Herbs and Medicinal Uses


November 7, 2019

Courtesy of Mike Heath

Above: Freshly growing parsley.

I've pretty much shut down the greenhouse for the year now that we've had a couple of really cold periods of weather. During the day it would heat up just perfect and at night it still stays about 25 degrees warmer than the outdoor temperature. But when its 4 below zero outside and 24 inside, it's still too cold for tomatoes and peppers. Right now all that is left is the herbs. They can take some colder temperatures for short period and do just fine. So the rosemary and chamomile are still alive. I'll cut all the chamomile today and dry it for tea. Since the rosemary has to last through the winter, I'll have to put a couple of heat lamps on it to keep it going. I've started growing more herbs lately than I ever thought I would have just a year ago.

Herbs are used for so much. We all know about cooking with herbs and anyone who cooks uses herbs. Many herbs are even used in medicine. Some are used to change the taste of a medicine so it will be taken and not spit back out. Several oral medicines are simply too bitter to be able to go down well without having the natural flavor covered up with something. Think of cough drops. They are flavored with fruits and herbs to cover up the bitter taste of the drug and give it a flavor that people are willing to put in their mouth. Otherwise they would burn, kind of like cinnamon.

Then there are medicinal herbs (and plants) that you know about, but just don't equate with medicine. But, think about it. Synthetic medicine has only been available for a few decades and that is a very short time, relatively speaking. Yet people have been taking medicines for, well, thousands of years. So where did those medicines come from. In short, plants. Trees, shrubs, roots and herbs have all been used for both medicine and culinary purposes. For example, Salicin (metabolized to form Salicylic Acid) is naturally occurring in willow trees. Acetylsalicylic Acid is the synthetic product we call aspirin. Salicylic acid is the precursor to aspirin. Earlier peoples around the world would chew willow twigs or bark to alleviate pain. Or they would make a tea to drink. Today, herbal medicines are making a great comeback and are becoming popular again. Many people just don't trust the pharmaceutical industry with all the warnings and cautions on the medications being advertised. Not to mention the cost. Herbal products aren't near as potent as their synthetic counterparts (at least in most cases), but they also lack the added chemicals that are used to make synthetics stronger and help them keep their potency longer. Herbal products often have a somewhat shorter shelf life and may not be quite as strong, but they also have fewer side effects when taken properly. I don't know about you, but I watch the ads for various drugs on TV and pay attention to all the possible side effects. I honestly don't know why anyone would even consider taking them. Most of the ads make it sound like it would be pretty easy to die from the product they're advertising.

Herbal products are also gaining popularity with general medical practitioners. I was surprised nearly twenty years ago when I was prescribed saw palmetto by a practicing Urologist for prevention of colon cancer. Nearly thirty years ago I spoke with an OB/Gyn physician who had a patient who refused progesterone therapy after a hysterectomy. She chose to use black cohosh (a natural progesterone) instead. She had much better results than any of his other patients and no side effects. As a result, he started recommending black cohosh as an alternative to synthetic progesterone. Since then I've had very good discussions with other practitioners about herbal medications and most were at least willing to discuss their uses logically.

Some of the herbs commonly used for treatment of illnesses and other aliments are: peppermint, parsley, stinging nettle and lemongrass. Before I give you some of the uses of these herbs, please understand that if used improperly they can also cause harm. If you don't know exactly how to use them, you need to consult a professional. Don't just go out in the backyard and start eating these herbs without regard to their effects.

Peppermint has been used for medicinal purposes in my family for several decades. But not in its pure form. In fact, we keep a big jar of peppermint candy on top of the fridge. Whenever one of us gets a slight bellyache we eat peppermint candy. It helps. We've even dissolved peppermint candy in water for the kids when they had a tummy ache. That includes the babies...they'd just get it in a bottle. Peppermint has been shown in research from several university research centers that it is great for indigestion and bloating. It relaxes the muscles in the stomach and intestines to help expel gas. The herb is also a natural decongestant. One of the active ingredients in the peppermint plant is menthol which helps loosen phlegm and reduces coughs, Menthol is used in many commercial cold medications. Peppermint (usually as oil) should NEVER be used on the hands or face of a small child. It can cause breathing difficulties and even death. The undiluted oil can also burn the skin or cause reactions. It will also make gallstones worse. That's why I said that if you aren't sure what you are doing, consult a professional.

Parsley is also an aid to indigestion and flatulence. Besides testing good, it's nearly a super-food all by itself being very rich in vitamins A, C, and K, is a powerful antioxidant, contains beta-carotene, folate, calcium and chlorophyll and it's the richest source of plant-based iron on the planet. FYI. Plant-based minerals are the easiest for the body to absorb.

Who in their right mind would ever want to eat stinging nettle? Believe it or not, the plant is used in many cultures for food. You just have to know how to prepare it. On the medicinal side, though, it has several uses. Stinging nettle works similarly to saw palmetto to slow or even stop the growth of prostate cancer cells. It has the ability to reduce the pain from osteoarthritis and other joint pains and can be used either orally or topically. It works without the side effects of the NSAIDS (Non-steriodal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs). It is also used with hay fever, eczema and bleeding. Again, consult a professional.

Lemongrass has a long list of uses. It is used as an oil, tea, or can even be dried and taken in a capsule. It has been shown to reduce cholesterol levels, ease sore throats and cough and with anxiety, colitis, Type 2 diabetes, constipation, insomnia and other ailments. It does have some bad side effects if used improperly, though. For example it can be detrimental to pregnancy, young children and people with liver or kidney disease. Consult a professional.

Lemongrass, stinging nettle and parsley can be grown here, but they're annuals since they won't survive the winters. Peppermint spreads and will take over if you let it. Then it becomes a weed. Next week I'll talk about growing herbs, particularly the culinary varieties. On using the medicinal herbs and plants, don't ask a master Gardener. Consult a professional. But on the other hand, if you want information or help growing herbs, ask a Master Gardener. It's what we do.


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