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Getting the Blood Moving

Blood Movers – Chinese medicine idea using Western herbs

Movement, change, flexibility – It’s what makes something vibrant and alive. A still pond fills with algae but a flowing stream feeds the river and the ocean. Sit still and get bedsores and indigestion and vein problems; keep active and stay healthy. A key part of health is keeping things moving rather than letting them sit and fester.

And so in herbal medicine we have many herbs that help stimulate circulation, to get the blood and other fluids moving and help cleanse the blood. We might call these circulatory stimulants, alteratives and lymphatics in Western parlance, and in Chinese medicine either Qi movers or Blood movers. But how can we tell if we need these herbs, or even which herbs are best?

Although there are many levels of stagnation, one of the best ways to visualize blood stagnation is to imagine a bruise. Tissues get damaged, capillaries break and blood leaves the vessels and pools; soon the body walls it off until the mess can get cleaned up and reintegrated. Bruises are painful and sore and then there’s that tell-tale purple-ish color. Got that image?

Blood movers are great for bruises and other physical trauma (think Arnica or Tiger Balm), but sometimes the stagnation isn’t quite so obvious. Sometimes we don’t get the nice visual “black and blue” but just the pain and soreness. This might be the pain we experience in arthritis, in an old injury that never healed right, or in menstrual cramps as a few examples.

When blood flow slows in an area, there is less oxygen and nutrients coming in and also slower removal of waste products. Think about how twigs and leaves start to accumulate when a part of a stream becomes impeded and slows down. This stagnation of fluids creates an environment where unwanted growths can occur and so we see swollen lymph nodes, fibrocystic breasts, uterine fibroids, enlarged prostate and tumors, to name a few. Blood movers work great for these kind of growths as well.

So there are a broad range of indications for blood moving herbs because slowed circulation can manifest in many different kinds of problems. These herbs range in strength from gentle herbs that are taken for a long time to clear up long-standing stagnation like Red Clover, traditionally used in many cancer formulas, to strong and potentially toxic moving herbs like Poke root used for acute lymphatic congestion or Arnica used topically for bruises and muscle pain.
Four local herbs that all have the ability to move Blood are Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa, syn. Actea racemosa) Stone Root (Collinsonia canadensis), Sassafrass (Sassafrass albidum), and Red Root (Ceanothus americanus). Those familiar with these herbs will recognize that these plants have different uses and might not ordinarily be grouped together in western herbology.

Black Cohosh is probably the best known of these herbs. Often thought of as a “women’s herb” for menstrual cramps and hot flashes, I often use it for muscular and joint pain for everything from rheumatoid arthritis to fibromyalgia to whiplash. It is a mild vasodilator, meaning it opens up the blood vessels to allow more blood flow, which makes it useful for mild hypertension.

When you look at the old indications for Black Cohosh, you’ll see that before it was thought of as an herb for menstrual cramps and hot flashes, it was used to treat “rheumatism” – a general word for arthritic complaints – and also as a remedy for nerve pain. This is telling, since most pain relieving herbs in Chinese medicine achieve their effect by moving blood.

Stone root is a lesser known herb but is abundant in rich woods from north Georgia up through New York and deserves a better reputation. Though not a remedy for any one specific condition, and indeed it is an herb that can take some time to take effect, I find it an excellent addition to any formula to move Blood in the pelvic area. It is not as strong and quick a blood mover as Black Cohosh, but works better for long-standing conditions that have resulted in accumulations. In western terms, it is an excellent lymphatic and local circulatory stimulant.

So it ends up in formulas for uterine fibroids, enlarged lymph nodes of the pelvic/inguinal area, and ovarian cysts as well as in formulas for “congested blood” manifesting as hemorrhoids and varicose veins.

Red root has a stronger reputation but is still not as widely used as it should be. Red root has even broader uses than Stone root, being used for almost any kind of lymphatic stagnation from swollen lymph nodes during a cold to chronic swollen glands, and if anything is not quite so specific for the pelvic area.

This is another herb that is key to any treatment of uterine fibroids, fibrocystic breasts, ovarian cysts and even enlarged prostate. Unlike Stone root, it does not seem to directly affect congested veins but mainly the lymphatic tissue which would make it very useful for treatment of mono and any other disease that causes enlargement of the spleen.

And finally we have Sassafrass, that lovely tasting root that is the original taste of root beer. Well before tobacco became popular, Sassafrass was an important export from the early American colonies to a Europe desperate for a syphilis cure. By itself, I’m not sure how much this root would do for syphilis but if there ever was a time when antibiotics were no longer available, this is one of the plants I would think of as part of a larger protocol.

Just tasting this herb, you can tell that this relative of Cinnamon is a warming circulatory herb. Traditionally used a spring tonic to cleanse the blood of all the heavy starchy food of a winter devoid of California-grown produce, it is also an excellent alterative, or blood cleanser, helping the body gently cleanse out toxins. As such, it has a long tradition of use for many kinds of rheumatism, especially any kind of joint pain that is worse with cold and damp. It has also, like many alteratives, been used for chronic skin conditions and other conditions where toxins may be building up in the blood.

We can learn a lot by integrating the ideas and therapeutic approaches of Chinese herbal medicine with the use of local herbs. Looking through another lens at herbs we may or may not be familiar with, we can understand new uses of old herbs and also how to make better choices about which herb to use for what particular kinds of symptoms.


White Flowers

Still getting the hang of blogging, and now I’ve got some stored up I’ll publish a few in a row. Today’s blog is about the plants blooming right now, and my next one will be about local herbs that are blood movers.

I’ve been watching flower colors this year, wondering if different colors represent the pollinators of different seasons. But so far, it seems that at least white flowers go through all the seasons.
Back in May we had a few white-flowered trees – the famous Dogwoods (Cornus florida) of course, and the beautiful off-white umbels of Black Haw (Viburnum prunifolium), truly a stronger antispasmodic than the closely related Cramp Bark (Viburnum opulus), with an action deeper in the body.
Then came the cherry blossoms, not the much-photographed flowers of Tokyo and Washington DC fame, but the Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina) with bottle-brush bundles of small white flowers that lined the highways and streets. I often wait for a windstorm then check to see if some of the fragile cherry limbs have come down to make medicine with. The bark is one of the best cough suppressors, but usually used after flower because of the potential for cyanide-like compounds in the bark during flowering time. Wild Cherry can make a great cough syrup or tincture.
But now we have the Elder blossoms (Sambucus canadensis), still blooming after weeks open. Elder is blooming all over my land, especially where there’s partial shade over a stream. Look for a small tree/shrub with big umbels of cream-colored flowers with a peculiar smell.
Although the berries are used most often as an anti-viral, I use the Elder flowers when I want a more drying effect, for example as an added herb during a sinus infection or drippy allergy noses. Made as a hot tea, it makes a great sweating herb for low-grade fevers. Drink a hot tea of Elder flowers, Yarrow flowers and Peppermint while sitting in a hot bath. When you’ve had enough and start getting woozy, get out and go lie in bed on some towels and you’ll probably fall fast asleep. Nine times out of ten, you’ll wake up with no fever whatsoever.
In the woods, we have more white flowers – Wild Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) and Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa, syn. Actea racemosa). Black Cohosh is one of the most popular herbs in modern herbal medicine and is the subject of a future article, but for now lets think about it as an anti-spasmodic, nervine, and hormone balancer.
Hydrangea is an under-rated and under-used herb that is excellent as an anti-inflammatory for the urinary tract. I most often use it combined with Stone Root (Collinsonia canadensis) and Gravel Root (Eupatorium purpureum) for kidney stones. But it can also be used for chronic irritation of the urinary tract, which could make it seem like one has a constant urinary tract infection. Hydrangea root, by itself or combined with the other herbs, could be a useful herb for just such a situation, even if it’s Interstitial Cystitis.
So that’s all the white flowers I can see from my window, so I’ll end here for now. In a month we’ll talk about some of the red flowers. But look for my next blog on blood movers.

That Darn Cold!!

Maybe it’s the undecided weather, but there sure seem to be a lot of head colds going around, colds that linger for weeks. So to kick off my first blog I thought I’d talk about and get really specific about some of the herbs used to treat colds. A lot of the herbal formulas in the store are too general; when I get sick (sorry, herbalists don’t get sick, we just have “cleansing reactions”!), I change my formula every few days, changing herbs as the illness changes.

Different herbs are good for different stages of the viral infection we call the common cold. Understanding what each herb is especially good for will help you figure out what a formula on the shelf is best used for. Or you can call your local herbalist to put together a custom formula for where you’re at.

First Stage – Catching It Early

Do I really need to tell anyone about Echinacea? All I need to tell you is that it works, and it works best at the very first stage of an illness, either before you feel sick or at the first sign of scratchy or sore throat. Echinacea is an immune stimulant; it sounds the alarm for the white blood cells. Once you have had symptoms more than a couple of days, your immune system should be plenty stimulated and more Echinacea won’t help.

Here’s a helpful tip on dosage – when I use Echinacea at the start of an illness, I’ll easily go through a one ounce bottle in a day or two because it works best at higher doses. I recommend using 3-5 dropperfuls 5 times a day, or even every 2 hours. Colds can linger once they take hold, so its best to use most of these herbs in high doses to hit it hard. Take your Echinacea early, take it often and take lots of it. Not a big fan of Echinacea/Goldenseal combination though. I feel like Echinacea works best at the start of an illness and Goldenseal works best for damp phlegm conditions that have really set in.

My other favorite immune stimulant is Elderberry. The fun thing about Elderberry is that it actually tastes pretty good, and can be used as a syrup to make it taste even better. A friend of mine even uses the syrup she makes on her pancakes as an immune tonic/preventative! Elderberry is an immune stimulant and anti-viral which has always been thought of as a folk herb, but recent scientific research has proven what many herbalists already knew – this plant is a great anti-viral.

Second Stage – Congestion

Now when the cold starts going deeper in the body, we often react by producing an excessive amount of protective mucous. Mucous serves a purpose – it protects and coats the surface of the respiratory tract and captures microbes like fly paper – but sometimes there is too much mucous being produced. That’s a good time to add in herbs to help clear congestion, or as they say in England, “catarrh.” In Chinese medicine, we would call these “herbs to disperse dampness.”

My favorite herbs for this stage are Osha, Bayberry, Prickly Ash, and Red root. Osha is a powerful herb from the Rocky Mountains that is a great anti-viral, expectorant, decongestant and anti-histamine. I would use it more, frankly, if it weren’t so hard to get. I’m afraid if it got too mainstream that it would get overpicked from the wild, so I don’t talk about it as much. But you can make sure to only get Osha from reliable sources.

Osha tastes like spicy celery, and it breaks up phlegm and helps clear mucous from the nose, sinuses and upper lungs. It is very warming and drying, so would not be appropriate if you are already feeling hot and dry.

Bayberry and Prickly Ash I use similarly. Both are heating herbs used as circulatory stimulants, and both will help clear a cold congested feeling from the head. I lean towards Bayberry for any kind of nasal or sinus congestion because it is both stimulating and astringent (drying). It is not antimicrobial, so you still need to add in other herbs, but Bayberry treats the environment which allows the bugs to grow by eliminating excess mucous.

While Bayberry is more for nasal congestion, Prickly Ash goes straight to the throat and treats feeling of congestion there. If you know the tongue-tingling taste of Echinacea, you’ll recognize the taste of Prickly Ash except that it’s about 10 times stronger!! In both herbs, it is the immune-stimulating alkylamides that create the sensation, which says a lot about Prickly Ash.

Red root is good for any kind of lymphatic stagnation and I add it to any formula where there are swollen lymph glands or sore throat. It is under-rated because it doesn’t treat any specific condition but can be used as a supportive herb for almost any kind of sore throat.

Third Stage – Deeper Infections

As infections go deeper, I usually throw in one of the strong antimicrobial “clear heat” herbs such as Oregon Grape, Barberry or Goldenseal. All contain berberine and can be used similarly. I tend to reserve Goldenseal for nasty infections with a lot of congestion since it is very drying to the mucous membranes in addition to being antimicrobial. Any of these herbs are antimicrobial, antiviral and antifungal. The difference is that Goldenseal is getting picked out of the wild because it is better known and also stronger. But this also makes it more expensive. I say save a few bucks and help save the environment by using one of the other berberine herbs – which also include our local Yellowroot and the Chinese herb Coptis.

And finally when the cold starts winding down, keep hitting it hard with herbs – the viruses this winter seem to linger. Take an extra day to rest and nurture yourself to avoid a recurrence in a few days. You can also start using Spikenard, Astragalus and Mullein. Spikenard is a great local root that helps strengthen the lungs, clear phlegm and build immunity, whereas Astragalus is a Chinese herb used as a lung tonic as well as a deep immune tonic. Mullein can help keep the lungs clear and make sure the infection doesn’t drop down into the lungs.

In the end though, its important to remember that the same illness can manifest differently for different people. Find the herbs that work best for you and for the way you find yourself getting sick. When in doubt, there are many great herbalists out there who can help you focus your formula with the herbs that you need, or even show you which of these herbs grow locally and can be easily harvested and made into medicine.

Be Well,

CoreyPine Shane
Director, Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine

Welcome to Blue Ridge Herbal News

Hi there,

This is CoreyPine Shane, Holistic Herbalist, RH (AHG) and director of the Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine. This blog is a place to share what’s happening in herbal medicine, what plants are ripe and ready to be harvested to eat or to make medicine with or to just appreciate, and to keep the conversation alive about the continually changing and evolving world of modern herbal medicine.

Be Well, and Enjoy!