I have had an interest in the benefits of using herbs for their health benefits and medicinal remedies for as long as I can remember. But learning about herbs for use in herbal remedies always seemed to be a bit of a daunting task and using them, a scary one in a way. Questions like, How much do I take? or Can I overdose on the herb? always seemed to apply the brakes to my herbal remedy journey. But over the last couple years I have had that desire rekindled and have started to research, gather and expand my home remedies using natural medicines, specifically using herbal remedies.
Introduction to Herb usage
When one starts to research the use of herbs as part of Natural medicine, there are so many "classifications" that appear it can become confusing. Although it would seem that it is just different author's ways of differentiating, I thought it would be a good to help define some of these terms.
Natural Medicine or naturopathic medicine as defined by WebMd.com in the article What Is Naturopathic Medicine? is "a system that uses natural remedies to help the body heal itself. It embraces many therapies, including herbs, massage, acupuncture, exercise, and nutritional counseling." Although natural medicine encompassing many facets of healing and ensuring a healthy body that I try to follow, I will be focusing on the use of herbs for this article.
Herbal medicine, also called botanical medicine, herbology or Phytotherapy, is defined by Merriam-Webster as "the art or practice of using herbs and herbal preparations to maintain health and to prevent, alleviate, or cure disease" . The use of these herbs is often referred to as Traditional Medicines because their use is rooted in the days of our ancestors when that was all they had for the most part.
Herbalism is a term that is most often found in the literature and as the article How to Become an Herbalist identifies, "From a technical perspective, herbalism is the art and science of applying herbs for promoting health. It is often referred to as, and encompasses concepts of, Herbology, Herbal Medicine, Phytomedicine, Phytotherapy, and Phytopharmacology, among other names."
In modern times, we have so many options, including over the counter medicines, that the gathering and use of herbs for home remedies like our ancestors did has really taken a back burner. And although there is a growing number of medical professionals who are willing to include herbal medicine in their treatment regime, their numbers are few and far between. The pharmaceutical approach of the "take a pill" mentality in some ways has even spilled over into the herb industry where one just has to look at the herb isle in your local store to see what I mean. But because of the limited testing into the use of herbs they are referred to as herbal supplement. John Hopkins Medicine defines herbal medicine in the article What are herbal supplements? as "Products made from botanicals, or plants, that are used to treat diseases or to maintain health are called herbal products, botanical products, or phytomedicines." and further goes on to state that "A product made from plants and used solely for internal use is called an herbal supplement.".
There are many herbs out there that are taken on a regular basis to help maintain body health but as John Hopkins Medicine further goes on to clarify in the article What are herbal supplements? "Many prescription drugs and over-the-counter medicines are also made from plant products, but these products contain only purified ingredients and are regulated by the FDA. Herbal supplements may contain entire plants or plant parts.". And although supplementing the body so that it can perform at peak performance is important, there are many that also have a healing affect and are used in herbal medicine but due to lack of research are not used regularly as part of a medical protocol.
But like most foods, one food on its own does not necessarily give you all the benefits, supplemental or medicinal, that your body needs. So by knowing the benefits of each of the herbs and what they have to offer allows you to make your own home remedies and be used as a herbal remedy.
But, are herbs dangerous?
I have struggled with this very question for a long time. The medical industry is not a huge advocate for their use and it does not require a huge effort to find opinions and articles that do not support the use of herbs for medicinal purposes. Sure they agree you can cook with them, but using them for medicinal purposes, not so much. I have known that wild grown herbs and plants contain many vitamins and many micro-nutrients and micro-minerals that you can not necessarily find in commercially grown vegetables and so I have been foraging wild edibles for years as I explored in Wild food foraging of edible wild greens for supper and Common Purslane AKA Portulaca (Portulaca Oleracea) - Benefits and Control of Purslane weed. But the world of herbalism is huge and what it really boiled down to, for me, is the fear of the unknown. How do I know what herbs to take? How do I take the herbs? How do I know how much to take? What will be the side effects of taking a particular herb? All of these question weighed heavy on me and as a result hindered me from pursuing my use of herbal remedies.
But then it dawned on me that there are side effects from taking commercial medications and even they can be dangerous; and that the natural herbs are designed in such a way so as to have a "slow release" type of affect; and that to overdose on a particular herb one would have to consume a lot of it or take it for a long period of time, something which is not typically done. I have also learned that because your body knows how to break down the herbs, if it is not agreeable with you, you will most likely only get a stomach ache or a headache. I have so many questions but also an even stronger desire to explore this interest of mine, so I decided that information is power and started exploring the world of herbalism.
My journey with herbalism
This exploration led me down the road to researching and ultimately taking a course called Herbal Medicine Cabinet: Colds and Flus and watching countless video's on the subject from Homesteading Family, Off grid with Doug & Stacy, and recently Homegrown Herbalist but what really set the ball rolling was a video I watched from Homesteading Family with an off grid doctor called Go OFF-GRID with your HEALTH? | Pantry Chat.
Although the video highlighted some of the problems with the medical system, also applicable to Canada, it really brought home the message that I need to do all that I could to help ensure that I did not need to rely on it. And so once I started researching and looking around my own property I realized that I had actually started dabbling in herbalism more than I thought. As I explored in Nature's Medicinal Gift - Chokecherry and Nature's Medicinal Gift - Rose hips I had been using chokecherries and rose hips for year's, I was just nor fully aware of the medicinal benefits of them. And then I looked into my kitchen pantry and realized that a lot of the culinary herbs I use also have medicinal benefits as well. Things like rosemary, ginger, garlic, turmeric and mint, to name a few. I had started an apothecary and did not realize it.
But what about my biggest stumbling block to using herbal remedies, the safety aspect. I knew that "Herbal products can pose unexpected risks because many supplements contain active ingredients that have strong effects in the body. For example, taking a combination of herbal supplements or using supplements together with prescription drugs could lead to harmful, even life-threatening results." as identified by MayoClinic.org identified in their report Herbal supplements: What to know before you buy. And I knew that a person had to be careful with using herbal remedies on newborns and pregnant or nursing mother's, but what about otherwise. My research showed that my fears were really unfounded if you made 100% sure you properly identified the herb, did not consume large quantities of it and/or used it over an extended period of time. I was feeling more comfortable in exploring herbs for medicinal use.
The world of herbology is huge and one can access herbs from all over the world. And although there are many places that one can access these herbs like your local health food store, most of the herbs are sold using the pharmaceutical approach of "take a pill". And I don't want to take a meal of pills. So being able to find bulk sources of herbs was important to me. As part of the Herbal Medicine Cabinet: Colds and Flus course I was introduced to the small businesses Farmhouse Teas. Their products are wonderful and of great quality and I was able to get all the herbs I needed for the course. Although quite reasonably priced, even with shipping, I felt that I did not want to always have to order herbs from all over world. After all, nature is right outside my back door and nature does provide. It may not be in the same exact form as some of the other available herbs, but combining with other herbs would get it real close. A truly homemade remedy. I explored this thinking in Nature's Medicinal Gift - Chokecherry . And besides, it is cheaper and what better herb to take than one that is localized for the area you live.
As I said, the world of herbology is huge and it can be daunting when exploring the various herbs and their uses. And although I had rekindled my desire for their use to some degree, a recent interview by Homestead Family with Doctor Jones of the Homegrown Herbalist really helped to add another level of comfort that I am on the right track. Being that Doctor Jones is a retired vet who used herbs in his practice and is also a naturopath, I found the video How to use herbs SAFELY at home with Doc Jones (Homegrown Herbalist) | Pantry Chat to be empowering.
So all this considered, to answer the original question, I feel that by properly identifying the herbs and learning about their applications I can safely use herbs in both culinary and medicinal applications. As Doctor Jones quoted from Hippocrates in the video " Let your food be thy medicine and your medicine be thy food".
Learning about the herbs
I have a number of books to help me down this dive into herbalism and of course there is always the trusted sources on the internet. I have a lot of reading to do but mostly the books I have will be for reference as I travel the herbalism highway. Books such as:
- Herbs - A Connoisseur's Guide by Susan Flemming
- Nutritional Herbology - A Reference Guide to Herbs by Mark Pedersen
- The Native American Herbalist Mastery by Enola Hill
- The Homesteader's Herbal Companion by Amy K. Fewell
- Herbal Medic - A Green Beret's Guide to Emergency Medical Preparedness and Natural First Aid by Sam Coffman
- Practical Herbalism - Ordinary Plants with Extraordinary Powers by Philip Fritchey, MH, ND, CNHP
- The Modern Herbal Dispensatory - A Medicine-Making Guide by Thomas Easley and Seven Horne
- Materia Medica of Western Herbs by Carole Fisher
And for plant identification my library includes books such as:
- Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland by Derek Johnson, Linda Kershaw, Andy MacKinnon and Jim Pojar
- Wildflowers Across the Prairies by F. R. Vance, J. R. Jowsey and J. S. McLean
- Saskatchewan Guide to Forest Understory Vegetation by Forestry Canada
- Weed Seedling Identification by Saskatchewan Agriculture
- Field Guide Wild Herbs by The editors of Rodale Press Inc.
- Native Trees of Canada by R.C. Hosie
- Budd's Flora of the Canadian Prairie Provinces by Agriculture Canada
In the research I have done thus far into some of the herbs I am using or considering I found that the reference books often have lists of what each herb may do. And although I understand that it is a common herbalism practice to use these descriptors when describing the herbs, I found I needed to read with a dictionary sitting right there. I know that as time goes on I will feel more comfortable with the meaning of the words but in the mean time I created a cheat sheet of definitions for descriptors I have run across thus far. You can access this Free download of Herbal Definitions here. I hope it helps.
A glimpse into my Apothecary
With the Herbal Medicine Cabinet: Colds and Flus course I was able to get a prepared package from Farmhouse Teas that gave me everything I needed to make the various tinctures, syrups, fire water, oxymel and glycerite. And with the ingredients in hand I made a few of them.
1. Mullein Syrup
Mullein syrup is made by boiling the dried leaves of the Mullein plant, Verbascum thapsus, in water and then combining with honey to make a herbal syrup as one of the many uses as describe in the article Mulling Over Mullein Leaf.
I decided that Mullein was one of the plants I wanted to grow so last year I started a number of them and planted around the yard. Being a biennial plant, they do not flower until the second year but the leaves can be harvested the first and/or second year for herbal use. They also add some visual interest to the garden as a young plant
But as a two year old plant, they really do make a statement.
And although I hope they reseed themselves and I have young ones growing, I decided that I would dry some in my Excalibur 9 tray food dehydrator to add to my apothecary to ensure I always have. My research suggested that I cut them up to speed drying time. But if all else fails I can always order more from Farmhouse Teas.
2. Elderberry Syrup
Much the same as Mullein Syrup, Elderberry syrup is made by boiling the dried or fresh elderberries in water, straining them and then combining with honey to make an immune boosting powerhouse syrup. As described in the article Homemade Elderberry Syrup – Immune Boosting Recipe it has tremendous medicinal powers and is great for culinary uses as well.
Although similar to chokecherry as I explored in Nature's Medicinal Gift - Chokecherry, I decided that I wanted to have some elderberries growing here on the homestead. I found a Canadian supplier of elderberry cuttings in British Columbia called Elderberry Grove and so I ordered a variety pack of varieties they recommended for my location. They also have a number of different products from elderberries. But my main desire was to grow my own.
The cuttings arrived in the spring and I immediately planted them and they took off. I have yet to get them in the ground but they seem to be doing okay in their planting pots. I will definitely have to get them in the ground before too long. But in the mean time, as I don't want to be without dried elderberries I ordered another batch from Farmhouse Teas.
3. Fire Water
Fire Water is made by immersing a number of herbs in apple cider vinegar and allowing it to steep for 4 - 6 weeks. Then after straining, it is consumed as a immune boosting, sickness fighting herbal remedy. For my first batch of Fire Water I wanted a powerhouse of medicinal benefits and so I used:
- Garlic - As described in a WebMD article Garlic - Uses, Side Effects, and More "People commonly use garlic for high blood pressure, high levels of cholesterol or other fats in the blood, and hardening of the arteries. It is also used for the common cold, osteoarthritis, and many other conditions, but there is no good scientific evidence to support these uses."
- Onion and garlic skins - Yes the skins of your onion's and garlic are more than just compost. By making a tea out of them, adding to your bone broth and soups and by adding to Fire Water, as the article 10 Good Reasons To Save Those Onion And Garlic Skins identifies, "The outer skins of onion and garlic provide an excellent source of vitamins A, C, E, and numerous antioxidants. The skins of onions are also a rich source of flavonoids, particularly quercetin, a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory."
- Ginger - As the article 11 Proven Health Benefits of Ginger identifies, in addition to may other benefits, "ginger is high in gingerol, a substance with powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties."
- Cayene - WebMd identifies in the article Health Benefits of Cayenne Pepper, that cayenne contains Capsaicin which " stimulates the nerves in your stomach that send signals for protection against injury. The pepper may help to increase the production of digestive fluid, send enzymes to the stomach to aid in digestion, and provide extra protection to the stomach against infections." and further goes on to say that it may also help to reduce the risk of heart disease and slow the development of cancer cells and may "even be able to kill cancer cells for certain types of cancer, including prostate, skin, and pancreatic."
- Lemon Balm - A member of the mint family, this plant as identified in 10 Benefits of Lemon Balm and How to Use It has many benefits such as reducing anxiety, relieving stress, boosting cognitive function, cure insomnia and treating sore throat, to name a few. All benefits that one needs when they are ill.
- Apple cider vinegar - A common house hold product. But for medicinal use, I wanted to ensure I used an unpasteurized vinegar that contained the mother such as Bragg's Apple cider vinegar. Apple Cider vinegar, as identified in the article 6 Health Benefits of Apple Cider Vinegar, Backed by Science helps to fight off bacteria plus a number of other benefits and so its use is recommended for medicinal and general health purposes.
Do herbal remedies work
Although I feel it is great to have all the herbs and herbal remedies sitting at the ready in my apothecary, the timing of the course and the making of the fire water, mullein syrup and elderberry syrup was extremely timely. I had just finished straining off the fire water and making the syrups to store in the fridge, when I came down with a tickle in the throat. Something was wrong but as per normal, I waited a day to do something about it. When I woke the next morning and my throat was sore I decided to give all these herbal remedies a try. I started with the elderberry syrup taking 1 tablespoon despite the 1 teaspoon recommendation. By noon of that day, my throat was more sore and I started developing a cough. I dug out the mullein syrup and fire water and added a tablespoon of each to the elderberry syrup I was already taking.
As Doctor Jones recommends, herbs should be taken "Early, often and after". Although I fell short of the "early" part, I did take them 3 - 4 times a day for the duration of the illness and continued to do so for a few days after I felt better. If I had started taking them at the first sign, I don't know if I could have avoided the whole illness, but I do know that I felt the herbal remedies I took did make the illness easier to maneuver.
I will say though that I was amazed by the mullein syrup. About half hour after taking a tablespoon of the syrup, my coughing subsided and my breathing was not as labored. It could have been the combination too, but it did seem to work. None the less, all three of these three herbal remedies will be part of my apothecary.
I know that the world of herbalism is very large and there are many things that I can and need to learn, but I feel very happy that I have rekindled my interest. So much so that I have started and planted a number of different, hopefully perennial type herbs, including lavender, rosemary, feverfew, mint, sage, thyme, oregano and echinacea, to name a few. I also plan to further research their use and expand the research and use of the herbs outside my door.
I always felt there was something better than "taking a pill" and although I realize that total body health is paramount to ensuring health, I feel that in addition to using herbs in my day to day culinary activities, having and knowing the herbs, both local and purchased, for medicinal uses will give me a whole other level of self reliance. I will try to listen to my body and give it what it needs through herbalism and natural medicine. But should it come to the point I feel the herbs and/or natural medicine are not helping, I will seek medical attention in hopes that the two can work together. But in the meantime, my exploration of herbalism shall continue.
I hope you enjoyed this exploration into my journey with herbalism and a glimpse of my apothecary. Be sure to check back for further updates as I continue to increase my knowledge of herbalism. If you enjoy this content, please consider joining the My Boreal Homestead Life community. By supplying your email address at the bottom of the page and hitting "sign up" or by clicking Join, you will ensure you get an email notification when I post new blogs to the My Boreal Homestead Life site.
Thank you for joining me on the front porch of My Boreal Homestead Life as we explore this Homegrown, Homestead life, In a modern world.
- Homesteading Family - How to Use Herb Medicine Safely at Home
- Mountain Rose Herbs herbalism blog
- Chocolate Box Cottage - Herb Garden Dreams
- Homesteading Family - Herbal Remedies & Growing Medicinal Herbs
- Melissa K Norris - Herbs
- Homegrown Herbalist
- Canadian Council of Herbalist Associations
- Government of Canada - About Natural Health Product Regulation in Canada