Everybody has used herbs for making tea or seasoning food – for most of us, this is nothing special. But have you thought about the health benefits of the herbs you use? I believe you already know onion, chicory, lavender, rosemary and mustard, but did you also know they may have healing powers?
Nowadays, onion has a place in almost every kitchen and is easily available at the shop and in the garden. In ancient Egypt, however, it was dedicated to the great goddess Isis and forbidden to be eaten by common people. Eating onion was also prohibited during festivals, as it made you cry and could thus ruin the happy event.
One of the best-known riddles in Estonia – “seest siiruviiruline, pealt kullakarvaline” (“intricate on the inside, golden on the outside”) – is about the onion. The intricate inside can also refer to its various health benefits.
The onion is an excellent food plant and seasoning and according to traditional medicine, most of its health benefits are related to its external use. Experts of the European Medicines Agency consider the liquid extracts of onion as traditional and science-backed medical products. For instance, the liquid onion extract with soya-bean oil as the extraction solvent is recommended for the prevention or relief of mild or moderate bacterial upper respiratory airways infections and of hay fever.
Based on the traditional use of onion, some research findings and the similarity of its composition to that of garlic, we can assume that using onion for lowering the cholesterol levels in the blood, preventing the related atherosclerosis and relieving the symptoms of colds is also most likely justified.
The witticism “Söö sibulat ja kala, siis tõuseb nagu tala!” (“eating fish and onion gives you a good erection”) has a pretty good rhyme in it, but not so much truth. However, there is a possibility of a certain link to sexual performance: several studies have shown that freshly prepared onion juice significantly affected the sperm number, percentage of viability, and motility in male rats. The studies indicated that using 4 g of freshly prepared onion juice per kilogram of bodyweight effectively improved sperm health parameters. Also, fresh onion juice increased the production of androgens in rats. Whether it also applies to men is not known, just as the link between onions and erection.
Against colds, add one glass of 70% spirit to one tablespoon of chopped onion. Let it sit for three days. Then strain the liquid and take a small shot (10 ml) three times a day. If it tastes too strong, add some water.
The best-known product of chicory is the chicory coffee made from the dried root of the plant, but it can be also processed into sugar and spirit. It is an exciting plant in terms of its composition and possible effects, but so far, no clinical studies have been conducted whatsoever.
In traditional medicine, chicory has been used as a sedative and also a diuretic. It can relieve various stomach problems: diarrhoea and stomach aches, excessive biliary excretion and liver diseases. Women have eaten chicory flowers against excessive bleeding. Some even believe that chicory can stop ageing, but so far, no one has been able to prove that claim by staying forever young.
The European Medicines Agency confirms that chicory can help relieve stomach problems. Chicory root can be used for the relief of symptoms of mild digestive disorders (such as feeling full, flatulence and slow digestion) and temporary loss of appetite.
An experiment where the ethanolic extract of chicory plant was administered to rats is worth mentioning. After a 14-day cure with the extract, the blood glucose level was 20% lower and also the levels of triglycerides and cholesterol were lowered, though no changes could be noted in the insulin production. These results indicate that chicory may have an anti-diabetic effect and prevent atherosclerosis. Further studies on these effects, however, have only started.
To relieve the symptoms of mild digestive disorders and temporary loss of appetite, add one glass of water to one teaspoon of ground chicory root. Simmer over low heat for ten minutes, let it cool for 15 minutes. Strain the liquid and drink one glass once a day.
Thinking about lavender will probably bring its beautiful purple colour before your eyes and its intensive scent in your nose. In the Mediterranean, where lavender comes from, it is indeed cultivated for its decorative and aromatic purposes.
Lavender made it to Estonia also in the form of soaps and scented waters used in manors and by townspeople. At first, it was used for scenting laundry and repelling clothes moths. Also, mosquitoes and ticks do not like lavender, so it can be very handy when being in nature.
Lavender has been believed to increase libido and used as a sedative. It has also helped to relieve hysteria, hoarse voice, toothache, headache and joint pain as well as various cramps and pains. In the Nordic countries, lavender was also believed to protect against the evil eye.
The European Medicines Agency recognises the traditional use of whole and fragmented lavender flowers and its tincture for the relief of mild symptoms of mental stress and exhaustion, and to aid sleep.
The effect of lavender on the central nervous system has been proven in several clinical studies. So, using this plant to relieve nervousness-related digestive disorders, upset stomach and flatulence can be justified. Externally, lavender can accelerate the healing of various wounds and relieve insect bites. In aromatherapy, lavender oil has a wide range of uses, but there also the mechanisms of action are remarkably wider, including, for instance, the level of sense organs and emotions. You can also try adding ten drops of lavender oil to the water for the hot stones in the sauna.
Make yourself an infusion against exhaustion and stress and to improve sleep. Add 150 ml of boiling water to 1–2 grams of lavender flowers (ground or whole). Let it steep for ten minutes and strain. Drink the infusion three times a day.
Alchemists seemed to believe that rosemary was a cure-all. It was thought to boost memory and treat epilepsy, headaches and insanity, as the aromatic oils were believed to impact the etheric body. In modern times, rosemary is used for increasing appetite, preventing flatulence, reducing spasms, improving urinary excretion, relieving migraines and treating skin diseases.
Rosemary has been quite extensively studied on laboratory animals as well as in cell cultures and has been found to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, neuroprotective, anti-depressant, anti-hysteric and analgesic properties, improve memory and reduce mental fatigue.
The European Medicines Agency recognises the use of rosemary as whole or fragmented leaves, extract or fresh juice. The herb is meant to be used internally as a water infusion and for cutaneous administration, the extracts are used for making liquid or semi-solid products both for internal use or on the skin.
Used externally, the herb and its essential oil help to improve local blood circulation, alcohol infusion of the leaves can be used to treat hard-to-heal wounds and colds, as an anti-inflammatory product and to improve biliary excretion.
For an infusion to treat inflammation, improve biliary excretion and boost digestion, add one glass of hot water to one teaspoon of fragmented leaves. Let it steep for ten minutes and strain. Drink one glass of infusion three times a day or use externally.
Mustard as a condiment – table mustard – is something all Estonians have in their fridge. If not every day, then definitely at Christmas. Table mustard is produced from the pressed mustard seeds after the mustard oil has been extracted. This seed residue is mixed with water, vinegar, sugar, seasoning and sometimes also flour.
The Estonian and Russian food industries use the stronger Sarepta mustard. Elsewhere, the milder white mustard is used. The oldest mustard brand in Estonia is that of Põltsamaa, produced since the 1960s. The leaves of white mustard can be also used in salads and soups.
As herbal medicine, however, mustard has been used for much longer, mostly in the form of mustard powder bought from a pharmacy. In traditional medicine, mustard has been primarily used to improve blood circulation. The mustard and its plasters have a locally irritating and pain-relieving effect, increasing both the local blood supply (in the skin) as well as in the internal organ related to the segment of the spinal cord corresponding to that part of the body.
Mustard plasters or wraps are used externally mostly against cough, bronchitis, pneumonia and joint inflammation. For a mustard wrap, about four teaspoons of white mustard powder are mixed with a small amount of warm water. The resulting paste is kept on the affected body part for 10–15 minutes (5–10 minutes for children). Note that the effect of mustard powder wrap is slower and less reliable than that of plasters.
For a whole-body bath, add one or two tablespoons of mustard powder to the bathwater (35–40 °C). Such a bath increases respiration and heart rate, so make sure to keep the chest out of water.
Mustard foot baths are a traditional method to raise blood pressure and relieve headaches. Mustard essential oil is antibacterial and improves digestion thanks to its irritating effect on mucous tissue.
Taken internally, mustard powder boosts the secretion of gastric juice and thus increases appetite.
To support the treatment of cough, bronchitis, pneumonia, joint inflammation or rheumatism, dip the mustard plaster bought from a pharmacy into body-temperature water for a second and place it on your chest, back or another spot. Remove the plaster from the skin after five minutes, once the skin has become redder, but does not yet feel like burning. Never leave the plaster on for longer than 15–30 minutes.
Written by the Head of the University of Tartu Institute of Pharmacy, Professor in Pharmacognosy Ain Raal. Together with the nature journalist and folklorist Kristel Vilbaste, he has recently published the third volume of the book on Estonian medicinal plants, which this blog post is based on.