Inflammation kickstarts the processes by which our bodies heal themselves. With small wounds, the inflammatory response sends extra blood and helpful agents such as white blood cells to the abrasion site to start the healing process. In a more serious example, if we twist an ankle or break a leg, it quickly becomes swollen and painful. This inflammatory response keeps us from further damaging injured parts of our bodies. Inflammation is an essential component of the body’s ability to stay healthy. The problem is that our bodies can sometimes get stuck in an inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation wreaks havoc on individual cells, and can cause serious problems down the line—among them, cancer, dental problems, diabetes, migraines, gastrointestinal illnesses and heart disease.
Many foods have an anti-inflammatory effect—principally vegetables, fruit and fish. Exercise can also help keep inflammation in check. But even those of us who consistently enjoy a nutritious diet and regular exercise may still turn to painkillers and other over-the-counter treatments for painful inflammatory conditions such as allergies, arthritis, back pain, headaches and migraines, heartburn, hives, sciatica, tendinitis and more. Modern medications, such as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen, can be effective at treating the pain that often accompanies these kinds of inflammation. Prolonged use of anti-inflammatory pharmaceuticals, however, can cause serious and life-threatening side effects that range from ulcers and high blood pressure to an increased risk of stroke and heart attack. If you find yourself dealing with chronic conditions that require regular use of anti-inflammatory drugs, check out the following four safe and effective plant-based alternatives. The information about these herbs is excerpted from Natural Remedies for Inflammation by Christopher Vasey, N.D. It’s available for purchase on page 88.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) grows in clumps of stems that range from eight to 20 inches tall. The leaves are green and the flowers small and white. This plant gives off a delicious, potent odor. While native to the tropics, it now grows throughout the world.
History: The word basil comes from the Greek basilikon, meaning “royal.” The plant is regarded as a royal remedy. It relieves tension and offers assistance in all disorders affecting the digestive tract. Basil is a popular culinary herb used in everything from salads and soups to meat dishes and pastas (and especially the famous Italian sauce pesto).
Parts Used: Flowering tops, leaves
Active Principle: Chavicol
• Extremely potent anti-inflammatory
• Powerful antispasmodic
• Powerful antiviral
Targets: Digestive tract, nerves, urinary tract, joints
• Digestive tract: Gastritis, heartburn and acidic stomach, enteritis, colitis, diarrhea, spasms, etc.
• Nerves: Neuritis
• Urinary tract: Cystitis, prostatitis
• Joints: Arthritis, tendinitis
• Herbal tea: Pour 1 cup boiling water over 3 to 4 fresh leaves and let steep for 10 minutes. Drink 3 or 4 cups a day.
• Tincture: Take 1 or 2 drops of the tincture in honey or a cold-pressed, neutral oil three times a day, for a maximum of five days.
This widely cultivated nigella (Nigella sativa) is an annual that grows 14 to 20 inches tall and is distinguished by feathery leaves that cut into narrow threads, creating an intricate tangle. Its flowers are blue, and its seeds are deep gray to black, hence the name
black cumin (it has nothing in common with the cumin used in Mexican, Indian and North African cuisine). It is also widely referred to as nigella or nutmeg flower.
History: This plant is cultivated in Asia, Europe and North Africa for its seeds, which have a bitter, burning taste widely used in the breads and string cheeses commonly found in Eastern European and Jewish delicatessens. In Germany they are used to make pancakes, among other dishes, to which they impart a peppery taste. The seeds’ antihistaminic properties were discovered only recently, but they have quickly become one of the primary herbal remedies for lowering blood histamine levels.
Part Used: Seeds
Active Principle: Nigellone
Targets: Respiratory tract, blood vessels of the head
• Respiratory tract: Hay fever, allergies, allergic asthma
• Blood vessels: Headaches, migraines
Use/Dosage: Mother tincture or herbal tincture: Take 10 to 30 drops in water three times a day.
The black currant (Ribes nigrum) is a bush that can grow more than 4 feet tall. It produces small, black fruits.
History: Black currant leaves have been used for centuries for their antiarthritic properties. In the 20th century, black currant buds were found to contain concentrated levels of these same properties. The recommended preparations are glycerin maceration or tincture.
Parts Used: Buds, leaves
Active Principles: Bioflavonoids
• Adrenal stimulant
• Powerful anti-inflammatory
Targets: All organs, respiratory tract and joints
• Respiratory tract: Hay fever, allergies to dust and animal hair, allergenic asthma
• Joints: Acute and chronic arthritis
• Urinary tract: Cystitis, prostatitis
• general inflammation: Hives, hemorrhoids, etc.
• Glycerin maceration or mother tincture (buds): Take 30 to 50 drops with water three times a day before meals. For hay fever and other seasonal allergies, maintain this dosage throughout the season when the pollen to which you are sensitive is present. In the event of an isolated attack, take 50 drops in a glass of water at once. You should start feeling its effects within half an hour.
• Herbal tea: Pour 1 cup of boiling water over approximately 1⁄3 ounce of dried leaves, and let steep for 15 minutes. Drink 2 or 3 cups a day. The tea’s effect is primarily antiarthritic and diuretic; it is not anti-allergic.
Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) is a low-lying plant whose fruits have long, curved hooklike growths. Harpago in Latin means “hook,” and phytum means “plant.” As is the case with many plants, the purpose of these hooks is to aid in the dissemination and propagation of the plant. When they become stuck in the feet and fur of animals, the seeds are carried far. However, the hardened nature of these hooks injures the soft portions of the hooves of livestock, which can lead to infection and disease, and so the plant’s origin was attributed to the devil.
History: Devil’s claw is native to the hot, dry regions of southern Africa. It grows in South Africa and in the Kalahari Desert that bestrides Namibia and Botswana. The inhabitants of the region use it to treat many health problems, particularly arthritic pain. Westerners discovered the medicinal virtues of devil’s claw in the early 1900s, and it has been used since that time in Europe and America. Studies conducted to pinpoint its properties offer evidence of devil’s claw’s great effectiveness against inflammatory disorders, which has caused itspopularity to boom. Today it is among the bestselling medicinal plants in the world.
Part Used: Root
Active Principle: Harpagoside
Properties: Powerful anti-inflammatory (several studies have shown it to be as effective as the various anti-inflammatory pharmaceuticals)
Targets: Joints, muscles, tendons
• Joints: Arthritis, osteoarthritis, gout
• Muscles: Back pain, lumbago
• Nerves: Sciatica, neuritis
• Tendons: Tendinitis
• Mother tincture or regular tincture: Take 20 to 30 drops in a little water three times a day. Can also be used topically as a lotion (see page 74)
• Capsules: Capsules or tablets of the powdered root are the most common and practical means of use. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions, which generally suggest 1 or 2 capsules or tablets three times a day, with food.
Note: Avoid devil’s claw in cases of gastric or duodenal ulcer.
Black Cumin, Mint and Honey Tea Recipe
The strong flavor of black cumin seed is balanced here with mint and honey. Enjoy a cup at the onset of a headache or migraine, or up to three cups a day during peak allergy season.
• 1 teaspoon peppermint leaves
• 1 cup boiling water
• 1-1/2 teaspoons black cumin seed oil (available at Mountain Rose Herbs and other quality herb suppliers)
• 1 to 2 teaspoons honey
Steep peppermint in boiling water for 10 minutes, then strain and stir in black cumin seed oil and honey, to taste.
Devil’s Claw Lotion Recipe
Apply this lotion where your joints and muscles ache. Makes 1 cup.
• 1/8 teaspoon baking soda
• 1/4 cup distilled or boiled water
• 1/2 cup devil’s claw-infused herbal oil
• 1 tablespoon grated beeswax
1. Dissolve baking soda in water in a saucepan, and keep warm over low heat.
2. Mix oil and beeswax in a double boiler (or pan set over another pan of water) and slowly heat until wax is completely melted, over low heat.
3. Slowly add baking soda mixture to wax mixture while stirring to combine. Set aside and allow lotion to cool completely. Stir occasionally as it cools to keep oil and water from separating. Label with herb and date, and store in a clean container with a tight-fitting lid.
—Janice Cox and Erin McIntosh
Mother Tincture vs. Herbal Tincture
A mother tincture and an herbal tincture are two formulations of herbal medicine, and they differ in the ratio of alcohol to plant materials. In an herbal tincture, the ratio is one part plant material to three or five parts alcohol; in a mother tincture, the ratio is one part plant material to nine parts alcohol. Mother tinctures are the first stage in the preparation of homeopathic remedies.
The anti-inflammatory herb information provided in this article was adapted with permission from Natural Remedies for Inflammation by Christopher Vasey, N.D.