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.
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.
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.
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.