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March 8, 2004

The pharmacy on your spice rack: Culinary herbs and their medicinal uses
Sarah Holmes, CH

The concept of food being our medicine is as old as human culture. Actually older since the animals were doing this before we came along. People are starting to revisit this ancient concept. Ideally we get all the nutrients and healing we need from the food we eat. However, in this age of processed, homogenized, irradiated and genetically modified food, eating well can be a challenge. In addition to moving toward a diet comprised of whole, organic foods, we can look to culinary herbs to help us maintain our health.

Culinary herbs have many medicinal uses. It is not surprising that many herbs commonly used as cooking spices are also digestive aids. You can use the herbs as you have all along and just be more aware and conscious of their medicinal properties, or you can use them to make an infusion (tea) or a steam for a specific ailment because that is what you have in the house. When cooking with dry herbs remember to use about half the amount you would use of a fresh herb. Also steeping dry herbs in whatever liquid (stock, oil, lemon, vinegar, etc.) you will be cooking with prior to mixing them in, will help bring out their flavor.

Making a vinegar infused with herbs is yet another way to eat your medicine. Simply choose a vinegar (rice wine or apple cider work well here) and the herbs you would like. Put your fresh or dry herbs in a clean glass jar; pour the vinegar over the herbs. Make sure the herbs are completely submerged and the line of vinegar is about a half inch above the herbs. If the herbs are floating to the top, put a clean stone or stones in the jar on top of the herbs to hold them down below the surface of the vinegar.

Cover with a plastic lid or put wax paper or plastic wrap between a metal lid and the vinegar. The vinegar will oxidize a metal lid. Label the vinegar with the contents and the date you made it. You think you will remember, but you may not. Store this for a month in a cool dark place, like a cupboard or pantry. After a month, strain out the plant matter and it is ready to use. Herbal vinegars are fabulous as salad dressing, sprinkled over food, or taken as a spoonful of tonic.

Below are some common culinary herbs and their medicinal properties. The dosages listed are guidelines, pay attention to your body's response. If you are pregnant or have a serious medical condition, always consult a professional before ingesting significant quantities of herbs. However, if you are only using them in moderate amounts in your cooking you can safely enjoy them.

Basil (leaf, flower) is cooling and belongs to the mint family. It aids digestion, supports the stomach and is a slight sedative. (tea 4-6oz., tincture 10-15 drops)

Bay (leaf) is astringent, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. It supports the nervous system and stomach, helps dispel gas. It is also an emmenagogue, stimulates menstral flow. (tea 2-4 oz., tincture 10 drops)

Black pepper (seed) is stimulating, increases flow of gastric enzymes, and helps prevent constipation. (tea 2oz.)

Cayenne as you know is very heating. Cayenne strengthens the heart, capillaries, arteries and nerves. Good for cold feet and hands. It also stimulates stomach secretions and opens the bronchi. Mix cayenne with garlic, lemon, ginger and honey to make a tea to help get over a cold or flu. You can vary this tea with or without the ginger or garlic, and just use a pinch of cayenne. If you have a slip of the knife while cooking, packing enough cayenne to cover well the exposed flesh will help stop the bleeding and is anti-microbial. (pinch in your tea, 2-5 drops tincture)

Cinnamon (bark) is astringent, dispels gas, anti-bacterial, anti-microbial. It can also help relieve diarrhea. (tea 2 oz., tincture 5-10 drops)

Cloves are anesthetic and work well for toothaches (a drop of the oil on the offending tooth) and as a sore throat gargle. (tea 2oz., 10 drops tincture in water for gargle, do not swallow)

Fennel (seed) is a wonderful warming plant to help ease flatulence, indigestion, colic and gastro-intestinal spasms. Fennel will also ease throat tension and coughs as well as bring up phlegm from the lungs. (tea 4-6oz., tincture 10-15 drops)

Garden sage (leaf) is cooling, disinfectant and astringent. It cools a fever, cleanses the blood, eases headache and nervous tension. It also stimulates digestion and is an emmenagogue. Garden sage also works well as a mouthwash for sore throat, mouth ulcers and bleeding gums. Garden sage is the variety of sage that you will commonly find in the grocery store. (tea 4-6oz., tincture 10-15 drops)

Garlic is excellent when you are sick. It stimulates your immune response, is anti-microbial and promotes sweating. It is useful when traveling to discourage parasites. Garlic also decreases cholesterol, LDLs, and blood pressure. Eat with parsley if having garlic breath bothers you, or a loved one. To enjoy the medicinal effects of garlic it important not to get it too hot. The best way to cook with it is to sprinkle it raw onto your food, or add it in at the end of cooking once the heat is turned off.

Ginger is heating and increases circulation especially to the pelvic region. It is useful for nausea, motion sickness and to stimulate the appetite. Ginger makes a lovely footbath to warm you on a cold night. (tea 4-6oz., tincture 10-15 drops)

Nutmeg (seed) aids digestion, flatulence, diarrhea and nausea. It is a mild sedative in small doses and narcotic in large doses. It works well steeped in warm milk or brandy. (tea 2-3oz., tincture 5 drops)

Oregano (leaf) helps indigestion, coughs and headaches. It is an emmenagogue and is a good poultice for painful swelling. (tea 4-6oz., tincture 10-15 drops)

Peppermint (leaf) is both cooling and stimulating. It helps cramps from gas, bloating, motion sickness and nausea. Peppermint can also soothe a headache by drinking the tea or putting a cool cloth soaked in tea across your forehead. (tea 4-6oz., tincture 10-15 drops)

Rosemary (leaf, flower) is warming, both a circulatory and liver tonic. It is a digestive aid and stimulates the liver as well as gastric juices. It is an emmenagogue and will soothe a headache. Rosemary is very antiseptic and makes a good wound soak. (tea 4-6oz., tincture 10-15 drops)

Tarragon (leaf) stimulates the appetite, relieves flatulence and colic. It is also anti-fungal and anesthetic. (tea 4oz., tincture 10 drops)

Thyme (leaf) supports the stomach. It is also antiseptic (good as a wash for skin infections) and antispasmodic. It works well for congested lungs and shortness of breath. (tea 4-6oz., tincture 10-15 drops)

Turmeric (root) is warming, analgesic and astringent. It promotes bile, relieves a congested liver and gallstones and aids digestion. Turmeric also reduces tumors and uterine fibroids and is an emmenagogue. (tea 4-6oz., tincture 10-15 drops)

Many flowers are also edible and are beautiful additions to salads or desserts. These include borage, calendula, chive, lilac and nasturtium. Before you walk to you medicine cabinet, consider your spice rack and enjoy the process of cooking food. Take the time to eat your food at a comfortable pace in a calm setting. The sheer sensual pleasure that eating can be aids our health as it feeds our spirit as well as our body, nourishing our whole being.

Sarah Holmes, Clinical Herbalist
Blue Otter School of Herbal Medicine
Phone: (530) 842-3784

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