Herbs for health: Feel the heat

Herb expert Ed Berger on how our indigeneous pungent plants can help ward off winter chills

Herb expert Ed Berger on how our indigeneous pungent plants can help ward off winter chills

Cold hands and feet are a bother for many of us at this time of the year as icy Siberian winds blast across Suffolk from the North Sea. After all the festivities and cheer of Christmas and New Year, the month of January feels particularly chilly.Chilblains are circulatory condition that occur when our fingers and toes warm up too quickly following cold exposure, which damages tiny blood vessels and leads to itching, soreness and swelling.The most important strategy is to keep the hands and feet well wrapped up in gloves and thick socks to minimise exposure to the cold, however the plant kingdom is also an important ally, providing us with a number of ‘warming herbs’ to maintain healthy circulation. For our Northern European ancestors, the indigenous warming herbs were mustard and horseradish, containing pungent sulphur compounds that improve circulation and noticeably stave off the cold when consumed either in cooking or as condiments. It’s no coincidence that horseradish sauce and mustard are staple accompaniments with traditional winter fare. Black pepper, ginger and cinnamon from the East are also powerful circulatory herbs, once literally worth their weight in gold for their warming properties. Indeed a 15th century saying claimed that “No man should die who can afford cinnamon”. Ginger and cinnamon make delicious warming teas on a chilly day, simply infuse a few slices of fresh ginger rhizome, or a quarter teaspoon of dry ginger or half a teaspoon of cinnamon powder in a mug of just boiled water. Drink at least three or four cups throughout the day to maintain a warm glow instead of the usual tea or coffee, especially as caffeine actually constricts blood vessels and so will aggravate circulatory problems. Adding warming spices to winter soups, stews and baking recipes is a delicious and beneficial strategy, a fact that our ancestors understood well if you consider traditional midwinter fare such as mince pies and mulled wine made with cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. If you have the stomach for it the fiery and ironically named chilli pepper is probably the hottest of all plant remedies and will help keep you warm as toast on the coldest days and nights when used as a condiment or ingredient in cooking.Many of these herbs can also be used externally as rubs for chilly hands and feet, with ginger, black pepper and rosemary most often recommended by herbalists. You will need to purchase them in the form of ‘essential oil’ from a good health food store. Never apply essential oils neat to the skin, instead dilute them in olive or almond oil at a ratio of 20 drops per 100ml, then rub the mixture into the hands and feet a couple of times daily. Alternatively you can add the drops to a skin cream or lotion in the same ratio, mixing well before applying.  For problem circulation another important remedy is the Chinese herb Ginkgo biloba which is available from good health food stores. Ginkgo improves circulation by dilating blood vessels and is backed by a wealth of clinical research. Because different products vary in strength you should always follow the dosage guidelines on product labels and avoid this herb if you are already taking conventional blood thinning medicines.

No herbs mentioned in this article should be taken internally at medicinal doses if pregnant or breast feeding, although normal culinary use is perfectly safe.

Suffolk-based Ed Berger has been practising herbal medicine and naturopathy for 12 years. He also teaches at the College of Naturopathic Medicine and is a keen plantsman. To discuss any aspect of herbal medicine or to arrange a consultation please contact Ed on 07931 797148 or info@edberger.co.uk

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