Histamine Issues on the Up

Most of us have heard of antihistamine medication and think of it being used for histamine issues that manifest as hay fever and insect bites.

But did you know that one of the best-selling pharmacy medicines for sleep problems is an antihistamine? It’s sold to help sleep by reducing the histamine level in your brain.

Scientists have known for a long time that we have histamine-releasing cells throughout the body.  Your inner skin, the mucus membranes that line your gut, your lungs, your bladder, and your nasal passages are full of histamine-releasing mast cells.  Your outer skin, your dermis, is full of these mast cells too.

But it’s not just mast cells that release histamine.  We now understand that histamine plays an important role in our nervous system as an excitatory neurotransmitter.  In balance, it has an important role to play. It keeps us alert and awake.  But in excess can cause histamine issues and may exacerbate problems such as migraine, sleep disturbance, and even neurological complaints such as Parkinson’s disease.

Keeping histamine in check

As a stimulating and excitatory chemical, it is important that we keep histamine in check and working for us and not against us.

Mast cells are an important part of our immune system.  They help to protect our bodies by guarding the boundary between us and the outside world.  If you are exposed to a nasty irritant, your body releases histamine. You then produce secretions and literally wash the irritant out of your mucus membranes, or you will scratch the irritant from your skin.

This is exactly what histamine was designed for, to flush it out. Job done.

But life is not so simple anymore.  Histamine issues are on the increase as our inner and outer world has become much more complex.

Related problems

Synthetic chemicals, processed foods, chronic stress, and perpetual stimulation are wreaking havoc on immunity and digestion. As a result, we’re seeing an increase in allergy, inflammation, and histamine-mediated conditions.

In the UK we’re seeing a 5% increase year on year in the presentation of allergic conditions.  And emerging problems with new conditions such as Long Covid are showing histamine involvement as part of the clinical picture, too.

Instead of histamine being a protective friend, it has become an inflammatory foe and is turning against us.  So much so that histamine intolerance itself is now recognised as a condition in its own right.

Addressing issues

All is not lost, however. We can take steps to address histamine issues.  Your body may be able to produce and release histamine, but it can also break it down and eliminate it.

Measures such as reducing high histamine foods, improving your gut microbiome, correcting nutritional imbalances, and addressing chronic stress can all have a positive impact on reducing excess histamine release that leads to histamine issues.

There are also several interesting botanicals including schisandra, reishi mushroom, black seed oil and pine bark extract with proven positive effects that you can incorporate into an allergy and histamine treatment protocol.

Work with nature

Taking time to explore natural ways to manage histamine, allergies and intolerances may give you more insight into how to effectively manage your allergies and histamine issues.  Better still, consult a naturopathic-minded nutritional therapist or medical herbalist. That way you will benefit from working with someone who has the skillset to prescribe appropriate nutritional and natural remedies.

Moving away from nature in the first place has contributed significantly to increasing allergy levels and associated immune dysfunction in our modern world.  So, instead of simply popping an antihistamine tablet, perhaps it’s time to treat nature with nature instead.

Time for us to work with and not against.





Woman sleeping

Getting A Good Sleep

Getting a good sleep, one that’s restful and restorative, is essential for our physical and mental well-being.  Yet many of us are not getting enough sleep to function well.

The UK seems to be a nation of insomniacs, with up to a third of adults reporting regular issues with sleep disturbance.

The consequences of not getting a good sleep are more serious than simply being under par the next day.

Not getting a good sleep regularly, one that’s restorative, can lead to a whole host of health problems. It can age us prematurely if left unchecked.  Chronic insomnia can also lead to weight gain, diabetes, inflammation and even heart disease.

So, what can you do if you seem to spend the night tossing and turning?

Positive steps

What positive steps can you take if you’re wired but tired and suffering from chronic sleep issues?

The answer lies not only in what you do in the evening but what you do in the rest of your day and in the rest of your life.

It is important to think about the usual suspects, such as avoiding screens or cutting down on caffeine as you head towards bedtime.  But the chances are that if you’re not getting a good sleep on a regular basis there is more going on and you’ll need to dig a little deeper to get back on track and restore good sleep patterns.

In most chronic health problems, there is often a perfect storm. Insomnia is no exception.

Types of insomnia

You’re unlikely to connect that skipped lunch with waking up at 3am or link your weight gain with not sleeping well.  It’s only by stepping back and looking at your overall health and well-being, your diet and lifestyle, that you can start to resolve chronic sleep issues.

And the chances are that if you have chronic insomnia you will need some help doing this.

There are different types of insomnia, too, all of which need to be managed very differently. Do you have trouble getting to sleep or are you waking frequently? Maybe you wake up too early or you may even experience all three.

If you have a problem with getting off to sleep in the first place, it might be enough to choose sedative herbs such as valerian, passionflower or hops and use them at bedtime.

Chronic insomnia

For chronic sleep issues, with wakeful episodes through the night, herbs are needed during the daytime, too, but you need to give a more detailed case history before we can join up the dots.

For chronic insomnia, restorative work with deep-acting adaptogen herbs such as withania (also called ashwagandha) or schisandra will help restore your circadian rhythm.

Boosting reproductive hormones like oestrogen or neurotransmitters like dopamine might settle hormonal flux which can be behind not getting a good sleep.

Toning the vagus nerve with digestive bitters will promote rest and digest, and increasing anti-oxidants will help with free radical damage and inflammation.

Signs of restorative sleep

There is no simple answer and no simple remedy, but that doesn’t make getting a good sleep impossible. We just have to put in some effort with some detective and restorative work. The results will be worth it.

If you seek good health and longevity, sleeping well should be equally as important to you as eating well and digesting well.  The three are intimately connected and all need to be considered if you are looking to function at your best.

Check out our herbal medicine clinic if you think you need help with insomnia.

Having a good sleep, waking at the same time every day without the need for an alarm clock and feeling refreshed when you wake up are all signs you are achieving truly restorative sleep.  The beauty of it is it’s totally achievable, too!


Mental health during lockdown e

GABA For Mental Health During Lockdown

What is GABA and how can you increase it to support your mental health during lockdown? GABA is short for gamma-aminobutyric acid.

It’s a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, that we produce naturally in the body. We find it in the nervous system, particularly in the brain. It inhibits excitability and slows function without having a sedative effect, so it helps to reduce anxiety, stress and feelings of fear. It may help to improve sleep, too.

There are natural ways that you can boost it to improve mental health during lockdown. Eating certain foods, taking specific supplements or medicinal herbs and exercising or practising meditation can all help to increase GABA.

Amino acids

Eating a balanced diet, rich in whole foods, healthy fats and clean proteins, is a cornerstone of good health and should provide all the nutrients you need to produce GABA.

Make sure you get plenty of these two amino acids – glutamine and taurine. Also check that you’re getting adequate levels of vitamin B6 and magnesium.  It may be beneficial to boost these two key nutrients with a supplement to support your mental health during lockdown. They’re particularly helpful if you’re under chronic stress, not eating well or if you are a woman who suffers from pre-menstrual exacerbation of anxiety and tension.

Healthy diet and lifestyle

My key treatment focus in my herbal clinic is not only to encourage a healthier diet and lifestyle but also to prescribe tailor-made herbal medicines, targeting individual needs.

I usually do this after unpacking a detailed case history. But sometimes there’s no need for depth in order to achieve fast and effective results. That’s especially true if you’re desperate to feel better.

I prescribe several herbs for anxiety that are known to boost GABA levels. These include valerian, ashwagandha and lemon balm. The great thing is that they’re available to buy over the counter. That’s great if you don’t have access to a medical herbalist to prescribe for you. Or you may want to start taking something until you get professional help for your mental health during lockdown.

L Theanine supplement

L Theanine is another great supplement that’s available over the counter in health food shops. This amino acid is extracted from green tea or black tea and has been shown to effectively reduce anxiety.

Studies suggest L Theanine increases serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, so it works on several pathways to support your mental health. It works quickly to boot. I have found personally that there’s a noticeable effect within about half an hour of taking it as a supplement.

If you’re suffering from anxiety, feeling fearful and in need of some mental calm, you might want to put the kettle on and have a cup of tea. Then look up other ways you can boost your GABA levels to support your mental health during lockdown.  Having a cuppa is a good starting point to get you feeling back in control.

Find out more about supporting your mental health by listening to this interview for UK Health Radio now on YouTube.

How to identify a good herbalist

For an in-depth approach, it’s always better to work with a medical herbalist. To make sure you find somebody suitably qualified, look for the letters MNIMH after their name. That signifies gold standard training.

If you don’t have a practitioner to support your mental health during lockdown, rest assured there is a whole natural products industry out there. Some great ethical producers are manufacturing some well-formulated products.

But please do shop with a reputable independent health food store. They have the training and the proven effective remedies you can trust. They also need your support in these challenging times.

Keren Brynes MacLean MNIMH, Medical Herbalist

Take 5 Seasonal Herbs and Spices

We have merged many traditions when it comes to our Christmas celebrations. They range from decorating our homes with holly, ivy and mistletoe to using warming spices to mull our winter wine and give us cheer on a cold winter’s night. Here, we look at 5 seasonal herbs and their medicinal properties.

Christmas herbs and spices

It really is a cultural mishmash when it comes to Christmas. Central to it all are the plants that have been part of our culture for aeons, plants that are central to our whole existence on this planet. Plants provide shelter, clothing, food and medicine and have a worthy seat at the table for any feast or celebration.

As a practising medical herbalist, my particular interest is in the medicinal uses of many of the plants and herbs central to our Christmas celebrations.  Many of those we take for granted have remarkable properties. We cook with herbs and spices like sage, mint and cinnamon not only because they enhance flavours but because they have special health virtues.

As for frankincense and myrrh, integral to the Christmas story, these are two ancient remedies that we still use in modern herbal practice today. In fact, they’ve seen a dramatic revival in recent years. Both are gum resins extracted from trees.  You could think of resin as being sticky plant blood that the tree produces to prevent infection where it’s injured. The resin then hardens like a scab which can be harvested.  Tree resins tend to be incredibly antiseptic and anti-inflammatory and these two have been traded for their medicinal use for over 5,000 years.

Back in the day, in that stable in Bethlehem, the three wise men gifted Jesus these two remarkable remedies because they were literally worth their weight in gold, the third gift they gave.  Of particular interest today is that research now suggests that using both myrrh and frankincense together synergistically offers a more potent effect and alters the chemical structure further. So it looks as if they were very wise men indeed.

Frankincense uses

On its own, frankincense, known botanically as boswellia, can be used both internally as medicine and externally as an essential oil in massage balms and skincare creams.  Medical herbalists use alcohol tinctures to extract the medicinal compounds from the resin. The resin can also be steamed and distilled to produce a rather delightful essential oil that can be emotionally comforting and very cleansing to the lungs when heated with water in an oil diffuser. The essential oil is also very rejuvenating and makes a nourishing and healing ingredient in beauty balms and skin creams.

We use the tincture internally. It’s a key ingredient in bespoke blends for inflammation and congestion and is a remedy that I often prescribe in cases where we have active immune inflammation such as inflammatory bowel disease, endometriosis or arthritis.  There is a vast amount of research that demonstrates it brings about a significant reduction in inflammatory cytokines. This indicates the potential for treating malignancy, auto-immunity and allergy in a clinical setting.

We take frankincense in small doses over a long period of time. This is because big doses of resins can be heavy on the digestive system. The sort of conditions we are managing with this remedy tend to be of a more chronic nature. So the aim is to bring about slow and steady changes to health and the immune system.

Myrrh uses

In my herbal dispensary at Health Food and More, I have two types of myrrh tincture.  One is commiphora mol mol and the other is commiphora mukul or guggul.  They are interchangeable in that they are both antiseptic and help the body to fight infections But I do tend to use more guggul in my prescriptions as it also supports thyroid health.

Guggul for thyroid health

We can prescribe guggul for sluggish thyroid complaints as it aids the conversion of T4, an inactive form of the thyroid hormone thyroxine, into T3, the activated form the body needs at a cellular level.

Put simply, in its T4 state the thyroxine is sitting in the sorting office going nowhere. Guggul helps get it off the sorting shelf ready for delivery! So it’s one to consider when someone’s blood tests show they’re borderline hypothyroid, or if they’re taking thyroxine but still feeling underactive.

It’s also a remedy I consider for chronic or recurrent infections such as cysts, cellulitis, acne or even urinary tract infections.  As with boswellia, we’re looking at low doses over the long term and in a preventative capacity to avoid the need for antibiotics again and again.

Immune system support

Many of the herbs and spices we use in cooking are antiseptic. Those that we traditionally use to cook meats also have potent antiseptic and antibacterial effects.  We think their culinary use comes from the days when they helped to keep meat free from bacteria. Modern science has demonstrated that herbs such as thyme, rosemary and sage can kill salmonella. It’s no wonder we use them in stuffings, along with other delicious antiseptics such as onions. It’s a flavoursome combination that enhances the culinary experience and also helps keep bacteria under control.

Sage and poultry 

Sage, of course, is the most popular herb for stuffing poultry. As well as being a great cooking herb, it’s a great remedy to have in the herbal first aid cupboard. You can make a simple infusion to use as a gargle for sore throats at the onset of infections. If you drink it hot, it is diaphoretic. That means it helps create a therapeutic fever and helps your body fight infection.  The opposite is also true. If you drink it as a cold tea, it has a cooling and drying effect. This means it helps to dry and cool excess sweat. That’s great news for menopausal women who suffer from flushes and night sweats.

Personally, I prefer my sage in tablet or tincture form as cold sage tea is not the tastiest. But it is a really cost-effective way of using sage for the menopause if you’re strapped for cash.

Cinnamon benefits

Of course, at Christmas puddings abound and will include warming spices like nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon.  Our sweet spices have also been prized for taste as well as medicinal treatments. Notable among them all is cinnamon, which has some exciting medicinal properties to boot.

Cinnamon is a sweet and warming spice. Using it in recipes should mean you can use less sugar to sweeten.  But that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to its potential health benefits.

Ceylon cinnamon is the one most commonly used in the UK. It also helps to activate insulin receptors on the cell membranes. That means it makes insulin work more effectively and can reduce the insulin resistance we associate with type II diabetes.  Of course, you need to do more than take cinnamon to improve blood sugar handling. However, using cinnamon as part of a protocol that includes positive dietary changes may net potential benefits. That’s especially as we now understand that it may also help to reduce cholesterol.

Studies show that improving blood sugar also can improve cholesterol. But if you’re taking your cinnamon in a rich Christmas pudding drowned in cream or brandy butter. you’re probably negating any real benefits.

Peppermint for digestion

If you’re feeling bloated after one too many helpings, you could always reach for an after-dinner mint. The humble mint has become the customary end to a filling meal. It aids digestion and helps the liver and gallbladder cope with digesting fats.

Peppermint is a great digestive aid and helps to freshen the palate, too. It is known to help with heartburn, bloating and irritable bowel symptoms.

But it’s worth remembering that gluttony is not a good thing. Enjoy a good dinner but don’t be Mr Creosote from Monty Python. Nothing will really help if you have overdone it and “just one waffer-thin mint” turns out to be just one mouthful too much!

Nature’s beauty and bounty

This year more than any we should take the time to be thankful for nature and what she has provided. Through the slower days of lockdown in 2020, many people reconnected with green spaces and discovered local places of peace and beauty. They reconnected with cooking and baking from scratch, so much so we had a national shortage of both flour and yeast! And some were also lucky to have the time to reconnect with themselves. That’s if they weren’t busy educating children or trying to adapt to working from home.

It is timely, then, to look forward now with hopes of rebirth and moving on into a healthier way to live and connect with the planet. We can also celebrate our old traditions that centre around the natural world as well as the plants that embellish and enrich our lives.



Take 5 Berries for Winter Health

Even in Scotland in November, nature delivers up her bounty. Hawthorn berries offer a red hue in the hedgerows well after the leaves have fallen.

We see glimmers of yellow on trees as velvet shank mushrooms begin to show and in the leaf litter, if you have a keen eye, you might just spot vibrant purple blewit mushrooms ripe for the picking. Nature may slow down, but she never fully rests as she continues to offer up foods and medicines for us.

Winter in the north may be harsh and cruel, but she gives very generously in the autumn to set store for the leaner months ahead. And although autumn may feel like the season of decay and recycling, it’s actually the season of new life as nature sows her seeds for new growth.

Nature is a hard-working and creative lass. She knows that the apple needs to fall further from the tree in order to survive and thrive. So, she cleverly packages her seeds in tasty fruits and berries for birds, beasts and humans to eat and spread far and wide.

She rewards us for this service with nutrient-rich foods, densely packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and potent medicinal compounds. In short, berries contain life force.

High in Healing Nutrients

As a medical herbalist, I will often recommend adding extra berries to the diet as they are high in healing nutrients including bioflavonoids and vitamin C which are known to support immune health, reduce inflammation and protect collagen, the building block for our connective tissue, bones and skin.

Cultivated berries are a good source of nutrients, but wild berries contain more potent levels of antioxidants and medicinal compounds as they have had to protect themselves from the forces of nature to survive.  Research suggests they may contain up to twice the antioxidants of cultivated varieties.

Blueberries or Bilberries

Wild blueberries or bilberries are abundant in our local pine forests and are a refreshing, tart nibble when out for a walk in the woods.  They are a rich source of potent super nutrients that include vitamin C, resveratrol, anthocyanins and vitamin E.

These berries are great for the skin and considered to be antioxidant powerhouses.  They help to neutralise the enzymes that break down collagen and we consider them a tonic for blood vessels, helping to prevent bruising and damage to blood vessel walls.

Oxidative stress is thought to be a key driver in the aging process and notably so when it comes to eye health. So, if you want to keep your vision at its best bilberries are worth eating regularly.

Studies have shown that bilberry extracts can improve night vision, reduce eye strain and may also potentially prevent and even treat macular degeneration, which causes vision loss in the elderly.

Of course, we would all love to be living the “good life” but for many people foraging from the woods for your plate isn’t always a viable option.  Even if that’s the case you can still benefit from berries in your diet. Buy fresh organic berries if you can, frozen organic if you can’t, and regularly cultivated if there is no other option.  No matter which you choose there is benefit to be had from consuming them regularly.

Hawthorn Berries

In addition to the berries we find in the supermarket, there are countless medicinal berries available as capsules, tinctures and tablets in health food shops, some of which you might also be able to find growing in your local hedgerows and parks.

Two grow within a few hundred metres of my house and are firm favourites of mine in my herbal practice, too. The first is hawthorn, which I’ve already mentioned and which I’ve already turned ketchup. The second is elderberry, now gone over for the season, but turned into syrup and stored in my garage as a winter tonic for the immune system.

Hawthorn is a herb of the heart and has a long tradition of use in medicine throughout Europe.  Known as May blossom, the leaves and flowers are harvested in the spring and made into teas or tinctures to help lower high blood pressure.  They are gently relaxant on the peripheral blood vessels and open up the peripheral circulation, reducing the pressure in the system.

The berries are used more specifically for central heart health and are used in herbalist prescribed treatments for hardening of the arteries and high cholesterol, angina and even congestive heart failure.

These conditions are not the sort of problem you should attempt to remedy by yourself. But working with a trained, skilled medical herbalist to address cardiovascular health may benefit you.

The Root of Common Health Issues

Orthodox medicine focuses much attention on cholesterol when it comes to the heart and circulation, but the focus of the naturopathic minded practitioner delves a little deeper to consider inflammation, which is at the root of many chronic health issues.

Inflammatory changes in blood vessels allow cholesterol to clump and dump. Therefore, the aim of treatment is not only to improve cholesterol status but to modify the diet to reduce homocysteine and curb the damage within the blood vessels themselves.  It’s also aimed at increasing elasticity and reducing a tendency for fibrous hardening which leads to cramps, spasms and congestion.

Hawthorn is considered a specific for the circulation. In my many years of practice, I have observed significant benefits for clients using it for angina and intermittent claudication of the legs. Both are caused by restricted blood flow and lead to painful cramps.

With hawthorn, exercise endurance increases, legs ache less and the need for nitrate sprays is reduced. These are all positive signs that blood vessels are functioning better, and the heart is being nourished more.

Popular Elderberry

Berries really do have the potential to support lots of different systems in the body and our immune system can also gain a healthy edge from consuming berries regularly.

When I undertook my professional herbal studies back in the 1990s, we mainly focused on elderflowers as the medicine to gather from the elder tree. Now elderberries have overtaken the popularity of elderflower as an immune-supporting tonic. You can now find elderberry supplements in chemists, supermarkets and health food shops as well as traditional herbal dispensaries.

Like the flowers, they have a real affinity for mucus membranes. We often prescribed them for respiratory viruses, particularly those affecting the lungs and bronchial tubes.

They have gained popularity probably because scientific studies now back traditional folk use and the internet is littered with papers demonstrating their effectiveness not just in treating respiratory viruses but also in reducing the severity and longevity of flu-like illnesses.

Natural Immune Boosters

Elderberries contain immune-boosting anthocyanidins and flavonoids that help to prevent cell wall damage and which in turn helps to stop viruses from entering and infecting cells of the body.

These deep purple berries may have even more to offer us in our quest for wellness. It’s thought that they may also be good for the circulation, for reducing high blood sugar and may even be of potential benefit in cancer management.

In early 2020 rumours started to circulate that elderberries might exacerbate Covid19 by inducing a cytokine storm. That’s an inflammatory reaction which we now understand leads to a poorer outcome for people fighting the virus.

All research suggests that elderberry would have the opposite effect, that it should, if anything, dampen down rather than activate an inflammatory response. Researchers have found no evidence that it exacerbates it. So we can continue to use it in syrups and supplements through the winter, safe in the knowledge it’s safe to use no matter what the immune threat might be.

There is no scientific evidence to show that home-made syrups are as effective as commercially produced remedies, but I have faith that my local, freshly harvested, wild-grown organic elderberry syrup will be every bit as effective as a mass-produced product.  My whole family keeps fighting fit by taking a healthy swig every day as well as a good dose of vitamin D.

Sea Buckthorn Berries

Each colour on the fruit and veg spectrum relates to different health benefits, which is why we should aim for a rainbow on our plates every day.  The same could be said of berries and although these mainly come in purples and reds there are also some super health-promoting orange berries, too.

In Scotland, near the coastal margins of Fife and East Lothian as well as other maritime fringes, sea buckthorn grows wild in abundance. I understand it’s native to the south coast of England and has been planted around other coastal dune lands to stabilise the shoreline. Anyone lucky enough to have it growing locally has a great free food resource as the berries can be harvested and eaten raw in smoothies or made into jams, jellies and syrups.

Like the other berries mentioned here, there are indications that sea buckthorn berries are good for the heart and circulation and they might also help to lower cholesterol.

Beneficial Fatty Acids

Their tart flavour imparts tone to the digestion and in Asia they have traditionally been used to treat gastric problems and stomach ulcers.  In the UK most of the interest in sea buckthorn focuses on the oil extracted from the seeds which gives a spectrum of omega 3, omega 6, omega 9 and abundant omega 7 fatty acids.

Omega 7 helps to increase insulin sensitivity and at the same time helps to protect the insulin-releasing beta cells of the pancreas. That, coupled with cholesterol-lowering benefits, suggests it might benefit if there’s a risk of type II diabetes in the family.

Sea buckthorn seed extracts may also help another age-related problem. It may help with dry mucus membranes and dry and irritated eyes. A dry lipid layer in the eyes can cause them to feel tired and irritated and even stream as the body attempts to moisten them. Supplementation seems to dramatically improve symptoms over a period of just a few weeks.

Popular Post Menopause

Sea buckthorn can moisten other membranes, too. Its particular benefit for post-menopausal women or women on hormonal suppression medications is that it can markedly improve symptoms of vaginal dryness without HRT or oestrogen pessaries.

Nowadays many women prefer a non-hormonal approach to managing menopause issues and sea buckthorn omega 7 supplements are a go-to for vaginal atrophy in both our shop and clinic.

Of course, if you have them growing nearby you can eat the berries fresh or freeze them to see you through winter and spring. Eating both the seed and the flesh has additional benefits and may help keep your skin looking younger, too.

Exceptional Schisandra

The final berry is one of my all-time favourites and unusually for me, not one I have foraged. This one isn’t a native plant. It comes from Asia and Russia, where it has a long tradition of use as a medicine and a tonic.

It’s schisandra chinensis, also known as five-flavoured fruit because herbalists consider it to be a balance of sour, salty, sweet, acrid and bitter tastes and therefore balancing to all constitutions.

I’ve been exploring schisandra berry as a herbal remedy more in my practice over the past couple of years because of a significant uplift in inflammatory and histamine-driven conditions we are seeing in clinic.

Auto-immune inflammation is on the rise and stress has reached ferocious levels, particularly over the past few months.  In schisandra we have a remedy with almost miraculous indications in a wide range of conditions.

I would encourage you to read some of the papers available online. There’s a huge amount of research into herbal medicines in China and schisandra’s exceptional properties have been well validated.

Powerful Adaptogen

Like many berries, it is antioxidant and has indications for cardiovascular health and conditions such as diabetes.  But dig deeper and you discover a powerful adaptogen that helps to counter the effects of stress and dampen down the damage of excess cortisol.

It is a tonic for the liver, helps to reduce inflammation associated with autoimmune conditions and malignancy and even has neuroprotective potential for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. So you can understand why this berry has really grabbed my interest and is on my list of frequently prescribed herbs.

Typically, we’re all living longer nowadays, but it saddens me that this doesn’t necessarily mean we’re living healthier lives. If you take one thing away from this, consider berrying up your diet and your medicines. Boost those protective antioxidants and you can not only live longer but live younger too!

Finally, please remember that if you do suffer from a health problem it’s always better to have herbs prescribed by a qualified and experienced professional herbalist. And always check before taking a supplement or herb if you are on prescribed medications.

You also want to make sure you know your plant ID before harvesting anything for the table or the pot. There are poisonous berries, barks, leaves and mushrooms out there too!  She’s a clever lass, but nature can be quite wicked, too.


Keren Brynes Maclean is a consultant medical herbalist and has been a Member of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists since 1996.  She owns and runs Health Food and More in Kirkcaldy, a shop, clinic and dispensary in the Kingdom of Fife. Visit www.healthfoodandmore.co.uk for more information.

Ten Winter Immune-Boosting Diet Tips

There is an array of fantastic immune supplements in health food stores and herbal dispensaries up and down the country, but looking after your immune system should always start with a good nutritional foundation. Here are ten winter immune-boosting diet tips to try. They’re easy changes you can make to give you that little bit of extra support.

Don’t short-change yourself by buying supplements if you’re not eating well! There’s no shortcut to good immune health.

1: Feed Your Gut

Look after your gut.  A huge percentage of your immune system is in your digestive system and it is part of your first line of defence.  Eat live foods in your diet, such as bio yoghurts, kefir, sauerkraut, miso and other fermented foods. Your gut flora needs the right nourishment to survive and eating natural fibres are an important fuel for your gut bacteria.  Eat plenty of healthy root veg, wholegrains, nuts and seeds and avoid chemical additives and artificial sweeteners to keep your healthy bacteria in tip-top fighting condition.

2: Know Your Onions

Eat plenty of sulphur-rich foods such as onions, garlic, leeks and shallots.  Not only will these help to boost glutathione, which is a potent antioxidant that supports healthy liver function, but they also have an expectorant and antiseptic effect in the lungs, especially garlic, which we all know can affect our breath.  It does that because the volatile compounds are excreted through the lung tissue and as it passes through the lungs it works as a potent antiseptic, helping to fight infection.

3: Cook With Aromatics

Cook with plenty of aromatic herbs such as thyme, sage, marjoram and oregano.  These “pot” herbs not only taste great, but they are also incredibly antiseptic.  Sage is used by medical herbalists to treat sore throats, oregano to treat fungal infections and thyme to treat respiratory infections.  Adding them into your cooking will give your dishes that extra immune edge as well as tasting great.

4: Drink These Teas

Drink herbal teas made with caraway, aniseed and fennel.  These are great digestive herbs and help reduce bloating and cramping, but they also have another important medicinal effect. They stimulate the cilia of the lungs to keep mucus moving.  Mucus is there to shift out toxins, viruses and bacteria and the cilia play an essential role in lung health.  Keeping them primed with these three aromatics might just help keep your lungs cleaner and more resilient.

5: Use Black Cumin

Use black cumin seed in your diet to help reduce inflammation. Nigella sativa seeds contain a pungent aromatic oil called thymoquinone which can be harnessed in inflammatory conditions including lung problems.  Supplements of black seed oil are prescribed by medical herbalists for conditions including COPD and asthma.  You can add black cumin seeds to your immune-boosting diet, using them in curries or spicy dishes, throw some into your bread or add them to a smoothie to harness some of the health benefits.

6: Eat More Mushrooms

Eat plenty of mushrooms and, even better, sit them on your windowsill for a few hours to help them release extra vitamin D which science shows has many benefits for our immune systems.  There is an array of medicinal mushroom supplements available in health food shops, but even common or garden button mushrooms can boost immunity.  Mushrooms contain beta-glucans, which help to boost our innate immune response and keep our microbiome in good shape.  So, add a few mushrooms to your favourite dishes and, if you can get them, try some shitake, oyster or enoki mushrooms for a bit of variety.

7: Benefit From Berries

Boost your vitamin C intake by adding fresh berries into your diet.  Colourful berries contain antioxidants which support our immune system by helping to reduce inflammation.  The best berry of all is elderberry, which you will either need to harvest yourself in the autumn or take as a liquid extract.  Elderberries have been shown to reduce viral replication by inhibiting the ability of viruses to adhere to and penetrate cell walls in the body, thus shortening the duration and severity of upper respiratory tract infections.

8: Top Up Zinc

Give your zinc levels a top-up.  Zinc is an essential nutrient for immune health and deficiency of this essential mineral can leave you more susceptible to disease and illness.  Your body needs zinc to activate fighter cells in your immune system so it’s an important nutrient to get in adequate quantities.  Include pumpkin seeds in your immune-boosting diet, with the added benefit that they will also give you essential fatty acids and dietary fibre.

9: Boost Healthy Fats

Eat plenty of healthy fats in your diet.  Whether you choose fish, nuts, seeds or eggs be sure to boost your healthy omegas.  Sea buckthorn berries are a rich source of beta carotenes and essential fatty acids and are a natural source of omega 7 which is important for the health of the mucus membranes.  If we lack good fats, we tend to dehydrate, and dryness of the skin and mucus membranes makes us more susceptible to infection.  Keep moist and keep those mucus membranes in tip-top health.

10: Stay Well Hydrated

Finally, drink plenty of clean, fresh fluids to stay well hydrated.  We all know what happens to our plants if they don’t drink enough, they lose their vitality and become more susceptible to diseases. The same thing happens in our bodies if we don’t take on enough fluids. There’s nothing wrong with tea or coffee, both can be good for you in moderation, especially if they are organic and plastic-free! But add in some green tea, herbal teas and diluted fresh fruit and vegetable juices to boost up trace minerals and antioxidants.

Incorporating some if not all of these immune-boosting diet tips into your daily routine, you’ll have a better chance of staying in good health this winter

5 health-boosting herbal teas to help ease anxiety

Drinking herbal tea is one of the simplest and most effective ways to benefit from the medicinal and healing properties of plants. It’s an ancient practice which dates back to the dawn of time and long before the post-war introduction of the NHS.

Resident medical herbalist Wendy Kelly MNIMH shares some of her favourite health-boosting blends for anxiety…

Chamomile – This calming tea is soothing to the nervous system, as well as the stomach. It’s particularly useful for anxiety, including in children. Enjoy it at any time of the day either on its own or accompanied by a peppermint teabag, grate of fresh ginger or teaspoon of honey.

Lemon balm – This beautifully citrus scented member of the mint family might already be growing in your garden. It boosts GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) levels in the brain, calming anxiety and raising your mood. The fresh leaves of lemon balm make a soothing tea which is good for anxiety that goes for your stomach.

Green tea – This tea contains amino acid l-theanine, which gives it a GABA-promoting effect. It’s also thought to boost alpha wave production in the brain, which promotes focus and relaxation without a sedative effect. It can be particularly useful for people working at home who need to concentrate. It’s also rich in antioxidants which boost the immune system and is a great, healthy all-rounder.

Oats – Herbalists use tinctures and tea of oat straw for anxiety and the chronically stressed because it’s rich in the phytonutrients which nourish and restore the nervous system.

To boost your resilience against colds, flu and other viruses, you could also incorporate an echinacea blend into your daily routine to keep your immune system strong.

Echinacea – native to North America, this herb has proved beneficial for treating colds and flu and can even reduce the duration of infections. It works by increasing the number of white blood cells that help to fight infection.

Medical herbalists are medically trained and well equipped to choose the appropriate and safest blend for your individual needs.

If you are on medication, have any medical conditions or are unsure which herbs would be the most appropriate, consult your local, independent health store, many of which are either staying open or offering online services to support the nation at this time. Or click here to find a medical herbalist near you.


How herbal medicine can boost your natural immunity

While we are all doing our bit to stem the spread of Covid-19, such as staying home, self-isolating and socially distancing ourselves, there are other ways we can invest in and help to protect our own health.

As the medical world races to develop a vaccine, it’s essential that we look to preventative health care and take simple measures to support our own wellbeing.

By eating well, getting plenty of sleep and ultimately staying healthy, we can boost our natural immunity and take steps to reduce the frequency and severity of viral and bacterial infections.

By taking a preventative approach to health and wellbeing, we may be able to avoid infection from viruses and harmful antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which have become a major problem in the 21st century.

Plant remedies could hold the key to our long-term immunity and may even have the edge over conventional chemical drugs when it comes to resilience thanks, in part, to their complex and multi-functional make up.

While herbal medicine isn’t a substitute for orthodox medical care, it can help to support our immunity and may even help us avoid infection.

The main medical strategy for tackling viral infections is immunisation but vaccines aren’t quick to develop. There are also very few anti-viral pharmaceutical medications – making treatment very difficult.

There are many immuno-suppressive therapies within conventional medicine, yet there are very few which can boost the immune system.

But herbal medicine is different. Lots of plants have both strong anecdotal and clinical evidence for their immune enhancing benefits. There are lots of well researched, natural remedies proven to help fight infection, enhance immunity, increase resilience and reduce the severity and longevity of viruses such as colds and flu.

It would be wrong to claim that these herbs can prevent or cure COVID-19 since we don’t have enough information yet, but their track record for being able to treat other viral infections means they could potentially be beneficial.”

3 herbs to boost immunity and increase resilience 

Echinacea – this go-to immune herb has become a bit of a household name in recent years. Native to North America, it has been extensively researched for treating colds and flu.

Not only has it proved effective in preventing colds, but it can reduce the duration of infections too. It works by increasing the number of white blood cells that help to fight infection.

Since coronaviruses are also responsible for the common cold and pneumonia, echinacea may have the potential to increase resistance against other emerging viral strains.

Elderberry – Scotland’s native elderberry has come under the spotlight in recent years after several positive studies showing that it can lessen the severity and longevity of viral infections.

Unlike echinacea which stimulates host immunity, elderberry has been shown to reduce viral replication by inhibiting its ability to adhere to and penetrate cell walls in the body, thus shortening the duration and severity of upper respiratory tract infections.

Nigella sativa – another notable antiviral, otherwise dubbed the aromatic Black Seed, which was written about in the book of Isaiah in the OId Testament.

This ancient remedy, which has been used for over 4,000 years has seen a dramatic revival in recent years, because of the potent effects of its main chemical constituent, an aromatic compound called Thymoquinone which has been shown to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and hepatoprotective properties.

It’s known to inhibit leukotriene synthesis and histamine release, two inflammatory mediators associated with lung infection.

But good immune health is down to much more than taking medicines, regardless whether they’re natural or synthetic. Getting enough vitamin D, taking probiotics and eating healthily are just a few of the key foundations to building healthy immunity.

We can’t change our genes, but we can influence our immune health through our diets and gut microbiome – both of which have a significant impact on us staying well. By boosting our immunity and improving the condition of the ‘soil’ where viruses or bacteria can take hold, we may be able to increase our resilience against new viral strains and antibiotic resistant bacteria to avoid contracting them in the first place.”

This information should not replace medical advice or preventative strategies such as hand washing. If you are concerned you may have contracted COVID-19, follow NHS guidelines, self-isolate and phone for medical guidance.

Also please remember that not all treatments, including natural remedies, are suitable for everyone. Always consult a professional.

To find a medical herbalist near you, visit the National Institute of Medical Herbalists.

The anti-inflammatory properties of the Silver Birch tree

I spend many hours in the outdoors, being an avid forager and dogwalker as well as a Medical Herbalist.  The majority of my herbal medicine time is spent consulting with clients so the outdoors part of my life brings balance to what I do in the consulting room and enables me to keep a personal connection with the remedies that I use every day in clinic.

Silver Birch is a beautiful tree and so much so on a cold crisp February day, it so suits being in our Scottish climate.  It’s that particular cold, dreich climate which helps birch produce one of its most exciting medicinal compounds, Chaga mushroom.  This medicinal mushroom has a long tradition of use and is renowned for its anti-inflammatory properties.  It is a rich source of Betulinic acid, no surprise there as Silver Birch is botanically know as Betula pendula.  This rich triterpenoid has many deep acting immune actions including anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and even anti-neoplastic activity.  Its a mushroom in big demand at the moment and like any popular remedy its important that you ensure that you get what you are paying for and not a poor substitute.

Some medicinal mushrooms can be grown on substrates in laboratory conditions and will produce their therapeutic beta glucans etc, but with Chaga it is 100% essential that it is grown on birch to ensure an uptake of Betulinic acid.  Living in a Northern clime, in Scotland we are in the land of Chaga and it is relatively common here compared with other areas of the UK.  So if you are outdoor minded and outdoor footed its a good hunt to be had.

But its not just Chaga that grows on our native Birch.  On dying Birch you will often find the much more common Birch Polypore mushrooms.  This white hoof shaped fungus is also prime medicinal stuff and is a great remedy to have on hand through the winter months.  Like Chaga it contains lots of medicinal compounds which are indicated for prime immune health.

Winter time is the ideal time to search for both Chaga and Birch Polypore and I would encourage you to look further into both these and other medicinal uses of the birch tree.  Once the sap starts rising the birch tappers will soon be out harvesting the sap for it’s cleansing properties….. its a great tonic for the kidneys and in the summer you can harvest birch leaves to make a cleansing and anti-inflammatory infusion.

Scotland’s iconic winter tree….perhaps Scotland’s iconic medicinal tree!

For further info on ID features of both birch and medicinal mushrooms check out the First Nature website http://www.first-nature.com