Guido Mase, in his book The Wild Medicine Solution, touches on this subject much better than I can and will do. The importance of eating local, organic, sustainable, and ethical foods is becoming an urgent issue with time. As it grows, the burden of this urgency is placed more and more heavily on the backs of organic farmers, and those of us who garden for ourselves to ensure we are eating healthy food, for the most part.
It can be argued, then, that as we fight these days for healthy food, we fight for our rights to our medicine– the medicine we grow in our backyard, and in the wild, all around us. In fact, fighting for organic food and ethical growing methods is in itself defending our rights to our own personal medicines. “Organic food can be medicine?” you might ask. Well, yes it can, and is. The connection between herbalism and the food movement comes together here, as it is not such a hard one to make: the herbal medicines we take need to be grown, eaten, and protected, too.
Many of us grow vegetables and herbs together, without a second thought– tomatoes with basil, sage with brassicas. We eat vegetables like spinach, asparagus, and carrots to be healthy, but we eat lots of herbs, too, even though most herbs added to food these days are just for taste. A lot of us forget that culinary herbs were originally added to food because of their medicinal effects on the body– taste was certainly a plus, but back in our more ancient days when we didn’t add preservatives to food, we used herbs. Herbs also helped to mask certain tastes, to digest, and to assimilate as much nutrition from our foods as possible. Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis) is commonly a meat-spice not just because it pairs up with savory on the palate, but its anti-oxidant effects are so strong that they actually help preserve meat. Mints, like Peppermint or Spearmint (Mentha spp.), were added to foods to aid with digestion post-meals, thus the “after dinner” mint given to you at certain restaurants. The candied Fennel seeds you see at Indian or Mediterranean restaurants? Same thing: Fennel (Foenicularum vulgare) aids with the assimilation of difficult-to-digest foods. Herbs like Basil (Ocimum spp.) and Cinnamon (Cinnamonum spp.) have been used as appetite stimulants by herbalists for hundreds of years, added to foods to make them more edible when food was generally scarce.
As you can see, herbalism already has its influence in our cuisine. Herbalism is not just about tinctures, teas, and supplements. Herbalism, really, is about food– the most effective herbalists will tell you that. An herb can be “prescribed” but if a person is not eating right to better an ailment, no progress will be made. This can be confusing to both herbalists, their clients, and everyone else for that matter. Nowadays we have a dichotomy of herbs and food: we associate herbs with medicine and “spices,” and food with– well, food.
Truly, food, herbs, and medicine run fluidly together. When you pour over the details, examining our foods and herbs and exactly what they do, the defining lines begin to blur. Let’s just say that if we were building a wall that represented our most powerful natural medicines, organic food would be the bricks, and herbs would be the mortar. As many of you reading this take for granted, eating organic fruits, vegetables, and even organic/ethical eggs and meats are healthier for you. Spinach, for example, is good to eat because it is high in vitamins and minerals. Carrots are full of Vitamin A, Cucumbers are high in Vitamin E, strawberries are high in Vitamin C, and so forth. But organic foods being good for you goes way beyond that.
Brassicaceae or Cruciferae plants, such as radishes, cabbages, turnips and the like, are in the limelight of study for their health-boosting effects, and demonstrating wonderful results. Broccoli and Kale have received the most hype, being high in calcium, vitamins, minerals, and protective antioxidants. Some studies and experience claim that eating them daily works as excellent cancer or other long-term illness recovery. Black Spanish radishes, kale’s distant cousin, has been used traditionally as supplementary food in fighting diseases of the bowel and thyroid. Daikon radishes are being favored currently for detoxifying purposes, a favorite addition to juicer blends. Beets are on similar footing and are being eaten for liver benefits. Sounds like medicine, doesn’t it?
Then there are herbs, your rosemary, sage, and thyme. Were you aware that these three essential herbs can be combined to make an upper respiratory remedy that any herbalist would recommend you? Or that Basil is not just a tasty addition to pesto, but it has been a trusted traditional heart medicine in Africa? Or that is has been useful against menopausal cramps in traditional Hispanic medicine? Oregano is a great Italian spice, but also serves as one of the first go-to herbs for fungal infection and menopause care. Cinnamon regulates blood sugar, on top of pairing well with Pumpkin. Not many realize that ground Cayenne pepper can help ease the symptoms of a heart attack, in a pinch! (Of course, if you or a loved one are experiencing a heart attack– please, make the hospital your first choice, not the Cayenne; although the pepper can be used to ease symptoms in the meantime). The list doesn’t end there. Some of the best remedies accessible for the most basic ailments you can find right there in your kitchen cabinet or spice rack, perhaps in your refrigerator; and to think that some people lack access to healthcare altogether! But, best of all, you can grow a lot of it right in your backyard, along with the fruits and vegetables you look up to for keeping you healthy. Those you can’t grow, or have difficulty attaining you can find a the local Farmer’s Market, supporting yor farmer. Then when it comes to a bit more acute ailments, you can reach out to your local or community herbalist, or join an herbalist gathering and learn the trade yourself.
We can also extend this to the less-culinary sounding herbs that are so good for us and are catching hold in the popular conscious: such as Echinacea, Black Cohosh, St. John’s Wort, Chamomile. Some popular medicinal herbs, such as Burdock root, are also eaten very commonly as vegetables. We can extend this to plants that benefit us, but which are endangered in the wild and seek protection; they may not fly off the table at a Farmer’s Market, but if we all learn to grow them and use them in our own homes like we use Onions or Zucchini, maybe they will catch on. Finally– although this is a step into a different frontier– we can learn to make room in our gardens for actually useful plants we normally consider weeds: Dandelion, Chickweed, Docks, Violets and the like. A lot of folks may not realize that the Stinging Nettle they voraciously yank out of their gardens each year may be more nutritious than any of the vegetables they grow! While some of these herbs are medicinal, they also make for nutritious dishes.
With realizing that medicine is truly in our own hands, it is empowering to know we can grow it and eat it ourselves; or, if you are able, to have the option to support your local herbalist or organic farmer. But the “quick-fix” American perspective on what a medicine truly is differs from this idea, unfortunately. The mainstream takes many measures that lose us access to natural food and medicine, by spreading misinformation and making it harder for people to buy, grow, or be educated about natural foods and medicines themselves. On top of that, companies like Monsanto manipulate our food’s already perfect genetics, to serve their needs– making plants less and less healthy, but more high-profit. The very source of seed for our favored foods is tampered with in a threatening way. On the other side of this fight, both organic farmers and herbalists jump through ridiculous hoops to make their product or produce even available– having been both a farmer and an herbalist, I have had to take similar, overly-cautious approaches to each profession. It is so difficult to “certify” such foods, herbs and products for a market, while they must also be highly priced for a profit to be made. At that, the market is such that it drives up the prices of organic produce, herbal tinctures and other natural medicines, making them inaccessible to the poor. Poor and wealthy alike– we both have rights to good health!
So while many of us are embroiled in the Local or Slow food movements, we have a different angle to this fight: Slow Medicine, or Food as Medicine. We have to open our eyes and see that there has been no other obvious point in history where the rights to our medicines haven’t been more threatened. Most think that medicines are pills we pop that make things go away as fast as possible; not plants grown by a CSA or in our backyard. Ironically, pills and pharmaceuticals are unnatural, plagued with ridiculous-sounding adverse side effects (e.g. may increase chances of death). Doesn’t sound like medicine to most of us, I’m sure. These medicines, when you think about it hard enough, are made to heal illnesses created by our lack of nutrition from foods at the start. The evidence of that is pretty much everywhere you look. Most of us don’t know or value where our food comes from, what quality it is, and who may be screwed over in the process of getting it– most of us, sadly, do not see food as medicine. It’s scary to see a tradition of eating wholesome plants, which could fix the root of the problem, become more and more endangered.
Herbs, food, and medicine are one and the same. The more we see this connection, and spread that idea, I do think the more motivated we may become to protect it. When you grow your own food, or your own herbs, support your farmer, or look to an herbalist, you are fighting for your rights to medicine. Herbs are our food, our food is our herbs, and both are rightfully ours– it’s a path we should come to know that will keep us healthy, and we can all fight to protect it.
Herbs, Vegetables, and the Healing They Do
-Asparagus: Disease of bowels (Unani medicine)
-Aloe: stabilizes blood sugar, laxative
-Anise: relieves flatulence and hiccups
-Artichoke: digestive stimulant, helps liver function
-Basil: mildly sedative digestive tonic
-Beets: helps cleanse/detoxify liver
-Broccoli: anti-oxidant, high in vitamins/minerals
-Burdock: liver cleanser, helps with acne
-Caraway: digestive tonic, helped nursing mothers
-Cardamom: Safely lowers blood pressure over time
-Cayenne: Stimulates the heart, increases blood flow
-Celery: helps with gout, helps detoxify liver
-Cinnamon: gentle fever medicine for children
-Cloves: Anti-fungal and anti-histamine
-Collard Greens: Anticancer/Antioxidant
-Cucumbers: stabilizes blood sugars (diabetes)
-Dill: Good digestive aid for kids
-Eggplant: lowers cholesterol
-Fennel: Calming cough/sore throat remedy
-Fenugreek: helps with gout and coughs
-Garlic: very antimicrobial, coughs/colds/flus
-Ginger: stimulates digestion, eases nausea
-Horseradish: antihistamine, helps with asthma
-Legumes: high in vitamins, prevent chronic disease
-Kale: very nutritious, anti-cancer
-Mint: Steadies nerves, promotes digestion
-Mustard: ground seeds for cough relief
-Onions: coughs, colds, flus
-Oregano/Marjoram: menopause support, anti-fungal
-Parsley: Allergies and menstraution
-Radishes: some breeds help with thyroid function
-Rhubarb: effective laxative
-Rosemary: improves memory, antioxidant
-Sage: calming fever reducer and cough medicine
-Squash: regulates blood sugars (summer or winter)
-Tarragon: good for your teeth
-Thyme: anti-nausea, and cough remedy
-Turmeric: stimulates digestion, anti-depressant
-Turnips: very nutritious; coughs and colds
References: Wild Medicine Solution by Guido Mase. Chemical constituents of Asparagus, J. S. Negi, P. Singh, G. P. Joshi, M. S. Rawat, and V. K. Bisht1. Effect of Eggplant on Plasma Lipid Levels, Lipidic Peroxidation and Reversion of Endothelial Dysfunction in Experimental Hypercholesterolemia; Arq. Bras. Cardiol. vol.70 n.2 São Paulo Feb. 1998. Onion As Medicine?! Herbal Roots Zine/7Song. Squash may have anti-diabetic properties UPI Health News. Healing Food Pyramid: Legumes University of Michigan Health System. Charles Garcia, California School of Traditional Hispanic Herbalism. Stephany Hoffelt, Iowa City Herbalist. Personal Experience, Observation, Notes.