Festive Spice - Herbal Health

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Friday, 13 December 2013

Festive Spice

It is the time of year many of us are thinking of novel Christmas gift ideas and as a medical herbalist, I am always reminded of the wonderful aromas of herbs & spices that we have come to associate with this festive season. It serves as a useful reminder of the historical uses of some of these medicinal plants and how they can be best utilised or indeed how imaginative one can be when creating unique gifts for our loved ones. Best suggestions for gifts include creating aromatic blends for oil burners or scented candles but equally popular are creating bath and massage oil blends to elicit the fragrance and aromas that are synonymous with the festive season.
Of course, we need to start with the mainstay of this season: frankincense and myrrh. I have written about their historical and current use in addition to its cultivation and harvesting in a previous post: http://yaso-shan.blogspot.co.uk/2012_02_01_archive.html


Gold, frankincense and myrrh - the traditional gifts a
associated with the baby Jesus and herbs/spices
associated with Christmas

The world has a long history of trading in frankincense, particularly in the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent. The proliferation of Christianity saw the use of frankincense spread to Europe and the West. There are many grades of frankincense nowadays but originally, it was the holy frankincense (Boswellia sacra) grown primarily in the Dhofar region of Oman that was cultivated which some refer to as true frankincense. The time-consuming process of deriving the resin which takes many weeks to gather and process saw the introduction of Somalian and Ethopian ‘frankincense’ (which isn’t really frankincense at all - it is a similar resin but from a different tree). Normally, Indian frankincense (Boswellia frereana, Boswellia carterii or Boswellia serrata) is sold, as it is readily available and cheap, and often used as a poor substitute for true frankincense - much like turmeric being used instead of the more expensive and completely different saffron.

Nonetheless, the different species of frankincense share many medicinal properties so it is unsurprising that the frankincense commonly sold all over the world is really a mix of these different plants. Trusting the source or origin will require a determined effort to establish the source of 'true’ frankincense, often reflected in the price and its quality!
The medicinal properties of frankincense are numerous; from stress-relief and combating depression to a myriad of beneficial actions in skin conditions and anti-inflammatory disorders such as arthritis. It is thought that it is the increasing demand for frankincense to relieve stress and tackle depression that is really driving the current trade in this precious aromatic resin. So what of the future for frankincense? Well, climate change, over-use and conflicts in the Sub Saharan regions (such as Somalia and Ethopia where the tree grows naturally) has seen the price of frankincense skyrocket in recent years. Continued civil war in these regions combined with a risk of desertification and climate change (droughts are disastrous for the tree population) will impact heavily on the supply and sustainability of this wonderful plant.

The second of the gifts to baby Jesus according to the bible, this medicinal plant (Commiphora molmol) is closely related to frankincense. It is the resinous sap that is used for medicinal purposes which are many. Around 90% of the world’s myrrh originates from Somalia so it is unsurprising that myrrh trees are becoming ever more rare. Lawlessness and lack of peace in the region has devastated the country with the destruction of many of its natural resources. Equally however, population growth has had a huge impact on the region and the landscape (but population growth is also a global issue not unique to Eastern Africa resulting a other problems for the planet). Population growth means that farmland expansion, overgrazing, bush encroachment and human-induced fires have depleted what little fertile soil is available. Poor management of forests and fertile land is at risk of desertification and although resinous plants such as the Commiphora spp and Boswellia spp can survive, it can only do so up to a point, without being threatened by climate change. The holistic benefits of wild crafted organic essential oils such as frankincense and myrrh are enormous are we are in serious danger of losing these valuable plants for good. Myrrh has many medicinal properties and is primarily used as an anti-infective agent so it is often given to combat infections (minor skin infections, fungal and nail infections). It is a great astringent and often given to reduce inflammations of mucous membranes especially in the mouth and gums, therefore very useful in soothing the symptoms of tonsillitis, gingivitis (inflammation of the gums), mouth ulcers and sore throats. Myrrh is added to a mouth gargle in this instance. It is also especially effective when added to steam inhalations to relieve the congestive symptoms of sinusitis. Of course, the aroma of this herb along with others that are decongestants add a pleasant smell to the mix.

Other notable herbs and spices include the following:
  • cinnamon
  • clove bud
  • cardamom
  • pine
  • silver fir
The most obvious for me is cinnamon - from mulled wine to blended oil fragrances. Cinnammon epitomises the festive season. It’s botanical name is Cinnamomum zeylanicum but there are other varieties such as C. camphora which are just as powerful. Cinnamon has been regarded as a precious spice for a long time. It is useful for a host of ailments and its aroma will evoke many a childhood memory of Christmas. Herbalists most often use the bark (found as a culinary spice in rolls of sheets) or in some cases, the bud but aromatherapists use the leaf as it is less sensitising.. It is still a powerful oil however so care should be taken when using it. The essential oil is great in an oil burner as well as an ingredient in candles. Its uplifting properties are such that it will revitalise and re-energise especially after a busy day Christmas shopping! Additionally, it possesses amazing antimicrobial properties and therefore the oil is very useful for colds and breathing difficulties and is a very strong antiseptic, so good to use when having to mix with large crowds where the exposure to foreign microbes is high. It is a brilliant digestive aid and its soothing, warming and antimicrobial properties make it idea for eliminating bloating due to excessive digestive gas, tackles nausea and vomiting by settling the stomach.

Clove Bud

This herb, or rather a spice (depending on your leaning) has a very long tradition of use (both medicinal, and culinary) as well as culture. It is referred to in scientific circles by its botanical name Syzygium aromaticum and it is a powerful antiseptic oil but it is also cleansing and soothing. The oil can be topically applied to relieve the pain and discomfort of toothache and like cardamom and cinnamon, it is a great digestive aid, taken as a spice. However, there are some safety issues associated with this spice, namely with the oil, being toxic when taken internally. It can be sensitive on the skin so best to do a patch test first whenever considering applying clove oil (eg. in a massage oil or other skincare product). It is a great addition to a combination/blend in oil burners or in candles. Like all aromas, it is not a favourite for all but many prefer the fragrance as it is strong, robust and its antiseptic action will cleanse the room.

Cardamom is a seed pod, known since antiquity for its culinary and medicinal properties. The spice is native to evergreen rain forest of southern India and now grown in only few tropical countries. Botanically, it belongs to the family of “Zingiberaceae” and consists of two genera; Elettaria and Amomum. The most common variety used is Elettaria cardamomum. The pods are being used as a flavouring base in both food and drink, in cooking recipes and as well as in medicine.

Health benefits of cardamom
This exotic spice contains many plants derived chemical compounds that are known to have been antioxidant, disease preventing and health promoting properties. The spicy pods contain many essential volatile oils. The therapeutic properties of cardamom oil have found application in many traditional medicines as antiseptic, antispasmodic, carminative, digestive, diuretic, expectorant, stimulant, relieves stomach pain and acts as a tonic.

Cardamom is a good source of minerals like potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids that helps control heart rate and blood pressure. Copper is required in the production of red blood cells. Additionally, it is also an excellent source of iron and manganese. 100 g pods contain 13.97 mg or 175% of daily-required levels of iron. Iron is required for red blood cell formation and cellular metabolism. Manganese is a co-factor for the enzyme, superoxide dismutase, which is a very powerful free radical scavenger. Further, these aromatic pods are rich in many vital vitamins, including riboflavin, niacin, vitamin-C that is essential for optimum health.

Medicinal use
The therapeutic properties of cardamom oil have found application in many traditional medicines as antiseptic and local anesthetic, antioxidant in addition to health promoting and disease preventing roles.

Culinary uses
In general, cardamom seeds are sought-after in sweet and dessert preparations. The pod is split open to expose underlying seeds using either fingers or small knife. The seeds are then crushed using a hand mill just before their use in cooking. However, whole pods are preferred in savory dishes, which give a further punch to the recipe since their peel contains certain amounts of valuable essential oils.

Here are some preparation tips:
  • This delicate spice is being used as flavouring agent in both food and drinks.
  • The pods have been in use in the preparation of sweet dishes in many Asian countries. Elaichi-pista (cardamom and pistachio) kulfi is famous summer dessert in India, Pakistan, and Iran. Elaichi kheer is another popular rice pudding with added pistachio, and raisins in these regions.
  • It is used as a flavoring base in the preparation of tea, coffee, and cold drinks.
  • Black cardamom (badi elaichi) is mostly preferred in savory dishes, to prepare rice-pilaf, meat stews, and lentil-curry in many parts of Nepal, India, and Pakistan
Another lovely oil for this time of year, helping to clear unwanted energies and soothe mental fatigue.Pinus syvestris is the most widely available oil being both cleansing and restorative which is also good for the respiratory system; it has both warming and cooling properties at the same time. It is therefore prescribed by herbalists for coughs and colds as well as for congestion of the sinuses. It is thought to be helpful for gall bladder, reducing inflammation which will help with fat digestion, easing any discomfort when eating plenty of rich foods at this time of year. It is also a good oil for urinary tract infections such as cystitis when used in a bath blend with one of the urinary antiseptics. Pine is also a great oil to add to household cleaning products because of its fresh and invigorating smell and being a natural fragrance, stands out head and shoulders above the commercial and synthetic versions.
The species

Silver Fir

Abies alba, silver fir or European silver fir, in the Pinaceae family, is an evergreen coniferous tree species native to the mountains of Europe, from the Pyrenees north to Normandy, east to the Alps and the Carpathians, and south to southern Italy and northern Serbia. The essential oil contains almost 50% d-limonene a potent immunostimulant - it stimulates lymphocyte proliferation increasing the total white blood cell count, increasing the number and phagocytic activity of macrophages and stimulating antibody production. Additionally, natural killer cell activity was enhanced in vitro by d-limonene. In other words, the herb is a powerful immunostimulant and silver fir is thereforea great oil for a cold or flu! Try using it in a diffuser, in an inhaler or for a luscious combination try silver fir blended into neroli blossom infused jojoba oil and rub it on your chest, back and feet!

Diffuser Blend for Winter Cold and Flu
5 drops Silver Fir essential oil (Abies alba)
5 drops Orange essential oil (Citrus sinensis)
5 drops Elemi essential oil (Canarium luzonicum)
Add these oils right into your diffuser

Inhaler For Sinus Congestion and a Cough
5 drops Silver Fir essential oil (Abies alba)
5 drops Black Spruce essential oil (Picea mariana)
5 drops Hemlock essential oil (Tsuga canadensis)
Drop these oils right onto the cotton part of the blank inhaler

Nighttime Cold and Flu Oil
10 drops Silver Fir essential oil (Abies alba)
5 drops Lavender essential oil (Lavandula angustifolia)
2 drops Ylang Ylang essential oil (Canaga odorata)
1 oz Neroli blossom infused jojoba oil

For more information about essential oils and how to use them, go to http://www.aromatherapycouncil.org.uk/ or http://www.naha.org/ or to check on essential oil safety go to http://www.aromatherapy-studies.com/ifpa-about.html 

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