Healing Herbs A to Z: A Handy Reference to Healing Plants
By Diane Stein
In 1985 when I wrote The Women's Spirituality Book (now titled Diane Stein's Guide to Goddess Craft), I wanted to include a chapter on using herbs. At that time, I had been working with herbs for a few years and was very excited about it, but I felt I didn't know enough to write even a chapter on them. When I wrote All Women Are Healers five years later, I got a little braver and did an herb chapter. After twenty-five years of studying and using herbs and making my own tinctures, I am finally compiling an herbal, as I have always wanted to do. I still feel that I don't know enough and could never know enough - but that I have to start where I am and hope the real experts will be indulgent with my effort.
This book is not designed for herbal experts, though they may find useful information here. This book is for the confused layperson who wants to regain control of her health but doesn't know where to start.
The first thing an herb user needs to know is which herb will do what she needs. The second is to find the herb and identify it accurately (a mistake in the field can be toxic or even fatal). And the third is to know how to use the herb appropriately. A traditional herbalist learns from those who know how to use herbs, information that used to be passed down from teacher to student, or from mother to daughter, over many generations through ancient and time-honored oral tradition. She learns how to recognize herbs accurately, along with when to pick them, and which plant parts to harvest and use. She also learns how and when to use them - and when not to.
Tragically, that oral tradition has been lost. Most of us who wish to learn about herbs do so from books, the Internet, or by taking a workshop here and there, followed by limited experience with personal use.
Traditional herbalists used what was growing in the neighboring woods and fields, and locally harvested herbs were considered the most useful for people living in that area. But this limited the number and variety of plants available. Today's herb users have many more plant varieties available to them from all over the United States, South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia.
For those who choose herbal healing, the way to do it may not be to go to the woods and fields to identify, pick, and process the right local plants. It may simply mean a visit to the local health food store, natural pharmacy, or herb website to buy what's needed.
This book is a reference guide for the herb shopper who, while not having the benefit of ancient oral tradition or personal instruction, still wants to use herbs as knowledgeably as she can.
Herbs used properly are very often as effective as medical drugs - or more so - without the side effects, cost, and potential for dependency. Herbs help people become enabled, instead of disabled. They leave us stronger, not weaker. But we need to learn how and when to use them, as well as when to seek more expert help, which might mean consulting a physician, midwife, or acupuncturist. We need to understand the appropriate uses of herbs - for example, when it's safe to substitute black cohosh for hormone replacement therapy (which for many of us presents an unacceptable risk of cancer) to treat the uncomfortable symptoms of menopause.
This book is intended for the herb shopper, not the professional practitioner. It explains what's in the bottles lined up on the shelves of the local health food store and the conditions that each herb helps heal. The information is presented in a highly concentrated way - not pages of explanation and description, but a quick reference of the herb's primary attributes and uses. Where a more comprehensive herbal reference book might also describe how to identify the plant, where to find it, when to pick it, which parts to use, and how to prepare those parts, this book assumes that the user will buy already identified, prepared, and ready-to-use plant material. Dosages and dosing instructions (how many drops or capsules, how many times a day) are listed on the bottle, along with how long the herb can be used safely, and contraindications for its use.
Ready-pre pa red herbs come in several forms. Traditional use is as an herb tea, called a tisane, or the harder-boiled tea, called a decoction, for preparing woody plant parts, which may be ingested or applied externally in a compress (wet a cloth with the tea or decoction and place it on the body) or a poultice (wrap the boiled herb matter in a cloth and place it on the body). Herbs also come in capsules, which are easy to take but may be less effective than ingesting a tea or decoction, because the raw, dried herbs in them may not be as fresh and harder for the body to assimilate. Some herbs also come in salves, creams, or ointments for external use only.
Another frequently found form for internal use is the tincture or extract, where the herb is steeped cold in alcohol (brandy, vodka) for several weeks. The herb matter is then strained out, and the alcohol, which has extracted the herb's benefits, is used medicinally. To remove the alcohol from an alcohol extract, put the drops of herb preparation in a few teaspoons of boiling or near-boiling water and the alcohol will evaporate in a few seconds, leaving the potency of the herb.
Alcohol-free glycerin tinctures are also available and are often used for children or by those who do not wish to ingest alcohol. Glycerin is sugar, however. It does not keep as long or as bacteria-free as alcohol preparations, is not as medicinally strong, and is not safe for diabetics.
The one herbal usage to avoid, for the purposes of this book, is the essential oil. This is an entirely different branch of healing, where the oils from some plants are distilled into a highly concentrated form. Essential oils are not to be taken internally, as they can be highly toxic and even result in death with just a few drops. They are used externally, and the healing benefits come from inhaling their fragrances. If you are interested in this form of healing, there are many books on aromatherapy (the use of essential oils) to get you started. For external use, only the essential oils of lavender and tea tree may be used directly on the skin. All others must be diluted, usually one drop of oil to a teaspoon of "carrier oil," generally a vegetable salad oil.
The few oils found in this book are the essential fatty acids and meant for ingestion - evening primrose oil, flaxseed oil, borage oil, sea buckthorn oil, black currant oil - and they come in capsules for that purpose. Wild oregano oil needs lo be diluted, and sometimes comes that way. These are not essential oils, and no essential oil is to be taken internally without the direction of an aromatherapy expert.
Essential oils, by the way, are not the same as flower essences (also known as essential essences), which are the vibrations of flowers preserved in alcohol or a vinegar tincture. Flower essences are not discussed here, but refer to my book Healing with Flower and Gemstone Essences for more on their use.
The information in this book focuses on using one herb at a time. Single herbs used alone are traditionally called "simples." Experienced herbalists often use several herbs together, but for those who are learning, it's less confusing and more important to learn what each herb does before combining them. Some commercial herbal combinations may contain a dozen or more herbs, which to me seems to miss the point. If you want to understand how herbs work, you must do it one herb at a time. Also, not all herbs work well together. It's best to use them individually until you gain experience.
Read labels for warnings and possible drug interactions. If you are taking any medications, their effects can be increased, decreased, altered, or deactivated by a particular herb. It is very important to research your medications' interactions with any herb you are considering. (For example, blood thinners, such as the anticoagulant warfarin, are contraindicated due to potentially dangerous interaction.) The Internet has made this relatively easy to do, but be aware that there are a number of websites whose main purpose seems to be to scare people away from using herbs altogether. Herbs used properly are safe, but it is essential to make informed decisions.
With each herb entry, I have included information on side effects, warnings, and possible drug interactions. In some cases it has been very difficult to separate fact from fiction on this subject. For the most part, herb side effects happen only with misuse, overuse, or contaminated herbs. Some side effects are simply the effects of the herb itself. Increased sweating or diarrhea, for example, may be among the herb's uses, one of the ways the herb works for healing. Most toxic side-effect disasters are caused by ingestion of essential oils that were never meant to be ingested.
It is important to realize, too, that each person is different, and how an herb reacts for you may be slightly different from another person's reactions to it. Also, anyone can be allergic to anything, whether peanuts or goji juice. Obviously, if you have an allergic reaction to an herb, or any other disquieting effect, stop taking it. I have tried to responsibly list as many drug interactions and side effects as possible, but my information cannot be considered complete; there are thousands of medications available, with more being added daily.
For acute conditions, such as a cold or sore throat, expect the right herb for the condition to begin having benefit after two or three doses, sometimes sooner. For chronic conditions, such as menstrual difficulties or arthritis, it will usually take longer. Some herbs (and conditions) can take as long as two or three months for the benefits to become evident. So be patient, and adjust your expectations. Healing often occurs gradually, and you may experience more improvement than you realize at first.
If you have a serious disease - I use this form of the word to note that we are not "diseased" but may have "lack of ease" in our bodies - it is best to seek professional advice for it. Whether this means advice from a physician, an herbalist, or another kind of healer, that is your choice. If you choose to use herbs for serious conditions, it is wise to seek the advice of an experienced herbalist.
This is also the case if you wish to have herbal support in pregnancy or for an abortion. Some of the herbs in this book are designated safe for pregnancy and some are not. Those that are listed as not for use in pregnancy or nursing may be acceptable with the advice of a skilled herbalist or midwife. Many herbs are labeled "not for pregnancy or breastfeeding" simply to err on the side of caution. Some herbs listed in this book are abortifacients; they bring on menses that can cause an abortion early in pregnancy. Although the information belongs to women and adamantly needs to be available, herbs should not be used to replace a professional medical procedure in a sanitary clinical setting.
There is a list of specialized terms that herbalists frequently use, each one indicating an herb's attributes and providing a shorthand description of what the herb does. An experienced herbalist looks at the list and immediately knows how to use the herb. Sources often differ on the attributes assigned to an herb. In this book, I have tried to reconcile various sources, and in cases where an herb has no research list, I have attempted to assign one. I have also attempted to make it a list that is understandable to nonherbalists. For example, an herb listed as an "emmenogogue" (classic definition: brings blood flow to the pelvic area and uterus) may be described as a uterine toner or "brings on menses." I have done my best with these terms. For a version of the classic list, see below.
I hope this book will be a convenient reference for those who wish to learn about using herbs. Even more, I hope it will help those who need healing and are looking for safe alternatives to drugs. Herbs link the past, present, and future of human life; they are a vital part of our herstory.