Chia seeds health benefits: a superfood worthy of the name

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

Chia seeds are a star among superfoods

Chia seeds are a star among superfoods

The chia plant (sometimes Mexican chia), Salvia hispanica, is native to Mexico and Guatemala and was one of the staples eaten by ancient Aztecs. It is related to sage, clary sage and Spanish sage.

Chia is an annual plant which reaches a height of around 1m (3′), but is frost tender. However, as it flowers in July and August, the seed crop can easily be harvested before frost strikes. It prefers well drained, light to medium rich soil and a sunny position. Sow under cover in March-April, prick out and pot on as necessary, then plant in their final position in late Spring/early Summer. You can also sow direct, but may not achieve a mature crop if the Summer is poor.

Chia seeds can be different colours, depending on variety, ranging from off white through various shades of brown to black. They are shaped like miniature pinto beans, but only about 1mm in diameter.

Chia is a good plant for attracting bees, and is apparently unpopular with deer, which may be useful in areas close to forests.

Chia seeds are usually mixed with water to make a jelly, and once gelled added to fruit juice. You could also use them to make a pudding. Sprouting the seeds is difficult, due to the gel, but you can use a porous clay base to achieve this with some experimentation. Sprouted seeds can be eaten like other sprouts in salad, sandwiches, and added to breakfast cereal and recipes. A teaspoon of chia seeds mixed into orange juice and allowed to soak for 10 minutes will produce a refreshing drink that will stop you feeling hungry for several hours. You can also grind the seeds and mix with other flours for bread, biscuits and other baked goods. Chia seed is of course gluten free, since it is not a member of the Gramineae/Poaceae family.

Chia seed nutrition tableA well known superfood, chia seeds are rich in essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals (see table). On top of this, 100g chia seed provides 91% of the adult recommended daily intake of fibre. Most amazing is the 17.5g Omega-3 oil and 5.8g Omega-6 oil per 100g, which along with the other nutrients makes it a true star.

The high antioxidant content from vitamins A, C and E plus selenium, ferulic acid, caffeic acid and quercetin helps to protect against heart disease and some types of cancer. The high niacin content (almost twice that of sesame seeds) gives it the property of helping to reduce LDL cholesterol and enhancing GABA activity in the brain, reducing anxiety.

Chia seed has a good level of potassium, very much higher than its sodium content. Potassium helps to counteract the bad effects of sodium in the body and is involved in regulating fluid levels and enhancing muscle strength.

It has to be said that chia is probably one of the better candidates for the label “superfood”.

A chia leaf infusion made with just a few chopped leaves to a cup of boiling water is used to provide pain relief for arthritis, sore throat and mouth ulcers, for respiratory problems, to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It is also helpful for relieving hot flushes during the menopause. Chia seed can be chewed to help relieve flatulence (“gas” or “wind“).

I offer a wide range of chia seed and products in my online store.

If you decide to grow your own chia seed, please remember that for safety’s sake it’s best to use organic methods, to avoid high concentrations of nasty chemicals ending up in your stomach. To find out more about organic gardening visit the Gardenzone.


Thyme health benefits: a truly multi-purpose herb

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

Common or garden thyme in flower

Common or garden thyme in flower

(A video containing the main points outlined here is available here)

The thyme I am talking about here is Thymus vulgaris, the common or garden thyme. It’s a low growing, fairly tough plant that likes a sunny situation. It comes in the standard green leafed and also in variegated forms, which some people consider to be more attractive, but the important thyme oil (which is the source of all thyme’s goodness) is found in both.

Thyme is closely related to lemon thyme, but not to basil thyme.

Remember that if you want to use thyme medicinally it’s important that it is grown organically so that its properties are not masked and you don’t end up ingesting toxic ingredients (such as pesticides), by accident. Sow seed in Spring or divide existing stock in Spring. Plants will layer if mulched in Fall. Cut back in June for a second crop. Pick leaves as required for culinary use, with the main harvest in early June and late August.

Like most herbs, once it is established, it doesn’t like to be moved, although you will probably get away with it if you are moving it to a new position it likes. You will have to water it regularly in dry spells until it starts to put on new growth, showing that the roots have got over the shock of the move. Unless your area suffers from extremely cold winters, it should be perfectly happy to let you pick a few sprigs all year round, although if you want to get the highest concentration of oil, you should harvest as much as you can just before the flowers open.

Thyme is one of those herbs that begs to be touched. Get down close to it and crush a few leaves to savor its rich meaty fragrance. It’s easy to see why it makes such a good herb for meat dishes, particularly beef. You can even use it instead of oregano or marjoram in Italian food, if you like. The fresh herb is so rich, you may prefer to dry it by hanging it up in bunches somewhere with a good air flow and not too humid for culinary use, after which you should strip the leaves off the branches and store them in an airtight jar.

Fresh or dried thyme makes an unusual and tasty tea – use about 1 teaspoon of fresh leaves, or half as much of the dried ones per cup. Make it in a pot and allow the herb to steep in the boiling water for 5-10 minutes before straining it into a cup. You can add a little honey to sweeten it, if you like. Herbal teas are generally not served with milk. (If you are pregnant, please see note below).

Medicinal uses for Thyme

Thyme is an excellent herbal medicine for digestive and respiratory disorders, it’s an anti-fungal, is useful for treating infections (both viral and bacterial), is antiseptic, expectorant, and can be used as a general tonic.

Before you read further it’s important for you to know that thyme should not be used in large amounts, for example for tea or as a herbal remedy, during pregnancy. A little bit used in cooking will do no harm, but for medicinal purposes, you will be using rather more than a pinch.

To make a standard infusion, put 3-4 teaspoonfuls of fresh leaves or 1-2 teaspoonfuls of dried into a pot and add 250ml (1 US cup, 8 fl oz) of boiling water. Leave to stand for 5-10 minutes and strain into a cup. The infusion does not have to be drunk all in one go, but can be sipped slowly over an hour or so. It can be used hot or cold (probably cold would be best for gargling or as a mouthwash, and hot would be helpful for coughs and catarrh).

Taken internally the standard infusion is very helpful for respiratory complaints, specifically for asthma, catarrh, bronchitis and other coughs, and laryingitis. It may also be used as a gargle for sore throats, tonsillitis, etc and as a mouthwash for bad breath and/or gum disease (gingivitis).

The same infusion is also helpful in cases of indigestion, diarrhea and gastritis, and is good for chills, as it has a warming effect. It can also be used externally as a wash for fungal infections, and can be used to make a warm compress for sore throats and tonsillitis. A compress is a clean cloth which is soaked in the infusion and then applied to the area. For a warm compress, the infusion should cool a little before use.

A steam inhalation is helpful in cases of tonsillitis, catarrh and general infections, also to help relieve muscle fatigue for ME sufferers. You can either use a few drops of the essential oil (bought in) or a good handful of fresh herb. Put the oil or crushed herb into a big flat bowl of boiling water and lean over it, covering both your head and the bowl with a towel to help keep the steam in. Another way is to have a hot steamy bath with the oil or herbs added to the water. In this case, put the herbs inside a muslin bag or similar, so that you don’t get covered in little bits of it.

Thymol, the pink mouthwash used by dentists, was originally made from thyme. To make a mouthwash for general use, make a half-strength infusion (2 tsp fresh leaves or 1 tsp dried to 250ml (1 US cup, 8 fl oz) of boiling water), leave to stand for 15-20 minutes, strain and use cold – the whole cupful, one mouthful at a time.

To make a poultice using fresh herbs, you just process them in a food processor to make a pulp. For dried herbs, you need to add hot water and process to a similar state. Wrap the herbs in a piece of gauze and apply to the area. Ideally, this should be as hot as you can bear, so if you’re using fresh herbs, dip the poultice in a bowl of hot water before applying. You can keep refreshing it with the hot water and re-applying it to the area being treated when it cools down too much.

Aromatherapy

For those with children at school, a bottle of dilute thyme oil (add a few drops to a bottle of sweet almond oil) in the cupboard can be used to deter headlice (cooties) – just comb a few drops of the mixture through the hair night and morning. An attack of ringworm (tinea) can be treated with thyme cream applied 3-4 times a day to the affected area. Thyme essential oil is very strong and should not be used apart from the two purposes outlined in this post except by a professional aromatherapist.

I offer various thyme products including essential oil in my online shop.

Like all plants grown for medicinal use, thyme should be grown organically to avoid nasty chemicals ending up in your remedies. Visit the Gardenzone for more information about growing organic thyme.


Cloves health benefits: for toothache, bad breath and morning sickness

Even after years stored in an airtight container, cloves still work on toothache!

Even after years stored in an airtight container, cloves still work on toothache!

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

Cloves, from the clove tree Syzygium aromaticum (syn. Caryophyllus aromaticus, Eugenia aromitica, E. caryophyllata and E. caryophyllus), don’t really have any other names in English. They are the dried flower buds of an evergreen tropical tree which reaches a height of up to 12 metres, and is not really suitable for growing in any garden, even in the tropics, unless it is particularly large. However, they are easy to find in food stores in the spice section.

People who suffer from dermatitis of the hands should avoid prolonged or frequent handling without gloves.

To make a standard infusion use 2 tsp whole cloves or 1-1½ teaspoons (3-5g) powdered cloves to 250ml (1 US cup, 8 fl oz) boiling water, allow to stand for 10 minutes, strain off whole cloves and drink (if used hot) or allow to cool before use. Take 1 cup up to 3 times a day.

Research has shown that cloves have antimicrobial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antispasmodic properties. They can be used both internally and externally.

Internal use

In Ayurvedic medicine they are used extensively under the name Lavanga to improve appetite, promote digestion, and as a treatment for hyperacidity (in particular using a preparation called Avipattikara curna), flatulence (“gas” or “wind“), nausea, vomiting and as a mild anti-colic and anti-diarrheal remedy. An infusion is used to relieve indigestion. Another first aid remedy recommended for acidity is to suck a clove. A cold infusion is used to control nausea and vomiting, including morning sickness during pregnancy, where it’s often mixed with pomegranate juice. Another recommended recipe is a mixture of ground cloves with honey to be licked when nausea strikes.

Cloves are frequently used in Ayurveda to alleviate coughs and colds. An infusion mixed with honey taken 3 times a day is often used for this or a preparation called Lavangadi vati also mixed with honey. The infusion is even used to treat tuberculosis, where it is said to have the dual benefit of treating both cough and lack of appetite. Clove lozenges are used for sore throats and colds.

External use

Cloves are probably best known in the West for their use in treating toothache, either in the form of clove oil or toothache tincture (which is often based on clove oil, but rather less strong). This is usually applied direct to the site of the pain on a cotton bud as necessary, but will only work for a short time before further applications will cease to be effective. A quick first aid method is to put a clove on the area and suck or gently chew it, where other options are not to hand. You can also use a cold infusion as a mouthwash to relieve mild toothache. However, none of these is a permanent cure, and a trip to the dentist will definitely be necessary in the short term.

Chewing a clove or using an infusion as a mouthwash and gargle is effective in the treatment of bad breath (halitosis). A paste made by mixing ground cloves with milk or honey can be used as a local painkiller. Used on the forehead it can alleviate headache. The honey paste can also be used to treat skin diseases, including acne.

A cold infusion can be dabbed on a sty (hordeolum or stye) both to treat the infection and to relieve the pain.

I offer dried cloves in my online shop.

Although this is a large tree which few people will be growing in their garden, if you do grow it for medicinal use, it’s important to avoid using chemicals of any kind, but to follow organic methods of cultivation. This is to avoid the transfer of noxious chemicals into your remedies. For information on growing organic herbs, visit the Gardenzone.

Aromatherapy

Clove bud essential oil is used in aromatherapy, but apart from use as a toothache tincture is best reserved for professionals.

As with all essential oils, clove essential oil should never be taken internally, even though you may see this recommended elsewhere. Essential oils are highly concentrated and can cause permanent damage if used in this way, even if you think you have diluted them. Be safe and use them as intended, in massage blends and diffusers, and keep them out of the reach of children at all times.

Cinnamon health benefits: super spice, but not superfood

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

Cinnamon bark is a tasty and healthful spice

Cinnamon bark is a tasty and healthful spice

Cinnamon, the inner bark of the Cinnamomum verum tree (syn. Cinnamomum zeylanicum and Laurus cinnamomum), is a spice used for many centuries throughout the world – originally only by royalty, due to the price. The origin was kept secret from the West until the early sixteenth century, when Portuguese traders landed in Sri Lanka.

Although cinnamon trees are grown commercially in many parts of the East, even as recently as 2006 90% of the production of cinnamon was carried out in Sri Lanka.

Left to right: cassia, cinnamon: low quality, regular, best quality

Left to right: cassia, cinnamon: low quality, regular, best quality

Obviously, unless you are lucky enough to live in one of the areas with a similar climate, you won’t be growing your own cinnamon tree. But you can still use it by purchasing good quality cinnamon, which is easy to tell from the inferior cassia if you buy it in “quills” rather than ground (see picture left). It keeps better like this as well.

If you do live in a cinnamon-producing area, you are still probably better off purchasing rather than growing your own, which involves coppicing cinnamon trees, removing the bark from the resulting branches, immediately discarding the outer bark and drying the inner, which rolls up as it dries to form the characteristic quills.

Edit: I just came across this YouTube video on Reddit, which seems to demonstrate beyond any doubt that cinnamon works as an effective ant-repellent.

Don’t believe propaganda that says a teaspoon of cinnamon contains as many antioxidants as a half cup of blueberries or a whole cup of pomegranate juice. This seemed extremely unlikely to me, so I researched the actual nutrient content of each. I’m afraid that you still have to eat those blueberries or drink that pomegranate juice. Cinnamon does contain quite a lot of nutrients, for sure, in particular manganese, calcium and iron, but a teaspoonful a day is not going to fulfil your antioxidant requirements, or go anywhere near doing that, sorry.

Having shot that fox, there is strong research evidence that cinnamon is very helpful to people suffering from diabetes – as little as a half teaspoonful a day lowers blood sugar levels, as well as cholesterol and triglyceride in Type 2 diabetics not taking insulin. Other studies show the same quantity can lower LDL cholesterol in the general population.

Cancer patients would also do well to supplement with cinnamon: studies have shown that it is active against colorectal cancer, melanoma, leukemia and lymphoma. In my view, it’s worth supplementing with cinnamon whatever type of cancer you may have, given the broad spread represented by the ones researched so far.

Copenhagen researchers gave arthritis patients a half teaspoon of cinnamon powder mixed with a tablespoon of honey for breakfast every day, and within a week, their pain was significantly reduced – after a month they could walk without pain.

It’s also prescribed in Germany for appetite loss and indigestion.

Other conditions which are helped by cinnamon include COPD, poor circulation in hands and feet, all kinds of digestive disorders including infantile diarrhea, high blood pressure, muscle cramps, athlete’s foot and medication-resistant yeast infections.

For athlete’s foot and other external fungal infections you can use a wash – make a standard infusion using a half teaspoon of freshly ground cinnamon to 250ml (1 US cup, 8 fl oz) of boiling water, allow to cool before use. For other purposes, you can add a half teaspoon of cinnamon to honey (like the Danish study did), or you could just chew the powder and swallow it (as Chinese herbalists often recommend), or make a standard infusion and drink it (hot or cold). Another method would be to obtain empty capsules from a herbal supplier and fill each one with a quarter or half teaspoon of cinnamon so that you can take one or two in the morning or at night along with your regular supplementation. There are also ready made cinnamon capsules available, see below.

I offer powdered cinnamon, cinnamon bark and cinnamon bark 350mg capsules in my online shop.

Aromatherapy

There are two types of cinnamon essential oil: bark oil, which is toxic and should not be used for aromatherapy under any circumstances, and leaf oil which can be used diluted with carrier oil for skin infections and as a stimulant to increase blood flow and sexual appetite. Do a patch test before using on the skin and use in moderation. It can also be used neat (wear gloves) to kill mosquitoes and their larvae, and in an oil burner as a room freshener and mosquito repellent. Even the leaf oil is irritant and should be avoided during pregnancy. Never use internally, even in cooking.

As with all essential oils, cinnamon essential oil should never be taken internally, even though you may see this recommended elsewhere. Essential oils are highly concentrated and can cause permanent damage if used in this way, even if you think you have diluted them. Be safe and use them as intended, in massage blends and diffusers, and keep them out of the reach of children at all times.

Star Anise health benefits: for digestive problems and cold-related conditions

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

Chinese star anise is an ingredient of Five Spice powder

Chinese star anise is an ingredient of Five Spice powder

Star anise, Illicium verum, should properly be called Chinese star anise. It’s important to distinguish it from Japanese star anise, Illicium anisatum, which is highly toxic. However, it is so difficult to achieve this that it is best not to rely on a seed merchant or nursery (who may be selling it is an ornamental, where toxicity is fairly irrelevant), but instead to source supplies from a Chinese herbalist (where it may be known as ba jiao hui xiang), who presumably can be relied on to know the difference.

Star anise is not related to the common anise, Anisum vulgare.

Star anise is so called because the fruit is star shaped. (The seeds are held individually in the “points”, so if you would really like to grow your own star anise, you can use seeds obtained as already suggested.) Chinese star anise fruits are larger and paler in color than the Japanese, and have a more marked aniseed fragrance; it is said that the Japanese star anise smells less like aniseed and more like a cardamom.

If you do wish to grow it, sow seeds in spring under cover and pot on, growing on in the greenhouse until at least the following year. Plant out into the most sheltered spot you can find, as it cannot take temperatures lower than about -5ºC (23ºF). Alternatively you could try growing it in a container, which can be moved under cover when the weather is too cold. It is a small tree, but many trees grow happily in containers.

Star anise is often used in Chinese, Vietnamese and Malay cooking, and is an ingredient of Five Spice powder. Unripe fruit is also chewed after meals, to sweeten the breath. However, if you do this, take some care, as large quantities can lead to trembling and convulsions. So long as dosage is kept to normal levels, it can be safely given to children, and is often included in cough remedies targeted to them, because of its pleasant taste.

The part used in herbal medicine is the dried ripe fruit, usually powdered. An essential oil is also extracted from the ripe fruit for use in aromatherapy, while the seed is used for homeopathy. This is easily obtained from Chinese herbalists or Chinese/Malay/Vietnamese grocers. Do not buy from a Japanese store, as they sell the poisonous Japanese star anise to be burnt as incense.

Make a standard infusion using 1 tsp crushed star anise to 250ml (1 US cup, 8 fl oz) boiling water, leaving to stand for at least 10 minutes before straining off the herb and discarding. The dosage is 250-500ml (1-2 US cups, 8-16 fl oz) per day.

Star anise is antibacterial and is used to promote appetite, to treat abdominal pain, digestive disturbances including colic, complaints caused by cold weather such as lumbago, and to relieve flatulence (“gas” or “wind“).

As with all plants grown for use in herbal medicine, avoid chemicals in cultivation, including weed killers, to ensure that the active constituents are not corrupted or masked by the presencfe of foreign chemicals. To find out more about growing organic herbs visit the Gardenzone.

Aromatherapy

Star anise essential oil is mainly used for aches and pains, respiratory and digestive complaints. Use in moderation only; overuse may have cerebral effects. Do not drive or operate machinery when using this essential oil. It is not suitable for use during pregnancy or by cancer patients.

As with all essential oils, star anise essential oil should never be taken internally, even though you may see this recommended elsewhere. Essential oils are highly concentrated and can cause permanent damage if used in this way, even if you think you have diluted them. Be safe and use them as intended, in massage blends and diffusers, and keep them out of the reach of children at all times.

Tea health benefits: for auto-immune conditions, the heart and tooth decay

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

Tea is helpful for anyone suffering from an autoimmune condition

Tea is helpful for anyone suffering from an autoimmune condition

Tea, which grows as a bush and is cultivated in many parts of the East, is familiar to everyone. The tea plant is sometimes called Assam tea, black tea, China tea and green tea, though these names are usually reserved for the various beverages made from the leaves (which also include sencha, matcha, oolong tea, white tea and pu-erh tea), and often to the processes used in production. The latin name is Camellia sinensis (syn. Camellia bohea, C. thea, C. theifera and Thea sinensis). It is not related to the tea tree.

The tea bush is an evergreen shrub, reaching a height of 13 feet (4m) and spreading over 8 feet wide. However, as it is only the tips which are used, it is usually kept trimmed to a more manageable size.

In common with other Camellias it will not grow in alkaline soil and is virtually allergic to lime and chalk, to such an extent that care must be taken when sourcing water to be used for it. It prefers a semi-shady position on well drained moist soil. It is not very hardy, surviving at temperatures as low as -20ºC (-4ºF) – zone 8 – in its native area, but only down to around -10ºC (-4ºF) elsewhere.

The parts used are the very young leaves and leaf buds of bushes over 3 years old, which can be harvested throughout the growing season and dried for later use. This is called green tea. You can also use good quality commercial green tea, which is readily available.

Green tea is different from other kinds of tea on the market, because the leaves are not fermented during processing. This makes green tea the most natural type of tea, and it is also the one which contains the highest levels of antioxidants (polyphenols) and other constituents.

To make tea using loose leaves, allow 1 teaspoon per person plus “one for the pot” in a pre-warmed teapot. Cover with boiling water and leave to stand for several minutes before use. Many people add milk and sugar, or a slice of lemon to black tea, but green tea is usually served without milk. Do not use artificial sweeteners as these contain noxious chemicals.

Tea is one of the 50 fundamental herbs in Chinese herbalism. Studies have shown that regular tea drinking protects against heart disease and also tooth decay! Use internally to treat diarrhea, amebic and bacterial dysentery, hepatitis and gastro-enteritis, as a diuretic, stimulant and heart tonic. You can use the leaves or teabags as a poultice to treat cuts, burns, bruises, insect bites, swellings, tired eyes etc. Cold tea can be used as a wash for the same purposes and for sunburn.

There have been many studies into the properties of green tea, and these indicate that green tea is effective against auto-immune conditions including ALS (Lou Gehrig`s disease), cancer and heart disease. Anybody suffering from an auto-immune condition (which includes many chronic diseases such as diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as more serious problems) would probably find that drinking 2-4 cups of green tea a day will help. It certainly can’t hurt!

I offer many types of tea, including supplements in my online shop.

If you wish to grow it yourself for herbal use do ensure that you follow organic methods to avoid the corruption of its intrinsic components by foreign chemicals. To find out more about growing organic herbs visit the Gardenzone.