Ten (or so) of My Favorite Herbs
It’s not the easiest thing in the world for this mostly Western-trained herbalist to try to limit my herbal choices to my top 10 or so favorites. I do, after all, recommend several dozen herbs fairly regularly, and I know a little bit about several hundred more. However, what I’ve found, over the years, is that I choose to use the herbs that have given me a good story to relate, and I tend to forget the ones that have not (yet) taught me their story to tell.
The following are some of my favorite herbs, the ones that top the list of my most-often prescribed remedies, and the ones that have given me a healing story to tell. For some of them I’ve included an abbreviated story, and if you want to read more about my personal stories for the herbs I use, check out my new website at www.OurBestBuddies.com.
I love burdock (Arctium lappa) for its “trickster” ways. Horse folk despise burdock’s cockleburs that cling to manes and tails and are almost impossible to comb out. Fittingly (fittingly for the trickster mindset, that is), burdock root thrives in any corral where horses have ever been kept. I’m sure any horseman would pay good money to have the nasty weed dug out.
On the other side of the trickster’s fence, I’ve seen fresh burdock root for sale in our local health-food store for upwards of nine dollars per pound. Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners consider the herb an extremely beneficial tonic and lymph cleanser. But it is not without much effort that you can harvest its benefits — burdock roots go straight down, seemingly all the way to China, and harvesting them requires a sharp-shooter shovel and a lot of sweat-of-the-brow digging.
Burdock root is known to herbalists as a blood purifier, and it is included as an important ingredient in many toxin-eliminating, bowel-cleansing and lymphatic- cleansing formulas. It often is used to treat arthritis, rheumatism and skin conditions. Burdock root, taken as a tea or tincture, is especially good for treating dry or scaly skin conditions and eczema.
Burdock also promotes kidney function, and it is a liver cleanser. It acts as a mild diaphoretic, and many cultures have taken advantage of the nutritive qualities of the roots, often combined with other vegetables and herbs in a hearty soup stock.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) is absolutely my favorite herb for topical application on all sorts of wounds — cuts, scrapes, abrasions, burns and skin conditions that have resulted in open wounds.
Calendula promotes the reconstruction of tissue by enhancing fibroblastic growth; its anti-inflammatory activity decreases swelling and discharge and the scarring that normally occurs from burns, abscesses or abrasions. Many studies indicate that the flowers are antimicrobial, antifungal, antibacterial, antiviral and vulnerary (wound-healing). They stimulate the immune system, inhibit some tumors, have a calming effect on the nervous system and aid liver function. The fresh plant contains salicylic acid, which acts as an analgesic.
Calendula is one of the first herbs I used as I was converting my practice from Western medicine to a more holistic approach. I tried it on my own dog first, treating his chronic eczema, and it was one of those jaw-dropping moments that come when you don’t really expect the treatment to work, but it turns out to be far better than anything else you’ve ever tried.
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) and/or valerian (Valeriana officinalis) are two herbs that I consider either/or herbs — both used for their generalized calming effects. The either/or comes from the fact that some cats react dramatically to catnip — susceptible cats have an initial euphoria followed by a period when the cat is no longer affected by further catnip stimulus, and they usually become mildly sedated. Other cats seem not affected by the allure of catnip at all. But, many of the cats not affected by catnip have a “catnip-type” reaction to valerian, an herb that contains a compound similar to the one in catnip (nepetalactone) that causes the “cat crazies.” Many dogs also react to valerian, in a similar fashion to the catnip response in cats.
And so, as a test, all you need to do is toss out some catnip and observe your cat’s response. If there is no response, try tossing a handful of valerian on the floor, and observe the response.
Remember that catnip and valerian, whether or not they create the typical euphoria-to-sedative effect seen in cats, can be used in most species (including the human species) as a tea to create a mild sedative effect and to combat aggressive tendencies. Catnip also is excellent for calming intestinal upset.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is another herb that has a multitude of activities. Chamomile is a gentle sedative that is safe and useful for young animals. It is relaxing and can be used for treating anxiety, insomnia and indigestion. Its anti-inflammatory activity makes it ideal for inflamed eyes, sore throats and other irritated wounds. Chamomile is an excellent carminative, making it a good choice for gas, flatulence and sore tummies.
Externally, because it is effective against some bacteria and fungi, it is useful to speed wound healing, for eye washes and for mouthwashes. Again, my favorite way to use the herb externally is to brew up a tea from the fresh or dried flowers and spritz or pat the tea directly on the affected areas.
Animal tests indicate chamomile, given internally as a tea, capsule or tincture, causes a reduction of aggressive behavior, and I’ve found it to be an effective general calming agent for many pets.
OK, so it might be cheating to include several herbs under the single category of culinary herbs, but I tend to think of them this way. As a group, the culinary herbs typically are high in antioxidants, giving them the ability to prevent and treat a long list of disease conditions. Culinary herbs have been used by millions of folks (and their pets) for millennia — meaning they are very safe to use. They generally have a mild, tonic effect on the body, helping to gently create a balance of all organ systems.
But, most of all, I appreciate culinary herbs for their ability to enhance the taste of what must be a terribly bland dinner plate for most of our pets. Good options to try include oregano (Origanum vulgare ssp. hirtum) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris).
I think all pets should have some spice added to their lives. Simply add a pinch of an ever-changing selection of spices to your pet’s dinner fare every so often. Try several herbs to see which ones your pet really enjoys and which ones don’t fit his individual tastes. Change the herbs every now and then to alter the taste of the food and to add a little different “medicine.”
In animal studies, dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) has proven to be a strong diuretic. However, while most diuretics deplete potassium from the body, dandelion, with its high levels of potassium, resupplies the mineral naturally.
In addition, dandelion is one of the strongest-acting cholagogues known. (A cholagogue is an agent that produces an increase in the production of bile by the liver.) It raises the production of bile by more than 50 percent. In addition, it has a direct effect on the liver, causing an increase in production of bile and increased bile flow to the gallbladder. Clinically, dandelion has been shown to benefit patients with colitis, liver congestion and several forms of liver insufficiency.
I have not found anything better for treating urinary conditions (especially in cats) than a combination of dandelion and Oregon grape root (Mahonia aquifolium). I think the primary benefit comes from the diuretic effect — increasing urine flow may be all that is necessary to help the animal’s natural systems fend off urinary infections. But, the added benefits of liver stimulation and its generalized tonic effect also might be important.
One major caution: Remember that dandelion is a potent diuretic. Make sure your pet has a place to pee that is not on your new carpet.
Echinacea (Echinacea spp.) is well known for its ability to balance the immune system. It contains a diverse range of active components that affect different aspects of the immune system.
Echinacea is a primary herb to consider for any immune system imbalance and for any infection. It also aids tissue regeneration by stimulating fibroblasts, cells that manufacture the stuff that holds cells together. Further, it acts as an anti-inflammatory (probably because it inhibits an enzyme that allows for the spread of inflammation), and this anti-inflammatory effect has been used to relieve the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
Plains Native Americans used echinacea as their “medicine cabinet,” with applications for coughs, colds, sore throats, all sorts of infections, chronic conditions and arthritis. It has been said that the echinacea we grow here in Kansas is especially potent. While I don’t know that there’s any proof of this, I plan to perpetuate the story … for as long as I am able to grow a good cash crop in my own back yard.
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and Oregon grape root are very similar in their actions, and the key to a choice between them is ecological rather than medicinal. Goldenseal has for many years been overharvested in areas where it grows naturally — to the point that it’s now considered an endangered species. Recent attempts to grow goldenseal commercially have been fairly successful (it is a difficult plant to grow), so herbal products produced from domesticated plants are available and are the preferable ones to use. On the other hand, Oregon grape is relatively easy to grow commercially, it is fairly abundant in the wild and it replicates almost all the beneficial activities of goldenseal.
Berberine is one of the most important constituents of both goldenseal and Oregon grape. Berberine has a plethora of actions in the body, and either herb can be used as a wide-spectrum antibiotic, for wound healing, as an anti-inflammatory and to help stimulate the actions of the liver. Goldenseal is not a pleasant-tasting herb, and most pets will reject it vigorously; most pets readily accept Oregon grape root.
Remember that long-term use of remedies with antibiotic activity (including potent antibiotic herbal remedies) may indiscriminately kill off the “good guy” bugs in the intestinal tract — add some yogurt or other source of beneficial bacteria (probiotics) to the diet of any critter that is taking any form of antibiotic remedy.
The ripe fruits of the hawthorn tree (Crataegus spp.) are perhaps the world’s best heart tonic. Hawthorn functions as a tonic by improving metabolic processes in the myocardium (heart muscle), thus improving the general function of the heart; dilating coronary blood vessels, thus improving coronary blood supply; and abolishing some types of heart rhythm disturbances. Hawthorn normalizes heart activity, either depressing or stimulating the heart’s activity, depending on the need. It is thus a good herb for heart failure or weakness and for any cardiac dysrhythmia.
I see so many patients with one form or another of heart dysfunction that hawthorn has become one of my most-prescribed herbs. Compared with digitalis (a common prescription heart medication), hawthorn is much safer and milder in activity. Digitalis exerts a direct action on the heart; hawthorn lowers blood pressure by dilating peripheral vessels, thus preserving critical reflexive blood pressure regulation. There are no cumulative effects of hawthorn; there are with digitalis. And, hawthorn may partly antagonize the undesirable side effects of digitalis. On the other hand, hawthorn has less immediate effects than digitalis.
Hawthorn has a synergistic effect with digitalis — dosages of both possibly can be reduced when they are used in combination. Be sure to tell your veterinarian if you are using hawthorn along with any other heart medication.
In addition to being useful for almost any heart condition, hawthorn berries also strengthen appetite and digestion, and they are a good remedy for nervousness and insomnia. Because most animals with heart conditions also are nervous, they may not eat as well as normal, and they typically have difficulty sleeping — so, hawthorn offers a bonus of additive effects.
The inner bark of the slippery elm tree (Ulmus rubra) contains a mucilage that is similar to that in linseed oil. (Mucilaginous substances coat, soothe, protect and rejuvenate areas suffering from infection, inflammation and other irritants.)
Slippery elm is absolutely the best remedy I’ve come across for the animal with a nervous stomach. No traveler with their pet should be without it. The show animal who frets before his performance will almost certainly benefit from a dose of slippery elm. (I was introduced to slippery elm by a client who had show dogs, and the one and only “alternative” remedy she routinely used for her nervous show dogs was slippery elm.)
I also use slippery elm, in combination with other modalities such as homeopathy or acupuncture, when treating more severe cases of intestinal upset — colitis, ulcers, etc.
Note that some practitioners worry that prolonged use (more than three weeks) might coat the intestinal tract and prevent proper absorption of nutrients. I feel that if I need to use the herb for more than a few days, I probably need to rethink my original diagnosis and thus redo my therapy regime.
Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary med- icine and veterinary and clinical pathology. After practicing traditional veterinary medicine for 10 years, he opened Honoring the Animals, a holistic practice in Kansas City, Missouri. Visit our website, www.HerbsForHealth.com, to order Dr. Kidd’s pet-care books.
Information provided in “Pet Corner” is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian.
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