Have you ever had menstrual cramps so harsh that it feels like your uterus is staging an insurgency?
You KNOW this isn’t normal, right?
If you take this problem to your gynecologist, you’ll end up on hormones (or in a surgery suite) faster than you can say Bob’s your Uncle. But not every woman wants to fast forward to pharmaceuticals. And some of us don’t even have that choice.
In my experience, around 50% of the women who seek alternative health care do it because they’re looking for answers to hormone-related concerns.
The Power of One…Herb
I’ve had my share of those. I used to think period pain was my personal price to pay for not tolerating the Pill.
Until one day at the clinic – one of those insanely busy days, where everyone needs their herbal formulas yesterday.
Amid the chaos at work, it felt like a rebellion was being staged in my reproductive organs. It was way beyond nuisance. My favorite go-to remedies – a heating pad, sleep, a hot cup of tea – were out of the question. These cramps were uncontrollable.
That’s the day I learned the power of a single herb. White peony root. Bai shao, the Chinese call it. Sweet relief.
Desperate Times, Desperate Measures
I knew white peony root was usually paired up with herbs for women’s cyclical headaches and cramps. That’s how we use it in the clinic because that’s how the Chinese discovered it works best – in a balanced blend of complimentary medicinal herbs.
But that day, I was highly motivated to find pain relief. So, I detoured through the bulk herb room for a nibble. After 10 minutes of old-school chewing through a raw, chalky-tasting, slice of dried root, my cramps disappeared. Completely. And they never came back that month.
Herbalists call this a proving. It’s an informal, time-tested way to research the medicinal properties in an herb. Apply it to the skin. Bathe in a tea made from it. Drink it. Eat it.
After proving to myself how powerful the delicate peony plant really is, it’s become one of my favorite herbs for women.
Softens and Soothes Liver Congestion
I love it because it tends to calm things down. Rina Nissim, a European herbalist, described the clues she looks for that signal a white peony situation: ‘hyperexcitability in an anxious type of person who is bothered by palpitations.’ Yeah, I’ve had days years like that.
The Chinese have known for centuries that Peony root reduces abdominal pain and relieves muscle spasms. They say it does this by ‘softening the Liver’, which easily gets congested with waste material and toxic emotions – like anger and resentment.
When the Liver begins to let go, we literally unclench. Emotions flow, blood flows, Qi flows and spasms quiet down.
The nervous system may play an important part in this release, and the smidge of magnesium in the root probably does, too.
Strong Blood Means Healthy Hormone Function
Peony is a popular blood tonic herb, among others like Dang Gui, Ligusticum and Rehmannia. Tonic is another way of saying that it provides nutrition for blood. Since blood is such a vital player in the smooth functioning of hormones in women, keeping it robust with tonic herbs can be a big factor in hormone health.
We’ve also discovered through research that peony has anti-inflammatory and immune-modulating properties. Lately, inflammation is being linked to everything from high cholesterol to cancer. Perhaps the Chinese understood the link long before we had studies to show it.
For most of us, peonies are colorful, fragrant blooms treasured for their association with Memorial Day.
For me, they’re all that – and a beautiful gift of pain relief growing in my neighborhood.
By the way, we’re in the Liver season during Spring, so Liver imbalances like pain and cramping tend to show up worse than ever right now, along with other symptoms that White Peony eases – night sweats, vertigo, dizziness, and irritability.
Many hormone imbalances will diminish or disappear while eating a Spring Cleanse diet designed to remove common food triggers and emphasize Liver-friendly herbs and greens.
Maybe you’d like to join me for a class that walks you through the Spring Cleanse process, with a cooking demonstration, food samples and detailed instructions. Click here for a link to the Facebook event page. Or contact me at email@example.com.
Did you hear what the Attorney General of New York did a couple months ago? He ordered Wal-Mart, Target, Walgreens and CVS to remove herbal supplements from store shelves. All herbal supplements. He somewhat prematurely claimed that testing showed nearly all of them to be missing the herbs listed on their labels.
Further testing is still necessary to verify his claims. But true or not, what do you expect from a big box or chain store where the motto is “Always low prices”.
At the intersection of cheap and quick, more accurately.
Convenience is King
Let’s remind ourselves why these stores exist. They’ve figured out that your attention span as a consumer is short. Lots of products and brands are competing for your dollars. So, you’re likely to make a choice based on what’s in front of you at any given moment, NOT based on hours of researching for the best quality (or price) product.
Just like when I shop at a gas station and see a hot breakfast sandwich smelling so yummy, I know I’m getting a poor substitute for a real breakfast. But I buy it anyway because I’m in a hurry and it’s convenient. I don’t have time to sit down for a restaurant product, so I’m sacrificing quality for something that’s more important to me – convenience. In that moment, it’s good enough.
Good enough is ok when it comes to the occasional meal on-the-run. But for something you take every day to promote vitality and strength and health, it’s worthwhile to give more thought. To ask around.
When you shop at big box stores for health products, you have to know that health is not the business they’re known for. Their business is making money selling household and personal items you want at cheap prices.
Give Them What They Want
Americans want herbal supplements, to the tune of $41 Billion in 2013. That number is growing rapidly for lots of reasons; mainly, an expanding public awareness of the human and financial expense that pharmaceutical meds have laid on us.
You want healthier alternatives, and you’re turning to dietary and herbal supplements in record numbers. Big business has picked up on these trends and served it up on a platter. There it is, the Echinacea you saw on daytime TV last week, touted by a doctor in scrubs, and it’s only $5.99. Why not try it?
After all, it’s safe. Some federal body somewhere is keeping herbal supplement manufacturers accountable for quality, right? Yes. There are regulations governing the claims made on labels and the processes of manufacturing itself.
It’s Not That Simple
But like every industry, some manufacturers take every cost-cutting shortcut they can get away with, and others stake their reputation on quality by pulling out all the stops. They take steps beyond what’s legally required to identify and ensure the purity of the plant matter in their products.
Those are the companies I want to stay in business. And you probably do, too. So why do some consumers accept questionable quality from their herbal supplements? Why is it ok to buy herbal products from a discount store that’s all about price-slashing?
I ran this by one of my patients, and here’s how she explained this phenomenon.
You have a mental checklist of what it means to be healthy. And that list includes maintaining peak performance so we can continue to “go, go, go”.
Take a daily vitamin. Check.
See the doctor once a year. Check.
Eat bananas for potassium. Check.
Beyond the act of checking off ‘healthy’ activities, there’s very little thought given to whether these practices have any value for you personally. If the TV doctor says its good, and your sister-in-law says it works, then it must be good for you.
It’s hard to blame people for checking boxes and choosing cheap. Access to reliable information about what’s effective and safe is hard to come by.
Too often, information about herbal supplements is provided only by the companies selling them– NOT an impartial way to judge reliability.
So what’s a discerning consumer to do?
Here are 5 Ways you can sort out herbal supplement quality:
- Ask your friends, coworkers and relatives where they buy their supplements and why.
- Be skeptical of pyramid and multi-level products sales. The products may be good quality, but they’re often very overpriced.
- Save your money and eat the food equivalent. Concentrates and juices are easy and convenient, but they usually don’t contain any of the fiber and other materials that maximize the nutrition of that healthy food. Fresh blueberries beat blueberry supplements, any day.
- Talk to your herbalist. Their patients have taken lots of herbal products in liquid, capsule, tablet, fresh and dried plant forms, and they’ll be aware of ineffective or poor quality herbal supplements.
- Form a relationship with an herbal or holistic provider. Get to know them, so when you need help making healthy choices, he or she can recommend alternatives to fit your budget and personal needs.
You can’t send a sample of every dietary or herbal product you take to a lab to verify its authenticity. And you don’t have to.
Working with a professional herbalist means you have the best chance of finding herbs that are appropriate, safe and effective. Save yourself time and money.
Set up an appointment with Mo. Check!
How to Choose An Herbal Remedy That Works
If You Were a Plant, What Kind Would You Be?
I have a secret.
I used to be ashamed of my secret, so I kept it hidden.
Especially from other herbalists.
If they discovered the source of my shame, I feared rejection, loss of respect and failure.
Now I know there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
So, I’m ready to declare the one thing I’m most afraid to admit.
I DON’T TALK TO PLANTS.
I always imagine a collective gasp among my colleagues when this kind of thing gets out there.
What kind of Herbalist doesn’t hear the plants talk?
Isn’t that how herbal healers acquire their knowledge?
Isn’t a deep, spiritual connection to plants a pre-requisite for this profession?
Hearing plants speak is probably a handy thing, but it’s not part of my toolkit.
When I was in herb school, our yearly gatherings in the redwoods of California were one big circle of plant people. People who cultivate herbs, people who wild craft and harvest them for medicine, and the ‘my grandmother was a wise woman who taught me how to heal with plants’ kind of people.
My path was a little different.
I grew up in a suburb of Omaha. We were one city block from a cornfield and a 10-minute skip to the nearest creek. There’s a Nebraska sensibility in my soul. I’m as common and native as a sunflower after 47 years on the Great Plains. Even with my prairie state roots, the healing power of prairie plants was lost on me until recently.
My first teachers, Mom and Dad, never knew there was a field bursting with medicine surrounding our growing subdivision. Their generation was lured by a siren song that promised wonder drugs from the corner pharmacy.
Nature’s own medicine chest faded from their minds like two-party phone lines and black and white TV.
The past decade of studying herbs helped me recognize a few of nature’s most common weedy healers like plantain, ground ivy, nettle leaf, motherwort, and dandelion – in the yard, the neighborhood park, practically every open space in our river city.
Until recently, I didn’t recognize native herbs that grow in carefully restored prairies a few miles from my urban home.
I’m still at a loss to identify lots of common, local plants and weeds that herbalists like me use in clinical practice every day.
So this Summer, I’m working my way backward. I’m getting out of the clinic and into the field, where the plants have a chance to tell me their story.
I’m wearing out my Android battery taking photos everywhere I go. These amateur pics tell a story of medicinal herbs pointed out to me or discovered on prairie walks from rural Kansas to just outside city limits.
Butterfly milkweed or Pleurisy root
Pleurisy root (butterfly milkweed) – What a show-off. In botanical medicine, orange signifies anti-oxidant properties, especially for the eyes (think carrots). Maybe it does strengthen the eyes, but in my practice I use it when someone with a history of respiratory problems points to a rib and says “it hurts right here when I breathe”. Native Americans, including the Omaha tribe, were known to prize the root for ceremonial use, for bronchitis and lung disorders, and swift healing of wounds and sores. Can you picture a swollen snakebite covered with a mash-up of plant roots? It sounds so intriguing! 
Prairie Phlox standing tall in a field of Summer grass
Prairie phlox – (pronounced flox) I once planted ornamental phlox in the cracks of a retaining wall, and watched it grow year-after-year until it cascaded over the rocks like a bright purple veil for just 2 weeks every summer. I can’t say for sure which phlox relative this is, but Native Americans treasured phlox as a tea for pregnant mothers to insure the birth of a female baby, as a ceremonial Love Medicine, and even as a “wash to make children grow and fatten”. 
Echinacea pallida on the Kansas plain
Echinacea – it’s a popular Top Ten remedy for cold and flu, and here’s a little-known-fact: Native Americans called it snakebite medicine. Eclectic physicians used the root topically to cleanse and remove the putrid smell of festering boils. Nice. 
Lead plant [Amorpha spp] with its pea-family leaves mingles with prairie grasses
Lead plant – seeing this plant up close taught me why it’s called bird’s wood. It’s one of the tallest and sturdiest plants on the prairie, a nice perch for wayward birds. My favorite common name is buffalo plant – smearing a plaster of the roots over the skin was said to attract buffalo and ensure for the hunter a good kill. I haven’t used it as medicine yet, but the leaf is said to close wounds and cure eczema topically, and kill parasites and worms when taken as a tea internally. 
Wild Indigo flowers in full bloom
Wild Indigo – Warning: you might want to put your lunch down before you read this. Wild indigo roots and leaves are used for conditions that have lots of ‘putrid heat’ – translation: pus-filled, decaying, infected and inflamed tissue. Gross. It must’ve been an essential herb for seriously infected wounds with the threat of gangrene. 
Wild violet hidden under towering early Summer greens
Wild violet – My Native American herb book says wild violet varieties were used for respiratory problems like cough, mucus and even asthma in children, plus hundreds of other uses. It’s in my own daily tincture because I know it keeps the lymph system functioning well, especially in the breast area or Liver meridian. Last week, a patient of mine applied a poultice of crushed violet leaves to a large, nasty-looking cyst and wouldn’t you know, it broke right open and started draining. Powerful medicine for such a delicate plant. 
Rattlesnake master stands out from the softer grasses around it
Rattlesnake master –don’t walk too close to this one, with its sword-like leaves edged with spikes. It’s not hard to spot. It looks out of place on a prairie. The common name reflects its use as a rattlesnake bite remedy, but a curious practice by 19th century medical students and doctors points to it as an emetic (induces vomiting) to purify themselves after a patient death. I wonder if today’s physicians have anything like a purification practice, other than a good hand-wash or anti-bacterial foam. 
I’ve got two good Summer months of prairie walks ahead of me. Check back every now and then for more pictures – and stories – of native herbs I’ve discovered.
Have you had a healing experience with plants that you’d like to share? Can you teach me more about native prairie plants? Do plants speak to you? Share your plant experiences and pay it forward. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Native American Medicinal Plants, Daniel E. Moerman, Timber Press, 2009.
2. Eclectic Materia Medica, Harvey Wickes Felter, M.D., 1922.
Enjoy reading this popular recent blog post:
How to Choose an Herbal Remedy That Works
Lily was bursting with excitement when she returned for her second visit to my office. “Could those pills you gave me work really fast – I mean, like overnight?” she asked, only half-ready to believe my answer.
During Lily’s first appointment, she shared that since her first child was born, her PMS has been hellish. For a week before her period, her face, back and chest breaks out in painful acne.
She braces herself for a 7-day migraine that forces her to miss work at least one or two days every month. The headaches are bad enough, but the breast tenderness and swelling make certain movements – like holding her daughter up close – very painful.
And then there’s the cramping.
These aren’t your ordinary ‘pass me the hot water bottle’ cramps you can wait out for a day or so. We’re talking about severe, please-put-me-out-of-my-misery muscle spasms. Over-the-counter pain medication barely takes the edge off, but Lily is afraid to take a dose large enough to make a difference.
It’s no wonder she was a little skeptical about the quick action from her herbal formulas. How could anything as gentle as a plant relieve such horrendous PMS?
Getting Comfortable with Natural Healing
Those gentle plants have been a reliable source of healing medicine for every culture that’s ever existed. Lily’s never seen the power of herbs growing up in her modern family. Today’s medicine is all she’s ever known.
A little modern physiology sprinkled with Chinese Medicine explains how the Liver takes center stage in many PMS problems:
- Hormones that regulate your menstrual cycle are manufactured, regulated by and excreted in the Liver
- At the same time, the Liver is very busy filtering out or metabolizing all the natural waste material circulating in the blood, including waste that comes in through food and fluids.
- The Chinese call this organ ‘The General’ because of its commanding role in keeping order and smoothly moving blood and hormones through the Liver and out to the rest of the body.
- Anything that disrupts the smooth circulation of blood can interfere with menstrual cycles.
Your Liver is a fantastic, hard-working organ, but it can only take so much.
Pollutants in our air, water and food are a big source of strain on the Liver. So are heavy medication use, alcohol abuse, and fatty, fried foods, which disrupt the filtering mechanism, clogging up and slowing down the Liver’s waste removal functions.
Another Kind of Toxic
Lily has led a super clean life – no junk food, no drugs or alcohol, organic everything. She’s done a great job of protecting herself from outside stressors on the Liver. Strictly speaking, she’s a model patient. So, what’s going on here?
At our first appointment, I asked Lily if she was in a nurturing and supportive relationship. You’ll see why this matters in a minute. Her answer helped us both understand the deep source of her pain.
For years, Lily has watched her husband’s gambling habit deplete their savings and nearly bankrupt them.
She’s ashamed of their situation, and keeps her worry, frustration and fear to herself. Whenever she tries to have a conversation about her concerns, she feels intimidated and manipulated by her spouse’s angry tone of voice. She feels trapped in this no-win situation.
Bottled Up Emotions
Just as pollutants, drugs and alcohol can impede the flow of blood through the Liver, unexpressed feelings take their own toll. The Liver holds the key to your creativity and free, healthy expression of emotions. What happens when you don’t speak your mind?
Anger. Frustration. Irritation. Depression.
Lily’s marriage to a gambling addict has given rise to a build-up of toxic emotions that have immobilized the free flow of energy through her body.
Without a free and easy flow of emotions, blood and Qi in the Liver become stagnant, leading to symptoms like:
- Painful and sharp or dull, achey cramps
- Migraine headaches
- Depression and anxiety
- Clotted blood flow during periods
- Anger, frustration and resentment
- Constipation and/or diarrhea
- Fibroids and cysts
- Skin eruptions like acne or rashes
- Breast tenderness and swelling or breast lumps
- The feeling of having a lump in the throat
- Erratic stools, bloating and nausea
Notice how nearly all these symptoms feel like something is stuck – bloating, clots, constipation, swelling, cysts, stagnant emotions, intense pain?
Kiss Your Pain Good-bye
One answer to all this ‘stuckness’ is to get moving. And one of the most enjoyable ways to keep the Liver energy moving is by having sex – but don’t take my word for it.
A neurologist at the University of Munster (Germany) published a study showing that sex relieves migraines in about two-thirds of sufferers. It’s a great example of how moving the pelvic organs decongests and breaks up congealed blood that causes pain. Try it!
Yoga, tai chi, and dance are other great ways to move stagnant blood, Qi and emotions, opening up your Liver’s energy flow for a more creative, happy life.
Find ways to communicate in difficult relationships by seeking counseling or reconnecting with activities you used to enjoy together. So much emotional pain can be avoided just by learning to speak your mind in a non-threatening way.
Roots and Shoots for Shooting Pain
Herbs like motherwort, dandelion root, cramp bark, lavender, white peony root, figwort, blue vervain (especially when there’s neck tension), and burdock root help smooth the flow of Qi through the Liver, activating movement of blood and fluid.
One of my favorite Chinese formulas for PMS is aptly named Free & Easy Wanderer [Xiao Yao San]. It unlocks the toxic emotions that become trapped when we feel unable to express ourselves. It releases pain and lifts mood, often relieving digestive stagnation along with trapped emotion.
Herbalism has so much to offer for all sorts of female concerns. You can get to the bottom of PMS pain with safe, natural and effective relief – from Mother Nature herself.
Related Blog Posts in this Series:
Are You In Heavy Period Hell? 10 Herbs and 6 Foods for Relief
“My period is like clockwork – it comes every two weeks.”
“Seven days of hell, that’s what I call it.”
“I might as well stay home from work.”
You don’t put up with horrible periods because you have some twisted relationship to pain and misery. You just don’t know what else to do.
Maybe you’ve worked with your doctor, tried multiple combinations of hormones, and even put yourself through major or minor surgery looking for solutions.
There’s a new game in town, though it’s anything but new.
Plants to the Rescue!
Herbal healthcare is experiencing a much-needed resurgence across the country, as part of a larger health revolution. There’s a not-so-subtle undercurrent that’s pulling us toward safer, more natural, sustainable remedies.
Every day, more women like you are turning to natural solutions for discomforts like these:
- Headaches and migraines
- Fibroids, cysts or lumpy breasts
- Chronic yeast infections
- Crabby, irritable, weepy or sad feelings
- Long periods
And let’s not forget these lovely ones:
- Spotting between periods
- Mid-cycle pain
- Breast tenderness or swelling
- Moderate or severe menstrual cramping
- Cyclical bloating, gas or nausea
- Chronic diarrhea, constipation or both
- Infrequent periods
- Irregular or short cycles
Any single one of these symptoms can be miserable on it’s own. More than one at a time can completely disrupt and drain the joy out of an otherwise great month.
The Queen of Period Problems
One of the most distressing and exhausting problems for women is heavy periods. What do I mean by heavy?
- Super absorbent tampons are a joke
- Backup pad protection is no guarantee you’ll contain the overflow, especially at night
- Embarrassing stains are so common that you never, EVER wear white pants
- You make frequent bathroom visits to check for leaks
Excessive bleeding can make you feel like the life is being drained out of you, ounce by ounce. And often it comes with a crampy, dull, aching sensation, as if your pelvic cavity is being turned inside out. Like everything is dropping to the floor.
Now You See It, Now You Don’t
If you’re a patient of mine, you’ve probably heard me talk about Qi [pronounced ‘chee’]. Qi is an elusive but vital energy source that permeates every breath, digestive function and blood cell. It’s sort of like wind –you can’t describe what it looks like, but you can see the effect it has.
You can see the effects of weak Qi in heavy bleeders, especially. It’s the full-time job of Qi to keep blood inside the body. When blood literally pours out, and for that matter, when skin sags and the bladder or uterus prolapse, these are signs that your Qi isn’t doing its job of holding things in place.
Why does this happen? Two main reasons: heavy blood loss itself depletes Qi, leading to the proverbial vicious cycle. But other factors can weaken Qi, such as long-term emotional and physical stress, resulting in gradually heavier periods.
The Downside of Hormones
Hormone therapy can regulate monthly blood flow – so does herbal therapy for many women.
You may get temporary relief from a hormone patch, cream or pill, but tinkering with hormone levels won’t address the underlying Qi deficiency that led to the bleeding. A key symptom of Qi deficiency will remain – weakness.
The classic Chinese formula for deficient Qi, Four Gentlemen, contains tonic herbs for weakness, the most common side effect of excessive menstrual bleeding. When you’re feeling bone tired, lack an appetite, experience loose stools, and your skin has an unhealthy yellowish complexion, tonic herbs restore strength, improve digestion and bring back your luster.
Blood loss also starves the heart and mind of vital nutrition, robbing you of restful sleep and weakening your memory and focus. Blood tonics like the well-known Dong Qui and lesser known rehmannia, white peony and ligusticum restore blood to the rich, nourishing fluid needed to keep your heart and mind sharp.
Relief from insomnia, poor memory, fatigue, and digestive weakness is a lot to ask from any hormone supplement. Fortunately, this is where herbal and natural therapies do their best work.
Yes, Ma’am, Herbs Can Do That
While Chinese herbal formulas help rebuild Qi, herbs like yarrow, shepherd’s purse, raspberry leaf, eclipta, ladies mantle, tienchi ginseng and even our kitchen friend, cinnamon, can lighten blood flow and tone the female organs. These herbs individually or in combination give you hour-by-hour relief from heavy bleeding.
Mineral rich herbs like nettle leaf and oatstraw gradually replace lost nutrients and freshen a sallow complexion. Yellow dock root releases stored iron into the blood, relieving mild anemia.
The herbal approach to hormone imbalances naturally nudges your body’s built-in capacity to heal, without the risks associated with hormone replacement.
“Let Food Be Your Medicine”
Naturally, food also helps to gently restore Qi and blood.
A nourishing diet of warm root vegetables including squash, beets and sweet potato fill your plate with color and your mouth with the mildly sweet flavor that strengthens Qi. Dark, leafy greens restore iron and other minerals to a weak, depleted blood supply. Beef and lamb are a protein power duo when you feel wiped out by your periods.
Self-Care is NOT a Luxury
Rebuilding Qi takes some time and patience. In the meantime, light exercise, rest, extreme self-care and major de-stressing maneuvers have to be moved to the top of the list.
Start with something as simple as letting those calls rollover to voicemail and taking a few moments for a power nap. Do you have a supportive family member who might alternate meal prep or shopping duties with you?
Can you fit in a 20-minute walk after dinner? Exercise, rest and support are not luxuries when you’re exhausted and weak; they’re a prescription for recovery.
Qi deficiency by itself isn’t a life-threatening matter, but ignored long enough, it morphs into a depleted immune system and lower resistance to disease.
Today is always a good time to start new habits that support a long, healthy life. If you’re tired of heavy, draining periods every month, choose something safe, natural and effective for long term relief.
Call today for an appointment that just might change the way you think about healthcare. Period.
Related Blog Posts in this Series:
Herbal Relief for PMS-related Acne, Cramps and Migraines
Yesterday, I felt like I was gonna burst out of my jeans. I’ve never felt so bloated and miserable without actually being sick. Ladies, you know what I’m talking about here – it was a fat pants day, all the way!
And you know what?
LOTS of people are having these kinds of problems right now. This week.
When Spring starts, all hell breaks loose in stomachs everywhere.
I see it every season, especially at the start of Spring and Fall. Patients who normally don’t experience digestion problems will start reporting heartburn, headaches, indigestion, constipation, irritability, and the queen of digestive distress – BLOATING.
Why is this so common this week? We can turn to Chinese Medicine for some wisdom on this weird seasonal phenomenon.
The Chinese tell us that the short two-week period between seasons is when the Earth Element is most active. Of the 5 Elements, Earth is the one that regulates digestion, keeps us rooted and stable, and makes sure we crave tonifying foods.
Maybe you’ve noticed you’re more hungry the past week or so? That’s your Earth element saying ‘feed me so I can keep you going’. Springtime demands nourishment for new growth. Not the kind of growth that puts on pounds or sprouts leaves.
You’re coming out of a dark, cold, inactive season into one that’s sunny, warmer and allows more movement and waking time. You’ll need more fuel for those more physical, energy-burning activities. A healthy digestive system will signal you to ‘load up’ for the work ahead.
The trouble starts as you give in to your bigger appetite. Your digestion says ‘whoa, hold on there, pal, I need to catch up’. Next thing you know, you end up bloated and stuck very quickly.
What’s the remedy for this temporary backup? Probably not extreme dieting or over-the-counter anti-gas products, which can throw a delicate system into even more imbalance.
Instead, try one or more of these Spring Bloat Busters:
- Fennel seed tea – boil 1 Tbsp of fennel seed (yep, you’ve probably got this in your spice cabinet) in 1-2 cups water for 15 minutes. Strain the fennel seeds and drink the ‘decoction’ (tea). By morning, most of the bloating should be relieved.
- Epsom salts – Run a bathtub full of warm water or fill a shallow bucket with warm water and add 1-2 cups Epsom salts (if you like essential oils, you can find lavender or eucalyptus scented salts in any pharmacy). Soak yourself or just your feet for up to 30 minutes, enjoy a good night’s sleep and feel relief when you wake up.
- Digestive Teas – one of my all-time favorite teas is Eater’s Digest, created by a company called Traditional Medicinals and formulated by herbalists. This blend isn’t just delicious – it’s medicinal. With peppermint, fennel, ginger and other ‘carminative’ herbs [a fancy term for digestion-mover] this is the tea for ‘fussy’ tasters. My kids instinctively choose this tea in the evening, probably because it helps soothe their stomachs after a big meal.
- Go Chinese – for stubborn digestive systems that don’t respond to simple remedies, Chinese herbal formulas will gently strengthen the Earth element while stimulating ‘chi’, blood and fluid to move. Many people feel a gentle bump in energy when they take the formula that’s right for their constitution. Ask an herbalist what formula is for you.
- Eat green and bitter – pucker up baby, ‘cuz bitter, leafy greens like kale, beet greens, mustard greens, chard, spinach, dark salad lettuces contain digestion-stimulating elements that increase bile production. Bile breaks down stubborn food congestion, unclogs you and gets your gut moving again.
- Hold your horses – pull back the reins on those heavy, winter-style meals. Load up instead on vegetables, berries and lighter fare like chicken, fish and meatless meals.
- Move it – Expansion and contraction of muscle is a natural way to squeeze out gas and relieve bloating. Yoga, walking and simple stretching work equally well. I remember giggling in a yoga class when the ‘wind-relieving pose’ did exactly that for the guy on the mat next to me!
Without doing something radical, my jeans fit more like normal today. A few simple practices like the ones listed here, and a good walk this morning straightened me right out.
There’s no need to suffer with abdominal bloating and indigestion. Try a simple, natural remedy first. If the problem persists, get ahold of me and we’ll talk it through until we discover what’s best for you.
Find answers to more of your digestion questions in this related blog – Has Your Digestion Taken a Vacation?
Jan sat down across from me with a familiar look on her face. Hope. Resignation. Confusion. Overwhelm.
And next to her, in one of those reusable grocery store bags, was a jumble of every health food store supplement she’d bought in the past 6 months, some still unopened.
This was how Jan understood her health problem up until now – as a collection of deficiencies that she could supplement her way out of. It’s a pretty common misunderstanding, and it’s not her fault.
We fall prey to this thinking because we’ve been trained to think of health care as a one-for-one proposition.
If anti-depressants are for depression, and statins are for high cholesterol, then there’s probably a vitamin, mineral, anti-oxidant, enzyme or protein for every disease, symptom or syndrome.
The thing is, that’s sort of a piecemeal approach that never really gets to the bottom of things. When heartburn, bloating, headaches, pain, insomnia, rashes are viewed as unrelated and disconnected problems, each with their own separate solution, we miss the big picture.
When you take a this-for-that approach to health care, you never see the patterns that emerge from looking at the bird’s eye view, like the tendency of your problem to be spasmodic, or worse in cold weather, or have a damp quality, or that stress makes it flare up. These patterns provide subtle clues to the remedy or healing method for you.
Instead of asking what pill goes with what symptom, ask what’s the nature of your misery?
- Is the problem worse or better with heat?
- Does it stay in one place or move around?
- Is there pain, and is it sharp and stabbing or dull and achey?
- Does the problem get worse when you feel tight and tense?
- Are there other symptoms that mimic the sensation, frequency or severity of the issue?
Your problem has unique qualities that distinguish it from everyone else’s. So it makes sense that the remedy you take to feel better matches YOUR variety of trouble.
Let’s look at digestion, for instance. When symptoms like heartburn, gas, abdominal pain, bloating, belching, diarrhea, constipation, cramping or hemorrhoids get to be a regular thing, it’s time to look for patterns and apply some general rules:
Cold makes things loose, clear or white, mucusy and slow. If your digestion or stool has these qualities, you need a remedy that warms things up. Herbs like fennel seed, cardamom pod, cinnamon bark, thyme leaf, sage leaf, oregano leaf, horseradish, ginger root, rosemary leaf, garlic bulb and black pepper introduce warm, stimulating, toning properties, lessening the constant need for over-the-counter anti-diarrhea products and even relieving a constantly runny nose.
Heat makes things activate. That’s mostly a good thing, until there’s too much heat. That looks like burning or heat sensations, hot burps, irritation, bleeding, redness and swelling (anywhere in or on your body). Look for herbs that cool and calm the heat– lavender flower, mint leaf, basil leaf, dandelion root, plantain leaf, elder flower, marshmallow root.
Most of these herbs for heat coat and soothe irritated tissue, especially in the digestive tract, reduce swelling, and allow heat to clear. This can eliminate or reduce the need for anti-inflammatory medicines or antacids, which deplete essential stomach acid and worsen digestive irritation over time.
When energy gets stuck, there’s usually cramping, pain, gas, bloating or constipation. Choose herbs that relax tissues and allow the ‘Qi’ to flow. Anti-spasmodics like cramp bark, skullcap, wood betony, hops, and oat seed blend well with the hot or cold herbs mentioned earlier, depending on which category you fall into.
When both your mood and your stomach are fussy and irritable, choose herbs that soothe, heal and calm your over-sensitive nervous system: catnip, chamomile flower, lavender flower, oat seed, meadowsweet, peppermint, anise seed, blue vervain and lemon balm.
Plants know how to repair themselves and grow in cold, hot, soggy, dry, crowded or stressful conditions. They reach around obstacles for light, water and nutrients. In you, they gently nudge your built-in healing capacity.
Remember Jan? Jan was off to a good start buying and trying supplements one at a time. Her intention was to find a natural way to solve an imbalance before it became a disease with a name.
Like Jan, you might be looking for an answer to solve the supplement puzzle and avoid expensive medical visits, tests and medications. Looking for patterns in your symptoms helps you decide where to start.
Next time you reach for a supplement bottle at your local health food store, ask yourself ,“Is there a plant with this name that grows in nature?” If it doesn’t grow in nature, it’s not an herb. If it’s not an herb, it doesn’t carry the healing energy of a plant that’s survived and thrived against all odds. Start over and look for an herb that matches your symptom pattern.
Multivitamins, CoQ10, fish oils and iron supplements might be useful replacements for simple deficiencies, but they won’t stimulate your body to heal itself the way herbs do.
If you’ve been struggling with a chronic problem that’s not responding to ordinary dietary supplements, turn to the plants. Herbal Medicine, and especially Traditional Chinese Medicine, have safe, natural and effective answers for many of today’s common ailments.
Tell me how you applied an herb to a health problem. Did it help? What was the result?
On my morning walk today, the street was littered with little and big branches from a wild snow tornado thing that blew through the city the day before. Every few steps I was kicking away or stepping around fallen pieces of the trees, garbage can lids and stray yard stuff that was swept up and dropped off in the vortex of air.
Then it hit me. The trees were just fine. As far as I know, very little damage was done to the city’s bare, brown maple, ash, apple and every other species of Midwest tree. Those winds were up to 60 miles per hour, and still, the trees looked like they always do this time of year. Stark. Tall. Braced for winter but undamaged by it.
If trees are made to withstand freak ‘snow tornados’ and windy squalls, the weight of a heavy snow, and wide temperature variations (sometimes up to 60 degrees in one day around here), then aren’t we?
Yes. And no.
Yes, you have the capability to bend without breaking against the forces of cold and flu viruses, bacterial infections, mild stresses and life’s unexpected events.
But you aren’t built to withstand the chronic levels of 21st century stress, with attention-draining electronic devices, ever-greater demands on time and an environmental load of ‘approved’ chemicals that kills off several species a day*!
At least not without some serious damage.
Trees and plants handle the stress of a strong wind gust by bending their flexible extremities. They might shake loose a weakened branch or a few leaves, but 50 or 100 feet of roots anchor them solidly for survival.
It’s also in your nature to have a strong foundation, so, when stress happens, you bounce back. When a loved one dies, when you lose your job, your marriage or a beloved pet, you grieve and feel the hurt and loss, but after a while you’re on your feet again, wounded but alive.
There’s no denying that some people get an unfair load of stress dumped on them, and who wouldn’t crumble a little under that weight? That’s when you call in extra support, sort of how you’d brace a tree with rope and a stake until it can stand on its own again. You get more rest, nourishing foods, ask family and friends for help.
This is where herbs really shine. They take the load off by calming down the nervous system, helping you sleep more soundly and lifting the fog of fatigue, even in the midst of the hell swirling around you.
Herbs called ‘nervines’ help dial back your anxious energy and feed the nervous system. Passionflower, for instance, puts you to sleep when your head is spinning with repetitive thoughts. Motherwort regulates a heartbeat that’s racing from nervousness, and Lavender soothes the mind and calms an upset stomach.
Wood betony loosens tension in the neck and shoulders, where we hold so much of our stress. These are just a few of the many herbs that lend their gentle nature to our over-stimulated lives.
Like a tree under the constant stress of poor soil, drought or injury, stress leads to disease. If you’re planted where you can’t thrive, your foundation weakens and you’re vulnerable to disease.
Practice a little self-care right now. Make yourself a cup of tea, take a deep breath and let it out slowly, close your eyes and rest your mind for 3 minutes. You just gave your mind a mini spa treatment!
Can you learn to bend and relax when life throws a snow tornado in your path? You can start by bringing some gentle natural healing into your day with calming herbs.
Below is an article I wrote that was recently published in our local Complete Transformation Magazine. You’ll find more of my herbal and natural tips in quarterly issues of this free publication found in area grocery stores.
One of the biggest factors threatening your immune health this time of year is fatigue.
Do you ever have that dream where you’re running as fast as you can but you’re getting nowhere? Your legs are dragging like cement and every step is a ridiculous effort. When you wake up, you’re exhausted and frustrated. THAT dream.
When you get rundown, and ordinary tasks begin to seem disproportionately hard, like in THAT dream, you could benefit from a group of herbs called adaptogens. Adaptogens provide immune support by gently, steadily enhancing your feeling of well-being and energy.
Russian scientists discovered that adaptogenic herbs boosted the performance of Olympic athletes and astronauts, who were subjected to constant, extreme levels of pressure to excel under stressful conditions. Does that sound like your life sometimes? American lives mimic an athlete’s extraordinary level of work and worry, with long office hours, financial pressures and poor eating habits.
Months or years of high-stress living is a major drain on your kidney/adrenal organ system. And that’s exactly where adaptogens have a magic that no other substance can match.
By helping you ‘adapt’ to your very own, personal life stressors, like your mother-in-law’s voice or the boss’s deadline demands, your nervous system can shift into neutral, allowing you to keep your cool more easily.
With these herbs, your body begins to recognize the difference between ordinary and extraordinary stress, and avoids firing up adrenaline when it isn’t needed. In effect, adaptogens act as a supreme regulator of your fight-or-flight response.
Adaptogenic herbs allow your body to stand down and get out of security guard mode, into bystander mode, without losing the ability to respond quickly and effectively to REAL, life-threatening situations, like when a deer suddenly appears out of nowhere on a dark highway.
Not all adaptogens are created equal. Some are better for high-energy, Type A personalities that deal with stress by getting busier, while others are more effective for people who turn to food, sleep and reclusiveness when life gets overwhelming.
Adaptogenic herbs like ashwaganda, eleuthero, rhodiola and ginseng (in medicinal doses), are deeply nourishing to over-stimulated nervous systems. Taken in appropriate doses with the guidance of a trained and experienced Herbalist, these healing plants can buffer the effect of stress on your immune system and protect you from colds and flu all year long.
Have you had the flu or a nasty cold yet this season? How did you treat the symptoms – rest, supplements, herbs, antibiotics? Share your experience with Natural Healing Omaha readers in the comments below.
Staying healthy through a season of cold, flus and stubborn respiratory viruses doesn’t have to mean staying isolated from people or taking a handful of supplements every day with a wish and a prayer. It can be as simple as pausing throughout the day for a cup of tea.
When your co-workers are sneezing, coughing and calling in sick, and the kids are home from school with the flu, you can stay well just by enjoying your own blends of gentle herbal tea.
Herbal teas can keep your digestion on track, even out the stresses of the day and help you get better sleep, all of which have a major impact on optimal immune health.
The rhythm of taking herbs throughout the day is a practice that smoothes out the edges of structured, over-scheduled lives, releases tension, introduces subtle flavor and gently heals you before you’ve gotten too far out of balance.
Start your morning with a fermented tea like pu erh, with it’s rich, earthy scent that clears the morning’s mental fog, stimulates metabolism and gets a sluggish gut gently moving. It’s a nudge to the digestive system to wake up, stretch out and get moving.
Late morning, when you’re well into the day’s projects, steep some holy basil (you might know this one as tulsi) or green tea to keep your thinking clear and the mind alert to new ideas. Green tea has hundreds of health benefits, one of which is the ability to gently energize without over-stimulating. Treat yourself to a high-quality tea that’s organically grown and ethically harvested.
A second cup of green tea is a mild mid-afternoon pick-me-up, especially when it shares a saucer with a snack of nuts or dried fruit, just enough to hold you to dinner and not enough to spoil it.
When you’re home and settling in after dinner, encourage good digestion with chamomile, orange peel, fennel, ginger or peppermint teas. Later, whether it’s time for a favorite hobby, catching up with a friend, or supervising homework, make a family tea to wind down the mind with linden, lemon balm or lavender.
There’s an herbal tea for any time of day, all year long. Winter is the ideal time to add warm herbs like sage, cinnamon and thyme to any blend you’re infusing. Keeping your body warm protects against the chill that makes you vulnerable to fatigue and illness.
Directions: To make a healing cup of herbal tea any time of day, scoop 1 tsp. of a single herb or your favorite blend into a tea infuser, pour hot water to cover, let it steep 4-5 minutes, then remove the herbs and slowly sip, sniff and close your eyes for a moment.
If you’d like to try your hand at blending your own teas, start by ordering ¼ lb. of a few herbs that sound appealing to you. If you click on the Mountain Rose Herbs icon to the right of this blog, you can visit the place where I order loose teas and tea supplies, and shop for a few of your own.
My favorite infuser is the Celestial Tea Strainer. It nestles snuggly inside my favorite tea mug and lifts out easily without dripping or leaving loose herbs floating – though I really don’t mind floaty herbs – watching the leaves swirl in my cup is kinda Zen….
The blend I’m sipping one or two times a day right now is a mix of red clover, oat straw, lemon balm, lavender, motherwort, hawthorn leaf and rose petal. My favorite packaged tea blends come from Good Earth, Yogi, Numi and Pukka.
What’s your favorite herbal tea blend? What time of day do you drink tea? Who taught you about the joy of drinking herbal tea? Share your comments below.
Ok, go get your tea on! And have a very Herbal Holiday!
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