Herbal Tips for Fall
Fall is the time for getting your herbal remedies and wellness tools together so you and your family can weather the season with resiliency. Erika Galentin of Sovereignty Herbs in Athens, Ohio offers her tips for using elder instead of echinacea to support the immune system and how blue vervain can help with digestion during the holidays. See the full story about Sovereignty Herbs and more tips in our fall issue. Be well. -Colleen Leonardi
Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia / Echinacea purpurea) versus Elder, Elderberry (Sambucus)
I think that echinacea species are the most misused and abused herbs in the herbal industry. When we look back to traditional use of Echinacea, especially that which has been recorded from First Nations people, it was not an herb for colds and flus as it is heavily marketed for in modern times. It was a deep wound medicine, especially in cases where there was a threat of systemic infection, or septicemia.
Pharmacological research has confirmed profound and potent immune-stimulating properties, which speak to its traditional value. However, modern over-the-counter herbalism has hijacked echinacea species and they are now sold all over the world as a cold and flu preventative. What is unfortunate about this widespread misunderstanding about the use of echinacea species is that worldwide demand has completely decimated wild populations. And I am not talking about all those echinacea varieties you can find at garden stores. I am talking about wild growing Echinacea species, and its dwindling native habitat.
This misuse, or overuse, is coupled by a Western misunderstanding that when one has a cold that they should take echinacea to “stimulate the immune system,” when in fact their immune system is already stimulated. This is not the approach herbalists would take to supporting the body through cold and flu season. In fact, I had a professor at university that likened the cold and flu use of echinacea species to “shooting the robber, but keeping his dead body under the stairs.” What this means in an herbalist’s understanding of echinacea is that it is really good at pushing the immune system to trap the virus, but energetically speaking the virus is left “rotting under the stairs."
In addition, echinacea can be an incredibly intense approach to self-care and not necessarily appropriate for everyone suffering from a cold. When you have a cold, your immune system is already stimulated, and rather than stimulate it even more, it should be supported in its work. This is where herbs like American elder (Sambucus canadensis) come in. An abundant, easy-to-grow species, both the flowers and berries are used as a gentle diaphoretic, a term that herbalists use to describe an herb that has the ability to support the body in raising its temperature and inducing a sweat. This is how we heal from cold and flu viruses. Not to mention that the flowers and berries are considered gentle enough for children and the elderly and make for delicious teas and syrups. There are no known herb-drug interactions or contraindications like there are for echinacea. Elderflower and elderberry are considered safe and are even on the FDA GRAS list. I will also add for avid winemakers and beer-brewers out there that elderflower and elderberry are wonderful additions to any must! Elder is also an incredibly easy, fast-growing species, producing flowers and fruit by its second year.
Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata)
This is another wonderful medicinal species that, like echinacea and elder, is native to the United States. Herbalists suggest the use of this herb as a bitter, relaxing tonic, capable of supporting uptight or sluggish digestion that many people experience over the winter months. The bitter taste is not one that is greatly appreciated in the standard American diet, yet it is so critical in encouraging digestive secretions and encouraging the parasympathetic nervous system, or “rest and digest” mode.
Blue vervain makes for a strongly bitter tea or tincture, that can be used before or after meals (or holiday sweets bingeing). Herbalists also consider blue vervain a relaxing nervine, and appropriate for people who suffer from nervous system-related digestive problems, where there is tension and irritability in the gut. It can also be supportive of people who suffer from restlessness, sleeplessness and muscle tension—for people who are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders.