Miki Cook, herbalist and founder of Medicine Woman Herbs, operates an Austin area apothecary using sustainably sourced organic herbs in teas, salves, tinctures, natural skin care, and cooking spice blends. Medicine Woman Herbs is dedicated to the belief that everything we need to live healthy, quality lives has been provided for us in nature in the form that was intended for us to use. Miki continually studies both historic uses and modern research and chooses the highest quality ingredients available in order to produce products "handcrafted with intention" that she and her own family use on a daily basis. She shares her products at very reasonable prices in order to provide natural, healthy alternatives to the masses of products on the market that contain harmful ingredients. As an herbalist, she provides education to consumers on the uses of herbs and how to incorporate them into their health regiments. She is a regular at SFC Sunset Valley Farmers Market, Saturdays 9am-1pm.
The precursor to modern pharmaceutical drugs, herbs and spices were used for centuries not only to remedy health problems, but also as preventative medicine. You may have heard the phrase “let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food,” which is a quote from Hippocrates, considered the “father of Western Medicine” (460-370BC). Although western medicinal methods evolved significantly over the next 2,300 years, the basis for that statement regarding the use of herbs and spices as medicine has not changed much over time.
In fact, it’s really only been in the last century that the pharmaceutical industry was developed, deriving many prescription and over-the-counter drugs from the same plants that are used holistically as herbs and spices. So, before we had drugs, herbs were the commonly used medicine both by medical doctors and by families who passed down healing remedies from generation to generation. In their holistic form, herbs can be used to restore balance to the human body by providing things that the body needs. Herbal energetics refers to herbs that help our bodies return moisture to dry tissues, calm stress and tension, direct warmth and drying to mitigate cold and dampness, relieving stagnant processes and inflammation.
Historically, some herbs and spices, such as nettles and dandelion, have been used as nutritive tonics (nutritive refers to their high vitamin and mineral content and tonic refers to the herbs ability tone body tissues). These herbs can be cooked like greens or drank as a tea, as well as made into tinctures. Other herbs, such as peppermint and ginger have been used for hundreds of year to help with digestive issues, cleavers to cleanse urinary irritations, and yarrow to stop bleeding in the battlefield.
These historic uses indicate that certain herbs have affinities to certain body organs or systems, including heart/cardiovascular, respiratory, endocrine, reproductive, lymph/immune, liver/digestive, urinary, musculoskeletal, and nervous systems. Different herbs have been used to prevent and treat a variety of conditions, from common illness to cancer. To prove this, much modern research has been done over the last couple of decades on the health effects of certain herbs and spices. This research has shown us the importance of choosing the right herb, not only for its affinity, so also its energetic properties and actions, since these are what determine the type of affect it will have on our body functions. For example, cinnamon has shown superior ability to manage blood sugar, lemongrass to balance cholesterol, capsicum (peppers) to stimulate circulation, metabolism, and digestion, garlic as one of nature’s strongest antibiotics, and rosemary, ginkgo biloba, gotu kola and sage combat mental decline. Some herbs and spices are high in antioxidants, such as turmeric, thyme and rosemary, slowing the free-radical damage that contributes to the aging of our body’s organs and systems. Some herbs are even classified as “adaptogens,” having the ability to adapt to what our bodies need, and others even have anti-cancer properties.
You may have noticed that several of the herbs mentioned here are also cooking spices. SFC focuses on providing education and resources for eating healthy, and herbs and spices can be used to raise basic farm-to-table foods to the next level. Adding the right herbs and spices to your food and beverages can increase the nutritional value, improve digestion and assimilation of nutrients, and improve our body systems and organ functions and use that nutrition. This can be done on a regular basis to stay healthy or an as-needed basis to minimize the risk of suffering from seasonal illnesses or to help your body restore health if it has been compromised.
Growing your own herbs can be rewarding. Gardening provides you with the freshest ingredients and being outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine offers great health benefits. However, not all of the herbs and spices that you’ll want to use will grow here with our Central Texas climate, so you’re probably going to buy some as well. It’s important to note that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not evaluate the quality or claims of specific herbal products, so they prohibit any inference that individual products or ingredients provide diagnosis, prevention, treatment, or cure of illness or disease. Taking herbs the wrong way, like anything, can be dangerous to your health. Make sure that any information that you are given is from a trained, qualified practitioner and be wary of anyone whose training may have been biased to sell a particular brand of products.
The quality of herbs and spices is just as important as the quality of the foods and fluids that we combine them with. Herbs should be sustainably sourced, grown organically, and preserved correctly in order to maintain their health benefits. Some medicinal constituents of herbs are best extracted by water, others by alcohol, and some require a fat binder to be assimilated. So, knowing which herbs should be taken what way is important.
It’s also important that herbs are used within their effective potency period (shelf life). It is the responsibility of the consumer to make educated buying decisions based on the current pool of information and resources available. Keeping up with all of this can be challenging, so a great idea is to develop a relationship with a qualified source that can provide the quality you need in reasonable quantities at an affordable price. Herbalists can also provide insights into usage consideration, drug interactions and contraindications (like which herbs could be beneficial or should not be used during pregnancy and breastfeeding).
It is worthwhile to incorporate herbs into your own health regiment and start to see the benefits for yourself. A great way to start is by using quality organic spices in cooking and by drinking herbal teas. There are spice and tea blends that are highly nutritious, and others that can play important roles in managing or restoring health. Since it can be difficult to get everything you need from food, taking herbal supplements in the form of liquid extracts can also be worthwhile. Taking herbal supplements (pills and capsules) is the least desirable/effective way of realizing health benefits. Since there is very little oversight in the mass-produced supplement industry, it’s important to use only the highest quality supplements available by companies that follow Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs).
You should also try to use natural skin care products. Our skins absorb 60% of those products into our bloodstream, so they can be doing hidden damage without you knowing it. Using topical herbal infused oils, salves, creams, and cleansers can benefit not only your skin (your largest body organ), but also your overall health and beauty!
Also look for natural, herbal cleaners and aroma products (e.g. hydrosols) for your home. Some herbs have natural antiseptic, antibiotic, anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties, including lavender, lemon verbena and basil commonly used in natural cleaning products. Note that some products, even natural herbal ones, although safe for adults, can be too strong for young children and pets. This applies to dosage levels for herbs taken internally, but it also applies to herbal aromatherapy products inhaled, and products applied to the skin. Healthy living requires a holistic approach, so be vigilant in reading labels and avoid anything with chemical names in the ingredients list. Store all products safely and use only as directed.
Here’s wishing 2016 is the year for natural, vibrant health for you and your family!
Photo courtesy of Bruce Coville Photography