Gill Stannard

Monday, September 15, 2008

Top 5 herbs from the garden and pantry

National Herbal Medicine Week (an initiative of the NHAA to promote Western herbalism) will be celebrated this Saturday, 20 September, at Ceres (Cnr Roberts and Stewart Sts, East Brunswick).

The Victorian branch of the NHAA will have a stall at the Ceres Market from 9am – 1pm that will feature free herb tastings such as tea blends and some interesting foods like “weed pie”. There will be local, qualified herbalists on hand to answer your questions on all things herbal and the Ceres nursery is well stocked with herbs to buy and take home.

This is a great opportunity to learn about how to use herbs at home as well as discovering more about this growing profession, while enjoying all the fun of the Ceres market.

To find out how NHMW is being celebrated in other states click on this link or contact the National Herbalist Association.

With this in mind, I thought this week would be a good time to nominate my Top 5 common herbs from the pantry and the garden. These are all plants that most people are familiar with in cooking but are also worthy additions to a home medicine cabinet.

1. Garlic (Allium sativa)

This is a multitalented herb that goes way beyond bringing a spark to savoury cooking. Its traditional use is primarily as an anti-infective (fighting bacteria, viruses and also fungal infections). It is commonly eaten whole for respiratory infections and hayfever, as well as used externally in WWI and WWII to treat gangrene. It is currently being researched regarding cancer prevention, the treatment of the common cold, pre-eclampsia.

The active ingredients were found to be so strong that if you applied a garlic poultice to the soles of your feet at bedtime, you can smell garlic on the breath by morning (be careful if you want to try this yourself as the sulphur in garlic is strong enough to slightly burn the skin unless oil or a similar barrier is applied to the feet first).

Scientific examination of garlic has found it plays a role in cardiovascular health – possibly lowering harmful cholesterol, reducing atherosclerosis and lowering blood pressure.

Personally, I think this is only the tip of the iceberg as far as garlic’s health properties are concerned. As a general immune and cardiovascular tonic consider taking 1 clove of raw garlic a day (not the pre-crushed stuff which is often laced with preservatives). Crushing garlic can help release some of its powerful constituents, however cooking can also reduce them. Try adding it to salad dressings but add some fresh parsley too if you aren’t so keen on garlic breath.

2. Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

An ancient herb with a myriad of uses, thyme is easy to grow in Victoria. Like garlic, thyme is also a rich anti-infective herb. It is antiseptic, antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral. It can also relax bronchial muscles and help relieve a cough so makes a good all rounder for cold and flu season.

A traditional way of using thyme is to pick some fresh thyme, place into a clean jar and cover it with the best quality (preferably unheated) honey you can find. Take a teaspoon daily to build up your immune system, increasing to three times a day at any sign of a respiratory infection. It can also be drunk or gargled when mixed with warm water.

Another traditional use for thyme is a to add a generous handful to a bath, when you are suffering from exhaustion. After a soak, dry yourself and hop into bed. It is said to promote a deep and restful sleep. When I was first studying herbs this was a favourite remedy of one of my mentors and she swore by it for getting her through her busy home and work life.

As a powerful germicide, thyme also makes a great toilet cleaner. Make a strong decoction (ie: pot of tea) of thyme and use it as a natural and possibly more effective, alternative to commercial toilet cleaning products.

Some internet sources carry a warning that the use of thyme may suppress thyroid function and is contraindicated in people with clinical hypothyroidism. This appears to be a misquoted 1980’s rat study and to date there is no evidence based medical evidence to support this.

3. Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)

One of my all time favourite herbs, chamomile calms the nerves and settles the digestive system but as science begins to unlock the secrets of this modest herb there is so much more than it can do.

As an antiinflammatory, a key constituent (chamazulene) needs to be converted by a simple steaming method. Basically this means make chamomile tea in a teapot (with a lid) and this property will become bioavailable!

A cup of chamomile tea with each meal has been found to reduce hyperglycaemia and diabetic complications.

As an anti-spasmolytic, chamomile reduces bowel spasms such as in irritable bowel but combined with the antiinflammatory properties, chamomile tea is a handy tea to take for any inflammatory gut conditions (eg: Crohns, colitis etc).

A pot of chamomile tea added to the bath water is a great way of administering herbs to babies. Chamomile is particularly suitable for distressed or inconsolable little ones, or those with irritated skin, eczema or colic.

Chamomile tea, or flowers simmered in milk with honey makes a pleasant sedative.

Is it ok to drink chamomile tea in pregnancy? Many sources claim that this simple tea is contraindicated when pregnant and is sometimes repeated by midwives and obstetricians. With a little detective work it appears this comes from a general warning that some people are allergic to members of the daisy or ragweed family. This is not specific to pregnancy. If you drank chamomile previously with no reaction there is currently no evidence to suggest it should be avoided when pregnant.

4. Ginger

I shared my love of ginger in a previous program. Click on the link to find out more about this herb’s medicinal properties – including the treatment of bloating, nausea, pain, coughs and possibly cancer.

5. Cinnamon

Cinnamon also got a whole show of its own. It has similar warming properties (to the gut, uterus and lungs) as ginger. It is also antiinfective and like chamomile is emerging as a treatment for diabetes.

If your doctor is monitoring your blood sugar levels consider adding a cinnamon stick to a handful of chamomile in a teapot and brewing up a pot each day.

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