Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: A Survival Guide
by Pamela Reed Gibson PhD
This chapter review complementary medicine techniques and discusses research on its efficacy for MCS.
Excerpt from p. 147:
Herbal medicine is a system of natural healing that has been practiced for thousands of years. Historically, women were the herbalists in their cultures, but throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the use of medicinal herbs diminished in Western culture, partly as a result of women not being allowed to practice medicine. In fact, many women who were burned at the stake as witches in Europe and Colonial America actually were herbalists (Ehrenreich and English 1973). With the rise of allopathic medicine in the nineteenth century there was considerable resistance from physicians to herbal cures. Although in most areas of the United States herbal medicine is no longer considered mainstream, it is not difficult to find practicing modern-day herbalists. For those areas where herbal medicine is not easily accessible, information can be obtained through books, tapes, newsletters, and correspondence courses.
There are at least two different perspectives within the field of herbal medicine. Some herbalists say that only whole plants should be used for medicinal purposes; others believe that the active ingredients should be extracted from the plant and guaranteed as present in particular strengths in specific formulas. The first perspective is more in line with traditional herbalism and holistic medicine, while the latter is more closely imitative of modern pharmaceuticals. Because the holistic approach is integral to traditional medical practices in most rural cultures, the World Health Organization has urged integrating this system with allopathic medicine inasmuch as herbal medicine is already the people’s health care, and thus well accepted.
With the rise of holistic health practices in the developed nations there is also an increase in the practice of herbal medicine. Consequently, now is an excellent time to find good information on native plants that may be useful for treating MCS. For a fraction of the cost of some of the experimental MCS therapies, you might learn useful knowledge that will put you more in charge of your own health. Although herbs may not cure MCS, they may offer safe, inexpensive relief from some symptoms and allow some people to strengthen specific body systems that have been ravaged by chemical injuries. Herbs each have particular actions they perform in the body based in part on their constituents, e.g., some are astringents, which staunch bleeding.
Some of the most common MCS symptoms, such as headaches, joint pain, digestive problems, anxiety, and others, are easily addressed by herbal medicine. Nevertheless, you should exercise caution when you begin to experiment with herbs. Because people with MCS have very sensitive reactions to all kinds of substances, they should be extremely careful using herbs, particularly if serious food reactions are at issue. One precaution might be to try a minute amount of an herb before taking a full dose. Additionally, be sure that your herbs are organically grown so that you will avoid reactions to herbicides and pesticides. Another general caution with regard to herbs is that some are toxic; toxic herbs can easily be confused with safe ones when collecting in the wild. Also, many herbs have contraindications, causing harm under certain conditions. For example, there are a number of herbs that should not be used during pregnancy because they may relax the uterine muscles too much (e.g., sage), or even stimulate a miscarriage (rue and black cohosh). So be careful, a little learning can be dangerous. If you do decide to use herbs as medicines, you might start by consulting a skilled herbalist while you study and slowly begin experimenting with safer herbs on your own. There are some very safe herbs for self-use with which you could confidently begin your study and experimentation. Some of the safer herbs with no contraindications include: chamomile, dandelion, burdock, and thyme. Each herb has a number of different actions, however, and you should be sure that none of the actions work against what you are trying to achieve.
The wonderful thing about herbs is that they can be used to strengthen, integrate, cleanse, and nourish your body in a holistic way. They do not have to be expensive. If you have a safe organic area, you can grow them yourself, and then dry them or use them fresh. There are several ways of storing and using herbs, with some techniques keeping the herbs closest to their natural state. Herbs can be prepared fresh or dried as teas. They can also be preserved in tinctures of grain alcohol, in glycerine, or even water. Some people think that alcohol is better at extracting the medicinal components from the plants. Herbal tinctures come in small dark bottles with droppers. These tinctures can be taken directly under the tongue, mixed with a little water for drinking, or dissolved in hot water to dissipate the alcohol before it is drunk.
The most processed method for storing a plant is pill form. Although some companies guarantee the potency of their pills, the dried, powdered encapsulated product is a long way from its original state. Many herbs are so bitter or foul tasting, however, that tinctures and pills are the best way to use them. (If you have ever tasted wormwood, valerian, or feverfew, you know what I mean.)
There are several ways that you can begin to learn about herbs. One is to learn the properties of a few very safe plants in which you are particularly interested and then to use them to strengthen your system. This is somewhat the approach of Susun Weed (1989), who lauds the healing properties of common plants, such as nettles and dandelions.
Another approach is to learn to categorize herbs by their “actions,” which define their various medicinal effects. I had been reading about herbs for twenty years and couldn’t keep them straight until I learned what their “actions” were. There are many wonderful books on herbal medicine and reading some will greatly increase your knowledge. (See Appendix C for further reading.)
There are various methods of preparing herbs for use. As a rule, you make infusions from leaves and flowers. This means that you pour boiling water over the dried or fresh herbs and allow them to steep. Roots and barks, however, are harder, and therefore must be boiled directly in the water to extract medicinal components. Herbs should be steeped or boiled for about twenty minutes and strained before use. Although the amounts of the herb used for preparation vary, often a teaspoon to a tablespoon is used per pint of water for roots and barks, and slightly more for leaf and flower infusions.
For people who need scientific proof of herb efficacy, evidence has accumulated for many plants to the point where even conventional medicine is investigating and using them. It must be remembered that many pharmaceuticals are extracted from natural products; e.g., digitalis, which is a powerful cardiac stimulant and diuretic, is made from of the common herb foxglove.
Plant uses that currently are supported by strong research include:
- Gingko for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias
- Echinacea for infections
- Bilberry for capillary circulation to the eyes
- Chamomile for digestive upset, inflammation, and as a gentle sleep aid
- Dandelion for increased digestive health and as a diuretic
- Feverfew for migraine headaches
- Garlic for lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and as an antimicrobial
- Milk thistle for liver damage from chemicals
- Passionflower for nervousness or hyperexcitement
- St.-John’s-Wort for depression
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