Mental Health

June 30, 2012 § 1 Comment

At some point during a long, snark-filled weekend with 7Song discussing the nervous system, I suddenly remembered my dream. When I first sunk my teeth into medical herbalism in a serious way, it was with the intention of expanding awareness of alternative options for mental health issues. I’d hoped to at some point be a part of an integrative mental health clinic.

Mental health issues are extremely individualized. They can be lumped into a few umbrella categories, but each person has extremely different experiences within them.

  • Depression: I like 7Song’s definition of depression as a “lack of affect.” Lethargy, lacking emotion, motivation, or will; vegetative.
  • Anxiety: Excess sympathetic response or a sympathetic nervous response to inappropriate triggers.  Within this category fall Panic Attacks, which have to do with intense fear or apprehension, sometimes triggered and sometimes occurring randomly.  Also Anxious Depression, which is excess affect leading to inaction. Basically, folks who express or react to their anxiety by shutting down. Again, a definition inspired by 7Song. This happens to be the most prevalent mental health issue in my own life.

While mainstream medicine treats most  forms of anxiety with benzodiazepines and most forms of depression with SSRIs (though sometimes MAOIs and tricyclic antidepressants are used), herbal medicine has a distinct niche in that we can incorporate specific indications into a treatment plan to address individual emotional needs in a personalized way. Thinking energetically and constitutionally can help in this endeavor. Narrowing down the options to those herbs which would compliment a person’s constitution could be a good place to start, then moving on to consider specific indications. However, using herbs to affect someone on the mental/emotional level can be done with energetic doses (a few drops of a tincture), so constitution may be less essential in that case.

With that in mind, I’d like to use this blog as a venue to begin compiling a list of specific indications for addressing mental health issues. At first, it will just look like a disorderly list of plants with brief notes, but my intention is to slowly include indications, descriptions, and plants as they come to me, and then present them in an organized way:

  • Wood Betony
  • Ghost Pipe
  • Coralroot
  • Monkeyflower
  • Evening Primrose: Depression or anxiety around food and digestion (Winston)
  • Mugwort: Brings the demons to light so that they can move on, often in dream.
  • Elderflower: Opens the gateways for those who feel cut off. Grief as if facing death.
  • Chamomile
  • Borage: For courage, as they say.
  • Pulsatilla: Excess wind. Panic attacks. Soft, yielding people who need to please others (Francis).
  • Black Cohosh: Fear of insanity. For Persephone’s journey. Deep, dark depression with hormonal indications (Wood).
  • California Poppy
  • Devil’s Club: Boundaries for those struggling with their power. Stimulating adaptogen.
  • Hops
  • Lavender: “A hug in a bottle” (Kiva)
  • Lemon Balm: Post partum depression. SAD.
  • Linden: Social anxiety/dischord.
  • Milky Oat: Food for the nervous system.
  • Rose: Depression or anxiety underlined by fear (Kiva).
  • Passionflower
  • Skullcap: Hypersensitivity (Kiva)
  • Saint John’s Wort: Perforates the veil of depression. Emotion held in the solar plexus. Anxious depression accompanying symptoms of liver deficiency?
  • Valerian
  • Pedicularis: Anxiety around intimacy. Obsession. Specifically breaking out of cycles of obsession into a healthy idealism.
  • Motherwort: Tension with heart palpitations.
  • Hawthorn: Keeping the heart open when it would otherwise close down.  Anxiety felt in the chest.
  • Blue Vervain: Anxious tension held in the neck.
  • Red Root: Artist’s funk (Wood). Brooding, circular thoughts.
  • Dragonroot: Issues around identity (Francis).
  • Quaking Aspen
  • Spikenard
  • Ashwaganda
  • Tulsi
  • Pine: Issues around shame (Francis).
  • Yarrow: Protects the wounded healer/wounded warrior.
  • Opium Poppy
  • Gentian: For shock (Wood), disconnection from instincts. Puts people in their bodies.

If you have thoughts, plants, or indications to share, please feel free.


Red Cedar (again, always)

June 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

My body aches after a long day of driving and harvesting bark. After many failed attempts to make it out to Red Cedar, I finally succeeded, and not a moment too soon. The season is closing, the sap is thickening, the summer is unfolding…

One of Cedar’s many lessons is that of silence. Stillness, silence, and patience seem to emanate from the tree. It is the ultimate holder of space, extending beyond the notion of time and language, ever-present in every way.

Lessons from the day:

1. First and always, presence of mind.

2. Less is more. Gauge your strength.

3. Take a deep breath. Exhale as you pull the bark away.

4. It’s okay, life is a gift.

5. I love you!

Thanks, Grandmother…

Cascara and Poplar

April 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have two thoughts forming in my head which are unrelated save the fact that they are uncommon uses for two different native plants that I think deserve further attention:

First of all, over the past year it’s become apparent to me that Cascara Sagrada is an emmenagogue. It started on a plant walk with Portland-based medicine-maker extraordinaire Scott Kloos. He pointed out Cascara to our class and described its physical and energetic characteristics, including it’s use as a laxative, helping us to release and let go of our psychological burdens. I immediately wondered whether it was an emmenagogue. It wasn’t logical at the time, but later on I realized the very obvious fact that, for women, menses is a major form of release. The next day, several women came up to me in class, either commenting that they had started their cycles early after eating Cascara bark on the plant walk, or that their scheduled cycle had come on much stronger than usual. This was true for me as well. I have experienced this several times over the past year, not from material doses of the plant, but from tiny drop-doses which I’ve taken only occasionally for emotional purposes. Each time my body has responded by releasing and cleansing through menses. Perhaps Cascara is and energetic emmenagogue? I think women have another mode of release and purification available to them and Cascara can help us take advantage of it. I’d love to hear other folk’s thoughts and stories on the subject.

Second and much less involved, I think Balsam Poplar is a great local tooth remedy. I’m unsure about whether this is a traditional use, but I’ve felt encouraged to use the new branches as tooth sticks. Logically, the bees use the spring sap to line and protect their hives as propolis. It’s wonderfully anti-microbial, so it stands to reason the resin in the buds and the tree sap in the twigs would lend the same properties in toothcare. Something to ponder and try…

Lymphatic Stagnation and Strep Throat

March 25, 2012 § 3 Comments

Lymphatic stagnation is a pretty common problem for me. Ever since highschool, the first physical sign that I’m tired or my immune system is running a bit slow is swollen glands in my throat. I know now from experience that when this happens I need to address it, or it’s likely to evolve into the evil and painful STREP THROAT! (dum dum duuuuuuuum…)

Though winter is a nice time to stay bundled up inside by the fire weaving, movement is the best way to deal with lymphatic stagnation. Jumping up and down, flinging your arms around, lymphatic massage, or just going for a walk all seem to work very well. Our lymphatic system is best activated mechanically through motion.

In terms of plant helpers, warming circulatory stimulants are great since our lymphatic system and circulatory system are very closely connected. Maybe that’s why hot, spicy chai always sounds so wonderful in the cold months. Think ginger, cayenne, cinnamon, pepper, thyme, etc.  to get the fluid moving.

My favorite lymphatic plants for the throat specifically are  red root and calendula.  Red Root (Ceanothus spp. ) is a beautiful aromatic shrub native to North America. It’s astringent and sweet, producing a bright red tincture made from the root bark. Red root is specifically indicated for water stagnation with cysts, swollen glands, and discharges resembling egg white, as it stimulates the flow of both lymph and interstitial fluid. Michael Moore in Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West says, “Redroot kicks up the charge and helps blood cells and inner vessel linings repel each other better; the blood, while not changing chemistry, changes its osmolality and flows better. This aids the transport across capillary walls to diffuse substances and the nonprotein fractions of blood that become interstitial fluid and lymph.” Basically, it moves fluids more efficiently. For serious stagnation and, in my case, strep throat, take a dropperful of the tincture every few hours.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis) is a bright, resinous flower native to Europe but naturalized in the states. It gets its name from the same etymological root as the word calendar because it is known to bloom in every month of the year. Matthew Wood talks about it as a plant for the places where the sun doesn’t shine, which happen to be where a lot of our lymphatic glands are located. Under the jaw and around the ears and throat, under the arms, etc. Calendula brings warmth and motion to these places. Culpeper considered this a very hot plant. It seems to be known today as an external woundwort, disinfecting and soothing to the skin. However, taken internally, calendula works wonders on a damp, stagnant lymphatic system, especially when heat is indicated. My favorite preparation is the succus, or juice of the plant preserved in alcohol. It’s really potent and works well as a gargle for strep along with salt water, thyme, myrrh, or cayenne.

Another important aspect of treatment if you are actually dealing with strep throat is a powerful antimicrobial. My favorite in this case is Oregon Grape, which I take by the dropperful every few hours until all symptoms subside. Howie Brownstien recommends a much higher dose in the case of serious bacterial infections. He uses several droppersful every few hours, but I haven’t found that necessary personally if I’m taking red root and using a good gargle as well.

So, if your symptoms include lack of energy, fever, sharp pain and aches in the throat, swollen glands, and perhaps white dots along the glands in the back of your throat, all generally without a cough, you may have strep throat. You should probably go to the doctor, who will probably prescribe you a course of antibiotics, the bane of every healthy GI tract. Strep can go away on its own, but it can also turn into scarlet fever, so don’t take unnecessary risks. However, these adjunct therapies are super helpful (as are some serious bitters and probiotics if you go the prescription route) and, at least for me, extremely effective. Good luck!

Balsam Poplar

February 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

The time is nigh! Here in the Willamette Valley we’ve had a period of snow an rain, promptly followed by warm weather and clear skies. As far as the Black Cottonwoods (otherwise know as Balsam Poplars, Populus balsamifera) are concerned, it’s time to bud! Though many of these early buds will probably rot or die back when the rains come again, to be replaced by more come springtime, this is still a wonderful, warm blessing for these chilly winter months.  Here is a basic monograph of one of my very favorite plants:

Populus Balsamifera

Parts used: The early spring twigs and buds before they open. Ashes from the tree as well as the rotten leaves were used to similar effect by indigenous people.

Taste and Smell: Bitter, warm, stimulating, aromatic, astringent, and slightly sweet

Tissue State: Heat, depressed tissue.

Energetics and Actions: Astringent, antiseptic, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, vasodilator, expectorant

Distribution: This is a low to mid elevation tree that enjoys wet areas along floodplains and rivers.

Constituents: Balsamic resin, volatile oil, acids, sallicin, populin.

Organ System Affinities: Throat and respiratory tract, skin, joints and connective tissue.

Uses and Indications: Balsam Poplar is and excellent remedy for congestion and inflammation. In the respiratory tract, it’s an effective remedy for TB, whooping cough, and helps to increase productive mucous secretions in chest colds. The signature for this is the medicinal resin of the tree, stored deep in the trunk and roots until it moves up and outward toward the buds in the spring, just as a productive cough moves fluid up and out of our bodies. It is also affective in treating congestion in the joints in cases of arthritis and rheumatism. This plant is great for hot inflammations in the throat, for topical burns, sprains and hyperextension in the muscles. It eases pain and is also antiseptic in action. In fact, bees use this plant to line their hives, protecting them from microbes and decay.

Dose: Take 15-60 drops of the tincture of the fresh bud and twig internally several times per day. The infused oil is used externally for burns and soar muscles as needed.

Balsam Poplar Bud Oil: Find a big, healthy stand of Balsam Poplars by a river. Hang out with it, smell the buds and taste them, leave a gift, do your thing. On a warm-ish sunny day when the buds are slightly sticky to the touch, grab yourself a jar and pick enough buds and adjoining tender twigs to fill it snuggly. Often times you can find plenty of Poplar branches on the ground near living trees with viable buds, so there is seldom need to pick buds from the actual tree. Just be sure you are identifying your twigs correctly. Once you smell a Balsam Poplar bud, it’s hard to confuse it with other trees. Once you’ve filled your jar, breaking up any larger twigs to increase their surface area, cover the plant matter with oil. There are many oils to choose from, just make sure it doesn’t have a strong scent. Place a lid on the jar and put it in a warm place out of direct sunlight. On top of a wood stove, fire place, or radiator will work well, or you can put the jar in a paper bag and place it in direct sunlight. Let it sit for a while (this can mean a week or a month or more), checking the contents occasionally and wiping any gathered condensation from the lid. Give it a shake now and again. Smell it and admire it. When your carrier oil has changed colors to an amber brown and smells absolutely delicious, your infusion is done. Strain, press, and enjoy.



Smoking Blends

January 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s been a while, but I’ve been keeping busy even though the growing things around me are dormant for the cold winter months. I’ve been experimenting with smoking blends and though I’d share a few ideas…

Plants I’ve been enjoying as the base to my blends, or the main physical components, are skullcap, red raspberry leaf, blackberry leaf, and western coltsfoot. Raspberry and blackberry are expecially nice because they grow abundantly in my area and if you rub the dried leaf, they get nice and fluffy. Western coltsfoot is also wonderful because it’s a lung tonic (not that I really consider smoking medicinal) and also tends to be pretty fluffy and neutral in taste.

Flavor components are the fun part and I encourage you to experiment with different combinations. Plants I’ve been enjoying that work well in larger quantities for flavor include redroot leaf (my favorite), vanilla leaf, tobacco, balsam root leaf, pearly everlasting flower, and sunflower leaf (inspired by my friend Wes). In smaller quantities, some roots and barks are very nice to smoke. They usually need to be ground up or shredded. Willow bark, calamus root, and osha root are my favorites. Elephant’s head is also wonderful in a smoking blend and can be incredibly relaxing, as can mugwort if you’re not too sensitive to it. It tastes delicious, but makes me a bit loopy, personally.

A note on flavor: as an ex-tobacco smoker, I really hate smoking blends that are super light and floral, usually they are mullein or sage-based and have been sitting in a jar on the shelf in the herb shop in direct sunlight for months. Ick. I like my smokes to be rich and a little bit harsh. I’ve noticed that the plants that lend the most body to a blend tend to be astringent, which is probably why ceanothus is my favorite flavor at the moment. If you make a blend and it’s too harsh, try cutting back some of the astringent components and, conversely, if your blend feels like you’re smoking fluffy clouds, try some harsher astringents.

Here’s a sample recipe:

2 parts skullcap

2 parts raspberry leaf

2 parts redroot leaf

1 part shredded willow

1 part balsam root leaf

a dash of tobacco

a dash of elephant’s head


How to Harvest Willow

December 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

I take absolutely no credit for these videos. I just stumbled onto them today while fantasizing about harvesting willow next month and they are super informative.  He goes into the actual weaving process a bit, but his description of how to identify and harvest the willow is the part I’m most excited about. Enjoy!

Gathering Basket Materials 1

Gathering Basket Materials 2

Gathering Basket Materials 3

Gathering Basket Materials 4

Gathering Basket Materials 5