Herbalist Betzy Bancroft offers the following tea for supporting the liver and sparking digestion. Red clover is a nutritive blood cleanser. Nettle is a rich source of vitamins and minerals. Dandelion and lemon are traditional liver herbs. Citrus improves digestion.
2 parts red clover blossoms
2 parts nettle leaf
1 part dandelion root
1 part citrus peel, lemon or orange
Blend herbs and store in a lidded jar. To make tea, pour boiling water over the herbs (1 heaping teaspoon to 2 level teaspoons per 4-oz. cup). Cover and steep 30 minutes to an hour. Drink 3 cups a day.
Most of us don’t yearn to sit in traffic, breathe polluted air, listen to police sirens, witness muggings, work in buildings whose windows don’t open, or live with cockroaches. Those of us who choose to live in cities usually do so to take advantage of their benefits—better jobs, cultural activities, diversity, easy access to stores and restaurants, the thrum of urban excitement.
As city dwellers take the good with the bad, so can they take better care of their health. A few simple—and time-saving—changes can make any routine healthier. Herbs, in particular, offer a cushion against stress and fatigue. They can also boost nutrition, facilitate our bodies’ detoxification process, soothe anxiety, and banish insomnia.
Dealing with environmental chemicals
We live in a chemical world. Cities can be particularly toxic, with industrial pollution, car exhaust, and a high density of plastics and other manufactured materials.
Chemicals absorbed into the body eventually meet the liver, which either destroys them or alters their structure to make them easier to eliminate from the intestines or kidneys. Chronic exposure to air pollution, pharmaceutical drugs, hormones, and chemicals in our foods taxes our livers.
You can support liver function with herbs such as dandelion, burdock, and milk thistle, says Betzy Bancroft, general manager of Herbalist and Alchemist, a Washington, New Jersey, company that makes herbal extracts, and professional member of the American Herbalists Guild.
Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is one of the best-researched herbs for protecting the liver and stimulating regeneration of liver cells after injury. If you have a weakness for alcohol or have been exposed to environmental toxins, you might want to make friends with this herb.
How to take it: For tea, steep 2 teaspoons of dried, powdered seed in 1 cup hot water for ten to fifteen minutes and drink 1 to 3 cups a day. For tincture, take 10 to 25 drops in water up to three times a day. For standardized capsules, take 140 mg of the active ingredient silymarin three times a day for six weeks, then reduce to 90 mg of silymarin three times a day.
Clean up your environment. Aside from supporting clean-air organizations and using public transportation, you can’t do much about the air outside your window. But you can improve the environment of your home or office with these suggestions.
Siberian ginseng stimulates the immune system and improves physical performance.
• Shed your shoes at the doorstep. According to Leo Galland, M.D., director of the Foundation for Integrative Medicine and author of Power Healing and other books, “In homes where people do not routinely remove their shoes, the house dust is loaded with lead and pesticides tracked indoors.”
• Don’t smoke, and don’t let other people smoke in your indoor space. Breathing tobacco smoke increases your risk of viral respiratory infections, recurrent ear infections, allergies, asthma, and lung and other cancers.
• Clear the air. One in three Americans has a chronic respiratory condition such as sinusitis, allergies, asthma, and bronchitis, according to Robert S. Ivker, D.O., author of Sinus Survival: The Holistic Medical Treatment for Allergies, Asthma, Bronchitis, Colds, and Sinusitis (Tarcher/Putnam, 1995). The primary culprit? Air pollution. Because most of us spend 90 percent of our time indoors, Ivker suggests creating healthy indoor air by using an efficient air cleaner, furnace filters, air-duct cleaning, and humidifiers.
• Filter your drinking water. A big benefit here is removing chlorine and chlorinated compounds, which increase the risk of some cancers. Water filtration also removes other environmental chemicals and microbes.
Build and maintain your zip
Adaptogenic herbs can help the body deal with and recover from stress. By balancing various organ systems, they also help us feel more vital and energetic. Here are a few of the premier adaptogens.
Ginseng (Panax ginseng, P. quinquefolius) enhances immune function, adrenal function, physical performance, and mental alertness.
“Ginseng is generally prescribed for conditions characterized by great weakness or conditions that are the result of great stress or strain,” says Efrem Korngold, L.Ac., O.M.D, coauthor of Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine (Ballantine, 1992). Because ginseng can be stimulating, he finds it most appropriate for people over forty, whose “core energies have begun to decline.”
How to take it: For nonstandardized products, the usual dosage is up to four 500 to 600 mg capsules a day. For a product standardized to 5 to 7 percent ginsenosides, take 100 mg one to two times a day. Donald Brown, N.D., author of Herbal Prescriptions for Better Health (Prima, 1996), recommends taking ginseng for two to three weeks, followed by a one- to two-week break, then repeating.
Cautions: Not recommended for pregnant or nursing women or people with high blood pressure. Don’t take it without medical supervision if you’re on blood thinners such as warfarin or have diabetes (as your insulin dosage will need to be adjusted). Discontinue use if ginseng produces ill effects such as elevated blood pressure, hot flashes, insomnia, nervousness, or irritability. Combining ginseng with caffeine and other stimulants increases the risk of overstimulation.
Siberian ginseng, or eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), has been used the past couple millenia as a Chinese medicine for invigorating qi (vital energy) and promoting overall health. It stimulates the immune system, improves physical performance, sharpens mental alertness, and helps us cope with stress.
How to take it: 20 drops of tincture up to three times a day. Up to six 400 to 500 mg capsules a day. If you have high blood pressure, consult your health practitioner before taking Siberian ginseng.
Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) counters stress and fatigue, acts as an antioxidant, appears to protect the liver from toxic exposure, improves work capacity and mental efficiency, tones the nervous system, and relieves mild insomnia. Herbalist Sunny Mavor, founder of Herbs for Kids and coauthor of Kids, Herbs, and Health (Interweave Press, 1999), says the berries of this plant are tasty and safe, even for children.
How to take it: To make tea, boil 2 cups of water, turn to low heat, add 2 heaping teaspoons of dried fruit, simmer covered for ten to fifteen minutes, strain, and drink. Or you can take up to six 500 mg capsules a day or 15 to 25 drops of tincture in water two times a day.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) tones the immune system, supports nerve function, scavenges free radicals, protects the liver, and quells inflammation and allergies.
“Reishi has the unique ability among medicinal mushrooms to calm and support nerve function,” says Christopher Hobbs, L.Ac., author of Medicinal Mushrooms (Botanica Press, 1996) and Stress and Natural Healing (Botanica Press, 1997). In his practice, he recommends reishi to people with chronic stress, anxiety, or insomnia.
How to take it: Reishi is available in capsules, tablets, syrups, and teas. Usual dosages are up to five 420 mg capsules a day; up to three 1 g tablets up to three times a day; up to 2 teaspoons two to three times a day of tincture; or a teaspoon a day of the syrup.
Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera), also called Indian ginseng, has long been used by Ayurvedic practitioners as a rejuvenating tonic. According to John Douillard, D.C., an Ayurvedic physician in Boulder, Colorado, and author of Body, Mind, and Sport (Crown, 1995), this herb fortifies our ability to cope with stress and also improves mental acuity, reaction time, and physical performance. Recent studies also show that it reduces anxiety, bolsters the immune system, has anti-cancer activities, and relieves pain and inflammation.
How to take it: Douillard recommends 500 mg three times a day of the powdered herb in tablets or capsules.
Keeping your nerve
If you live and work in the city, chances are you sometimes feel overwhelmed. If you’re also a parent, this probability approaches near certainty.
Gentle nerve herbs, or those that gently support and calm the nervous system, include oats (Avena sativa), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), linden (Tilia spp.), skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), and St.-John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum). Hobbs would add reishi mushroom to the list. David Hoffmann, medical herbalist and author of An Herbal Guide to Stress Relief (Inner Traditions, 1991), says that herbal nervines are important in times of stress.
“Oats,” he says, “should be part of the diet of anyone under stress. Skullcap should be put in the water supply.”
More strongly sedating herbs would include valerian (Valeriana officinalis), California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), kava (Piper methysticum), passion flower (Passiflora incarnata), and hops (Humulus lupulus). Lower doses ease anxiety and nervousness; higher doses induce sleep. If anxiety becomes a constant in your life, see your health practitioner.
Kava is the best-researched herb for curbing anxiety. Oceanic people have long consumed it as a social or ceremonial beverage. It relaxes muscles, decreases pain, and produces a sense of tranquillity, without intoxication. Studies show it safely and effectively reduces anxiety, without the adverse effects associated with anti-anxiety drugs.
How to take it: Most commercial standardized extracts contain 30 percent kavalactones. To reduce anxiety, the usual dosage is 70 mg of kavalactones two to three times daily. To counter insomnia, take 70 to 210 mg of kavalactones an hour before bed. For a tincture, take 15 to 40 drops in water up to three times a day to reduce anxiety, 1 to 2 droppersful (about 30 drops per dropperful) at bedtime. If you suspect you’re depressed, talk to a qualified health practitioner before taking kava.
Cautions: Not recommended for pregnant or lactating women, nor in combination with alcohol and sedatives, including anti-anxiety drugs. Long-term, heavy consumption of the traditional kava beverage can produce a reversible scaly skin rash. Although this problem usually doesn’t happen with the purified extracts sold in the United States, stop taking kava if you do develop a rash.
For more information on stress, see “Natural stress relief” on page 56.
Greasing the sleep wheels
Big cities never sleep, but the humans who inhabit them must. Any given night, a cacophony of cat fights, human squabbling, and sirens can interfere with sleep—not to mention your own restless thoughts. If you habitually have trouble sleeping, see your health practitioner. Otherwise, you might try some of the herbal sedatives—valerian, California poppy, hops, or passion flower. Just don’t combine them with sleeping pills.
Valerian is the best-researched herb for inducing sleep. Several studies show that extracts of the root both shorten the time needed to fall asleep and improve sleep quality, without side effects. It also has antispasmodic activity, a boon if tight muscles or cramps keep you awake.
How to take it: To counter insomnia, take 20 to 60 drops of tincture a half hour before bed or 300 to 400 mg of an extract standardized to contain at least 0.5 percent of the essential oil about an hour before bed. Hoffmann notes that, in some sensitive people, valerian stimulates rather than sedates. If this happens to you, try another herbal sedative.
Linda B. White, M.D., is the coauthor of Kids, Herbs, and Health (Interweave Press, 1999) and The Herbal Drugstore (Rodale, 2000). No matter where she’s lived—city, country, or suburb—herbs have helped keep her well.