Harnessing the power of plants to support health and happiness this fall
As the days get cooler and shorter, many of us are wondering what this winter has in store. Will we be confined to our homes again, will the flu run rampant, will schools remain open? None of these questions have answers, which is what makes them so inherently unsettling. Even as we follow the advice of medical experts to stay as safe as possible, we can also explore alternative ways to bolster our mood and health this fall.
Herbal medicine has been used to prevent, heal, and cure ailments since the beginning of civilization. Many pharmaceuticals have a long history of use as herbal remedies, including aspirin, quinine, digitalis, and opium, and the World Health Organization estimates 25 percent of modern drugs are derived from plants. Portland herbalist Mischa Schuler has spent twenty years studying and applying the power of plants in her clinical herbal and craniosacral practice, Wild Carrot Herbs. As winter approaches, Mischa incorporates a mineral-rich blend of herbs into her daily routine. In the evening, she places a handful of her “NORA blend” (which includes nettle leaf, raspberry leaf, oat straw, and alfalfa) in a French press or Mason jar and covers it with hot water to steep. While she prepares the tea, she infuses it with an intention. “Intention is an incredible gift,” she says. It means “consciously tuning ourselves to look for and receive the quality of health and energy we hope to embody.” In the morning, Mischa strains the solids out and adds a bit of honey to the tea. The brew supports the strengthening of bone density, among other benefits. “It’s basically like eating leafy greens every day,” Mischa says.
Sipping tea isn’t the only way to take advantage of potent alternative medicines. Although there is no good medical evidence that aromatherapy can prevent, treat, or cure any disease, the use of essential oils for medicinal purposes dates to the eleventh century, with the study of their properties reaching even further back in time. Essential oils are compounds extracted from plants that capture the plant’s scent—or “essence”—in an oil. According to the National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, inhaling the aromas from essential oils can stimulate areas of your limbic system, a part of your brain that plays a role in emotions and long-term memory. This fact can partly explain why familiar smells can trigger memories or emotions. The limbic system also plays a role in unconscious functions like breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure, leading some to conclude that essential oils can have a physical effect on the body.
Karen Yarnold, owner of Lotus Garden Botanicals, has traveled the world sourcing high quality oils for her aromatherapy business. Essential oils contain volatile compounds, she explains, which, when released into the air, can offer health benefits. Many contain highly antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal properties. Since the pandemic began, anything antiviral is flying off Karen’s shelves. She’s quick to raise caution, though. “There are no essential oils, none, that have been tested against COVID-19. Be cautious of any retailers that claim the contrary.”
There are, however, several superstars in the area of respiratory support. Bay laurel leaf is a scientifically proven inhibitor against SARS-CoV.* Ravensara aromatica from Madagascar is highly antiviral, and Inula graveolens releases high mucolytic properties. Karen likes to blend these three powerhouses with monarda—also known as bee balm and commonly used to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression—in a diffuser. She prefers diffusers that use water, as opposed to the nebulizer style, because the steam helps fill the air with scent. “The molecules are actually clearing and cleaning the air,” Karen explains. “That alone can give someone peace of mind and a good feeling.”
Asked about specific mood-boosting scents, Karen notes “So much of this is personal preference.” Aromas that cause us to recall positive past events, like the smell of vanilla reminding us of baking cookies with a parent or grandparent, are emotionally powerful. She suggests starting out with well-known oils like lavender, lemon, and mint and expanding from there. Karen also stresses the importance of source-checking. “Your supplier should have the GC (gas chromatology) analysis for the specific batch in the bottle you’re buying,” she says. “There are a lot of adulterants out there.” All the oils sold by Lotus Garden Botanicals are tested, and at their storefront shop in Biddeford experts can advise those new to aromatherapy. The store also offers contactless pickup through their website www.lgbotanicals.com.
Mischa also takes advantage of aromatics in her herbalist practice. She uses the strong scents of herbs like thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano, lemon balm, spearmint, sacred basil, and bee balm to make teas that release antiviral properties into the steam when you add hot water. Before you take a sip, she says, take an extra moment to breathe in the aroma. “Many of these plants coat our mucus membranes with aromatic particles, so they’re protecting our nasal passage, eyes, and respiratory tract from invading pathogens.”
In the cold months, Mischa loves to use plants from our bioregion in her brews. She collects downed branches from pine, spruce, and cedar trees, using a paring knife to carve away the outer bark. She simmers the inner bark, chopped green pine needles, and broken twigs on the stove to release aromatics that support mood and mucus membrane health. Mischa also uses a homemade pine tree syrup as a cold preventative and expectorant (see recipe), noting the white pine’s strong vitamin C levels. For those wishing to learn more about using strengthening herbs for individual needs, Mischa offers consultations and trainings via her website www.wildcarrotherbs.com.
Whether or not you believe in the health benefits of herbs and oils, it’s hard to argue with the positive feelings associated with a good-smelling home or a warm mug of tea. Taking the time to experiment with natural remedies will bring pleasure to your home and your soul and might even spark a new interest in holistic practices.
White Pine Syrup Recipe
3 large handfuls of one or a combination of white pine needles (chopped), white pine twigs, scraped white pine bark
4 cups boiling water
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup brandy (optional)
Tools: quart mason jar, strainer, stove top
Place white pine in your mason jar, pour boiling water over and cover. Let steep for approximately 24 hours. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Reduce to about 2 cups. Turn off the heat and add honey. Stir to mix well, let cool. Add optional brandy. Store in refrigerator for up to 3 months.
Dose: 1–2 teaspoons, 1-2x/day as a cold preventative. Increase dose for an acute bronchial ailment that needs expectoration. *source: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18357554/
Note: Few high-quality clinical trials exist in the areas of herbal medicine and essential oils. This lack of testing has led to some concern over standards for dosage and purity. The addition of herbal remedies should be discussed with a doctor to avoid potentially harmful interactions with other drugs. In the area of essential oils, some are not safe applied directly to the skin, while others may have negative side effects. Again, it’s always best to consult with a professional.
Sarah Holman is a writer living in Portland. She is enthusiastic about cheese plates, thrift shop treasures and old houses in need of saving.