Herbs can help you shed sluggishness and greet the spring with vigor.
Each spring, my uncle and I would hike into the woods beyond his house. Once there, he would plunge a spade into the soft earth and begin to dig. Soon the sharp, sweet smell of root beer would fill the air. We found what we were searching for—sassafras root. Later that day, a delightful aroma of sassafras tea brewing would waft through the house.
This tradition of harvesting tonic, cleansing herbs in the spring was not unique to my family. European immigrants brought it to the New World and quickly adapted it to include American herbs such as sassafras (Sassafras albidum) and sarsaparilla (Smilax spp.). They also collected roots of European herbs such as burdock (Arctium lappa), chicory (Cichorium intybus), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), and yellow dock (Rumex crispus)—all of which literally grew like weeds in North America.
Herbal roots make perfect spring cleansers. They can be dug as soon as the ground thaws, even before the first wild greens emerge. They provide storehouses of nutrients that are designed to give plants the burst of energy they need to re-emerge in the spring. Roots offer similar benefits to our bodies, cleansing and refreshing them so that they operate more effectively.
The concept of cleansing the body in the spring appears in many cultures. It comes from observing the rhythms of nature. As we emerge out of winter into warmer and longer days, we tend to eat and dress lighter, and to be more physically active. Spring is a time of transition, so it offers us the perfect opportunity to make a positive change for better health. Read belwo for more specific cleansing regimes.
Who says that spring tonics need to be boring? In the days before refrigeration, herbal spring cleansers were purposely fermented to preserve them. This turned them into the first “root” beers. In the early 1900s, the healing recipes were converted into “soft” drinks—essentially tonics without the alcohol—and were bottled and sold at soda fountains.
Below is a quick recipe for making your own tonic root beer. (I’ve eliminated the traditional addition of sassafras root bark because large quantities of one of its compounds—safrole—have been shown to be carcinogenic in rats. The jury is still out on whether drinking sassafras tea poses any risk to humans, but until we know for sure, you might as well use herbs known to be safe.)
HONEY ROOT BEER
Makes about 1 quart
You can use either dried or fresh herbs for this non-alcoholic brew; just use them in the same proportions.
2 teaspoons sarsaparilla root
2 teaspoons burdock root
1 teaspoon wintergreen leaves
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon bark, chopped
1/2 teaspoon fresh or dried gingerroot, chopped
3 cups water
1/4 cup honey
2 cups carbonated water
Combine the herbs and water in a large, nonreactive saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain. While the mixture is still warm, stir in the honey. Refrigerate until chilled; add carbonated water just before serving. Drink as much as you like, but at least 1 cup per day.
There’s more to cleansing herbs than drinking herbal tea. When you think of herbs as foods that can be added to soup broth or used as vegetables, a whole new world of cleansing opens up. Although you may not think of foods such as carrots and beets as herbs, there’s no controversy about their health benefits.
Consider, for example, that beets provide iron and carrots are loaded with vitamin A. Celery supports the urinary tract. In the Orient, herbs are often used in soup stock. Burdock root, which the Japanese consider a vegetable, easily lends its sweetish, earthy taste to soup. You can treat it as you would a carrot—it has a similar consistency, especially in cooked dishes, but is less sweet and tender. Slice or grate burdock root thinly and add it to soups, stews, and stir-fries with meat, tofu, or tempeh.
Practitioners of natural healing believe it’s no accident that fresh, young herbal greens arrive in spring, just when we need their healing nutrients most. As with the cleansing roots, the bitter taste of spring greens aids both digestion and liver function. They are also loaded with vitamins and minerals, especially vitamins C and A—two nutrients that help prevent infection and increase natural immunity.
If you can recognize sorrel, dandelion, chickweed, violet, nettles, or watercress growing in the wild (or if you have them in your own garden), pick the leaves, chop them finely, and add them to spring salads and soups. If you don’t have access to wild greens, you can probably still find dandelion greens and salad greens such as arugula in your local natural food store.
There is no mystery about how cleansing herbs do their job. Most improve liver function. Your liver acts as a central screening area through which all the blood in your body flows. It checks the blood for potentially toxic substances that come from environmental pollutants as well as byproducts of the body’s own metabolism, then it effectively neutralizes them so that they can be excreted. No wonder people once called spring cleansing herbs “blood cleansers.” In this chemical age of pesticides, petroleum, paint, solvents, and food additives that increase the liver’s workload, blood cleansing still makes a lot of sense.
Scientific studies show that the roots of burdock, dandelion, and licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) protect the liver from destruction and help it heal when injured. Although the seeds of milk thistle (Silybum marianum) are not a traditional spring tonic, they contain antioxidant flavonoids that are filled with liver-protecting power. Similar flavonoids are found in rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and grape leaves (Vitis vinifera). Other excellent liver herbs are turmeric (Curcuma longa), ginger (Zingiber officinale), and the Chinese herb bupleurum (Bupleurum chinense).
If you can’t dig your own fresh root cleansers, you may be able to find them in dried, chopped form at your local health-food store.
Makes 3 large or 2 small cups
Roasting roots slightly impairs their medicinal properties, so I use raw dandelion root. I do roast the chicory root briefly to improve its taste. It is also sold already roasted in health-food stores.
2 teaspoons chopped, dried chicory root
1 teaspoon dandelion root, dried or fresh
1 teaspoon sarsaparilla root
1/2 teaspoon licorice root
1/2 teaspoon fresh or dried gingerroot, chopped
1 quart water
To roast chicory root, spread it on a cookie sheet and bake it at 325°F for 30 minutes. Combine the herbs and water in a nonreactive saucepan. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 2 minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and steep for about 15 minutes. Strain; drink up to 3 cups, hot or cold, daily. This tea makes a tasty coffee alternative; just add milk or a milk substitute.
For many people, the spring season brings respiratory problems such as colds, allergies, hay fever, and sinus infections. Both the Chinese and Ayurvedic healing traditions use similar strategies for avoiding these maladies: Keep warm, get plenty of exercise, and eat warming herbs such as ginger, and warming foods such as millet, buckwheat, corn, and rye.
Chinese medicine associates springtime with the liver, which it views as responsible for the movement of energy, or chi, throughout the body. It tells us that without a strong and steady chi in the liver, the body becomes susceptible not only to allergies but also headaches, pains, and muscle spasms. Chinese medicine also associates a “sluggish” liver with increasing anger and frustration.
Ayurvedic medicine practitioners identify the season from March through June as “kapha,” a term associated with sluggishness and congestion. They advise enhancing liver and kidney activity by avoiding rich, heavy, salty, and sweet foods. They also recommend avoiding citrus and dairy products because these foods are believed to increase congestion. One Ayurvedic trick is to mix a warming and decongestant herb—again, ginger is a good example—into milk products.
To improve digestion and liver function during the spring, Ayurvedic practitioners recommend foods and herbs that taste bitter, spicy, or astringent. Most North Americans have more of a sweet tooth than an appetite for bitter foods, but bitterness has its advantages. It sends your entire digestive tract into action. Bitter herbs promote the release of digestive fluids into the stomach, pancreas, and small intestine to make sure the food you eat is well digested.
Almost all of the spring cleansing herbs mentioned on these pages pass the bitter test, but the ones most commonly used as bitters include dandelion, chicory, yellow dock, and gentian (Gentiana lutea). Because the secret to digestive success is to taste them, it is best to take your spring bitters as a tea, tincture, or food, rather than as pills or capsules. I like the idea of sitting down, relaxing, and sipping tea, but many people find that tinctures or herbal extracts better fit their fast-paced life.
If you’re going to harvest wild herbs for your spring cleansing regime, here are some rules to follow.
1. Know what you’re getting. Don’t harvest from the wild any herb that you can’t identify with absolute certainty. If you’re among the botanically challenged, find a local herb club or botanical expert to guide you on your wildcrafting trip.
2. Stay away from roadsides and other areas where wild herbs are subjected to fumes from vehicles and may have been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides. Animals frequent wild areas, so wash fresh leaves carefully and, if questionable, cook wild foods.
3. Ask first and harvest gently. Contact park officials or landowners to ask permission to wildcraft. Only harvest wild plants when they are in great abundance and then harvest less than one-tenth of herbs growing above the ground; allow enough leaves remaining for them to survive. When harvesting wild roots, take less than one-twentieth, because taking the root means killing the plant. Leave behind any plants that are seldom seen in the area so they can reproduce. Purchase cultivated herbs instead or ones that were harvested from an area where they’re thriving. The exceptions to this rule are plants such as dandelion, nettles, yellow dock, and sorrel, which are considered invasive; no one’s going to be angry if you remove them.
One of the best forms of cleansing is to get your lymph moving. Lymph is a fluid that flows through your body, literally picking up garbage such as worn-out blood cells and debris resulting from infection. Because the lymph system relies on the action of your muscles to make its journey through the body, a sedentary job or lack of exercise will slow it down.
The three lymph cleansers are herbs, exercise, and massage. Herbs that enhance lymph flow include mullein (Verbascum spp.), cleavers (Galium aparine), prickly ash bark (Zanthoxylum spp.), lemon peel, echinacea (Echinacea spp.), and red root (Ceanothus americanus, also known as New Jersey tea). Take one or more of these as tea, tincture, capsules, or tablets.
Any massage that involves deep strokes, such as Swedish massage, is good for the lymph system. Some body workers specialize in lymphatic massage, which incorporates strokes that move up the arms and legs toward lymph drainage areas in the chest and groin. If you can’t afford a professional massage therapist, learn basic techniques through a class, video, or book on the subject, then trade massages with a friend.
To enhance the benefits of your massage, use an aromatherapy oil instead of a plain massage oil. Essential oils that help move congested lymph are lemon, grapefruit, and bay. (Be sure to use the true bay—Laurus nobilis). If you can’t find bay, use rosemary. Lemon has the advantage of reducing liver congestion, water retention, and weight gain, as well as improving immunity. Plus, aromatherapists find that sniffing lemon’s aroma helps you feel cleansed emotionally and increases well-being.
Essential oils are very concentrated so dilute them, adding no more than 12 drops of essential oil per fluid ounce of a vegetable oil such as olive oil or a massage lotion. I like to use castor oil because it remains on the skin during deep work and improves immune-system activity.
AROMATHERAPY LYMPH MASSAGE OIL
8 drops lemon essential oil
8 drops grapefruit essential oil
6 drops bay or rosemary essential oil
2 fluid ounces vegetable oil (such as olive, almond, or sesame)
Combine all the ingredients and use for lymphatic massage.
HERBAL LYMPH TINCTURE
1 teaspoon mullein leaf tincture
1 teaspoon echinacea root tincture
1/2 teaspoon red clover tincture
1/2 teaspoon prickly ash bark tincture
Combine the tinctures in a dark glass bottle with an eyedropper. Take 30 drops (about 1 dropperful) three to four times a day, throughout the day. Similar herbal preparations designed for lymph cleansing are available in natural food stores.
Looking for a way to make spring cleansing so easy that you’ll have no excuse? You can sprinkle dried, powdered herbs mixed with sesame seeds on soups, salads, stews, stir-fries, dips, and even cereal. A good choice is stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) because they are nutritious and increase blood circulation and iron count. Their cleansing action also helps clear up skin problems. You can harvest your own nettle leaves (wear long pants and long sleeves and gloves, because there’s a reason this species is named “stinging”) or buy them in bulk in natural food stores.
CLEANSING SPRING SPRINKLE
Makes about 3/4 cup
1/2 cup sesame seeds
1/4 cup nettle leaves, dried and ground
1 tablespoon kelp powder
In an herb grinder or clean coffee grinder (wipe the blades with grain alcohol to remove any coffee residue), grind the sesame seeds in small batches. Do the same with the nettles. Combine the ingredients and put in a shaker-top container. Sprinkle on soups, salads, veggie pizzas, and other dishes. (If you have an overactive thyroid, make it without the kelp powder.)
Don’t neglect your skin in a spring cleansing program. It’s considered the largest organ of elimination. An herbal body scrub removes dry, dead skin cells, opens clogged pores, and encourages new skin growth and oil production. The friction it creates increases blood and lymph circulation. Limit a skin scrub to once or twice a week. Rubbing your skin too often can irritate it by exposing new skin cells before they are ready to face the world.
The rub in skin scrubs comes from slightly abrasive material, such as cornmeal. Some scrubs are made with ground almond shells, but I find these too rough for most skin. As the name implies, a scrub is lightly rubbed over the skin, usually during a shower where it can be applied, then rinsed off. You can buy scrubs, but it’s easy, fun, and economical to make your own.
OATS AND HERBS SCRUB
I like to use aloe vera because it is so healing to the skin, but you can substitute distilled water.
1/4 cup oat flour
2 teaspoons medium-ground cornmeal
5 drops lemon essential oil, optional
5 drops lavender essential oil, optional
1/2 cup aloe vera juice
If you can’t find oat flour, grind plain rolled oats in a coffee grinder (see the Cleansing Spring Sprinkle recipe on page 38 for how-to’s). In a medium-sized bowl, combine the flour with the cornmeal and add the essential oils. Add enough aloe vera juice to make a paste. To use the scrub, dab some on a washcloth and apply to the skin. Leftover scrub will keep for two days at room temperature or for a week in the refrigerator.
A spring fast makes a great accompaniment to the use of cleansing herbs. Not everyone can, or should, fast solely on water, and you should consider a fruit-juice fast only if you have very stable blood sugar. Otherwise, you can try a modified fast with a vegetable-and-herb broth or vegetable juice or stick to eating puréed soup for a couple of days. The idea is to become healthier, not to make yourself sick, so choose a fast that does not give you headaches and dizziness and remember the Chinese and Ayurvedic advice not to become chilled.
If fasting is out of the question, you can still lighten up your diet by staying away from rich, heavy foods, sweets, meat, and dairy products for several days. Remember to move in and out of any fast gradually, lightening your diet both before and after fast days. Don’t indulge in something like a hot-fudge sundae the night before you begin fasting. When deciding how many days to fast, consider how much you weigh, how easily you get chilled, the climate in which you live, and any health problems you have. For some people, one day of fasting is the max.
Whether or not you fast, vegetable juice offers plenty of health benefits. Drink juice that’s as freshly made as possible whenever you can; make your own or go to a juice counter where you can watch your juice being made. And don’t forget to drink enough water. That translates to six to eight 8-oz. glasses a day. Juice and most herb teas don’t count in your water total because they are diuretic; the same goes for coffee and black tea. These beverages wash through you so quickly that you rapidly lose as much water as you gain. If you take diuretic herbs in tincture or pill form, drink even more water to compensate for the added water loss.
JUICY SPRING DRINK RECIPE
Makes about 2 cups
2 stalks celery
1/2 small beet
1 chard leaf
2 sprigs parsley or cilantro leaf
1/2-inch slice of fresh gingerroot
1/8 teaspoon turmeric powder, optional
Combine all the ingredients in a juicer and process. Drink a cup or two each day. You can refrigerate this juice but not for more than two days, because the nutrients lose potency quickly. The same goes for freezing: do so if you must, but it will reduce the juice’s nutritional profile.
For variety, try throwing in 1/4 cup of spring cleansing greens, such as nettles or chickweed. You may have these growing in your garden or countryside already.
Kathi Keville is the author of eleven books including Herbs for Health and Healing (Rodale, 1996) and coauthor of Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art (Crossing Press, 1995). She is also the director of the American Herb Association (www.jps.net/ahaherb).
Reuben, Carolyn. Cleansing the Body, Mind and Spirit. New York: Berkley Books, 1998.
Hobbs, Christopher. Natural Liver Therapy. Loveland, Colorado: Botanica Press, 1995.