Sunday, 25 January 2015

Herbal Theory and Practice - Skin, herbs for bruises and some herbal terms

As an apprentice herbwife I need to learn theory about the human body, conditions which affect it and the actions of herbs in order to understand what to use and why it works.   This month I have been set the task of researching the structure and function of skin, how bruises form and herbs that can help bruises. I was also asked to research the meaning of some terms describing the actions of herbs and a herb that uses these actions.

The skin

The skin is the largest organ of the human body, it is also known as the integumentary system.  The skin consists of the outer layer the Epidermis; the Dermis which contains structures such as capillary blood vessels, hair follicles, sebaceous glands which secrete protective oils, sweat glands, sensory nerve endings and elastic fibres; this is underlaid by Subcutaneous tissue including fat and blood vessels.

The skin has very important functions.  It is a protective boundary to our bodies, providing mechanical protection from injury & chemicals, protection from damaging ultra-violet light and protection from external micro-organisms.  It keeps essential water and nutrients inside.  Small molecules can be absorbed through the skin and pass into the body.  A way to demonstrate this is to rub a clove of garlic on the sole of your foot, half an hour later you can smell it on your breath.  The skin is one of our main organs of elimination, this is a very important part of its function to herbalists.  We regulate our temperature through blood vessels in the skin and through sweating.  The skin is a huge sensory organ, with many receptors for touch and other kinds of physical stimulation, which is essential to our proper development and our well-being.

Bruises & herbal remedies for bruises

Bruises are purple marks under the skin caused by capillary haemorrhage from an external injury or from an internal cause such as steroid therapy or haemophilia.  Surgery can cause extensive bruising.  Bruises cause localised pain & swelling and can take up to 2 weeks to heal.  Bruising can be very extensive and cause stiffness and pain in muscles and around joints.  Older people can be particularly prone to bruising due to capillary fragility.  Habitual bruising without injury can be a sign of a serious illness such as Leukaemia, so it is advisable to get a check-up by a doctor if this is the case.  The herbal approach to bruising aims to promote regeneration of circulation and to remove damaged blood & tissue quickly.

Elder bark bruise salve

One of my tasks this month was to harvest some elder bark by cutting elder twigs and stripping off the bark to make a salve for bruises.  The bark was used to make a double-infused oil by dividing the bark into 2 equally sized piles.  The first pile was put in a saucepan and covered with sunflower oil and heated inside another pan with gently boiling water for 2 hours.  The first lot of bark was strained out and the second lot of bark was put into the same oil to infuse for another 2 hours.  The infused oil was then strained through a sieve lined with a piece of muslin and then added back to the pan with beeswax (1/8 beeswax to oil eg 25g beeswax to 200ml oil), until the beeswax all melted.  The oil was then  poured into small jars, when cool it solidified into a salve to apply externally to bruises.  This is not a traditional use of elder bark, although there are references to using elder leaves for bruises.  Using elder bark was suggested by my herbal mentor Sarah Head.  My husband Barry bruised his hand recently, the bruise disappeared within 2 days so it definitely works.

 Elder bark

Elder bark being infused in oil

Elder bark bruise salve

Barry's bruise

Other herbs for bruises

 There are many other herbs that can be used in remedies for bruises.  
 The main herbs used for bruises are:
- Arnica - the best herb for bruises is Arnica, used as a compress of arnica tincture or as an ointment.  NB arnica should not be used on open wounds.
- Calendula (Marigold) - a major herb for use on wounds of all kinds including bruises, can be applied as a compress, gel, cream or salve.
- Comfrey - has a long history of use for wounds and injuries, it can be applied as a poultice with vinegar or as an ointment for bruises and other skin & musculo-skeletal conditions.
- Daisy - crushed daisies can be used as emergency first aid for bruises and sprains when out and about and in an ointment to help speed healing of bruises.
- St John's Wort infused oil is very good for injuries including bruises, but avoid exposure to the sun after use as it can cause skin to react to sunlight.
- Witch Hazel - apply distilled witch hazel to bruises to stop swelling.
- Yarrow - works to tone blood vessels, especially smaller blood vessels, it helps break up congealed blood.  It can be used to make an ointment for bruises.

Other herbs which can be used for bruises are:
- Agrimony - ointment is soothing and healing for bruises.
- Burdock - a hot burdock leaf poultice will draw blood to the area.
- Catnip - a hot compress of catnip leave can help bruises & other injuries.
- Cayenne pepper - can speed healing and reduce pain applied in an ointment.
- Chickweed - can be used in a poultice for bruises and other skin problems.
- Chives - leaves or juice from crushed plants can be applied to bruises, plus eaten to help speed healing.
- Echinacea - tea or tincture can be used to help heal bruises.
- Ground Ivy - a poultice of the fresh herb can be used to speed healing of bruises.
- Herb Robert - can be used to make a cream to soothe a variety of skin conditions including bruises.  There is a recipe in 'A year with James Wong'.
- Marshmallow root - can be used for a poultice or compress for bruises & other injuries.
- Mugwort - can be used to make moxa sticks to apply heat to old bruises & other injuries.
- Mullein - can be used in poultices for bruises, small wounds & painful joints.
- Peppermint - a bath with peppermint infusion enhances peripheral blood supply so can help with bruises and muscle & joint aches.
- Plantain - Poultices and ointments made with crushed leaves are useful for bruises & small wounds.
- Rose petal vinegar helps with bruises and other skin conditions.
- Speedwell - used externally can be helpful for bruises & wounds.
- Parsley - leaves can be crushed and applied to bruises, which helps speed the disappearance of black & blue marks.
- Wheat Grass - can be used as a poultice or the juice used as a compress for bruises.
- White deadnettle can be used as a fresh leaf poultice for bruises.
- Wood betony (Betony) can be used to make an ointment for bruises & other conditions.

Other things that can help bruises

A cold compress can help reduce swelling.  Use an ice pack or a bag of ice-cubes or frozen vegetables if you don't have an ice pack, for 10 minutes 3-4 times per day the first day of the injury.  Green and black tea contain tannins that help shrink swollen tissue and narrow blood vessels.  A simple home remedy for bruises is to moisten a tea bag and put it on your bruise, this is particularly useful for black eyes. Potato slices are an old home remedy for bruises including black eyes.  James Wong recommends a compress of vinegar combined with anti-inflammatory and healing plants such as sage & yarrow for bruises.  He gives a recipe for this in 'a Year with James Wong'.  For people who are prone to bruising without obvious external causes foods containing Vitamin C, Vitamin K and bioflavonoids can help.  An infusion of Horsechestnut & Yarrow drunk for a while will help strengthen blood vessels.

Herbal Terminology


To reduce cough severity, ease expectoration and clear the lungs.


Herbs that contract blood vessels and certain body tissues (mucous membranes) with the effect of reducing secretion and excretion. They are used for debility, internal and external bleeding, catarrhal discharges, etc, their action is due to the tannins they contain.


Bitters are stimulants to the autonomic nervous system. They stimulate 'bitter' taste buds in the mouth that initiate secretions of a hormone into the blood stream increasing production of stomach and pancreatic juices. Bitters increase acid production and are given about half an hour before meals. Bitters increase the appetite, assist assimilation, and are indicated for loss of the sense of taste. They reduce fermentation in the intestines and are of value in hypoglycaemia and diabetes mellitus.


Herbs that increase bronchial mucous secretion by promoting liquefaction of sticky mucus and its expulsion from the body. Their secondary action is that of a vaso-constrictor which, in the case of a stuffy nose, relieves by reducing the blood supply to the inflamed lining of the nasal passage. They improve the outlook for respiratory troubles.

Definitions taken from 'Bartram's Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine' Thomas Bartram.

I was asked how these words help us to understand the actions of one herb.  I identified Wild Cherry Bark as a herb that has all these properties.   It has a powerful sedative action on the cough reflex so helps with the treatment of irritating coughs. particularly when these affect sleep.  It is particularly useful for dry, unproductive coughs.  It softens up bronchial mucus making it easier to expectorate.   It can also help with sluggish digestion due to its action as a bitter.   It is also a useful astringent for diarrhea, also for indigestion and irritable bowel syndrome.  It is useful as an eyewash for eye inflammation.   There is lots more detail at


'A year with James Wong: Grow your own drugs' James Wong.
'Bartram's Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine' Thomas Bartram.
'Healing with Whole Foods, Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition' Paul Pitchford.
'Hedgerow Medicine' Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal.
'Holistic Anatomy An Integrative Guide to the Human Body' Pip Waller.
'Practical Herbs 1 & 2' Henriette Kress.
'The Complete Book of Herbs' Lesley Bremness.
'The Complete Herbal Tutor' Anne McIntyre.
'The Herbal Drugstore, the best natural alternatives to over-the-counter and precription medicines' Dr Linda B White and Steven Foster.
'The Herb Society's Complete Medicinal Herbal' Penelope Ody.
'The New Holistic Herbal' David Hoffmann.
'Wild drugs, a forager's guide to healing plants' Zoe Hawes.


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