For the Bioregional Herbs for Cold and Flu Blogparty
Hosted by Rosalee at her blog Methow Valley Herbs
Imagine how thrilled I was when Osro (my baby boy) started coughing, running a slight fever, and dripping mass amounts of clear liquids from his little button nose just in time for my first blogparty post; the topic being none other than “Bioregional Herbs for Cold and Flu”. My intent has been to focus on one plant that I am just becoming acquainted with in a healing manner, sharing all the knowledge I have been able to gather and the experiments of preparation I am undergoing. Osro’s symptoms seemed to coincide rather perfectly with this whole event, leading me to believe that as upsetting as this bug may be it might give rise to experience. Personally, I am coming around to a state of perception in regards to illness and dis-ease brought to my attention by Susun Weed…a philosophy she calls the Wise Woman Tradition. Instead of viewing sickness as something that must be feared and beaten, or as something we must blame and shame ourselves for having created with our own bad choices, I am starting to see a stray from “good health” as opportunity.
“Disease and injury are doorways of transformation. Each one of us is inherently whole, yet seeking greater wholeness; perfect, yet desiring greater perfection….Good health may be freedom from disease, but it is also openness to change, flexibility, and compassionate embodiment, even when dancing with cancer or healing from a serious accident..” -Susun Weed from Healing Wise.
It is this understanding of health that keeps me from becoming a useless, sloppy mess of empathetic mama mush when I see my baby suffering. Recognizing that this discomfort is part of his life’s course helps me stay calm and offer him nourishment, love, and a strong, stable place to curl up while he allows himself to heal. Sure, it would be easier to have a child who never got sick or hurt or experienced any form of discomfort or unease. But, aside from being completely implausible, it is slightly absurd to think that a life void of any semblance of suffering would be desirable. “Your joys are your sorrows unmasked,” writes Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” The more dis-ease (emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually speaking) we endure, the more completely we are able to embrace and appreciate our recovery and freedom from such dis-ease. Although it can be hard to keep this in mind when your bed becomes center stage for a cacophony of wails, whimpers, sputtering phlegm-filled coughs, and rattling purges. Especially when it is coming from your favorite little creature at 3, 5, 6, and again 9 in the morning. Once you are back to an even slightly more rational place of existence it is easier to accept the role these moments play in the overall evolution of things.
Unfortunately, no matter how delicate and charming the tea, Osro has been interested in drinking one thing and one thing only…momma milk. Instead of experience I bring you found facts and intuitive notions. And so, it is with both an exhausted sorrow and a humbled joy that I present to you:
THE WINTERGREEN EXPERIMENTS
In a shady forest of oak, fern, birch and blueberry, creeps a small strong plant through its sandy soil. Some of you may have experienced this plant’s sweet minty berries yourself, but many have only ever come in contact with its imitator in toothpastes, gums, hard candies, and sports rubs. Gaultheria procumbens is its name but you may call it wintergreen, teaberry, checkerberry or partridgeberry for short. I have recently been reunited with this evergreen without a moment’s hesitation to become deeply involved. Memories of taking time to pluck a few red berries as I sprint through enchanting woods melting coolly into early spring bring on a meaningful connection and eager inspiration to embrace wintergreen all over again; and in a whole new way.
After coming into contact with Gaultheria recently I felt compelled to learn all I could from it. Its abundance here in the Great Lakes Bioregion makes it a perfect candidate as a favoured ally in health and wellness. Upon spending some time with the hardy little plant itself, I was inclined not only to nibble on some berries but also a few leaves. Although the berries are stronger in flavor, the leaves house a pleasant wintergreen taste as well, feeling mildly astringent and slightly cooling on the tongue. Even the stem, which at first appears to be only a couple inches tall shares the signature wintergreen palatability when chewed. Upon further inspection I found that what looked like stalks were in reality small branches which shot up from a creeping stem that grows just under or just above the decomposing organic matter that covers the forest floor. I couldn’t help but wonder if there are other unseen actions wintergreen may have…perhaps in relation to its interaction with the human body.
After pursuing the subject of Gaultheria and her gifts, I came to find that there is little reference to her use in herbal medicine these days. Native Americans used it for many situations, a few being rheumatism, arthritis, colic, colds, and flu. The use of Gaultheria procumbens for external pains has evolved to an active ingredient approach which although useful has also proven fatal. Oil of Wintergreen is the extraction of one of the key components in wintergreens make-up; methyl salicylate. Most people know methyl salicylate in the form of IcyHot. Methyl salycilate focuses its attention on pain and inflammation blocking the hormones that make us feel pain. Thus you find it used for back aches, muscle aches, and arthritis on such a regular basis that it has in fact made headline news after a high school girl died from liver failure due to overuse of the heat rub IcyHot. This is a good example of wintergreen working beneath the surface without notice. I am sure that Oil of Wintergreen has a place in healing, but am personally more interested in avoiding any worries of toxicity and learning how to use the plant as a whole.
In order to understand the plant as a whole, it is important to understand its parts. Simply stating that wintergreen is useful in managing and recovering from cold and flu might leave you with some questions. The fact that our ancestors trusted this plant would help with certain states of being without the intricately dissected approval of science may seem amazing to some, reasonable to others and downright foolish and folksy to others still. Regardless of the fact that I believe in the communication of plants and people, I understand how it can seem unfathomable to others and respect their desire for scientific explanation.
Following is an outline of the major properties of wintergreen and the concluded outcome of their effects on symptoms of cold and flu.
The draw methyl salycilate seems to have toward flu and cold symptoms is a result of its ability to suppress the production of prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are hormones that manifest in specific areas of the body and are multi-talented. Just to name a few of its natural abilities, it tells the brain that you are experiencing pain, creates inflammation and influences the body’s regulation of temperature. Sounds like a real party animal, huh?
In the case of cold and flu, the methyl salycilate hiding out in the thick glossy leaves of wintergreen could be a great foul-weather friend to have around. Think of the dull throbbing aches that seem to plague every useful part of your body when held prisoner by a winter bug. Or, when after days of hacking, a persistent cough has brought on the formation of a six pack and its accompanying soreness that can accumulate in your abs. Externally, an intimate encounter with some wintergreen sounds like it might be a godsend.
Because of its topical use as an infusion and extracted oil for general discomforts, I have been inclined to believe I might have success making a salve from infused oil. Last week, Osro and I spent a few hours out in the woods collecting leaves, playing in the sandy trails and hunting grasshoppers. After gathering a basket full, I filled one jar with fresh whole leaves and another with fresh leaves that I cut up into slices. I poured grape seed oil into both jars, tickled out the bubbles with a wooden skewer, and capped tightly. If I am able to extract any of the valued pieces of Gaultheria that lend herself to external discomforts, the next step will be seeing which method, if any, results in stronger oil.
Methyl salycilate and prostaglandins relationship also provides a helping hand in the inflammatory aspects of cold and flu symptoms. A gargle or hot tea should readily soothe inflammation in any and all mucous membranes, easing the soreness and irritation inflicted upon both respiratory systems.
Let’s not forget the fever. Although fevers are a good sign that our body is fighting whatever virus or infection we are involved with, too high a fever can be dangerous; especially to babies and small children. One of the many uses natives had for wintergreen was reducing fevers. I can only assume that this works by decreasing the amount of prostaglandins that may be interfering with the body’s thermostat.
For use internally to reduce fever and inflammation a tea is probably your best option although I imagine a tincture could be useful in some situations. To coax anything out of the fresh leaves for tea you must fill a jar with leaves, pour boiling water over them, cover and let ferment in a warm place for 3-4 days until bubbly. Initially I left out the boiling part of this equation and after 4 days was disappointed to find a tea rich in scent and lacking in flavour. After realizing and correcting the mistake I made, I am now anxiously waiting to taste the end results. Apparently the leaves used in this tea can be dried and reused to make a tea without repeating the fermentation process.
When you bite into, or take a drink of something and your tongue puckers up, you are most likely tasting tannins. Tannins are polyphenols found in plants of all kinds. It is the astringency that causes your mouth to pucker. It is the astringency that tannins are most valued for. Astringents cause soft tissues to tighten up, and induce the excretion of proteins from their surfaces. This means that the secretion of mucous membranes and other discharges related to cold and flu would be limited by the astringency of the tannins found in wintergreen. Astringents also have antiseptic properties which could be helpful if your virus makes a date with an infection to have dinner in your bod.
Mmmm..yummy yummy mucilage. Mucilage is a friendly element to come across in a plant, especially when you plan on using the plant to aid in cases of cold and flu. Upon coming into contact with a surface, mucilage lays itself down and caresses the tissue, soothing irritation. Its emollient actions are fond of the respiratory, digestive and urinary tracts. It may not stop the nausea, diarrhea, or ache in your lungs from a dry cough, but it will lessen every bit of them giving way to an opportunity of relief.
It seems as if wintergreen was made just for us and our cold season woes. A plant that stays green and strong beneath the snow all winter long AND aids in the relief of nearly every symptom that is experienced in the illnesses that are so rampant during this time of year?? Either there’s a catch, or nature has an intricately designed, perfectly symbiotic, and nurturing plan for all of her babies. I’m betting on the latter, and thanking mother earth for her wisdom and generosity. There is so much we have to learn from the genius of this planet and her ways of life.
Contraindications: People taking warfarin, aspirin or other blood thinners, people allergic to aspirin or naproxen should not come into contact with any part of the plant, and people suffering from tinnitus, or GERDS should avoid consumption of wintergreen.
Thanks again to Paul David Randall for his soul soothing photography, without his talent this post would have been lacking in the visual beauty necessary to fully recognize this plant.