herbal medicine

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At the farmer’s market this weekend I came across this year’s first batch of Stinging Nettles, or Urtica dioica. Nettles are one of those plants that remind me how miraculous the planet is. Just when everyone is suffering from allergic rhinitis (stuffy nose) the plant that treats that symptom is ready for harvest. Nettles have many uses, but allergic rhinitis is what they are famous for. In Chinese Medicine we say that Nettles clear heat and leach dampness, making them suitable for treating phlegm-damp obstructing the nasal passages. Dry them and add them to your Chrysanthemum infusion for a great allergy treatment. They should be used with caution, however, in those with a yin deficient presentation, as they are diuretic (make you pee) and can be quite drying. Another use of the herb is Wind-Damp Impediment, such as arthritis, and historically they were applied topically as a counter-irritant for this purpose. Taken internally, they also treat arthritic conditions or painful, stiff joints.

The whole arial parts can also be cooked as a delicious spring vegetable. They have a very high mineral content making them an ideal food for those with anemia or for those concerned about developing osteoporosis. Here is a recipe for sauteed stinging nettles that I found on Chow.com:

  • 1 pound stinging nettles
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large shallot, sliced lengthwise and thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 4 medium garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 cup water
  • Zest of 1 medium lemon
  • Juice of 1/2 medium lemon
  • Wearing thick rubber gloves, clean the nettles by soaking them several times under cold running water, then drain. (Do not touch raw nettles with your bare hands. If you do not have rubber gloves, use tongs to handle the nettles.) Separate the tender leaves from the tough stems, discarding the stems. (Use scissors for this process if you don’t have protective rubber gloves.)
  • Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the shallots and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until the shallots have softened, about 2 minutes more.
  • Using tongs, add half of the nettles and the water to the pan. Cook, stirring often, until the nettles have begun to wilt, about 2 minutes. Add the remaining nettles and cook, stirring often, until wilted, about 3 minutes more. (Add more water a tablespoon at a time if the pan becomes too dry.)
  • Remove the pan from heat. Stir in the lemon zest and juice. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and serve.

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Tinctures are alcohol-based preparations and a common way of making herbal medicine in Western herbalism. For most plants, alcohol is a better solvent than water, and some herbs have components that can ONLY be extracted with alcohol. In addition, the alchohol acts as a preservative for the plant material, extending the shelf life of the medicine. Some tinctures are made using glycerin or vinegar, although this is less common. Tinctures are quite strong, certainly stronger than infusions and simple Western decoctions. Dosage varies by herb but is generally considered between 5-15 drops, 3-4 times per day. To take a tincture, the drops can be simply taken straight from the bottle, or they can be added to water or another beverage. If alcohol is an issue, for instance for children, the drops can be placed in a small cup of steaming hot water so that the alcohol will evaporate and the herb content will be left. The water can be drunk warm, or left to cool first.

Directions for making a tincture at home, as written in The New Holistic Herbal by David Hoffmann:

1. Put 120 grams (4 ounces) of chopped or ground dried herb into a container that has a tight-fitting lid, such as a mason jar.

2. Pour half a liter (1 pint) of 30% (60 proof) vodka on the herbs and close tightly. (Be sure the herbs are completely covered to prevent any mold from growing on the plant material)

3. Keep the container in a warm place for two weeks and shake it well twice every day. (Be sure to label the jar with contents and date, epecially if you have more than one tincture brewing at a time.)

4. After decanting the bulk of the liquid, pour the residue into a muslin cloth suspended in a bowl.

5. Wring out all the liquid. The residue makes excellent compost.

6. Pour the tincture into a dark bottle. It should be kept well stoppered. (Again, labeled with contents and the date.)

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tea 037


An infusion is a water-based preparation in which a cup of hot water is poured over a teaspoon of dried herbs,  is covered for 10-15 minutes, and then the herbs are strained. I should mention that the difference between a beverage tea, such as a cup of chamomile before bed, and a medicinal tea is that to be considered medicinal the tea MUST be covered so that the medicinal qualities of the volatile oils do not escape in the steam. Because they are also infused for a longer period of time medicinal teas are not necessarily tasty, and honey, sugar or licorice can be added to make them more palatable. The advantage of this method is that it is fast, easy, relatively safe, and very accessible for most people. This is a good method for self-care and the functions of many dried herbs can be found in books and online. The disadvantage is that they are not incredibly strong medicine and there are herbs in which the medicinal components of the plants are not released in hot water alone and must either be boiled for some time or extracted with alcohol.


Like infusions, decoctions are a water based preparation. The difference is that the herb material is cooked in water for an extended period of time over a flame, such as on a stove. The Western herbal technique is to put one teaspoon of dried or three teaspoons of fresh herb material for each cup of water into a pot. The water is then brought to a boil and left to simmer for ten to fifteen minutes. Again, they should be covered especially if the herbs used contain volatile oils. The decoction is then strained and administered while still hot in a single dose.

Chinese herbal decoctions are a bit more complicated. A mixture of anywhere from 2 to 20 dried herbs are combined and put into a pot. If the herbs are especially hard, such as bark, twigs or roots, the plants are either cut into small pieces, or ground into a powder and placed in a muslin bag.  The herbs are covered with about 4 cups of water and left to sit for a bit to soften them up. The water is then brought to a boil and simmered for 40-60 minutes or until 2 cups of water remain. The herbs are strained and the liquid is reserved. The herbs are then covered a second time with 4 cups of water and the process is repeated until 2 cups remain. The herbs are strained and the water is added to the first batch of liquid. The herbs are discarded. The 4 remaining cups of liquid are drunk over the next 2 days, one cup twice a day.

Some herbs are left out of the pot originally and added at the end of the decoction, such as bo he (mint). Some are cooked for much shorter periods of time with a lid (to protect those oils again!) and some are cooked longer to reduce any toxicity that might occur with that particular herb. Due to this, when making a Chinese decoction it is important to know a bit more about the qualities of specific herbs or to follow directions given by a trained herbalist. This means that decoctions have the disadvantage of not being particularly good for self-treatment, but they do have the advantage of being very strong and great for acute situations. They are also very messy, take time and effort, smell up a house, and generally taste terrible. For this reason, many Western clinics no longer prescribe them because compliance with taking herbal formulas is low.

I encourage anyone who has the opportunity, to use a Chinese medicinal decoction at least once to experience it. It is an ancient form of medicine, very effective, and a wonderful experience. A lot of healing is gained when one works closely with one’s own herbs. To look at them dried, sift through them, smell them, try to identify them (is that a dried insect???) and then to smell them cooking before taking them internally is all a part of the healing process. It may not be the most practical way to take herbs on a long term basis, but it will bring someone closer to the roots of Chinese Medicine.

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Around the world there are many different ways in which herbs can be taken to treat physical and emotional complaints. In China, the most common forms of herbal medicine are decoctions, granules, syrups, pills and injections.  Of those, pills have become the most popular in modern Western practices, since many Western patients are not comfortable cooking smelly herbs in their homes and drinking decoctions and granules that taste bitter. Western herbalists use these same methods as well, but also infusions, tinctures and capsules. I would like to take a few posts to describe each of these methods, and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each.

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This time of year I hear a lot of patients talking about how their kids are coughing constantly. When children catch colds, they often get coughs, sometimes dry, sometimes phlegmy, and especially at night. These episodes are miserable for everyone. Western cough syrups are very strong drugs and many parents don’t want to use them but resort to them so that everyone can get some sleep.

There is a wonderful Chinese Medicine alternative. Blue Poppy Herbs makes a pediatric formula called Lung Qi Jr. that works wonders on those pesky coughing fits. I have been giving it to my children since they were infants whenever they had colds with coughs. Not only does it help to calm the coughing, it has several herbs in it that fight the infection at the source of the cough. It is one of those formulas that I think anyone with kids should have in the medicine cabinet. It comes in a liquid form and contains vegetable glycerin to sweeten it up so that it is more palateable to young tongues. I squirt it directly into my children’s mouths, but it can also be added to juice, milk, yogurt, or anything else.

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stamets_7_extractMedicinal mushrooms have been a part of the Chinese Materia Medica for several thousand years. These mushrooms, including reishi, oyster, maitake, shitake, and many more, have a strong effect on increasing immune function.  For instance, Ling Zhi, or the reishi mushroom, has been studied for its immune enhancing effect, and has been found to increase T cell function. Classically, it is said that Ling Zhi tonifies Lung qi, transforms phlegm, and stops cough and wheeze. Additionally, it has been found to have a carcinostatic effect, meaning that it stops the growth of cancer cells. Nutritionally, mushrooms provide fiber while being low in fat and contain several groups of vitamins, particularly thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, biotin, ascorbic acid and Vitamin D.

Eating raw mushrooms is not advised, since some are toxic uncooked, and most do not break down enough in our digestive systems to offer much benefit this way. Mushrooms should always be cooked when used as food. A stronger concentrated extract (either capsule or liquid) will give you the most benefit for immunity.

Fungi Perfecti is a locally based producer of medicinal mushrooms and is considered the best source of organic, high quality mushroom extracts by most experts, including Bastyr University and Dr. Andrew Weil. Fungi Perfecti has a number of extract combinations that address a number of immune issues. A popular, general immune tonic is their Stamets 7 formula.

fungi perfecti

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Several years ago Jake Fratkin, OMD (Oriental Medicine Doctor), made waves throughout the pediatric community by declaring on a radio show that the cause of ear infections was antibiotics. Since that time, several studies have been done which indicate that he was right. The likelihood of a recurrent ear infection during the first six weeks after taking antibiotics is significant. Not only is a child more likely to get another ear infection within six weeks if they are given antibiotics, but the recovery time from an infection is the same whether antibiotics are given or not. Even the Washington State Department of Health has issued a statement that most ear infections clear on their own and that overuse of antibiotics leads to drug resistant bacteria. So why are medical doctors still giving antibiotics to children with ear infections? In some cases, they no longer are. More and more doctors and medical institutions are reserving antibiotic administration for extreme cases of infection as a last resort. Here in Seattle, Dr. David Springer of Wallingford Pediatrics received an award from Premera Blue Cross for his use of “evidence-based best practices” in avoiding and limiting antibiotic use for ear infections.


So if antibiotics aren’t the answer, what do we do for ear infections? Chinese Herbal Medicine is an excellent choice for the prevention and treatment of ear infections. There are two key formulas which, when administered correctly, can alleviate pain within hours and eliminate the infection within only a couple of days. They are safe, they are effective, and they are easy to administer. Several companies have created liquid extracts of these classic Chinese formulas adding a touch of glycerin or stevia to mask the bitter flavor of the herbs so that they are more palatable to children. I have used them with my own children and have avoided any antibiotic use so far. In addition to Chinese formulas, I have used garlic ear drops, which kill microbes and dry fluid when placed directly into the ear canal, and probiotics which help the immune system fight the infection. All three can be combined and your Chinese Medicine practitioner can help you determine the best course of treatment so you can avoid unnecessary, and potential harmful antibiotic overuse in your children.

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In Chinese Herbal Medicine, the small fruit of the Burdock plant is used. The root, however, is used in both Chinese Nutritional Therapy and Western Herbalism and this part of the plant can be used in cooking. Western Herbalists use Burdock root to treat skin conditions that are dry, such as dry eczema, psoriasis and dandruff. This root can be found in many asian grocery stores. It needs to be peeled, and soaked in a solution of vinegar or lemon juice to prevent discoloration (1 tea white vinegar or lemon juice to 1 cup water). Use this root chopped in stir frys, soups, or roasted with other root vegetables.


Stir-Fried Burdock and Carrot

from the book The Japanese Kitchen by Hiroko Shimbo

makes 4-6 servings as a side dish

2-3 Tb veggie oil

5 1/2 oz burdock, peeled, julienned in 2 1/2-in lengths (about 2 cups) and soaked in 1 c water and 1 tea vinegar

2 oz carrots, julienned in 2 1/2-in lengths (about 2/3 cups)

2 Tb sake (rice wine)

1 Tb mirin (sweet cooking wine)

1 Tb sugar

1 Tb shoyu (soy sauce)

1 tea tamari

2 Tb white sesame seeds, toasted

1/3 tea shichimi togarashi (seven spice powder) or red chili flakes

In a wok or skillet, heat the vegetable oil over high heat. Drain the burdock, and cook it, stirring, until it is well coated with oil. Add the carrot and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add 3 Tb water, the sake, mirin, and sugar. Cook the mixture until almost all the liquid is absorbed, stirring all the time. Add the shoyu, and cook for 30 seconds. Season the mixture to taste with tamari. Add 1 Tb of the sesame seeds, add the seven-spice powder or red chili flakes, and give several large stirs. Transfer the vegetables to a platter, and let them cool to room temperature. The dish tastes better after a few hours, and can be kept in the refrigerator, covered, for a day. Serve at room temperature or chilled, with the remaining 1 Tb white sesame seeds.

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Scallion and Ginger Tea

1 T sliced scallions (cong tou)

3-4 slices fresh ginger root (sheng jiang)

Brown sugar (hong tang) or honey to taste

Place scallions and ginger into pot and sprinkle with brown sugar. Cover with 1 cup water. Once boiling, reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes. Strain the liquid. Drink while warm.

 Traditionally, this tea is taken at the first sign of a wind-cold pattern. It is used to promote sweating and resolve exterior symptoms such as headache, chills with an aversion to cold, body aches and sinus congestion with clear mucus. It is best to drink this formula after taking a hot bath, just before going to bed, so that you can cover yourself with blankets to induce sweating. Be sure to stay warm and away from cold drafts.

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chrysanthemum-flowersChrysanthemum flowers, or Ju Hua in pin-yin, have a long history of use in Chinese Herbal Medicine as a beverage. The flowers are collected, dried, covered with boiling water, and then strained. The liquid is drunk as a light warm tea; alone or sometimes with sugar added.

The Taoists favored this tea the one to

promote longevity,

although to achieve this benefit the tea must be consumed daily over a long period of time.

There is a poem written by the eighteenth-century painter Zheng Ban-Qiao which reads:

 Tasting chrysanthemum tea of old – this flower of longevity!

A man of eighty years picks and sips, assiduous;

Teaching his frosty beard to turn raven black.

Chinese Herbalists consider the Ju Hua flower to be one that disperses wind and heat, calms the Liver and clears the eyes. It is used for treating the common cold and for any disorders related to Liver heat or Liver wind, such as blurry vision, spots before the eyes, dizziness, and headaches.

I find this beverage particularly useful for conditions in which there is a sudden onset of heat in the body, such as for hot flashes or excessive sweating. It is calming and cooling in the moment, and over time.

Chrysanthemum tea might be prescribed by your herbalist, but it is also a safe and tasty non-caffeinated drink for anyone to consume during the warm summer months.

The flowers can be bought in bulk and steeped in the traditional way, or a box of powdered chrysanthemum tea with sugar is sold in individual dosage packages.

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