Reflections on Herbal Study…

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Until I began formal study of Chinese herbs, learning about herbs over a lifetime has been like placing beads on a string, slowly encountering one plant after another as the need arose and becoming familiar with it …

I miss delivering babies!  I miss the brave mamas, the stunned, love-struck papas, and those brand new faces that have not yet settled into this world.  It’s something to which I know I’ll return, but for now I have to be content enjoying the facebook photos of wonderful kiddos I was lucky enough to catch as they made their entries.  One thing I have so enjoyed over the past year of Chinese herbal formulas class is the opportunity to learn about formulas that can be helpful during pregnancy and the postpartum period — and even during birth itself.  One of the big reasons I embarked upon studies of Chinese medicine is for its sophisticated understanding of women’s health.

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Many wonderful herbs can be gathered right outside — grab a plant field guide and a basket and see what’s around you!  This is one afternoon’s haul last summer from the streets of Portland.

Dr. Heiner Fruehauf, the founder of our program is fond of saying that a woman’s physiology is like a BMW — when it’s running well, there’s nothing better to drive or inhabit, but when it breaks down, it’s more difficult to fix.  According to the perspective of the classical texts, women’s physiology is more complex because we have the ability to create and give birth to new life, which we now understand necessitates an exquisite dance of hormones.  Today, this physiology, which is both delicate and strong, is more challenged than ever by environmental toxins and the many pressures of modern daily life in our culture.  I am continually struck by the lack of societal support for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and young families — I don’t believe we humans are meant to be having children (or generally existing) in isolation; we’re social, tribal creatures, who do best surrounded by extended families (biological or otherwise) to make raising kiddos a group project.  Nourishing, tonic herbs can help sustain our bodies, minds & souls and keep us connected to Mother Earth, one another, and our own selves amidst all the pressures to disconnect and unravel.

For my final herbs lab project this term I chose to make an ancient formula designed to strengthen a woman during pregnancy and calm a restless fetus.  While specifically for pregnancy, it is also a great general blood-building and strengthening formula that would benefit many overtaxed women who aren’t pregnant — it could also be helpful for anyone who is just feeling worn down and run ragged.  It addresses fatigue, weakness, loose stools, light-headedness and dizziness.  I’ve decided to take it myself for the next few weeks during final exams.  It is traditionally made as a san or a powder — a lovely way to take a san is with a simple rice porridge called congee — recipe for this coming after finals, when I’ll have much more time to spend here!

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This is what loose Chinese herbs in a formula typically look like.  They can be boiled in this form, strained, and drunk several times daily — or pre-cooked, dried and ground into granules, which are then packaged and sold to be mixed into water.

This formula is not meant for making at home unless you have training and experience in  Chinese herbs.  I have listed the ingredients here to pique your interest in the broad horizons of healing!  If you’re pregnant, please always run any herbs or other supplements you might be interested in taking past your midwife, doctor or acupuncturist.  If your primary pregnancy care provider isn’t educated in herbal medicine, seek out someone who is.  Plants are our great friends and powerful allies, and knowledge of plant medicines is part of our collective women’s heritage that needs to be reclaimed.  But please do it safely with guidance from those who have studied the medicine.

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And this is how we learn about herbs at NCNM — study the ancient texts, then in lab — mix, grind, cook, taste, smell, feel, observe, think about, write about, share experiences …

Dang Gui San (Angelica Powder)

  • Dang Gui (often spelled Dong Quai or Chinese Angelica root)
  • Huang Qin (Bacial Skullcap root)
  • Shao Yao (Red Peony root)
  • Chuan Xiong (Szechuan Lovage root)
  • Bai Zhu (White Atractylodes rhizome)

A classical Chinese formula is like a carefully constructed fine perfume — or a symphony!  Each herb is carefully balanced with the others according to action, flavor, and energetic nature; and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  If you don’t have access to an acupuncturist, who can prescribe Chinese herbs, but would like to nourish your body and build your blood with herbs, some common western herbs to experiment with would be:

  • Nettles
  • Burdock root
  • Red clover
  • Raspberry leaf
  • Yellow Dock
  • Dandelion

Again, do not use herbs during pregnancy without first consulting your doctor or midwife!  A lot of the herbs above you can gather yourself if you live in a place with access to some clean roadsides and fields.  Even in the city, I manage to get out and collect bunches of nettles and raspberry leaves to hang around my apartment to dry for winter use.  Once the leaves are dry, I spread a sheet on the floor and pull the leaves off stems (this is a fun project for kids, who generally love to help crush things), then put away in large mason jars so I can use the dried leaves in teas and soups all winter.  A few calming and sweet herbs and spices (there are soooo many more!) that go well together and would be nice to help round out a tea blend of blood-nourishing herbs would be:

  • Rose petals & rose hips
  • Lavender
  • Chamomile
  • Lemon Balm
  • Catnip
  • Motherwort
  • Fennel seeds (sweet and licorice tasting)
  • Ginger (particularly warming if you tend to feel cold)
  • Star anise (both sweet and warming)
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Plants are our friends & allies but need to be used wisely.  My philosophy is — if you’re going to use an herb, learn as much about it as possible.  Read about it in sources written by experienced herbalists, seek it out in nature, grow it yourself if you can, look at photos, draw it, spend time with it, consciously befriend it and see what it has to teach you.

I will be starting a new section on the blog soon of my favorite books on various topics — the ones I recommend to patients again and again.  Here is just a tiny handful of my old favorite, very basic & long beloved, intro-to-herb books to kick off your summer …

By Rosemary Gladstar:  Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs (and anything else by Rosemary!);  By Deb Soule:  The Roots of Healing:  A Woman’s Book of Herbs;  By Susun Weed:  Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year; By Juliette deBairacli Levy:  Common Herbs for Natural Health; By Kami McBride:  The Herbal Kitchen; and a brand new book I just picked up and am enjoying by Michelle Schoffro Cook:  Be Your Own Herbalist: Essential Herbs for Health, Beauty, and Cooking

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In the inspiring herb garden at Avena Botanicals, Rockport, Maine.

And one last note … If you are pregnant, I encourage you to seek out an acupuncturist with experience in pregnancy even if you don’t need or want to take herbs.  It’s great to have acupuncture as an option for treating the many normal, minor discomforts of pregnancy — and for helping recover after birth.

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