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Found: Wild Raspberry Leaf and Pokémon

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Wild red raspberries, a.k.a. Rubus idaeus, at Maxwell Falls, CO

This past weekend I decided I wanted to go for a hike to Maxwell Falls in Conifer, a pretty mountain town about thirty minutes outside of Denver. I’d never been there before, I just thought it sounded fun. Like any good Millennial, I trusted the online reviews of my peers and convinced my husband it would be a fun morning hike with the reward of seeing a waterfall at the end. It is also a Poké Stop. So, if you’re playing Pokémon Go…

Although it was crowded and steep, it was a GORGEOUS place and an herb-gatherer’s paradise. In particular, the trail was covered with wild red raspberries. Though most of the berries were not ripe enough to eat yet (that usually happens in mid-August or so), I did take the opportunity to gather a few of the prickly leaves. This is another herb I recommend for beginners. Everyone knows what a raspberry looks like, but if you don’t see any berries yet, the leaves are still easy to identify. They are spade-shaped (like the spade on a playing card) and a yellow green color on the front, silver-green on the back. The leaves have “toothed edges” as well. The stems are covered with small thorns-annoying, but not so bad you can’t pick them with your bare hands. When in doubt, just wait for the fruit. Then you know for sure what you are picking. Here is a botanical for your reference:

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Raspberry leaf has a long history of use as a women’s tonic, especially in the facilitation of childbirth. Its popularity in folk medicine has spawned numerous scientific studies into its efficacy and safety.

Several of the studies I found centered around the claim that taking raspberry leaf tea at the end of pregnancy will shorten labor. It seems this particular claim has not yet been proven, but there has been a surprising incidental finding that I feel keeps the herb in the winner’s circle: a double-blind study (Simpson et al, 2001) of 192 low-risk women who were given raspberry leaf tablets from the 32nd week onward of their pregnancy had a significantly reduced incidence of forceps delivery (19.3% vs 30.4%). Additional studies have shown that ingestion of the leaf may reduce the need in general for assisted delivery, to include not only forceps but cesarean, vacuum, and rupture of membranes as well (Parsons et al, 1999). Not bad!

I love scientific studies. I tend to include relevant ones in each of my posts because I find it interesting to try to flush out a reason behind a particular herb’s efficacy. But as I mentioned previously in my post, Review of The Three C’s, my ability to interpret such studies is limited. And sometimes there just isn’t a known reason for why an herb works-it just does. In the case of natural medicine, I feel anecdotal evidence can be just as valuable as a peer-reviewed study, if not more-so. So while there have been no definitive studies as to the efficacy of raspberry leaf in easing childbirth, I doubt generations of women have been wrong. At the very least, a cup of raspberry leaf tea is soothing and sweet and full of vitamins, including Calcium, Magnesium, and Iron.

So next time you go raspberry-picking, don’t skip the leaves. They dry quickly on a tray in a sunny spot and can then be saved in an airtight jar for, like, ever. Just put a teaspoon or so in 8 oz of boiling water, steep for five minutes, and add some honey. Fragrant, sweet, and nourishing.

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Raspberry leaves drying on a tray near my window

Review of White Willow for Back Pain: it’s the Tortoise, Not the Hare

 

 

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The White Willow Tree, Salix alba

Yesterday, I woke up in excruciating pain. Lately, I’ve been adopting some awkward sleeping positions due to the intense heat we’ve been experiencing. It is in some kind of desperate, subconscious attempt to flatten my body and thereby increase the surface area over which any miniscule breeze might flow that I have managed to wrench my neck in a most devastating fashion. In other words: I slept funny and now I can’t turn my neck.

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Dried bark of the White Willow tree

Awhile back, I tinctured up some White Willow Bark I’d purchased from Mountain Rose Herbs. White Willow, a.k.a. Salix alba, has a long tradition of use as a painkiller. Its dried bark is, in fact, the original source of Bayer’s aspirin. The primary pain-killing ingredient is salicin, which is converted by the gut into saligenin, which is then metabolized to salicylic acid, the active ingredient in Aspirin (you will see it on the label as “acetyl” salicylic acid).

There are pros and cons to taking White Willow instead of straight Aspirin. The main pro is that it also contains a large amount of tannins, which protect your stomach from the notorious irritation caused by over-the-counter pain killers, like Aspirin. Additionally, White Willow seems to have a lesser effect on coagulation than Aspirin (Altinterim, 2013). In other words, Aspirin thins your blood, and White Willow doesn’t, at least not to the same degree. In most cases, blood thinning is not a desirable side effect. Your body needs to be able to form platelets and clot the blood in order to heal cuts, for example.

The main con of White Willow Bark is that it takes much longer to experience any effect. It has to be metabolized into the salicylic acid and re-absorbed before any analgesic effects can be noted. This can take an hour or more.

But, in the name of SCIENCE, I elected to try the Willow Bark and put it to the test. I took two dropperfuls in water and waited an hour. Nothing, I tell you. NOTHING. And my tincture is fairly strong. It is a 1:3 ratio of Willow Bark to grain alcohol. (The standard ratio for Willow Bark extract is typically 1:4). I decided to consult my girl Dr. Marisa Marciano, the Naturopathic Herbalist, for dosing recommendations. She recommends 5-8 mL three times per day. Two dropperfuls is about 2-3 mL. So… I NEEDED MORE. I went ahead and took three more dropperfuls in water (about 5 mL, or another teaspoon-I was getting desperate).

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My tincture of White Willow. Pretty red color, but VERY bitter.

That did the trick. About 45 minutes later, I noticed my shoulders had relaxed and I reached for my son to pick him up without thinking twice. I ran a vacuum, lifted baskets of laundry (I am SO domestic, aren’t I?), and got on with my day. The pain relief lasted quite a while, too. About 8 hours passed before I felt I needed another dose. This herb seems to abide by the old Aesopian moral of “slow and steady wins the race.” Nicely played, White Willow.

Bottling Day: Horsetail, Shepherd’s Purse, and Fennel

Today is “Bottling Day” for a few herbs I’ve had tincturing: Horsetail, Shepherd’s Purse, and Fennel.

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First, a little background on the herbs themselves. I believe I already went into detail about Shepherd’s Purse in my previous post, “Review of the Three C’s.” But I’ll say it again: it is a WONDER herb. If you suffer from heavy periods, a small dose of this herb will change your life.

Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) is also a valuable herb. It is a strange-looking plant that I randomly came across while walking by the creek one day. It is quite easy to identify: it is bright green and shaped like a bottle brush with segments that much resemble bamboo. They look almost like tiny evergreen trees sprouting right out of the ground. Here is a picture I took as compared to a botanical:

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The odd-looking stalks in the botanical drawing are what the plant looks like when it is producing spores. These were growing along the river, too. If you’re thinking right about now that this is one weird, prehistoric-looking plant, you would be right. Apparently, these things have been around since the Paleozoic Era (about 400 million years ago). They were considerably larger then. Now, as you can see by the picture, they are only a few inches high. So what is their use to us? Well, Equisetum arvense is one of natures greatest sources of silica. Silica is essential in maintaining healthy skin, nails, and hair. As a person with decidedly UNhealthy skin, nails, and hair, I am anxious to try this out.

The Naturopathic Herbalist recommends taking the tincture four times a day, 2-6 mL at a time. She also recommends doing four weeks on, one week off. That’s probably due to the diuretic effect. Horsetail increases urinary output, which can result in a loss of salts like Potassium. So taking a week off would allow you to replenish your electrolytes, I would imagine. I think I’ll start with the 2 mL, which is about two dropperfuls, four times per day. I’ll keep you posted as to the efficacy.

The elemental silica in horsetail is actually present in its acid form, called silicic acid. I think I’ll also make my Mama start a regimen for her bones. There is an early study (Spector et al, 2008) that suggests silicic acid enhances bone growth, along with a Calcium and Vitamin D3 regimen, in osteopenic females. How great is this stuff? You can actually rebuild your bones WHILE gaining shiny, beautiful hair and nails? I’m sold.

And lastly, the fennel. I think most people are familiar with this licorice-y herb. You can eat the plant as well, but it is the seeds of the plant which are used in herbal medicine. These are the very same seeds that you find tucked into a tasty Italian sausage. They are chock full of volatile oils. The term refers simply to any unstable (rapidly degrading/evaporating) oil derived from plants. Basically, anything that has a strong smell can be counted upon to contain volatile oil. Peppermint and ginger are some well-known examples.

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Foeniculum vulgare, a.k.a. fennel

In the case of fennel, its volatile oils have a relaxation effect on the smooth muscles of the intestines. It has been used for centuries as a remedy for flatulence (hee hee) and “griping.” Griping is an herbalist term for the uncomfortable cramping that often accompanies stomach upset. You know, that “gotta-go” feeling?  If you find yourself in need of a laxative, for example, take it with fennel tincture. Just put two dropperfuls in with the water you are using to take the laxative.  I have tried it before and it is fabulous. It’s nice to take a laxative and not feel like you’ve ingested poison two hours later. (There are herbal  laxatives, by the way, but I have yet to try them. I’m sure I’ll make a post one of these days, since I seem to have a peculiar theme centering around bodily functions.)

Anyway, onto the bottling. I once again followed the tincture method given by Mountain Rose Herbs. If you are using dried herb, you fill a jar halfway with your herb and then fill it up to the top with 80 proof alcohol, usually vodka. If you are using fresh herb, fill the jar about 2/3 full. All of my tinctures brew for six weeks. Don’t forget to gently shake ’em at least a few times a week.

To bottle the tinctures, I like to strain each one into a Pyrex liquid measuring cup. Then you don’t need a funnel, since the measuring cup has a little spout that pours. You can use cheesecloth to strain the herbs, OR you can cut up a muslin blanket your baby never used (make sure it’s clean, of course). It is much cheaper than cheesecloth AND it doesn’t fall apart in the washer. Herbalism HACK!

The only fancy item you will need are your dropper bottles. I get them cheap on Amazon in a set of twelve. They come in brown or cobalt blue. I like the cobalt blue because “cobalt blue” sounds extra fancy. Lastly, you will want some adhesive labels to put on your bottles.

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Tincture bottling supplies
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1. Strain
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2. Pour
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3. Label
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4. Store in a dark, cool place

I ended up with five 2 oz bottles of Shepherd’s Purse tincture, five 2 oz bottles of Horsetail, and two 2 oz bottles of fennel (I used a smaller jar for the fennel). That’s TWELVE bottles of tincture. For the record, 2 oz bottles of tincture can cost around $20. Twelve bottles would cost you about $240. Just as a comparison (and to really gloat), here’s my bill:

Shepherd’s purse: free (I picked it)

Horsetail: free (I picked it)

Fennel: 99 cents from El Guapo Herbs

Apothecary bottles: $10.99

Vodka: $14.99 (and I still have half a bottle left)

Total: $26.97

That’s a savings of over $200.00. Even if I had needed to buy the herbs, they are so very inexpensive. You can get four ounces for a few bucks at Mountain Rose Herbs, which is MORE than enough for one jar of tincture.

More important than cost, though, is how much fun I have making these tinctures and my continued amazement at how truly effective they are. I seriously feel like Hermione in Potions class. So please, give it a try. Make tinctures. Use tinctures. They are safe*, they are cheap, and they work!

*Tinctures ARE safe for the majority of people. But for those with serious health conditions or anyone taking medications for chronic conditions like high blood pressure or cholesterol, it is always best to consult your doctor before starting an herbal regimen to avoid any interactions. 

Review of the Three C’s

***DISCLAIMER***

This post is about PERIODS. Menstruation. Aunt Flo. That time-of-the-month. Those with sensitive constitutions and no desire to discuss such things (teenage boys or those with the maturity of teenage boys) are advised to skip this one. 

 

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The Purse (center) along with some other goodies, like dandelion leaf 

 

Just to recap, a couple of days ago, I posted about testing the Three C’s of a Happier Period: Crampbark, Chamomile, and Capsella (Shepherd’s Purse). Crampbark is for pain, Chamomile for bloating, and Capsella for heaviness of flow.

My regimen has consisted of 15 drops of Crampbark tincture in water twice daily, 15 drops of Shepherd’s Purse tincture in water twice daily, and a cup of chamomile tea three times a day. Here is my honest review:

While I found the Crampbark effective and rather fast-acting (I felt relief of cramping/aching about thirty minutes after a dose), I did not find it to be particularly long-lasting. I obtained about 2 hours of relief from each dose. That being said, it was effective and you can take it more frequently.  (Dr. Marisa Marciano suggests 5-10 mL three times per day.)

As for the chamomile, I did not see any noticeable results where bloating is concerned. My stomach still feels and looks like a drum skin stretched over a boulder. But it is soothing and hydrating and helps me fall asleep. So that’s nice.

And lastly, the STAR of the show: the Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella). This stuff is a bloody miracle (pardon the ironic turn-of-phrase). This herbal tincture was meant to address heaviness. I have a personal problem with my periods being rather heavy, so much so that I lose a bunch of iron and get all anemic and uber-tired. It has been my lot in life since age 12. Enter Shepherd’s Purse. I could seriously write this herb a sonnet.

I awoke this morning expecting the usual carnage. Without going into too much detail, the second morning of my period always involves some frantic washing, rinsing, wringing, and crying. There is no amount of preparation that lets me off the hook. And yet, that did not happen to me this morning. No sir. For the first time in years, I did not have to deal with any of it. What’s more, I had run out of my size ginormous tampons and went to bed with a regular-sized one in, absolutely certain that would not be enough and I would be sorry in the morning. But I was fine.

I can’t tell you what this means to me. Where has this been all my life? And for the record, I made it myself. I found it, identified it, dried it, and tinctured it. ALCHEMY. This is very empowering.

(By the way, if Shepherd’s Purse does not grow where you live, I’m sorry. But not really, because you can buy some at this fabulous site and be sure it has been organically grown and responsibly harvested.)

I have spent the afternoon researching what is in this plant that might have such a profound effect. I seem to have narrowed it down to acetylcholine. Without getting too technical, acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that may stimulate the brain to produce vasopressin (Iitake et al, 1989). Vasopressin is hormone with myriad functions but, for our purposes, it should be known that it and synthetic versions of it are used by the body to control bleeding (Schweitzer et al, 1982). Well, well, well!

I may have it all wrong. I am, after all, NOT a scientist. My interpretation of scientific research, therefore, should be taken with a HUGE grain of salt. This blog is really meant to offer anecdotal support of herbs and their effects, and leave the science to the experts. Therefore, I shall close by reiterating my anecdotal support for the glorious Shepherd’s Purse: it worked, I love it, go get some. Or better yet, go make some.

It’s everywhere, so let’s make Plantain Oil

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That is a picture of Common Plantain that I snapped on a walk yesterday. Its Latin name is Plantago major. It is, like many useful herbs, considered an annoying weed, and it is EVERYWHERE lately. July must be the month for plantain in Colorado.

Incidentally, this plant has nothing to do with the plantain that looks like a banana and tastes yummy fried. The only thing the two have in common is the name, I’m afraid. You can eat this plant, but it is far more useful as a topical ointment.

Plantain is another plant that is great for novices, like myself, to collect, because it is easy to recognize and has no toxic imitators. The main give-away are those stalks that grow right out of the middle, even on the smallest specimens. Here is a botanical for a more scientific view:

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Anyway, since it is quite literally everywhere, I grabbed a bunch of it. I’m going to use scissors and snip it into smaller, bite-sized pieces (after rinsing the dirt off and patting it dry with paper towels), and then use the fresh herb to make a solar-infused oil. Here, I’ll write a formal recipe:

Plantago major Solar-Infused Oil

Ingredients:

1 pint-sized mason jar with lid

1 cup chopped, fresh common plantain leaves

1 pint extra virgin olive oil

1 window sill

1 crazy-hot summer in Colorado

Directions:

Put the cup of chopped, fresh plantain into the pint-sized mason jar. Fill to the brim with extra virgin olive oil. Label it with the contents, today’s date (the “in” date) and a date 4 weeks from now (the “out” date). Place it on the window sill for four weeks during the crazy-hot summer in Colorado, and the sun will do the work for you extracting the medicinal constituents from the plantain leaves. Shake it a few times a week for four weeks. At the end of four weeks, strain the oil through some cheese cloth and it is ready to use.

But what do  you use it for, you may ask? Well, the chlorogenic acid found in the leaves of P. major is a fantastic remedy for cuts, scrapes, insect bites, bee stings…all the bummers of summer, especially in little ones. (The Naturopathic Herbalist has a nice breakdown of all the medicinal properties of this plant, as well as its cousin, Plantago lanceolata.) In fact, you can simply mash up the leaves and put them on a bite/cut without the whole production of making an oil. But I want to make an oil because a) it is like alchemy and I feel wicked-cool doing it, and b) because I want to use the oil in a Calendula Salve I have plans for later this summer.

My oil is due to come out 8/9/16. When it is ready, I will try making the salve. Stay tuned!

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