Snake Oils, Herbs, and Traditional Healing

mintThis is yet another week when I had a blog scheduled for one subject, and, because of current life events, I ended up writing on an entirely different subject. This week, despite getting the flu shot, one of my sons got the flu. I know that it’s viral, and most doctors will say “take Tamiflu” or “wait it out,” but my kids can attest to the fact that that is not at all what I let them do. When one member of a large family gets sick, there is often a domino effect – one goes down, then the others follow. So, what some of my friends pass off as snake oil, I know to begin giving to the whole family at the first sign of illness.

When we hear the phrase “snake oil,” we usually think of 19th Century charlatans who were out to take people’s money for a product that did little to no good for the consumer. Did you know, though, that snake oil used to be a real and effective remedy? Originally brought to the United States by immigrant Chinese workers on railroad construction crews, snake oil was made from the body oils of the Chinese water snake. This oil was replete with omega-3 fatty acids. Here is part of the Mayo Clinic’s take on omega-3s:

“Omega-3 fatty acids are thought to provide a wide range of health benefits, including a lower risk of coronary heart disease and improvement in cholesterol. There have also been promising results from studies looking at omega-3 for cancer, depression, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Due to these potential health benefits, fish oil, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, has become a popular supplement.

There is evidence that recommended amounts of DHA and EPA, taken as fish or fish oil supplements, may lower triglycerides and reduce the risk of heart attack, abnormal heartbeat, and stroke in people who have heart disorders.” 1

In addition, the American College of Nutrition released a 2002 report that showed that “Animal experiments and clinical intervention studies indicate that omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties and, therefore, might be useful in the management of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.”2 Apparently, Chinese workers would use this snake oil to effectively reduce inflammation in their aching, overworked joints and muscles. So, why the bad rap?

To put it succinctly, Americans tried to make their own version of snake oil using American snakes, which contained far less of the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. So, naturally, these concoctions didn’t work as well as the Chinese version. Additionally, other American salesmen, who saw a golden opportunity to cheat an eager populous, began to market products labeled “snake oil” which contained no snake oil at all. These shysters were part of the reason the FDA decided to pass regulations on patented medicines, and these regulations resulted in the revelation by the public that they’d been had. Between this kind of fraud and the newly emerging field of laboratory medicine, many folks understandably turned away from truly effective traditional healing techniques and relied solely on lab-tested, synthetic medicines that could be purchased at the drug store.

But there is a deep and growing movement worldwide and, thankfully, in the United States, to recapture some of the healing knowledge from our forebears that has been all but forgotten in this day and age. This is knowledge that I try to compile as I find herbs and other alternative healing methods that seem to be effective for my family. I’ve started a notebook, because this is knowledge that I want to pass along to my children. It’s valuable and needed, and it’s often cheaper and more effective to treat illness with herbs and other alternative therapies than to head for the doctor and prescriptions. One search on Google, and there are boundless articles on the effectiveness of herbal treatments for equally boundless numbers of ailments. Often, plants which scientists use to extract single components for use as medicine, work better as a whole; this is purportedly because the plant in its entirety contains enzymes and other complementary components that work in tandem with the extracted substance that make it safer and more effective than the single extract is on its own. And, sometimes, even modern science is still trying to discern why certain herbs or combinations of items have such seemingly miraculous healing abilities. One need only to read on the 2015 discovery of a 1,000 year old medical textbook detailing an eye salve remedy containing garlic, onion, wine and bile salts from a cow’s stomach and cooked in a copper vessel. Scientists tested the recipe, hoping it would have at least a little bit of antibacterial activity. According to one BBC report, the researchers were “astonished” that it almost obliterated antibiotic-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Dr Freya Harrison, a researcher on the team, was quoted as saying, “…we were absolutely blown away by just how effective the combination of ingredients was.” This kind of stuff will probably always intrigue me. I can’t help but be amazed that we have simple and effective solutions often at our fingertips that spring forth from the earth.

I started studying herbal medicine when I was 18 years old and worked in a health food store. During times when I wasn’t stocking shelves or dusting or tending to customers, I pored over thick manuals and charts and annals of doctors’ accounts of trial and error and healing. While this was a new world for me, as the daughter of an avid homeopathy supporter (my dad), and as the kid who always had the brown lunch at school (whole wheat bread, whole juices, if I was lucky – a granola bar, no Twinkies or jelly-filled snacks), it jibed with my understanding of things. After studying herbs, I moved on to homeopathy a little (just enough to gain a basic understanding of it) and essential oils (which I love, love, love) and then dietary means of treatment and prevention of illness. I don’t hold a degree in any healing arts. But I study these things in order to help my family and farm animals and even plants. From the sometimes obscure books at health food stores, to the herbalism movement, to (thank goodness!) the Internet, there are lots of sources that are reliable for learning. (Watch out for looneys on the Web, though. Crazy people abound and can write whatever they want to. I like PubMed for a great source of science-based research.)

So, what do we use around here at Two Clay Birds Farm to combat seasonal illnesses, such as the flu and colds? Here is a list of my favorites that I rely on from both an anecdotal, historical standpoint as well as some that have been studied extensively by researchers and have been found to be effective:

Elderberry. We take this in syrup form or as a tea. One 2004 study found that “Symptoms were relieved on average 4 days earlier and use of rescue medication was significantly less in those receiving elderberry extract compared with placebo. Elderberry extract seems to offer an efficient, safe and cost-effective treatment for influenza.” 3

Yarrow. This is a plant native to our area of Texas. It has traditionally been used to break fevers and treat all manner of infections and wound care. In 2008, scientists supported traditional use of yarrow as a multi-functional remedy:

“The genus Achillea consists of about 140 perennial herbs native to the Northern hemisphere. Traditional indications of their use include digestive problems, liver and gall-bladder conditions, menstrual irregularities, cramps, fever, wound healing… Recent findings have confirmed several traditional uses. The largest number of data accumulated for antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. There are positive results on the analgesic, anti-ulcer, choleretic, hepatoprotective and wound healing activities. First results on other interesting therapeutical areas – antihypertensive, antidiabetic, antitumor, antispermatogenic activities -need confirmation. Yarrow can be used also as an insect repellent… The diversity and complexity of the effective compounds of yarrow species explains the broad spectrum of their activity. According to the literature the pharmacological effects are mainly due to the essential oil, proazulenes and other sesquiterpene lactones, dicaffeoylquinic acids and flavonoids. Synergistic actions of these and other compounds are also supposed.” 4

Interestingly, yarrow was the ONLY remedy that worked on my babies for diaper rash. Yarrow tea applied to their bottoms with a cotton ball and allowed to air dry, if possible, was infinitely more effective than any of the most expensive and sought-after diaper rash creams. Yarrow is cheap when purchased in capsule form at the health food store. I open the capsules when I want to make tea from it. I also wild harvest it in the pasture when I find it, making sure to leave much more intact in the field than the amount that I harvest. This ensures that it will continue to propagate as a species.

Garlic. Since time immemorial, garlic has been used as a cure for countless maladies and by countless cultures. Jewish slaves in Egypt were given garlic because it was said to give them strength. Egyptian royalty was buried with garlic in their tombs. Hippocrates prescribed it for patients. And it was critical as a remedy in Ancient Rome, Greece and Asia and also in the Americas. Many studies have shown beneficial properties of garlic for use in thinning the blood and for coronary health. But when I’m treating my family, I know that it also has major benefits when fighting viruses. A 2012 Clinical Nutrition article concluded that “results suggest that supplementation of the diet with aged garlic extract may enhance immune cell function and that this may be responsible, in part, for reduced severity of colds and flu.” 5 We make a recipe that goes, loosely, as follows:

½  to 1 cup cold-pressed, virgin olive oil, slightly warmed but not boiling
3 cloves fresh, chopped garlic (or dehydrated, only if that’s all that’s available)
Several teaspoons of oregano
Chile powder (I like cayenne or Chimayo)
Sea salt, to taste
Onion (fresh or dehydrated), to taste
Rosemary (fresh, if possible)
Sometimes tomatoes

If someone is really ill at the moment, I speed the process up by heating the olive oil on the stove, although I suspect that it could reduce some of the inherent health benefits of the olive oil (which are similar to those of ibuprofen) by doing this. Whether you make it warm or on the stove, when all the flavors mix and the oils from the garlic and onions and herbs can be clearly tasted, we serve this on sprouted, whole grain bread (this is the kind you can find in the freezer section at the grocery store – I like Ezekiel brand). It’s a tasty way to reap the health benefits of the garlic and herbs.

Oils of Ancient Thieves. The story goes that there were grave robbers during the bubonic plague whose families were adept at the art of protecting their immune systems with spices and oils. They would cover themselves with these oils when thieving from the dead and dying – stealing copious amounts of gold and treasures this way. When caught, they traded their recipe to the government in exchange for a lighter sentence. It is a blend of clove, lemon, cinnamon, eucalyptus and rosemary oils. Since I know that the quality of essential oils matters greatly, I use and sell Thieves Oil from Young Living. It’s organically grown and pure essential oils, without the added fillers that comprise the majority of many store-bought brands. But how effective is it? Is it just a fun and intriguing story? According to a study released in 2010 by BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine that analyzed a formula comparable to Young Living’s Thieves Oil (On Guard by doTerra), the answer is this:

“Influenza virus infectivity was suppressed by essential oil treatment in a dose-dependent manner; the number of nascent viral particles released from MDCK cells was reduced by 90% and by 40% when virus was treated with 1:4,000 and 1:6,000 dilutions of the oil, respectively. Oil treatment of the virus also decreased direct infection of the cells… Oil treated virus continued to express viral mRNAs but had minimal expression of viral proteins, suggesting that the antiviral effect may be due to inhibition of viral protein translation.” 6

In short, it works. And it’s badass. I keep some in my purse at all times. I take it orally, and for my kids I mix a few drops in honey and lemon juice. They like it! We also use it on our hands and on tables in skeevy restaurants and out in the field after working but before eating. Other essential oils have been proven in the laboratory to be very effective against bacteria, yeast, and fungi – leading to further research on their effectiveness for food sanitation and other hygiene uses. 7

Oregano. My kids will tell you that they know that as soon as they come down with something, my first course of action is to make them some Mexican oregano tea. I mix lots and lots of honey with it. And, if I have some chocolate milk mix on hand, I mix it with that and a couple of tablespoons of raw milk. Sounds gross. To some it is. But my children have all learned to love it and will ask for it when sick. Alternatively, I use one drop of the oil mixed with honey and spoon feed it to my happily-receptive children. Once again, science has proven up what my aunt in Mexico told me. Oregano works to treat respiratory ailments. I will tell you that, in my experience, it suppresses a cough until your body decides to get rid of a whole giant wad of phlegm in one fell swoop. A scientist will tell you that oregano is effective against a slew of bacteria that cause respiratory illness 8, including those that are antibiotic resistant. 9

Honey. Speaking of honey, you might note that I mix it into a lot of stuff and mix a lot of other stuff with it. Why? Let me tell you a story. One day, when my daughter was about a year old, she was sick. Very sick. I had tried all my tricks and was ready to resort to whatever over-the-counter, full-of-artificial-colors-and-flavors-and-sweeteners cure I could by with whatever money I had. I was D-O-N-E, done! I called the 24 hour nurse line at her very modern and mainstream pediatrician’s office. I explained that I don’t know much about OTC meds, but that I was ready to try anything. “So,” I asked. “Do I need to buy Benadryl [which I do keep on hand for allergic reactions, because it works] or Mucinex or Robitussin or something? What will work for my baby?” Their answer? “Honey.” The nurse explained that honey is the only expectorant they recommend in their very modern and mainstream clinic, because it is the most effective treatment for children’s congestion and has no side effects. (Note: never give honey to infants under one year of age.) So, I tried it. And it was amazing. Truly amazing! My baby’s nose and chest cleared up, and she was on the road to recovery. It was then that I recalled that my midwives at her birth had recommended putting honey on her belly button until it fell off because they said it had antibacterial and drying properties. Indeed, this is true. 10, 11  I always keep it handy in my pantry/ medicine cabinet.

Mullein. When it comes to a respiratory superhero, mullein flies in with a cape and some underwear on the outside of its tights and punches the bad guys in the chest. In more science-y terms: “Verbascum phlomoides L. (Scrophulariaceae) (mullein) used in the European folk medicine due to its anti-inflammatory and soothing action on the respiratory tract is thoroughly documented in handbooks and scientific literature.” 12 I buy it in tea bags when I can. Sometimes capsules are the only things available, so I open them to make tea or give them to my family in capsule form when they can’t stomach the thought of drinking and eating a lot.

Zinc. After the births of my last two babies, my immune system took a crash and burn nosedive. Doctors were stumped. I spent 2-3 months following their births with extended illnesses and weird infections. So, I began doing my own research. What I read in journal after journal was that women’s immune systems sometimes do that post-partum and that zinc was proving to be very helpful in reversing that. So, I started taking zinc daily and experienced an enormous and immediate turnaround in my health. I invite you to head to PubMed and research all the ways in which zinc has been shown to boost immune health. Needless to say, our family takes it daily during struggles against a variety of health compromisers. You can take too much, so ask a doctor what a good dose is, and do your own research. We only use it on an as-needed basis. I swear by the chewable lozenges. But stay away from the nasal sprays. I’ve read many accounts of permanent sinus and nasal damage caused by the sprays.

Echinacea. Almost everyone has heard of Echinacea. It was one of the first plants I ever researched when I began my herbal studies some 20+ years ago. It is another Texas native and was used extensively by Native Americans for boosting the immune system. Turns out they were on to something. A 2015 study conducted on the effects of Echinacea on respiratory infections concluded that “echinacea potently lowers the risk of recurrent respiratory infections and complications thereof .” 13

Nettle. Stinging nettle has a long history of medicinal use for a long list of conditions. In our house, we use it like Native Americans and early settlers did – for sinus troubles. It’s native to Texas, but it’s much easier to buy it than to pick it (if you’ve never picked stinging nettle – called bull nettle around here – you’ll only do it once before learning a painful lesson). I buy it in tea bags and keep it on hand for keeping nasal passages clear. It also gives you boosts of vitamins A and K and iron.

The herbs and oils and other supplements I mentioned here are staples in my immune system arsenal and are used to treat not only my family but also our animals here at Two Clay Birds Farm. These are just the tip of the iceberg, as I have focused mostly here on respiratory health and other illnesses that are common during the winter. Perhaps in other posts I’ll cover other alternative therapies we employ around here. I’d like to report, though, that after 4 days, we are having super results, as no other members of our clan have caught the flu. So, raise a glass of Echinacea-mullein-oregano-elderberry tea with me and drink up!

Sources (click on each journal or research organization name to view links to articles):

1. Mayo Clinic website.

2. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2002 Dec;21(6):495-505. Omega-3 fatty acids in inflammation and autoimmune diseases.

3. The Journal of International Medical Research. 2004 Mar-Apr;32(2):132-40. Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections.

4. Current Pharmaceutical Design.2008;14(29):3151-67. Biological activities of yarrow species (Achillea spp.).

5. Clinical Nutrition. 2012 Jun;31(3):337-44. doi: 10.1016/j.clnu.2011.11.019. Epub 2012 Jan 24. Supplementation with aged garlic extract improves both NK and γδ-T cell function and reduces the severity of cold and flu symptoms: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled nutrition intervention.

6. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine.2010 Nov 15;10:69. doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-10-69. Protective essential oil attenuates influenza virus infection: an in vitro study in MDCK cells.

7. Food and Environmental Virology.2015 Jan 31. [Epub ahead of print] Evaluation of Natural Compounds of Plant Origin for Inactivation of Enteric Viruses.

8. Pakistan Journal of Pharmaceutical Science.2009 Oct;22(4):421-4. Antibacterial activity of oregano (Origanum vulgare Linn.) against gram positive bacteria.

9. Journal of Medicinal Food.2008 Sep;11(3):568-73. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2007.0520. Antimicrobial activities of the essential oils of Origanum onites L., Origanum vulgare L. subspecies hirtum (Link) Ietswaart, Satureja thymbra L., and Thymus cilicicus Boiss. & Bal. growing wild in Turkey.

10. Indian Journal of Surgery.2015 Dec;77(Suppl 2):261-3. doi: 10.1007/s12262-012-0789-9. Epub 2012 Dec 7. Honey Dressing Accelerates Split-Thickness Skin Graft Donor Site Healing.

11. Southeast Asian Journal of Tropical Medicine and Public Health.2015 May;46(3):472-9. ANTI-STAPHYLOCOCCAL ACTIVITY OF MELALEUCA HONEY.

12. Pharmaceutical Biology.2013 Jul;51(7):925-9. doi: 10.3109/13880209.2013.767361. Epub 2013 Apr 29. Correlation between polyphenol content and anti-inflammatory activity of Verbascum phlomoides (mullein).

13. Advances in Therapy.2015 Mar;32(3):187-200. doi: 10.1007/s12325-015-0194-4. Epub 2015 Mar 18. Echinacea reduces the risk of recurrent respiratory tract infections and complications: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.










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