call or email me for suggestions on where to order them.

If you are interested some reading material I suggest The Holistic Herbal by David Hoffman, any book by Susan Weed, Amanda McQuade-Crawford, Matthew Wood, Rosemary Gladstar, David Winston, Michael Tierra or Leslie Tierra to name a few good authors. Most of these herbalists have good introductory books (Matthew Wood and David Winston’s books are for the more advanced).

I give a word of caution before ending this article. When talking about herbal medicine, people often say to me “using herbs sounds so gentle and harmless” or “you can’t really go wrong when you are using herbs.” Well, these are some of the common misconceptions about using herbs as medicine. Some herbs are indeed gentle and soothing, however, some herbs in the wrong dose can cause serious damage, and yes, you can go very wrong using herbs. As an example, the herb goldenseal, which some of you may have heard of, can deplete intestinal flora and interfere with Vitamin B absorption, if used over long periods of time. It is also an endangered species, so please think twice before buying it. I advise people to approach using herbs the same way you would using prescription medicine. You wouldn’t guess at how many pills to take or how often, and the same goes for herbs!

With these precautions and suggestions on how to start using herbs, you can begin taking a more pro-active role in your own health care.

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