Herb Power: find your wild ally this summer

Recently, scientists uncovered the remains of a Neanderthal tribe that lived in the area now known as Spain, some 50,000 years ago. Analyzing residue on their teeth, the researchers discovered traces of powerful chemicals: triterpenes and lactones from chamomile and yarrow were still detectable, and indicated that these early hominids consumed these plants, which have little or no caloric value. It’s an intriguing finding: have we been harnessing the power of herbs for that long?

In fact, we may have been herbalists well before we were human – from an evolutionary perspective, at least. Primates are the most enthusiastic, but many other species (from bees to elephants) employ plants just as the Neanderthals seem to have done: small quantities of wild botanicals that have little caloric value are used, deliberately and effectively, to maintain health. While lacking an understanding of physiology and biochemistry, animals (and early humans) still realize that renewing a connection to the wilder side of the dinner plate is a daily necessity.

Christina Warriner studies archaeological evidence to piece together a picture of what how our oldest ancestors nourished themselves. She has come to three basic conclusions: first, ancient diets were incredibly diverse. They were different from region to region, from season to season, and featured a vast amount of different plants as well as some meat and animal fat. Second, all those plants came in small, frequent doses, and included herbs that were relatively “calorie-poor” (as we saw in the Neanderthals). Finally, the plants our ancestors consumed still had large amounts of phytochemicals – plant constituents with biochemical action and that have been largely bred out of modern vegetables. The plants we used to eat had strong, often bitter flavors, were hard to find in quantity, and were – to put it simply – powerful.

What happened? Over all these years, we’ve drifted away from these plants. The diversity of our diet is at an all-time low, starring only corn, wheat and soy (along with traces of other, highly hybridized, veggies). We eat lots and lots of these plants, and almost none of the “calorie-poor” herbs that have been animals’ companions for millions of years. The chemical potency of our dietary plants is all but gone, bred out because of its unpalatable flavor. Many have been telling us that the “Western” diet is killing us slowly, and lies at the root of the modern epidemics of mental and spiritual distress, digestive disease, cardiovascular illness and cancer. They warn us to turn our backs on the modern foods we’ve grown accustomed to – and that our lives may depend on it.

If you’re into herbs, you may have a different take.  It may be possible, and in fact preferable, to restore diverse, wild, powerful botanical chemistry into our daily lives and, by so doing, circumvent the risks of the “Western” diet. It may not be that wheat, soy and corn are killers: it may just be that, without our old allies, our bodies have forgotten how to work properly. They are out of context. And wouldn’t it be great if, by bringing that context back, we could enjoy a modern, urban life without the risks and diseases associated with it? That is precisely what herbs can offer us: they are easy to grow, simple to prepare, and deeply nourishing, enlivening, and restorative when consumed habitually. They provide the context our physiology needs, while linking us back to the wilder side of nature. This wilder side is calling us: it’s green, open, sexy and powerful. With it, we are at our most vibrant.

So herbs are radically different from drugs: they are more akin to physiologic building blocks, the vectors for cross-kingdom signaling, a way for plants to guide us to our best potential. While some can definitely treat disease and infection in the short term, herbs really shine at slowly rebalancing us in our entirety, so that mental distress, spiritual malaise, toxicity and inflammation melt away like snow in warm sunlight. The safe medicinal herbs are often weedy, or at least ridiculously easy to grow, and their preparation and administration are simple and worry-free. And think about what happens when you start to see a dandelion as more than just a pest: could it be an old friend? Could it have something in it that we lack, that used to be as familiar as electricity is today? Strange things start to happen to our ecological and cultural outlook when we begin to ponder these questions.

This is what I encourage you to do: find a wild plant, maybe one with a historical record of medicinal activity, to be your ally this summer. Identify it with certainty, make sure it’s safe. Watch it grow, slowly at first, then faster as it bursts into flower, sets seed, matures its root. Taste it. Harvest it. Sit with it on sunny mornings and through rainy afternoons. This medicine is very real, but it is also very different. If you want to find the true power of an herb, you will have to approach it as a friend, not as an alternative to a pill. In so doing, you won’t just discover medicine. You will come home, too.


Unknown said...

Thank you, Guido. You should see my yarrow!

Unknown said...

Hey Guido. We actually met about 15 years ago at Middlebury. You were there too, Carolyn! You and Lisa made the best pesto I have ever had.

Anyway, I've been having trouble finding information on the differences between consuming herbs through tea, tinctures, cooked meals, or raw. As you cited, early humans (and other animals) simply ate the herbs raw, rather than making a tea or elixir.

It seems that one can get a higher dose from tinctures than tea, so I'm assuming that one would need to chew even more leaves to get the same benefit. But does the extraction or cooking process provide more benefit than simple digestion? Or is eating raw herbs just ill-advised?

If the simple answer is "It's complicated and different for every herb -- buy my book!" I understand, and will do so.

I enjoy eating the herbs raw, and I always feel like I'm somehow wasting the leaves left over from making tea. But I want to make sure I'm getting the full benefit of the herb, and also not poisoning myself.

Fritz Langerfeld

Guido Mase' said...

Eating raw herbs is certainly not ill-advised (if positive ID is made, of course). Burdock roots in stir-fry, dandelion greens in salad - all make good sense.
Tea is often simply an extension of food - and often a cup of chamomile tea after a meal, or peppermint sun tea on a summer afternoon, are excellent and effective ways to use these plants.
Medicinal teas are usually stronger - 4-6 TBS of herbal material in a pint or so of hot water - and more for therapy. In this form, medicinal herbs are quite effective (water is an excellent solvent). We often leave the herbs to steep overnight, or at least a few hours.
Tinctures accomplish two goals: first, capturing and preserving fresh medicinal constituents (ones that might degrade by oxidation, e.g.). Second, more broad-spectrum extraction of the non-water-soluble chemistry (essential oils, e.g.). In this sense, you can (in certain situations) get more from a tincture. But often, the sheer volume of tea makes it a better choice.

Water, alcohol, or other solvents (such as apple cider vinegar) do somewhat "pre-digest" herbs, improving their bioavailability over just chewing raw plant material. But fresh or dry (powdered) plant material, added to a smoothie for instance, is still an excellent way to go. The only type of prep I tend to avoid is the capsule, as you lose the ability to taste the herb, and you get no pre-digestion.

In short, you're not wasting the herbs at all by eating them raw! But what do you do over the winter?

Unknown said...

Perfect! Thank you.

Our winters are pretty short and green here in Florida, but I suppose I should have a 2-3 month supply of either dried herbs or extracts saved up.

Half of our garden hardly seems to even notice winter, though. We have some oregano and Thai basil plants that I've been using year-round for three or four years. And a pineapple sage that kept growing so much, even in winter, that we had to split it up into four separate locations in our yard, and even gave part of it away to a friend. I don't think I could kill that thing if I made a bowl of salad from it every day.
Not to mention all the mints. It's just a matter of time before they start growing up through the floorboards.

But anyway, I'm practicing making tinctures and drying out herbs, so I should be good for the winter.

bigyarnmama said...

Guido, Thank you for a wonderful post. Wonderful approach to incorporating all our plant friends into our diet. With my busy life one of the most common ways I get to use plants in the summer is to just pick some fresh and eat! Thanks for all the work you do. Heather Shelton

Anonymous said...

Such an amazing post. Extremely enlightening. Thank you Guido. And thank you Friedrich for asking the very question that has been festering in my brain for a long time now. From what I gather, herbs in their respectively different forms (tinctures, powders, fresh, etc) each have slightly different properties and effects on the body, which probably vary per person. At least that's been my experience. Would you agree, Guido?

Thank you,
Ruben Chavez

Guido Mase' said...

Ruben, I would agree. The difference is sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic - kava tea vs. tincture, for instance. But that's more a function of chemical solubility.
I've been intrigued by the different resonance / affinity different folks have for the same herb in different "formats". Often the more fiery constitutions prefer the tincture - but tea might actually be more effective for them. In short, while I do agree, I don't have a simple answer for how the different preps vary in their effects.