Herbal Wisdom for Nutrition and Healing

If we are what we eat (and science suggests that we literally are, over time) then herbs are our laughter—the flowery joy inside us waiting to bubble out. If food is medicine (and there’s consensus among nutritionists that it is) then herbs are the elixirs that our great-great-grandparents used to cultivate balanced wellness, to keep us vibrantly anchored in our true nature throughout the seasonal fluctuations and events of life.

We have outsourced much of the herbal wisdom of our elders to our corner pharmacy. There are, however, signs of its return and renewed interest. When I lead herbal walks at Kripalu, the excitement among guests is palpable. If you get inspired by the prospect of getting to know plants and their healing gifts, that’s the herbalist within you—a thread that goes back through your lineage to a time when plants and people lived and worked together in interdependent community.

Herbs in the Nutrition Healer’s Tool Bag

My nutritional tool bag for helping people cultivate and maintain balance contains whole, plant-based food; nutritional supplements (used sparingly, for a limited time and only the highest quality); and my favorite ingredients: herbs and botanicals. Herbs are any plants with leaves, seeds, or flowers—used to season food, medicine, or perfume—that die down to the ground after flowering. Botanicals are plants used in the same way that are not herbs, such as spices (nutmeg, cinnamon) or fruit (black pepper).

Food and herbs are the way to go for everyday healing. If your nutritionists and herbalists can be facilitators in collaboration with you to create your own medicines and tend to your own healing, that’s usually the most effective relationship.

How Herbs Heal

Herbs and botanicals can nourish your physical body, and they can also work on a more subtle level. The preparation of the herb will determine how and where it will operate. For example, culinary herbs like basil or oregano in a recipe will operate primarily on your physical body. A tincture (an herb infused into alcohol or another medium) operates on a deeper or more medicinal level, and an herb essence works on a more energetic, subtle level.

Herbs and botanicals are living beings; you can think of them as allies rather than consumables. Each of us has particular plant allies that we can get to know, who will come to our aid when needed. Ideally, we’ve known our herbs as infants in the form of seeds, we’ve lovingly pressed them into wet mud in our yards in spring (in New England, June is right on time!), and watched them sprout, guarding them (or most of them) from hungry varmints.

Herbs are bio-complex; each herb contains a large variety of compounds, with particular actions that work as a whole. Unlike supplements or pharmaceuticals, which are highly refined and isolated compounds, herbs are whole and complex, and their effect is the result of complex beings (you and the herb) interacting.

Thus, for physical balance, use herbs in your culinary life. A pesto made with wild herbs is a powerful medicine with a range of properties (anti-inflammatory and antiseptic, for example). Use this basic herbal pesto recipe to experiment with wild herbs you find (safety first—please don’t eat anything you are not sure is edible), blended with fresh green herbs that you grow or purchase.

Herbal Pesto

1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled, with the woody center section removed
½ cup nuts or seeds (pepitas, walnuts, almonds)
2 ½ cups fresh, leafy green herbs (basil, cilantro, thyme, parsley, etc.)
½ cup wild savory herbs (garlic basil, dandelion)
½ teaspoon salt

Pour oil into a blender. Add garlic, nuts, and herbs in that order, blending between additions until mixture reaches a loose, paste-like consistency. Add salt and mix.

Flower and Herbal Essences

Flower and herbal essences are energy medicines: they operate, in yoga lingo, on the pranayama kosha, or energy body. To come into relationship with an herb on an energetic level, experiment with an essence. Each summer, I create a number of flower essences and use them for myself and my clients throughout the year.

Clinical studies on energy medicine, such as plant essences, is not available, but they are well within the guidelines of “do no harm.” For myself, I find that plant essences are fun to make, they focus my intention, and I feel them operating on my subtle body.

How to Make Flower Essences

Place parts from the plant (flower, stem, leaf, root) into a bowl of filtered water. While I harvest the herbs, I like to say this prayer that my teacher, Pam Montgomery taught me:

In the presence of all that is
I honor you, (plant)
and I trust with all my heart
that you will make a healing essence for all

Fill three small bottles with half water, half brandy or, alternatively, a non-alcoholic vinegar. Place three drops of the water into one bottle, and gently tap it on your wrist and turn it to mix. This is your “mother bottle.” Take three drops from the mother, and add it to the second bottle. This is your stock bottle. Take three drops from the stock, and add it to the third bottle. This is the dose bottle, the one you will use. Label your bottles. Take three drops of your essence under your tongue, perhaps later in the winter when a little sunny flower energy would be especially welcome, or add it to your bath.

Each herb or flower has its own healing gift, and you can learn more about the ones that call to you. Don’t be afraid to experiment. May your exploration of herbs and botanicals blossom into a guiding support to your lifelong health and wellness!

Find out about upcoming programs on nutrition and healing with Annie B. Kay at Kripalu.

Annie B. Kay, MS, RDN, C-IAYT, is an integrative dietitian, yoga therapist, and plant alchemist who offers individual consultations, guides herb walks and plant-connection workshops at Kripalu, and teaches internationally. anniebkay.com

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.

Annie B. Kay, MS, RDN, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT, is an author, nutritionist, Kripalu faculty member, and important voice in whole-foods nutrition and yoga.

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