Josna Rege

Posts Tagged ‘health’

116. Medicinal Herbs

In 1970s, 1980s, Books, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on July 17, 2011 at 4:02 am

Sage tea, mixed with a little lemon and honey if you wish, is an excellent gargle for sore throats or cold sores in the mouth.
Wounds will heal more rapidly when washed with sage tea.
Drunk cold during the day, it will prevent night sweats.
We would all be better off if we drank sage tea, which is soothing to the nerves, instead of black tea and coffee

I make such statements regularly about sage, or Salvia officinalis, my favorite medicinal herb. But these pronouncements have passed into my consciousness almost verbatim from Jethro Kloss’ quirky, compendious Back To Eden (1939), which was one of my favorite reference books during my twenties, even as I took some of Kloss’ more outrageous claims with a pinch of salt. For two or three years in the mid-to-late 1970’s I learned all I could about herbs, their culinary, their cosmetic, but especially their medicinal uses. I pored over all the available herbals in the Concord Free Public Library, memorizing both common and Latin names. I absorbed all the herbal lore and extolled the qualities of the various plants, relishing the specialized terminology rolling off my tongue—expectorant, stimulant, tonic, astringent, demulcent. I learned to identify dozens of common herbs, cultivated many of them, and tested them out on myself and any of my friends who were willing to serve as guinea pigs. I got certified as an Emergency Medical Technician, bought a translation of the Chinese A Barefoot Doctor’s Manual, read Earth Medicine, Earth Foods for the wild plants that were used by the Native Americans, and, for a time, seriously contemplated training to become a rural midwife.

My scientist father-in-law, alarmed at my unaccountable reversion to superstition and old wives’ remedies, as he saw them, began sending me regular clippings about the harmful effects of herbs, warning that too much comfrey caused liver damage or that the essential ingredient of sassafras had been found to be carcinogenic. All to no avail: my zeal was unabated.

When and whence did my fascination with medicinal plants arise? Was it after reading Spencer Klaw’s The Great American Medicine Show, a book about the scandalous state of American medical care that my mother gave me in 1976, the year after I finished college? Or was it even earlier, with Plants and Human Affairs, the course that Andrew audited at Harvard, taught by the legendary ethnobotanist Richard Shultes, who gave his students samples of plants he had brought back from the Amazon? (One of those samples, a bark that contained a concentration of caffeine much higher than in coffee, enabled me to stay alert for most of a night while I wrote a paper due the next morning.)

I learned from one such source that, as late as 1900, half of the drugs in the U.S. Pharmacopeia still derived directly from plants, but most of these had since been replaced by chemically synthesized versions manufactured in the laboratory by drug companies. The problem with these man-made drugs as used in modern allopathic medicine is that they tend to act upon disease the way a bomb acts upon a target: dealing a knockout blow but causing a great deal of collateral damage, sometimes even killing the patient as well as the disease. In contrast, in their natural state in the plant, less concentrated but more complex compounds will have a slower but gentler effect, achieving greater balance while doing less harm. I liked the idea of bypassing the medical industry altogether by growing my own medicinal herbs. After all, the 1970s was the era of self-help. I was part of a preventative care self-help group at the Women’s Health Center in Cambridge, where we gave each other check-ups and—I shudder to think of it now—even practiced drawing blood on each other.

Some of my experiments produced strikingly successful results, reinforcing my confidence in the herbal remedies. Once, when our friend Michael was visiting Concord from New Mexico, he got a nasty-looking gash from a sharp object at the bottom of White Pond. I washed it immediately and thoroughly with a sage infusion and bound it with comfrey leaves, and not only did it remain free from infection, but in less than two days it had healed and almost completely vanished without a scar. I drank tea made from red raspberry leaves throughout my pregnancy and had a short and easy labor. Of course such experiences alone did not constitute scientific proof of the safety and effectiveness of the herbs, but they helped to reinforce what I had read in the various books I had consulted. When there was any doubt, I steered clear of the plant, restricting myself to tried-and-true remedies. (And I must add a disclaimer here that no one should attempt to heal a serious medical condition without consulting a trained health practitioner. )

That period of intensive study and experimentation is well behind me, but I still have a few herbs and herbal remedies that I swear by.  Sage, of course, is first among them. We no longer have a sage plantation out in the garden, but we do have a healthy specimen in a big pot and I am sipping sage tea for my sore throat as I write.

The ubiquitous yarrow, Achillea millefolium, is known to help heal wounds caused by metal—hence its common name Knight’s Milfoil, since warriors would carry it in their belts as they went into battle. It grows in our kitchen garden, returning year after year. So too does comfrey, which is also effective in healing wounds and even fractures—hence its common name, Knitbone.

Horehound is a well-known expectorant, effective for clearing phlegm. If you’ve ever had horehound candy you will forever recognize its distinct medicinal taste. Coltsfoot, one of the first plants to emerge in the spring, is a demulcent, coating and soothing sore throats. Red clover tea is a pleasant-tasting stomach tonic; nettles are good for the circulation; myrrh is excellent for the gums; and goldenseal, Hydrastis canadensis—also known as Heal-all—heals wounds and clears inflammation of mucous membranes. Goldenseal powder was (and still is) in such demand that our friend Maureen once said that she ought to start a goldenseal plantation to support her in her retirement. Andrew did in fact start a number of plants some twenty years ago. I just noticed yesterday that there are only three survivors; two of them, though, are sporting large red berries. Perhaps we can still hope for Heal-all to cure what ails us in our fast-approaching old age.


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60. Cod-Liver Oil and Malt

In 1970s, Childhood, India, Stories on July 18, 2010 at 11:13 am

For most of my childhood I was extremely skinny, so much so that some people murmured that my parents must not be feeding me properly and my parents feared that I might be sickly or sickening. I was therefore given regular nutritional supplements, mostly in the form of a daily dose of cod-liver oil and malt: one spoonful of the heavily fishy fish-oil followed by a spoonful of malt syrup to sweeten the ordeal. When I was sent off to boarding school in the Himalayan foothills, in part because my parents thought that the heat might be responsible for my apparent failure to thrive, I would be called to the dispensary during recess, where Sister Digby, the school nurse, would duly dispense an Ovaltine-like fortified milk drink called “tonic.” In fact I wasn’t sickly at all, just scrawny. I had plenty of stamina for the things I wanted to do, but was somehow overcome with lethargy when faced with tiresome tasks such as eating.

St. Agnes’ convent school in Kharagpur was a long rickshaw ride across an open, arid maidan with no shade in sight. We were let out when the sun was still at its height, and in the blisteringly hot months of April and May the pitifully thin driver strained and sweated as he pedaled us home, while we languished, brains baking, in the open cab, its thin black canopy only concentrating the heat overhead. Back home, I settled myself at the dining table under the fan with a book, growing more and more deeply absorbed in it while my mother’s lovingly-prepared lunch grew cold and unappetizing. When my father returned from the institute for lunch, he too drew his legs up and sat in cross-legged comfort, pulled out a book or the newspaper, and we both read in satisfied silence, while my mother despaired of getting me to eat, let alone display proper table manners. I insisted that I enjoyed my meal all the more when it was accompanied by a good book, but kept getting caught up in the story and forgetting to eat. Besides, the descriptions of food in my books were almost as satisfying as the real food on my plate, sometimes even more so.

In boarding school we were perpetually hungry. In contrast to the long, leisurely mealtimes at home, meals at school had to be eaten in 20 minutes flat—unless we  wanted to stay on and continue hogging with a bunch of boys after all the other girls had filed out. It wouldn’t have been considered ladylike and, like most teenage girls, we didn’t want to expose ourselves to the mockery of our peers. To this day I find myself wolfing down my food, despite my father’s oft-repeated mantra, “eat slowly and chew your food well.”

So I remained constitutionally skinny, but showed no other signs of ill-health. I ran, swam, did the long jump, played netball and field hockey, and seemed to have an excess of energy when it came to talking and getting into trouble. Boarding school boosted my appetite, as we stocked up on food every chance we got. Eventually my parents relaxed, the cod-liver oil regimen was discontinued, and I was left to fend for myself. I never imagined then that fish oil would come into favor again, and that years later, in my middle age, I would be voluntarily seeking it out.

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