Being a Medical Herbalist, people often ask me what my top five herbs are. This is pretty easy for me to answer - and I have included them below along with another five that are useful to have in your kitchen.
With Spring on the way, and the fact we're coming out of a pandemic, now is a great time to start resetting your health, using anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial herbs and spices to fight off bad bacteria and help your body eliminate toxins.
Most spices can be bought from supermarkets or your local Indian or Afro-Caribbean grocer. For the herbs, you might consider planting some seeds now so that you have a rich supply of them come Summer. You can also buy herbs such as chamomile as teas in most supermarkets and health food shops.
Of course, the best place to get your herbs is from a Herbalist! I source my herbs from local, organic suppliers so get in touch if you'd like to order any.
There is so much evidence to support the use of turmeric as an anti-inflammatory. Turmeric contains amongst other things, a compound called curcumin which is known to exert its therapeutic effect. However, supplements that contain extracted curcumin are less effective than using the whole plant. This is because plants contain hundreds of other compounds that act synergistically, often preventing them from causing any damage to the body.
Use the fresh root in juices (if you have access to this). Otherwise, use the powder in cooking or add a twist of black pepper and mix one teaspoon with almond milk to create 'golden milk'. This is a traditional Ayurvedic recipe used to cure many ailments. Turmeric needs to be taken with fat - so with milk, yoghurt or ghee. Use turmeric daily for swelling, pain or stiffness in the joints, to improve gut health and as a pain reliever in place of NSAIDs (non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).
There is good evidence to support the use of turmeric in treating H. pylori infection and for lowering blood glucose levels in type 2 Diabetes. Turmeric has also shown anti-cancer effects and can be used safely as an adjunct to enhance the effects of chemotherapy.
The humble garlic bulb has been used for centuries as a broad-spectrum antibiotic. Garlic has been shown to lower cholesterol and inflammation in the body. Garlic will help to eliminate H. pylori and heal gastric ulcers. In a 2012 study, the consumption of aged garlic was shown to reduce high blood pressure, and in another study when combined with B vitamins, folic acid and L-arginine, supplementation with aged garlic delayed the progression of atherosclerosis.
How much to take? Incorporating one bulb of garlic in your food each day is enough to prevent infections and fight off bad bacteria. It might seem like a lot, but you need a substantial amount if you are using it as medicine. Garlic can also be applied externally to help heal wounds and fungal infections including ringworm. You can make a simple garlic oil at home by scoring a handful of fresh cloves of garlic and placing them in a light oil such as sunflower or vegetable oil. Leave in a sunny windowsill for a week or so, then strain (or leave the garlic in). Apply a small amount to the affected area every day until it clears up.
If you are taking anticoagulant medications it is best to use small amounts of garlic, as garlic also exerts blood-thinning effects.
Many animal and human studies show that chilli increases energy expenditure and fat oxidation, which means it can help to reduce obesity. One of the active compounds in chilli called capsaicin has antibacterial and antiviral effects and the flavonoids exert anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
With over 4,000 varieties of chilli available worldwide, there is an abundance of flavour and different levels of heat to choose from.
Consider adding fresh chilli to your food or make a chilli infused oil by placing fresh chillies in a bottle of olive oil. Leave to infuse for a week on a sunny windowsill. Leave the chillies in to intensify the flavour over time. Drizzle over salads or use in cooking in place of fresh chillies.
One interesting fact about chilli is that the receptors in our body that sense capsaicin are also heat receptors. So when we eat chilli, we activate these receptors that cause the whole body to heat up.
Ginger has long been used as an anti-sickness remedy. In fact, ginger has shown therapeutic effects in reducing nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy. Supplementing with fresh ginger root can help with normalising blood sugar levels in people with type 2 Diabetes and ginger essential oil (diluted in a carrier oil) is an effective remedy for relieving pain in joints associated with osteoarthritis.
Ginger has strong anti-inflammatory and pain relieving effects and is used in Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine in the treatment of primary dysmenorrhoea or premenstrual cramping. Use a thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger root in juices or grate into food. Ginger and lemon slices make for a very pleasant tea - perfect for sipping when feeling cold or at the onset of fevers to help cleanse and detox the body.
5) BLACK PEPPER
Black pepper combines well with turmeric as its active compound piperine increases the bioavailability of turmeric in the body. Black pepper added to food also supports digestion and increases the absorption of nutrients.
If you're into intermittent fasting, adding black pepper to your juice or smoothie will help to suppress your appetite. Black pepper has also shown some promising prebiotic effects in the gut and can thus help to improve overall gut health and function.
When used externally, black pepper essential oil has analgesic properties so can be applied diluted on painful joints to help with pain.
Do not use black pepper essential oil in the first trimester of pregnancy.
As well as making a delicious addition to fruit and yoghurt, cinnamon is excellent for balancing blood sugars. There are many studies to support the use of cinnamon in type 2 Diabetes for improving fasting blood sugars and normalising blood pressure due to its active compound, cinnamaldehyde. Cinnamon can also be added to smoothies and juices to help with weight loss when combined with a nutrient-dense diet and exercise.
Cinnamon can also help to improve insulin resistance in women with polycystic ovaries (PCOS).
Sprinkle some cinnamon over your breakfast granola or stir a level teaspoon into yoghurt with some fruit and nuts for a nutrient-dense, blood-sugar normalising power breakfast!
Please note, eating a cinnamon swirl does NOT count!
You may not think of fennel as being one of the more important herbs to have in your kitchen, but it's actually an excellent herb to have on hand for any issues relating to digestion.
Fennel seeds contain volatile oils, coumarins and flavonoids which all contribute to their digestive effect. Use fennel seeds to stimulate appetite and to soothe irritable bowel disorders. Make a tea using a teaspoon of the seeds gently simmered in a cup of water. This water can be taken after meals as a soothing digestive or can be cooled slightly and given to infants to help with colic. Fennel seeds also have antimicrobial effects so can help in cases of food poisoning and gastroenteritis.
If you have a fennel plant growing in your garden, you can use the leaves the make a fresh infusion. Simply pour boiling water onto 3-4 teaspoons of fresh leaves in a teapot. Allow to infuse for at least 5 minutes with a lid on (to stop those oils from escaping). Drink freely.
Fennel stimulates breast milk production in breastfeeding mothers.
Did you know that thyme is one of the most antimicrobial herbs in the mint family? Thyme has antiseptic properties that make it useful for infections of the throat and respiratory system. Drinking thyme tea when you have a cold will encourage you to sweat while fighting off the bacterial infection. Use as a gargle for sore throats and as a mouthwash for gingivitis.
Thyme can also be used externally to help with wound healing. Make an infusion using a teaspoon of herb to one cup boiling water. Allow to infuse until it goes cold. Soak a gauze in the tea and wrap around the wound with a bandage. Change a few times throughout the day.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a great herb to grow on windowsills in pots as you only need a little bit at a time. Chewing a few thyme leaves is a great way to get rid of bad breath!
We all know that the lovely lemon with its uplifting citrus notes is great for scurvy! But did you know that lemon also has potent anti-inflammatory and antihistamine effects?
Citric acid in lemons is a potent antibacterial agent that can kill a host of different pathogens. Use lemon tea in coughs, colds, influenza and at the onset of fevers.
Taking the juice of a lemon in hot water (with a little honey to sweeten) daily will help to stimulate the detoxification pathways of the liver resulting in better energy levels, clearer skin and weight loss.
When taking lemon juice, be sure that it doesn't touch the enamel of the teeth as it will cause erosion. Use a straw.
And last, but by no means least, is the most underrated herb in the Herbalist's medicine cabinet - Chamomile.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and calming on the digestive and nervous systems. If you've never had a cup of chamomile tea before bed, I strongly recommend that you do this as soon as you can so that you can experience its calming effects firsthand. Chamomile is a fantastic herb to use in states of anxiety or nervous excitability. It's safe for use in pregnancy, breastfeeding and can be given to children to help with hyperactivity.
It also helps with insomnia and premenstrual tension and will soothe the digestive tract in those who have inflammatory bowel disorders.
Get chamomile flowers from your local Medical Herbalist, or source a good quality, organic tea. Infuse 1 teaspoon of the flowers, or 2 teabags in hot water for at least 5 minutes. Drink freely throughout the day. Chamomile is not a sedative so it won't impact your ability to work or drive. It will just coat you in a feeling of peace and calm and is therefore very useful in addiction and withdrawal from substances such as sugar, caffeine and nicotine.
Next time you're feeling stressed or if you've had a bad day, try drinking a cup of chamomile tea and let nature take care of you.