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When I was a freshman in college, I stopped eating, sometimes coasting on half a bowl of oatmeal a day. The smell of food made me ill. I lost a lot of weight, and my normally boundless energy was utterly deflated. Taking 21 credits at a time, exhaustion and frequent spells of dizziness and even fainting soon became a big issue. I had countless blood tests run, but no one could tell me what was wrong with me. But we knew what the symptom was: anorexia. I couldn’t eat.
The symptom anorexia (with a lower-case “a”) simply describes the often extreme loss of appetite in an individual, and is most often as a symptom of a larger disease or condition. The symptom anorexia is not to be confused with Anorexia nervosa—commonly referred to, confusingly, as Anorexia for short—which is a psychological disorder characterized by an intense fear of being or becoming obese, often marked by extreme diet and exercise and/or binge-and-purge eating patterns.
I remember being horrified by the weight I lost and the difficulty I had just navigating my day-to-day; it’s hard to even imagine it now. Looking back now, I think it’s very likely that my anorexia was a symptom of celiac disease, though I didn’t figure out I had celiac until ten years later. Unfortunately, anorexia is a common symptom of many diseases and infections, including tuberculosis, cancer, AIDS, kidney failure, liver failure, dehydration, and countless others; and as a symptom, the best long-range treatment for anorexia is to find the underlying cause—in my case, celiac disease—which is not always easy for doctors to diagnose. Anorexia was not my only symptom of celiac disease, but it was certainly the most frightening.
In addition to needing to find the underlying cause of the symptom, there are herbs that can help relieve anorexia symptoms, especially those that act as appetite stimulants. Because people who have been struggling with anorexia are often malnourished as a result, it is also important to consider adaptogenic and deeply nourishing herbs and foods to help build back their vitality.
Herbs specifically recommended for treatment of anorexia include dandelion roots and leaves, oats, oatstraw, and seaweed (Weed 144, 147, 201, 227); as well as ashwagandha and medicinal rhubarb (Foster III, 23, 105).
If you or someone you know is experiencing anorexia, please see a doctor and get help.
Not to be confused with the delicious common garden rhubarb that brightens up many a pie here in America, medicinal rhubarb, or Rheum palmatum, has a much more specific and potent effect on the body. Although parts of it can be eaten, best to be aware of its actions and contraindications beforehand (see “Warnings” at the bottom of this post), lest you be unpleasantly surprised by… ahem… unwanted bowel stimulation. 🙂
Polygonaceae – buckwheat family
Medicinal rhubarb, Chinese rhubarb, Turkey rhubarb, Indian rhubarb, da-huang (meaning “great yellow” in reference to the color of its rhizome)
Root and rhizome
A cold and bitter stomachic, medicinal rhubarb is at once astringent and laxative, a digestive and appetite stimulant, cathartic, antibacterial, and aperients. Specifically regarding its laxative effect, Hoffman describes it as having, “purgative actions for use in the treatment of constipation, but [it] also has an astringent effect following this. It therefore has a truly cleansing action upon the gut, removing debris and then astringing with antiseptic properties as well,” (Hoffman 134). Much of its actions in regards to digestion have to do with the dosage used. “In small doses, the astringent tannins in the root make it effective for diarrhea and also tonic to the digestive system,” (Mabey 98), whereas, “in larger amounts, the anthraquinones react with bacteria in the digestive tract to create compounds that trigger intestinal contractions for a bowel movement. (The high fiber contact of medicinal rhubarb helps somewhat, too.),” (Duke II, 186).
Constipation, diarrhea, dysentery, fever, hepatitis, high blood pressure, edema, nausea, anorexia
Anthraquinones, tannins, bitter aromatic principle
Rheum palmatum’s native habitat is the wastelands of western China, northern Tibet, Turkey, and Mongolia. It can easily be distinguished from the common edible garden rhubarb by its sheer size. Although garden rhubarb is known to be a large plant, its size pales in comparison to that of medicinal rhubarb, which, “has thick, deep roots, a six- to ten-foot jointed stalk, and loose panicles of flowers along the top that bloom yellow or white and turn red. Around it fall tapering branches that hold out large, jagged, hand-shaped leaves two to three feet wide,” (Foster III, 104).
The roots of plants three-plus years old are collected in areas of China and Turkey in September and October. They are then cleaned and dried. Foster points out, “Traditionally in China, the root is wild harvested, but wild supplies have been depleted. In the past 30 years it has been extensively cultivated in China,” (Foster III, 105).
Most commonly taken as a decoction, tincture, or syrup, David Hoffman suggests that medicinal rhubarb, “should be combined with carminative herbs to relieve any griping that may occur,” (Hoffman 134). Juliette de Bairacli Levy also recommends its being eaten if you have access to the fresh plant, saying, “Eat a few of the raw young stems frequently as a bowel tonic and mild laxative. Take as much as desire of the lightly cooked stems and hearts, flavored with lemon juice, sweetened with honey or sugar,” (Levy 132).
With a 5,000-year-old legacy of medicinal use in Chinese medicine, even written about by Marco Polo in his travels in the 13th century, “In 1731, the imperial Russian state began a monopoly in rhubarb trade from China via the Asian steppes to Moscow and St. Petersburg, where the root was shipped to the rest of Europe. The ‘Rhubarb Office’ controlled European imports of rhubarb for more than 125 years until Chinese ports opened to the West allowing direct export of the roots,” (Foster III, 104). Surprisingly, it was relatively unknown in the West until the 18th century, despite its having been used in medicines in Europe for hundreds of years previous, and its trade was one of great import (pun intended) – in China,“Rhubarb export was so common by the mid-19th century that when the emperor of China could not stop the import of British opium, he threatened to stop exporting rhubarb to Britain,” (Foster III, 105). That’s a powerful plant.
Do not use while pregnant or nursing or if you have any of the following conditions: arthritis, kidney disease, inflammatory bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, intestinal obstruction, or urinary problems. Only use root and rhizome, as the leaves are poisonous. As with any laxative, do not take for more than several days to this end. Also note: Usage may result in yellow or red colored urine.
Early March and spring is right around the corner. I thought it would be good to take some pictures, check in with the herbies as they venture out into the chill. Imagine my surprise when, four days after taking pictures for this post, this happened:
Ah, March. In like a lion, true to fashion. Let’s see if it goes out like a lamb?
Stay warm everyone! And if you’re on the East coast, enjoy the snow and stay safe!