In modern time, many people have difficulty with sleep. In this guide we'll walk you through some of the most important factors for promoting healthy sleep, including herbs that can play a supportive role.
Please keep in mind that though what we'll discuss here are foundational things for healthy sleep, for some people they may not be enough. Please consider seeking medical help if needed. And if you are looking for support in working with herbs, we'd suggest talking to an herbalist.
1. Have a consistent sleep and wake schedule
Experts agree that in terms of healthy sleep there are many benefits from keeping a consistent sleep time and wake time, even on the weekends. This can help to regulate our circadian rhythms and natural hormonal shifts that take place relative to sleep and wakefulness.
In the modern day this is not easy! It's common to stay up late and sleep in on the days off from work. For those looking to improve their sleep though, it may benefit to start moving toward a more consistent direction, even if it's a small change (for example 30 minutes closer to the same time).
2. Have healthy daytime habits
Exposure to daylight and daytime exercise are two things that can have an impact on sleep.
Exercising consistently in the morning hours can help stimulate seratonin. Seratonin contributes to feelings of wakefulness and alertness, and it is better for sleep if it's stimulated earlier in the day.
If it's not possible to exercise in the morning, then consider getting at least a chance to spend time outside in the daytime hours.
Additionally, a lot of people are not able to sleep restfully due to the effects of stress. How are you managing your stress during the day? Are there additional tools you could be utilizing? People you could call on for support? If sleep is an issue, consider looking further into ways to support yourself during the daytime hours so that you feel more relaxed and ready to sleep at night.
3. Consider the effects of food on sleep
Consider eating a breakfast and lunch at consistent times during the day. Including protein in your breakfast meal will help to increase feelings of wakefulness because protein can promote the synthesis of dopamine. Also, protein takes longer to break down than carbs and can provider longer lasting energy.
At nighttime, it's best to avoid eating 2-3 hours before bedtime. If you do feel the need to eat closer to bed, choose higher-carbohydrate foods which can digest more quickly and easily, and which naturally may promote feelings of sleepiness.
4. Be aware of stimuli
The obvious stimuli are substances like caffeine and tobacco (but alcohol too can interfere with good quality sleep even though it may initially promote drowsiness). Consider limiting or avoiding these substances, especially in the evening, if you are having difficulty with sleep.
Light is another major stimulus when it comes to feelings of wakefulness. The big one is screens, which due to their blue light may interfere with melatonin (a sleep promoting hormone). Ideally, limit exposure to screens for at least 1 hour before bed. If you like to read on a screen, consider reading printed material in low light instead.
Additionally, consider reducing other indoor, artificial light sources as the sun goes down in order to promote natural circadian rhythms.
5. Utilize relaxation techniques
In addition to the many tools and support mechanisms for managing stress during the daytime hours, there are some specific techniques for promoting relaxation and rest at night:
- Take a hot bath or shower 1-hour before bed
- Do meditation or yoga to unwind
- Journal with pen and paper to process emotions
- Write down lists of things you need to do, and maybe even put them on a calendar
- Chat with a loved one or friend
- Drink a cup of herbal tea
If you're not sure where to start, consider picking just one thing and giving it a try for some time.
6. Optimize your sleep environment
If you have the means available, consider optimizing your sleep environment starting with your bed itself. How comfortable is the mattress itself? Could it be more comfortable by replacing it or adding a mattress pad? Also consider the bedding and sleep clothing you're utilizing to optimize comfort.
Also consider eliminating light sources in your bedroom by using heavy or blackout curtains, and by reducing or eliminating electronic sources of light. Why do you need to see the digital clock? If you are setting an alarm anyway, it probably doesn't actually help to know what time it is if you wake up during the night.
One sleep expert suggests that if you can see your hands in front of your face with the lights out in your bedroom that's too much light - keep on trying to reduce it even more.
For people sharing their bedroom space with others, there may also be issues to address when it comes to the way that others are affecting their sleep. Though it is doubt not easy, keep in mind that that snoring, etc. of others may ultimately may need addressing too.
And also if possible consider optimizing the bedroom itself for relaxation and comfort. The bed should really be for only two things: sleep and sex. How can you change what's in the bedroom so that you're not doing other things there like watching TV, working, etc.?
7. Utilize herbal remedies that promote sleep
As you can tell from this whole blog post, herbs are just one part of the equation and they are not a magic fix all on their own. But they can play a big part in promoting healthy sleep!
First of all, please keep in mind three things when it comes to herbs and sleep:
1) The proper dose is needed to have effects. If you are less sensitive to herbs, you may need more than expected, for example two tea bags instead of one
2) There are many reasons that cause people to do better with some herbs for sleep than others, including individual constitution, underlying health conditions, individual differences in metabolism and more. If you don't find effects from one herb, don't give up! And rather than simply trying things on your own, we'd strongly recommend doing an herbal consultation to get guidance in finding the herbs that are most likely to work for you.
3) While herbs can play a big role in healthy sleep for so many people, in some cases, herbs just may not work. This may include people with long-term, chronic and/or severe insomnia, people with underlying health conditions or people using certain medications. If you think you may be one of those people, we would suggest seeking medical advice to support sleep.
There are two main issues with sleep: falling asleep or staying asleep. Here are some gentle herbs that may assist with falling asleep:
Oftentimes people like to take them as an herbal tincture 30-60 min. before bed. Some people like them as an herbal tea, however be aware of how fluid consumption may create a need to wake and urinate.
No matter the form consider consuming the herb in a mindful way: noticed the smell, the taste, the feel in your mouth and in your body. Allow your body, mind and spirit to relax and be open to the ways that this plant may provide a sense of comfort and support. Doing so amplify the effects you feel from working with this plant.
Another strategy is to take the first dose of herbs 1 hour before sleep, and another dose right before bed. This can sort of prime the body to begin winding down, and then give an extra relaxation boost when it's time to fall asleep.
If the problem is not falling asleep but staying asleep that can be more difficult. Some people like to have a tincture by their bedside for if the wake during the night. Two herbs that might help with staying asleep when taken before bed are:
- California poppy
In modern times, for many reasons, sleep issues are common. There is a lot we can do in the realm of diet and lifestyle to improve sleep. There are also herbs that can play a role. We'd suggest speaking with a clinical herbalist for guidance. And if your sleep issues are severe, or due to an underlying medical condition, we'd suggest speaking to a medical doctor.
We are here to help - please let us know if you have any questions!
Winter, W. C. (2018). The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It. United States: Penguin Publishing Group.
Get sleep support from an herbalist
🌿 Schedule a "quick advice" herbal consultation for a 20-minute chat
We'll come up with a custom herbal sleep formula for your individual needs.
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We'll help you to find the root cause of sleep difficulties with a comprehensive review of your overall health and a personalized herbal, diet and lifestyle plan.
What is holistic medicine?
The term holistic medicine can refer to a style of practice of conventional medicine. More often, it refers to alternative healthcare modalities including herbal medicine.
Here are the some of the major differences from typical conventional medicine:
Body, mind and spirit are addressed as an integrated whole
The practice of conventional medicine is based on a mechanistic view of the body that was developed in the 1600's in Europe. Philosophers such as Descartes developed a worldview that separated mind and body (which was done, perhaps ironicaly, for religious reasons). The mechanistic view sees the body as a collection of individual material parts, and treatment aims at making changes in those individual parts. This paved the way for the great medical achievements we can all be grateful for.
By contrast, the holistic view of the body sees the person as an integrated whole. In broad terms, we say that holistic medicine address body, mind and spirit. This doesn't mean rejecting the mechanistic view, but adding an additional lens through which to understand health.
This means that when someone has a imbalance, a holistic approach would be to look at the broad, overall factors:
- How does lifestyle play a part?
- How do stress and emotional health contribute?
- How are the parts working together as a whole, on a subtle, perhaps immaterial level?
Find the root cause of imbalance
While a good conventional medical doctor definitely will seek to identify causes of illness and address them, holistic medicine generally prioritizes this much more.
Holistic modalities such as herbal medicine do also have the ability to address symptoms, just as conventional medicine does. But the power in holistic medicine is the ability to go beyond that and to seek resolution or at least longer-lasting relief by address the causes of imbalance.
Often times people experience multiple symptoms that may have similar root causes. For example, someone may experience digestive issues, skin flare-ups and sleep issues - these can all be addressed symptomatically with conventional and holistic medicine. However they may all relate back to a common root cause, such as stress, digestive insufficiency, food intolerance, or a sedentary lifestyle. A holistic provider can help to identify the root cause and provide support in addressing it.
Gentle remedies that support the body's own ability for self-healing
Holistic medicine generally supports the use of gentle, non-invasive interventions.
While gentle interventions are safer and less likely to cause adverse effects it doesn't meant that they are less effective. Holistic providers often believe that the body has its own capability for self-healing. By working with this capability rather than seeking to provide a substitute for it, profound changes can result.
Take for example someone who is experiencing occasional heartburn. One approach would be to reduce acid in the stomach with medication. This is certainly a helpful thing to do in some cases because it can prevent the harm that chronic reflux can cause. But a more holistic approach would be support the body's ability to heal the muscosa and prevent the need for medication. Gentle remedies used in this process often take time to have their full effects, but the effects may be more lasting.
Holistic medicine is generally much more individual and personal that conventional medicine (though conventional medicine may be becoming more personalized). Personalized approaches can often lead to better results with less adverse effects.
For example, in herbal medicine we often use the lens of individual constitution. There is a long history in medicine traditions around the world in recognizing different constitutional types: there are "fire-y" people, "air-y" people or "earthy" people, for example. Herbalists provide remedies that not only are specific for the symptoms someone is experiencing, but which also match their unique constitutional type.
The personalized approach is one of the reasons why using gentler interventions can still provider profound results. With the art of personal assessment, holistic providers can help people to more naturally shift back into a state of balance based on their own patterns.
Different types of holistic medicine modalities
There are many different types of holistic medicine.
This is a part of all cultural traditions throughout the world. While still utilized by an estimated 80% of the world's population, just a few generations back it would have been close to 100%.
Herbal medicine thrives as a modality that is natural, safe, and convenient in that it can be utilized right at home.
Acpuncture is one part of Traditional Chinese Medicine. It involves the use of needles placed at various "meridian points" throughout the body. The theory behind acpuncture is that it allows the practitioner to manipulate subtle energy channels or "qi" in the body to promote healing.
Naturopathic medicine has been practiced in the U.S. since around 1900. It is a modality that incorporates conventional medicine but which adds in holistic therapies such as herbs, homeopathy and manual therapy. Naturopathic doctors are licensed to practice medicine in several U.S. states, including Vermont, meaning that insurance can sometimes cover naturopathic care.
Ayurveda is the traditional healing system of India. It's based largely on the understanding of how three different "doshas" operate in the body: vata, pitta and kapha. Ayurvedic practitioners may use a variety of methods to address health, including the use of herbs and minerals, massage, diet, detoxification therapies and more.
This is just a short list of examples, there are many more!
How to incorporate holistic medicine into your life
As herbalists, we are in full support of conventional medical care, and suggest that everyone have a doctor who can provide them that care when needed. We see holistic medicine is something that you can incorporate into your life as a complement to your conventional care.
Self-study in holistic medicine is an option for certain things, like handling minor, everday ailments, and for preventing illness. However where there are more difficult health challenges, we suggest working with a holistic medical provider to help guide you on your path to wellness.
As herbalists, we are happy to help support you on your healing journey. Check out the information below to learn more.
Get holistic support from an herbalist
🌿 Schedule a "quick advice" herbal consultation for a 20-minute chat
We'll pair you with an herb or herbal blend that matches your personal constitution and individual mental/emotional needs.
🌿 Looking for deeper support with mental/emotional health? Schedule our 3-month herbal support package.
We'll help you address the root causes of imbalance with herbal support plus diet + lifestyle support.
Many of us are facing some form of health challenge. It may be the effects of stress on sleep, digestion or mood. It may be a low-grade, chronic health condition. It may be a new issue that was unexpected.
Herbs are effective
You probably already know from your own experience that plants work. Maybe you have felt the energizing effects of echinacea when sick, the soothing effects of licorice on a sore throat, or the calming effects of a nice cup of chamomile tea.
What not everyone is aware of is that plants can also help with the more challenging health issues that can come up.
Our traditions shows us this
When looking at the world as a whole, we can see that many people rely on herbs. Estimates are that around 80% of the world's population relies on herbal medicine for some part of their primary healthcare.
In the U.S., there are people who grew up relying on herbs in their home. For those that didn't, it only takes looking a few generations back to see that the history was there. Our ancestors didn't know everything, and didn't have all the modern tools we have, but they were practical - they found what worked, and they passed the knowledge along.
Research is showing it more and more
Here are just a few recent meta-analyses (the gold-standard in research):
Herbs often work best with guidance
There are generally two paths to utilizing herb for your personal health. One is self-study, or the support of family members or friends. The other is the support of a clinical herbalist or other skilled practitioner.
For common, mild concerns such as immune support or relaxation, self-study is more than sufficient. It's easy to to read a book or talk to a friend about an herb to help soothe and relief common discomforts that we all experience from time to time.
For the more chronic or serious concerns, this is where working with a clinical herbalist (or equivalent) is much more effective. Clinical herbalists are highly trained and understand the nuances of the individual experience of different health imbalances.
Getting guidance is a safer way to go
Herbs are generally safer and gentler than pharmaceutical medications, which is one of the main reasons to use herbs. However, there are some safety considerations to be aware of.
Herb-drug interactions are rare but can post a significant risk for some people. Clinical herbalists are trained in herb safety and are able to help you navigate the risks in conjunction with your medical provider.
Adverse effects from herbs are also rare but are possible. Just because it's natural doesn't inherently mean it's safe. The very young, very old, and people with serious medical conditions are most at risk for experiencing adverse effects. Clinical herbalists can help you create a plan that is safe for you as an individual.
Getting guidance saves time and money
Experimenting on your own can be costly. You may try many things that don't work. Working with an herbalist helps you get to an effective solution quicker.
Clinical herbalists can also help you to find a solution that fits within your budget. There are many options for taking herbs, including tea, tincture, powder and capsule. Clinical herbalists can help you learn to incorporate less costly solutions into your daily life, and can even help you learn how to grow, harvest or prepare your own herbs and herbal remedies.
Personalized solutions work better
We've all heard about so many popular herbs: turmeric, echinacea, garlic, etc. The thing is, those popular herbs usually do work for many people - but they often don't work for a lot of other people.
The reason for a diversity of effects has to do with what herbalists call individual constitution. We're all built in different ways, and we've all been shaped by different life experiences.
The real magic of herbal medicine comes with matching the herb and the person. A clinical herbalist can do a traditional assessment to help you identify the specific herbs that best match the current pattern of your health.
Additionally, clinical herbalists can blend individual herbs together to create a final product that meets your individual needs. This is often more effective than using any one popular herb on its own.
The other options may not be enough
Perhaps you've tried conventional medicine. Herbalists generally are not adverse to conventional medicine at all. The profound power of modern interventions is something we can all be grateful for.
Yet many people have not fully found the answers that they are looking for with conventional medicine alone.
Herbal medicine truly shines as a supportive form of care, either for conditions that are not overt enough for medical treatment (i.e. "sub-clinical"), or as a complementary support for medical treatment.
Give an herbal consultation a try
Clinical herbalists are highly trained. We learn basic anatomy, physiology, pathology and pharmacology. We learn about holistic, natural and simple ways to support health through diet and lifestyle. And we learn the plants better than probably anyone else -through deep study and time hands-on with the plants we get to know them through personal experience.
If you're ready for a change, a natural solution, and to have someone there to support you on your health journey - consider giving an herbal consultation a try.
At Railyard Apothecary the process is simple:
The meaning of winter
Beyond our human customs, there is a natural way of this season. The winter solstice marked the ending of the waning of daylight, and the beginning of the the slow return of sunshine. At the same time, the depths of winter are just beginning, and the coldest, snowiest days of the year are surely ahead.
It is only natural that in this time many people set intentions for the seasons ahead. Just like the animals in slumber dreaming of warmer days, or the seeds and roots, full of potential yet quiet beneath the soil, we imagine a future so different from now, which can exist only when the causes and conditions arise in their time.
What future do you wish to see? What dreams do you dream? What can our shared world become? Now is the time to think big, to let your wildest dreams dance about in the vast expanse of imagination. For it is in this time of stillness, of quiet, without so much distraction that we can find the deepest connection to that which is yet to become.
Whatever intention-setting you may be doing this year, we here at Railyard are here to support you in the areas of health, personal growth and education.
To better your health, we offer herbal consultations. Working with an herbalist is usually the most effective way to improve your personal health with herbs. Our unique expertise and experience saves you time and money in finding remedies that work. People enjoy the support and guidance that they feel in working with an herbalist on their health journey.
There are also other healing practices here, including a naturopathic doctor practice, acupuncture, ayurveda and more. You can see some of the practitioners' info here.
This year we are looking forward to growing our services and growing our community with all of you. Thank you for being a part of this journey with us!
A lot of people are interested in learning about herbs but don't know where to start. Given the difficult of finding good quality information, we've tried to make it easier for you by helping you narrow it down:
Why Use Herbal Remedies?
In general, most herbs provide a safe, effective and affordable ways to support health. In all human cultures, herbalism has played a central part of health for millennia. Any person only has to look back as far as their own grandparent or great-grandparent to find a family history with herbs if they didn't grow up with herbs themselves.
What do you need to know?
Let's break it down...
1. What herbs are the most effective for me or those I care for?
The easiest, quickest and most effective way to answer this question is to talk to an herbalist. Herbalists help you find the answers you're looking for by talking with you and assessing your individual needs.
But if you want to learn more in general there are other options:
Free online resources
Paid online resources - classes and more
Herbal medicine schools
2. How do I know it's safe for me or the ones I care for?
Many herbs are very safe for many people. However, not all herbs are safe for all people. Some herbs that are easy to come by may be poisonous in large doses even for healthy individuals. However, these herbs are somewhat rare in commerce.
The best answer to this is again to talk to an herbalist, and/or to talk to your doctor.
Most of the above resources on herbs should give general guidelines for safety, however there are certain situations where extra caution must be taken, including the following (those this list may not include all cases where extra caution is needed):
In all cases, but especially these cases, it's best to talk to someone with the knowledge and experience to help guide you.
For medication interactions there are various online interaction checkers such as drugs.com or WebMD. These may help to identify any common red flags, however they are missing a lot of herbs, and a lot of information in general.
This book is a decent quick reference guide for herbs and safety, though is not the most recent:
3. How do I prepare the herbs?
Most herbs are easy to take, either as an herbal tea, tincture, powder or capsule. However there are a few foundational things to learn, as well as a lot of options out there for more interesting preparations.
Free internet resources
Paid internet resources (classes and more)
4. How much do I take, and for how long?
Dosage information is one of the harder pieces of information to find reliable sources for. Here's what we've come across and believe is good information:
Free internet resources
There's a lot of information out there - we hope this is a good place to start. Let us know if you have any questions!
Know anyone that might be interested in this information? Please share! Thanks!
For most people with prostates, dysfunction in this small organ will lead to uncomfortable symptoms late in life. This becomes more common after around age 50, but may occur much earlier, and is almost universal after age 80 or so.
For those that may not know (many people it turns out!), the prostate is a small, walnut shaped organ between the penis and the rectum. The urethra passes through the prostate. A major function of the prostate is to secrete fluid which nourishes protects the sperm during ejaculation.
The most common medical conditions associated with the prostate are:
Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia - BPH
General support for the prostate
Prostate conditions may develop in conjunction with higher circulating amounts of insulin or chronic inflammation. If either of these two are present, then addressing those may ultimately help with prostate health as well.
Too much sitting can be harmful to prostate health, both due to the inactivity as well as pressure on the perineum. Here are some ideas for how to address this:
Diet is very individual, and dietary recommendations will vary from person to person, however here are some general guidelines:
For support of the prostate and surrounding organs there are a few possibilities:
The prostate is a little understood but important gland. People with prostates are at risk for developing urinary symptoms or other problems in the later stages of life, but there is a lot that we can do with simple lifestyle changes to preserve the health of this organ.
Please share with anyone you think would benefit!
Thanks for reading!
By Nick Cavanaugh
Calendula is such a fun and beautiful plant to grow! It grows very easily from seed and often self-seeds itself, coming back year after year. And the wonderful thing is the more you harvest the flowers, the more it grows!
Medicinal benefits: Use the fresh flowers to make an infused oil. This can be applied externally on its own or made into a salve to moisturize and heal the skin. The flowers can also be made into tea for internal healing, supporting the lymphatic system, and for brightening the mood.
How to grow: Direct seed into the garden or containers int the spring.
Tulsi is another favorite for growing at home. Related to culinary basil, tulsi is also known as "Holy Basil" because it is highly revered in India where it is from. The leaves and flowers grow plentifully, and similar to calendula the more you harvest the more it grows - simply trimming back the plant a few inches at the nodes will cause it to grow out rather bush-like, making just a few plants enough to supply a small household.
Medicinal benefits: Dry the leaf and flower to make an uplifting, aromatic tea that supports a positive outlook, supports the immune system, and has "adaptogenic" effects - helping our body adapt better to stressors.
How to grow: Start seeds indoors in the spring, or direct seed into the garden.
Ashwagandha is another well-known "adaptogenic" plant famously used in Ayurvedic and Unani medicine in India. It's similar to ginseng in its properties, though in an entirely different family and much easier to grow. Though it grows as a perennial in the wild in warm climates of Asia and Africa it can be grown as an annual even in cold places like Vermont.
Medicinal benefits: Harvest the root and dry for making a strong herbal tea (decoction) or tincture. Traditionally it's consumed as a powder, though it can be difficult to powder without the proper tools. Taken daily for a short period of time it can promote deep restful sleep and help to rejuvenate the body with more energy.
How to grow: In cold climates like Vermont it must be started indoors many weeks before the last frost date, and transplanted only after all danger of frost has passed. Some herb farms may have starts available. Harvest the root in the fall close to or right after the first frost.
Chamomile is such a wonderful plan that we love for many reasons! A nice warm cup of chamomile tea is such a relaxing treat for any time of day, but especially for unwinding in the evening. Chamomile is another self-seeding annual, that tends to spread, so once it's well-established you'll have chamomile as long as you'd like!
Medicinal benefits: Chamomile can help to soothe the digestive system, while also relaxing the body as a whole. It also has noticeable mood-uplifting effects, making it quite a delight! Dry the flowers for making into a hot tea any time of year.
How to grow: Direct seed in the spring while it's still cool.
Looking for seeds or starts? Order seeds online or check out our Plant Sale + Seed Swap on May 28th, 2022!
Written by Nick Cavanaugh
This time of year there are so many fun plants coming up! Here are some that are fresh and ready for wildharvesting. Please make sure to harvest plants respectfully: only take what's needed, and not more than 5% of the plants you see. Also only harvest if you're 100% sure of the identification, and if you're sure the location is free from pollutants.
Dandelion is one of our favorite spring plants - so abundant, and so wonderful for many things!
Dandelion leaf: Harvest ideally before flower or early in the season (gets more bitter as time goes on). Cook the greens as you would spinach. To reduce the bitterness you can cook in water then discard the cooking water. Supports digestion and kidneys.
Dandelion root: Harvest soon or in the fall. Dig out the full, deep taproot. Chop into small pieces, dry and use for making an herbal decoction (simmer ~1 tsp. in 1.5 cups water on low heat 10-20 minutes). Makes a good coffee substitute and supports the liver).
Dandelion flower: Yummy to batter, fry and make into fritters! Dandelion wine is another more involved option.
Nettle! One of our other favorite spring herbs. Don't be alarmed by the sting of stinging nettle - it's de-natured upon drying or cooking in water. But harvest either very carefully, or with gloves!
Nettle leaf: Collect the leaves before the plant has gone to flower and cook into soups or by simmering in water for 5-10 minutes. Can make into pesto. Or dry the leaves and use 1-2 tbsp. per cup of water, steep as an overnight infusion. Very high in vitamins and minerals, supports kidneys and skin.
Burdock! This massive plant has a super deep taproot. If you are able to find young plants that haven't begun to grow their flower stalk then you can harvest them, or in the fall when the young plants first come up (don't harvest roots from mature plants with flower stalks or seeds).
Burdock root: Get a good shovel to get this deep taproot! You can cook it as a vegetable in stir fries or soups, or chop into bits, dry and make a decoction (simmer 1 tsp. in 1.5 cups water for 10-20 min.). Supports liver, digestion and skin health.
Mullein! This plant can be harvest either early spring, or in the fall. Harvest leaves when it's still like this photo, hasn't begun to produce a flower stalk.
Mullein leaf: Harvest and dry these wonderful fuzzy leaves and make a tea with 1 tsp./cup hot water, steeped 10-20 min. Soothes a dry irritated cough.
Happy foraging and let us know if you have any questions!
Written by Nick Cavanaugh.
Traditionally, the days around the Vernal Equinox (mid to late March) and the month(s) after it were seen as a time of intense, rushing energy: days get longer and the sunlight more intense, the first signs of green growth emerge, and wildlife stirs again. Herbalists still consider this a time when the more inward, ‘congealing’ energies of Winter begin to transition into the more outward, ‘expansive’ energies of Summer – and when a little attention paid to the process can improve vitality, strengthen digestion and immunity, and keep us in tune with the changing seasons.
There are specific herbal allies that have gained a deserved reputation for aiding in this transition, and each has its own peculiar “virtues” and affinities. All, however, rely somewhat on two basic strategies: either enhancing digestive and eliminative function, or bolstering the power of the body’s immune and hormonal systems. Some do both! And generally, it was (and still is) considered a good idea to start with enhancing absorption and elimination, and then proceed with strengthening the underlying physiology.
The old recipes for “root beers” can be somewhat instructive in this regard: they often feature a combination of bitter roots (which enhance elimination) coupled with aromatic, sometimes pungent ingredients (which improve digestion) and hormonal tonics (to enhance energy and vitality). Many of the herbs and botanicals listed below can be combined along these lines to make a customized spring tonic for yourself or your friends and family, helping to ride along the tides of Spring and get ready for Summer.
The last detail in the herbalists’ crafting of vernal concoctions is an attention to the constitution and physiological peculiarities of the individual using the tonic. Generally, these are pretty obvious considerations – but one point to remember is to try to add “cooling” herbs for those expressing signs of overactivity, heat, and inflammation; and “warming” herbs for those showing signs of sluggishness, depression, chill, and frequent infections. Often eliminative herbs are more cooling, and tonic herbs more warm. Botanicals listed below have their traditional energetic value added as a start in this process.
Often from maples (Acer saccharum, and other species), the sap of Birches (Betula spp.) can also be used. I like to use the unheated, unfiltered sap as a tonic all by itself: this “tree juice” provides unaltered enzymes as well as sugars and minerals ready for optimal absorption. It can also be used as a base for decocting (simmering) some of the roots and barks described below. Usually, a pint to a quart daily is consumed – though more is not necessarily a bad thing! Alternatively, you can reconstitute a similar liquid by using about a tablespoon of maple syrup per pint of spring water.
Burdock (Arctium lappa)
This root, generally cooling in energy though somewhat tonic too, can be eaten as one would a carrot, or simmered into a tonic brew. It is best suited for those with dryer skin, and perhaps an underactive appetite. Its chief traditional use is for acne and other skin complaints. Use about 2 TBS per pint of water, along with other herbs.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
A true remedy that synergizes well with herbs for almost any ailment, Dandelion is a catalyst for change that gently and safely enhances digestive and eliminative function. When in doubt, this is the root to pick! Its yellow flowers remind us early on that it’s time to pay a little attention to our bodies this time of year. The root’s energy is somewhat cooling, and it enhances detoxification through the liver, helping to resolve gassiness and sluggishness that may have accumulated after a winter of congestive, thick foods. Use about 2 TBS of chopped root per pint of water.
Yellowdock (Rumex crispus)These roots are more bitter, and are best for those who might have a tendency toward constipation. They combine well with any of the other cooling, bitter roots and improve liver function and elimination. Generally, I suggest using Yellowdock for shorter (1-2 weeks) periods than Dandelion or Burdock, but it is still quite a safe plant. 1 TBS of chopped root per pint is usually adequate to relieve somewhat sluggish digestion.
Echinacea (E. purpurea, E. angustifolia, and others)
This is a cooling, dispersive root that posesses a good degree of pungency as well. Its chief use as a springtime tonic is to help boost immunity, especially if there are or have been any swollen glands or recurrent respiratory infections associated with winter illness. It can also help dry, scratchy throats that sometimes linger into spring. While I often recommend an extract, the roots are excellent too provided they are simmered for a little while (10-15 minutes). This time of year the plants are just starting to poke up from the soil, making it easy to find and dig out of the garden. Use 2 TBS of chopped root per pint of water.
Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis)An abundant relative of Ginseng, this plant posesses starches and bitter saponins that counteract fatigue and gently warm the system to enhance vitality and elimination at the same time. It also has hormone-balancing effects, especially in relation to stress hormones, making it a good adjunct for those who have intense work or personal lives, or who rely heavily on stimulants. It is a little difficult to recognize and find early in the season, before the greens emerge, so marking it out in the fall can help with digging the long rhizomes in the spring. Use a piece or pieces of rhizome about the length of your index finger in a pint of water.
Spikenard (Aralia racemosa)Another Ginseng relative, this is a sweet, spicy and warming root that is most indicated as a tonic for hormonal and respiratory function, particularly for those with chronic lung congestion. Use only 1 TBS per pint – it is a potent ally.
Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius)
Also called groundnut, this is a nourishing and rebuilding tonic that is somewhat rare in the wild, so it should be used judiciously. It flowers early in the spring, and though only a few inches tall, packs a flavor and power that is quite excellent for warming deficient constitutions that have become sluggish and undernourished over winter. If you find a good stand of it (make sure you have the correct plant ID!), you can have one corymb (a round, underground “bulb” attached to a delicate white root) two or three times a week eaten raw, straight from the forest floor, or simmered into your tonic brew.
Goldthread (Coptis canadensis)
This is a very bitter, cooling, detoxifying and anti-inflammatory plant that you really don’t need a lot of. It chief indication is chronic inflammation, perhaps also involving the skin, and a more “oily” skin pattern that could benefit from drying. It enhances digestive function when taken before meals, improves sluggish bowels, and clears heat that settled into joints and muscles over the winter months. Some have reported an improvement in allergies and sensitivities. It is also evergreen, which makes it easy to find even under a little snow cover! Its thin rhizome is bright yellow, and the above-ground greens are useful too. Use one to two plants (4-5 inches of root total) per pint of tonic brew.
Sarsaparilla (various Smilax species)
Not a local Vermont plant, the root bark from this vine is still such a classic spring tonic that it bears mention. It has a distinctive, warming and spicy flavor that, while enhancing digestion, is most powerful at adjusting hormonal balance (thyroid, adrenal, and reproductive hormones) and I have always found it useful for stubborn skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis (often worse after the dry indoor heat of winter). Sarsaparilla has a strong flavor, so experiment with taste until you find what you like. It is usually available at the herbs store; start with ½ to 1 TBS per pint.
Sassafrass (S. albidum)
The FDA doesn’t appreciate the use of this bark anymore, due to its safrole content, which is considered carcinogenic. Its distinctive spicy/sweet and warming flavor and energy make it perhaps the most classic “root beer” ingredient, evoking memories of times when there brews were actually made from plants… And, for a few weeks each spring, consuming sassafrass provides such a negligible amount of safrole that, truly, doesn’t compare to pumping gasoline in terms of cancer risk. I would use about 2 TBS of dry bark per pint of brew, but I really like the flavor. Experiment and add to taste.
Cleavers (Galium aparine)
This green, as well as its cousin sweet woodruff, comes out a bit later in the spring but makes an invaluable cooling tonic for folks who are prone to swelling from chronic inflammation, edema, or water retention. They can be juiced and an ounce of juice taken as a daily tonic, or steeped into a more complex tonic after roots have been taken off the fire. Use about 2 TBS of chopped herb.
Nettles (Urtica dioica)
Though green, this herb is actually a bit warming and drying. It is great for those who show signs of water retention (sometimes evidenced by a swollen, “scalloped” tongue), or those in need of iron and other nutritive minerals. Finally, its mildly detoxifying qualities can help in seasonal allergies. Herbalists use the young, fresh leaves in soups or steeped into an herbal brew after the roots are done simmering – about 2 TBS or more of chopped leaves per day.
Dandelion greens (Taraxacum officinale)
We would walk through the meadows, before they fully became green with grass, looking for the young rosettes of dandelions and collecting them whole, along with the crown of the root. Back home, my aunt would dress them with olive oil and wine vinegar, for an abundant (though bitter) spring salad. These greens improve digestion, enhance elimination through the kidneys, and are loaded with important minerals. Their reputation for cooling overheated constitutions extends to the cardiovascular system. They are excellent eaten fresh as part of salads or wilted in soups or stir-fry; alternatively, steep 2 TBS of chopped leaves into an herbal brew after the roots are done simmering.
Mustard greens (Brassica species)
There are a wide range of mustards that come up quick in springtime, since they are so tolerant of late frosts. They are warm and spicy, wake up the digestion and liver, and additionally contain compounds that show much promise in preventing and treating cancer. Of course, they are best as part of a wild food salad, or cooked in soups (though they lose a lot of pungency if cooked). I don’t normally brew these into tea.
Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)
This is a very aromatic and cooling plant, rich in anti-inflammatory salicylates and endowed with wonderful flavor, another aroma often found in classic root beer preparations. It is a good digestive normalizer, especially if there is a lot of gas, bloating, and irritation; it can also help with chronic inflammatory conditions of the joints and back especially if these get worse over the more sedentary winter months. Steep 5 or 6 fresh leaves in 8oz of herbal brew, covered so as to not lose the volatile aroma, and do not boil!
Birch bark (Betula species)
The black birch is perhaps the most flavorful, but the bark of any species yields a wintergreen-like essence that is similarly cooling, and much more readily available. Use a good handful of crushed bark (perhaps a cupful) per pint of water, and add it to your brew for the last two or three minutes of simmering.
A note on preparation
Many of the plants mentioned above release their medicinal constituents during a process of light simmering, known as “decocting”. The resulting brew is often called a “decoction”. It is best accomplished by simmering the herbs in a stainless steel container, covered, for 15 minutes or so on low heat. Afterwards, the brew can be removed from the heat and more delicate greens added and left in the pot, covered, for another 10-15 minutes or so. Finally, strain the brew and drink immediately, or bottle for 1-2 days.
Written by Guido Masé RH(AHG). Read more about Guido's work in our herbal clinic here.
By Nick Cavanaugh
During the springtime many people start experiencing seasonal allergies. And many others experience allergies year-round. What are the underlying reasons for these allergies, and what are the options for relief? I'll be exploring these questions in this article. I hope it's helpful - please reach out if you have any questions!
What are allergies?
Allergic rhinitis is an inflammation of the lining of the nose, usually characterized by one ore more of:
Perennial (year-round) allergies may be due to dust, mold, cockroaches or animal dander.[1-2]
About pollen, mold and other allergens
Respiratory allergies are often triggered by:
In Vermont, during "mud season" (the bridge between winter and spring), the dampness could lead to mold growth and mold allergies. Increased rainfall, humidity or flooding could contribute to this.[4-1] However, in many areas mold growth typically peaks in the summer due to the combination of both heat and humidity, especially the Midwest and Southeast U.S..[5-1] A damp autumn could continue to spur mold growth, though cold temperatures decrease mold activity and mold tends to become most dormant during the winter.[5-2]
If you believe you may be sensitive to mold and are exposed to it, addressing this with indoor air quality is very important.
Why do people get allergies?
Allergies are basically a hype-reactivity of our body's immune systems. Ordinarily a strong immune response keeps our body healthy, but an over-activity to allergens causes harmful and uncomfortable inflammation in the nasal passageways.
Herbalists have some unique insights into why allergies may be relatively common in our modern day-and-age:
An herbalist's view - herbal energetics and allergies
From the herbalist perspective, symptom patterns can be differentiated in terms of patterns that correlate with key "energetic" states, especially heat, cold, dampness and dryness.
In Unani ("Greek") medicine (also known as "Tibb") allergic rhinitis results from an excess of heat, which is either with dampness or dryness. This leads to irritation and inflammation in the mucous membranes.
Herbalists typically assess energetics of symptom patterns through various means, and we recommend speaking with an herbalist if you'd like to find out what pattern matches your experience. It can be especially helpful to get an outsider's perspective given that often symptoms can point to patterns in conflicting or confusing ways.
However, for a general overview, these are some common associations with upper respiratory symptoms as detailed by herbalist Jim McDonald in an excellent article on sinus health:
Signs of dampness:
Signs of dryness:
Signs of things being stuck and stagnant, more of a chronic condition, i.e. chronic sinusitis:[10-8]
To address these various symptom patterns, herbalists may incorporate some of the following (again as detailed by Jim McDonald, mostly):
How to address dryness:
How to address dampness:
Remedies for stuck and stagnant states:
Natural allergy relief with home remedies
The following are general suggestions. We recommend speaking with an herbalist for individual support and guidance.
Tend to the indoor air environment and reduce exposure
Make dietary changes
According to Mills and Bone in their authorative Principles and Practices of Phytotherapy "herbalists believe that diet can create a state of hypersensitivity and catarrh of the mucous membranes that predisposes to rhinitis." [1-3]
Possible dietary factors could include:
Dietary steps to take
Use topical remedies
Seek ways to de-stress and get good sleep
These can go a very long way in reducing allergy symptoms. Talk to an herbalist if you need support.
Herbs to support our bodies
Ideally someone would start their remedies 6 weeks before the season starts and continue it through the season.[1-6]
We strongly advise talking to an herbalist for individual advice on how to support your body during allergy season. These are some of the ways herbs are used:
Healthy mucous membranes
Mills and Bone state that "traditional herbalists have stressed the importance of healthy upper respiratory mucous membranes." [1-7]
Demulcent herbs such as marshmallow can help to soothe dryness and irritation in the upper respiratory tract.
Astringent herbs such as elderflower can help to dry up copious nasal discharge.
Immunomodulating herbs such as reishi mushroom can help to modulate the immune response over time, helping to prevent either under or over-activity of the immune system.[8-1] Reishi is not advisable for some individuals: talk to an herbalist for advice.
Support detoxification pathways
Herbs such as nettles, dandelion and burdock can help to support our body's natural detoxification pathways, i.e. through the lymphatic system or liver, and this in turn can help reduce background levels of inflammation and promote clearing of foreign substances from the body.
Medical treatment for allergies
From the herbalist point of view it's better to address underlying causes rather than symptoms. However, when needed there are a number of medications that can help.
Over the counter medications can help relieve allergy symptoms:
When to contact a doctor:[11-1]
Sesonal allergies can be tough - I hope this has been helpful information for you! Please contact me with any questions, and feel free to reach out if you'd like to schedule an herbal consultation. Be well!
By Nick Cavanaugh. Nick is a clinical herbalist at Railyard Apothecary. Learn more about Nick and other clinicians here.
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