For many people, Naturopathy and herbal medicine are mysterious arts shrouded in complicated plant chemistry and medical terminology. However once upon a time, most people had a pretty decent understanding of at least a dozen key herbs that could alleviate disease states, including where to find them and how to prepare them for ingestion. Unfortunately most of us have lost this connection with the land that can both nourish and heal us. However it’s never too late to get your hands dirty and grow your own herbs to stem many of the chronic diseases of our modern age. In this article I’ll outline the four key herbs I recommend everybody to grow in their garden or in pots on their balconies, as well as how to prepare the herbs to get the maximum benefit from their healing powers. I’m focusing on two primary medicinal actions in these plants – anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative – as inflammation and oxidation are the processes that drive most chronic diseases.
Most will be familiar with turmeric as a spice used abundantly in Indian cuisine, but in addition to it’s earthy aroma this plant has health benefits that are amazing. It is both a powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant (two for the price of one!). It also displays anti-microbial activity, as well as being toxic to tumor cells. Turmeric likes moist warm weather, and is best planted in well drained soil in September or October. It produces beautiful pale flowers, and harvesting the rhizome (the source of the spice) is done when the lower leaves of the plant begin to die off (usually around 9 to 10 months after planting). The active constituents that provide the medical benefit (curcuminoids) are notoriously difficult to absorb, and many manufacturers of herbal medicines containing this plant use various means to increase its ability to cross the intestinal wall into circulation. You can increase turmeric absorption by cooking it into foods containing healthy fats such a coconut oil and butter, or even better you can blend the freshly grated spice with some raw egg yolk and coconut oil. For preventative uses I recommend a heaped teaspoon of freshly grated root per day, or a heaped tablespoon a few times a week. For active treatment, two heaped tablespoons per day blended in the egg yolk/coconut oil method is what I recommend. Note that turmeric is a choleretic, meaning it stimulates the gall bladder to release bile. This is normally a good thing, however if you have bile duct obstruction such as gallstones you should avoid using it.
The ginger plant looks remarkably similar to turmeric, and also has a powerful anti-inflammatory action in the body. Ginger also has the ability to reduce nausea, and relive intestinal cramping associated with menstruation. Unlike turmeric, however, the active constituents of ginger are fairly easy to absorb. They also work at much lower doses, with only 1 gram (about 1/4 teaspoon) of dried root per day showing clinical anti-inflammatory effect (this would equate to about 1 teaspoon of freshly grated root). Growing and harvesting conditions are also similar to turmeric. Ginger can be effectively extracted by steeping grated root in boiling water for 10 minutes to make a tea. A cup a day is a great preventative dose, and I recommend several cups a day if treating a specific condition. Caution should be used in those taking anti-coagulant drugs such as warfarin as ginger can increase bleeding time through its blood thinning effects.
The use of garlic as a medical herb is mentioned as far back as Ancient Egypt, used for the pyramid building slaves to ward off disease and increase strength. Garlic was also a staple of Roman soldiers, forming a central part of their daily rations when marching to war. Garlic is predominantly a cardiovascular herb, with an ability to lower blood lipids and strengthen the blood vessels. Garlic is also a wonderful antimicrobial against both bacteria and viruses, with a profound ability to reduce symptoms of the common cold. It can decrease inflammation in lung tissue, whilst aiding the release of congestive mucous. There are many different varieties of garlic, and each are better suited to certain climates. Garlic likes full sun and well composted soil. Garlic is best planted at the end of summer, and you simply break up a bulb into its cloves and plant them flat end down just below the soil surface. The bulbs are ready for harvest after around 8 months. To get the maximum medical benefits from garlic, you should chop the cloves roughly into eighths and let it sit for 10 minutes before either swallowing raw or using it for cooking. This is because the active constituent of garlic – allicin – must be converted by the enzyme alliinase from its precursor alliin, and this will only happen once the clove is chopped or crushed and needs a period of time to complete conversion. Blood thinning cautions are the same as ginger above.
Rosemary is a powerful anti-oxidant, as well as an anti-viral, anti-fungal, and anti-bacterial agent. Rosemary is a fantastic herb to include in your cooking, especially in the preparation of meats that are due to undergo searing, roasting, or frying. This is due to the fact that when high heat is applied to meat, compounds called advanced glycated end products (or AGEs for short) are formed. These compounds are highly oxidative and damaging to the body, however the presence of rosemary and its anti-oxidant oils can negate this damage. Rosemary is also highly effective at combating most infectious agents, especially in combination with garlic. Rosemary is incredibly simple to grow. You can grow from seed, however it will also grow from a cutting from a healthy plant placed in soil. Rosemary is tough too – it can survive without water for extended periods of time (great for forgetful gardeners such as myself). In addition to cooking, you can prepare a tea from the fresh herb for cold and flu (combine it with ginger and honey for the ultimate disease combating beverage).
I hope this article inspires you to grow your own disease combating herbs, and reconnect with the healing power of nature.