Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Make Your Cough Syrup Work for You: How to Use Herbs & Spices to Treat Your Symptoms

Have you ever looked closely at the ingredients listed on a cough syrup label? It's poly-this & prop-that along with dyes, high fructose corn syrup, & a ton of modified sugars. Used in soap making & other commercial uses, I noticed that even glycerin is even listed under inactive ingredients in Robitussin DM (although there are objectors, its generally regarded as safe for internal use by the FDA- is even used as a sweetener-  but as a humecant I'm not sure it makes sense to have it in a product that is used to dry up mucus). Regardless, fillers destroy our natural occurring enzymes & good bacteria in our digestive tract- where 80% of our immune system is located! Not something I'd like to damage, especially if you're trying to heal from an illness.

But what do you do when you have a bad cough & need relief fast? First, try to avoid products with lots or sugar, as we all know that sugar increases mucus production & will actually make your cough worse- very counter productive! Secondly, sugar should be avoided during an infection because you are essentially feeding the bacteria & encouraging them to reproduce- instead, eliminate the factors that encourage their growth & your body will heal more quickly as you make the environment more inhospitable to foreign bodies.

One trick that I use for coughs, sore throats, & allergy prevention is honey infused with herbs. I can tailor what herbs I use to treat my specific symptoms & then use the infused honey in hot teas, as a medicine, or dab a little on food- the options are endless. The most recent infusion I made just a few weeks ago when I was suffering from a cough and sore throat. The recipe below can be modified depending on your symptoms- don't worry about the possibility of a disgusting or overwhelming taste, typically the honey is the only dominate flavor with a hint of the herbs you've used. You can also modify the recipe to make smaller amounts and it keeps for about 6 months, after which infusion will have lost its potency. Fresh herbs work best (as it retains most of the essential nutrients), but if they are unavailable or you're in a pinch, dried will work fine- just make sure you'll be able to strain out the plants from the honey, so don't use a powered form!

Below I talk more about which ingredients to use for what symptoms and why- here is a list of the symptoms I had which will give you some understanding of my herb choice. 

My symptoms were typically allergy symptoms and beginnings of sinus infection (also makes sense due to my location in Texas which has been having one of the worst allergy seasons in decades): dry cough, scratchy & sore throat, post nasal drip, inflamed throat, slightly swollen lymph nodes, tightness in jaw and neck, swollen sinuses under eyes/around nose/above eyes, sinus headache, sore/itchy eyes, and overall facial pressure and eyes. Also, I was having trouble breathing at night and trouble getting a good night's sleep. I used a neti pot to relieve sinus pressure and post nasal drip- slight color to mucus but mostly clear when nose blown.

Sage, Chamomile, & Lemon Balm Honey

1 large bunch fresh sage leaves

1 cup chamomile flower, dried or fresh if available
1 large bunch fresh Lemon Balm
Enough raw, unfiltered, local Honey to cover the leaves

  • Wash and dry plants thoroughly.
  • Place in a small sauce pan with enough honey to cover.
  • Heat honey slowly to a simmer and keep on low heat for about 30minutes or longer, stirring often and when needed. 
  • Allow honey to cool to a comfortable temperature so that you don't get burned. 
  • Once the honey is at a temperature you can handle, strain the honey into a sterilized glass jar. 
    • If you do not have a fine mesh strainer, you can modify the smallest strainer you have by placing a cheese cloth inside before straining the honey. 
    • You have two options to sterilize a glass container. 1) boil in water for around 10-15 minutes or 2) place on a clean dish, mouth side up, in a hot oven at 225F for around 20 minutes. Make sure to place the jar inside oven or water before turning the heat on. If you place a cold jar in a hot environment, it can cause it to break. Always use safety protection.
    • You can place a few unused leaves in the honey for beauty or to remind you which kind of infusion it is (especially if you have multiple kinds in your pantry!) Great for a get-well-soon gift or present for birthdays and holidays. 

Why did I use sage, chamomile, and lemon balm? Here are the following food energetics for each herb along with nutritional information. Read my MINDBODYGREEN.COM article if you are unfamiliar with food energetics or look at other articles on my blog about traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

Honey: contains antibacterial and healing properties & can be used as a natural cough syrup and throat soother. It is a powerful healer & is considered an herb is Chinese medicine. Raw honey is pungent/acrid & energetically a neutral temperature (meaning it does not heat or cool the body). It helps to relieve coughs, has laxative properties & so relieves constipation, stomachaches, sinusitis & other allergies (that why it is so important to by local honey to treat your allergies- also best to get raw, unfiltered honey, because it retains all of its nutritional and medicinal value), helps with mouth irritations and canker sores, can be applied directly to burns on skin, lowers hypertension, menstrual problems, pulmonary tuberculosis, heart disease, & liver disease. It can be used to treat stomach ulcers and is even a useful treatment in hangovers as well as treating alcoholism.

Honey is alkaline and so has a harmonizing effect which is very beneficial to a person who is stress and overworked, suffering from exhaustion, or sick. In general, it moistens dryness, relieves pain, and helps reduce toxicity in the body. Honey has a more complex flavor than white sugar and has many nutrients, enzymes, & mineral whereas sugar is largely devoid of nutrients. Energetically, honey has a neutral temperature and sweet in nature, acting upon the stomach, spleen, and lungs by tonifying, soothing, and nourishing the Chinese organ systems. All types of honey (both heated and raw forms) work to harmonize the liver by neutralizing toxins.

Uses for Raw, Unfiltered, Local Honey
(Cough w Mucus)
Clears heat, dampness, & swelling; pain relief, harmonizing
Ex. cough with mucus, swelling, & inflammation in throat
(Dry Cough)
Moistens dryness, pain, & inflammation relief, harmonizing
Ex. dry cough, scratchy throats, infections, swelling

It should be noted that once heated, honey should be used by persons who have dry coughs and are  not producing alot of mucus. While heated honey moistens dryness and is great for those with scratchy, sore throats and dry coughs, raw honey clears heat and dampness. If you have a lot of mucus and/or a productive cough, it is best to avoid heated honey and use raw honey only. Raw honey is helpful for dampness in general because it increases moisture as it drys up the mucus (and even edema, considered a damp pathogenic factor in TCM). If you have alot of mucus, you can still use the recipe above with out heating the honey. Instead fill a jar with the herbs and cover in honey. Place on a sunny window sill for a few days (according to you desired strength) so that the honey absorbs the herbs essential oils without being heated directly.

"Salvia officinalis" is a natural decongestant.
 It was also burned by many ancient cultures as incense or 
to purify homes, temples, and other sacred places. 

Sage: "Salvia officinalis" This herb is a powerhouse and has been used as such for thousands of years in the West! Not only is it antibacterial, antiviral, anti-fungal, & antimicrobial, but is anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, antispasmodic, & anti-hydrotic. This make sage a great herb to treat all sorts of infections and a great preventative measure- particularly for bacterial and fungal infections like candida, gingivitis, infected gums, mouth infections, throat infections, and even intestinal infections. In addition, it is very good for treating kidney and liver problems. For example, sage can be used as a mouth wash and for keeping teeth clean. Also, it soothes the digestive tract and any gastrointestinal upset- the herb stimulates the upper digestive secretions and so doing aids in digestion. It is also helpful in treating flatulence.

Besides being beneficial to digestive and mouth health, sage can also be used to treat asthma, colds, coughs, measles, and overall is very supportive for the respiratory system. Sage is good for loosening mucus especially in the upper respiratory tract and is considered a natural decongestant. Among other inflammatory uses, sage soothes joint pain, rheumatism, nervous system, and even typhoid fever. It has many mental uses as well- above all treating Alzheimer's disease but also nervousness, headaches due to nerves, and increasing memory function. Sage is a great herb for treating any nervous system issues; it strengthens the nervous system, lowers inflammation around nerves, calms the nervous system while also stimulating it to promote healthy function.

Most helpful is sage's ability to ease symptoms unique to women. Sage is extremely useful during menopause by easing hot flashes and night sweats as well as menopausal symptoms that young women can have as well like uvulitis, decreasing vaginal discharge, and most pms symptoms. Sage can ease excessive bleeding in menstrual cycles, regulates irregular or scanty periods, cramps with the onset of flow, and treats lethargy.

Because sage helps with excessive sweating, its use should be avoided during fevers to suppress perspiration, as sweating is the body's way of cooling itself during high temperatures. It should also be avoided during pregnancy or when breastfeeding, except if you want to stop breastfeeding- then sage is excellent herb to stop lactation. Sage should also be avoided by those with epilepsy.

Energetically, sage is considered astringent, pungent & bitter in flavor, and cooling in nature. Because of these qualities, sage is excellent at solidifying and drying up any mucus, discharge, dampness, or other secretions. It has a stabilizing and restorative nature which lends itself to benefiting those who are in need of relaxation due to stress, chronic fatigue, or infection. Sage benefits the whole body but especially targets the small intestine, liver, kidney, lung in addition to the nervous system, brain, and reproductive organs like the uterus. 

 The medieval physician Avicenna recognized the harmonizing effects of  the now-a-days-often-overlooked Chamomile and wrote of the herb: "By its coldness it assists in clearing excess heat from the organs, and by its warmth it helps resolve gross substances." Not just used for getting a good nights sleep!

Chamomile: "Marticaria recutia" This herb combats many diverse health problems like colic, inflamed skin, skin irritations (diaper rash, wounds, and other skin irritations), anxiety, sore eyes, poor sleep, sciatica, gout, & can be used as a rinse to lighten hair. Chamomile is anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, calmative, analgesic, anti-allergen, carminative, cholagogic, choleretic, digestive stimulant, stomachic, anti-neuralgic, & anti-rheumatic.

Chamomile is a mild sedative and relaxant, so it will help anxiety, nervousness, and stress- thats why chamomile is drunk so often before bedtime! The herb is a mild, systemic relaxant which is why it is used for stress, anxiety, oversensitivity, weakness, and even pain due to overactive nerves or senses. It relieves tension, restlessness, irritation, hyperactivity, and emotional agitations. Chamomile is very soothing to the nervous system not only because it soothes the pain, but particularly because it can help soothe and cool  inflamed nerves (and anyone who has experienced facial neuralgia, fibromyalgia, shingles, or other neuropathies knows that options can be few and far between when it comes to finding relief!). Chamomile is even more helpful to neuralgic pain when combined with other herbs, especially feverfew.

Chamomile is also helpful for other painful disorders, in particular ones that cause inflammation like osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Its analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties make it an essential addition to a first aid kit. Chamomile can be used on bruises and cuts, muscle stiffness, cramping, and aching. It is safe to use alone as a tea or even in a relaxing bath...even for infants and children from age of 6 months on (be sure to consult with doctor first). Also, Chamomile is a great soother for teething infants (freeze tea to make a teething popsicle!) or gum irritations and pain.

Chamomile is not just soothing after a long day- it is particularly effective for soothing gastrointestinal issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (with constipation & diarrhea), colitis, spastic colon, abdominal distention & pain, nausea, gas, constipation, ulcers, and even motion sickness due to traveling

Also great to use if you have post nasal drip (which can upset stomachs) because it soothes stomach indigestion. A natural decongestant, chamomile is also great for other allergy problems like hay fever, asthma, even allergic reactions. The herb's properties of mucostatic, anti-allergic, antipruritic, and anti-inflammatory makes it a one-two-punch to combat allergies. Chamomile acts as a relaxant and expectorant easing the symptoms of acute rhinitis, asthma, bronchitis, and dermatitis. Not only does it dry and expel mucus, but helps relax the respiratory system in addition to the body overall- I reach for it any time I start to have acute symptoms for a cold or flu- it will help with the aches, pains, and the irritability that comes along with nasty infections. 

Due to its qi regulating properties, chamomile is quite effective for women's issues. It harmonizes women's menstrual cycles, while relieving pain associated due to painful cycles and PMS. The herb can also help regulate irregular periods. It is also great to use on cracked, dry nipples if you're nursing (although considered generally safe, make sure to talk with your doctor before ingesting while nursing). Chamomile repairs skin and is particularly effective in soothing the dermis, or the deepest layer of the skin. Its a great home remedy for those suffering from dermatitis and eczema

Chamomile is particularly useful because of its harmonizing nature. In Chinese medicinal terms, chamomile disperses wind, dampness, and heat-- pathogenic factors that most people in first world countries suffer from (in particular the US- diets high in fat and sugar). Since the herb regulates qi throughout the body, it has many effective qualities and acts upon most organs (which makes the herb useful to almost everyone) -- specifically, it regulates liver qi and moves heat and dampness from the lung. Chamomile is considered slightly bitter and sweet in flavor. It is cool or neutral in temperature which makes it especially good for treating digestive and skin ailments. Overall, the herb is restorative, dissolving, calming, and helps return balance to stimulating functions of the body. In addition to the lung and liver, chamomile is also supportive for the stomach, intestines, heart/pericardium, uterus, nerves, and ear/nose/throat.

The popular, anti-anxiety medicine Valium is derived from "Melissa officinalis"It is also a great antihistamine and is great for allergy relief.

Lemon Balm: "Melissa officinalis" Lemon scented plant of mint family, it is traditionally used to treat and soothe stress, ease pain & discomfort, tension, anxiety, and overall nervousness. In fact, valium is derived from lemon balm! Great to promote restful sleep or to treat anxiety- in fact several studies found that when combined with other relaxation promoting herbs, such as valerian or chamomile, 81% of people were able to sleep better and longer. On top of that lemon balm raises your mood if you're feeling down, decreases bloating, gas, and indigestion. In addition, the herb is essential in treating and healing wounds, venomous bites and stings- and is a natural mosquito repellant (all that is required is crushing the leaves and rubbing it on your skin). It also helps to soothe the nervous system, especially the sympathetic and can help treat hyperadrenalism and hyperthyroidism. Lemon balm can be used to treat fevers and hot flashes due to menopause as well. It has even been used in treating ADD and Grave's disease.

Many of the chemicals contained in lemon balm have multiple benefits. For example, one such chemical type called eugenol is antibacterial and helps to calm muscle spasms and even numbs tissue (one of the main reasons I used it in my honey for my sore throat- the numbing effect is very soothing on a raw throat or even a skin irritation and sore gums and teeth). Another compound in lemon balm is also found in red wine- tannins- and has antiviral properties. Also, the compound type terpenes not only helps with relaxation and give the herbs its potent aroma, but also has antiviral properties. The antiviral properties of lemon balm makes it especially useful for treating things like herpes virus- there are multiple studies that have demonstrated lemon balm effective in treating cold sores, inhibiting the growth of the herpes virus, and even preliminary findings that it can decrease HIV which causes AIDS.

Overall, lemon balm is good for the heart and the stomach- and overall wellbeing of the mind and body. In TCM, it is considered an energetically cool food with a sour flavor. Lemon balm supports the lung, liver, heart and stomach. It also reduces overall heat patterns in the body, which in TCM greatly affects the heart, mind, and vascular systems, not to mention overall inflammation, dryness, and stagnation- all root causes of disease. As a sour food, lemon balm is used in TCM to healing the liver- it helps to relieve a stagnant, swollen liver which causes most of the symptoms mentioned above but also fatigue, moodiness, mental rigidity, menstrual problems, lumps/swellings, eye problems, and toxicity in the blood to name just a few. This is why lemon balm is often used to treat patients with alcoholism, tobacco, and other intoxicant addictions in Chinese medicine.

Its very easy to grow in any site or soil- in fact I planted it in my herb garden where I had trouble getting other plants to grow due to an decrease in sun. Its self seeding and a perennial which makes it a great starter herb for a new gardener.