In praise of rosemary

rosemary-283098_1280Whether it’s sprinkled on top of a focaccia or growing in a windowbox, rosemary is so ubiquitous that I think it’s easy to overlook its amazing healing properties. I’m guilty of that myself to some extent. I mean, I love rosemary, I grow it, but sometimes with an herb it’s not until you need it that you suddenly realize how awesome it was all along. (Well, that’s true of a lot of things in life, isn’t it?) In fact, if you were to grow only one medicinal plant, you could do a lot worse than rosemary.

Matthew Wood said, and I wish I could remember where but I just can’t, that the mark of a good herbalist is not how many herbs they can heal with, but how many things they can heal with a single herb. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is an incredibly versatile herb and if you know this plant well, you can treat a multitude of ills. Lucky for me, it also happens to be one of the few things I can grow here that isn’t destroyed by heat or bugs. It’s pretty hard to kill, and I think everyone should have some growing, at least a little pot.

First, you have rosemary’s pungent, clearing scent. To me, rosemary is the smell of clean. It’s also uplifting, vibrant, and energizing. Culpeper says, “…to burn the herb in houses and chambers, corrects the air in them.” I can testify from experience that diffusing rosemary essential oil can dispel a multitude of bad odors, but as is so often the case, the medicinal property of this plant reflects its esoteric properties. Rosemary is an herb of purification. It’s become all the rage to smudge with white sage, and in much of the US, including where I live, it’s a good choice: it grows abundantly in the wild and has been recognized for it’s cleansing and clearing powers since time immemorial. But if you happen to not live in a place where white sage is native, why pay for some sad, shriveled sage that’s been shipped halfway around the world or sitting on a shelf for two years? Try rosemary, or a bundle or rosemary, juniper, and mugwort.

When I lived in Spain years ago, you could buy sprigs of rosemary from passing street vendors. It is believed to bring luck and to protect pilgrims and travelers. (The word for pilgrim in Spanish is romero, which also means rosemary. I believe pilgrims acquired the name from the habit of carrying rosemary, but I’m not entirely sure.)

Culpeper emphasizes rosemary’s warming properties, saying it “is very much used both for inward and outward diseases, for by the warming and comforting heat thereof it helps all cold diseases, both of the head, stomach, liver, and belly.” Matthew Wood (The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism, p. 26) refers to it as “the archetypal fiery mint.” Take a few drops of rosemary tincture directly on your tongue and you will feel that heat, as well as a tingly, diffusive feeling. Indeed rosemary’s warmth and dryness underlie all its medicine, and can serve as a mnemonic to help you remember all the various things it can do. In traditional Western herbal energetics, heat is stimulating and vivifying, and dryness counteracts damp conditions.

Therefore, rosemary can be used in any and all conditions that involve tissue “depression” (an excess of cold) or “stagnation” (excess damp that doesn’t move), wherever they occur in the body. Some common manifestations–this is by no means a comprehensive list–of stagnation and/or depression in various tissues include headache (including migraines), gas, cough, sinus infection, edema, poor memory, arthritis, gout, slow metabolism, constipation, weak digestion, lethargy, excess blood sugar, low blood pressure, and poor circulation. What you have here is a picture of underactive, slow, weak tissues and physiological processes. Rosemary can often benefit the elderly, since many of these processes slow down with age. It is a powerful decongestant for all organs subject to congestion, e.g., the lungs, sinuses, veins, liver.

The penetrating, tingly quality of rosemary’s volatile oils make it well suited for use as a massage oil for sore muscles. You can make a massage oil by diluting rosemary essential oil in a skin-friendly carrier oil (such as jojoba, coconut, almond, olive, apricot kernel, grapeseed, untoasted a.k.a. light sesame, or sunflower)–try a ratio of 10% essential oil to carrier oil, and go as high as 25% according to how you like it. And/or you can infuse rosemary in any of the oils listed above. Let some fresh rosemary sprigs wilt overnight, cut into little pieces, then place in a jar and cover with oil. Make sure there is no part of the rosemary exposed to air, and do not allow any water in contact with the oil. Allow to infuse for 4-6 weeks. You can add beeswax (at a ratio of 1 part wax to 8 parts oil–this basic ratio can be tweaked to your preference) to make a salve. The oil or salve can bring some relief to arthritis sufferers. It also helps with bruises and poor circulation. You can also add a few drops of essential oil to a bath. Matthew Wood in The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism notes that rosemary stimulates the involuntary musculature (e.g., of the heart, intestines, diaphragm) but relaxes the voluntary muscles.

Rosemary’s heat and dryness also tell you where not to use it: anywhere there is excess heat, irritation, or dryness already. If you are having heart palpitations, high blood pressure, or tachycardia, for example, don’t take rosemary. (Take hawthorn.)

Wood says (if I’m quoting him a lot it’s because he’s written a lot about rosemary) (TPoTWH, p. 248):

“…rosemary is indicated in people who have too strong an incarnation, so to speak, or who grasp the material world with such vigor that they get headaches and nervous tension. I do not mean that they are materialistic; it is for people who grasp life with great intensity, or not with enough intensity.”

Culturally, rosemary is most famous for its association with memory, and by extension, loyalty and fidelity. Given its manifold healing properties, it’s perhaps no surprise that rosemary’s esoteric powers are similarly comprehensive–purification, protection, attracting good luck and repelling bad, warding off evil, healing (of course!), exorcism, increasing mental powers, ensuring faithfulness, and empowering women.

Rosemary by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Rosemary by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

How I use rosemary

I sometimes take rosemary as a tea, and when I have a cold with sinus congestion, I’ll put a few drops of the essential oil in a bowl of hot water, put a towel over my head and inhale the steam. I currently have my mother taking half a dropperful of rosemary tincture three times a day because she has some serious edema going on, and memory problems. Actually, she has practically every problem rosemary can be used for. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get her to take tinctures because she doesn’t like the taste. She’s also a classic example of the Boomer generation attitude that medicine comes in pill form, end of. But when I can get her to take it, I notice immediate improvement in her edema.

Speaking of edema, Wood quotes a woman describing her experience with rosemary and edema (TPoTWH, p. 252):

“The difference between rosemary and lasix [sic; Lasix is a prescription diuretic] is that it is more selective. Lasix pumps out all the fluids it can get its hands on, whereas rosemary pulls out fluids that I can feel are stagnant and need to go.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, there are a lot of bad odors that come from a dying person, as well as a general sense of malaise in the house. To counteract these I diffuse essential oils. I use various blends, mostly making them up on the spot depending on how I feel, but they almost always involve rosemary. One of my favorites is:

  • 2 drops common sage EO
  • 3 drops rosemary EO
  • 3 drops tangerine EO
  • 2 drops grapefruit EO
  • 1-2 drops lavender EO (optional)

It definitely improves the overall aroma and lifts the spirits. I always feel a bit more perky, a bit more able to handle it all, after diffusing this blend. The other day one of my mom’s hospice nurses said it always smells good in our apartment, like herbs. Success!

I always put rosemary in my basic surface cleaning spray.

Rosemary is also an excellent hair tonic. I use a vinegar rinse to condition my hair (equal parts vinegar and water), and frequently use a rosemary infusion in lieu of plain water. Not only does it smell lovely but the oils from the rosemary impart a lovely shine without making your hair greasy. It is said to prevent hair loss.

In the old days herbalists recommended infusing rosemary in white wine and drinking a couple wine-glassesful per day. I haven’t tried this–I extracted my rosemary in brandy to make my usual tincture–but it sounds like it might be rather delicious. Rather than infusing the herb for a month as with a tincture, it was simply infused over the course of the day. I intend to try this when I get my next bottle of wine.

And finally of course I eat rosemary! Rosemary and lemon are a simple way to bring out the best flavor in chicken or potatoes, but they’re delicious on everything.

I mentioned that rosemary was one of the only plants in my garden that has survived. My garden was hit hard by bagrada bugs, and everything but two of my plants–a rosemary and a wooly blue curls–were pulled out by the community garden “SWAT team” who are empowered to remove any infested plants. I can’t tell you how heartbroken I was when I showed up to check on my plot, which had been overflowing with green plants a few days before, and finding nothing but two plants. Suffice to say I learned a hard lesson about what plants can withstand the bagrada bug, and it appears to be members of the mint family. So, I now have two rosemary plants, a blue curls, and a lemon tree in a pot on my patio. Because my mom’s health is growing progressively worse, I had to give up my community garden plot–I just can’t get down there often enough anymore. For the time being I’ll just be growing in containers. At least I know rosemary will continue to flourish there.

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Just because it sounds like science doesn’t mean it ain’t crazy

Is this someone coughing, or me screaming at the author of this POS article?

Is this someone coughing, or me screaming into a kleenex about how dumb this article is?

Today this article from Slate was brought to my attention: “Something to Sneeze At: Natural remedies that claim to ‘boost your immune system’ don’t work, and it’s a good thing they don’t.” And it really pissed me off.

I’m thinking that if you’re reading a blog about herbal medicine, you will probably have a similar eye-rolling response to this, but I want to rant anyway because some of what this article says is downright dangerous.

The article links to a selection of “natural immunity boosters” promoted by Dr. Mehmet Oz, and dismisses them as “expensive placebos.” These, apparently, are meant to represent all natural remedies. It then goes on to say that you don’t want to boost your innate immune system at all because it causes all the unpleasant “symptoms” we think of as being sick. Excessive immune response, after all, is responsible for autoimmune disorders and allergies. In fact,

“The mainstay of treatment for symptomatic cold viruses is to suppress, not boost, our crude and clunky innate immune responses. That’s why we take fever reducers and antihistamines.”(emphasis original)

Let’s rip this article apart, shall we?

Bogus claims

I’m no fan of Dr. Oz, and I shudder to think that he is now the figurehead for natural remedies among the general public, but alas, he probably is. Let’s look at the specific things being promoted on this page of his website (which, remember, we are supposed to consider representative of all natural remedies, if we accept the implication of the Slate article):

  1. larch (claimed to reduce the number of colds by 23%)
  2. oregano oil (to boost immune system and “cleanse your gut”)
  3. Japanese mushrooms (shiitake, enoki, etc.; a source of antioxidants)
  4. cruciferous vegetables (to “support your liver and immune function by boosting the liver’s ability to flush out toxins”)
  5. avocados (to support adrenal function)
  6. ginger (to “break down the accumulation of toxins in the organs”)
  7. black currants (to promote health vision and supply Vitamin C)
  8. oats (to lower cholesterol)
  9. pomegranates (which “contain ellagic acid and punic alagin which fight damage from free radicals and help preserve the collagen in your skin”)
  10. pumpkin seeds (as a source of magnesium, which may help lower blood pressure)
  11. sage extract (as an expectorant)
  12. eggs (just as a source of vitamins and minerals)
  13. graviola (“traditionally used to kill parasites, ameliorate liver problems, reduce fevers, and help treat colds and the flu. Scientists have studied graviola since the 1940s and most research has been centered around annonaceous acetogenins, a group of natural compounds that appear to have some anti-tumor properties – meaning they may help fight various types of cancer cells and thus help boost immune function”)
  14. green veggies, mushrooms, onions, seeds, and berries (for overall nutrition)

On this list, 4 items are promoted just for general good nutrition (Japanese mushrooms, black currants, eggs, and collectively, green veggies, mushrooms (again), onions, seeds, and berries). I don’t think anyone can critique that; these are all nutritious foods, hardly “expensive placebos.”

A further 7 items are foods for which specific health-enhancing claims are advanced (cruciferous veg, avocados, ginger, oats, pomegranates, pumpkin seeds, and graviola). I’m not going to do the research right now to determine whether the specific claims are valid, but again these are all nutritious foods. Will they cure cancer? Probably not. Will consuming them help your body perform its necessary normal functions? They sure will.

The remaining 3 items are herbal preparations (larch, oregano oil, and sage extract), and are the only ones that could possibly be considered “potions” and “snake oil”, as the Slate article paints natural remedies. I will come back to these later. I don’t know anything about larch, but am a big fan of sage. For expectorant purposes, I would probably take a tea rather than an extract, or even just inhale the scent of the essential oil, but extract would work. I am very dubious about the oregano oil claims. First of all, the website doesn’t make clear whether Oz is talking about infused oil or essential oil. Taking oregano essential oil to “cleanse your gut” is massive overkill. Essential oils are super-concentrated; they are super expensive to make in terms of the amount of plant material required to make them; and you rarely need to take something that strong internally. Furthermore, although oregano does have antimicrobial properties, how is it supposed to tell the difference between the beneficial gut flora and the pathological ones? You are much better off just eating oregano!

Back to the Slate article: “Research on these products [i.e., Dr. Oz’s recommendations as stand-in for all natural remedies],” it says, “shows that they are expensive placebos.”

Does research show that? If you click on “expensive placebos” in the article, it links to The Cochrane Library (“independent high-quality evidence for health care decision making”). The implication being that at The Cochrane Library site we will find evidence to refute the claims of natural remedies.

What we find there are 16 links to “intervention review” articles–reviews of experimental data previously published by the Cochrane Collective–on various substances used to treat cough and cold. Only 7 of these reviews pertain to what might be termed “natural” or “alternative” remedies (unspecified “Chinese medicinal herbs,” echinacea, garlic, heated humidified air, honey, Vitamin C, and zinc). Two points stand out here: (1) None of those is among the items promoted on Dr. Oz’s website; and (2) only one of the natural remedies examined was found to definitely be not at all helpful, and even then the authors called for more research:

  • On “Chinese medicinal herbs”: “Chinese herbal medicines may shorten the symptomatic phase in patients with the common cold. However, the lack of trials of low enough risk of bias, or using a placebo or a drug clearly identified as a control, means that we are uncertain enough to be unable to recommend any kind of Chinese medicinal herbs for the common cold.”
  • On echinacea: “Echinacea products have not here been shown to provide benefits for treating colds, although, it is possible there is a weak benefit from some Echinacea products: the results of individual prophylaxis trials consistently show positive (if non-significant) trends, although potential effects are of questionable clinical relevance.”
  • On garlic: “There is insufficient clinical trial evidence regarding the effects of garlic in preventing or treating the common cold. A single trial suggested that garlic may prevent occurrences of the common cold but more studies are needed to validate this finding.”
  • On steam: “Steam inhalation has not shown any consistent benefits in the treatment of the common cold, hence is not recommended in the routine treatment of common cold symptoms until more double-blind, randomised trials with a standardised treatment modality are conducted.”
  • On honey: “Honey may be better than ‘no treatment’ and diphenhydramine in the symptomatic relief of cough but not better than dextromethorphan. There is no strong evidence for or against the use of honey.”
  • On Vitamin C: “given the consistent effect of vitamin C on the duration and severity of colds in the regular supplementation studies, and the low cost and safety, it may be worthwhile for common cold patients to test on an individual basis whether therapeutic vitamin C is beneficial for them. Further therapeutic RCTs are warranted.”
  • On zinc: “Zinc administered within 24 hours of onset of symptoms reduces the duration of common cold symptoms in healthy people but some caution is needed due to the heterogeneity of the data. As the zinc lozenges formulation has been widely studied and there is a significant reduction in the duration of cold at a dose of ≥ 75 mg/day, for those considering using zinc it would be best to use it at this dose throughout the cold.”

In conclusion, (1) only a fatuous idiot would consider Dr. Oz’s recommendations to be representative of the vast array of natural/alternative remedies on the market; (2) most of what Oz recommends is just food anyway; (3) no refutation of the efficacy of Oz’s suggestions is provided by the Slate article or The Cochrane Library site.

That is pathetic. If I had handed that in as a term paper, my advisor would have given me the dreaded disappointed-face. Of course, he would assume the paper was just incompetently researched and written, not a cynical and disingenous attempt to discredit alternative medicine…which is what this is.

Dangerous implications

But what’s worse is the implication that all natural remedies are snake oils, used only by ignorant bumpkins who don’t understand science, and the claim that immune suppression is actually desirable. Go ahead, re-read that quote up above. Apparently our immune systems are so “crude and clunky” that we’re better off just disabling them rather than letting them do their job.

There are a couple things to be considered here in regard to “immune boosting.” First, many herbal medicines are marketed as boosting the immune system because the Food and Drug Administration does not allow manufacturers to claim or imply that the herb is in any way a medicine or cure. Herbs are treated as food supplements, and about the only thing we can legally say about them is that they will support the body in doing something it already does anyway. When it comes to illness, therefore, all we can say is that an herb supports the immune system. Even if that’s complete BS in terms of how the plant actually works.

I believe the choice of the term “boost” is in order to make the product more attractive to consumers. Here’s the other thing about herbal medicines–they are no way to get rich. You can’t patent them, and you can’t truthfully mass-market them. Less-scrupulous manufacturers and sellers try to amplify the potential market for a medicine by (1) suggesting that herbs are taken in the same way as pharmaceuticals, (2) implying that everyone can benefit, and (3) using language designed to sound efficaceous and medicinal to as many people as possible. Hence “boost.” It sounds more active than “support” or “nourish.”

Don’t suppress your immune system!

The immune system produces the “symptoms” that we think of as sickness (fever, chills, boogers, vomit, diarrhea, etc.). All of these either attempt to flush the pathogen out, or kill it with heat. Over-the-counter medications are designed to suppress these symptoms, and many people imagine this means they are suppressing the cause of the sickness (the germ or virus). But they’re not. They can only suppress the symptom by suppressing the immune system itself. This in turn means that the virus or bacteria live longer in your system and are contagious longer. (There are reams of scientific studies to support this. It would take me hours to track them all down. Go to Google Scholar and do a search and be amazed.)

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Rather than hobbling your immune system, next time you have a cold or flu try being nice to your body. During the first 24 hours of symptoms, hit it hard with elderberry and/or echinacea, Vitamins C and D, and zinc. Then feed it nutrient-dense but easily digestible foods like homemade soups (hard to make when you’re sick, I know–I’m making some up in advance and freezing them just in case), and stay hydrated with lots of water or tea. Juice is OK in moderation–it’s very high in sugar, and once you’re sick, the amount of Vitamin C in orange juice isn’t going to do much good. Keep taking elderberry (tea, tincture, or syrup). If you have chills, don’t take antipyretics to lower your fever (in fact don’t take these at all) but help it with warming herbs like ginger.* Get as much rest as possible, and don’t neglect the recuperation period.

Even better, before you get sick, make sure you are getting good nutrition, lots of vitamins and minerals. Get sunshine, exercise, and meditate. (Don’t you dare tell me you can’t. Practice makes perfect.) You can take adaptogenic herbs such as ginseng or astragalus–an appropriate selection for your specific needs–nourishing infusions (nettles are awesome), and nutritive tonics. There are some crazy, BS natural “remedies” out there which you are wise to avoid. But to lump all alternative medicine in with wacky oregano oil gut-cleanses and lemon juice and olive oil detoxes is throwing the baby out with the bath. It’s also worth bearing in mind that most doctors aren’t scientists. Not. Even. Close. Moreover, medical practice exists within the overall context of a culture and it is subject to the body- and health-related beliefs of that culture. They are beliefs, not truths. Look–don’t trust me, and for God’s sake don’t trust Dr. Faust (<–his actual name), the author of the article in Slate–do the research, use common sense, question the assumptions, trust your own experience.

Too often, I see people I know–intellectually brilliant people, many of them–only being skeptical of a scientific-sounding claim if they already doubt it. Don’t do that. I know life is short and we can’t perform our own experiments on everything–sometimes we have to just trust what other people tell us. But choose those people wisely. Make them earn it. And if they tell you you should suppress your immune system when you’re sick, laugh in their stupid faces.

*Always, always, always use your common sense. If your fever is very high or shows no signs of abating after a couple days, or if you are immuno-compromised, seek medical help.

Are you building a winter medicine chest?

winter medicine chest

If you haven’t already, now is the time to start stockpiling herbal medicines for winter. If you leave it too late, not only will you find you’re unprepared if/when you get sick, but you’ll also find that many purveyors of herbs are sold out of the ones you want (says the voice of bitter experience). I am actually getting around to this a bit too late, but where I live there really isn’t a proper winter so I can be a bit lazier here than when I used to live in Minnesota.

The selection of medicines for your winter medicine cabinet (and pantry!) is near infinite, and I may have a slight obsession with collecting them. In SAT terms, squirrel:nuts::me:herbal cold remedies. There are some essentials I wouldn’t be without during the winter:

  • Ginger (fresh and dried)
  • Elderberries (fresh or dried, whatever you can get)
  • Garlic
  • Licorice root
  • Echinacea

In case you are stumped for ideas, here are some of the recipes and remedies I’ve been making. There are more on my Pinterest board. Many of these are foods–herbs are arguably most effective when they are part of a varied and nutrient-dense diet, so they can help prevent you from getting sick in the first place. Plus, many of them are so yummy, and I love that as foods you can get really creative with them.

Sadly I forgot to take pictures of many of these things. Just imagine they look awesome. Because they totally did.

Blossoming elder in Wiltshire, 2010. (Photo credit: me.)

Blossoming elder with the Alton Barnes white horse in the distance, Wiltshire, Summer 2010. (Photo credit: me.)

Elderberry tea

Steep equal parts dried elderberry, orange peel, and lavender for a few minutes in just-boiled water. Add a slice of lemon and a teaspoon of honey. I haven’t tried it yet, because I just thought of it, but this would probably also be good with some mild green tea in the blend.

Elderberry tincture

This is pretty self-explanatory: soak elderberries (crushed up if they’re fresh) in booze (minimum 80 proof) for a month. The “folk” method ratio is 1 part berries to 2 parts alcohol, but especially if you’re using dried berries, I think you could go as high as 4 parts alcohol. Give the mix a shake once a day and store in a dark place. At the end of the month, strain out the elderberries and bottle your tincture as desired.

Alternatively, you could steep the berries in glycerin, but it doesn’t extract the medicinal properties of dried plant material as well as alcohol does, so you’ll want to warm it gently in a double boiler for at least a couple of hours to help. If you’re using fresh berries this isn’t necessary (though you can still do it).

Elderberry syrup

There are a million and one recipes for elderberry syrup online. I was inspired by Rosalee de la Forêt, from whom I learned that black pepper–a spice I love anyway for it’s flavor–makes the nutrients in food more bioavailable. I change my recipe every year, just for the fun of experimenting. This year I modified this recipe from HerbMentor which contains licorice, and also took inspiration from this recipe at the Mountain Rose Blog. Licorice root, like elderberries, has antiviral properties.

I will give you the recipe in my next post.

Spiced elderberry vinegar

When I make elderberry syrup, I take the dried berries (which I’ve strained out of the liquid) and put them in  jar with some vinegar. I don’t know how much medicine is left in the berries after they’ve been used for syrup, but I figure there’s probably still a bit of goodness in there, and I mean to get it all. I add some other spices to the vinegar–my last batch included a few slices of raw onion, garlic, cloves, nutmeg, black pepper, ginger, and cinnamon. I don’t measure them out, just go with my gut according to how much vinegar and berries I have. I let this sit for about a month and then strain it. I use it as a marinade for beef, substitute it for balsamic vinegar in any recipes that call for that, or blend it with olive oil to make a delicious vinaigrette for salads or veggies. And, mixed with a spoonful of honey and a little water, it helps clear stubborn phlegm from the throat.

You can infuse a vinegar with any fruits you used to make a syrup or jam.

Chai

chai spices

I wrote about this previously. I like to think it bears repeating, because chai.

Pickled garlic

Garlic is an immune booster that is safe to consume in large quantities (very large quantities of raw garlic will nauseate), so I pound the stuff back when I start feeling sick. And also the rest of the time. I just really love garlic. I also love traveling to places full of garlic-loving people, like Korea, Spain, Sicily…because no one is bothered by my garlic breath since they all have it too. I use this Korean recipe for pickled garlic called maneul jangajji. It is very simple and only takes about 3 weeks to finish pickling. The garlic comes out mellowed and soy-sauce-infused and makes a delicious savory side dish. I love it with Japanese curry…and pretty much everything else.

Oh and by the way, fret not if your garlic turns blue-green. It’s caused by a chemical reaction of the sulphur compounds in the garlic forming something like chlorophyll, and it’s totally safe (here’s my source).

Garlic soup (sopa de ajo)

Garlic soup, or sopa de ajo, was one of my favorite dishes when I lived in Spain as a teenager. The recipe I linked to calls for chorizo, but when I make it at home I leave that out (mainly because it’s really hard to get proper chorizo here) but I put in a lot more paprika. I don’t measure it, I just do it to taste. The broth should be red (paprika-colored) and pungent. The paprika and garlic also have a warming effect which is lovely on a cold winter day.

Ginger salve

This is a remedy strictly for external use (although technically I guess you could eat it…but I don’t think it would be very rewarding). You can use either fresh or dried ginger for this–dried is hotter. I made mine with both fresh and dried, and even added some ginger essential oil. You can let oil infuse for a month or so, but since I wanted mine right away, I did it by warming the oil and ginger in a double boiler for a couple of hours. Then I strained out the solids and added beeswax, a little Vitamin E (an antioxidant that helps keep oils from going rancid), and essential oils. The golden rule is 1 part beeswax to 8 parts infused oil, though you can of course customize this.

Ginger salve is amazingly relaxing to tired, sore muscles and works wonders on sciatica (in my experience). When I’m sick and am feeling any congestion–such as congested lungs or swollen lymph nodes–I rub some of this salve over the area, externally, and it helps to loosen things up and stimulate circulation. That said, do not get it in contact with any mucus membranes, because ginger is hot.

Ginger tincture

Ginger is so awesome, I like to have as many different forms of it on hand as possible.  Ginger tincture is made the same way as elderberry and again can be made with either fresh or dried ginger, but dried will be hotter. Tinctures are lovely to keep because they last so long and are relatively compact to store.

Ginger syrup

Chop 2 cups of fresh ginger and add that plus 2 cups sugar, honey, maple syrup (or a combination thereof) to a pan. Pour in enough water to cover (approximately 4 cups). Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and let it simmer for an hour. Be careful to keep the fire low enough so as not to burn the sugar, and stir frequently. Strain out the ginger (or not, if you like to eat it) and refrigerate the syrup.

I like to put this in some seltzer water with a squeeze of lime juice to make homemade soda.

As with elderberry syrup, you can add complementary herbs.

Echinacea tincture

E. purpurea

E. purpurea

Echinacea is severely overharvested in the wild, so please don’t wildcraft it, and if you buy it, be sure to buy it cultivated. Incidentally, it’s pretty easy to grow your own in suitable climate zones (Zones 4-9), is beautiful, and loved by bees. You can use Echinacea angustifolia, E. purpurea, or E. pallida, I’m not sure about the other species. With E. angustifolia, the root is usually used, but with E. purpurea it’s the aerial parts. Personally I prefer using aerial parts as this means I can cut-and-come-again and don’t have to destroy the plant to make my medicine. Make the tincture as with the elderberry tincture.

This is a remedy to take during the first 24 hours of an illness, not for prevention and not for the duration, unless you have swollen lymph nodes. Echinacea gets the lymph flowing again. (A complementary medicine for the lymphatic system is calendula.) It is also energetically cooling, so if you have chills it’s good to mix the echinacea with something hot like ginger. You can also take echinacea as a tea.

A tea for cold colds and flus

You know you have a cold cold or flu when you feel chilled and clammy. I once got a flu so cold that it made my teeth chatter and it seemed impossible to get warm. But like an old-timey ague, it would alternate with bouts of fever. Between the shivering and how much my joints ached, I couldn’t sleep at all. So I ran myself a hot bath, put in some dried ginger powder to heat it even more, and made myself a tea of:

  • Echinacea leaf
  • cloves
  • cardamom
  • orange peel
  • dried ginger
  • cinnamon
  • rose hips

I used equal parts of each, except cardamom, of which I used about 1/2 part. After my bath I drank about 6 oz of this tea and before I even finished the cup the fever broke. I started sweating, the pain went away, I fell asleep and slept well all night. It was literally just a matter of minutes. The next day I was about 95% better. I’m not promising this kind of cure, I’m just sharing this anecdote to illustrate the way these warming spices work. Although echinacea and rose hips are somewhat cooling, the other ingredients are energetically hot. It also illustrates how you can take a combination internal-external approach to give your cold the one-two punch.

So, what are your favorite recipes for cold and flu season?

 

Customize your chai for medicinal benefits

chai

When autumn rolls around–and it finally feels like autumn, even here in inland southern California where temps are still balmy, now that it’s dark by 5:00–my thoughts turn to chai.

I have a hard time making myself drink herbal infusions because I’m just not a hot beverage drinker. If it can be iced, ok…but for some reason I have found my herbal infusions don’t last as long as black tea, so it hasn’t worked for me to just make a big jug of infusion. It seems it has to be done a cup at a time, and then it’s all warm… You get where I’m going with this. I struggle with an infusion aversion.

But when it gets cooler and darker, warm beverages start seeming more appealing, especially when they are filled with delicious carminative spices. And I’m guessing I’m not the only one, to judge by the avalanche of pumpkin-spiced this-and-that. “Pumpkin spice,” of course, has no pumpkin in it, but the warming spices that go in pumpkin pie–nutmeg, allspice, ginger, and cinnamon. Three of those are also in chai masala, a.k.a., chai spice blend, a.k.a. chai although it’s incorrect to call it that. (Chai actually means “tea,” that is, the infusion of Camellia sinensis leaves. Therefore “chai tea” is redundant.)

So anyway, chai is delicious and warming, and good for the digestion because of all the carminative spices–but the best thing about it is that it accomodates the addition of your own favorite medicinal herbs. The intense flavor of the spices will blend with and even mask the taste of milder flavored additions (depending on quantities). This makes it a great way to slip in some extra immune-boosting medicine in time for cold and flu season.

Here’s a recipe from Rosalee de la Forêt that incorporates astragalus, reishi, and codonopsis.

Here is a recipe with turmeric.

Here’s one with several different medicinal herbs.

And here is one with chaga mushroom.

I have made chai with astragalus and eleuthero, and now I use ashwagandha and astragalus.

Here is my favorite recipe for a traditional Indian chai masala. It consists of ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, and black pepper. The quantities given are large–recently I made about 3 oz of chai masala using only 10% of these amounts. (I prefer to work with smaller quantities so the spices don’t lose their oomph but if you have more than one person drinking chai, you might wish to make a bigger batch.) This mix has a lot of black pepper, which makes the chai pleasantly spicy, but you could reduce the amount if you are really sensitive to spice. I would still leave some in though, because black pepper helps you better assimilate the nutrients in your food (or chai).

Here’s some interesting trivia from the author of this chai masala recipe:

Warning–Nerdy science note:  The flavors that make spices taste delicious are all aromatic compounds.  Aromatic compounds are made of molecules that contain a structure known as a benzene ring, meaning they dissolve best in alcohols or fats.  You may have notices this when making drinks, that adding a twist of lemon to a martini adds significantly more flavor in a shorter amount of time than adding a twist of flavor to a glass of water.  Similarly, if you make this chai with a non-fat milk, you won’t extract as many flavors from the spices as if you make it with a milk that has some fat.  So do your spices a flavor, and don’t make this with skim milk.  Nerdy science note done.

Once again, it’s milk-in-first FTW. But you can omit the milk if you have your reasons.

I just use plain old black tea for my chai. Something like Lipton, PG Tips, Yorkshire Tea, or Irish Breakfast (I find English Breakfast to be a bit anemic). Even better, you could use a nice organic tea, but for a traditional chai taste it should be strong, black, and simple, unadorned with anything frou-frou like bergamot oil.

Some ideas for herbs you might add to your chai (besides those mentioned above) are: slippery elm (this is good for people who are constitutionally dry and cold, as are the warming spices), rose petals (often added to tea in Iran…where it is also called chai by the way) or rose water, orange or lemon peel or rosehips (for a Vitamin C boost), licorice root, vanilla, cacao/cocoa (yum), mint, tulsi, fennel, even cannabis. The options really are endless and just depend on your constitution and health, what you want to achieve (tonic? adaptogen? relaxant? etc.), and what flavors you like. I pre-mixed my chai masala separately from any medicinals I plan to add. That way I can vary the formula each time if I want.

So, what quantities of herbs to add? The answer, as always, is “it depends.” But the herbs and spices we are dealing with here are all used as, or in, food. Thus they are very safe and can be consumed in pretty large quantities. Do make sure that if you are pregnant the medicinal herb(s) you add are safe. Consult a clinical herbalist or doctor if in doubt. Bear in mind that the amount of chai masala you would add to a single cup of chai is about 1/4 tsp, and I would add at least that much medicinal herb (likely quite a bit more). My advice is, add as much medicinal herb as you can while still enjoying the taste and consistency and not having any unpleasant sensations (which, if there were going to be any, would likely be some mild nausea). This is one experiment where even your “failures” are likely to be delicious. And remember that if you’re measuring by volume, you’ll add more of an herb if it’s in a “fluffy” form–for example, if you were making a pint of chai you could throw in a whole heaping handful of shredded slippery elm bark, vs. perhaps a tablespoon of powdered bark. If you measure by weight you don’t have to worry about this issue. You can also check out other recipes and see how much medicinal herb their authors added, to get a guideline.

ADDENDUM: I guess great minds think alike. I just noticed that Worts and Cunning Apothecary put up their own medicinal chai recipe today! The recipe is part of the Lunar Apothecary course, and is timed for the current full moon, which is in Taurus. Taurus is the sign that rules nourishment in all its forms and comfort, so a chai recipe is perfectly timed. I wish I’d thought of that!

More fun with post-cholecystectomy syndrome (PCS)

I received a great comment on my previous post about PCS (the suite of annoying symptoms that can result from not havaing a gallbladder) and decided that a follow-up was in order. I also wanted to include some more personal details (hopefully not TMI) to put the information in context.

This will make more sense if you read the previous post first. It’s here.

I continue to struggle with PCS everyday, and the reason I wanted to revisit the topic is that I am my main test subject when it comes to trying out potential remedies (cue mad scientist laugh). I thought it might be useful to others if I actually reported on my findings, such as they are.

First of all I want to say that I fit the classic symptom profile from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) really well. I can’t say for certain whether all these symptoms come from having no gallbladder, but they do post-date that time. For reference, I was 20 when I had it removed. Obviously I have aged since then, and I can’t be sure to what extent age and abuse through suboptimal diet may be influencing my symptoms. But they do correspond to exactly what you would predict for PCS. Also, I should point out that these symptoms did not appear immediately after I had my gallbladder removed–they have developed gradually over the years.

My PCS

Before having my gallbladder out, I tended to feel colder than other people. I did radiate heat–when riding in a car the window by my head would always get steamed up when nobody else’s was and people commented that I felt warm–but internally, I was usually cold. And I couldn’t stand any external cold at all. Since the gallbladder removal (I’m going to call it GBR to save my lazy fingers effort), I have excess heat (and dampness–I’ll get to that in a minute). I get heat stroke really easily and also the symptoms of what Chinese medicine calls “summer sickness”–dizziness, nausea, fatigue, loss of appetite, and diarrhea whenever it’s hot. Most days I have a feeling like there is a smoldering fire in my chest and solar plexus region that cannot be cooled. It’s not heartburn–it doesn’t have that acid burning feeling, just a sense of uncomfortable heat, as if I have been lying out in the sun on a hot day for a few hours.

Inflammation is supposed to be a sign of dampness, but I don’t happen to have that (at least not externally visible). I have, however, started to accumulate phlegm much more than ever before and I also have more skin tags. Not a huge amount, but I never used to have any. In TCM they are considered the result of heat coming from the liver and trying to emerge from the skin. I don’t have acne, but occasionally get small pimples in the liver zone (creases on either side of the nose). This is the only place I ever get zits.

furious bowels

Before my GBR, I had great digestion. There was pretty much nothing I couldn’t eat. I enjoyed all kinds of food, including spicy food and salads. Post-GBR, I am continually astonished at how pathetic my digestion is. Let us just say that these bowels? They are irritable. They are like one of those stereotypical crotchety old people, yelling “Get off my lawn!” at every dang thing I eat. I am now somewhat lactose intolerant where I never was before. I’m was never a big dairy-eater to begin with, but due to the hot feeling I mentioned above I like ice cream even more than I did before. My intestines do not like ice cream at all though. Yogurt and butter seem to be ok, but nothing else. I eat cultured butter, so the probiotics in the yogurt and butter may be having a beneficial effect even though I eat them in small quantities. I have recently discovered that raw leafy greens really piss my bowels off. Like I can’t even finish a salad without running for the bathroom (sorry, I know I promised this wouldn’t be TMI, but it won’t be useful if I’m not honest). I used to love eating salads all summer long–lettuces and such are cooling–but I now look at greens with mingled longing and trepidation. Other than these two, I haven’t yet been able to figure out exactly which things cause  digestive distress because that would require an elimination diet, which would be pretty much impossible in my circumstances, i.e., being my mom’s caregiver. (This issue is a long story and I don’t want to clutter the post up with it. I’m happy to explain if you really want to know, but for now suffice it to say that my dietary freedom is limited.)

My emotional states post-GBR have been exactly what TCM would predict: more anger, depression, and anxiety. Of course our emotions respond to many factors and I don’t want to oversimplify, but I have a lot more cranky, irritable days. It’s hard to tell sometimes whether an emotion is a cause or effect, but that’s one thing I like about TCM–it takes emotions into account and understands they can be both cause and effect. Fortunately I am managing my stress a lot better these days. As for depression, my opinion is that nowadays, it’s simply a reasonable response to the state of the world, not a mental illness. (Funnily enough, having come to that conclusion actually makes me feel much less depressed.)

Finally I have dull pain in the upper right quadrant of my abdomen, especially when I sit on airplanes. Something about that particular airplane posture and the immobility, I guess.

What I am doing about it

I have a plethora of different nutritional supplements and herbs–none has been a magic bullet, though most help a bit; but it can take time to find the right herbs and dosages. And sometimes it’s harder to get the mix right for yourself than for another person, for some reason. I take the following Standard Process supplements: Cholacol (bile salts), Drenamin (adrenal fatigue), and Livaplex (supports liver function). I also take the following herbs: dandelion and milk thistle (liver support) and bupleurum (liver and adrenal support) tinctures regularly, though I need to up my dosage, and agrimony. I also take melissa (lemon balm) and St. John’s Wort on an as-needed basis but need to make my melissa consumption more regular. I want to add rose to this list because my body seems to really like it and for its cooling effects.

cholacol

The results are that my energy levels are up a bit. I’m no ball of fire but at least I don’t have to take a nap after washing the dishes. My mood is much more stable with less depression and anger. My immune system seems to function pretty well–I get few colds and flus, maybe 1 per year, although the flu is more severe when I do get it than it used to be. There is still room for improvement here. My digestion is still suboptimal but I also need to work on that more, especially in terms of dietary change–on which more below.

What we all should be doing

I’m looking to both Chinese and Western herbal medicine for recommendations, and where they overlap I think we are really on to something. TCM offers dietary/nutritional remedies, which complement the herbs. Both camps advocate strengthening the digestion so we can extract the full nutrition out of what we eat (difficult without a gallbladder) and the use of foods and herbs with a bitter taste and cooling properties. The Taste of Herbs Flavor Wheel is extremely useful here (follow link to see a bigger version):

taste of herbsThis chart groups herbs by flavor, tells you their energetics, and correlates them with TCM and Ayurveda. All three systems are agreed that you want to seek out herbs in the red section. Astringents (the green section) can also help by toning weakened tissues. Because of the interconnectedness of the digestive system with every other system in the body, one seldom has only one issue going on. But the great thing about this chart is that you can classify foods and herbs that aren’t listed, simply by tasting them. By the way, if you’re wondering why I mention TCM so much it’s because it is so hard to find anything in the Western herbal literature specifically devoted to PCS/gallbladder problems.

Chinese medicine views the development of gallbladder symptoms and PCS as both being due to excess damp heat. The dietary guidelines for reducing dampness and heat recommend avoiding alcohol, sugar, greasy/fried foods, and dairy (except yogurt), refined flours, raw foods, chilled foods/drinks, coffee, meat, and spicy foods. I have not been doing so well with this, even though I know better. The hardest part, especially in summer, is avoiding the cold food and drinks. They do give a brief cooling feeling, and I’ve always preferred cold drinks even back when I felt cold all the time. That’s why I mostly take my herbs as tinctures instead of teas, because I just really don’t like hot drinks. But I should be taking things room temperature to warm.

PCS remedies part 1 graphic

Foods that are said to relieve heat and dampness include: onions and their relatives (garlic, chives, scallions, leeks), cinnamon, aromatic herbs (parsley, basil, dill, rosemary, oregano, etc.),  raw honey (like I need an excuse!), alfalfa, celery, lettuce, spinach, bamboo shoots, eggplant, potatoes (with skins), Chinese cabbage, dandelion greens, mustard greens, barley, buckwheat, strawberries, lemon, kiwi, hawthorn berry, fennel, mustard seed, ginger, turmeric, saffron, radish, asparagus, broccoli, turnip, radish, quinoa, amaranth, adzuki beans, and cucumber. This ain’t no paleo diet. You’ll notice there are items here that fit in the pungent (grey) and sour (green) categories on the flavor wheel, as well as bitters.

From a Western herbalism perspective, we need foods that will cool, move the dampness, and tone the tissues that get weak from poor nutrition. For advice on applying traditional Western energetics my go-to book is Matthew Wood’s The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism: Basic Doctrine, Energetics, and Classification. According to Western energetics, there are two types of dampness: flowing and stagnant. Flowing, or leaky, dampness is a tissue state called “relaxation;” damp stagnation is “torpor.”

“[Relaxation] would include excessive sweating, salivation, digestive secretion, diarrhea, menstrual bleeding, and urination. … One of the ironies of the relaxed tissue state is that it tends to create a deep tension, which can be either psychological or physical, or both.” (Wood, pp. 199-200)

“[Torpor] is not only associated with a buildup of unneeded fluids, but with their precipitation into thickened phlegm–mucopolysaccharides, actually–which were called ‘humors’ in the old literature. In addition to the thickening of fluids, waste products build up because of the stuck state of transportation in the body. Indeed, even unused food becomes a waste product. Meanwhile, the tissues are not getting enough nutrition and they tend to become flabby and weak. The thickening fluids cause pain in muscles. It would be called fibromyalgia today, or rheumatism (dampness) as per the old books. The single most characteristic symptom is said to be skin lesions. Another typical symptom is hangover. The digestion and liver functions are backed up. Lymphatic stagnation and sluggishness is also typical. The channels of elimination may be taxed. Some cases of hypothyroidism would fit here.” (Wood, pp. 221-222)

Recommended herbs for tissue relaxation are all astringents and include blackberry (excellent for diarrhea, especially where the mucosal lining of the bowels is impaired, as is often the case due to weak bile dripping directly into the intestine from the liver–the fruit, leaf, and root may all be used; you can substitute raspberry leaf), sumac (not the poison kind–sumac is commonly available as a condiment in Middle Eastern groceries), black walnut (leaf, bark, black hulls; also helps with hypothyroidism but the hulls can be laxative so use these with caution), white oak bark (small doses of tincture), and sage.  The traditional recommendations for torpor are alteratives (“blood purifiers”) and laxatives. If you don’t have a gallbladder, there is a good chance you do NOT need laxatives. Recommended herbs for torpor include dandelion, burdock, and Oregon grape root. Sage and burdock particularly seem to help with digestion and metabolization of fats. I also just came across this wonderful piece on Cauldrons & Crockpots about ocotillo and how it helps move stagnant fluids in the body.   PCS remedies part 2 graphicFor cooling, Western herbalism recognizes that heat can be a secondary effect due to “sepsis and deterioration,” as Wood puts it, or primary, due to irritation and excitation, which is essentially acceleration of cellular function. With PCS there may be both types but I think the secondary heat arising from an under-performing gut and liver is the main issue. Recommended herbs include rose (all parts; cooling, astringent, and drying), yellow dock root (cooling, bitter, alterative), and yarrow (cooling and stimulating).

And of course, exercise. We’re not talking here about weight loss or get-fit exercise, we’re just talking about moving the qi and fluids around. I am a big fan of the website Katy Says which is all about the importance of proper body alignment. Working out, running, cycling, dance–all are fine but do not replace time spent simply sitting, walking, and carrying things in correct alignment. If you’ve been out of alignment, as most of us in the modern world are, at the beginning just standing in proper alignment will be a workout for the back of your legs, pelvic floor, and shoulders.

Anyway, I hope this helps somebody. As I said previously, I’m not a doctor, but this is the best information I’ve been able to glean on the subject. I have not found a lot of useful information, and much of what I have found doesn’t have any contextual information. I gave you all far more detail about my health than probably any of us are comfortable with, but I am hoping I have given you a clearer picture of how it all fits together to affect not only your body, but your mind and emotions too.

EDIT: I have revised my views on this topic somewhat, so please also read my latest post on herbal remedies for PCS.

Immunity-boosting Rootyfruity Jam (with recipe) and some rambling on roses

rootfruity jam graphic

Sometimes I get in a domestic mood, and when this happens during summer fruit season, it’s time to make jam. I try to get organic and if I can find good stuff at a farmer’s market, I snatch it up. That’s another reason for jamming–when you’ve got more fruit than you can eat before it goes bad. I always have this song stuck in my head while making jam:

This summer I found some delicious looking Thomcord grapes (a cross between Thompson and Concord). I’ve never made grape jelly before so I thought why not give it a try? Actually, I’ve never made the same jam twice. I’m always coming up with new ideas to try before I revisit an old favorite. I’ve made apple-raspberry, blueberry-plum, peach, strawberry, blood orange…that’s all I can remember off the top of my head. Not every experiment has worked–the blood orange jam I tried is fine by me but did not go over well with my mother, and I was really hoping she would eat it because she eats even more jam than anyone I do. I often like to add plums to other fruits because (1) they make delicious jam on their own and (2) they add a little tangy je ne sais quois to other fruits. Plus they have some pectin in their skins, which helps the jam to gel.

So my current blend is about 2 parts Thomcord grapes to 1 part plums-of-unknown-variety. But this time I wanted to add some medicinal punch to my jam because as you know I love to eat my medicine. Elderberry seemed like it would mesh nicely with the two other dark-purple-skinned fruits, and I added some eleuthero (Siberian ginseng), which has very little flavor but adds a hint of sweetness and a subtle warmth. And on a lark I threw in some rose petals. Medicinally speaking, I feel a strong affinity to rose. They are also beautiful flowers, of course, but it’s actually in eating them and applying them topically (in the form of rosehip seed oil) that they seem to really speak to me. Though I used to be one of those people who is always cold, nowadays I suffer more from excess heat, and rose is just the right sort of cooling for me. I also seem to benefit greatly from astringents, even though my tissues don’t seem especially leaky or flaccid. Maybe it’s not so much that they benefit me as that I just really like them.

lokum

Delightful Türk lokumu.

Another thing that put roses in my mind is a box of Turkish Delight I recently received from a friend of mine. I don’t mean that vile stuff made by Fry’s which is in no way delightful and is an insult to the name Turkish Delight. Real TD, or Türk lokumu in Turkish, is delicately flavored, firm, yet jiggly-wiggly in a way that makes you feel like a kid again. The rose-flavored delights are my favorites.  I have yet to visit Turkey (bucket list) so I have to rely on friends to keep me supplied with its Delight.  Rose is also a common flavor used in Persian cookery, which is probably my favorite “ethnic” cuisine. I love the spices used but an interesting thing about Persian food is the way it balances warm and cool ingredients. I assume this is deliberate but I don’t know what the guiding principles are. For example, a dish will have rich warm turmeric and saffron, complemented with cool mint, lime, and yogurt. Flowers are also used abundantly, especially rose and orange blossom. Seriously, if you have never had it before, seek ye out your nearest Iranian restaurant and indulge ASAP.

Did you know that sherbet (or as we Americans like to say, sherbert) is originally from Persia? But Persian sherbet isn’t that rainbow stuff that’s always on the bottom shelf of the ice cream freezer in the grocery store, it’s a syrup, often served over ice. More of a drink than a food, but sort of in between, like shave ice or Italian granita. A rosewater syrup served over shaved ice is a soul-soothing joy on a hot summer day.

 

Roses in my garden. (Not used in the recipe below, but super pretty.)

Roses in my garden. (Not used in the recipe below, but super pretty.)

You know what, why not try making a cooling rose dessert yourself? Here is a recipe for faloodeh, sort of like a rose water slushy made with rice noodles. Here’s a recipe for bastani, a delicious, creamy custard-based ice cream made with rose water, pistachios, and saffron. And here’s one for a rhubarb and rose sherbet.

Anyway, back to jam.

The dark purple skins of the grapes, plums, and elderberries tell us they are full of antioxidants. Lots of Vitamin C in there. The elderberries and eleuthero are traditional immue-boosting allies. I couldn’t do a better job of detailing elderberry medicine than Lucinda of Whispering Earth has already done in this post. Eleuthero seems to particularly help with building stamina, especially in people (like me) who tend to get run down through overwork and stress. I have used it with great success in a tea blend, which also included elderberries among other things, for treating flu with chills. (I haven’t yet had occasion to try it on a hot flu.)

Below is my recipe for this jam. Technically it’s a jelly because I’m straining out the fruit pulp–eleuthero is fibrous and not conducive to spreading on toast–but you could customize this with other herbs and flowers, and you could leave the fruit in. I generally do as I like the jam consistency better than that of jelly. Plus, extra fruity vitaminy goodness! But I had never made a jelly before and wanted to try it out, and in this case it’s a little more work. Note that if you don’t strain out the fruit pulp, you’ll end up with a lot more jam and will need to recalculate the amount of pectin and sugar, so I’ve given you the proportions for each of those.

I know it looks like a lot of steps–I included everything for those who’ve never made jam before–but they are mostly very simple. Please pardon the craptacular photos–I’m sure you’re used to them by now!

Rootyfruity Jam/Jelly

Fruit mixture*:

  • 4 oz dried elderberries
  • 2 lbs Thomcord grapes
  • 1 lb plums (about 6)
  • 1/2 cup rose petals
  • 1/4 cup eleuthero (only if making jelly)
  • 1 cup water

*This comes out to 68 oz (by volume) = 8.5 cups BEFORE COOKING/STRAINING –> 4 cups after cooking/straining (jelly only)

Other Ingredients:

  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 6 Tbsp pectin (porportions should be 3 Tbsp pectin per pint (16 oz) fruit)
  • 4 cups sugar (proportions should be equal parts sugar and fruit)

Supplies:

  • Canning funnel
  • Ladle
  • Metal spoons (ordinary table spoon size)
  • Big pot for waterbath
  • Jars and lids
  • Jelly bag, cheesecloth, or old pillowcase and colander (only if making jelly)
  • Dish towel

Procedure:

I cannot recommend strongly enough that you wear an apron or old shirt because this stuff will stain!

  1. Wash and prep the fruit. Remove plum pits but leave the skins. Remove the stems from the grapes and the elderberries if you are using fresh (if you are going to make a jelly you’ll be straining any remaining stems out, but if you plan on making a jam, you’ll want to remove them all; also if you use eleuthero you’ll want to strain out the fibrous bits).
  2. Puree fresh fruit in blender or processor until roughly chopped, or smash them with a potato masher.

    Plums and grapes in the blender. I used dried elderberries because they don’t grow around here. Mountain Rose Herbs to the rescue!

  3. Add to pot with elderberries, rose petals, eleuthero, and water. Bring to boil, then lower heat and simmer about 10 minutes, until fruit is tender and the different colors have sort of blended together.

    Rose petals and eleuthero.

    A really terrible, out of focus picture of everything simmering in the pot.

  4. Allow the mixture to cool until you can safely pour it into a jelly bag or colander lined with a couple layers of cheesecloth or an old pillowcase to strain (if making a jelly). You can run the pulp through a food processor again to try to get more juice out if you want (make sure it’s cool!). Once the pulp has stopped dripping on its own, give the bag a good squeeze to wring out all the goodness.

    Here is the resulting juice after straining.

  5. Sterilize your jars, lids, and any implements you’ll be using to fill them (funnel, ladle, spoon, etc.). You can do this in the oven (set them on cookie sheets, 225ºF for 20 minutes) or by boiling for 10 minutes. I prefer the oven because we have really hard water that leaves a yucky white film on anything boiled. Heating also helps soften the gum that seals the jar lids. If your jars are done before your jam, urn off the heat but keep them warm in the oven.
  6. Start boiling the water in your big ol’ canning pot (technical term there). It’s going to take a long time to get going. (I don’t have a pressure canner so I’m not quite sure how they work. Presumably if you have one you know how to operate it.)
  7. Now comes the tricky part. Grapes are naturally high in pectin and the plum skins have some too, but the other fruit isn’t, so you’ll be adding pectin and the juice of 1/2 lemon to help it set. ALWAYS ADD PECTIN BEFORE SUGAR or it won’t set (says the voice of experience). Add pectin and lemon juice to the fruit juice/pulp and set it on a medium-high flame until it reaches a rolling boil.
  8. Meanwhile, chill a couple metal spoons by putting them in a cup of ice water, or on a saucer in the freezer. Make sure you have the implements you’ll need soon and a space to fill the jars.
  9. Add the sugar to the fruit juice/pulp. Lower the heat and stir until the sugar dissolves, then raise the temperature and bring the jam to a boil. Let it boil hard for 1 minute. (Some people recommend warming the sugar in a Pyrex or ceramic bowl in the oven at 300ºF so the sugar won’t cool the fruit puree, minimizing the amount of time the fruit needs to be cooked. I didn’t bother.)
  10. As the jam starts to look more viscous, test for set by scooping out a half-spoonful with your chilled spoon and letting it cool to room temperature. Once the jam has cooled (the back of the spoon should feel the same temperature as the back of your hand), push it with your finger. If the surface wrinkles, congratulations–you’ve achieved set! If not, try again in 5 minutes. The tricksy thing with pectin is you don’t want to boil too long, or too short. Either way you won’t get your jam to set. If you’re still not getting it to set, add some more pectin and bring to a hard boil for another 1 minute. If all fails and you never achieve set after cooking for 40 minutes, well, you’ve got yourself a lovely fruit syrup! Enjoy it on some vanilla ice cream, shaved ice, or in plain yogurt. For what it’s worth, I had no trouble getting this recipe to set.
  11. Take the jam off the heat and let sit for 10 minutes or so. Get your jars arranged on your jar-filling surface with the lids, rings, funnel, and ladle within easy reach. I like to line up the jars on top of a dish towel to buffer any temperature difference between the hot jars and the surface they sit on, and to catch any spills. (This jam could stain light countertops.)
  12. Ladle jam into jars. You want both the jam and the jars to be hot to prevent mold spores from colonizing them. Leave about 1/2 inch head room in each jar. At this point, you can add a paraffin seal (I don’t) or a circle of wax paper (I don’t)–these will keep water from condensing on the surface. That has never been an issue for me, but your mileage may vary. Wipe off any jam on the rims of the jars, add the lids, and tighten the rings, but not as tight as you can–just tight enough to hold the lids securely.
  13. Hopefully by now the water in your big ol’ canning pot is boiling. Pop the jars in the waterbath. They should have a couple inches water over the top (though usually I don’t have room for that much and it still works). Boil 5 minutes and carefully remove the jars and set them back on the towel (temperature shock between a hot jar and cool counter can cause jars to explode). Now leave them alone. In a few minutes you should hear little plinks as the jar lids seal.
  14. Let the jars cool completely. Tighten the rings. If there are any that didn’t seal, keep them in the fridge and eat them up. Jars with properly sealed lids can live in the cupboard.
  15. Enjoy on a delicious bread such as this super-delicious easy no-knead peasant bread or on your preferred jam-bearing medium.

If you are interested in knowing more about the process, here is an excellent and not-boring article on the science of jam making.

But wait, there’s more!

You will have noticed that when making this as a jelly, you lose over half the original mass in the form of strained-out fruit pulp. That seems like a waste. There’s still a lot of goodness in there, and one good way to use it is to make an infused vinegar. I meant to post about this before when I made a spiced elderberry vinegar last fall, but of course I neglected to take photos. I may still describe it in greater detail in another post, but anyway, get yourself a jar and put some fruit pulp in and cover with vinegar (I like apple cider). You can put other spices as flavorings, even garlic or onions, depending on how you think you might use the vinegar. I use mine as a really yummy salad dressing with some extra virgin olive oil. You could also use it as a meat marinade for red meats like beef or venison.

Fruit-infused wine and vinegar.

Fruit-infused wine and vinegar.

Or, you could let the fruit infuse in some red wine. You could even add sugar or honey to it to make an elixir. Get creative with it! Just keep it in the fridge since the alcohol content of the wine may not be sufficient to deter the growth of undesirable critters.

Waste not, want not!

Do you have any good jam-making tips? I’m always interested in learning them. How about any favorite fruits or fruit combinations for jam? Or any good ideas for using the leftover fruit pulp when you make jellies?

Diet dogma is dumb

I hadn’t intended to return to the subject of the paleo diet, but in a moment of synchronicity, just as I was rolling my eyes I stumbled across an article entitled “Archaeologists Officially Declare Collective Sigh over ‘Paleo Diet’.”

I am not one to ignore a synchronicity, so I’m revisiting the topic.

Neandertal

(Previously, like palaeoethnobotanist Dr. Britta Hoyes, quoted in the article, I concluded: “Look, the diet itself is sound; it’s the philosophy that’s bullshit. Eat what you want. Just leave the damn cavemen out of it.” I now have to slightly revise my stance. If you want to see why, keep reading.)

“Archaeologists Officially Declare…” is a rundown of the results of a two-day conference in Frankfurt where archaeologists got together to discuss the silliness that is the paleo diet, pointing out some major flaws in the philosophy, which I summarize below:

  • There is no such thing as the paleo diet. Humans have had thousands of kinds of healthy diets. “You simply do not see specific, trans-regional trends in human subsistence in the archaeological record. People can live off everything from whale blubber to seeds and grasses. You want to know what the ideal human diet consists of? Everything. Humans can and will eat everything, and we are remarkably successful not in spite of this fact, but because of it.” (Hoyes)
  • Indeed, palaeolithic people ate anything they could get their hands on: “You really want to be paleo? Then don’t buy anything from a store. Gather and kill what you need to eat. Wild grasses and tubers, acorns, gophers, crickets- They all provide a lot of nutrition. You’ll spend a lot of energy gathering the stuff, of course, and you’re going to be hungry, but that’ll help you maintain that lean physique you’re after. And hunting down the neighbor’s cats for dinner because you’ve already eaten your way through the local squirrel population will probably give you all the exercise you’ll ever need.” (Hoyes)
  • Besides, you really can’t even access the species that palaeolithic people ate. Almost everything available now–besides totally wild species like chipmunks and birch trees–has been modified by agriculturalists. “The notion that we have not yet adapted to eat wheat, yet we have had sufficient time to adapt to kale or lentils is ridiculous. In fact, for most practitioners of the Paleo Diet, who are typically westerners, the majority of the food they consume has been available to their gene pool for less than five centuries. Tomatoes, peppers, squash, potatoes, avocados, pecans, cashews, and blueberries are all New World crops, and have only been on the dinner table of African and Eurasian populations for probably 10 generations of their evolutionary history. Europeans have been eating grain for the last 10,000 years; we’ve been eating sweet potatoes for less than 500.” (Dr. Karl Fenst)
  • What was good for humans in terms of natural selection was determined by reproductive success, not individual health. Individual health is not the same thing as evolutionary fitness. For one thing, “fitness,” in biological terms, is not a property that describes an individual, but rather an allele (a variant of a gene–for example, sticky earwax is one variant of a gene that makes earwax).  Every individual is a mess of both fit and unfit alleles. And anyway, fitness isn’t about living a long life, it’s about not-getting-dead just long enough to make babies. In terms of reproductive success, what is best for humans is what makes them have the most babies–and that happens to be agriculture. “As long as the diet of an individual keeps them alive long enough to successfully mate, then that diet has conferred an evolutionary advantage. By that metric, the agricultural revolution has proven to be the most effective dietary system in the history of our species. We are the most prolific higher-order vertebrate on the planet.” (Dr. Richard Wenkel). You’ll notice the earth was not massively overpopulated before farming.
  • This wasn’t mentioned in the article but in my opinion, the most imporant take-away message is that anything preaching “evolutionary correctness” should be avoided at all costs because the “correct” methods were usually made up by someone who wasn’t paying attention in their Anthropology 101 class. If someone says men are evolved to be cheaters, or women to be vain or have poor abstract thinking skills, or that humans can eat kale but not beans–call BS immediately. Such maxims are always oversimplifications, reductive, and are usually being used to justify bigotry or some other behavior that is frowned upon (maybe for good reason). When I say someone wasn’t paying attention in class I mean that they got only the most superficial, simplistic understanding of key points and failed to get any of the context or nuance.

Now I want to revise what I said about the paleo diet probably being healthy enough if you can afford it and are so inclined. I do realize there are many variants on the paleo diet theme, and I don’t even know all of them, so understand that I’m referring to the general principles. That is, that the diet should consist of meat, fresh fruit and veg, some nuts, and should not include (or include very few) grains, legumes, or dairy products.

Humans, across time and space, have eaten and will continue to eat pretty much anything we can stuff into our faces, and we haven’t died out yet. If we do make ourselves extinct, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be our diets that kill us as a species. So is the paleo diet, as Dr. Hoyes said, “sound”? In a sense it’s true–eat paleo or don’t, whatever. Even if you connect yourself 24/7 to a saturated fat IV you will probably live long enough to reproduce…although the IV pole and tube, the meat sweats, and probable failure to conform to current standards of beauty might get in the way of your sexy times.

It has been my experience–and I’m not claiming to be a dietician, nutritionist, food scientist, or even a thin person, but I am a person who eats food and is in pretty good health–that prescribing certain foods is more effective than proscribing them. That is, try thinking of what foods you need and must eat, and then make sure you do so, rather than thinking in terms of what foods are prohibited and trying to avoid them. First, it’s easier and, I dare say, more psychologically fulfilling, to take specific, positive action in support of health than to feel like you are either depriving yourself, or attempting to halt the decline of health. Second, if you are filling up on something healthful you’ll obviously have less room for the unhealthful stuff. For example, every day you could decide you must eat one serving of something fermented, six servings of vegetables, an ounce of chocolate, a tomato, a glass of wine, a naturally blue or purple food–or whatever. Your food prescription would depend on your individual needs. And that’s why you’ll never see this in a bestselling diet book–because there is no one size fits all. (Plus I don’t think anyone will pay me for The Trial-and-Error Diet!) For me, soy is not a good idea–for you, it might be awesome. To give yourself a shortcut through the process, think about what has worked or not worked for your family. My family has problems with blood sugar. We’re mostly hypoglycemic (and chronically depressed), and in the past some relatives drank alcohol to feel normal and ended up becoming big-time alcoholics. A couple became diabetic in later years. So I already know sugar and alcohol are going to be an issue for me. (By the way, I have found iris flower essence to be a huge help in preventing blood sugar crashes and helping normalize my blood sugar all day. But Matthew Wood says it only works that way for hypoglycemia, not diabetes.) Treat food the way you would treat herbal medicine, in other words.

I’ve noticed that people get just as insane about dietary orthodoxy as they do religious orthodoxy. For every person who swears by the GAPS, paleo, or Weston A. Price diets, you’ll find an equal number swearing those will kill you and only veganism, raw foods, or the USDA food pyramid is the way, the truth, and the light. There is much namecalling and accusations of chicanery, if not actual fraud, fly fast and furious.  The very dogmatism about health scares me more than the alarmist claims that such-and-such will kill me. Unfortunately it means that we’re really on our own here. It’s all trial and error. This is even more the case when we rely on the internet for information, since it creates a false feeling of consensus, and some search engines (ahem, Google) and social media (Facebook) effectively censor what you’re exposed to by using algorithms to “optimize” performance (i.e., to give you more and more of the same).

I think ultimately we need to calm down and ask ourselves what “health” means to us as individuals and why we are fighting for it. Then it becomes much easier to decide how to go about it.

Umami medicinal mushroom powder

umami

Everybody–well, everybody who has a cooking blog anyway–seems to be making “magic mushroom powder” these days. (Spoiler–not actually made from magic mushrooms. Sorry.) I never met a mushroom I didn’t love, so when I ran across a recipe for mushroom powder I decided I had to make my own version. I drew inspiration from this recipe and this one. The second version comes from the Nom Nom Paleo cookbook by Michelle Tam and Henry Fong. The first version uses shiitake mushrooms and oregano, the second one (which confusingly is chronologically first) uses porcini (also known as ceps) and thyme. Both also include salt, pepper, and chili flakes.

But not to be outdone, I came up with my own mushroom powder using what I had on hand. And here it is:

  • 1 oz dried mushrooms (I used 0.5 oz porcini, 0.4 oz shiitake, and 0.1 oz oyster mushrooms–measured by weight)
  • 3 tsp salt (I used Celtic sea salt)
  • 1 tsp sage
  • 1/2 tsp thyme
  • 1/2 tsp marjoram
  • 1/2 tsp black peppercorns
  • 1/4 tsp fennel

Put into a spice grinder or food processor and turn into powder. And done! Now put it on everything!

Why these ingredients?

I’m not quite sure why I added marjoram and sage, something just told me it would taste good if I did. I debated on the marjoram because the dried mushrooms have a powerful umami flavor (who needs MSG when you’ve got this stuff?) and I wanted to enhance that and thought the marjoram might be a little too aromatic. I actually get quite strong gut feelings sometimes when it comes to herbs, and usually it works out well when I obey. Having tasted the result in this case at least I’m convinced it was the way to go. As for the fennel, I’m actually not a big fan of fennel but I think that in small quantities it adds a certain extra deliciousness to spice blends, so in it went.

If you check out the linked recipes you will note that I kept the amounts of mushrooms and herbs the same. But those recipes call for a whopping 2/3 cup of salt. Now don’t get me wrong, I love me some salt. As a little kid I could often be found in the barn licking the horses’ salt licks. (True story.) But I’d rather start with too little salt and add a bit more to the food on the plate than to run the risk of oversalting the whole dish. So I started with only 3 tsp. And what do you know? That was actually plenty.

Any of these mushroom powders will add a powerful punch of umami (“pleasant savory taste”) to your food. The cool thing about it is that if you use a lot, you get a rich mushroom flavor; use a little and you get a subtle umami boost without being quite sure what that delicious mystery flavor is. So I’m not kidding when I say you can put it in/on everything.

Let food be thy medicine…

I believe the best way to regard food is not as a troublesome necessity that makes us fat and full of toxins, but as wholesome medicine that nourishes us and gives us pleasure. Obviously some kinds of  food are more nourishing and medicinal than others, though in general I think it’s a good idea to call a truce and make food our friend. But it’s always best when your food packs a real medicinal punch, and mushrooms, it turns out, are very good medicine.

All three species of mushrooms used here have been shown to lower cholesterol, boost the immune system when needed and calm it when it’s going crazy, prevent clogging of arteries, fight cancer by “activating” cancer destroying macrophages (especially breast and colon cancers), are full of bioavailable iron, copper, B vitamins, zinc, protein, fiber, and antioxidants, help your body produce Vitamin D, fight chronic inflammation, help stabilize blood sugar and metabolize fat, and support the adrenals  (source 1, source 2, source 3, source 4). Oyster mushrooms are also antibacterial.

NOTE: I keep seeing that oyster mushrooms (or a blend containing them such as this one) should be cooked at temps above 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius) in order to destroy a protein they contain called ostreolysin, which can be toxic. However, almost every case where I see this warning it is the exact same wording, cut and pasted from an unknown source. My opinion is, better safe than sorry, so I’ll add the powder before cooking; but I’ll need to see more evidence (or at least a proper citation) before I get my knickers in a twist over it, especially in the tiny quantities of oyster mushroom used in this powder.

ALSO NOTE: Most studies on the medicinal actions of these mushrooms were performed using extracts rather than whole mushrooms, and on lab rats rather than humans. The exact doses necessary to get a medicinal effect are not known (to me anyway), but whole food herbs are often effective in very small doses, especially when taken regularly.

Meanwhile, marjoram, sage, and thyme are all members of the mint family, possessing abundant stimulating aromatic oils which aid the digestion. Fennel and pepper are carminatives, and fennel in paricular reduces flatulence and stomach cramps.

So taken all together, this umami medicinal mushroom powder is not only savory but warming, nourishing, and immune boosting.

Next time I’ll give you a suggestion for how to use this mushroom powder (other than “put it on all the things”).

Bioregional Denial, or the Great Sycamore Debate of 2014

Tonight I’m a little grouchy. I was just ranting about (1) what I consider the delusional landscaping of the area in which I live and (2) my frustrated search for affordable bones from pastured animals for making soup stock.

The sycamore has become the symbol of what I think of as the local Bioregional Denial. All over town there are American sycamores (Platanus occidentalis). (This is similar to the London plane tree for you Brits.) They are all sort of stunted and miserable looking; their leaves wither and fall off all through the year. I know trees drop leaves all the time but we are talking autumnal levels of leaf debris here. I get very angry looking at these poor unhappy trees in the middle of lush, useless lawns which, through no fault of theirs, are guzzling too much of our already crtically low water supply. My mother, the victim of my rant, said (mainly just to be contrary to my contrariness) that she likes a nice sycamore tree. (As do I–in its proper environment.)

P. occidentalis, the American sycamore (a healthy specimen)

P. occidentalis, the American sycamore (a healthy specimen)

Climatically, this is a transition zone between arid Mediterranean-like chaparral and the Sonoran desert zone. Platanus occidentalis does not grow here naturally and clearly doesn’t thrive when imported. And yet there is a local species, the California or Western sycamore (P. racemosa), which is beautiful, drought tolerant, and suitable for urban landscaping. (My mother said the California sycamore must be short and ugly like a valley oak. This is how I can tell she’s just being ornery, because live oaks are gorgeous! Anyway I’ll let you be the judge but I think California sycamores are plenty attractive enough for urban parks and yards.) I cannot grasp, and believe me I’ve tried, the mindset of a person who would settle in Arizona and then attempt to turn it into Ohio. If you want the environment to look lush and verdant, then live where it rains a lot! This is Bioregional Denial–the inability to accept the place you live for what it is.

P. racemosa, the California sycamore, in an urban setting

P. racemosa, the California sycamore, in an urban setting

The sculptural beauty of a valley oak (Quercus lobata).

The sculptural beauty of a valley oak (Quercus lobata).

In a way, I’m guilty of it too. I’ve already expressed my inability to get in touch with this place. I was thinking it was down to the fact that I just don’t like arid environments at all. But I’m starting to think that it may be, at least in part, because of the pervading Bioregional Denial. It’s confusing when a place is wearing a veneer of another place.

And that brings me around to the second source of my irritation.

One thing that bugs me about one-diet-fits-all (or one-herb-fits-all) claims is that not only does it not recognize differences between individuals but it also overlooks differences between bioregions and what is available there. I completely understand the motivation, when a diet or other health regimen has worked for you, to want to share it with everybody else. It’s a laudable instinct, really–I mean, people are just trying to help. I get that. I do it too.

I wrote about my archaeologist’s view of the paleo diet recently. (Summary: It’s not really ancient at all, and it’s not the end-all-be-all, but if you can afford to do it it’s probably pretty good for you.) Another thing I perhaps should have pointed out then is that the affordability and viability of any paleo, whole foods, organic, or local diet varies according to where you live.

I lived for about a decade in Minnesota. Over time I really grew to love the place, even though my friends from California think it is insane to love any place with six months of snow. And I admit, that wasn’t my favorite part, especially when nursing the bruises resulting from each year’s Annual Black Ice Slip ‘n’ Fall. But I digress. My point is that if you want to go paleo/organic/whole foods, Minneapolis/St. Paul is actually a great place to do it. In the winter your produce won’t be local of course, but you can still get oragnic foods at the plethora of independent co-ops and you will have affordable pastured meat and dairy coming out your ears. Game meats, if you’re into that, are also plentiful and indeed one of the traits I found most charming among ‘Sotans is the surprisingly (to me) large number of people who will happily collect and eat road kill.  Well, if it’s a deer or a goose or something. And, you know, if it’s fresh. I assume.

In general, the western US is a bigger market for organic foods that the central, southern, or eastern regions (source), but here’s the thing–the western US also includes the desert Southwest. And–crazy, I know–deserts are generally not big food-producing regions. So they are not good places to try and find organic produce or pastured meats or dairy if you are low- or even middle-income. You can get some of them shipped, but the cost is very high–way too high to make paleo or fully-organic diets really feasible, I would think. I mean I’m sure many people manage it but I know they aren’t living on minimum wage. An organic vegan diet might be more doable, I’ve never tried it, but even then it’s going to be relatively pricey.

Bioregions of North America

Bioregions of North America

This has nothing to do with whether these diets are good for you, or whether your individual health and ethics warrant such a regimen. There are a lot of intertwined issues here including wealth inequality, food production practices, and what I think of as nutritional anthropology (not sure if that’s actually a thing–somebody should get on that–what I mean is the cultural patterns of what is deemed healthy and nourishing and what’s not). But if we were truly paleo, we would be eating regionally-specific local diets, something we in the industrialized world really can’t do these days, in large part because we’ve totally destroyed/disguised our bioregions. I would have to drive 70+ miles to get to a place where I could forage (there are some urban parks which are closer where a few things could be gathered but not significant amounts of anything) and the only wild animals I’ve seen here are a couple squirrels (each sighting about a year apart), a handful of possums, two mice, and a coyote a couple years ago. This is the extent to which our Bioregional Denial has displaced us.

I can’t help but wonder what else we have displaced; or if we haven’t displaced them, what has happened to them? As far as I’m aware, every culture in the world except for modern scientific materialists perceives, or used to perceive, their land to be inhabited by a community of other-than-human beings–animals, plants, stones, spirits, ancestors… What happens to them when their land, their place, is covered with a pastiche of alien suburbia? How do they feel about this bioregional masquerade?

Phytoestrogens in common foods

let your food poster

Dear reader(s), I feel motivated to continue writing for a bit about food. Which is medicine, and vice versa. On today’s menu: phytoestrogens.

Estrogens are all over the health news, in two forms: estrogens (the endogenous hormones made by your own body, which I shall call “endoestrogens” for clarity) and xenoestrogens (literally “foreign” estrogens–chemicals that act like estrogen once inside your body). Phytoestrogens are technically xenoestrogens for us humans, in that they aren’t made by our own bodies but by plants, later to be ingested by us. Other xenoestrogens may be synthetic or may be made by the bodies of other humans and animals.

Hormones and the endocrine system are very complicated things, and I’m not a doctor–I don’t even play one on TV. But I do know this, in part learned through bitter experience–if you mess with one part of the system it’s likely to affect all the other parts because all the hormones and glands that make them or signal some other gland to make them are interconnected. It’s a little bit like pulling a loose thread on a sweater–next thing you know, you’re standing in a pile of yarn.

Super-simple crash course in traditional Western medical energetics

In my last post I mentioned that there is a long tradition in Western healing of viewing the body in terms of toxification and detoxification. Of course, there is also a tradition, going at least as far back as the Greeks, which regards the body in terms of its constituent elements, specifically air, water, fire, and earth. Each element was represented by a bodily fluid, or humor: air = blood, water = phlegm, yellow bile a.k.a. choler = fire, black bile a.k.a. melancholia = earth. When these elements/humors were in balance the body was in a state of health. My point here is that if you look back to the earliest Western texts we have about health and healing, harmony among the various constituents of the body was considered health. As far as that goes, I don’t think anyone would disagree today, but of course ideas about what the constituents of the body are vary widely among cultures and through time. I surmise the tox/detox dichotomy which is so popular today in Western alternative medicine is a distilled-down version of the observation that external substances can mess with the body’s harmony. In Chinese medicine, there is the concept of “wind invasion” which in the same way can screw up your body’s homeostasis.

Again, I don’t think anyone would dispute that things from outside the body can enter and throw it out of whack. This could be germs, chemicals, hormones, or even physical objects. The body is not an impermeable mass but is full of holes, and at the molecular level you would see a constant exchange with the environment around us. I do think, however, that the notion of detoxification has become greatly oversimplified and is applied in a very vague way. Some people are convinced their bodies are full of unnamed toxins and that they need to purge or detox on a regular basis; without attention to nourishment, detoxing itself could throw the body out of whack. The lymphatics, liver, and kidneys do a pretty amazing job of cleaning out even the huge amount of pollution we confront everyday–at least in a robust body. An already compromised body is another matter.

Xenoestrogens vs. endoestrogens

Xenoestrogens could be considered a form of “toxin,” although I don’t like that term because at least for the phytoestrogens, there’s nothing inherently bad about them. They may even be very helpful for estrogen-deficient people. But if the level of xenoestrogens is extremely high, or if the body is already compromised by excess estrogen–for example in “estrogen-dominant” women–it becomes a poison. The reason xenoestrogens are in the news a lot lately is that it turns out we ingest a LOT of them: a study by Consumers Union found that a single serving of several popular canned foods (e.g., soup) contained between 20 and 115 times the safe daily intake level of Bisphenol-A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor found in plastics. The main sources of xenoestrogens as I understand it are:

  • Plastics
  • Birth control pills
  • Other people’s birth control, and a bunch of other stuff, in your water (your Brita doesn’t remove the hormones)
  • Factory-farmed meat
  • Certain plants (phytoestrogens)

I am not going to attempt to explain all the things estrogen does in the body because I’m not qualified and because this a blog, not a medical textbook. Suffice to say for our purposes that even endoestrogens can become a problem when they are out of balance with other hormones. Specifically in the case of “estrogen dominance,” which is a relative or absolute excess of estrogen vs. progesterone. A couple of major contributors to this imbalance (though by no means the only ones) are:

  • Fat (which has a weird sneaky hormone-secreting agenda of its own)
  • Stress

There is controversy over whether estrogen-dominant women should avoid phytoestrogens or partake liberally; some think that phytoestrogens will bind to estrogen receptors and effectively block endoestrogen from being received, so the excess endoestrogen will be flushed by the liver. Others say (and I’m in this camp) that if you have excess estrogen, you don’t need any more. Period. Give your body a break and don’t make more work for your liver, it’s plenty busy. But this will vary for each individual. And as pointed out on the Paleo for Women blog (a good source of info I discovered while researching the paleo diet–more here), some people are more sensitive than others to xenoestrogens.

My focus from here on is phytoestrogens, so let’s move on to…

Phytoestrogens

I don’t want to bury the lead here but I’m going to jump ahead to my main point because it will deserve repeating:

Seeds are the main source of phytoestrogens.

Ok? Easy peasy. Some other plants have them too, but seeds are the biggest offenders. BUT REMEMBER–seeds actually make up a big part of our diet! Grains, sweet corn, legumes, and nuts are all seeds. And remember that legumes include not only peas, beans, and lentils but alfalfa, clover, and peanuts as well. Though I’m no botanist, it makes sense to me that seeds would be high in estrogenic hormones, because they are the female part of the plant, equivalent to the ovum in a mammal.

Actually-not-irrelevant sidebar: Did you know that technically a female is a member of a sexually-reproducing species (this includes most land plants) who produces a relatively small number of high-nutrient sex cells? And a male is the member (heh heh heh) who produces a relatively large number of low-nutrient sex cells. “Sex” cells in that when they unite, they produce the foundation for a new individual. In mammals, female sex cells are ova, male sex cells are sperm; in plants, female sex cells are seeds, male sex cells are pollen. Female sex cells are full of nutrition that the developing embryo will need in order to grow. This nutrition comes from the mother’s own body, which makes such cells relatively “expensive” to produce. That is, the female needs enough nutrition for her own body plus the sex cell (a.k.a. zygote), and since the zygote is expensive, she doesn’t make many of them (relatively speaking). On the other hand, male zygotes (sperm, pollen, etc.) don’t require much of the male’s nutritional resources and so are called “inexpensive.” Because they are inexpensive, many can be produced. Of course, gender is a whole ‘nother matter entirely and I have already digressed enough for today.

So if a seed is, effectively, the egg that will nourish a growing plant, it makes sense that it might contain hormones designed to do that. I’m not quite sure how estrogen works in that regard, all I know is individuals who make eggs or seeds have more of it, so I am hypothesizing that it’s probably related. If my hypothesis is correct though, I’d expect chicken eggs to have some estrogen, though I can’t find much info on that.

Other plants contain phytoestrogens, but not in the large quantities that seeds do. In fact, I’ve been compiling a list of phytoestrogenic foods and honestly, it doesn’t leave much left to eat. So it will be up to each individual to determine how much phytoestrogen their body can process. Maybe you’ll be fine just cutting out soy products and flax; maybe you’ll have to avoid all seeds; maybe even something more drastic. I know that if you try to eliminate all these foods, your diet will probably get really really boring really really fast.

Here’s my list of phytoestrogenic foods so far:

  • All seeds (= wheat, rye, barley, sweet corn/maize, oats, rice, sorghum, quinoa, beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas, peanuts, tree nuts, flax, sesame, sunflower seeds, canola/rapeseed, soy)–this includes all oils, proteins, milks, butters, flours, etc. made from these plants. Not sure about high fructose corn syrup–it is made from a seed, but corn is one of the less phytoestrogenic seeds. Still I would assume it has some phytoestrogens.
  • Non-seedy parts of legumes (alfalfa, clover, bean sprouts)
  • Dates
  • Pomegranates
  • Apples
  • Cherries
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Raspberries
  • Blackberries
  • Royal jelly
  • Non-pastured meat (definitely contains synthetic xenoestrogens, probably contains phytoestrogens)
  • Non-organic dairy (definitely contains synthetic xenoestrogens, probably contains phytoestrogens)
  • Eggs
  • Cinnamon
  • Thyme
  • Mint
  • Yams, sweet potatoes, potatoes
  • Hops
  • Cannabis (yep, even the smoke, even secondhand)
  • Olive oil
  • Apricots (especially dried)
  • Plums (especially prunes)
  • Citrus
  • Tomatoes
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Onions
  • Collard greens
  • Garlic
  • Yucca
  • Parsley
  • Turmeric
  • Evening primrose
  • Verbena
  • Dong quai
  • Ginseng
  • Licorice root
  • Fenugreek
  • Sage
  • Nettles
  • Chamomile
  • Burdock
  • Fennel
  • Milk thistle
  • Anise
  • Kale
  • Cucumbers
  • Eggplant

The list of foods that appears to be free of phytoestrogens is pretty short (based on my research so far):

  • Organic, pasture-finished meat
  • Organic, free-range chicken that has not been fed soy
  • Seafood (fresh- and saltwater)
  • Sea vegetables
  • Dandelion

If it’s not on one of these lists, then I haven’t heard that it has phytoestrogens, but I can’t be 100% sure. With regard to meat, even if it is organic you have to consider that feed-lot beef is finished on corn–something cattle do not naturally eat and indeed cannot fully digest–so even if that corn-finished beef hasn’t been given growth hormones it could still be more estrogenic than pasture-finished beef. And I recently discovered that corn-finished beef can still be labeled “grass-fed,” which is a bit disingenuous considering that ALL cattle eat SOME grass during their lifetime, but it’s those last weeks in the feedlot that are so bad for them and us, and are precisely what consumers are trying to avoid when buying “grass-fed.”

There are two very important points I want to emphasize here:

  1. Please do not become malnourished or make yourself miserable by trying to avoid the entire list of plants containing phytoestrogens! Use common sense. Many things on the list are really good for you in other ways and fill your palate with joy and rainbows. I’ll tell you this for free–the day I can’t eat a tomato is the day I end it all. But I digress…If you do not have a problem of estrogen excess or dominance–and you might only know if you do something like a saliva hormone panel, not a single blood test–you are perfectly fine to eat phytoestrogens and they will not mess up your endocrine system because they are much weaker than your endoestrogens.
  2. If you don’t know where to start, you can probably make a huge impact on your health just by cutting out soy and refined sugars, investing in a really expensive but really effective water filter, getting moderate exercise, and meditating*. I’m not saying that will cure everything that ails you but I think it would put you on the path to regaining hormonal balance. (Watch out for sneaky soy, which is in almost every kind of processed food nowadays.)

Well, there you have it my friends. There is so much more to know about this topic, but I hope I’ve at least helped you decide whether this warrants further research. I don’t know about you, but I find the topics of health and nutrition can sometimes really stress me out. It’s very frustrating when you realize that you don’t even know all the different chemicals you’re ingesting, let alone have control over it. Sometimes you just have to cross your fingers, grit your teeth, and hope for the best with the limited information you’ve got. It doesn’t help when uninformed but usually judgmental people say that, e.g., losing weight is just a matter of eating fewer calories than you burn, or that you won’t have adrenal burnout if you just exercise more. If the human body were only that simple! If we could only trust in regulators and food producers to have our health at heart! But as I was recently reminded, this is a journey, not a destination. The important thing is to not give up. It’s your health; if you don’t stand up for it, no one else will.

*Stress causes your body to hijack its own progesterone for making cortisol–when chronic, it’s a vicious cyle that leads to both adrenal burnout and estrogen dominance.