Thursday, February 28, 2008

Herbal Allies; Nettle

Herbal Allies; Nettles

I love nettles, Urtica dioica and other nettles. Although one would believe her to be an unfriendly plant, reaching out to sting anyone who walks too close and brushes up against her foliage, she is actually quite helpful and beneficial. There’s even a silver lining to that sting.

My first adventures with nettle came when I purchased a book; “Healing Wise” by Susun Weed some years ago. Reading it, I found myself drawn to nettles and oats, and promptly purchased quantities of each and ventured into the new (to me) world of herbal infusions. I can’t say my first experience was positive. I guess the closest I can come to describing that taste was “pond water”. But I persevered and very soon found myself loving the fresh green taste of the dark emerald liquid. My body liked it too; my energy improved, my skin cleared, my mild allergy symptoms improved, and my kidneys, prone to gravel, formed fewer stones. I guess I can say that nettles marked the beginning of my journey into the green things. People starting out with the infusion would do well to stick with only a cup or so a day, until their body gets used to it, as more than a few have reported headaches when they drink more than that. After one has grown accustomed to the herb, as much as a quart a day can be consumed without headaches.

I’ve not found Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) growing on my property, but her cousin, Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis) grows profusely along the creek that runs by my house. She stings too, and tastes almost as good, so I use her. On a trip to my brother’s in Hot Springs I found the path along his creek literally covered with Wood nettle. This nettle grows very tall, and a walk along that path in shorts is a painful adventure at best. Fortunately the area is also covered with Jewelweed, so I can soothe my stings immediately. I’ve harvested them there, eaten them steamed, and made tincture from the leaf and root.

But my most profound experience has come from using stinging nettle seeds. I made friends with nettle seeds several years ago when one of my dogs developed renal cancer, and subsequently renal failure. While poking around for something to help him I found David Winston uses them for renal failure, and I found an article about how effective the seed tincture is here;

Armed with that bit of information I purchased a supply of the dried seed from Jean’s Greens and made myself a standard tincture using 100 proof vodka. I’m a fan and follower of Matt Wood’s “drop dose” technique so I started dosing Sonny with three drops a day. The results were pretty much immediate, and miraculous. Over a period of two months or so, his renal values came right back into normal limits, and I was able to put him back on his regular diet instead of the phosphorus-restricting one I’d had him on. Until the day of his death almost three years later his kidney values remained normal.

My Veterinarian soon began to use this wondrous stuff on her other patients, and more often than not, improvement, and sometimes reversal of disease was seen. Since then I’ve heard of and read many similar accounts.

More recently I’ve been led to using nettle seed as an adaptogen. In an ongoing discussion on the Herbwifery forum Kiva Rose mentioned how the seeds gave her increased energy, using just a tiny pinch of the dried ones daily. I tried it, and sure enough, I had scads more energy. Now we’re talking focused energy here, the kind that won’t let me sit down for very long, the kind that makes me get up and look for projects to do, and to complete them. I turned several friends on to them, and most report an increase in energy almost immediately. It makes sense, as this is an herb known to support the adrenals, and many of us suffer from “adrenal burnout” due to daily stressors, environment, poor diet, and health problems.

I’ve used the root tincture of stinging nettle in a formula for BPH and prostatitis in male dogs, and I understand it is equally effective with the males of my species. It combines well with saw palmetto and licorice root for this purpose, and for dogs I add some Chaste tree berry to help calm those urges that contribute to the condition.

And now for that silver lining in the sting I mentioned earlier. Urtication is a time proven technique that can lessen the severity of arthritic pain and inflammation in joints. The brave (or the masochistic) will take a bunch of the tops of stinging nettle and flog the offending joint, to produce the characteristic sting from the formic acid. The subsequent irritation brings additional blood to the area and helps reduce the inflammation in the joint. I haven’t personally tried this approach, so I can’t add my own experiences to it.

So the next time you get stung by a nettle, turn and thank her, and consider that she might just be trying to tell you something.

Monday, February 25, 2008

A lifelong dance with SAD

Here I am in the middle of February and I’m not SAD.

SAD stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder, and the acronym fits. When the days become short and the nights long, some people react by becoming depressed. I have been this way most of my life, feeling the need to hibernate in winter, to withdraw from social contact, even becoming overwhelmingly SAD to the point of hospitalization.

I was first diagnosed in the late 80’s, after my therapist returned from a lecture on the topic. It was a “new” disease then, unheard of in the US. I remember he was elated that he’d finally identified the cause of my depression. We went back over my files together and sure enough, I peaked in summer, and was down in winter. Of course he had no treatment offers other than the usual antidepressants I’d been on and off of for years. But I had other ideas. I had a diagnosis. I was empowered by it.

I’m a pretty simplistic thinker. This SAD stuff was simply sunlight deficiency and interrupted circadian rhythms. The first thing I did was quit my job of fourteen years. I was required to work rotating shift work, the worst kind. I knew my biological clock was completely confused, my circadian rhythms out of sync. How could they not be, with me working and sleeping all kinds of odd hours? Soon after leaving my employment I got myself off the antidepressants I’d been forced to depend on for all those years. I wasn’t cured, but I was better, much better. I was on the path to healing myself.

A few years later I read an article on SAD. Treatments had evolved. Light boxes were available now, but I didn’t get one. Who needs light from a box when there’s this big old ball of light right outside? I kept increasing my sun exposure. It helped minimally. Then I found another article that made mention of sunlight and SAD that proposed a theory. This theory linked SAD with wearing glasses and contact lenses, which block the beneficial light rays needed by the body to keep that biological clock ticking properly.

Another light bulb went on in my head. I started wearing glasses when I was about 9 years old, and I can remember my depression beginning around the same time. I began sitting in the sun for fifteen minutes a day during the winter with my glasses off. I’d face the sun, eyes closed, and let my eyelids soak up those bright rays, turning my head slowly back and forth as the article suggested. It became a ritual, and later a part of my daily prayers. Following this idea I had Lasik surgery, so I no longer needed glasses to see except for reading. I improved still more. I felt just about normal now, with a mild tendency to be anti-social in winter, but not hibernating or depressed. Cloudy days still effected me, especially if there were several in a row. I’d want to sleep in, and tended to be lazy.

Then I enrolled in herb school. The very first thing they taught me was that diet is the single most important factor in health, and that the proper balance of nutrients from quality sources can heal disease without medicine. I learned about another form of SAD, the Standard American diet, and how detrimental it is to health. How interesting that these two acronyms are connected! I learned about the importance of Omega 3’s. I added flax seed and fish oil caps to my diet, eliminated most of the “white stuff” and made sure I ate colorful fruits and vegetables from organic sources. I experimented with fermented foods and baked my own bread from whole grains. I cut down on red meats and sought out organic sources, and added more fish to my diet. I added organic dairy products too.

When we talked about seaweeds and their effect on the thyroid I added them too. Now I’m the first to admit I don’t like seaweeds. I grew up along the banks of a tidal river and seaweed always reminds me of low tide. Not a good smell or taste. But my body temperature was low, about 97.8, and I knew my thyroid was probably sub clinically low. So I hid my daily dose of Fucus in my morning smoothie.

Months pass. I start noticing differences. I have more energy, more vitality. I look for things to do instead of being a couch potato. I lose weight. My thoughts are clear and my desire to learn continues to grow. I start seeking out social contacts right in the middle of winter, something I’d never done before, and I enjoy meeting new people and making new friends. My friends had gotten used to my lack of communication in the winter months. It was just a part of my personality they learned to put up with.

I am no longer depressed, even on cloudy days. I am consistently happy, energetic, creative, and whole. I have come a long way, one small step at a time, toward health, both physical and mental. I look in the mirror and I see that my gray hair is turning dark again. That’s a bit of a bummer. I started going gray at the age of thirty-five, and now in my mid-fifties am almost totally silver. I like to believe that each of those gray hairs is a badge of honor, earned through a lifetime of hardships and woes, and a symbol of my crone hood. But that darkening hair is yet another sign of my body’s good health, so I accept it with only a small amount of grudge.

And suddenly I realize. Here I am in the middle of February and I’m not SAD.