Medicinal Herbs: A Quick Guide to the Body's Systems
I grew up in a holistically oriented household and, as an adult, natural remedies became a main focus of interest for me over 15 years ago. In 2002, my midwives exposed me to the healing powers of herbal medicines. Inspired, I went on to achieve my two year diploma in Medicinal Herbalism, with honors, from the American College of Health Sciences in Portland, OR on January 3, 2006.
I consider using the right medicinal herbs appropriately, along with a healthy lifestyle, to be excellent preventative care and excellent complimentary care -as in complimentary to "allopathic" medicine, when needed. Always make sure your doctor knows which medicinal herbs you're using to prevent accidentally combining herbal remedies and pharmaceuticals that could hinder each other, or worse, have a harmful effect on you.
Please also keep in mind that I'm not a doctor and am not licensed to diagnose nor treat medical conditions. Anything written in this blog is for informational purposes only and it is up to you how you use this information and to seek medical attention as necessary.
This is my "quick guide" to my favorite medicinal herbs for each of the body's 10 main systems!
Before I list my favorite herbs for each body system and other supportive herbs and contraindications, if any, let's go over the way we prepare 3 main types of herbal remedies and your options as the consumer.
You can buy the already dried herbal plant in bulk from a health food store, herbal apothecary, or local herb grower / Herbalist and prepare an infusion or decoction at home or purchase a glass-bottled tincture which is concentrated and is sold ready to use. You add 20-40 drops to an ounce of water and drink 1-3 times per day.
HERBAL INFUSION: With the leaf, flowers, and/or stem of the plant we make an infusion (AKA tea). Pour 8 oz. of boiling water into a glass jar or stainless steel container (no other metals) per 1-3 teaspoons of the herb. The longer it steeps the stronger it will be. Infusion time is recommended at 4-8 hours though infusions may be drunk after only 20 minutes of steeping if so desired. Remember that quality, dried products will have a strong fragrance and maintain their original color. If you see a plant, such as nettles, which is originally green and the dried product is brown, or doesn't have much odor, it wasn't handled properly and the active constituents have probably been lost.
So that's: 1-3 teaspoons per 8 oz of boiling water & 1 cup, 3-4 times per day. Preparing 32oz in the morning in a large jar for the whole day is convenient.
HERBAL DECOCTION: With roots we make a decoction. Roots must be simmered for 20 minutes prior to drinking to extract the active constituents of the plant which make it medicinal. These tend to be very potent and may require getting used to! Remember to use ONLY stainless steel (no other metals) when handling herbs, including boiling water and simmering roots. Simmer 1 teaspoon of root per 8 oz. of boiling water.
So that's: 1 teaspoon per 8 oz of boiling water & 1 cup, 3-4 times per day. Preparing 32oz in the morning in a large jar for the whole day is convenient.
TINCTURES: The tincture is added to a small amount of water (preferably warm water to be better absorbed by the body) and drunk 1-3 times per day. Tinctures are sold with a squirting tube attached to the inside of the lid and are ready to be used as soon as you purchase them! Please remember to never squirt tincture directly into your mouth without a base of water, juice, or tea. It is too potent and can damage the inside of your mouth. I use 1-2 squirts of tincture (or 20-40 drops) in an ounce of water at a time.
So that's: 1-2 squirts OR 20-40 drops in an ounce or two of water, 1-3 times per day.
Herbal remedies are best used for 2 weeks to 4 months at a time, followed by a break in use, depending on the remedy. Always check (or have your Herbalist check) for any contraindications associated with each herb. Some herbs are not safe if you have an allergy to a particular plant family, are not safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding, can cause irritation to the liver if used for too long at one time, or are not safe used in conjunction with pharmaceuticals, etc.
I tend to prefer tinctures to teas and decoctions for a few reasons. One, some herbs can only be prepared as a tincture and you may end up consuming a tea that has flavor, but no medicinal value (such as Milk Thistle). Two, if I'm going to consume an herb that tastes bitter or is potent, I'd rather take a “shot” of the concentrated tincture rather than sip all day on 1-3 CUPS of something offensive to my palate. Three, while a bottle of tincture does cost a little more than a bag of dried herbs, it's easier for me to prepare, easier for me to take with me from home, lasts longer than the dried herb if it goes unused for a while, and is well labeled when I buy it. It's just, usually, more practical in my opinion.
Note that I personally prefer HERB PHARM's tinctures to any others that I have tried EXCEPT with Milky Oats Tops. This is a surprisingly lesser-known and undervalued medicinal herb and people (even Herbalists) tend to group the milky oats tops with oat seed tincture and other oat remedies that just don't work the way the milky tops do. MILKY OATS TOPS have a very specific medicinal quality (I describe it below) and I prefer OREGON'S WILD HARVEST's tincture for this product. No other company that I have tried prepares this plant and produces the medicinal product that Wild Harvest does when it comes to Milky Oat Tops!
Here are the 10 body systems and my favorite medicinal herbs to be used as tonics for each system or to be used as remedies for the system's corresponding ailments:
Cardiovascular or Circulatory System (heart, blood, veins, arteries, capillaries) – Ginkgo biloba & Cayenne: Dr. Richard Schulze says that a squirt of cayenne tincture into the mouth can stop a heart attack! It is excellent for cleansing the blood, moving things to where they need to be (wastes, nutrients, active constituents, oxygen, etc), toning the blood vessels, and greatly improving circulation in general. Ginkgo biloba is excellent for this as well, and for increasing blood flow to the brain improving memory, cognitive skills, and assisting in preventing Alzheimer's. Hawthorn is a very supportive herb for STRENGTHENING THE HEART. I also recommend looking into Motherwort and Berberine, and their side effects, to see if they'd be right for you. (Ginkgo may potentiate the effects of medications treating male impotence and the raw fruits are toxic. Hawthorn enhances the activity of cardioactive drugs such as Digitalis.*)
Respiratory System (lungs) – Mullein: Wonderful for encouraging elimination of mucus while soothing the lungs and toning the respiratory system. This herb will make you cough up phlegm so be prepared for that! It's a gentle, yet powerful healer.
Integumentary System (skin) – Calendula: excellent for external wound healing and prevention of scarring and internal care of the health of skin. It is also an internal tonic for the entire body! I recommend taking Calendula as a tea. Also good for supporting the remedying of Candidiasis and can be used to douche in cases of vaginal yeast infection.
For burns I highly recommend Aloe Vera gel. For scabs and scars, lavender oil can be helpful. Honey used externally is also nourishing and soothing to the skin. And don't forget to eat your antioxidants (in a variety of richly colored fruits and vegetables- blackberries, blueberries, bell peppers, etc) and drink your lemon water -the skin LOVES that vitamin C!
Skeletal System (bones) – Horsetail, Nettles, Alfalfa: These herbs are gentle, mild flavored, and MINERAL-RICH for bones (and blood, skin, hair, nails, and nervous system)! Alfalfa is also alkalinizing to the blood which is strengthening to the bones in that it allows our blood to stop extracting calcium from our bones to keep a high calcium content in the blood, which is what happens when our bodies become too acidic from an imbalanced diet. Our bones suffer. We can treat our bones lovingly by maintaining a healthy pH balance (see my blog the acid-alkaline balance) AND giving them mineral rich herbs and foods!
Alfalfa is also known as an excellent remedy for balancing hormones. Too much or too little estrogen and it will help regulate your system.
Comfrey can also be used briefly in case of breaks or fractures.
I recommend MSM supplements & EFAs (essential fatty acids - fish, flaxseed, etc) for JOINT health.
(Internal use of Nettles may decrease the efficacy of anticoagulant drugs.* Handle raw nettles with gloves and shears as they will STING you otherwise!)
Urinary System (bladder, kidneys) – Uva Ursi: excellent medicinal herb for cleansing and toning the entire urinary tract. Bladder & kidney infections tend to be cured in 3 days of using Uva Ursi tea @ 3-4 cups per day. Beneficial for gravel, kidney stones, lacerations, and chronic kidney problems. It's THE best tonic for the entire urinary system out there. NOT for long term use. REMEMBER to drink extra water each day while taking this remedy AND that our bodies need a minimum of 64oz of water DAILY to function properly. It's best to drink an extra cup of water per cup of tea IN ADDITION to the daily 64oz.
Muscular System (muscles) - Not an herb, magnesium is important for the relaxation of muscles and herbs rich in magnesium will therefore support muscular relaxation and flexibility. In addition, bringing the typically over-acid body back into a well-balanced pH range is important for muscular health, flexibility, and pain relief. Introduce more greens into your life (salads, cooked kale, soups, juiced greens, and liquid chlorophyll in your daily water -sold online and in health food stores) and food-sources of potassium/potassium broth to facilitate the cleansing of acidity from tissues. Magnesium rich herbs: basil and parsley. Other muscular system specific herbs: Alfalfa, Passion Flower, Chamomile, and Parsley.
(Passionflower: not for use with monoamine oxidase inhibitors; will potentiate the effects of sedative drugs. Parsley: can cause allergic reactions; medicinal doses of extracts and essential oil not for use during pregnancy.*)
Endocrine, Lymphatic System, & Immune System (glands, lymph, spleen, pancreas, tonsils) – Cleavers: for the lymph & liver. Cleavers is also an excellent remedy for Herpes outbreaks because it helps detox the body by toning the liver and moving the lymph fluid. Our lymph is an important part of having healthy blood in that it helps keep the blood clean by moving out large particles of waste. In order to keep our lymphatic systems healthy and our immune systems healthy, the lymph has to be pumped through our bodies. Unlike blood, the lymph has no pump like a heart to move it along. While respiration supports lymphatic movement slightly, regular cardiovascular exercise and herbs that help the lymphatic system are VERY important!
For the endocrine system: Barberry, Myrrh, & Gentian. These are tonic herbs.
For the Immune System: Astragalus & Yarrow.
Yarrow for stomping out a virus. It is bitter and you may want to drink it with a strong peppermint tea and honey or agave nectar to sweeten. Keep in mind, too, that Yarrow is a diaphoretic and will temporarily increase your perspiration. And especially Astragalus to boost and strengthen the immune system, I also highly recommend this herb for those who suffer from allergies. Use of garlic and plant foods rich in vitamin C is supportive to the immune system as well! Crucial to the immunity is balanced acidity-alkalinity in the blood (eating and drinking lots of greens helps in a big way)... see my blog on the acid-alkaline balance!
OTHER for this category: Antiseptics- Calendula, Black Walnut, Eucalyptus, Echinacea, Nasturtium. Stimulants- Cayenne, Ginger, Peppermint, Horseradish. Tonics- Goldenseal, European Centaury.
Please remember that any immuno-stimulating herb MAY interfere with immunosupressant therapy.
(Avoid Barberry during pregnancy. Myrrh MAY interfere with existing antidiabetic therapy, as hypoglycemic properties have been documented. Gentian is contraindicated during pregnancy, for those with gastric or duodenal ulcers, and may cause headaches in predisposed persons. Astragalus potentiates the effects of interleukin 2 and acyclovir, but may be incompatible with immunosuppressive drugs [e.g., cyclosporine, azathioprine, and methotrexate]. SOME authorities caution against use of Yarrow during pregnancy. Goldenseal is contraindicated for individuals with elevated blood pressure. Prolonged use of goldenseal may decrease Vitamin B absorption. Do not use during pregnancy nor lactation.*)
Digestive System (mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestines) – Slippery Elm: I prefer to make a hot “tea” (it comes out thicker than tea almost like oatmeal) by pouring 8 oz. of hot (not boiling) water over 1-2 teaspoons of Slippery Elm POWDER. I add a pinch of cayenne because it is an adjuvent which means that it helps active constituents get where they need to go and do what they're supposed to do!
Slippery Elm is quite soothing to the ENTIRE digestive tract and therefore helps regulate constipation and diarrhea, coats the entire digestive tract (from mouth to rectum) as an anti-inflammatory which allows for healing in these areas, and it is nutritive meaning it is nutritionally rich and especially nourishing to the young, old, and sick. It thickens up while it sits, so remember to drink it before it becomes too thick in your glass!
Look to bitter herbs to stimulate stomach acid production if your digestion is sluggish such as Dandelion, Yarrow, Goldenseal, Horehound (do not use bitters in cases of pregnancy, kidney stones, gallbladder disease, dysmenorrhea, gastroesophageal reflux disease, hiatus hernia, gastritis, or peptic ulcer*).
Green cabbage juice, Cayenne (yes, cayenne!), Marshmallow, Comfrey, and Calendula for stomach ulcers.
Alkalizing of the body is crucial in cases of indigestion; increase the greens in your daily diet via salads, soups, cooked greens, juiced greens, and liquid chlorophyll in your water.
Ginger root (I prefer to juice it, but you can eat it in salads or make teas, etc, with it) is EXCELLENT for the digestion and for dissolving unneeded fat globules/adipose tissue. It's also great for blood circulation and “warming” to the body.
Also included in the “Digestive System” is the liver! I could write a whole blog (if not whole books) about the liver alone. Let's leave it at this. The liver has HUNDREDS of crucial functions in our bodies and sluggish/overworked/undersupported livers lead to hormonal imbalance, PMS & other reproductive system ailments, headaches & migraines, “dirty” blood that is therefore impaired in it's job of nourishing us and detoxifying our cells, a decrease in the body being able to eliminate unneeded fat, poor immunity, fatigue, and so much more. My favorite herbs for cleansing, toning, and stimulating the liver are BURDOCK, DANDELION, CLEAVERS, and for soothing, protecting, nourishing, and the only herb (in my understanding) that actually REBUILDS the liver: MILK THISTLE (must be consumed by tincture and not made into an infusion or decoction. Alcohol is required to extract the active constituents within it). I actually recommend that while people take hepatic herbs (for the liver) that they also use Milk Thistle to calm the liver while cleansing and stimulating it with the other herbs. I am very sensitive and hepatic herbs make me incredibly cranky if I don't have that soothing and nourishing support from Milk Thistle. I also take Milk Thistle when I feel irritated or headachey with great results.
(Slippery Elm may slow the absorption of orally administered drugs.*)
Nervous System (brain, spinal cord, nerves) & Special Senses – Milky Oats Tops! This remedy (when prepared properly, such as the tincture sold by “Wild Harvest” and not to be confused with Oat Seed tincture, Oat Straw, or ANYTHING but the milky tops) has excellent medicinal value for the entire nervous system. It is nourishing, calming, and stabilizing to the brain, spinal column, and nerves. It very gently elevates one's mood and is therefore beneficial to those suffering with mild to moderate depression. And it is an aphrodisiac in a gentle, yet unmistakable way! EXCELLENT for nervousness, melancholy, low sex drive, and other emotional & physical need for support of the nervous system, mood level, and libido.
Also for the nervous system, make sure you're getting enough easily-absorbed calcium and b-vitamins!
Reproductive System (male and female reproductive organs) – FOR WOMEN: Red Raspberry leaf and Chaste Tree Berry (AKA Vitex Agnus). You may need to avoid these herbs if you have adenomyosis. Avoid Dong Quai, in that case, as well. The estrogenic activity caused can make your condition worse.
Red Raspberry leaf is THE best tonic for the entire reproductive system in women. It is gentle, cleansing, toning, and strengthening. It is SUCH an excellent tonic for the uterus that it is recommended to women seeking to become pregnant to strengthen the uterus to encourage the development of a pregnany and is given to pregnant women to prevent miscarriage (unless you already have a history of miscarriage) and prepare the uterus for childbirth, also easing birthing pains!
Chaste Tree Berry is very gentle and yet powerful at bringing one's hormones back into balance. Suffering from PMS? Endometriosis? Ovarian Cysts? Other? Bringing the hormones back into balance and alkalizing your body is CRUCIAL to healing. I recommend herbal support and alkalizing the blood - see my blog on the Acid & Alkaline Balance.
Chaste increases fertility and should be used to help conceive, but NOT be used during pregnancy. Chaste also brings one's libido into balance. It is said that if your libido is weak it will increase it and for those who have too aggressive a libido, it will decrease it. I have found, FOR ME, that the tincture decreases my libido and drinking the tea increases my libido. The Chaste Berries can also be crushed and used like peppercorns if you like the flavor. Some do and some don't.
FOR MEN: Chaste & Milky Oats (as described above) for libido, mood, and balancing of hormones.
Saw Palmetto tincture and pumpkin seeds (ZINC) for prostate & hormone health. The tonic herbs listed under the "Endocrine System" category to support testicular health.
(Red Raspberry is not be used by women who have had a history of miscarriages.*)
*Information on Contraindication and Safety from "Medical Herbalism" by David Hoffmann, FNIMH, AHG
© Lindsay Swanberg – 2015. All Rights Reserved.