Tuesday 20 January 2015

Valerian, a herb with more questions than answers?

One of the first herbs I came across being used medicinally was valerian.

“I take it when I can’t sleep,” my friend told me, producing a plastic box filled with large white tablets. “They smell disgusting but they work.”

It was several years before I decided to grow the plant. It was a delightful companion, growing happily in the shade, reproducing itself without any help or support and providing tall, white flowers tinged with pink every summer. I gave away at least twenty plants to replenish a friend’s medicinal garden. I harvested some roots and made a dried root tincture. It’s still sitting in my larder as I’ve never used it.

It was resilient as well. The year of my largest potential harvest, my next door neighbour dug up all my plants when he replaced the fence between our two gardens. He’s asked me if there was anything in the border I wanted to keep. I hadn’t realised he would dig quite so far up so only mentioned the rose and a fern. I remember coming home from work that night and discovering the decimation. I cried for an hour wondering what I had done to deserve such a loss when the lesson was that I needed to be more specific.

The following spring I noticed the valerian re-appear and since then it has happily recolonized its original position. The flowers scent the entire garden for more than a month, attracting bees and other insects to gather nectar from its tiny floral trumpets.

Valeriana officinalis grows wild in Europe, Asia and North America. Its roots and rhizomes have been gathered for medicinal use for centuries. It is said that cats and rats love the scent of the root and the Pied Piper of Hamelin used it to lure the rodents from the town.

The constituents of valerian are volatile oils, valepotriates, valerianic acid, glycosides, alkaloids, choline, tannins and resins. It has many actions, including anxiolytic, sedative, hypnotic, anodyne, anthelmintic, antibacterial, antispasmodic, astringent, bitter, carminative, diaphoretic, diuretic, hypotensive, nervine, restorative, stomatic and tonic. With such a long list of actions it is no wonder valerian has been a staple of herbalists over time.

Within the digestive system, valerian acts as an antispasmodic and sedative,. It relaxes tension and spasm in stress related issues such as dyspepsia, intestinal colic and irritable bowel syndrome. It is also helpful with circulatory problems as it helps to lower blood pressure but also increases blood flow to the heart. It can also calm nervous palpitations.

Valerian is most well-known for its mental and emotional properties, especially as a sedative and nerve tonic. Anne MacIntyre says it is the valepotriates which are mainly responsible for the calming effects. She says it is excellent for anxiety, nervous tension, agitation, panic attacks, irritability, insomnia, nervous headaches and exhaustion.

In World War I it was used to treat shell shock and nerve strain caused by air raids. Agatha Christie mentioned it in “Murder on the Orient Express” when the victim was given his nightly dose of valerian before being stabbed.

Valerian relaxes smooth muscles, hence its use in stress related digestive disorders, colic, period pain and headaches. It can also be helpful as an antispasmodic for paroxysmal coughs and croup.

Valerian can also help in the treatment of addiction, chronic aggression and Attention Deficit Disorder.

Annie cautions that valerian should not be used for long periods. She says that excessive doses may cause headaches, muscle spasm, insomnia or palpitations – the very effects for which some people may be taking it! Henriette Kress adds that if you take valerian for more than a few days at a time you may well find yourself becoming over-emotional e.g. bursting into tears for no reason.

What the text books don’t say, although some herbalists are beginning to mention it in passing is that people react in different ways to valerian. Most people find it sedates them but there is a significant number for whom the herb acts as a stimulant. When I mention this during workshops there is always at least one person who has either had personal experience of valerian keeping them awake all night or knows a good friend which has reacted in the same way.

There have been no written studies performed on valerian as yet that I know of. 7Song 7Song, the Ithacan herbalist, has said this is something he wants to consider at some point. He estimates in his practice, one in twelve people taking valerian find it stimulating, which is approximately eight per cent – quite a significant proportion!

Some herbalists believe the effects of valerian can be predicted given someone’s particular constitution but it is still a case of trial and error knowing how it will affect you personally. When my herbalist friend suggested valerian might be a useful ally for me during a particularly stressful phase in my life, she told me to try it during a weekend when I had nothing else to do. I’ve never found such a weekend so have never tried it!

There does seem to be a difference in how you make your valerian extract. Dried root tincture will be different from fresh root tincture. If you are using a concentrated alcohol to extract constituents the dosage should be in drops rather than teaspoonfuls.

Henriette Kress recommends making a tincture or tea from fresh or dried aerial parts which will be a much weaker medicine and might therefore be tolerated better than the stronger root extract. Other herbalists have been taught to do a cold water overnight maceration of the dried root as the volatile oils are destroyed by boiling. Their dose is ½ to 1 tsp of this liquid.

Debs Cook, who is one of those who finds valerian too stimulating, has noticed people who are sedated by valerian loathe the flower scent, describing it as smelling like “cat’s piss”. Interestingly, people who adore the scent of valerian are those who find it stimulating.

Valerian is an extremely useful herb for many different conditions but it must be treated with caution until you know how it will affect you. Anyone taking an ‘over the counter’ sleep remedy should read the label carefully. Valerian is often one of the ingredients, along with wild lettuce, passionflower and hops. You don’t want to be crawling the walls instead of experiencing a good night’s sleep!

Tuesday 13 January 2015

Resources for UK herbal beginners: Books and Websites

I am often asked, “Which herb books would you recommend?”  

To help answer the question, several years ago I posted a list of suggested reading for people new to herbs based on my own fairly extensive library.  Since then a number of books aimed at herbal newcomers and some more specialist books have been published so I thought it was time to update my list and share the results.

Before I start suggesting titles, I do have some thoughts you may wish to consider before you go parting with hard earned money or putting in inter-library loan requests.

Firstly, it’s as well to do some research about the author before you decide to follow their teaching. They may be experienced, have the most wonderful writing style which really harmonises with your way of thinking and be lauded by everyone you have ever heard from but if they don’t live in the same country or continent you may find their favourite herbs are not ones you have easy access to. Their climatic conditions and local challenges may not be yours. 

If you limit yourself to their writing you may learn a whole load of skills and competencies but never have a chance to use them which can lead to frustration.

Their access to mainstream healthcare services may be very different from yours. They may have an insurance based health service rather than one free at the point of use. They may be offering a herbal service to communities who have no other access to healthcare in a “rich country” or in a “poor country” with a long cultural history of using plants for medicines.

 They may have a culture of using suppositories as their main method of delivery of pharmaceuticals whereas you have never had experience of doing this to another person and may not feel comfortable suggesting to your nearest and dearest they really should let you treat them in this way.

They may live in a country where it is illegal to sell alcoholic extractions unless you are a qualified pharmacist or illegal to buy them unless you have a herbal qualification. This may leave you wondering if you should or can use alcohol in your herbal journey when the rest of the world seems to prefer this medium above anything else.

They may have decided to augment their herbal training by learning an “Eastern” energetic approach as opposed to Western. This is usually either Ayurvedic (from the Indian subcontinent) or Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) or could be South American or Tibetan. You then have to decide whether you will follow your teacher’s energetic leanings or learn a different energetic approach based on your own location.

You also have to ask yourself what you want to learn from their books. Do you want something which teaches you about recognising plants in their growing space? Do you want to know about the medicinal uses of plants and how to prepare them? Do you want to be inspired by a herbalist’s story? Do you want to know about treating a particular sex or age group? Do you want something to recommend to someone else who is afraid of herbs?

No one book will give you everything. Reading many books will not necessarily make you a skilled and competent herbwife or herbalist. You have to work with the plants themselves to achieve that. Books are wonderful resources and there are now amazing websites available written by herbalists who want to share their knowledge and enthusiasm with the world.

Read everything you can but make sure you augment this knowledge with personal discussions both locally and online so you can practice what has inspired you until you feel comfortable to start sharing your knowledge with others.

Books for complete beginners
You cannot go wrong with these books. They are all simple, straightforward, good illustrations, easy to read and the recipes/formulae work.

Bruton-Seal, J & Seal, M Hedgerow Medicine: Harvest & make your own herbal remedies 2008 Merlin Unwin Books Ltd ISBN 978 1 873674 99 4
Bruton-Seal, J & Seal, M Kitchen Medicine: Household Remedies for Common Ailments and Domestic Emergencies 2010 Merlin Unwin Books Ltd ISBN 978 1 906122188
Julie is an experienced UK medical herbalist who practices in East Anglia. These two books are relatively new, with stunning pictures taken by Matthew and easy to follow recipes.

Hoffman, D The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal 1996 Element Books
ISBN 1 85230 847 8
David is American but trained in the UK. This was the first herb tutor I ever bought. It’s very safe, gives practical information which is easy to follow and replicate. All his books contain basically the same information so you can swap one for another. I still refer to it if I’m wondering how to treat a new condition.

Kress, H Practical Herbs 2011 Tamerprint Oly ISBN 9789526757506 
Kress, H Practical Herbs 2 2013 Tamerprint Oly ISBN 9789526802503
Henriette is an experienced Finnish herbalist who trained in the US with Michael Moore. Her books are sensible, straightforward and ideal for the herbal beginner. They are available as a downloadable .pdf as well as paperback.

McIntyre, A The Complete Herbal Tutor 2010 Gaia Books Ltd ISBN 9781856753180 Anne is one of our UK Herbal Elders. All her books are easy to read with a plethora of interesting and useful information. This book has beautiful illustrations, comprehensive materia medica and she references all the attributes of each plant which has lead me to new books and authors.

Ody, P The Complete Medicinal Herbal 1993 Dorling Kindersley ISBN 0 7513 0025 X The second herb tutorial I bought. Again, all Penelope’s books are very safe and practical. This one has interesting case studies to illustrate uses and a table of doses for children at various weights and ages which I found useful.

Shaw, N Bach Flower Remedies : A Step-by-Step Guide 1998 Element Books ISBN 1 86204 106 7
Shaw, N Herbal Medicine : A Step-by-Step-Guide 1998 Element Books ISBN 1 86204 196 2
Shaw, N Herbalism: An Illustrated Guide 1998 Element Books ISBN 1-86204-224-1
Shaw, N & Hedley, C Herbal Remedies 1996 Parragon Books Services Ltd ISBN 1-84164-0549
Chris Hedley and Non Shaw are husband and wife who have practiced herbal medicine since the 1960s in London. They have been teaching and sharing their herbal knowledge for many years and are beloved by the international herbal community. Their books are easily accessible and full of delightful surprises, being far more comprehensive than the layout suggests. I just wish they would write many, many more!

Wardwell, J The Herbal Home Remedy Book 1998 Versa Press ISBN-13 978 1 58017 016 1
Joyce’s book is the only American book which I’ve included in the complete beginner section because it’s very good and gives you confidence to go and make your own remedies. The only drawback is that she uses some trees which are not local in the UK.

Useful Herbal websites
There is a plethora of herbal information available on the internet. Many websites are attached to commercial outlets and unless you know the author of the information I would suggest you verify it using another source before you believe it.

The websites I am recommending here are all written by people I either know personally or have proved to me they actually know what they’re talking about.

A wonderful, online resource put together by professional UK herbalists who are trying to keep the tradition of folk medicine alive.

Henriette Kress’ website is full of good, solid herbal information and wonderful photos. You can also join her email discussion list for herbal medicine and browse the archives.

Jim is a herbalist in Michegan who teaches all over the US. His website is full of interesting herbal information and links to useful articles written by others.

Kiva Rose Hardin is an American herbalist living in New Mexico. She is an advocate of bioregionalism and folk roots herbalism. Her articles are lively, interesting and enthusiastic.

Susun Weed is an American herbal icon with a wealth of experience, knowledge and information. Don’t be put off by her written or verbal mannerisms.

Rosalee de la Foret is an American herbalist who provides interesting articles on herbs and works with John Gallagher of Learning Herbs.

Ali English is a trained medical herbalist living and practicing in Lincolnshire.

Lucinda Warner practices herbal medicine in the south of England.

This blog is written by Debs Cook, who used to manage the UK Herb Society website. She and I have been herbal friends for many years and her knowledge of herbs is sound. She also writes her own blog, Herbal Haven