Maybe dusky pink heirloom tomatoes seduced you. Or perhaps it was a bourbon barrel stout with caramel notes, along with an organic kale and goat cheese pizza, that drew you into the natural movement. If you are like me, you value things grown, thrown, baked, and brewed by two hands and one heart.
As much as I cherish and value the natural world, I had to look in a more organic direction when I was diagnosed with Supraventricular Tachycardia (or SVT for short). SVT is usually caused by an underlying heart abnormality but episodes can be triggered by anything that triggers a premature heart beat, making the heart rhythm race abnormally. The underlying cause is usually an additional electrical pathway in the heart. Episodes can be caused by exercise, an excess level of stress, medications that cause an elevated heart rate such as weight loss drugs, stimulants in all over-the-counter cold and flu medicines, or foods and drinks that contain caffeine. As you can imagine, cold and flu season can become a struggle without the aid of over-the-counter medication, so I needed to learn how to adapt to keep myself feeling healthy.
When then the cold flu season hits, even the best farm-to-table junkies are catapulted to the nearest neon sign flashing “pharmacy.” Sometimes that is required. But if you are inclined or have a necessity toward a more natural approach — why not craft your own medicines?
The ingredients could be as close (and free) as a weed patch in your backyard or a nearby park. You might not be familiar with these medicinal herbs — much less be able to recognize them — but volunteer plants in sidewalk cracks and neighborhood parks are ready for a passerby to pluck. I would strongly encourage you to find a valuable resource and be adamant about understanding thoroughly which herbs you are using. Many plants can look similar to others that may not be so friendly, so be extra certain of what you are picking and choosing to put in or on your body.
Of course, you do not need to forage for freebies. You can handcraft remedies by buying or growing herbs. A lone pot on your windowsill or planter box on your back deck can work wonders. Fill it with sage, thyme, or lemon balm to make into a salve, steam, or tincture. Or simply visit a natural foods store, your local market, or discover the world’s apothecaries from your laptop.
Brewing your own steamy potions will enliven your senses. The potency of fresh herbs is more reliable than store-bought capsules that might have languished for months in a warehouse. Making your own botanicals is often less expensive, and the feeling of self-reliance is priceless.
Below are a few of my natural healing secrets for cold and flu season. A lot of these recipes can be manipulated based on the availability of herbs and time of year. There are endless amounts of resources online to assist you in finding the right recipes with the most effective herb combinations.
Whip up this remedy to open a stuffy nose, soothe a sore throat, and lower fever. Elder was once called the medicine chest of country folk for its ability to relieve everything from colds to constipation. The lacy white blooms have anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and laxative qualities. For a warming, pungent syrup, substitute ginger for elder flowers.
Elder Flower Syrup
• 1 cup water
• 1 cup packed fresh elder flowers (or a 3 inch piece of fresh ginger root, chopped, peel on)
• 1/2 cup honey
1. In a saucepan, bring water to a boil.
2. Plunge elder flowers into the hot water and let them steep, covered, for 5 to 7 minutes. Take care not to steep the flowers too long. A short dunk will capture the tantalizing flavor and scent of elder flowers while preventing the syrup from getting too gooey. (If using fresh ginger, steep for 8 to 15 minutes.)
3. Strain the mixture, pouring the liquid back into the saucepan.
4. Add the sweetener, and stir over low heat until blended.
5. Pour the syrup into a pint jar. Store in the fridge and expect it to last two to four months.
This is no ordinary tea. Good for a cold or flu, it is prepared as a decoction — liquid medicine cooked on the stove top. Licorice and ginger soothe the throat and tummy. Peppermint and ginger get the blood moving. Yarrow fights germs. Brew it up when you feel something coming on.
• 2 tablespoons dried ginger (not powder)
• 2 tablespoons dried licorice
• 2 tablespoons dried peppermint
• 1 teaspoon dried yarrow
• Honey (to taste)
1. Place the dried herbs in a pot, except the yarrow. Cover herbs with 5 cups of cold water. Allow the mixture to sit for 1 to 2 hours.
2. Turn on the heat and slowly bring water to a boil; immediately reduce to a simmer and cover the pot tightly. Simmer on low heat for 20 minutes.
3. Remove the pot from the heat and add the yarrow. Allow it to sit, still covered, overnight.
4. Strain the herbs, reserving as much liquid as possible. The tea will be bitter. If you wish to sweeten it, gently reheat, add honey to taste and drink it hot. To reduce fever or as a cleanse, adults should drink 1 cup every hour up to 3 cups per day.
Part of handcrafting herbs is that you do not need an apothecary. You do not have to go out and learn 100 different plants. If you learn a handful of plants, you can really do a lot with just those few. This topical formula made from fresh peppermint and ginger will improve circulation wherever you rub it. It is nice on chilly feet at night. On the chest, oils evaporate to break up congestion in the nose and sinuses. Think natural vapor rub. Will clear up brain fog and it smells refreshing, too.
Warming Hand and Foot Salve
• 1 cup fresh peppermint, chopped
• 1/2 cup fresh ginger, chopped (including skin)
• 1 cup olive oil
• 1/4 cup beeswax
- When making herbal salves, use dedicated equipment, as the beeswax will never completely come out. Choose a stainless steel or enamel saucepan along with utensils that you use only with beeswax. The first step is to make an herbal oil, followed by the salve.
Making the Oil:
1. Spread peppermint leaves and ginger root on a screen or newspaper to wilt for several hours or overnight. Make sure peppermint leaves are in a single layer and do not overlap.
2. Chop peppermint and ginger thoroughly with a knife. Place herbs in a clean, dry saucepan. Pour 1 cup olive oil into the saucepan and stir it into the herbs.
3. Gently heat the mixture on low heat for 20 to 30 minutes, making sure the oil never bubbles or boils. (You do not want crispy fried herbs!)
4. Strain the liquid and press herbs firmly to extract as much valuable liquid as possible, being careful not to burn yourself.
5. Measure the oil, then pour it into a clean, dry saucepan.
Making the Salve:
Beeswax can be purchased as “beads” at health food stores, but it is much better in chunks or blocks. Look for wax that has not been bleached or filtered. Wax straight from the beehive is best. Do not use paraffin or candle wax; these will ruin your salve.
1. Chop or shave your beeswax into 1/4 to 1/2-inch slivers or chunks. In a dry measuring cup, measure 1/4 cup wax chunks for every 1 cup oil. For example, if you poured 1 cup oil into the saucepan, use 1/4 cup wax.
2. Drop the wax into the saucepan with oil and heat them gently. As the wax melts, you may stir in essential oils if desired. For every 1 cup of oil, 5 to 10 drops of essential oil may be sufficient.
3. Once the wax is completely melted, quickly pour the solution from the pan into a pouring container such as a (dedicated) clean glass measuring cup.
4. Pour the salve into individual glass or ceramic containers. Add more essential oil if desired and cap the containers tightly.
5. Allow the salve to cool. Do not move the containers for at least an hour; they will cool from the bottom up and the color will lighten.
6. Label the containers and store them in a cool, dry cabinet. The salve will have a shelf life of approximately 18 to 24 months.
Its name reveals this simple steam’s secrets. But simplicity can be just as potent as complexity in herbalism. Inhaling herb-infused vapors will help unclog lungs and sinuses, and kill germs in those hidden passageways. A steam can lead the way to a good night’s sleep, a morning of clear breathing, or the end of a nagging cough. Use fresh herbs, dried herbs, or essential oils. If you are picking your own herbs, feel free to substitute varieties that grow nearby.
Congestion-Opening Respiratory Steam
- • 2 to 3 handfuls of fresh herbs, such as yarrow, rose hips, sage, rosemary, eucalyptus, or peppermint leaves.
- • 4 to 5 teaspoons of dried herbs. Choose one or more of the following: yarrow, peppermint, spearmint, eucalyptus, lemongrass, rosemary, sage, and hyssop.
- • 20 to 30 drops of essential oils. Choose 1 to 3 of the following oils: lemongrass, eucalyptus, tea tree, balsam fir, and pine.
Directions: Method 1
1. Chop the fresh herbs on a cutting board and add to a wide, shallow bowl.
2. Fill the bowl with very hot water and immediately lean your head over the bowl, pulling the towel over your head to capture the steam.
3. Breathe through you nose, mouth or both for about 10 minutes or until the water cools.
4. Add more hot water as needed and remain under the towel for 5 to 10 minutes at a time. Drink a large glass of room-temperature water afterward.
Directions: Method 2
- Prepare these dried herbs in a blend to keep on hand when you get congested. Blend them together in a glass jar, label, and store in a cool dry pantry. When ready to use, place 4 to 5 teaspoons of dried herbs in a wide, shallow bowl. Follow the instructions above.
Directions: Method 3
- Most health food stores sell a good selection of essential oils, which are concentrated volatile oils from fragrant plants. Choose 2 or 3 essential oils and add 20 to 30 drops to a wide, shallow bowl. Follow the instructions above.