Many herbs and spices serve a dual role in our lives, both to provide culinary diversity and as medicinal herbs used for therapeutic purposes. Many people have a wide variety of herbs and spices in their kitchen cupboards which could also be used as medicines. While it is true that culinary herbs are often not as high quality as those typically used for medicinal purposes, they never the less offer a quick answer when other products are unavailable.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
The Latin name comes from ‘ros’ meaning dew and ‘marianus’ meaning sea. This gives an indication of its’ indigenous habitat of Mediterranean shores. It does, however, grow quite well in North America, preferring light soil and sunny sheltered positions.
In the kitchen, Rosemary is most commonly associated with roast lamb, but is widely used in herbal medicine. Rosemary is a member of the family ‘Lamiaceae’, and like all members of this family, it is high in volatile oils which are, in fact, the main active constituents of Rosemary.
Probably the main effect of Rosemary is on the nervous system, where is has both a tonic and a stimulating action. This makes it an appropriate remedy for nervous debility and exhaustion.
Rosemary also has beneficial actions in the digestive system where it is an excellent remedy for indigestion, flatulence & diarrhoea, especially if due to nervous tension. The carminative (antispasmodic) action here is induced by the volatile oil , while the bitter taste stimulates the flow of digestive juices.
Another major action of Rosemary is to stimulate the circulatory system. It is especially effective at enhancing the blood supply to the hands, feet and head, and is therefore very effective in the treatment of cold hands & feet and other problems associated with poor circulation. By stimulating the blood flow to the head, Rosemary has developed a reputation for strengthening the memory, and it was on this basis that Shakespeare immortalized Rosemary as the herb of remembrance. In the time of the Roman empire, students used to wear Rosemary wreaths on their heads to improve their memories. This improved blood supply to the head can be effective to treat headaches and certain types of migraine as well as problems such as ringing in the ears or reduced glaucoma (reduced retinal circulation).
Rosemary is an anti-bacterial and anti-viral medicine. Taken as an infusion, this could be useful in mild cases of gastro-enteritis or food poisoning, and used as a mouthwash and gargle for sore throats, mouth ulcers and gum disease. As a skin wash, Rosemary can be used to treat cuts, wounds and skin infections.
Rosemary also has a warming and slightly analgesic effect when used as skin wash or in a liniment, and this action can be useful in treating stiff muscles, arthritis, bursitis or muscle cramps.
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
The Latin name comes from the word Salvere (to rescue) and gives an indication of its many uses.
This is another plant from the same Lamiaceae family as Rosemary but with rather different medicinal uses. For medicinal purposes, Red Sage is preferable but common Sage will certainly suffice.
Probably the most important action of Sage is to act as an antiviral and antibacterial agent, whilst at the time being anti-inflammatory. It is particularly effective in the treatment of sore throats, throat infections, mouth ulcers and gum disease. Conditions such as these should be treated by gargling and washing out the mouth several times each day with a cooled infusion of Sage. In days gone by the ash of burnt Sage leaves was used as a very effective tooth powder.
An interesting action of Sage, taken internally, is check excessive perspiration. A teacupful of cool Sage tea, drunk 3 or 4 times a day will be helpful in the treatment of sweaty feet, night sweats and hot flushes. Sage is especially useful if hot flushes are due to the change of life because it has a balancing effect on oestrogen and can ease all menopausal symptoms.
This hormonal balancing action of Sage can also be used decrease the production of breast milk (e.g. when weaning) and is entirely safe for the baby also. It can also be employed to promote menstrual flow and should always be avoided in pregnancy.
One further action of Sage which is of great interest to the herbalist is that of lowering blood sugar. This makes it one of the few herbs of particular use in the treatment of diabetes.
Although native to the Mediterranean, Sage now grows almost worldwide and has long been used in herbal medicine. A saying from the middle ages goes “Why should a man die whilst Sage grows in his garden ?”
Cinnamon (Cinnamonum zeylanicum)
Most people buy Cinnamon ready powdered in small tubs which means that most of it’s medicinal volatile oils will have evaporated. It is best to buy this spice in the form of sticks. Cinnamon sticks actually comprise the peeled inner bark of young twigs from this large tree. It is, in fact, quite a remarkable tree in that it can reach up to 30 feet in height, whilst actually preferring to grow in sand! It does, of course, require a lot of warmth and rain to reach this large size, both of these being available in abundance in it’s native habitat of Sri Lanka.
Cinnamon has a soothing action on the digestive system, easing any cramps or spasms and also being of assistance in the treatment of diarrhoea. In the treatment of the common cold and influenza, Cinnamon can be very useful. It is not only somewhat antimicrobial, but is also of assistance in convalescence. In fact, Cinnamon is good for any general debility.
The best way to use Cinnamon is in conjunction with other herbs specific to the particular problem. A piece of stick about 1 inch long, broken or preferably crushed in a pestle and mortar should be added to the teapot along with the other herbs as used.
Garlic (Allium sativum)
If I were ever in the unfortunate position of being able to use only one herb in all my cooking and medicine, it would have to be this one. To my way of thinking, garlic is invaluable in the kitchen, and it has so many medicinal uses that it is almost a medicine chest in it’s own right!
The Latin name is Allium sativum and the name of garlic comes from the Anglo Saxon words ‘gar’ meaning spear and ‘lac’ meaning plant, which refers to the shape of the leaves. An old country name is ‘Poor Man’s Treacle’, which is actually a corruption of ‘Theriac’, the Latin for ‘heal all’. Although Heal All is perhaps something of an exaggeration, Garlic certainly has a myriad of uses to the herbalist.
As with so many plants, the active constituents are found in the volatile oils which occur in a particularly high quantity in Garlic. The pungency of Garlic comes from the abundance of sulphur compounds in the oil, and it is this sulphur which provides the first major action of Garlic – that of being antiseptic. So effective if Garlic of killing bacteria, viruses and other microbes, that during World War 1, when there were no antibiotics such as penicillin available, Garlic juice was used to clean wounds!
Although herbalists do still sometimes prescribe Garlic to be applied directly to infected areas, it is also often given to be taken internally. Like many volatile oils, that of Garlic is excreted mainly through the lungs, and here it’s antibiotic properties are beyond compare. It is a most superb treatment for any lung infections such as bronchitis, pneumonia, or T.B. as well for the common cold. Garlic has the added advantage of promoting expectoration or the coughing up the of any matter that has gathered in the lungs as a result of infection.
Taken internally, Garlic also has a profound effect on the digestive system. Again the sulphur compounds act to destroy any unwanted bacteria, and to promote the correct balance of intestinal flora. It is furthermore, a strong vermifuge or anti-parasitic agent of use in treating many infestations such as worms, amoebas, giardia, candida and others.
Of course, anything taken into the digestive system will find it’s way also into the bloodstream, and here Garlic exerts a more beneficial effects. First of all, it promotes the formation of white blood cells which fight infection; and Garlic also destroys foreign agents, especially viruses, in the blood. Possibly the most remarkable action of Garlic on the blood though is to reduce the cholesterol levels. This is obviously very beneficial for sufferers of high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure or heart disease.
In general, I would recommend that each and every one of us should take a least 1 if not 2 cloves of fresh raw Garlic every day as a regular preventative medicine. It is important to use it fresh and raw because the oils are lost on drying or cooking. During the course of any infection (not just in the lungs) up to 6 cloves a day can be taken. Some people find a problem with the smell and after-taste. I have found it best overcome by chopping the cloves very finely and swallowing them down with water and without chewing. If it is really a problem then Garlic Perles from a health food shop are an adequate alternative, but don’t buy the odorless ones – all their medicinally active properties have been removed!
Oats (Avena sativa)
The Latin name comes form the words ‘avidus’ meaning sought after and ‘sativum’ meaning grown as a crop. Most people are already aware that porridge is both tasty and nutritious, but you may be surprised to learn that Oats can also be used as medicine.
Oats are in fact one of the best remedies for ‘feeding’ the nervous system, especially when under stress. It is thus a specific treatment, especially when under stress. It is thus a specific treatment for nervous debility and exhaustion, particularly when associated with depression. Oats act quite slowly but can be of real benefit in any weakness of the nervous system.
Oats are usually prescribed by the herbalist in a liquid form, but you can take then yourself in the form of porridge. This should be made with coarse oatmeal soaked overnight and cooked for about 20 minutes. This is preferable to oatflakes which have been partially cooked then rolled, and have lost some of their medicinal properties. Fine oatmeal in a muslin bag hung over the hot tap of a bath will make the water lovely and soft and is very soothing for any dry, irritated or sore skin.
Oats are on of the classic plants which form a bridge between food and medicine. They have received much good publicity recently because of their high amounts of fibre which is of better quality than that of wheat (bran). Thus porridge can also be useful for anyone with a tendency toward to constipation.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
Like the Rosemary and Sage previously discussed, Thyme belongs to the family of the Lamiacae, and as such is high in volatile oils. In the case of Thyme the volatile oil content is very high, being sometimes as much as 2%. It is especially rich in a substance called Thymol. This belongs to a group of chemicals called phenols which cause the destruction of proteins. Because all bacteria and viruses are made of protein, phenol and it’s compounds act as disinfectants. In fact pure phenol is still occasionally found in hospitals being used to wash down work surfaces. The thymol in the volatile oils of Thyme is a 25 times stronger disinfectant than the phenol.
The volatile oil of Thyme is excreted via the lungs and kidney and it is in these two areas that the disinfectant property is most useful. Thyme is a wonderful treatment for lung infections such as bronchitis, whooping cough, T.B. and influenza, and it is also of great benefit for kidney and urinary tract infections.
Used as a mouthwash and a gargle, an infusion of Thyme is useful in the treatment of laryngitis, tonsillitis and sore throats; and it can be used as a skin wash in cuts, sores and infections.
Nicholas Culpepper, in his famous 17th century herbal, made much of Thyme, recommending it a “…a noble strengthener of the lungs; as notable a one as grows; nor is there a better remedy for whooping cough. It purgeth the body of phlegm and is an excellent remedy for shortness of breath. It is so harmless you need not fear the use of it. It eases the pain of loin and hips. comforts the stomach and expels wind”.
Note While the use of the herb or tincture of Thyme is entirely safe, you should not use the essential oil of Thyme undiluted nor should it be taken internally.
Ginger (Zingiber officinalis)
This spice is not found in the kitchen cupboard quite so commonly as it deserves to be. Where it is found, it is usually dried and powdered and, like Cinnamon, this causes the loss of much of the valuable volatile oils. The fresh root of Ginger is readily available and is infinitely preferable, both for cooking and for medicinal use.
Fresh Ginger has a very pungent flavor and leaves a hot sensation in the mouth, and this reflects it’s warming and stimulating properties. Ginger especially stimulates the blood supply to the hands and feet and is therefore very useful in condition involving poor circulation to these areas. Chilblains, cramps, pins and needles and cold hands & feet can all be helped by drinking Ginger tea. It is also useful for cramps of the digestive system, such as painful menstruation, or for cramps of the large intestine especially where there is associated flatulence.
Ginger can be helpfully employed in any feverish condition where the warming effect of the herb of the herb supports the effect of the fever. It is a common myth that one should “bring down a fever”. The increased temperature serves the purpose of enhancing the activity of white blood cells that fight infection, whilst at the same time having a deleterious effect on the invading bacteria. Thus a fever is the body’s natural defense mechanism and should be encouraged.
Recent research into Ginger has focused on it’s ability to reduce nausea. Trials carried our by British Airways on pilots and stewards have shown that Ginger gave more effective and long-lasting relief from travel sickness than did ‘over-the-counter’ pills, and did not cause any drowsiness.
The easiest way to take Ginger is to add one heaping tablespoon of chopped fresh Ginger to a pot of ordinary black tea. this makes a very pleasant drink with or without milk. For travel sickness, the Ginger should be added to a pot of Chamomile tea, and, of course, it will also combine well with any other herbs you wish to take for a particular ailment.
If you ever cook a curry you will know that ginger is frequently included in the recipe. Other spices often used include Coriander, Cumin, Cardamon and Tumeric. Apart from imparting a delicious flavor, these all have the added bonus of acting as digestive aids and dispelling wind. Chilli is a common ingredient in a curry and acts as a strong digestive aid by irritating the lining of the stomach so promoting the flow of digestive juices.
Horseradish (Armoracea rusticana)
This is another kitchen cupboard staple with the same biting, burning heat as Chilli, but with rather with wider medicinal application. It belongs to the family of the Cruciferae and it is the root that we use. Used in the form of a sauce with meat or fish, Horseradish acts in a similar way to Chilli, by irritating the lining of the stomach to promote the flow of digestive juices. If you take an excessive amount it will act as a mild laxative and can make you sick.
Like Garlic, the oils of Horseradish are excreted via the lungs and kidney and here they are slightly irritant and cause diuresis and expectoration. the oil is also somewhat anti-microbial in the lungs and kidneys and Horseradish can therefore be useful in lung and kidney infections.
Horseradish is a very stimulating plant. Taken internally, it directly stimulates the heart; used externally in the form of a plaster or poultice it will draw blood to the area and cause it to become reddened and hot. This latter effect can be of great benefit in the treatment of sore or stiff joints and arthritis.
It is very easy to make a poultice of Horseradish using ordinary Horseradish sauce. This is spread on a piece of lint which is folded over to enclose the sauce and this is then bandaged lightly in place over the affected area. It should be left in place for 15 to 20 minutes and repeated twice a day. Be careful if you have sensitive skin – remove the poultice if the skin becomes sore or irritated.
A particularly interesting action of Horseradish is the control of tumor growth. The oil of Horseradish contains Cyanide compounds which ordinary body cells can detoxify and breakdown but which are fatal to cancer cells. In laboratory situations, Horseradish has been shown not only to inhibit the growth of the cancer cells but also to actually cause a reduction in tumor size! This raises very powerful possibilities for the future of Horseradish in cancer therapy, although obviously a great deal more research still needs to be done.
There are, of course, a great deal many more herbs and spices commonly found in the kitchen cupboard, which are not mentioned here. Such things as Parsley and Celery being used for arthritis, Basil for depression and Caraway and Fennel for wind are by no means ‘old wives tales’ but are common practice amongst practitioners of herbal medicine.