Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Helpful herbs for the digestive system and Spring Tonics

Digestive system troubles & herbs which help relieve these

This month I have been set the task of researching the digestive system with particular reference to elimination, constipation & diarrhoea and herbs that are helpful for these conditions.  The diagram below shows the different parts of the digestive system and their functions, which are essential to good health.  The digestive system has four activities - ingestion, digestion, absorption and elimination, which removes unwanted matter such as indigestible food, metabolic waste products and toxins from our bodies.  The condition of our bowels has a fundamental effect on the rest of the body.

Digestive System diagram 


Constipation is not a disease but is a symptom of an underlying problem.  The key symptoms of constipation are lack of bowel movements for more than 24-48 hours, low abdominal pain or gripes and difficulty passing stools.  It is common during pregnancy, old age and while travelling.  Causes of constipation include sluggish digestion, lack of exercise, suppressing the urge, food allergy, gut flora imbalance and overgrowth of Candida in the bowel, nutritional deficiencies, excess refined foods, insufficient dietary fibre, low fluid intake and tension due to stress. Constipation can be related to conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome and bowel obstruction.  Many medications have a constipating effect including codeine, tranquillisers & iron supplements. 

Linseed, Fenugreek or Psyllium seeds help bulk out bowel contents and move them along, soak 1-2 teaspoons of seeds in a cup of hot water for 2 hours, add lemon or honey if desired and drink at bed time.   It is important to drink plenty of water as well when taking these.  Mucilaginous herbs such as Marshmallow and Plantain can be used for a gentle laxative action by absorbing water and bulking out stools, which is useful if stools are dry.  This action is in contrast to Senna and similar remedies for constipation such Alder Buckthorn bark, Rhubarb Root and Yellow Dock Root which contain anthraquinones which have a stimulant action on the muscles of the bowel, which can be necessary to retrain the bowel muscles in cases of chronic constipation which may occur particularly with older people.  Adding Ginger or Fennel is useful to relieve colic which might be caused by using these remedies.  Syrup of Figs is a traditional remedy for constipation, recipes can be found in 'Grow your own drugs' by James Wong and 'Kitchen Medicine' by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal. 

Bitter liver herbs stimulate digestion and ease bowel movements. Decoctions of Liquorice, Dandelion root and Burdock root are effective for mild constipation.  Yellow Dock root decoction or tincture is helpful for mild constipation and stimulates the digestion.  Rosehip tea is also a mild laxative, strain to remove the irritating hairs.  Raw or cooked Elderberries have a potent laxative effect.  Blackthorn leaves & flowers can also help constipation. However it is important to find and treat underlying causes of constipation, rather than relying on laxatives which can make the problem worse in the long run.  For stress-related constipation take Chamomile, Lemon Balm, Dill, Hops, Vervain or Cramp Bark, which is a smooth muscle relaxant.  Garlic, Burdock or Marigold are helpful for an imbalance of gut flora.

Doses of herbal remedies for constipation in older people may generally need to be lower due to slow metabolism.  Constipation in children needs to be treated with gentle laxatives such as Psyllium seeds and other gentle remedies such as Chamomile rather than stimulating purgative herbs such as Senna or Rhubarb Root.  Flavouring agents such as Chamomile, honey, Peppermint or Liquorice may help make herbal remedies more palatable for children to take.  Violet Syrup is particularly recommended for constipation in children - see recipe in last week's blog post.


Diarrhoea is caused by the body attempting to rid itself of poisons or irritants, inflammation or infection in the gut.   Key symptoms are loose frequent stools and abdominal cramps or griping pain.  It is usually short-lived, lasting only a day or two.   Intolerances to gluten-containing and dairy foods can cause diarrhoea.  Red meat and raw food can aggravate it so these are best avoided till fully recovered.  It can be caused or exacerbated by stress.  It is important not to stop the process but to address the underlying causes.  Herbal remedies try to assist the process while soothing the bowel and reducing inflammation.  It is vital to drink plenty of fluid to replace water and electrolytes lost through diarrhoea to prevent dehydration.  James Wong gives a recipe for a Herbal Rehydration Tea in 'Grow your own drugs' and there is a recipe for a Lemon Sherbet Rehydration Remedy in 'The Domestic Alchemist' by Pip Waller.  

Diarrhoea can be relieved by using astringent herbs such as Agrimony or Blackthorn which are especially suitable for children.  Other astringent herbs which can help relieve diarrhoea include Blackberry leaf, Black Tea, Cinnamon, Goldenrod leaves, Ground Ivy, Hawthorn, Lady's Mantle, Meadowsweet, Mullein, Oak Bark, Raspberry Leaf, Rose petals, Shepherd's Purse, Speedwell, Strawberry Leaf, White Deadnettle, Wood Avens and Yarrow which dry up secretions and tone the gut lining.  Mucilaginous herbs such as Slippery Elm, Marshmallow and Plantain help relieve diarrhoea by reducing irritation of the gut lining and act as pre-biotics to encourage helpful gut flora.  Anti-spasmodic herbs such as Peppermint, Catmint, Ginger, Dill and Chamomile relieve pain from cramps.

For diarrhoea caused by infection use anti-microbial herbs such as Thyme, Chamomile, Cinnamon, Garlic & Ginger.  Cooked Carrots have been found to have an anti-bacterial effect in the gut.  The anti-bacterial properties of raw honey can help treat diarrhoea.  There is a recipe for Meadowsweet Anti-diarrhoea Honey in 'The Domestic Alchemist' by Pip Waller.   Chamomile, Hops, Meadowsweet, Self-heal and Yarrow relieve inflammation.  Chamomile, Hops, Dill and Lemon Balm help reduce stress-related diarrhoea.  Rosebay Willowherb enhances enzyme production in the stomach and pancreas so is helpful for preventing & remedying diarrhoea caused by dietary changes. An infusion of Coriander seed is a safe remedy for diarrhoea in children.  Grated Apple is a simple remedy for childhood diarrhoea and grated Apple and Ginger are good for settling the stomach after a bout of diarrhoea. 

Signs of possible serious bowel disease that need medical investigation are:
- Constipation that is persistent, develops suddenly or with pain.
- Diarrhoea that is sudden & painful or continues for longer than a week or is recurrent or is accompanied by fever or where there is blood, mucus or pus in the stools.
- Any unusual change in bowel habits.
- Recent travel to a foreign country or contact with someone else who has travelled to a foreign country.
- Recently drinking water from a stream, river or lake.
- Persistent diarrhoea in children.
- Extreme acute abdominal pain.

Herbal Terminology

This month's herbal terms are:

Spring Tonic

Herbs which were traditionally used as spring tonics are often liver stimulants, to strengthen the liver after eating poor food during the winter, which help to cleanse and tone the whole body.  Our modern processed, chemical laden diet puts pressure on our livers all year round, so we can benefit from a spring tonic at any time of the year.  At this time of year spring tonic herbs such as Dandelion, Chickweed, Chives, Cleavers and Nettles are thriving.  They help cleanse the blood, strengthen the liver and gently detox the body.  It is good to eat them every day from now until they become too tough in the early summer.


Herbs containing viscous sap that soothes inflammation.  Mucilage is a sugary, gel-like substance that draws in water to form a viscous fluid.  When taken orally it coats internal mucous membranes, protecting them from irritation and inflammation.  Herbs containing mucilage are cooling and soothing in their action.  Mucilaginous plants include Mallows, Violets, Plantain seeds, Linseed and boiled Onions.


Herbs that induce perspiration, enabling toxic wastes to be eliminated via sweat.  Diaphoretic Herbs are widely used in feverish conditions to reduce a high temperature.  Herbs with a diaphoretic effect include Catnip, Cayenne, Elderflowers, Garlic, Ginger, Peppermint, Rosemary, Thyme, Vervain and Yarrow.


'Bartram's Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine' Thomas Bartram.
'Grow your own drugs' James Wong.
'Holistic Anatomy' Pip Waller.
'Kitchen Medicine' Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal. 
'Letting in the Wild Edges' Glennie Kindred.
'Practical Herbs 1 & 2' Henriette Kress.
'The Complete Book of Herbs' Lesley Bremness. 
'The Complete Herbal Tutor' Anne McIntyre.
'The Domestic Alchemist' Pip Waller.
'The Herbal Drugstore' Linda B White & Steven Foster.
'The Herbalist's Bible' Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal.
'The Herb Society's Complete Medicinal Herbal' Penelope Ody.
'The New Holistic Herbal' David Hoffmann.
'Wild Drugs' Zoe Hawes


This month one of my tasks was to design my own spring tonic.  With some ideas from Sarah Head's blog post on Spring Tonics http://kitchenherbwife.blogspot.co.uk/2009/03/spring-tonics.html 'Herbal Remedies' by Christopher Hedley & Non Shaw, 'Kitchen Medicine', 'Hedgerow Medicine' and 'The Herbalist's Bible' by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal I put together a recipe for a Spring Tonic as follows.

Spring Tonic 
4 sprigs of fresh Rosemary
2 sprigs of fresh Sage
3 sprigs of fresh Marjoram
A handful of fresh Nettle tops, washed
A few dried Mugwort tops
A few slices of fresh Ginger root
An aril of Mace
About 1/3 of a Nutmeg grated
A stick of Cinnamon
A screw-top bottle of Red wine

Pour out about 1/4 pint of red wine & reserve this.
Poke the ingredients through the neck of the bottle into the wine using a chopstick.
Pour some of the reserved wine back in to bring the liquid back up to the top of the bottle neck.
Put the screw-top back on and put the bottle in a warm cupboard to steep for 3 weeks.
Strain through muslin into a clean sterilised bottle.
Have a tablespoon or small shot glass when in need of a tonic, such as after illness.
Ingredients for Spring Tonic

 Spring Tonic ingredients steeping

Chickweed Salve

I made Chickweed Salve from the Chickweed oil I infused a couple of weeks ago - see previous blog post of details of making Chickweed Oil.  Some gunge had settled to the bottom of the jar, I carefully poured off the clear oil and filtered this through muslin.  I measured the oil which came to 100ml and added 1/8 of this quantity as beeswax, in this case 12.5 grams, with an accurate electronic scale to measure this.  I heated the oil and beeswax in a pan over a larger pan of gently simmering water and stirred with a chopstick until the beeswax had all melted.  I poured the liquid into jars and left to set.  This salve should be useful for irritated skin conditions, particularly eczema.

 Chickweed oil & beeswax 

 Chickweed salve freshly poured into jars

 Chickweed Salve ready for use

Monday, 23 March 2015

A magical Spring Equinox and recipes using spring plants

Last weekend I attended the first workshop of the year at Springfield Herb Sanctuary, which focused on identifying plants as they are beginning to grow.  We tried Nettle tea and Couch Grass root tea, both of which are good for the urinary system amongst many other benefits.  I picked some Chickweed, Dandelion tops & roots from weeding, Burdock burs to plant and some violets to take home with me.  The workshops at the Sanctuary are open to anyone interested, you don't have to be an apprentice to attend, information on the workshops for the year including the weekend Herb Festival in September can be found here http://kitchenherbwife.blogspot.co.uk/p/springfield-sanctuary-workshop-dates.html

Daffodils and one of the springs which gives the Sanctuary its name

Twisted Hazel at Springfield Sanctuary



Last Sunday I washed & chopped the Dandelion roots & leaves I had gathered when weeding at the Sanctuary and put them into a jar with vodka to make a tincture for general health maintenance, acute skin eruptions, digestive problems, recuperation from chronic illness, sluggish liver, gout, eczema & psoriasis and for overindulgence in food & drink (uses from 'Hedgerow Medicine' by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal). I also made Violet syrup, which is useful for constipation & coughs, particularly for children.  The infusion was a bright green colour but magically turned pink when heated with sugar and lemon juice.  I made infused oil with some of the Chickweed from the sanctuary, which should be useful for skin problems particularly eczema. I also decanted the Cramp Bark tincture & Hawthorn Bark tincture started previously.   I picked more Nettles in the woods to make a second batch of Nettle tonic (recipe on previous post) and decanted the first batch, it was hard messy work wringing out the fluid from the jelly bag, but I tried to get every drop I could as it is full of herbal goodness.

 Dandelion tincture

Recipe for Violet Syrup 

- Fill a clean jar with violet flowers & leaves, cover with boiling water.
- Leave to steep overnight with lid on.
- Strain out the leaves & flowers.
- Measure the amount of water left.
- Put the water in a pan and add 150g of sugar for every 200ml of liquid
- Add juice from half a lemon.
- Bring to the boil and simmer for a few minutes.
- Pour into sterilised bottles.
- Keep in the fridge.
- 1-2 teaspoons at night for constipation or coughs, particularly for children.

Based on recipe in 'Wild Drugs' by Zoe Hawes.

Violet Syrup

Recipe for Chickweed Oil

- Gather chickweed and leave to wilt overnight to reduce moisture content.
- Put half the amount of chickweed you have in a bowl or pan inside a larger pan, cover with sunflower oil.
- Heat the oil with gently simmering water in the larger pan underneath the small pan for 2 hours.
- Strain the oil and return to the pan with the second batch of chickweed, heat for 2 hours.
- Strain the oil through muslin into sterilised jars.

Chickweed Oil
This weekend started with the magical occurence of a solar eclipse on the Spring Equinox.  We watched it at our allotment.  There was an eerie dimming of the light as the moon gradually moved over the face of the sun and the temperature dropped several degrees during the eclipse, at maximum eclipse our breath was steaming in the cooler air.  As the moon moved on the light brightened and it became a glorious warm spring day, it truly felt that spring had arrived.  I picked nettles and other greens in between keeping an eye on the sky.  Later in the day I went back to plant rose bushes, an Apothecary's Rose and a William Shakespeare Rose, which are both highly regarded for medicinal purposes.  I transplanted Lungwort which I found under brambles in a vacant allotment and scattered some Burdock seeds up towards the wild end of the allotment in the hope that they will come up so I have Burdock to harvest in the future.

Smile in the sky as the moon partially covered the sun


 newly planted Rose bush and Lungwort

Back home over the weekend we had friends staying so I tried out my Nettle Soup on them, which was well received.  I also tried putting Nettles in with scrambled eggs and made Nettle Aloo using Nettles rather than spinach which were both very tasty.  My husband made a Sourdough loaf and mixed some Nettles in with the dough which came out well.  As the Spring is well and truly upon us it was high time to start planting some seeds.  We went to visit Smiths Nurseries on the outskirts of Coventry http://www.smithsnurseries.co.uk/ which has an excellent selection of herb and wildflower seeds.  I started off some herb seeds in a seed tray and a few in pots for the kitchen window sill, in a nice little container I was given as a present which includes a useful box just the right size for keeping packets of seeds in.  

Herb pots for the kitchen windowsill

Recipe for Nettle Aloo -  side dish for 4

500g potatoes - chopped into medium size chunks
A large onion - finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large cloves garlic - very finely chopped
1/2 a red or green chilli - very finely chopped
2cm lump of root ginger - very finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon of black mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
Colander of washed Nettles with stalks removed
Juice of half a lemon
Salt & black pepper to taste

- Boil potato chunks in salted water until tender.  Drain & set aside.
- Heat the vegetable oil in a pan.  Add the onion & cook until soft & just starting to brown.
- Add the garlic, chilli, ginger, mustard seeds & turmeric, cook briefly stirring so the onion & spices don't burn.
- Add the cooked potatoes and a medium wineglass of water.  Bring to the boil and simmer for about 5 minutes.
- Turn up the heat and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated and the potatoes have absorbed the spices.
- Add the Nettles & season with salt & black pepper to taste.
- Cook for a couple of minutes till the Nettles have wilted and are bright green.  Check the seasoning and add the lemon juice.
- Serve as a side dish with curry, rice, yoghurt & chutney.

Adapted from a recipe for spicy spinach & potatoes in 'Tender volume 1' by Nigel Slater 

Nettle Aloo

Monday, 16 March 2015

A refreshing retreat in Wales & making the most of spring leaves

I have been 'off air' for a bit as we had a week away at a retreat centre in mid-Wales.  It provided a much needed space away from the busyness of daily life, I purposefully did not use the internet whilst on retreat, to give my mind a chance to relax.  I took the opportunity to read a couple of new herbal books I recently bought. Firstly 'The Book of Herbal Wisdom' by Matthew Wood, which draws on European, Native American and Chinese approaches to working with medicinal herbs, with in-depth information on 40 herbs and how they work to help the body and mind heal themselves.  Secondly 'The Herbalist's Bible' by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal, about the definitive  herbal compiled by 17th Century herbalist John Parkinson, with Parkinson's original text on the medicinal uses of a selection of plants and a commentary on their use today, including recipes to try out.

I didn't do a lot of practical herbal stuff whilst at the retreat centre, though I did use some rosemary from a glorious rosemary bush in the garden by the kitchen for herb tea and with roast potatoes.  I also made some salads with foraged wild ingredients such as nettles, cleavers & dandelions and herbs from the garden such as fennel tops, parsley & lemon balm.  On the last weekend there was a work party to plant trees and build a fence to protect a new hedge that has been planted along the edge of the retreat centre's land.  We planted a mixture of hedgerow trees including my herbal ally Hawthorn.  We also planted 5 young fruit trees in a corner of the land which is becoming a small orchard.  I look forward to going back in years to come to see how they grow.

Buddha statue in early morning light

 Rosemary bush

Tree planting

Since returning home from the retreat I have been trying to catch up with my apprenticeship tasks.  This month we have been asked to use Nettles for tea, to devise our own Nettle soup recipe and to make an iron-rich Nettle tonic for someone we know who has anaemia.  I picked a nice batch of nettles in the allotment and foraged other plants that are coming up in the allotment to add to salads & soups including Cleavers, Ground Elder, Ramsons & Salad Burnet.  I decanted my first batch of Restorative Nettle tonic (recipe on previous post) and started a second batch with nettles foraged on a visit to the woods.  

I also decanted and bottled the Cramp Bark tincture and Hawthorn bark tincture I started 3 weeks ago, to add to my growing store-cupboard of remedies.  The Cramp Bark tincture will be useful for cramp (it does what it says on the bottle!) and the Hawthorn bark tincture should be useful for diarrhoea according to the little I have been able to find out about medicinal uses of Hawthorn bark.  It is astringent and has also been used for Malaria and other fevers.

 Ramsons aka Wild Garlic

Young Ground Elder leaves

Salad Burnet

Nettle Soup recipe - for 4

1 medium onion chopped
400g parsnip chopped into small chunks
400g potato chopped into chunks
100g celery chopped including leaves
1 large cloves garlic finely chopped
Colander full of fresh Nettles washed
4 teaspoons olive oil
1 litre vegetable stock
1 bay leaves
Salt & pepper to taste
Grated nutmeg to taste

Saute onions in oil, add root veg & celery & sweat for a while while preparing Nettles, add Nettles, stock & flavourings, bring to boil & simmer till veg tender.

I had some left after the first serving so boosted it for a second meal by adding 4 large button mushrooms chopped into chunks, another colander of Nettles and a small amount of other fresh leaves including ground elder, Ramsons & Sorrel, added some more stock and salt & pepper, brought to boil & simmered till heated through.  I grated parmesan on the top for serving, this was very tasty.

 Nettle Soup

Egg, potato & spring leaf salad recipe - for 1

2 hard-boiled eggs - roughly chopped
300g boiled potatoes - chopped into chunks
Small pan of washed Nettle tops - blanched in boiling water for 2 minutes
Mixed spring leaves as available - I used Cleavers, Ground Elder, Salad Burnet, Ramsons, Lambs Lettuce & Sorrel
Mayonnaise to cover eggs, potatoes & spring leaves
Salt & Pepper to taste

Egg, potato & spring leaf salad

Next time I will be posting about visting Springfield Herb Sanctuary, identifying emerging plants and picking herbs to make into remedies.  So watch this space.