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Harmonizing Herbs from Mother Nature

AMONG OUR ANCESTORS who struggled against the illnesses of their time, and somehow survived, herbal medicine played an important role in their lives. Very early on, man discovered that the use of various aromatic plants greatly enhanced the flavor and aroma of prepared foods. It was soon discovered that many of these herbs and plants had valuable medicinal properties, as well. Nourishing herbs are those often used in food preparation and have few side effects.

Common garden sage falls into the nourishing category. Ginger eases painful flatulence and indigestion. Tonifying herbs act slowly in the body and like many medications have a cumulative effect. A commonly used herb in this category is dong quai from the carrot family has a positive cardiovascular effect and is often recommended for use with menopausal symptoms.

The correct herbs could cure a variety of ailments, and healers learned to use particular roots, types of tree bark, plant stalks or stems, leaves, flowers, and seeds in their preparations. Even toxic herbs, classified as potential poisons if taken continuously in large quantities, were taken for very short periods of time in small amounts. Examples are cotton root and cayenne.

The term herbal usually refers to a book about herb usage. Many herbals are old and have been passed down from one practitioner to another. Adaptogens are herbs that act in a nonspecific way to strengthen the body and increase resistance to disease and stress.

All aromatic herbs must be dried before use. Usually they are hung in branches, or they are spread out on racks, in such a way that there is plenty of air circulation. This helps avoid the problems of mold formation or fermentation. Once dried, they are stored in glass jars, clay pots, metal containers or paper bags, until needed.

Medicinal herbs must be carefully prepared in order to gain maximum potency and effectiveness. A decoction, for example, consists of boiling herbs/flowers for a half an hour or so. The process of infusion entails pouring boiling water onto powdered herbs, and then straining out the sediment. Maceration calls for immersing herbs for an extended period of time in water, wine or alcohol.

Once our ancestors' pharmacists had prepared their remedies, they stored them in ceramic pots, glass jars, and various bottles and boxes. Herbal medicines usually came in the forms of:

  1. Tinctures are infusions with an alcohol base. Glycerin or vinegar may also be used. Tinctures are very concentrated, long lasting, and stable. They are easily stored and administered in drops.
  2. Granule (after grinding, a substance or mixture of substances would be compressed into a small lump the forerunner of the pill or tablet as we know it now.
  3. Infusions are teas made from delicate part of a plant, such as leaves, berries, flowers. Hot water is added to the herbs or water is heated to a boil and the herbs are added. The infusion is then steeped.
  4. Salve or ointments are combinations of herbs, wax and oils for external application.
The medicines would be administered in a variety of ways: swallowing, inhaling, simple external application, massaging into the muscles, etc.

Through the centuries, hundreds of herbs have been cultivated or collected for medicinal purposes, including many common kitchen spices and vegetables.

Traditional Thai herbal medicine is a promising source of inspiration, ideas and, frequently, cures. But before you raid the cook's herb garden, or start poking around in the forest, remember that herbal remedies, just like any medicines, can have undesirable, even dangerous, side effects if taken too frequently, in doses too large, or if improperly prepared. Western medical experts stress the need for further studies to evaluate the effectiveness. It's just as important for practitioners to home their knowledge of and skills in working with natural and alternative therapies because people are dabbling in these, often without counsel and direction from practitioners.

In addition, certain poisonous plants look very much like some harmless plants. A mistake could be fatal. You should know what you are taking into your body, and how much is safe to take Also be sure to wash all parts of any plant carefully - pesticides are used everywhere.

A nice cup of guava leaf tea laced with insecticide would undoubtedly have an effect on you, although probably the effect you intended. In short, the rule of thumb is, when in doubt, consult an expert. In Chiangmai, a good source of information is Wat Nanthararm, which houses a center for traditional Thai medicine. Elsewhere in the North, the Chinese Kuomintang village of Doi Mae Salong is the home of a number of practicing herbalists.

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