Plants for Medicine
Plants have been used throughout the ages for healing purposes. As far back as 4500 BC, people traveled great distances to Ethiopia, the main trading area for herbs and spices. These prized plant products were used for preserving food, cooking and medicine. Ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls list the cooking and healing properties of coriander, fennel, cumin, ginger and thyme. The Egyptians also placed garlic cloves and mint leaves in tombs to be used in the afterlife.
Ancient Romans and Greeks also relied on herbs for medicinal uses. Hippocrates developed a list of 300 herbal-based remedies for conditions ranging from digestive problems to asthma and uterine cancer. Rosemary was recommended to improve memory.
Plant-based medicine is an important component of other cultures as well. The Chinese developed an extensive use of herbs and spices in prepared foods for wellness and healing. The traditional medicine of India, Ayurveda, also makes use of herbs and spices to prevent disease and promote health.
Herbal therapies continue to be a popular form of alternative medicine in the U.S. A survey by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine found nearly 20 percent of Americans use natural products to promote health or treat ailments.
The Kitchen Medicine Cabinet
The herbs and spices used by ancient healers are still grown today. And many of them can be found in your kitchen cabinet. Scientists have been testing many of these herbs and spices to determine the real medicinal value of the products. Some herbs and spices have a very strong effect on the body, while for others, the research is not very strong or has produced mixed results. Here is a list of some common herbs and spices and their potential uses:
- Basil – potential cancer-fighting properties.
- Cardamom – inhibits blood clots, reduces gas and aids in digestion.
- Cloves – eases the pain of toothaches.
- Garlic – lowers cholesterol, decreases blood pressure.
- Ginger – eases digestive problems, nausea and vomiting. Also potential for treating pain, colds, fever, arthritis and joint and muscle pain.
- Rosemary – may have potential to fight some cancers.
- Sage – improves cognitive function.
- Salt – combined with water to ease sinus congestion and cold symptoms.
- Thyme – fights fungal infections.
In addition to the herbs and spices, two other kitchen ingredients may have potential medicinal uses.
* Honey may soothe a sore throat and cough, treat diarrhea or constipation and ease insomnia. There is some evidence to show it may also reduce nausea, lower cholesterol and, when applied to the skin, improve wound healing.
* Peppermint oil may be used to treat stomach upset, irritable bowel, headache, respiratory congestion and muscle pain.
Nancy Welliver, N.D., a Naturopathic Physician with Bastyr University, has been using kitchen-based medicine for many years. She says many families have all the herbs and spices they need to treat some of the most common mild medical complaints, like colds and flu, respiratory problems and stomach upset. Two of her favorite herbal recipes are ginger syrup and berry honey. To make the ginger syrup, peel and slice the ginger. Place the ingredients in alternating layer (i.e., ginger, sugar, ginger, etc.) in a container and let stand. After 12 to 18 hours, pour the mixture through a strainer to remove the ginger. Store the remaining syrup in a bottle and use a teaspoonful for stomach upset, nausea or vomiting. The ingredients can also be used to make home-made ginger ale by adding equal parts of mineral water to the syrup.
The berry honey is made from dried blueberries or bilberries that are ground in a coffee grinder. Add a half of cup of honey and mix well. This mixture is a good tonic for diarrhea and can be used straight from the container or spread over crackers or toast.
Welliver also makes an herbal chai tea that she says promotes calming for the mind and energy for the body. The tea is made from boiling water, whole cloves, black peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, ginger root, and black tea and sweetened with honey or maple syrup. The recipe follows (makes two quarts of tea):
- Boil two quarts of water in a 3-4 quart pot.
- Add 15 whole cloves. Boil for one more minute.
- Add 20 black peppercorns, 3 cinnamon sticks, 20 crushed or split cardamom pods, and 8 or more slices of fresh ginger.
- Cover and boil gently for at least 30 minutes. (Best results obtained by boiling over low heat for 2 to 3 hours.)
- At the end of the boiling time, turn off the burner and add 1 bag of black tea.
- After the tea has steeped, pour the mixture through a strainer into clean containers. It can be used immediately, stored in the refrigerator or frozen.
- Prior to serving, sweeten to taste with honey or maple syrup. Add soy or dairy milk.