For most of my adult life, I was one of those lucky women who have no discernible “side effects” of menstruation. No PMS, no mood swings, no cramps, none of it.

Then I gave birth to Oscar, and nine months later, my cycle returned – I quickly learned that my smooth-sailing days of menstruation were over. My period lasts longer than before and is less consistent, and the first and second days of my period are marked by pronounced lower back pain and intense cramping, also known as dysmenorrhea. I have so much more sympathy now for women with severe PMS (pre menstrual syndrome). As an aside, it is much more common for women to stop having dysmenorrhea after having a child than to develop it is for them to develop it for the first time. Lucky me. In my case, it is most likely the result of scar tissue from having had a cesarean birth.

To make the best out of a not-so-pleasant thing, I’m embracing it as a learning opportunity. I’m getting acquainted with my new cycle, and I’m also learning about what can be done to relieve the discomfort of cramping. But let’s start by figuring out what dysmenorrhea is in the first place.

Female Reproductive SystemAs we’ve mentioned already, dysmenorrhea is the word for the cramping pains that often accompany a woman’s period, and it affect over 50% of menstruating women. The cramps in question are actually the tightening of the uterine muscle. About 10% of those with dysmenorrhea experience cramps so intense as to be incapacitating, usually for a period of one to three days. More often, it’s just really uncomfortable. In fact the word dysmenorrhea comes from the Greek language and means “difficult monthly flow.” For those of you interested in fertility issues, “Dysmenorrhea occurs only in cycles where ovulation has occurred,” (Hudson 226).

As can be intuited above, hormonal shifts are one trigger for dysmenorrhea, and calcium also plays a role: “About 10 days before menstruation begins, calcium levels in the blood begin to drop, and they continue to drop until about 3 days into the cycle. Blood calcium deficiency is responsible for many of the symptoms of painful menstruation,” (Gladstar 218), so increasing your dietary calcium intake may help prevent symptoms.

In most cases, dysmenorrhea is just a normal side effect of menstruation. However, it’s worth noting that is some cases the cramps may be, “due to some specific pelvic or systemic condition such as endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, adhesions, ovarian cysts, celiac disease, thyroid conditions, congenital malformations, narrowing of the cervical opening, polyps, or uterine fibroids,” (Hudson 225). As always, you should discuss any symptoms and concerns you may have with your doctor.

To relieve these symptoms, there are a number of uterine tonics and anti-spasmodics that can help soothe and relax the uterine muscle, and nerviness to soothe the individual. Specific herbs include cramp bark (hence the name) and black haw bark, both anti-spasmodics specific to the uterus; and pasque flower, a “relaxing nervine for use in problems relating to nervous tension and spasm in the reproductive system,” (Hoffman 131). Black cohosh, false unicorn root, and wild yam may be considered, but please be sure that, with these three especially, you are using only sustainably harvested herbs (Hoffman 161, 235).

Other things that can help relieve or prevent dysmenorrhea include maintaining a normal, healthy weight, chiropractic treatments, exercise (abdominal crunches help me), healthy diet, not smoking, and my favorite: gentle heat applied to the lower back.

What are your favorite herbs or methods of relieving or preventing dysmenorrhea?

Photo credit: Mysid / Foter.com / Public domain

After a ridiculously long lapse in writing for this blog, I’m finally ready to start up again. For a full list of exuses for my not writing, click here.

I’ve spent the past month getting back in the habit of writing and posting for my other blog, and I’m starting to dip my toes back in the herbal waters too.

If there are any topics or types of posts you’d like to see, please let me know in the comments… And stay tuned!

The Natural Pregnancy Book by Aviva Jill Romm

There are several books I’ve been meaning to review on this blog, but I’m only just now getting around to it. I have so many herbalism resource books that I adore—the pages full of fingerprints, hand-written notes, earmarks, bookmarks. But they are wonderful reference books—not as apt to be read, shall we say, recreationally? For excellent herbal resource texts (as well as some durn fine reads), I’ll refer you to the bibliography.

The Natural Pregnancy Book by Aviva Jill Romm is exceptional. It is the book that happily fills the gap between What to Expect When You’re Expecting and the work of Ina May Gaskin. Romm’s writing is at once warm and practical, providing an appropriate blend of succinct information on the experience of pregnancy balanced with a buoying tone of empathy and sisterly sharing. A midwife and herbalist herself, Aviva Romm also encourages women and their partners to take ownership of their journey, educating themselves about the various options and decisions of which they may not even be aware.

As you can see from the picture, my copy is filled with tabs marking wonderful herbal therapies and preparations, but this is not just a book for herbalists. This may be one of my favorite aspects of the book. Many women feel great creative urges when pregnant, and the self-care tips and the herbal preparations and the myriad suggestions for connecting and being present throughout the journey of pregnancy, all of these provide a welcome outlet to the mother and her partner. They are intended for use by pregnant women, any pregnant woman, as one more sacrament for nourishing and building connection.

The explanations of symptoms, the different trimesters, the birth process, and issues that may arise, are all described with candor, but do not bludgeon nor (pardon the pun) belabor the point—there is no fearmongering here. Issues such as miscarriage and breech birth, as well as morning sickness or swollen feet, are dealt with in such a manner that the woman has knowledge to be aware of herself and the power to chart her own course. It is not harped on till it terrifies her, as some pregnancy books seem to do.

The great message of The Natural Pregnancy Book is to impart such knowledge and resources and encouragement to the woman or the couple to take it into their own hands, make their own path, and be involved; that pregnancy isn’t just something that happens to you—it is something you participate in.

I’ve recently been spending some time brushing up on my knowledge of the female cycle. It’s an area of herbalism that I’m particularly drawn to, as a woman, but also because it’s one of nature’s great orchestrations, like the movements of a concerto, each with its own nuances, yet flowing together, woven into a cohesive, exquisite whole. As with a concerto, one group of musicians will deliver the notes and the rhythms slightly differently from another, placing stronger stresses on this or that passage, drawing out those bars a little longer. And it’s a miracle! Our bodies go through this amazing cycle each month, all so we can conceive and bring life into the world. It’s mundane, yes, and some find the topic embarrassing… I find it stunning.

And somewhat hilarious. A friend of mine recently commented to me that we spend so much of our lives trying not to get pregnant, but once we decide we want to, it’s suddenly so… complicated.

And that’s the thing. Most OB-Gyns just say if you want to get pregnant, count from the first day of your period, and have sex on day 14 and every other day for the next week. The flaw with this rule is that it is a rule—no two women are alike, and so no two women’s cycles are alike. The most empowering thing for a woman or a couple trying to conceive is to learn and celebrate the nuances of her individual cycle, the dominant themes and recurring melodies.

So I’ve been reading articles on foods to eat, substances to avoid (sugar, caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, *ahem*), ways to maximize fertility. And my friend Pamela sent me a link to FertilityFriend.com—brilliant! The site offers a free online course on understanding and charting your own cycle (which is really interesting even if you aren’t trying to conceive), support communities, amazingly comprehensive FAQs, story sharing, and cycle calendars (and yes, there’s an app for that) that allow you to graph or predict different dates in your cycle, enter all kinds of data, overlay graphs for multiple cycle to view trends, the list goes on and on. And yes, I tend to geek out on this sort of thing. I find it exciting and empowering, at age 31, to be getting to know my body and my cycle so well.

Gilbert Chesterton said, “A woman uses her intelligence to find reasons to support her intuition.” I have a hunch he may have meant this to be a less-than-generous statement, and yet I take it as a compliment. I’m 31 and just figuring it out—it’s generally been a taboo topic, I guess, or at least not one commonly discussed among my female friends and family—and I’m finding it a joyful experience! Wendell Berry spoke of not having a TV or computer because he found all those voices, all that noise, interfered with his ability to hear his own voice, and it can get pretty noisy in this world of ours.

A great gift we can give ourselves: to pay attention, take note, listen, and learn from what our body, our one-of-a-kind, magical, perfectly imperfect body, has been wanting to tell us all along.

(As an aside, please forgive my exuberance: it’s spring. LAAAAAA!!!)



I love tincturing. I thoroughly enjoy blending teas. But by far my favorite way to take (and make) my herbal medicines is in the form of food. If you’ve ever visited my other blog, The Purple House, you know that my better half and I are more than slightly food-obsessed—we both love to cook, we love to cook together (the fact that I happily share kitchen space with this man speaks volumes), we love discovering new foods, and we love knowing where our food comes from, having a relationship with our local farmers and raising a lot of our food here at home.

This morning I was turned on to a wonderful upcoming online course on Culinary Herbalism from LearningHerbs.com, and I am so excited to participate! I am constantly looking for more new ways to eat my medicinals. They’ve got one video already online, about 18 minutes long, and if it is any indicator, this online course is going to be great! If you’re interested, visit the Culinary Herbs site and sign up to receive e-mail notifications about the course and other learning opportunities. Once you’ve registered, you’ll be able to view the first video, featuring an herbal meal prepared by K.P. Khalsa, President of the American Herbalists Guild. Damon and I prepared the greens recipe from this video tonight—we had a TON of collards, kale, spinach, and mustard from our garden and our co-op.

LearningHerbs.com also has several free publications, videos, and online courses. I haven’t checked these out yet, but I plan on doing so very soon.

Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs for free and affordable herbal education? Please feel free to share them in the comments…  And have a beautiful day!

Kudzu is one of those plants that everyone (at least in the southeastern states) knows, but few know how nutritious and helpful an herb it is. This is the trailing and climbing vine that has been known to scale rusted-out VW buses in a single bound, completely veiling trees and shrubs, boulders and buildings, all along America’s southern highways. But when you find out that a highly “invasive” species such as this is also highly edible, and nutritious, and a useful herbal medicine, well, that’s good news isn’t it? There is plenty for the herbalist or forager to harvest, and you’ll only be helping to restrain its growth—the other native plant species will thank you.

Pueraria montana

Family:
Fabaceae—Pea family

Kudzu

Parts used:
Root, flower, stem, leaf

Actions:
Kudzu is a diaphoretic, hypotensive, stimulant to the spleen, sobering, antitumor, antioxidant, cardotonic, and generally aids in stimulating body fluids.

Indications:
Pueraria montana has long been used to treat headache and fever, as well as drunkenness, alcoholism (by reducing the desire for alcohol), and hangover, and cirrhosis of the liver; in fact, “Kudzu extracts have also been found to stimulate regeneration of liver tissue while protecting against liver toxins,” (Foster, 193). It is also potent as a remedy for a number of digestive complaints, including diarrhea, dysentery, gastroenteritis, and digestive (and venous) obstruction. Used in a variety of types of cancer, kudzu is specifically indicated in cases of leukemia and breast cancer: “Genistein may prevent development of tumors by preventing the formation of new blood vessels that nourish the tumors.”  Additional uses include deafness, measles and to promote measles eruptions, psoriasis, osteoporosis, high blood sugar and diabetes, high blood pressure and symptoms of hypertension,  sore throat and other inflamed mucous membranes, allergies, cold and flu. Externally, “Stem poulticed for sores, swellings, mastitis,” (Foster, 192).

Constituents:
Kudzu contains the estrogenic isoflavones, genistein, daidzein, and daidzin.

Kudzu flower

Growing information:
Pueraria montana is an infamously invasive and hardy vine, originally native to China, but now found blanketing sections of the United States from Florida to Pennsylvania, as well as Texas and Kansas, and as I stated earlier, I love abundance of things that can be used and eaten: “The people of our southern communities could control the rampant spread of Kudzu vine through their countryside by eating it,” (Green, 15). Its leaves are palmate and grow in clusters of three. Shown in the picture above, kudzu’s beautiful reddish-purple flowers blossom between July and September, growing loosely in a raceme and smelling of grapes, (Foster, 192).

Collection:
Kudzu roots are generally a winter harvest—late fall through early spring. Flowers should be collected just as they fully open, and per usual, in morning after the dew has lifted.

Preparation:
Tea is made from both the roots and the blossoms, and a poultice is made from the stems. Leaves can be boiled and eaten like spinach, and root starch can also be eaten as food. In fact, the roots can grow to be the size of a man and were the primary food starch in China and Japan until the sweet potato came along, (Duke II, 136). The root starch makes a wonderful broth for cold, flu, and general congestion—I’ve recently had great (and tasty) luck with the “Garlic-Onion-Ginger-Kudzu Tea” from Aviva Romm’s The Natural Pregnancy Book, (Romm, 188).

Historical:
Kudzu has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine. It was first introduced to the southeastern United States to help control erosion.

Warning:
None

Kudzu vines

Getting ready to post a lovely bit on kudzu, but in the meantime, Dancing in a Field of Tansy shared this lovely post this past week on making and organizing an herbal first aid kit. Well thought out and with lots of helpful tips and pictures, this is one of those herbal projects I keep meaning to do, but never quite get around to.  I think I’ll be taking it on in the near future, thanks to this inspiration, and a few others, listed below.

What would you put in your herbal first aid kit?

This is the line I kept repeating in my head Thursday afternoon.

I like to start my tinctures on the new moon—that’s how I was taught—and since the new moon was Friday, Thursday found me at the ABC store running cost analysis on the cheapest bottom shelf brandy and vodka—lowest cost, highest proof, which bottles I can reuse, you know. I show up at the register with four or five huge bottles of booze, and not the kind anyone would proudly display in their liquor cabinet. The lady at the cash register looks at the selection, looks at me, and then shakes her head, pursing her lips. I’m serious. And I know that face. It’s the same face my mom used to make when she saw what I planned on wearing for an evening out *grin*

And I start trying to explain that it’s for tincturing herbs, get as far as, “Oh, it’s not for drinking, well, not really…” and then I notice that everyone in the store is either staring or pointedly not looking at me. Then, never one to miss a thrifty opportunity, I asked if they had a case discount. Ummm, no. At which point I grabbed my [very heavy and sloshy] bags and swervily made my exit.

And then couldn’t stop laughing. Herbs are fun. 🙂 Oh, and for those interested, the new batch is now happily steeping away: passionflower, eleuthero, damiana, ginger, nettle, and milk thistle.

I’m having a little love affair with astragalus of late. If you’ve followed this blog at all, you’ve probably caught on to the fact that I prefer to be able to eat or drink my medicine, and astragalus is delightful in tea and in food, slightly sweet with an umami sort of buttery creaminess. I started craving it while recovering from surgery a couple weeks ago, and having done a little research now, I’m not at all surprised. Goes to show that our bodies often know what they need, even if our brain hasn’t sorted it out yet.

Astragalus membranaceus

Other names:
Astragalus, milk-vetch root, huang qi

Family:
Fabaceae – Pea Family

Astragalus

Parts used:
Root/rhizome

Actions:
Astragalus is one of the most well known tonic herbs in Chinese medicine and has been studied extensively by Asian scientists. Its long-held notoriety in Chinese medicine has engendered a fairly strong following in Western medicine as well. As well as being generally tonic to the entire body, astragalus is also considered a great adaptogen, stimulant to the immune system, energizing, diuretic, antibacterial and antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and hypotensive. It also  normalizes blood sugar levels, improves stamina, strengthens metabolism, and stimulates appetite. Overall, it acts to treat or prevent disease and infection by supporting and tonifying the entire body and the immune system. In China, astragalus, “is often called the ‘young people’s ginseng,’ as it is specifically indicated as an energizer for younger people,” (Gladstar, 39). In illustration of its adaptogenic action, it has been shown to stop, “debilitating sweating but… producing a therapeutic sweat if it is appropriate,” (Mabey, 77).

In regard to astragalus’s action as an immunostimulant, Gladstar comments, “It stimulates the rebuilding of the marrow reserve that supports and regenerates the body’s ‘protective shield,’ or immune system,” (Gladstar, 311). And not only does it increase, “the body’s production of interferon,” (Duke II, 32) which acts to promote the production of white blood cells to combat infection, it also enhances, “the particle ingestion capacity of white blood cells,” (Foster II, 7).

Indications:
Astragalus is used to strengthen and restore the body supportively to treat general fatigue and weakness, shortness of breath, lack of appetite, poor circulation, impotence and infertility, and autoimmune disorders such as AIDS. It is commonly employed in the treatment and prevention of a variety chronic ailments and recurring infections, such as cold, flu, candida infections, yeast infections, diarrhea, ulcers, and herpes. It has also been used in treatment of cancer, the Epstein-Barr virus, hepatitis, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.  Its qi-promoting and diuretic actions aid in treatment of kidney complaints and edema.

Constituents:
Along with glycosides, choline, betaine, rumatakenin, beta-sitosterol, and vitamin A; astragalus also contains triterpenoid saponins, which behave in the same manner as animal steroid hormones; as well as polysaccharides,which imptove the function of NK and T-cells and also increase production of interferon, as noted in the Actions section above (Marti, 97).

Growing information:
This perennial herb normally grows one or two feet tall, with compound leaves of a dozen or so paired leaflets emanating from a hairy central stem. Its long clusters of yellow flowers bloom in early summer. It is cultivated in America and is easily grown from seed (the roots do not like to be disturbed through transplanting), but it needs well-drained, sandy soil and full sunlight. It is, “drought tolerant, but requires adequate moisture to grow well,” (Foster III, 29). A native to Mongolia and northeast China,  the root is there called huang qi, which means “yellow leader,” as it is one of the most important herbs in Chinese medicine for invigorating wei qi, or vital energy (Foster II, 6).

Astragalus root

Collection:
Dried astragalus root normally comes as long strips of rhizome, resembling tongue depressors, as shown in the above picture. They should be long and straight with creamy white color and a slightly yellow core. “The roots are not harvested until the autumn of a plant’s third to fifth year,” and are then partly dried, sliced, and dried further (Foster III, 29). Once the root has been fully dried, it can be used in this form or powdered. WARNING: “don’t pick your own out in the wild; some species are toxic,” (Duke II, 33).

Preparation:
Astragalus is often an ingredient in infusions, is also tinctured, and the root is commonly used in soups or chewed like a licorice stick. The powdered herb can also be mixed into a paste or added to cereal or yogurt.

Historical:
“Astragalus is first mentioned in the 2,000-year-old classic, Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing,” and its use since then has been prevalent and well-studied. Among many of the findings regarding the herb’s effectiveness as an herbal medicine, “Since 1975, astragalus has been used in China in cancer patients undergoing radiation treatment and chemotherapy,” by strengthening the immune system after the treatments had depleted it. “In the early 1980s, researchers in Houston, Texas, studied the effects of astragalus on ninteen cancer patients and fifteen healthy individuals. A chemical fraction extract of astragalus was found to restore T-cell function in 90 percent of the cancer patients to levels observe in the healthy subjects,” (Foster II, 6).

Warning:
No adverse effects have been observed. See the Collection section above for a warning about harvesting from the wild.

We are going to be planting red clover along with buckwheat in our baby orchard this year to help improve the soil. I was prompted to research this herb due to its beneficial role as a cover crop, its nutritional strength, its pleasant taste, and the fact that it can be found growing just about anywhere in America. All of which makes me want to get better acquainted with this plant ally. And I’m so glad I did!

Trifolium pratense

Other names:
Red clover, honeysuckle trefoil, king’s crown, sleeping maggie, bee-bread

Family:
Fabaceae—Pea Family

Trifolium pratense - red clover

Parts used:
Aerial parts—most commonly the flowering tops are used, but the leaves are sometimes used as well.

Actions:
Trifolium pratense is a tonic herb, especially for the skin, and especially for children. Its other actions are nervine, diuretic, antitumor/chemopreventive, blood purifying and blood building, expectorant, antispasmodic, and anti-inflammatory. Rosemary Gladstar says red clover is, “One of the best detoxification herbs and respiratory tonics,” (Gladstar, 358).

Indications:
Red clover has been used historically and today as a treatment for a bevy chronic chest complaints, including colds, coughs, congestion, and bronchitis. As mentioned above, it has also been used for treatment of skin problems, especially for children but also for adults, such as eczema, psoriasis, and dermatitis. Additionally, red clover has been long used for tumors/cancer, as well as cysts and fibroids in the body. In fact, it was one of the ingredients in the controversial Hoxsey formula, and anticancer formula developed by herbalist Harry Hoxsey. Other indications include  prostate enlargement, AIDS, and osteoporosis. Herbalist and midwife Aviva Romm also suggests its use as part of formulas for liver strengthening and nourishment and recovery after miscarriage (Romm).

Trifolium pratense is also a noteworthy herb for women’s hormone issues, such as menopause or PMS, and is recommended for protection against some of the detrimental side effects of the use of hormone replacement therapy (see the Constituents section below for more information). Naturopath Tori Hudson adds, “red clover isoflavones may reduce the risk of coronary vascular disease by increasing arterial elasticity, although… not improve cholesterol levels. Red clover isoflavones may also slow bone loss of the spine,” (Hudson, 196).

Constituents:
Red clover is a nutritional and herbal medicine powerhouse, “rich in minerals, most notably calcium, nitrogen, and iron,” (Gladstar, 359), phenolic glycosides, coumarins, cyanogenic glycosides, and salicylates. Among its isoflavones are genistein, diadzen, biochanin A, and formononetin, which may act nutritionally to prevent cancer (Foster II, 76). These isoflavones are natural estrogens, similar to human female hormones. “Phytoestrogens perform functions in the body similar to those of natural and synthetic estrogens, relieving menopause- and menstruation-related problems and perhaps protecting against osteoporosis and cancer of the breast, colon, and prostate… If you’re taking prescription female hormones, which have been linked to breast cancer, the milder phytoestrogens again step in and prevent the synthetics from interacting with tissue cells,” (Duke II, 183).

Nutritionally, red clover is a good source of protein, similar to the protein found in whole grains, and also provides, “beta carotene, vitamins C, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B9, B12… It’s a good source of the minerals magnesium, manganese, zinc, copper, and selenium,” (Brill, 25).

Red Clover, dried

Growing information:
Red clover is a perennial and grows up to three feet tall, with clusters of three round leaflets, each often marked with a whitish V-shape, and a tender, hairy stem. The flowering tops of Trifolium pratense can be pink, purple, red. It tends to grow well in temperate climates, commonly found in meadows, along edges of forests, in bordering areas such as along roads or fences, and in areas where the ground has been disturbed. Naturalized to America, it is a native to Europe, the Mediterranean, and Asia.

Collection:
Red clover flowers should be gathered just when fully opened; the flowers should not be at all dried out or moldering. It can be harvested between late spring and early fall (Hoffman, 154). Per usual, although the herb grows plentifully along roadsides, one should not collect in areas where there is any significant amount of traffic due to potential pollutant contamination.

Preparation:
Preparations include infusion of fresh or dried flowers (which also makes a wonderful, soothing bath), tincture, or flowers eaten fresh on salads, etc. If using dried blossoms, make sure it still has its color and is not pale or brown, which indicates it was dried at too high a heat or for too long. Refer to the picture above as to what is good color retention in dried red clover.

Historical:
Trifolium pratense has long been used as food for livestock as well as a cover crop—in fact it was originally brought to America from Europe as a hay crop (Brill, 24). Past folk medicine use has been primarily for chest complaints, tumors, skin problems, not to mention warding off evil spirits (Duke II, 183). This more spiritual protection makes more sense when you consider its symbolic nature: “For the ancient priesthood of Druids, clovers were symbols of Earth, sea, and heaven, and for Christians, a symbol of the trinity,” (Foster III, 304).

Warning:
Generally, red clover is very safe, with no significant side effects—however, it is perhaps best not to take very large amounts while nursing or pregnant. “Pregnant animals have had miscarriages after grazing heavily on the clover,” (Duke II, 184). Also, “Hemophiliacs or people with ‘thin’ blood should not use red clover regularly, as the herb can exacerbate the condition,” (Gladstar, 359).

Red Clover - Trifolium pratense

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