Welcome to Natural Health by Karen Vaughan, MSOM, Science writer, Licensed Acupuncturist, and Registered Herbalist (American Herbalists Guild) A photo of Acupuncturist Karen Vaughan

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Eat Your Christmas Tree

Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) buds

Douglas Fir. Image via Wikipedia

What do you do with a Christmas tree after Christmas is over?  Have you considered eating it?  Well not the trunk (although the inner bark can be used medicinally), but the needles. Fir or spruce tips and pine needles can make a fine tea- infused a short period of time (don’t boil it.)  But there is a world of uses beyond teas.

Pine needles are high in Vitamin C, Vitamin A,  quercetin, flavonoids, anthocyanins, tannins, pine oils, resveratrol, pinosylvin, shikimic acid, and isocupressic acid.  Vitamin C levels may be as high as 5 times as that of lemons, depending on the species.  The flavonoids, Vitamin C and associated compounds, and proanthocyanin are considered protective against cancer and scurvy.  They are also are good for respiratory infections.  Russian studies show pine oils as useful for weight control, lowered cholesterol and lowering blood pressure while Chinese studies find them as  slowing the growth of liver cancer. Pinosylvin is antifungal and antimicrobial.  Proanthocyanin and resveratrol are potent antiaging compounds.

Isocupressic acid blocks  progesterone in ruminants like cows and is considered toxic and abortafacient to them after the fermentation in their second stomach.  This should not be a concern for humans due to our single stomach digestion, but of course has not been studied.  The less tasty, more resinous pines like Ponderosa or Lodgepole pine  have the highest levels.  I think that if you let your taste be your guide, you will not overdose- pregnant women are quick to feel nauseated by harmful foods.  Parsley can be abortafacient too, but pregnant women eat it in normal amounts without problem. But you are forewarned that it has not been tested as safe for pregnancy.


Image by jon.hayes via Flickr

The Vitamin C will extract into water but is not destroyed by boiling as is popularly believed.  Vitamin C boils at over 500 degrees centigrade (water boils at 100 degrees centigrade and you can’t get to 500c with a normal stove)  In most cases you are drinking the water.

Just be careful that trees are not sprayed with fire retardants or infused with coloring.  I don’t see it too much in my area, but I have been told it is more prevalent elsewhere.  A tree farm owner says it is probably on trees imported from Canada  but in New York is not required on local trees.  While the fire retardant is supposed to be safe to ingest, I wouldn’t.  If you have any doubts use young Spring tips of growing trees.

Dry Pine Needles

This is the easiest way to use your tree.  I always saved the needles that dropped off my tree especially after taking it outside.  You can dry the needles of most Christmas trees to use this way.  Just avoid trees that have been treated, flocked or sprayed.  Dry the needles to use like rosemary in cooking.  The flavor is resinous, lemony and good.  You can also rub the needles into chicken, game or fish or most anything else.  This is also good for tea- infuse a teaspoon or two of dry needles into a cup of boiling water.

Pine, Fir or Spruce Powder

Take a few cups of dried needles and powder in a blender.  This makes a light, somewhat lemony aromatic powder which is good on fish,  chicken, sweet desserts or muffins.

Fresh Frozen Spruce or Fir Tips

Cut the final tips off of a fresh tree into four inch sections (perhaps as you are pruning your tree into shape initially or if you can take the clippings from your tree vendor.) Freeze until you are ready to use so they do not dry out.  You can bake or steam fish or poultry over them, stick a sprig into boiling spinach during the last few minutes or drp into your butternut squash soup.

Tinctured Tips

Fill a jar with dried fir tips,  spruce tips or pine needles.  Pour in vodka or gin to the top and let infuse for a month, then strain and bottle.  I keep some of this by my stove and in my herbal apothecary for coughs and flu.  When cooking, I throw a little on meat or vegetables.  The alcohol burns off pretty instantly which helps the taste of the food all by itself, but it also leaves the taste of the evergreens.  People who are into cocktails use a more dilute form of this.  If you wish to pursue it, there are recipes in the linked articles below.

Scotch Pine Sorbet

Simmer a 6″sprig of Scotch or White pine or fir in a cup of water for 10 minutes. Strain out and cool. Add 1 cup honey and a teaspoon of brandy.  Put into an ice cream  and freeze and crank according to the directions for your ice cream maker.  Alternatively  you can freeze into an ice cube tray and then pulse in a strong blender or Vitamix until smooth.

Spuce Butter

Melt a pound of butter in a double boiler.  Add 1/4 cup of spruce or fir tips or white pine cut into pieces.  Infuse for a quarter hour, then strain and let solidify in a serving state.

Infused Oil

Fill a jar of needles about a quarter full, then pour in olive oil or coconut oil. Put the jar in a double boiler or over a source of low heat.  I have used a flat baking pan with water over a warming buffet on low.  Let infuse for 3 days, then strain.  You can use this in cooking, rub it on sore limbs or drizzle on salads.  I tried this with juniper including the berries from my Christmas wreath, but the pectin in the berries added a gelatinous texture- it is still good though.

Balsamic  Vinegar

Fill a jar with white pine needles (Douglas fir, balsam pine or spruce will work too.)  Fill with apple cider vinegar.  Let infuse one month in a dark place.  Strain and decant.  This works better with apple cider vinegar than red wine vinegar.

Pine Needle Syrup

Fill a jar with a finely cut up organic lemon with peel and pine needles.  Pour a thin honey up to the top.  Cover and steep for 3 weeks.  Strain and decant.  This is a delicious syrup which can be used as a beverage, poured over ice cream or used as a cough syrup high in Vitamin C.

Fir tea. Image from http://www.celsias.com/article/recipe-saving-western-pine-forests-got-herbs/

If you don’t want to go to the trouble, for medicinal use ask your pharmacist to get you USP Compound White Pine Syrup.  It is made of the inner bark rather than the needles, but both work.

See also:

Pine Needle Uses and Health Benefits elperfecto.com

Evergreen, Ever  Delicious newyorktimes.com

Alpine Martini foodnetwork.com

Eat Your Christmas Tree  thecrunchychicken.com


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Alternatives to Milk You Can Make Yourself

English: Glass of soy milk and soy beans.

Soymilk with soybeans. Image via Wikipedia

My sister has an outright milk allergy but I can tolerate it so long as I  don’t go crazy on the fresh ricotta. That means I’m not without some sensitivity to milk, and pretty much only use it for coffee.  So we have always had some milk alternatives in our house.  In fact now you can find all kinds of milk alternatives in the refrigerator aisle, from soy to coconut milk.  But the prices are high and I was pleased to see that you can make milk substitutes from soy to chickpea to oat milk.  If you are allergic, vegan, frugal, keep kosher or just like the taste of different milks, here are some recipes.  Note that these may lack the nutritional qualities of dairy milk and that the freshness of the beans or nuts will affect the flavor.  Use these in baking if you don’t like the flavor.  You can adjust saltiness, sweetness or add vanilla or other flavor if desired.  And you can dilute milks that seem too thick with water.  Best yet, you usually have some residue that can be used in soups and sauces.

 Oatmeal Milk

This is perhaps the easiest milk to make since it requires no cooking.  Take one cup of oatmeal and put into a blender. Add a quart of filtered water, cap and blend for a minute.  Strain through a fine sieve.  Season as you wish (vanilla is nice) and serve or use for baking.

Herbalist’s gloss: I always have oatstraw (the green stalks and immature seeds) in the house for overnight infusions which are rich in minerals and help my nerves.  So I will bring a cup of oatstraw in a quart of water to a boil, simmer for 20 minutes and strain out.  Top up to a quart and use in place of plain water for a more nutritious oat milk.

Garbanzo Bean (Chickpea) Milk

This can be used for chickpeas, soybeans, chana dahl, or other white beans.  Because beans contain antinutrients that can inhibit the thyroid, they require cooking.

Close-up picture of white and green chick peas.

Chick peas- white ones are better for milk. Image via Wikipedia

Soak 2-3 cups of beans in water overnight, in a large container with enough water to expand the volume by 2-3 times.  If you are using a whole bean you can start two days earlier and let the beans start to sprout by draining and rinsing several times a day, but this is not necessary.  At least make sure the beans are soft enough bite.  Place in a blender and grind into a paste, adding water as needed to make sure there are no chunks left.

Half fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil.  The bean milk will tend  to boil over so leave room.  (If it does, it is pretty easy to clean up.)  Add the bean paste, stir well, let simmer just below boiling for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Let cool and strain through a fine mesh strainer or squeeze through cheesecloth.  Chickpea milk is thicker than soy milk, so depending on your bean, you may need to adjust the cloth and squeeze or put a weight on top (say a plastic container full of water.)  You can save the bean residue for falafel or hamburger filler.

Bean texture is an individual thing so I often dilute this down by as much as a third, adding a couple teaspoons of Himalayan salt and sugar or herbal substitute for this quantity.  Use your taste as a guide, going slowly.

Fructus Momordicae, a kind of Chinese herb for...

Lo han guo fruit sweetens without calories. Image via Wikipedia

Herbalist’s gloss:  Before blending I crush half of a lo han guo fruit into the blender.  This adds a  non caloric sweet taste (but it also sweetens the residue.)  Lo han guo, Siraitia (formerly Mormordica) grosvenorii, is sold in Chinese herb shops or grocery stores. I find that using stevia causes easy over-sweetening and I’m less fond of the taste,

Almond  Milk

This recipe can also be used for cashews, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts and other kinds of tree nuts. Note that California almonds are no longer really raw even if labeled as such, but they work anyway. You can also use the white meat from coconuts. It is more expensive than the bean or oat milks but has important fats and minerals.  Fresh nuts are key as fats can get rancid tastes as they age.

Soak 2 cups raw nuts overnight in plenty of water.  Drain and add a quart of water.  Blend in the blender until milky- if you don’t have a Vitamix or other high power blender, do it in batches then pour back into the blender.  Add a little cinnamon, nutmeg and sweetener if desired.  Blend again and strain out, wringing through cheesecloth or a cotton towel.  The nut residue works well in baking or in a smoothie. This makes a richer milk than the bean or oat milks.

Herbalist’s gloss: I like to mix a handful of cashews into the almonds, and use cinnamon and nutmeg.  Honey adds an eggnog flavor.

Your home made milks will last 3-5 days in the refrigerator and probably won’t freeze well, but they can be used in baking when slightly past prime.  Since you make them yourself, you can control the amount of water for thickness or taste, as well as added salt, sweetener or spices.  Experiment in how you use them, introduce new flavors gradually and don’t be afraid to mix.  While I think that chickpea milk tastes like soymilk, and I like different flavors in cereal, hot chocolate or baking, I am not happy with any substitute in coffee.

English: Shelled almonds (Prunus dulcis) Itali...

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Let Your Digestion Enjoy Your Feast Too.


Feast photo credit: http://tinyurl.com/6p92sw2

The Winter holidays seem a time to indulge:  Christmas cookies, Hanukkah latkes, spiked eggnog, chocolate everything, groaning sideboards with heavy food.  While  we can manage some festive indulgence provided we don’t eat that way all the time, there are things we can do to protect our digestion.

  • Begin your meal with gratitude.  Grace, brachot, an introspective moment to take in all of the plenitude, will prime your body to make good use of good food.  Feel gratitude to the Creator, the farmer, the animal or plant who provided the food, those who picked and transported the food, those who stock the stores, the cook, those who inspired him or her, and family and friends who are joining you.  (There, doesn’t your stomach feel better already?)
  • Start your meal with something bitter, be it bitter greens like arugula or radicchio, a shot of Fernet Branca or a bite of citrus peel.  Bitters cue our gallbladders to secrete bile and out stomachs to produce digestive juices.  (Herbalists may wish to concoct dandelion leaf, artichoke leaf, orange peel, angelic. gentian and ginger bitters.)
  • Also take something sour to help your liver and to reduce blood sugar spikes.  Lemon in seltzer, vinaigrette on a salad, balsamic vinegar in water, sauerkraut, pickled vegetables or lime juice all work.

    See title

    Fernet Branca is a good commerical bitters formula. Image via Wikipedia

  • Choose foods with carminative spices like cinnamon, pepper, ginger, cardamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, Italian herbs, star anise, fennel and cumin.  These will warm the stomach and enhance digestion.  Taste isn’t just aesthetic, it is functional.
  • Chutneys, horseradish, mustard, fish sauces and hoi sin sauce have similar effects.  So do fresh fennel, cilantro, parsley and scallions.
  • Eat slowly, enjoying your food in all of its full flavor.  Mindful eating enhances your appreciation of the interplay between your food and your body and helps you choose well.
  • Eat something fermented: sauerkraut, yogurt, pickled vegetables, olives, or wine in moderation.  The organisms will help you digest (or recombine with your own biota to digest.)  They also tend to lower blood sugar spikes.
    English: Pickled Vegetables. Photo taken in a ...

    Pickled vegetables help digestion

    •  Avoid foods that give you problems, whether allergens, foods to which you have sensitivities or just carbs or fats that upset you.  Milk products, breads, gluten, soy and sugar are common culprits.  Know yourself. Really, isn’t there plenty of other food around?
  • Fill up on the vegetables, not the heavier food.
  • Stop when you are full.  That gives you time to enjoy the company and the conversation.
  • Finish your meal with gratitude.
  • There are vitamins that can help.  One friend swears by Vitamin C, B complex and E taken before dinner.  B complex vitamins can help prevent hangovers.  But so can taking a walk after indulging.
  • Walk home, or walk around the block before bed.  Burn off some of that food and drink.
  • Chinese herbal preparations for overindulgence include Po Chai pills, Curing pills and Bao He Wan.  I prefer the latter as it has Chinese hawthorn which is good for food stagnation and the heart (although less so than European hawthorn.)

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Curried, Gluten-free Sweet Potato Beet Latkes

Photo credit: Chow.com

A slightly healthier version of Chanukkah latkes uses beets and sweet potatoes which are lower in glycemic load, higher in flavonoids and simply taste better. I cook them with coconut oil which does not oxidize when heated and is thus healthier than a peanut or canola oil.  I like to serve them with a chunky applesauce mixed with garam masala (1/2 tsp per cup.)  If you don’t have garam masala, use a mixture of pepper, cumin, cloves, nutmeg and star anise.

Grate 1 medium sweet potato and 1 beet of a similar size and place in a mixing bowl.

Add a small minced yellow onion

Add 1/2 cup oat flou1

1 Tbs brown sugar

1 tsp curry powder

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/4 cup coconut milk

2 beaten large eggs

Mix well.    Heat up a platter in the oven at 300 degrees , covered with paper towel to drain the laltkes.  Heat a cast iron skillet with enough coconut oil to come half way up the latkes.  When a bit of the mixture sizzles when dropped into the oil, you can cook the latkes. Form into cakes about the size of a hamburger and fry until done.  Keep in the oven until finished

Serve with Greek yogurt or sour cream, spiced applesauce and a light salad.   I suggest starting with a salad of romaine lettuce, radicchio, pomegranate seeds, mandarin orange and balsamic vinaigrette dressing.  The bitter greens and sour vinegar will prepare your digestion for the rich latkes.


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Delicious Anti-inflammatory, Antioxidant, Probiotic, Pain-relieving Dessert

Pumpkins, photographed in Canada.

Image via Wikipedia

I put together a dessert using pureed pumpkin or butternut squash, spiced up in a way that moves the blood and is actually good for you.  It is brim full of antioxidants and flavonoids.  Plus it is delicious.  You can switch a good yellow squash for the pumpkin and canned puree works well, but make sure it is puree and not pumpkin pie mix.  I prefer the canned coconut milk to that found in the refrigerated milk section because it has more of those good fats. You can sweeten with stevia, agave, maple syrup or cane sugar, but the agave, maple syrup and sugar have a lot of fructose which is hard on the liver which you will want to avoid if you are in pain.  Honey doesn’t blend in all that well in my opinion, but your taste may differ.  I recommend adding stevia to taste (but go slow, a very little at a time!).  The black pepper makes the effect of the spices more bioavailable- in Ayurveda it takes the herbs into the tissues.

I eat this like pudding or top my coffee with it to make pumpkin latte, perhaps with a dash of rum.  This makes a great winter dessert.

Put in a mixer on low:

coconut milk

3 cups pumpkin puree

A 13.5 oz. can of coconut milk

An 8 oz. container of plain, full-fat yogurt, preferably Greek style

1 can tomato paste


2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp turmeric powder

1/2 tsp ginger

1/4 tsp nutmeg or mace

English: Spices at a market in Marrakech, Morrocco

Image via Wikipedia

dash of cloves or cardamon

dash black pepper

1tsp vanilla extract.

Blend well then add:

Stevia or other sweetener to taste.  Stevia is very concentrated so add it slowly.  The spices cover up any bitterness from the leaf.

Credit: http://www.verybestbaking.com/recipes/28454/Quick-Pumpkin-Pudding/detail.aspx

Serve over chopped walnuts and top with whipped cream.

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Avoiding Materialism For the Winter Holidays

Advent Wreath

One of the main themes that I have been hearing from both Christian and Jewish friends is that they don’t like materialism driving out the true meaning of Hanukkah and Christmas and also don’t like the effect that materialism has on their children.  I’m sure my pagan friends have similar issues around Yule.  Stores ramp up shopping right after Thanksgiving- and even on Thanksgiving itself.  The infamous pepper spray shopping incident illustrated how out of balance things have gotten.

To be fair, stores get their best merchandise in stock before the winter holidays, and most people like a meaningful present.  But there is no reason to fill up the tree with too much junk or to give eight meaningless presents instead of one or two that people really want.  On the other hand I know families that were so anti-materialism that they didn’t give any gifts at all and their children felt slighted and ashamed in front of their friends.  Instead there are other strategies.

  • Don’t assume that your children want tons of stuff.  I remember, at 5,  my family told me that  money was tight and there wouldn’t be much under the tree.  All I asked Santa for was some scotch tape, a magical substance which had recently caught my eye, and I meant it. Plus I felt good about helping my parents. There  is no shame in letting children know that times are tough- and even if your family is doing well, this can be a time for giving to others instead of receiving. Times are tough.
  • Discuss materialism with your children and cultivate a discerning view of commercials and store pressure.  They are not too young to learn your values and how television and commercials manipulate them.  Deconstruct it.
  • Consider a cost limit per person, either for requested or donated gifts, within which one can be creative.
  • If your children are at the Santa Clause stage, don’t make it seem as if Santa is the source of endless materialism. I told my children about the historical St. Nicholas of Smyrna who helped poor girls get a dowry when they started asking about Santa.    And when they compared their gifts to those of more affluent friends, I indicated that parents had a financial arrangement with Santa that wasn’t always the same.  Distract them with activities instead.

    A Christmas tradition in New York City is WPIX...

    Yule log

  • The winter solstice holidays seem to emphasize light for good reason.  Decorate your home with strands of lights, Advent wreaths, multiple menorahs in your windows, Yule logs.  Emphasize a celebratory atmosphere rather than gifts.
  • Similarly let your home be a place of music.  We no longer have my aunt around to play the piano while we sing, but the kids can put together a playlist on our iPad or computer to celebrate the holiday, sing with and play during dinner.  If someone plays an instrument, so much the better.
  • Remain in touch with the religious roots of the holiday, even if you tend to be secular and consider them legends .  Tell the stories, remember the history, share in the deep meanings.  It will add a sense of mindfulness and gratitude to your celebrations.
  • Limit commercial television which runs nonstop commercials for toys and clothing you don’t need. A few good DVDs, PBS or a Hallmark special can set the mood with minimal commercials.
  • Involve the family in preparing food- making cookies, shopping, bringing part of the food if they live out of the home.  Don’t let all the work fall on one person, and enjoy the time together rather than just the product of the work.

    Menorahs can be provided for each family member

  • Consider new herbal directions for favorite foods, especially if you find traditional foods stale:  turkey with tandoori spices, curried sweet potato latkes, pine needle spiced ham, bergamot seasoned lasagna.  Add color with new vegetables.  Go for flavor over quantity.
  • Invite people who are single or without family to join your celebrations, even if you don’t know them well.  Holidays can be times of despair for those who don’t have family or friends around. Share.
  • Get your shopping done before Thanksgiving when there is less pressure and emptier stores.  Patronize local stores and small craftspeople where possible.  Then spend December enjoying time with family.
  • Watch your own tendencies to purchase too much and to focus on gifts.  Instead schedule time for activities or spiritual growth.
  • If a family member has a specific gift in mind it is a good idea to discuss it to avoid crushed expectations.  Perhaps it is simply too expensive or inappropriate.  Maybe people can go together on it, make a donation or combine gifts for a birthday and holiday.  Better to hear a clear “no” or “that isn’t how we celebrate” than to hope and be disappointed.  (But don’t abuse this in the service of fetishizing surprise.)
  • Make at least some presents and most decor as a family project:  herbal salsa, hawthorn elixir, rosemary and shallot vinegar, bath salts with essential oils, candles, oil menorahs, ornaments.  Cranberry or popcorn garlands can be put out for the birds later.  Fir needles can be dried into spice blends or stuffed into pillows. Oven fired or salt clay can be used to make Nativity scenes.
  • Give presents that are donations.  For several years I have given cow shares or chickens or reforestation certificates through the Heifer Project.  Donations to the Hunger Siteor its rainforest, child health, literacy, autism, breast cancer  or animal welfare affiliates allow you to fund and get printable certificates to give for such things as a health garden in Rwanda ($15), a year of school lunches for an AIDS orphan ($18), high efficiency stoves in Dafur ($15), feed a US senior in need ($25), rescue an animal (from $1.00). or rescue a girl from indentured servitude ($50) .

    You can give geese through Heifer.org

  • My children presented me one year with $50 of certificates to fund loans through Kiva.org.  I was able to choose 4 recipients of microloans, and revisit the gift as the loans were repaid to lend again.  Those four certificates have turned into 41 loans which transform the lives of recipients around the world.  This would be a great family project where each Christmas you add to the family portfolio.  Children can learn about the areas where your recipients live, you can discuss the nature of the projects you wish to fund and how secure they seem, and you can know you are contributing to the dignity of the borrowers as they form new businesses or otherwise expand their skills.
  • Consider spearheading funding for a project you care about.  My son Nick raised over $5000 for Tibet for his 21st birthday using a Facebook application.  Of course this works best if you have lots of friends who care about the same project you are raising funds for. But you can join with your community at putting together a skills bank which could do everything from helping seniors with home repair to helping young couples learn how to budget. Or raise funds for the local food bank (but remember them after the holidays are past!)
  • If you can serve food at a local soup kitchen this may be a good celebration.  They usually need more help after the holidays, but now  may be a good time to get introduced.
  • Focus on what you are grateful for rather than what you might get.  Do this before the gift giving as well as after.
  • Don’t overdo.  This leads to burnout, disappointment and discontent, not to mention high bills in January.
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A Calorie Is Not A Calorie: Why All Calories Are Not The Same

A diet rich in soy and whey protein, found in ...
Image via Wikipedia

When I was in the second grade and was told to cut calories, I wanted to know why if the calories were the same, I couldn’t just cut out the squash and beans at dinner for the equivalent caloric amount of ice cream.  “Vitamins” were too abstract for me and besides I took a vitamin pill.  It wasn’t until low carbohydrate diets became popular that I started learning about different metabolic actions of different types of food, and later about different nutrients, the need for one nutrient to absorb another and biological responses to ingested foods that affect what is used.

The first law of thermodynamics indicates that energy is conserved and thus that a calorie might be a calorie if you equalize calories in and calories out, plus fat storage.  However the second law says that no machine is completely efficient. Some of the available energy is lost as heat and in the internal chemical changes and in entropy.  In the human body this means that hormones, enzymes(1) , allergic processes, constraints from lack of essential minerals and cofactors all have an impact on the food retained.

  • It takes more energy to break down some foods than others. For protein to break down to energy it is transformed into glucose.  That step takes ATP (energy) and thus a calorie of sugar transforms into energy (or stored fat) more efficiently than protein.  100 calories of sugar will make you fatter than 100 calories of boiled egg. And people on low carbohydrate diets lose more weight, lose it faster and keep it off longer than people on low calorie diets.
  • The amount of calories lost as heat is approximately 2–3 % for fats, 6–8 % for carbohydrates, and 25–30% for proteins.  You would typically lose 140 calories as extra heat on the early phase of an Atkins, South Beach or Protein Power diet just based on the metabolic effects.(1)
  • The form of food counts:  fruit juice is worse than fruit if you want to lose weight.  The fructose is unbound and can inactivate the appestat that prevents us from overeating. (2) The glycemic index of flour is higher than that of pasta.  Generally the more processed (ground, liquefied) forms of the same food raise your blood sugar faster.(3)
  • Sugars differ.  Fructose doesn’t suppress the hunger hormone, grehlin like glucose.  Fructose makes you lay down more fat.  80% of glucose is absorbed immediately sending only 20% to the liver vs. 100% of fructose. That causes the liver to store it as new fat.  This also creates VLDL cholesterol (the worst kind.)  Glucose makes 1% as VLDL and Fructose has 3 times as much, with the additional waste product uric acid which causes gout and hypertension. 30% of fructose becomes fat compared to 1% of glucose.  Table sugar is 50% glucose and 50% fructose, so is poison. Yes, poison.  (2)
  • Fiber protects food from being completely broken down.  Our digestive system is not a bomb calorimeter (the tool used to determine how much energy food releases in kilocalories) where everything is burned completely.  Fiber sweeps undigested food through the colon and probably is intended to clean it out.  So whole grains per ounce tend to give fewer calories than refined grains.  (This effect is often negated by, say, slightly heavier slices of whole grain bread.)
  • Fiber does not raise blood sugar or blood insulin as high because it takes more time in the stomach to release glucose from foods.(2,3)
  • Fiber sweeps food through the colon, decreasing intestinal transit time so the small intestine has less time to absorb nutrients. Also it specifically reduces the absorption of carbohydrates in the intestines (2)
  • Fat is not all burned, In fact it often lubricates the colon, decreasing intestinal transit time and lowering the amount of nutrients absorbed.  This is especially true when there is insufficient bile produced.
  • Micronutrients differ.  100 calories of cooked kale has a lot more micronutrients than 100 calories of iceberg lettuce.  Minerals are higher in darker greens.  There are more flavonoids in blueberries than strawberries.  Trace minerals are often part of enzymes necessary to break down or to absorb food..
  • Some nutrients need cofactors: mineral rich greens are better absorbed with some fat..(4)
  • Some foods are allergenic or irritating.  Wheat contains gluten which has several degrees if irritation: celiac disease, atopic allergy, gluten sensitivity and normal irritation in the colon because it is hard to digest.  Depending on the degree of sensitivity, the gluten protein can cause severe diarrhea and weight loss or retention of fluids and weight gain.(5)
  • Different gut flora dispose us to gain or lose weight.  Thin people have more of the bacteria that will give us diarrhea in excess.  Fat people have more of the gut flora that break down food- the same flora found in yogurt.(6)

See Also:

 Chemicals and Obesity: What if it Isn’t All Your Fault?  Acupuncturebrooklyn.com

Two Year Low Cal/Low Carb Study Misleading. Acupuncturebrooklyn.com


  1. Nutrition Journal.  “A Calorie is a Calorie Violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics.” http://www.nutritionj.com/content/3/1/9
  2. Robert Lustig UCSF lecture on sugar:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBnniua6-oM
  3. David Mendosa.  “The Glycemic Index” http://www.mendosa.com/gi.htm
  4. Weston Price Principles http://www.nutrition-healing.com/westonprice.html
  5. Clin Allergy. “Sub-class of IgG in allergic disease. I. IgG sub-class antibodies in immediate and non-immediate food allergy.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=%20varied%20reactions%20to%20gluten
  6. J Clin Gastroenterol. “Obesity and the gut flora.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21992951

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How to Prevent Drug Side Effects

Adverse Drug ReactionAdverse drug reaction

Image by Benicio Murray | www.benicio.com.au via Flickr

When my children were young, a their doctor, who was describing side effects turned to me to confirm his statement that all drugs have side effects.  I didn’t.  Coming from a Chinese Medicine tradition where we individualize herbal formulas and dosages to an individual’s constitution, symptoms and underlying conditions, I see “side effects” as the result of sloppy prescribing and one size fits all dosage.

What is a “side effect”?  A side effect is one or more of the effects of a drug that does not have to do with a current (arguably restricted) treatment goal.  It is not incidental, it is the property of a drug.  Drugs are widely assumed to be designed to target a specific organ or medical issue, but they rarely do. They have effects on multiple organs and interact in complex feedback loops. Side effects are just drug effects interacting with a specific individual.

Suppose two young women come to a medical doctor with the same bacterial respiratory infection.  “A” is quite thin, pale, vegan, of southern European ancestry and wears heavy sweaters in moderate weather because she always feels cold. Perhaps she also suffers from Renaud’s with cold hands.  “B” is robust, omnivorous, has a reddish complexion, drinks alcohol, is perhaps of Nordic extraction and wears sandals and short sleeves well into winter.  The doctor could give them the same antibiotic for the infection and it would probably work in the short term, but the longer term consequences would be different:  patient “A” might recover initially, but the treatment would tax her immune system and set off  a new round of diseases while “B” might do quite well.

Most antibiotics are energetically cold, which makes sense since feverishness is usually present in acute bacterial illnesses.  Cold: like mint, yogurt, cucumbers, beans, winter weather, light clothing, insulin and steroids.  Thin people tend to run colder than well-insulated fatter people.  The elderly tend to be colder than the young.  There are certain epigenetic differences in people who originate from different climates.  And while the individual’s presentation is more important than any given factor, the energetics of the drug (hot/cold, dry/damp, anabolic/catabolic and suppressive/expressive) should match the needs of a patient. Continue reading…

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Musings on the 10th Anniversary of 9-11

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City: V...

Image via Wikipedia

Ten years ago my youngest son pulled me up to the roof  where we could see the smoke from the destruction of the first World Trade Center tower.  We watched in horror as smoke billowed, soon to be followed by windrifts of shredded paper and air full of a peculiar dust smelling of construction debris and dead bodies which lasted for weeks.  Subways and roads had been closed so I couldn’t grab my EMT bag to help the survivors, and word soon came that there was no need for additional EMTs with so few injured survivors.  People apparently either got out or they were pulverized.

At that time I was at Old First Church, serving as the top layperson in a church without permanent clergy.  I decided we should open the church since people would be worried and the walkers escaping Manhattan would need somewhere to sit down on their way towards home.  Soon a crowd formed, exchanging information, needing to share fears.  Someone brought a radio since cell phones were out.  Others brought flowers. The front steps of Old First became a nerve center for the community, for people regardless of affiliation. Continue reading…

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Simple Health Practices that Help with Pain

Back pains....

Image by JD'na via Flickr

Pain is complex and there are many facets to it.  Here are a few things that may help.  But do what you need to in order to minimize pain rather than toughing it out because pain isn’t good for you. 

  • Pain may be fixed and stabbing (usually nerve pain) or throbbing and movable.  Try to figure out the nature of your pain, what makes it better or worse, how many inches into your body it is found and how broad the area is and whether it radiates.  Is it better or worse with heat?  In Chinese medicine we do not use ice, which we believe only suppresses the pain but we do use cooling medicinal herbs that help release the pain at the skin level. Continue reading…
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Pelvic Pain and Functional Disorders

Female figure, Dogon peoples, Mali, Late 19th ...

Image by cliff1066™ via Flickr


Female pelvic cavity

Image by EUSKALANATO via Flickr

Your pelvis, referred to as the Lower Jiao in Chinese  medicine is the area that lies roughly between your hips below the umbilicus (belly button), within the pelvic girdle of the skeleton.  It includes the intestines, rectum, bladder, genitals and their supporting and connecting structural elements like the messentery (connective tissue attaching the intestines), urethera, ureters, muscles holding the structures in place and the external skin. Continue reading…

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Food Remedies for Various Conditions


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 Hippocrates said, “Let food be your medicine.”  Similar things have been said in Ayurveda and in Chinese medicine.  Food can balance your immune system, provide seasonal relief (think watermelons in the heat of summer) and can even provide specific cures or extra help when you are treating diseases with herbs or medications.  The chart below shows specific effects of many common foods.  Continue reading…

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On Formulating Herbs for Montezuma’s Revenge

Artemisia annua

Artemisia annua. Image via Wikipedia

Say you were just visiting a country with bad water like Guatemala, or were swimming in a lake with pollution or had the Louisiana fish fry for Mother’s Day where the spicing could cover up any off flavors.  And somehow you ended up with hot watery diarrhea that wouldn’t stop, even after days of the BRAT diet (Banana- astringent with potassium, Rice-absorbent and easy on the stomach, Applesauce- colloidal with its pectins and Tea- astringent with its tannins, or depending on your interpretation, Toast to absorb.)  You need something stronger.

This entry is about how to formulate herbs for a more effective cure, but it is also on diarrhea, so if you are squeamish, be advised.

First off, while there may be wisdom in starting antimicrobial herbs early on, it is a good idea not to take antidiarrheals  until what needs to get out has a chance to get out.   DuPont and Homick found in 1973 that treating Shigella- caused diarrhea with Lomotil extended the course of the fever because diarrhea itself is a protective mechanism.  But diarrhea is the number two killer of children under five and kills over 1.1 million people over the age of 5 annually.  It imbalances electrolytes which can kill, especially the elderly and it dehydrates.  It isn’t something to leave untreated.  I’ll give it three days before looking at an antidiarrheal strategy.

Henry's Lunch 1-26-10

BRAT diet lunchbox. Image by Kelly Sue via Flickr

What exactly happens?  First an organism, usually microbial but sometimes a parasite like giardia, upsets the digestive tract. You may become feverish.  Water stops being absorbed from the small intestine, allowing it to flush out organisms and associated toxins, along with a panoply of necessary electrolytes.  Even if you drink, you tend not to hydrate your tissues.  The liver’s secretion of bile is off and toxins secreted by the organism stress the liver’s detoxification pathways.  The bacterial overgrowth, burrowing of a parasite like giardia or entameba histolytica into the intestinal walls or composition of the fluids can upset the ecology of your gut bacteria.  Your anal sphincters may be stressed.  You need an herbal formula that will deal with all of these issues.

Organs of the digestive system.

Image via Wikipedia


So what properties should such a formula have?  It should be antimicrobial since you want to deal with the first cause, although that alone may not be enough.  It should absorb fluids to get a more solid stool and to reduce pressure on the sphincters.  It should astringe fluid loss.  It should replace minerals and allow hydration.  It should support the liver.

And it should be diuretic.  Diuretic?  Aren’t I losing enough fluid through the bowel?  You may not have noticed that you stopped peeing with all that fluid loss.  And if you continue to lose fluid through the bowel, you will not hydrate.  One of my herbal professors used to tell of saving the life of a hospitalized baby dying of diarrhea by injecting her with a diuretic.


Dandelions. Image by JP.. via Flickr

Now think of how you want to make up the formula:  raw herbs decocted or infused into a tea, tinctures or fluid extracts, granules or pills.  If you are using raw herbs, you need someone in the home who isn’t affected to cook them up and administer them.  Tinctures are lousy sources of minerals, so you will need to supplement your electrolytes.  Granules have electrolytes and are easily customized, but tend to be restricted to Chinese herbs, with a few exceptions.  Pills are not well absorbed in a body with diarrhea, don’t allow your taste to stimulate body secretions but may be the most tolerable way to take strong antiparasite herbs.  You are allowed more than one method.

So first, I would look at antimicrobial and antiparasite herbs like black walnut, Artemesia annua, wormwood, cloves or quassia.  These tend to be intensely bitter, cold and to affect the liver as well as the parasites.  I’d add to that one of the berberine-rich herbs like coptis, phellodendron or goldenseal which are antimicrobial but also stop diarrhea and dysentery.  The antimicrobials would be assisted by an alterative herb which enhances nonspecific elimination.  For this I’d use oregon grape or echinacea if I wanted a stronger antimicrobial kick.  And I would use plantain or calendula for healing the internal mucosa.  If there is bleeding, add notoginseng (san qi) or shepherd’s purse.  If there is  pus, add pusatilla (pasque) flowers.  Whole herb dandelion will be diuretic, will add potassium if given in a raw, granule or pill form and the root’s inulin will aid the gut bacteria in re-establishing balance.  Plantain seeds or cornsilk are diuretics which can be found in granule form.  Avoid irritating diuretics like uva ursi, since you are already irritated.

Corn female flower AKA corn silk. The incipien...

Corn silk. Image via Wikipedia

Because I want the minerals, I’d throw a handful of nettle leaves in chicken-miso soup with rice.  Boil the nettles, but add the miso for probiotic effect after it cools down a bit.  This will replace fluids and electrolytes while being a bit astringent.  You could use astringent herbs in the formula instead, but go for the ones with tannins- barks or tea, and avoid acid astringents which will upset your stomach.

It also helps to take herbs rich in fiber, like marshmallow or slippery elm which will absorb water and lock it into solid form.  Since these herbs tend to clump, I usually stir in a heaping teaspoon or two of powdered herb in applesauce which covers up the glop factor, but if you prefer it as a tea, drink it right away.  Alcohol tends to inactivate the polysaccharides, so I don’t put these herbs into tinctures. The herbs will also help feed the probiotic organisms.

As you can see, there are several ways to reach your goal, and many herbs serve multiple functions, but I thought I’d give a sample protocol that would work for a hot, watery traveler’s diarrhea without blood or pus.

Tincture – 1/4 teaspoon 4-5 times a day

3 parts  Artemisia annua or Qing hao -antimicrobial, aromatic bitter, cold

1 part Black walnut- antiamoebic, extremely bitter, cold and astringent

2 parts Coptis-bitter, antimicrobial, antiviral, antiamobic, alterative, cold, stops diarrhea

2 parts Plantain leaf- antimicrobial, vulnurary, demulcent with affinity for GI mucosa

2 parts whole Dandelion fluid extract – diuretic, bitter and sweet, cool

1 part Calendula-gastroprotective, antinflammatory, antimicrobial, antispasmodic

Soup: Chicken-miso soup with nettle leaves

Other: Applesauce with slippery elm powder.  Probiotic foods or supplements.

If you think you might have been exposed to giardia, you will want to treat it aggressively and early because when it burrows into the intestinal wall, it can be extremely difficult to dislodge and can become a chronic condition.  Giardia usually comes from polluted waters or fecal contamination.  It can be treated with herbs alone, although for children western meds may be easier because the herbs are usually intensively bitter and need to be taken long term.

When should you make this up?  If you know you are going to travel somewhere with bad water or unfamiliar biota, make it up before you leave.  When you are suffering from intense diarrhea and dizziness, you are unlikely to have the desire or presence of mind to look at your herb cabinet.   So be prepared.

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On Different Cross-Cultural Uses of Shared Herbs

Equisetum × moorei, Brno - Židenice, Czech Rep...

Horsetail image via Wikipedia

When I was in Chinese Medicine School, my herbal teacher and I got into an intense discussion of plantain seed.  In Western medicine, plantain (a related species to psyllium) seed is used as a mild laxative.  In Chinese medicine it is used as a diuretic to guide fluids from the small intestine and to stop diarrhea.  Usually I’d expect that different parts of the plant would have such different uses, but in this case we were both talking about the seeds.  As I was dropping off to sleep that night it hit me:  in Western medicine we eat the seeds with all the roughage.  In Chinese medicine we make a decocted tea and strain it out.

When I was in Guatemala last week, I spent time talking to herbalists who used the same herbs I do, differently.  One Continue reading…

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How to Store Your Emergency Meds

A few years ago I had food poisoning with severe diarrhea.  After a couple of days, I found myself home alone, collapsed on the floor, unable to pull myself to standing.  I knew I needed fluid and electrolytes.  I even had made up oral hydration salts, proud of my cost-savings venture.  But they were high in my medicine closet and I wasn’t able to pull myself to standing to get them or the faucet or a container to mix them up in. There were no sodas or juices, since I don’t use them.  Now I keep a bottle of Pedialyte in drinkable form on the floor of my pantry.  If I can crawl, I can get to it.

We have all heard that we should keep medicine locked in a medicine chest, if not in the humid bathroom, then somewhere out of reach. (For those of us who have both conventional and herbal medications, the sufficiently large medicine chest hasn’t been built! )  That is fine for infrequently used toxic  prescriptions.  But don’t do that with emergency medicines.  Keep those where you are most likely to use them.

Plantago major Image taken by me on 20 March 2...

Image via Wikipedia


That means that if you are deathly allergic to bee stings, you might want to carry an epi-pen in your gardening apron (and make sure you have lots of plantain around.)  Or your emergency asthma inhaler if Spring pollens leave you gasping.  If asthma strikes at night, keep the inhaler near your bed. Wear a nitroglycerine pendant for cardiac emergencies. If arthritis is worse in the morning, keep your turmeric honey and a spoon in the bedroom.  Get extra prescriptions so you can keep emergency medicine where you need it.

Bandages and disinfectant should be located near your power tools and in your kitchen.  They don’t all have to be in one spot, and you can have them in the bathroom too.  Arnica gel or a die de jiao (trauma liniment) is well-located near the bathtub or stairs, if slipping is an issue.

If you are diabetic, carry glucose with you.  I don’t recommend carrying insulin unless you have to (if you must use it.)  If you do, label it in obvious letters:  Not for emergency use, administer sugar instead.  I recently role-played a diabetic slipping into a coma for a first aid class of medical professionals, and nearly everyone reflexively wanted to inject me with insulin instead of giving glucose, which could have killed me.  This actually happened to the brother of a Facebook friend, and he was in a long term coma because well-meaning friends didn’t understand that glucose is for emergencies, while insulin is designed for long term problems.  Indeed when I was training as an EMT, we were taught that all diabetic comas should be treated with glucose- even if the person had ketoacidosis, lowering sugar was a long term strategy, whereas withholding glucose could potentially kill some one.  Follow with food that has protein, fat and fiber so the diabetic won’t crash.

With atopic allergies like penicillin or latex, a medical alert bracelet is a good idea.  I might carry a tiny CPR kit with a nonlatex glove on my keyring.

Even a toddler can be taught to dial 911 and ask for help if a parent or babysitter is not responsive.  An elder who lives alone may be better off with a medical alert pendant that will automatically dial for help.

Most of my medicine is herbal.  Herbal emergency products should also be located where they will be used.  But most herbal medicine is best for long term use.  There are times when speed will be of the essence.  Make sure your emergency medicines are at hand where you will need them.


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Statin Drugs Can Increase Diabetes or High Blood Sugar

This article by pharmacist Suzy Cohen, originally published at Mercola.com  is very important because doctors are told that diabetics especially need to go onto statin drugs on the unproven theory that cholesterol causes heart disease.  But by increasing blood sugar, lowering Vitamin D and lowering the anti-inflammatory CoQ10, statins can make matters worse.

There are now 900 studies proving  adverse effects showing complications from increased risks of moderate to serious liver dysfunction, acute kidney failure, moderate or serious myopathy, and cataracts.  (This particular metastudy did not look at the effects of statins on blood sugar.)  But if your doctor wants you to go onto statins let him or her know that they increase blood sugar, corrosive blood insulin levels and diabetes.


The Hidden Diabetes Link No One is Telling You About…

By Suzy Cohen, R.Ph.

Statin DrugsCoronary heart disease is a leading cause of death in the United States, killing one in five adults, and doctors are very quick to prescribe statins. In fact, statin drug sales rank in the billions each year globally. Continue reading…

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Snow Day! Redux.

The Day After #DCsnowpocalypse #Thundersnow #s...
Image by ShashiBellamkonda via Flickr

Last night we had a thundersnow, a snowstorm complete with thunder, lightning and hail, that managed to drop almost two feet of snow in 8 hours.  Today I awoke to a fairyland of snow, with thick coats of snow on windows and trees, and few signs of the cars buried under drifts.  I filled a thermos with Darcy’s spice chocolate, bundled up and sidled between four foot snow embankments  towards Prospect Park.  Trees with thick branches were weighted down with up to a foot of snow.  Cross-country skiers and sledders  were scattered across the park.  The soft snow sank below my boots, as I sought out packed snow, trying to avoid the cross-country paths.

I love snow, as only someone who grew up in the mild climate of California’s San Francisco Bay Area can do.  We had a dusting every five years or so, but it generally melted off within a couple of hours.  I love the way snow transforms the city, covering dirt, cleaning the air,  glistening in the sunlight, causing tree branches to sparkle.  The reflections of sunlight off the snowdrifts in an otherwise dim season cheer me immeasurably.

This is something like the seventh major snowstorm of the season, closing down schools, roads and above-ground transit.  But we haven’t had a big snow season for a few years and I missed out on the December snowstorms when I visited family, so I haven’t burned out on it.

I crossed the Long Meadow towards the forested Ravine, stopping to sit on a cleaned bench that barely cleared the snow.  Children lined the ridge behind the Tennis House where sledding areas were demarcated. A mother on cross-country skis with a rope around her waist pulled a toddler on a sled.  Dogs were chasing Frisbees, reveling in the drifts.  Wind caused snow showers as trees unburdened their limbs.

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 27:  A man cross countr...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

I trudged along the path by the Amberkill, where I watch feral goldfish swim in warmer seasons.  The stream peeked through where the water ran fast but was covered by ice and snow in the pools.  I stopped to watch the falls and an elderly birder photographing in the forest.

A woman on cross-country skis with a black lab stopped to ask me if the trail was crowded.  I warned her that it was uneven, but she was already cutting through new snow, allowing the lab to walk in the existing path.  Urban cross-country skiers are a hardy lot, purchasing sturdy fiberglass skis that can stand up to asphalt or stones peering through the snow.  I used to be one, before my feet outgrew my boots and the available bindings changed, meaning that I would need an entire new setup that I could only use in cold years.  I left the path and walked up the hill to the ice-covered ponds, stopping to shake snow from the holly so the plants wouldn’t break under the weight.

The children’s calls of delight from the sledding slope filled the air as I emerged.  A woman in snowshoes sat texting on the bench where I had rested.  As I crossed the meadow, I found a valley behind a tree grove filled with snowmen and half an igloo.  Two teens threw snowballs, but everyone else seemed to be engaged in building, using plastic sleds as snow scoops.  The trees had significantly less snow and slush was starting to form at the corners as I left, cheered by the experience.

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 27:  A woman walks her ...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

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Recovering from the Feast

A bottle of Angostura Aromatic Bitters.

Angostura Bitters Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday, before Thanksgiving, I advised my Facebook readers to start their meals with some bitters- Angostura bitters, Fernet Branca, radicchio or dandelion greens to stimulate their liver and gallbladder to secrete digestive juices.  I also suggested taking a little lemon juice or vinegar in water before the meal to prevent blood sugar spikes and to help with liver detoxification.  It also helps to leave a little room in your stomach when you eat.  But what if you didn’t? Continue reading…

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Getting Your Minerals from Herbs

Equisetum telmateia (Equisetopsida) at Cambrid...

I had been making overnight infusions of herbs for several years when David Winston opined that infusing a mineral-rich herb like oatstraw or horsetail was a waste of herb because the minerals were locked up in the structure and that they were not released by steeping in water unless you waited several days.  He claimed that his labs had found that simmering for 20-30 minutes (decocting) was necessary to release the minerals.  So long as my overnight infusion isn’t aromatic, which would be damaged by simmering, I now decoct my mineral herbs instead of infusing overnight.  In fact I often mix herbs, decocting the roots or mineral-rich herbs first, turning off the flame and infusing the aromatics overnight afterward.

I had started making my herbal preparations as tinctures.  Tinctures are great.  They last for years, they are handy and I enjoyed them.  Tinctures grab resins and aromatics, but don’t get minerals at all.  Continue reading…

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Cloves for Preservation and to Lift the Spirit

Fresh cloves in hand
Raw Clove Flowers-Image via Wikipedia

Two months ago I made a chai tea redolent with cloves, but without milk or sugar.  I put it in my water bottle to drink during the day, but it was pushed behind other bottles and I forgot about it.  Two weeks later there was not one spec of mold floating in the liquid and a quick smell and taste of a few drops revealed no souring.  I was curious and put it back.  Two months after making it shows no growth of organisms or off taste or odor.  Which got me thinking about the Spice Route.

In the ancient time, refrigeration was unavailable, especially in cities where cellars and ice were generally unavailable.  Spices were important not only for food preservation, but to fortify the digestion and to cure food poisoning.  In Europe where there was little tradition of fermenting meat, spices or smoking (often with spices or aromatic wood) were the primary way of dealing with meat that might not be fresh.  Cloves were one of the most important. Continue reading…

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