Tag Archives: Herbs

Foxglove: History and Medicinal Uses

There has been a great deal of interest on this blog lately about the foxglove plant, so I asked herbal expert and integrative physician Alexa Fleckenstein, M.D., to give us some background. Here is what she wrote:

Foxglove is a beautiful plant in the garden – it likes a moist soil. The pinkish bells on graceful spikes cheer me up. Moreover, it self-seeds when it likes its home – carefree summer joy. It seems.

Foxglove is also one of the deadliest plants when ingested. The powerful medication digitalis has been derived from the plant to help ailing hearts. The story goes that William Withering (1741-1799) became aware of people self-medicating the “dropsy” (body swelling from what we now call congestive heart failure) with this plant; he then searched for the “active” ingredient and found it in digitalis.

Digitalis is safer than the mother plant because in a plant it is difficult to gauge the poisonous quantity the patient is ingesting. Even with digitalis, we physicians rely on a blood test to tell us whether the patient is receiving a safe dose. We say the therapeutic margin is narrow – which means it is but a small step between digitalis helping the heart and digitalis killing the patient.

For these reasons, I would not recommend adding foxglove into your home herb chest. Better to rely on herbs that are safe. With my patients I rely on herbs that have a large therapeutic margin. It is close to impossible to kill yourself with peppermint, for instance (don’t try at home – because, as Paracelsus knew, every single agent in the world can become poisonous if we ingest a large enough dose of it; sugar is a prime example; even water!).

How do we know an herb is safe? Often, they have been tested through centuries or millenniums of use. One person who developed a list of about one hundred safe herbs was Sebastian Kneipp (1821-1897). Better known for his “cold water cure,” Kneipp had learned about plants from his mother, who was the herbalist of the little village in Bavaria where he grew up. He tried to get away from the cold water (a long story, which I will tell you another time!), and therefore systematically searched for herbs that people could use for themselves, experimenting on himself for safety. Nowadays, science has better tools to examine an herb. Of the about one hundred herbs Kneipp had deemed safe, only abut three were removed from the list by the famous Commission E (which studies herbs for safety and efficacy in Germany).

The “safe” herbs can – and should – be used for everybody. And they should be taken whole – in a reputable tincture or a tea – and not manufactured and put into a pill. Because the plants have evolved with us over millions of years; their biochemistry fits into our physiology like a key in its lock. The many different compounds of a plant work in “synergy” (all for the same purpose – or: The sum is more than its parts. If you are interested in herbal synergy, I have written about it in my book).

Beautiful as it is, foxglove is an example of an unsafe plant – it belongs only in the hands of an experienced herbalist or your doctor. So content yourself with admiring the lovely foxglove flowers, and make yourself a nice cup of soothing herbal tea. Try lemon balm!

More about “the power of the flower.”


Filed under Health, heart arrhythmia, Herbs, Sebastian Kneipp, Uncategorized, Water

Weeds for Health: Live from Your Garden!

The summer solstice is a wonderful time to harvest nourishment from your garden. I caught up with herbal expert Alexa Fleckentein, M.D., just coming in from her garden with an armful of grapevines (vitis vitifera), considered a bad weed here in the Northeast. “I used to swear and mutter when I pulled them out,” says Dr. Alexa. “Now I delight: A study has shown that grape leaves are even higher than red wine in resveratrol, a phytoalexin known to prolong life and prevent cancer.” The Greeks have been making little dolmades from grape leaves—stuffed with rice, herbs and pine nuts – for thousands of years. Dr. Alexa’s cooking method is simpler: She adds the grape leaves to her vegetable stir-fry (recipes in her book), and freezes them to use all winter long. “Simple, cheap, and healthy,” she says.

If you live in the South, advises Dr. Alexa, you might substitute kudzu (pueraria montana). “Kudzu has some marvelous properties too,” she says. “It is high in vitamins A and C, and also contains calcium. It comes in handy as an anti-inflammatory food (and is a much better source of calcium than inflammatory dairy products). Everybody in the South complains about this obnoxious weed. How about eating it as a revenge?”

And when you are done with your stir-fry, enjoy Dr. Alexa’s famous Garden Tea, described in her book and in this article. “I throw all the other edible weeds in my garden—as well as many plants and flowers—into my daily Garden Tea, which is filled with the healing properties of Nature’s pharmacy,” says Dr. Alexa. “Everything that’s not poisonous can go in there – from kitchen herbs to dandelions, from rose petals to pine needles. But REALLY: You have to know what you are doing and what to avoid. One hundred percent!!” Details are in her book, but she strongly advises taking an herb course to be sure you know what NOT to include!

The first time I made Garden Tea, for example, I proudly threw in a hydrangea flower—it was so pretty! Then I called Dr. Alexa while it was steeping to check on whether this was OK to include. “Throw the whole tea away!” she commanded at once. “Hydrangea leaves and flowers are poisonous.” I was sad to see it go, but I head learned my lesson: When in doubt, throw it out!


Filed under boosting immunity, Cancer, Healing, Herbs

FDA says no cold meds for kids under 2- but there are alternatives

Today, the government issued a Public Health Advisory warning parents that over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold products should not be used to treat infants and children under 2 because of serious and potentially life-threatening side effects, including convulsions, rapid heart rates, decreased levels of consciousness, and death.

So what to do when your baby or toddler has a cold? There are a number of safe alternative treatments in Own Your Health: Your Sick Child, by John D. Mark, M.D., of Stanford University Medical School. These include herbal remedies, saltwater nose rinse, herbal steam inhalation, and anti-inflammatory foods—such as hot blueberry soup.

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Filed under alternative medicine, children's health, colds and flu

5 Easy New Year’s Resolutions for a Healthy 2008

Whether you are resolving to lose weight, improve your diet, get more exercise or live a more fulfilled life, here are 5 easy ways to feel and look great in 2008. Developed from the revolutionary health system of the 19th century Bavarian priest Sebastian Kneipp (1821-1897), these ideas are still revolutionary today. Alexa Fleckenstein M.D. has adapted Kneipp’s ideas for modern life in her book Health20. “Our times may be modern – but our bodies and souls are ancient,” says Dr. Fleckenstein. “It is time to let Americans in on the health wisdom that Europeans have known for years,”

Here’s how to wrap up your New Year’s Resolutions in just minutes a day: Splash yourself with cold water. Keep moving. Eat fresh, whole food. Cook and heal with herbs. Balance your life in simple ways. Here’s to a healthy 2008!

1. Every day after your hot shower, turn the water to “cold” for a few seconds. Learn more about cold showers here.

2. Exercise for two minutes every day. No excuses. If you exercise more, fine, but that doesn’t mean you can skip the next day. Dust off that treadmill or rowing machine languishing unused in the basement, or climb stairs briskly holding a couple of heavy books. A study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found no significant difference between people who exercised “vigorously” or “moderately” in weight loss and cardiovascular health. The key seems to be consistency.

Besides these two minutes, look for other ways to move. “Fill every day with some kind of movement,” says Dr. Fleckenstein. “Do not sit still. Use house cleaning or office work for exercise: stretch to the highest shelf and bend down with vigor. Use small dumbbells in front of TV. Fidget often — wiggle your shoulders, neck and spine as you sit at your desk or at a red light in your car. Move your legs around. Stand up to stretch every half hour or so. Every little movement burns calories, releases joints and tendons, builds up muscles and produces endorphins, the ‘feel good’ hormones.”

3. Eat food that is simple, fresh and whole; varied and in season. “Why would you want to put something in your body that even mold won’t touch?” asks Dr. Fleckenstein. Here are some of her suggestions:

• Find a new vegetable to try every month. Vegetables are full of nutrition and excellent sources of fiber and calcium and can prevent some cancers. Every vegetable tastes good when cooked with olive oil and garlic — two good sources of heart health.
• Discover nuts. They are a storehouse of minerals, healthy fats and vitamins. Nuts and fresh fruit can be a portable meal. Eat them raw and unsalted, and store them in the freezer to prevent mold and rancidity. A word of caution: nut allergies are fairly common.
• Drink water instead of soft drinks, saving calories and money. Not using bottled beverages also helps the Earth.
• Avoid sugar, white starches and dairy. They are major causes of obesity, heart disease and diabetes – not to mention cancer.
• Go easy on all meats (including chicken). Prefer fish and occasionally vegetarian dishes. Restrict meat (including deli meat) to once or twice a week.

4. Use the “green power” of herbs — they are Nature’s pharmacy. “Why is it,” asks Dr. Fleckenstein, “that everybody adores the sight of a lush green landscape, a garden in bloom — even a painted picture of a natural scene? You could call this taste for green an acquired taste — acquired over the millions of years, as our bodies evolved alongside the herbs growing on our planet.”

Use green herbs, fresh or dried, deliberately in your cooking. They are a good source of vitamins and minerals, especially calcium for your bones. And you can choose to take medicinal herbs for various health problems. If you are taking medications, discuss the herb with your physician or pharmacist to make sure that there is no adverse interaction. If your physician does not know about herbs, ask him or her to do some research and report back to you.

5. Add balance and order to your life. Kneipp’s thinking was influenced by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe . The great German poet believed in “pantheism,” which means that God is found throughout Nature. Kneipp shared that belief and prescribed following as closely as possible the ordered rhythms of Nature: ebb and flow, day and night, the rhythms of the season, the rhythms of the phases of our lives. Dr. Fleckenstein agrees. “Getting into natural settings – a walk at the beach, sitting around the woodstove and staring into the fire, looking up at the stars — creating peaceful, loving relationships with others, filling our lives with meaningful work, music and art, science and spirituality — this still applies over changes in fashion and time.”

To begin creating order in your life, she recommends:

• Once a week, go to bed before nine o’clock. This lowers stress, helps restore your immune system and enhances beauty.
• Join a gentle yoga or a tai chi class to nourish body and soul.
• “De-clutter” your house by tidying up, ten minutes a day — every day.
• Visit or call at least one person a day whom you love or who needs your love.
• Do some quiet soul searching or meditation to discover your purpose in life.
• Do less, have less, be more.

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Filed under boosting immunity, Cancer, cold shower health benefits, Healing, Health, Sebastian Kneipp, Water

Herbs for Health This Winter

Here are some herbs that will help you have a healthier winter. My expert is Alexa Fleckenstein, MD, author of Health2 0 and Healthy to 100. Here is what she told me:

“Herbs have been with us throughout evolution. They fit into our ancient physiology like a key into a lock. In prehistoric times, we always ate herbs from the wild. In modern life, a bitter green or strong root might just be what your body needs to find its way back to balance.”

Unlike the new “superbugs” that are resistant to antibiotics, bacteria and viruses do not easily develop resistance against herbs, says Dr. Fleckenstein. That is because a single herb contains hundreds or more of compounds, and many of these compounds work on killing off the germs. Since point mutations in bacteria can only develop one by one, it is highly unlikely that an herb becomes ineffective against a pathogen, because there will always be plenty of compounds to destroy the microbes first.

“The word for these compounds working together is synergy,” she explains. “Synergy is the reason why I recommend whole herbs (tinctures or so-called phytocaps with extracts of the whole plant) instead of ‘taking the best’ from several pants, and making a patented medicine. Patent medicines exist because natural plants can’t be patented, and so firms try to make money by taking single compounds from a plant, combining it with other single compound, thus producing a ‘new’ medicine which allegedly is better. The truth is that in many cases it is not better because you cannot improve on nature.”

So what does Dr. Fleckenstein recommend that you have on hand this winter in case illness strikes?

For colds and flu: echinacea, osha, pau d’arco, olive leaf, elderberry
For simple urinary tract infection: Uva ursi, usnea, cranberry. (Drink lots of warm water, too.)
For indigestion: dandelion, peppermint, milk thistle. (And think of cleaning up your diet!)
For cough: horehound, echinacea, linden flowers
For insomnia: valerian, hops, passionflower

Important caution: Always check with your doctor before taking any herb, since there could be dangerous interactions with other medicines you are taking!

For more information, check out her books (which include not only advice about herbs, but also about cold water, nutrition, movement and life balance). Another great resource is The Green Pharmacy, by ethnobotanist James Duke.


Filed under alternative medicine, boosting immunity, colds and flu, Healing, Health