One of the more frustrating aspects of modern life is the rapid rise of the Syndrome: a physical condition that causes its sufferers obvious distress, but can’t quite be nailed down by the docs in terms of causes or even detectable problems with body tissues. Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome are examples. Something’s wrong, but nobody’s really sure what’s causing it, and without long-term and expensive research even the most responsible doctors might as well be throwing darts in the dark. In a good-faith attempt to help their patients, doctors prescribe drugs “off-label” and recommend “exercise” for virtually anything that they’re stumped by (“exercise” including your hoped-for immediate and sprightly departure into their parking lot). And into the void rush the hucksters. You know who they are — they’re putting up little advertising squares about “neat tricks” and “amazing fruits” on the side banner of every browser.
Enter herbal alchemy. For various reasons both justified and unjustified, herbalism doesn’t have much better of a reputation than the snake-oil salesmen out there. If you’re going to try it out of sheer frustration with the lack of conventional options, you should be cautious; it requires some intelligent and focused research so you don’t poison yourself by accident. This research is available, fortunately, because our knowledge about plant elements has advanced since the Middle Ages and the herb-women. Some countries have produced reliable, reproducible information on the use of herbs for medical conditions (I’m thinking about you, Germany’s Commission E). So as a person with gut problems existing since her teenage years, an anachronistic interest in medieval herbal medicine combined with the power of the Interwebs, and having the advantage of an extensive herb garden, I thought I’d try to make a tea.
Each one of the herbs I chose for the gut-calming tea mix has an anecdotal history — sometimes stretching back centuries — for easing digestive problems. On the top left are California poppy and valerian; next over are yarrow flowers; directly below are borage flowers and lemon balm (also known as bee balm); and then there are the heavy hitters: chamomile in the black cup and fennel seeds strewn beneath it. I included lavender blooms (in the center) and rose petals (with the fennel) because while they do have some evidence for calmative properties, they also might make the tea a little more attractive taste-wise.
I grew and dried each one of these ingredients, so I know where they came from and how they were handled and stored. I also investigated each herb to determine if there was any reason why I shouldn’t use it. Here I will invoke the august Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs again, as I will probably do until the day I die: nobody should fool around with non-culinary herbs, internally or externally, until they’ve read its section on “A Sampling of Dangerous Herbs” and preferably memorized it. And even then, no herb should be used until it has been researched exhaustively for application only on yourself, and with a reality check from a Real Doctor. We’re not talking about acute illnesses. We’re talking about those mysterious chronic situations where real medicine (and I am not using that phrase sarcastically) isn’t offering any solutions or really any hope except “go home and exercise.”
These reality-based cautions aside, back to the tea. Some folks who might be a little more informed about herbal medicine might ask about the valerian and California poppy. They’re primarily known for a mild and non-addictive sedative action, not smooth-muscle gut activity, though there is some limited evidence for the latter. I chose to include them in the tea mix because of something I read many, many years ago. It’s a story told by James Herriot, the Yorkshire veterinarian who became famous for his book called “All Creatures Great and Small.” While my summary is not short, it explains my reasoning.
Dr. Herriot was called to the farm of a particularly cruel and stupid man who had botched a problematic birth of one of his sheep, and then abandoned her, suffering, in a corner of the barn to “take her chance.” Dr. Herriot was appalled, though the sheep was not the patient he was called out to tend. As he wrote, “I tried not to think what lay in front of her. Soon I would drive off and see other cases, then I would have lunch and start my afternoon round while hidden in this cheerful place a helpless animal was gasping her life away. How long would it take her to die? A day? Two days.”
Without the knowledge of the farmer, Dr. Herriot injected the sheep with enough nembutal to kill a small horse. A few days later, he was called back to the farm to attend his original patient. In the field outside the barn, he was astounded to see the sheep he thought he had euthanized. When he tried to catch her, she nimbly evaded him and thundered away.
Let me quote Dr. Herriot at length now:
And as I walked back up the field a message was tapping in my brain. I had discovered something, discovered something by accident. That ewe’s life had been saved not by medicinal therapy but simply by stopping her pain and allowing nature to do its own job of healing. It was a lesson I have never forgotten; that animals confronted with severe continuous pain and the terror and the shock that goes with it will often retreat even into death, and if you can remove that pain amazing things can happen. It is difficult to explain rationally but I know that it is so.
Humans are animals too, and I thought I might apply this insight to a condition that can sometimes produce violent and debilitating pain and fear. Thus, the poppy and the valerian in the tea.
And here it is, mixed:
I’ll report back on how it works, or doesn’t. Alchemy of any sort is innately unpredictable.