5 Herbs for Comfort and Wellness
For many of us, getting comfortable is often the subject of daydreams or relegated to weekends or vacations. Common signs of discomfort, such as stiffness, insomnia, depression, chronic pains, and early signs of aging, are ways our bodies communicate the need for action to support our health and wellness.
The truth is that physical and emotional comfort supports our digestion, breathing, circulation, and mood. Maintaining comfort on a day-to-day basis may lead us down the aisles of the local drugstore, searching for relief, but many times this path only trades a symptom for a side effect. There are, however, many pathways to health.
Although many of us have lost touch with traditional, natural methods, trusted, easily available herbs have been used for generations to enhance comfort and wellness—and thanks to modern science, we often understand the reason why they work so well or have confirmed their effectiveness.
A balanced, cleansing diet that includes fruits, vegetables, grains, seaweeds, whole soy products, and tea reduces acid wastes and can therefore improve bone quality and muscle strength and flexibility, provide a clear complexion, and normalize hormonal functions. By reducing impurities we also reduce the likelihood of illness.
Herbs such as lavender, prunella, kelp, and shilajit, and calming teas, including vervain and skullcap, can help rejuvenate us physically and emotionally, relaxing our bodies, freeing our energy, and providing comfort.
- 1. Lavender Essential Oil and Chinese White-Flower Analgesic Liquid
Tension headaches are often aggravated by neck and shoulder pain, after sitting for hours without moving, or from poor posture. Aching neck and shoulder muscles and hard knots from spasm may occur in response to overexertion, prolonged physical stress, or emotional tension. The pain is often dull, nagging, deep, and magnified by fatigue or emotional upset. That sort of physical/emotional pain can prompt insomnia and depression.
According to French endocrinologist Dr. Yves Requena, the herb lavender (Lavandula angustifolia and Lavandula officinalis) is both a heart stimulant and regulator that reduces stress, heart rhythm irregularities, and improves depression. A simple, effective way to use this fragrant bittersweet herb is to apply essential oil of lavender to painful points on head, neck, shoulders, and chest. The pleasing aroma is soothing. This works well for simple tension headaches and stiff neck because it increases blood circulation to the painful areas.
Another pleasantly fragrant Chinese analgesic liquid called white flower is recommended for muscle and joint pain from simple headaches, arthritis, sprains, and bruises. It contains oil of wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), menthol (Mentha piperita), camphor (Cinnamonum camphora), eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus), peppermint (Mentha arvensis), and lavender. Apply it to the back of the neck at the hairline and temples as needed, avoiding the area around the eyes, and temporarily stop activities such as using your computer that aggravate neck tension.
If neck pain involves nerves, for instance when a cervical disc presses on a nerve, you may feel numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arm or hand. Your pillow may also be at fault, especially if you wake up experiencing a painful, stiff neck or a sudden contraction of neck muscles. A pillow that is too large props the neck at an extreme angle that may aggravate existing circulation problems. Try to use a pillow that conforms to the shape of your neck and head. When lying on your back, use a cylindrical pillow that supports the back of your neck. Neck pain and numb extremities may signal a whiplash or vertebrae problem impairing circulation.
- 2. Prunella Vulgaris Tea
Prunella vulgaris tea, called xia ku cao in traditional Chinese medicine, has long been used for anxiety, itchy skin rashes including herpes zoster (shingles), diabetes, hypertension, acute infectious hepatitis, jaundice, thyroid and other chronic inflammation, and nervous insomnia. Chinese phytochemical studies reveal that prunella possesses a variety of constituents such as triterpenoids, phenylpropanoids, and flavones.
Triterpenoids have been studied in fighting cancers because of their beneficial antioxidant, antibacterial, and liver-protective effects. Triterpenoids include oleanolic acid, found in honey mesquite, garlic, or java apple; ursolic acid found in apples, basil, bilberries, cranberries, elderflower, peppermint, or lavender; and moronic acid found in mistletoe.
Prunella tea is detoxifying, cooling, and calming. It grows wild in your lawn like a spiral of little purple flowers and round green leaves. I buy the dried herb in Chinatown or online. The easy-to-brew tea is tasteless and feels cooling and relaxing. I especially enjoy its calming effects at bedtime to help sooth springtime allergies and nervous insomnia. Used regularly, it helps reduce cholesterol and improves circulation. Steep two tablespoons in a teapot and drink it warm or cool. Do not sweeten it, other than by adding a pinch of stevia. You may combine prunella with dandelion herb to increase the cleansing effects.
- 3. Herbal Teas
Herbal teas can be sold as single herbs or in combination teas. Brew one tea bag or ½ teaspoon of dried herbs for three to five minutes in hot water. Herbal teas are considered safe for nearly everyone, but I have added cautions based on traditional Asian medical diagnosis.
A cup of vervain (lemon verbena, or Aloysia triphylla) tea is a soothing after dinner beverage that is popular in Europe. It is a liver-calming remedy with a pleasant lemony flavor. However, if you are depressed, obese, or if you have heart-failure symptoms, avoid all herbal sedatives. Heart-failure symptoms include shortness of breath while climbing stairs, evening water retention at the ankles, and a puffy waterlogged face, among other signs. If your energy is low avoid hops, passionflower, or valerian, a central-nervous-system depressant.
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) is a central nervous system depressant useful for fever, anxiety, insomnia, and hot flashes that was originally used as a treatment for rabies. Clinical studies have demonstrated skullcap’s ability to improve blood flow in the brain, inhibit muscle spasms, and act as a sedative. Some alternative-health practitioners use skullcap to treat symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and withdrawal.
If you are very sensitive to herbs, start by adding three to five drops of skullcap liquid extract to a cup of water and observe the results. You may feel more relaxed. Avoid skullcap during pregnancy. Stop using skullcap if you develop shortness of breath, liver pain, or jaundice (a yellow color to skin or eyes). Skullcap should not be used by anyone with epilepsy, seizure-related disorders, liver disease (including cirrhosis or hepatitis), and kidney disease.
- 4. Help from Kelp
Kelp seaweed (Laminaria longicruris) encourages relaxation, tones and tightens the skin, and promotes blood circulation and lymphatic drainage (an anti-cellulite treatment!). It improves aching muscles and arthritic joint pains. Kelp digitata (Laminaria digitata) has also been suggested as an anti-radiation treatment.
There are several ways you can benefit from kelp. Tired, aching muscles need to breathe and expand. “Drink lots of water” is the advice offered by many health professionals. Muscles, bone, and flesh are mostly made of water, which we consistently lose through perspiration and urine. To this advice, I would add: Eat seaweed daily for vital minerals needed by muscles and bone. With a naturally salty flavor, delicious and crisp dried nori (Porphyra yezoensis and P. tenera), dulse (Palmaria palmate), and kelp (soaked until soft and consumed along with the soaking water) make excellent snack foods.
We also absorb water and beneficial nutrients from a bath. A refreshing soak in the bathtub feels great after exercise or working overtime and helps correct long-term dietary over-indulgence. Separate your bath from a meal by at least two hours. Imagine you are at the seashore breathing the healing peace of the ocean.
• 1 cup sea salt
• 1 cups baking soda
• 2 cups epsom salts
• 2 or more tablespoons powdered kelp
• 2 tablespoons dried ginger powder
• 1 cup apple cider vinegar
Draw a warm bath. Mix the dry ingredients sea salt, baking soda, ginger powder, Epsom salts and kelp powder in a bowl. Add water and combine well to make a paste. Pour the vinegar into the bathwater and add the seaweed mixture. Soak for 20 – 30 minutes. Then take a 30 second cool shower if you prefer. Wrap in a dry towel and lie down for another 15 minutes to enjoy the benefits of improved circulation.
Kelp offers a wealth of nutritional factors that support many systems in your body. The primary known constituents of kelp include algin, carrageenan, iodine, potassium, bromine, mucopolysaccharides, mannitol, alginic acid, kainic acid, laminine, histamine, zeaxanthin, protein, and vitamins B2 and C. It is especially high in natural iodine plus the cell salts that are so important for the proper functioning of the thyroid.
Kelp oil is helpful for everyone because of its strengthening effects, especially for ailing and convalescent persons and during pregnancy. It improves weight loss and chronic depression from low vitality. If you hate the fragrance of seaweed, add a few drops of essential oil of lavender, lemon, or mint.
- 5. Shilajit: Mineral Pitch Capsule
For thousands of years in India, China, Tibet, Pakistan, and Russia, people have enjoyed the benefits of shilajit (aka mineral pitch, bitumen, or fulvic acid), the thick, black liquid minerals that drip from cracks in Himalayan rocks during hot weather. Now capsules of refined shilajit are available online. Shilajit is made of decomposed, centuries-old plants and rocks formed under pressure. The purified black semisweet liquid is one of the most potent rejuvenating substances used in Ayurveda, the classical medicine of India.
Shilajit is used as a general tonic that improves libido, helps stabilize blood sugar, heals injury and broken bones, and improves immune function, arthritis, hypertension, and obesity among other things. Shilajit helps move minerals to the muscles and bones, while it relaxes ordinary daily tensions. As a general tonic, swallow one capsule of shilajit with a few sips of milk or water daily. The only contraindications for using shilajit are high uric-acid levels, gout, or kidney stones made of uric acid.
Finding Your Comfort Zone
When thinking of comfort, most people crave relaxation and may use sedatives and painkillers to help them decompress. In contrast, many exhausted people require supportive energy tonics to enhance vitality in order to maintain health and comfort. These five herbs are just a primer on the many ways herbs can safely and naturally make you comfortable and enhance your health and wellness. If you find them effective for you, traditional systems such as botanical, traditional Chinese, and Ayurvedic medicine offer you a world of possibilities.
Letha Hadady, DAc, is trained in traditional Chinese acupuncture and Asian herbal medicine and is an adjunct faculty member for New York Open Center, Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, and The Renfield Center for Nursing Education, Beth Israel Center in New York. Letha is also a regular health expert on talk-radio shows including “Montel Across America” and is author of Naturally Pain Free.