You can ease an upset stomach, stop a toothache, cool off menopausal symptoms, and much more with herbs you'll find right in your own kitchen
Healing herbs grow everywhere-in your backyard and deep in the Amazon rain forest, high on remote mountain ridges and in sun-baked deserts, in shady woodland, and even in the sea. Some, such as dandelion, are often scorned as weeds; others, such as red clover, alfalfa, and oats, are common farm crops. Still others, such as thyme and cayenne pepper, may be sitting in your kitchen spice rack right now.
Though you may have only thought of them as cooking ingredients, there are herbs in your spice rack that can ease a variety of conditions, from bad breath to urinary tract problems. Here are 23 easy home remedies-from The Woman's Book of Healing Herbs (Rodale Press, Inc., 1999)-that use the healing power of the spices that flavor your best meals.
1. Chew on some cardamom. Cardamom, a popular spice in Arabian cuisine, is rich in cineole, a potent antiseptic that kills bad-breath bacteria, says James A. Duke, PhD, former ethnobotanist with the US Department of Agriculture and author of The Green Pharmacy (Rodale Press, Inc., 1997). You can buy whole cardamom in specialty herb shops and some supermarkets. To freshen bad breath, discard the pods and chew on a few seeds, then (discreetly) spit them out.
2. Drink some peppermint tea. The aromatic oil that gives peppermint its distinctive flavor and smell is a potent antiseptic that can kill the germs that cause bad breath. Drink a cup of peppermint tea whenever you feel the need. Use 1 Tbsp whole dried leaves (2 Tbsp fresh leaves) or a tea bag per cup of hot water and steep for 10 minutes.
* 3 Stun the pain with cloves. Rub a drop of essential oil of clove directly on an aching tooth, suggests Ellen Kahmi, RN, PhD, of Oyster Bay, NY, an herbalist and host of the nationally syndicated radio show Natural Alternatives. "If you don't have oil of clove handy, just wiggle a whole clove, pointed end down, next to the tooth," she adds.
* 4 Open sesame. According to Dr. Duke, sesame contains at least seven pain-relieving compounds. Boil 1 part sesame seeds with 3 parts water until the liquid is reduced by half. Cool the resulting decoction and apply it directly to the tooth.
5 Speed digestion with turmeric. Bitter herbs help stimulate the flow of digestive juices, moving food along and preventing acid buildup. So spice up your food with the bitter herb turmeric, which is the base of most Indian curries, says David Frawley, OMD, a doctor of Oriental medicine and director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies in Santa Fe, NM. If simply flavoring your food isn't enough to stop the burn, he suggests two or three turmeric capsules (1/2 to 1 g), available at health food stores, before a meal.
6 Destress with peppermint. Stress can trigger a gas attack. Fortunately, the smell of peppermint tea can calm your nerves as the active ingredient you sip travels to the gastrointestinal tract. Have a cup of peppermint tea in the morning and a cup at night, or more often. Sip slowly and smell the tea as you relax.
Research suggests that cinnamon can stop the growth of disease-causing bacteria.
7 Grate some ginger. For best results, grate fresh ginger and mix 1 tsp to 1 Tbsp in 1 cup of hot water. Steep for 10 to 15 minutes and then strain (or use a tea ball). You can also buy and use premade ginger teas.
8 In an emergency, use cinnamon tea. If your diarrhea is so copious or frequent that you risk dehydration and you need to quickly stop the flow, prepare some cinnamon tea. Cinnamon is a natural astringent and will dry up your bowel. Mix 1 Tbsp dried, powdered cinnamon bark into 1 cup of hot water. Steep for 10 to 15 minutes. Use cinnamon this way only for short periods of time-chronic diarrhea requires medical attention.
Nausea and Vomiting
* 9 Pair cinnamon with ginger. If food poisoning has double-whammied you with vomiting and diarrhea, make a ginger-cinnamon tea, says Douglas Schar, a practicing medical herbalist in London and editor of the British Journal of Phytotherapy. The ginger will stop your nausea while the naturally astringent cinnamon dries up your stool. Mix 1 tsp dried cinnamon with 1/2 tsp grated fresh ginger and add them to 1 cup boiling water. Steep for 10 to 15 minutes; strain and drink.
* 10 Out of ginger? Substitute peppermint.
Although not as effective as ginger, peppermint can decrease nausea in a pinch. Pour hot water into a cup with 1 Tbsp fresh peppermint leaves. Let steep, covered, for 5 to 10 minutes to keep the oils from escaping. Then strain and drink.
* 11 sip some rosemary. "A good herbal preventive for some vasoconstrictor migraines is rosemary because it can help keep blood vessels dilated," says Lisa Alschuler, ND, a naturopathic physician and chairperson of the Department of Botanical Medicine at Bastyr University in Bothell, WA. Use 1 tsp rosemary per cup of hot water.
* 12 Make ginger part of your plan. "Ginger inhibits a substance called thromboxane A2 that prevents the release of substances that make blood vessels dilate," says Tieraona Low Dog, MD, a physician at the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque. In other words, it can help keep blood flowing on an even keel, which is essential in migraine prevention. Grate fresh ginger into juice, nosh on Japanese pickled ginger, use fresh or powdered ginger when you cook, or nibble a piece or two of crystallized ginger candy daily.
Sinus Pain or Pressure
13 Choose thyme. If your sinus secretions are clear or white, you need a warming, drying herb such as thyme, says David Winston, founder of Herbalists and Alchemists, an herbal medicine company in Washington, NJ. Thyme is strongly antiseptic and is a traditional remedy for respiratory infections. Drink a cup of thyme tea-made by steeping 1 to 2 tsp dried thyme in 1 cup of boiling water for about 10 minutes-three times a day.
Insect Bites and Stings
14 Cool the itch and squelch the swelling with mint. A tiny drop of peppermint essential oil rubbed into the center of a bite or sting can bring quick, long-lasting relief, says Sharol Tilgner, ND, a naturopathic physician and president of Wise Woman Herbals in Eugene, OR.
"Peppermint makes the area feel cool so you don't feel like scratching," Dr. Tilgner says. "At the same time, it increases blood flow to the area, which helps to quickly carry off the little bit of venom the insect has deposited under the skin surface as well as the chemicals your body has produced in reaction to the venom. That means less swelling and less itching."
Remember to wash your hands after applying it, and don't use essential oils near your eyes because they can be irritating. Don't use this remedy on large venomous bites, such as those from a poisonous spider or snake, which require immediate medical attention.
Menopausal Night Sweats
15 Get some help from sage. Garden sage can help reduce or sometimes even eliminate night sweats. To make a sage infusion, place 4 heaping Tbsp dried sage in 1 cup of hot water. Cover tightly and steep for 4 hours or more. Then strain and drink.
16 Give ginger a thumbs-up. For some people, fresh ginger works better than dimenhydrinate, the active ingredient in over-the-counter motion sickness medications such as Dramamine. The ginger works by controlling the symptoms of motion sickness or by dampening impulses to the brain that deliver messages about equilibrium. You need to give ginger time to kick in, says Lois Johnson, MD, a physician in private practice in Sebastopol, CA. To be on the safe side, do one of the following 1 hour before your trip: Take two 500 mg ginger capsules; grate 1 tsp to 1 Tbsp fresh ginger in 1 cup of water, steep for 10 to 15 minutes, then strain and drink; or place 60 drops ginger extract on a teaspoon and swallow.
Colds and Flu
17 Warm up in the kitchen. To take the chills out of your cold, make a beeline to the kitchen and fix yourself a traditional herb and spice remedy, suggests David Hoffman, a fellow of Britain's National Institute of Medical Herbalists and assistant professor of integral health studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies in Santa Rosa.
Combine 1 ounce (by weight) sliced fresh ginger, 1 broken-up cinnamon stick, 1 tsp coriander seeds, 3 cloves, 1 lemon slice, and 1 pint water. He recommends simmering for 15 minutes and straining. Then drink a hot cupful every 2 hours.
18 Break it up with horseradish. Another timeless herbal remedy for respiratory ills is horseradish. And if you've ever inhaled its pungent vapors, it's easy to understand why. "The best way to get horseradish into your system is to just eat it. A teaspoonful on some crackers should help clear you right up," says Ed Smith, founder of the Herb-Pharm in Williams, OR.
Hot Tips for Cold-Related Ills
* 19 Got cold hands or feet? Sprinkle 1 Tbsp cornstarch mixed with 1 Tbsp ground red pepper in your gloves or socks.
* 20 For a sore throat, cover 1 tsp sage or thyme with boiling water. Let it steep, covered, for 10 minutes, strain, and gargle.
21 Give it thyme. Thyme is a good herb to clear a congestive cough because it not only acts as an expectorant and an antiseptic, it also relieves bronchial spasms, says Smith. You can prepare thyme tea, which you can drink up to three times a day when you're sick, by steeping 1 to 2 tsp of dried thyme leaves in 1 cup of boiling water for 10 minutes, says Varro E. Tyler, PhD, professor emeritus of pharmacognosy at the Purdue University School of Pharmacy and Pharmacal Sciences in West Lafayette, IN.
Urinary Tract Problems
22 Go with parsley. Parsley is an excellent diuretic, says Dr. Tyler. This herb contains myristicin and apiol, compounds that are thought to help increase the output of urine by increasing the flow of blood to the kidneys. To make a tea, pour boiling water over a few sprigs of crushed fresh parsley or 1 tsp of dried parsley. Let the herb steep for 10 minutes, then strain and drink.
23 Need an energy boost? Try peppermint or spearmint tea for a pick-me-up. See directions on p 100 for making peppermint tea .
Editor's note: If you have a serious illness or suffer from asthma or allergies, talk to your doctor before treating yourself with herbs. Never substitute herbs for your prescription medication unless you have your doctor's okay. If your symptoms don't improve within a week or you have a bad reaction, discontinue use.
Reprinted from The Woman's Book of Healing Herbs, copyright 1999 by Rodale Press, Inc. Permission granted by Rodale Press, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098. Available in bookstores or by calling 800-848-4735.
PHOTO (COLOR): Ginger, cinnamon, cloves: These are just some of the herbs in your spice rack that would be at home in a first-aid kit.
By Sari Harrar and Sara Altshul O'Donnell
Sara Altshul O'Donnell is Prevention's alternative medicine editor
Sar' Harrar is a medical journalist who will soon be joining the Prevention staff as Health News Editor.