Herb Basics 101

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Comfrey is used externally to help heal bruises and sprains.
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Maybe you ate rich food for dinner, or maybe you just don’t feel “regular.” Try one of these digestion-improving herbs, and help may be right around the corner.

Constipation. Herbalist Kathi Keville recommends a simple remedy of prunes soaked in licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) tea to relieve constipation. Make licorice tea by simmering 1/2 teaspoon of chopped licorice root in 1/2 cup water for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and steep for 15 minutes. Strain and soak 3 stewed prunes in the tea for a few hours, then eat.

Diarrhea. Keville recommends blackberries for halting diarrhea. Try making a blackberry cordial by combining 1 tablespoon of chamomile (Matricaria recutita) tincture with 1/4 cup of blackberry brandy, 3 drops of ginger (Zingiber officinale) essential oil, and 2 drops of peppermint (Mentha ¥piperita) essential oil. Take 1 teaspoon every 30 minutes.

Flatulence and indigestion. Peppermint is a great remedy for easing both of these conditions. Try a simple cup of peppermint tea, or a tincture of peppermint–1 to 2 teaspoons of tincture per cup of hot water. Several other herbs, such as fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), sage (Salvia officinalis), and chamomile can also help relieve flatulence and indigestion.

Source: Keville, Kathi. Herbs for Health and Healing. Emmaus,
Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 1996.


The following herbs are those that are safe only for external use, unless you’re under the close supervision of a qualified health-care provider. Don’t use these herbs while pregnant or nursing, and be sure to never apply them to broken skin.

Alkanet (Alkanna tinctoria): This borage family member contains toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids. Historically, it has been used externally to soothe and soften the skin.

Borage (Borago officinalis): Borage leaves, also used externally for skin-soothing benefits, contain toxic alkaloids. Note that borage seed oil, a good source of essential fatty acids, is completely safe to use.

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale): Internal use of comfrey is a controversial issue among herbalists–there are some reports of liver damage with the herb’s long-term internal use. It’s now recommended that comfrey be used externally to promote the healing of bruises, sprains, fractures, and broken bones.

Henna (Lawsonia inermis): Although this popular hair dye plant has been used historically for diarrhea and as a gargle for sore throats, it shouldn’t be used internally. Henna has a strong effect on the female reproductive system–it’s used as an abortifacient in Africa.

Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum): Traditionally used to treat kidney and urinary problems, this plant also contains toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids.

Source: McGuffin, Michael, et al. Botanical Safety Handbook. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, 1997.


Common name: Hops
Latin name: Humulus lupulus
Family: Cannabaceae
Part used: Strobiles

Medicinal uses: Preparations of hops are used to relieve anxiety, nervous tension, and sleep disturbances, and to stimulate the appetite. Some herbalists report good results using hops to relieve heart palpitations.

Forms commonly used: Tea, tincture, capsules, and tablets.

Dosage: For tea, steep 1 heaping teaspoon of whole dried hops in 1 cup of hot water for 10 minutes, and drink before bedtime. Take 10 to 40 drops of hops tincture three times daily. For capsules or tablets, take three 500-mg capsules per day, or follow the manufacturer’s directions.

Side effects: Hops are a generally safe herb. The Botanical Safety Handbook (CRC, 1997) says that some researchers advise against using hops in people with depression. Rare allergic reactions to the plant have been reported.

Notes: Hops have been cultivated for beer brewing since the eleventh century. Hops are often found in combination sleep and relaxation formulas with other herbs such as valerian, passionflower, and skullcap. Try making a sleep-promoting pillowcase sachet by placing a few tablespoons of dried hops into a muslin bag, then tucking the sachet into your pillowcase.


Essential oils. Highly fragrant, concentrated, and potent substances that come from plants and can be irritating to the skin if used undiluted. The term can be traced to sixteenth-century alchemists searching for “quintessence,” or the secret of life. Until the early part of the twentieth century, many medicines and personal products such as soaps were made with essential oils.

Carrier oils. As a general rule, herbal essential oils (described above) shouldn’t be applied to the skin directly because they are highly concentrated and can sting or otherwise irritate. Instead, essential oils are blended with “carrier oils” to dilute them. The best carrier oils are virgin cold-pressed oils such as almond, walnut, wheat germ, apricot kernel, and hazelnut. Castor and jojoba oils are also acceptable carrier oils. Essential oils are volatile, so they evaporate quickly when exposed to air, but they are soluble in carrier oils.

Perfume. From the Latin per fumare, meaning “through smoke.” Asian cultures found religious and spiritual connotations in the aromatic smoke of burning herbs; Native Americans burn aromatic herbs to create smoke for their healing ceremonies. Today’s perfumes are largely synthetic.

Diffuser. Often made of ceramic or glass, diffusers are used to disperse essential oils into the air. Small “potpourri pots” hold a container for water, which is heated by a candle. Drops of essential oil are added to the water and heat releases the volatile essential oil molecules into the atmosphere. Electric diffusers are more efficient and effective. They vaporize the drops of essential oil into a fine mist throughout the environment.


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