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Posts Tagged ‘seattle herbalist’

An attempt to clear the name of

Hypericum perforatum once and for all!

This little starlet is no stranger to the spotlight.  Once hailed as a wonder-herb for treating depression, the FDA (read: pharmaceutical companies) quickly mobilized a smear campaign to tarnish the herb’s image and create a dense fog of confusion around it’s use.  (This is easily and quickly done by employing our culture’s favorite scare tactic, the vague fear of nature.)  It was a setup from the beginning.  Trumped up claims about contraindications warned the public of the dangerous consequences of meddling with the affairs of the health professionals.  Soon after studies found it to be effective and safe in the treatment of depression, new studies were issued proving it to be ineffective and dangerous.  You have probably heard some of this libel.  Right now you may be subconsciously associating this plant with a feeling of mistrust.  They’ve gotten to you!  They’ve even gotten to a lot of herbalists and naturopaths afflicted with self doubt and/or plant doubt.  My aim is to restore St. John’s Wort to it’s rightful place as a safe and friendly herb, one that you might like to know.  You don’t detect a hint of fear in my writer’s voice, do you?  It is not because I am brave, or reckless (as it turns out, I am neither).  I just know that St. John’s Wort was framed.

St. John’s Wort didn’t have an inkling of what was being said about his character by the powerful forces in medicine.  He was just kindly growing and minding his own business.  But beginning in the 1990’s, all manner of insults were directed at the innocent wort. (Wort means “plant” in Olde English). To demonstrate his good nature, St. Johns Wort is as agreeable as ever and has maintained potent medicinal properties despite all of the slander.  Really, St. John’s Wort wonders what all the fuss is about.  And, seeing us get so worked up about anything, offers to let us have a chew on its’ flowers. “It might help” he says.
It’s true!  Taking St. Johns Wort raises the spirits and inspires confidence as it tames self-doubt and fear.

The Rub

In the previous post, we spoke at length about the virtues of St. John’s Wort. Here is where we come to the issue of safety.   What we’ve got here is a pharmacologically active and complex plant that has been used safely all over the globe for centuries.  It’s first documented reference appears in Gaelic in 600 AD.  Since then it has been made into tea and wine and poured down gullets; it has been made into oils and ungents and slathered on skin. So what is so dangerous about St. John’s Wort?  Well, nothing, inherently.  St. John’s Wort’s primary fault seems to be that it wasn’t designed to be used with modern day pharmaceuticals.
As you may have heard, St. John’s Wort is contraindicated with some medications, and studies come out all the time indicting it for producing herb-drug interactions.  These studies generally rehash the same information, but the sheer volume of the literature assures that when you do a search on St. John’s Wort safety on the internet, you will come away convinced not to take it.  Here’s the scoop from a pro-herb point of view.  Do not take St. John’s Wort when you are taking anti-depressant drugs because THEY PROBABLY WORK IN MUCH THE SAME WAY.  Not because St. John’s Wort causes an unpredictable reaction if you have taken Prozac recently, just that you DON’T NEED BOTH!  The FDA also doesn’t recommend doubling up on your dose of Prozac for the same reason.  So, St. John’s Wort and antidepressants?  It’s a simple case of one or the other, folks. Both can work, both can be dangerous when taken together, and one can be dangerous on it’s own. (That’s the drugs.)
Another important feature of this common plant that has been misunderstood is it’s unique action upon the liver.  St John’s Wort affects the pathway in the liver that is dedicated to the clearance of certain toxins.  Most notably it increases the metabolism of hormones and drugs, speeding their removal from the body.  This has important clinical ramifications, as it can be used for those wishing to rid their bodies of unwanted substances.  Examples might be clearing excess estrogen in women at risk of breast cancer, or breaking down pharmaceuticals that damage the liver or kidneys. The problem is that St. John’s Wort is really good at this, so if you are on a life saving medication or are putting excess hormones into your body on purpose (i.e. birth control pills), taking St John’s Wort can cause the rapid breakdown of these substances.  So, DON’T TAKE ST. JOHN’S WORT IF YOU ARE TAKING A LIFE SAVING MEDICATION, OR DRUGS THAT YOU LIKE.  DO TAKE ST. JOHN’S WORT TO CLEAR ENVIRONMENTAL TOXINS, HORMONES AND DRUGS THAT YOU DON’T LIKE FROM YOUR BODY.  This would seem easy enough to explain to consumers in plain terms, if the intention was education rather than obfuscation.  Instilling the populace with the mistrust of herbs has the predictable and desired effect of discouraging their use.  In actuality, the whole issue of herb/drug interactions should be considered another adventure in polypharmacy, not any more complicated than managing the care of the  patients who are taking multiple drugs at a time.  Herb/drug interactions are not only extremely rare, they are far less dangerous than drug/drug interactions or even drug/body interactions, for that matter.  So, in closing, if St. John’s Wort’s only crime is that it doesn’t play nice with a few pharmaceuticals, who can blame it?  Plants evolve new traits very slowly over thousands of years and new drugs are developed every day.  Back when St. John’s Wort differentiated itself from its’ ancestors, pharmaceuticals didn’t even exist.  I find it interesting, though, that it would be so well equipped for removing futuristic drug compounds in the body… Sorry, pharmies, but it’s survival of the fittest!

NOTE: For those of you wishing to experiment with St. John’s Wort, I must insist that you use only the fresh plant tincture or infused oil (for topical use). Nothing else will do.

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A rather dreary 4th of July here in Seattle. It’s raining at present and we’ve got the heat on. I imagine patriots huddled around the warmth of small explosions, sparklers sputtering. I am off to gather St. John’s Wort this weekend, and with morale waning in the NW as the long days of “summer” are pissed away in a grey drizzle,  I thought it fitting to dredge up an article out of the Radicle Review’s printed archives to address the ennui of my people (and, obviously, the author). This writing on the use of St. John’s Wort will be discussed in two parts. (Hang in there!)

Part one- A Real Saint

St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is one of those plants that is easy to overlook.  Despite the fact that it grows almost anywhere (covering meadows, cheerfully assembled along roadsides, a lone plant catching the roof runoff in a parking lot), few know this plant by sight.  It often falls into the category of LYF’s, or Little Yellow Flowers.  Never mind that if you look at an individual flower among the profusion on each plant, you’ll find an absolutely charming specimen. Closer examination reveals cute red freckles adorning each blindingly yellow petal. The stamens sport a jaunty tuft of pollen atop their points. The leaves are diminutive, though they are many in number, and in overall effect the plant seems to say, “Go for the flowers”.  This is exactly what I do.
The flowers contains hypericin (once thought to be the “active constituent”, now known as one of many), which is responsible for the dramatic staining of your picking fingers.  A little yellow flower turns the tips of your fingers a dark purple red!  I suppose you could wear gloves, but I enjoy being marked by this plant (this differs somewhat from my position on the picking of Stinging Nettles).  You can gauge the quality of a St. John’s Wort product by the depth of the color.  The tincture should be beautiful- dark but transparent like a jewel, the oil should be a deep earthy red.
The most popular use of St. John’s Wort is of course, as an antidepressant. It exerts a demonstrable effect on seratonin levels and in early clinical trials was proven to be as effective as the popular antidepressants of the time, with far fewer side effects and a wide parameter of safe usage.  It continues to be one of the most widely used medicinal herbs despite all of the hullabaloo surrounding it.
St. John’s Wort’s specialty is transforming mildly obsessive negative states of mind in the blink of an eye.  I am not talking about serious mental illness here- I am talking about repetitive thought patterns that do nothing to improve your situation.  To my knowledge every one has these from time to time, though some of us are more prone than others.
Just a dropperful or two of the fresh plant tincture promotes a lifting of sadness and feelings of futility, especially during the winter months when sunlight deprivation causes grim emotional states.  I have employed it with success in those who have seasonal affective disorder or SAD.  I recommend taking it for a few weeks at a time.
Now, St. John’s Wort is not a powerful psychoactive drug that can cause dependence.  You don’t have to carefully wean yourself off of it. It doesn’t alter your brain chemistry in such a way as to paint a smile on your face while your spirit drifts away. While some antidepressant drugs can fracture your ability to understand yourself and what needs to be changed in your life, St. John’s Wort can support the emotional growth process*. (*This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA).
Generally speaking, if St. John’s Wort is going to work for you, it is apparent almost immediately.  I have felt results from a very small dose (i.e. 5-10 drops of the fresh tincture) in a matter of minutes. Sometimes that is all it takes to set your head straight.  For those with long standing existential sadness, you may want to take it every day for a while. It is restorative to the nervous system after periods of intense stress, depression or depletion from illness or malnutrition.  When you are feeling burned out and weak and dark thoughts have invaded, St. John’s Wort can bolster your spirits.
One under-appreciated property of St John’s Wort (there are so many!)  is it’s ability to heal nerve damage from injury and tissue trauma.  St. John’s Wort can actually promote the re-growth of the myelin sheath in cases where the nerve has been completely severed!  The infused oil of this plant works great as a topical treatment for neuralgia and various neuropathies as well as general inflammation and pain. St. John’s Wort oil stars in my Sore Muscle Salve for its’ nerve-regenerating properties.  For those of you dealing with severe nerve pain (e.g sciatica, etc.), I usually recommend taking the tincture internally and applying the oil or salve externally.  St. John’s wort also demonstrates anti-viral properties. As you might imagine, it works really well for viruses that affect the nerves, like herpes for instance. A blend of equal parts St. John’s Wort, Echinacea, Lemonbalm and Burdock tinctures is my proven formula for recurrent herpes and shingles outbreaks.
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this installment of the Radicle Review. Stay tuned for part two of our examination of St. John’s Wort!  Next week we will tackle the overblown precautions in taking this fine herb (for the fair and balanced reporting you’ve come to expect from the RR), and I will dazzle you with photographs.

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With Sarah P, Your trusty plant guide

Are you taking hawthorne tincture, nettle capsules, or dandelion tea? Have you ever wanted to meet these plants face to flower? It’s exhilarating to meet herbs growing wild and free where you can see who they are! (They’re Alive!). I lead Plant Walks in Seattle parks to unite you with the living beings that you might be popping every morning in capsule form. My last Plant Walk in Discovery Park was a success! and it strengthened my resolve to spread the gospel of plant recognition.

There are a number of reasons why learning about your local plants is a good idea. From a philosophical standpoint, I consider botanical literacy to be a basic life skill. Having a basic knowledge of the plants that you can eat and use as medicine and how to pick, prepare, and administer them is just being a good cub scout.

From an herbalist’s perspective, it really changes the way you think about herbal medicine when you know the plants you are using. Just to be able to conjure up an image of the plant- perhaps as it’s growing in its favorite habitat, in its particular fashion, or how its flower smells-  these details are part of the healing.  Plants are complicated polypharmacy, yes. They are a dizzying cocktail of potent chemicals. Most of our original medicines came from these compounds due to their profound effect upon our physiology. But the real power of herbal medicine lies in the fact that plants are alive! You can have a relationship with them. And I believe you already do. They have been responding to our needs and desires for millions of years, adapting to and with us. Plants and humans are friends! Just being in their company relaxes our nervous system and lowers our blood pressure.  Being on familiar terms with the plants you take as medicine taps into these other mechanisms of healing that operate beyond the physical level.

It doesn’t take much to rekindle our millions-of-years-old direct relationship with plants- just noticing the plants around you is a great start. Spend some time with them. Being able to see a plant growing right in front of you, sucking up nutrients with its mysterious pumping mechanism, sending down sugars that it manufactured from solar energy, waving in the breeze (and all while smelling great!).  This is all that it usually takes to change your mindset from regarding herbs as weak drugs to living, breathing partners in our lives on this earth. It’s easy to overlook their importance, but not only do plants provide us with food and medicine, every second of the day they are quietly completing the other half of our respiration.
Dare I say, our better half?

Now, to insert myself into this process, having a plant guide is crucial to learning your plants. It really helps to have someone who loves them point out their riveting beauty, distinctive botanical characteristics, and medicinal properties.  On my plant walks we also discuss how to pick them, what part is used medicinally and proper dosing patterns, should you decide to gather and prepare you own herbal medicines. Or the cautious among you may just want to see me eat a bit of the plant before you go out there and try it on your own (perfectly reasonable).

If you are interested in attending a plant walk in Seattle in the future, send me an email at radicletea@gmail.com. Classes are on-going throughout the spring and summer. I hope to see you out there!

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Smart, smart nettle. Yesterday my friend Savahn and I went out to pick nettles with my new herb dog, Molly. We arrived at our picking spot to find that the nettles were in a fine mood, stalks blowing gently in the warm spring breezes, dappled sunlight speckling their leaves.  As we settled in, acquainting ourselves with the place and the plants growing there, Molly advanced toward a nettle.  Puppies generally test the world through their noses and sharp-toothed little mouths and I could do nothing to protect her from this potent lesson.  She sniffed a leaf, recoiled a bit, then chomped one casually.  The result? Yep, nettle will even sting a PUPPY!!

Molly retreated looking somewhat confused and punished.  A bit later as I receded deeper into the patch and was obscured from her view, she decided to rush the nettles and find me. I could see her getting stung again and again as she bounded bravely through the nose-level nettles. At this point I intervened, of course, scooping her up and placing her in a safe spot. She looked rather dazed, but recovered quickly.

Throughout the course of the afternoon as we travelled from patch to patch, I watched as she gingerly chose her steps, AVOIDING nettles!  It would seem, Dear Readers, that Molly has learned to identify her first plant!  (And in the process, shed a bit of puppy naivety for street smarts).

I’m inclined to think that this is precisely what nettles intended to do by evolving such a memorable defense against predation. As one of the earliest (and tastiest) green plants to emerge after winter, they had to do something or they would have been eaten to death! They would have just popped out of the ground after the ice age (give or take a few thousand years) and CHOMP.  Done.  Finished.  So they sprouted stingers to prevent nibbling by animals.  Now the only ones they have to contend with are humans with our rubber gloves (another brilliant adaptation), goats, and (hypothetically) giraffes, who also can’t feel their mouths. Well done, Nettles. And well done Humans, you clever monkeys, for figuring out that if you cook or dry the nettles, they lose their sting.

So, feeling smug about the ingenuity of my species and the botanical acumen of my dog, I went home and made all of my nettle harvest into NETTLE PESTO!  You really ought to try it, but you have to make your own. I have absolute faith in your ability to locate and make a positive ID on a stinging nettle. Just walk around in the lush spring growth in a moist woodland wearing shorts.

(The recipe for nettle pesto that I used is from Langdon Cook who writes the blog Fat of the Land. He’s a fellow nettle evangelist and an acclaimed wild-foodie that lives in Seattle. Take a peek.)

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Well, we have returned, but it turned out that the mythical plants down in Oregon and Northern California are at precisely the point of ripeness that our Seattle plants are (not that ripe at all). So we weren’t able to gather what we set out for. However, I would still consider the trip a success. I slept on the beach in the Redwoods and gazed upon a beautiful early spring landscape as we traveled down the coast and back up through the Siskiyous. And I am back in time to reap the harvest of one of our early spring medicinals- Nettles! Here are some more reasons to love her:

Nettles vs. Coffee

As someone who routinely renounces coffee and then falls off the wagon, I am all too familiar with the repentant state of adrenal depletion that follows a binge.  I’m on the tail end of a bender right now,  a hollow shell of the person I once was, jittery, exhausted, nerves frayed. This is perhaps why nettles hold such a particular place in my heart.  Nettles are the antidote to coffee.

Coffee, delicious as it is, shrivels and taxes the adrenals glands.  Nettle plumps and restores them. Coffee speeds you up and then burns you out.  Nettle fills your reserves with steady energy. Apparently, I am someone who likes a bit of both.  But I believe in the harm reduction model, and I think of nettles as being food for your kidneys and adrenal glands so that they can handle coffee sometimes. I can almost feel my adrenals chomping the nettles I send down to them, nourished at last.

Any period of prolonged stress or exertion can overwork the adrenal glands, which sit atop your kidneys like funny little hats.  Your adrenal glands are responsible for the production of all sorts of important chemicals such as the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, the sleep hormone DHEA, and the hormonal precursors to  estrogen and testosterone, so neglect in this department can be ruinous.  On the bright side, strengthening adrenal function can have a profound effect on your overall well being by balancing hormones, helping you sleep better and increasing your resilience during periods of stress.  With attention and some nettle tea you begin to feel like a sturdier, less brittle version of yourself.

In the spring, or whenever I’m on the straight and narrow, I drink a pot of nettle tea every day. Within about a week I can feel this energy welling up inside of me. It feels powerful, yet calm.  I am always surprised by this sensation because it’s not nervous energy, which is mainly what coffee provides me with (leaving me ravaged and shifty-eyed hours later). When we are truly nourished we feel bright-eyed and bushy tailed, but also calm and self possessed. The lure of caffeine is that it can trick us into feeling awake and alive when our body is telling us something different. Now I know coffee is a plant also, and I certainly don’t want to slander a plant, but I’m going to go ahead and say I think nettles are a better friend. And they are probably growing near you right now, friendly little baby nettles with their stingers drawn, just waiting to get your attention.

Here are the details for having nettles as tea. Put 4-6 Tablespoons of dried nettle leaf into a quart sized teapot or mason jar. Pour boiling water over the herb, cover and let steep for 30 minutes or so. Pour through a strainer and drink the whole quart throughout the day.  (If you want to make one cup at a time it’s one rounded Tablespoon per cup).

For those of you not afflicted by a love-hate relationship with caffeine, try some nettle tea anyway.  I expect to have some nettle revelations in the “comments” section in a few weeks.  Wondering where to buy nettle? Email me at radicletea@gmail.com.  Cheers!

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