Friday, 24 July 2015

It's better to know (nettles, horsetail and red clover)

(Originally published 9 September 2014 here )

Nettle is a plant with specific requirements for harvest. Nor is it the only one that can be problematic to use if incorrectly harvested. Some might simply be less effective if not harvested or stored properly. Others can cause actual harm. This is a very important issue of which most people are simply unaware.

Any side effects from the use of herbs are really not the fault of the plants but the people who prepare or use them. Whether the plant has been allowed to spoil, or the plant is simply inappropriate for that person at that time is something that is rarely taken into account. Yet the public dives in willy nilly then rejects herbal treatments in their entirety when they go awry!

In the right hands, the "side effects" of plant medicines are often quite positive. Of all my nettle stories, my favourite is this one - I gave a client who'd been on chemo a small cup of nettle infusion twice a week to help her hair grow back. Her strength returned as well, and her appetite normalized. I'd been using nettle for years, and had seen it do some wonderful things, but even I was amazed to see her go from frighteningly frail to pretty darn sturdy in a matter of weeks on such a conservative level of consumption!

I absolutely understand why most doctors throw up their hands in horror when their patients announce they are taking this or that herbal supplement. Ask people why they take what they do, most will quote one or two advertorials they've read. No wonder doctors are loathe to respect their patients' choices.

However, the public's blind use of herbs comes directly from the relationship we have with doctors in the first place - we do what we're told by someone we view as an authority without questioning the whys and wherefores. You shouldn't take anything your doc prescribes for you without full disclosure, either. Yet many doctors resent questions. In that case they deserve to lose our trust.

Interestingly, the pharmacists often welcome questions. If they don't know the answers they'll often look into it and get back to you. The ones I've spoken to are largely well informed, better so than doctors anyway. They also often have some knowledge in the actions of herbs, or at least their interactions with drugs. If you're going the route of combining the two (which I don't recommend, by the way), talk to your pharmacist before you take any commercial herbal supplement. Please.

Now - if I keep seeing articles on this or that herb that are full of (possibly dangerous) misinformation, how do we know that the companies, large or small, who sell them are aware of the pitfalls of improper harvest or storage? We don't.

If I keep seeing recommendations to take an herb in ways that I know can easily go wrong, what am I to do? I'm starting to consider cruising blogs and websites and becoming a nuisance in comments, for one thing. In the meantime, I'll just say what I can here in this quiet little corner of the interwebz.

Herbs, used properly, are not drugs. Herbs, "purified", encapsulated, combined with others (not to mention fillers), taken without proper understanding become drugs. It is ironic, to put it mildly, that these herbal preparations are offered as a drug free alternative.

Horsetail is an excellent example of the kind of thing on offer to anyone and everyone that's just not all that appropriate for most. For external use, it is completely safe (so far as I know). Internally, this herb can, on the one hand, give you bouncy hair, strong fingernails, help you absorb and use calcium and prevent or slow down osteoporosis, may strengthen your teeth, may even help you with gout - if used correctly.

On the other hand it can also, if picked too late in the season or overused, or used by anyone with weak kidneys, stress the kidneys. It loves to grow by water; if that water is impure, so is your horsetail. If each indivdual plant harvested is not inspected for the tiny black marks that indicate mould - will commercial harvesters do that? - you can end up with a fungal component you don't want. Irony here again, as it is advertised as an antifungal. Which it is, under the right circumstances.

It is not that I won't use horsetail (although it is rarely that I do), or that I discourage you to use it. It is that I don't trust Big Herb or their suppliers to harvest or store or recommend how to use it with anything like ethics. Does it tell you on the bottle to use for no more than three days running? It should. Does it say to discontinue use if it gives you the jitters (a handy but relatively unknown sign of kidney or blood pressure danger)? Do your tea bags tell you how long to steep it? For nettles we want long steeping. For horsetail you barely let it go five minutes, yet I've seen an ad recommending it as an infusion, a much longer steep.

It can be dangerous to trust the one who profits from the sales of supplements. (I have a bone or two to pick with the so called Naturopaths as well, a blog post for another day.)

Red clover - ah there's a Pandora's box if ever there was one. It can be used in place of tea, even by children, it is so safe (and delicious!). If used medicinally, it is one of the best damn blood cleansers we have and works almost like magic on acne. It's helpful for many issues, large and small, from colds to cancer.

Store it wrong and it is one of the most dangerous blood thinners we have. Yet it is marketed especially to menopausal women (for its supposed hormonal benefits which I will not discuss here). These women are likely to be in the throes of that time where periods tend to be heavy anyway. If your red clover "supplement" is the least bit old? You could find yourself flooding in a way that could have you rushing to your gyno who will in turn prescribe drugs or even surgery you really don't need, you just need to back off the red clover. But in some cases, especially for anyone on blood thinners like Warfarin, it could be deadly. (Do tell your doc what you're taking, no matter how irrelevant you think it may be!)

I harvest red clover all the time. I know from experience that no matter if there have been 3 days of dry weather (the requirement) or that my herb room is at the right humidity level and everything is seemingly correct, I can occasionally still find my clover has lost its bright colour. I have to toss it. Other times the conditions can be seemingly awful and my clover turns out wonderfully. It's hit and miss with clover, and that's my point. Unless clover looks perfect it is not perfectly safe. I've opened commercial tea bags of the stuff and found it containing more than 30% green (or worse, yellow), from the leaves. That's too much. The leaves are particularly high in coumarin, even more so than the flowers. When they dry, the concentration goes up. If they're dried improperly or they sit in storage too long, you're combining coumarin with mould. Not good my friends, not good.

This is only part of why I harp on (and on) about learning to harvest your own plant medicines. I know that improper harvest and storage can be dangerous. Ignorance of your source can cause grief.

If you must buy from someone, buy directly from the wildcrafter or grower. Pepper them with questions. Where was it grown? How was it harvested? How long has it been in storage? If they seem annoyed, if they have a "just trust me, I know more than you" attitude and won't take the time to answer you, move along, they're unethical.

The other reason I harp about this, of course, is that the act of growing or wildcrafting your own will teach you more about the plant than anyone's words can. Taking a capsule or using a commercial tea-bag is an entirely different experience than using a plant you've met where it lives. In learning how to gather, prepare and use your own medicine, you'll also learn to think differently, learn to understand your own body, learn how to use your faculty of judgement, things advertisers and the men with the stethoscopes really don't expect of us.

Somewhere in the middle, you will find, if you're willing to try, bulk sources of well dried and properly stored herbs. They'll have colour and fragrance and a vibe to them that makes you think "yes, this is alive!". That vibe, that 6th sense is as important as anything. It's not woo, it is simply something we've forgotten to pay attention to.

However you source your plants, if they are yellowing or faded, or if they smell musty, don't use them. Get in touch with your supplier and complain. Do so, if you can, in person, or by phone, not email. When choosing a supplier, if there is no way to speak to a real person, think carefully about whether you really want to use them.

Herbal medicine is supposed to be the people's medicine, not Big Anyone's. Well, for except the Big Guy, of course!

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