As an herbalist, a question I get a lot from friends and family is "I have x going on...what herb can I take?" Often several plants will jump to mind, and as I talk more to the person about how they're feeling and the nature of the ailment, I'm able to narrow it down to a few plants I think will help.
The problem, of course, is that for many people, certain herbs aren't readily accessible - most people don't have a jar of elecampane root or a bottle of yarrow tincture lying around, but they need something quickly. And sadly, herb shops and health food stores that carry quality herbs aren't as common as I'd like them to be.
This is why it's so important to know what the herbs in your spice cabinet (and refrigerator) are capable of.
Often, we write off herbs like rosemary, sage, and cinnamon as simply flavorings for our food, and don't give too much thought to why we use them and what they're good at. The reality is that there is a reason these culinary plants have been invited into our kitchens and included in our cooking for thousands of years. In fact, even with access to lots of different herbs, I still sometimes turn to these for help because they're simple and so effective.
So let's take a look at what (most of us) have already got around the house.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
Basil is known to most as a topping for pizza or the main ingredient in pesto, but this gorgeously scented herb can actually help to calm the nervous and digestive systems. It eases cramps and bloating from indigestion, curbs nausea, and helps to relieve irritability. Some herbalists even work with it for minor cases of insomnia and anxiety.
So, consider this a great excuse to indulge in a delicious basil pesto for dinner! The fresh or dried leaves can also be brewed into a calming tea - it pairs nicely with chamomile to help ease stress and tension.
Cayenne (Capsicum annuum)
Cayenne contains something called capsacin, which does three very notable things: increases circulation throughout the body; supports digestion by increasing saliva and digestive enzymes; and sends a signal to the brain to release endorphins. Cayenne is also rich in vitamins C and A, both of which help to support the immune system. All of these things make cayenne a wonderful thing to reach for when you're coming down with a cold or feel deeply chilled.
A generous pinch mixed into hot water with honey and a squeeze of lemon does wonders for that sore throat you get right at the start of a cold. Ok, you're probably thinking "Drink cayenne?? Really? NO." But listen! It seems very counterintuitive, but cayenne has an analgesic effect. It can also be added in very small amounts to warm water gargles to help soothe sore throats.
Another use for cayenne is as a styptic powder - when applied to a cut, it'll help stop bleeding (thought it may burn a bit!). When infused in oil, it can be used topically to help lessen the pain of arthritis in stiff, cold joints.
Cinnnamon (Cinnamomum sp.)
Cinnamon is known to most people as a key ingredient in Christmas cookies and cakes (or, dare it say it, the dreaded and feared Pumpkin Spice Latte). But herbalists know it as a powerful medicine for cold, sluggish conditions.
Cinnamon in its plant form is a tree with deep green leaves and small white flowers that turn into glossy dark berries. The young shoots are collected, the inner bark peeled away from the outer, and placed in the sun where it dries into lovely curls.
A warming, stimulating herb, cinnamon helps to increase circulation and warm up the body. It can support blood sugar regulation, aid in digestion by soothing the stomach, has antimicrobial properties, and can help to curb nausea and diarrhea.
Adding a few cinnamon sticks to your tea or sprinkling the powder on your food is a great way to work with this plant.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
Most chefs keep fennel seeds stocked and ready in their spice cabinet - they have a lovely, licorice-like scent and add tons of flavor to whatever you're whipping up.
Medicinally, they're a warming carminative - they help to aid in digestion and relieve pain from gas and bloating. A teaspoon of seed crushed up and infused into hot water makes a tasty, soothing after dinner tea.
Garlic (Allium sativum)
When anyone has a cold or flu, or any infection really, garlic jumps to the front of my mind. It's hard to convey just how important an ingredient it is to have around.
Aside from how delicious it is, it has potent antiseptic, antiviral, and antimicrobial properties, and boosts the immune system by stimulating the production of white blood cells. These qualities are what make it a main ingredient in fire cider, a staple in every herbalist's kitchen. I also love to infuse raw garlic cloves in honey - just peel two whole heads of garlic cloves, add to a mason jar, and cover with about 2 cups of honey. Flip daily, and after about a month you'll have a delicious medicinal honey that you can drizzle on anything or add to tea when you feel under the weather. The cloves will soften and sweeten, and you can eat them whole if you like. In a pinch, you can speed things up by covering a few cloves with honey and warming everything up on the stove, at very low heat, to let the garlic infuse before enjoying a spoonful.
Pickled garlic is another great option - there are so many great recipes out there! And, of course, you can just add a little extra garlic to your cooking!
Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
Ginger is a warming herb that's great to reach for when you feel cold, sluggish, and under the weather. It increases circulation, eases nausea (especially from motion sickness and morning sickness), calms menstrual cramps, and contains an enzyme that's been shown to help calm inflammation and repair damaged joints.
I like to keep some fresh root on hand - a tablespoon of the chopped root steeped in a mug of hot water is immensely comforting. In a pinch, dried ginger or a tincture of the fresh root will do. Candied ginger is a great thing to have on hand for motion sickness while traveling.
Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)
Rosemary is a warming, drying herb filled with essential oil, flavonoids, bitters, and other wonderful things that make it smell and taste delicious and give it medicinal value.
Rosemary can help to increase circulation, especially to the head - this makes it a wonderful option when you feel cold, brain fogged, and well, just sort of down. It's also slightly analgesic - this combined with it's circulatory and warming effects make it a nice option for easing the pain of arthritis and calming headaches. The drying effect and high amount of essential oil make it a very nice choice for drippy noses and wet, runny coughs. It's a great digestive aid, too, helping the body to process fats - perfect after a heavy meal!
While adding it to your food is, as with all of these spices, a wonderful option, you can also brew a couple sprigs of rosemary into a comforting, delicious tea.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
This beautiful plant with tiny leaves and purple flowers is one of the best things to have on hand when you come down with a cold. High in essential oils, it helps to fight off infection. In fact, it has a stimulating effect on the thymus gland, which is a major part of our immune system. It's warming and drying, which makes it a really excellent choice when you have a wet cough and drippy nose.
It's wonderful as a tea, but works very well as an herbal steam to help ease the respiratory symptoms that come along with a cold or sinus infection.
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
This herb is classically thought of as a seasoning for holiday dinners, but it's actually one of our most useful herbs.
When someone is suffering from a sore throat, or any sort of infection in the mouth, sage is the first thing that jumps to mind. A sage tea, slightly cooled and mixed with a pinch of sea salt, is wonderful as a gargle or mouth rinse for soothing the throat and helping to eliminate pathogens. It's wonderful, especially when mixed with thyme, as a steam for easing respiratory infections. The fresh or dried leaves can be brewed into a tea - with honey, it's a comforting, tasty was to help ease a cold or flu.
Like rosemary and basil, sage is slightly bitter, meaning in can aid digestion by helping to break down fats.
So, the next time you're feeling under the weather, think about what you've got on hand in your spice cabinet!
As always, everything I share here is strictly educational. None of the information I've shared here is verified by the FDA. Always consult a doctor before starting an herbal regimen or trying a new herb, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, or have underlying health conditions.