I am on week two of my “continuous migraine,” and I have had to pull out a lot of my “big guns” to treat myself, along with my other doctor given medications. I have been robot-ing through life until we can find a treatment that works. Even though it has been rough, I have got to keep on trucking. I know that soon we will find something! Then it will be nice to pick up all those things you have to set aside because they aren’t vital to existence. But, it won’t be long until I am back to my usual self, and done with those things and on to new ones! 🙂
Luckily, to help me get through things, I have wintergreen handy. This is a powerful little plant, that seems so common, yet also rare. You might be tempted to think, that wintergreen is one of those plants of the mint family that seem to pop up everywhere, and you would be like most people, wrong. Don’t feel bad though, it is very mint like in scent, and tends to be found alongside mints in candy. Wintergreen though, is from an entirely different family of plants. Wintergreen is a shrubbery, with bright red berries, that creeps through gardens and forests sprouting up from its expanding network of rhizomes. Commonly known as eastern teaberry, checkerberry, and other local names, it has been long used by Native Americans, and after their arrival American colonists and their descendants for centuries.
Generally the way people would be familiar with the smell or taste of wintergreen would be from gums, candies, dental care items (toothpaste, mouthwash, etc), and tobacco products. It is in some root beers, sodas, and (if you like martinis) vermouth traditionally has wintergreen in it. While very similar chemically to therapeutic wintergreen, wintergreen flavoring is usually made from a type of birch, sweet birch or Betula lenta it is a similar chemical make up, but not exactly the same. We will get more into the chemicals of wintergreen later though.
It was well known in Native American healing arts, as a herb for rheumatoid and joint issues, headaches and general aches & pains. This little plant was even used as a tea substitute during the American Revolutionary War, and the berries were sold in Boston in the early years of the States as a treat. There was a belief in the US Colonial eras that chewing the young leaves in spring would protect children’s teeth from decay. Jams, pies and other confection type items are made with the berries, though they are rather slightly medicine like in taste and can be offensive for some palates.
The chemicals that makes them different is why we are interested in a specific wintergreen to treat pain, the one we want is Gaultheria procumbens. While it isn’t as well known in its raw state (just the oil or plant) as it is in pre-made preparations. It is in a lot of joint pain rubs, and it is that “medicine-y” scent that it has that can be off putting to people who don’t care for the medicinal smells of some pain creams and rubs. This is so commonly used in these creams since this herb is a fantastic analgesic, mild local anesthetic, antispasmodic, and anti-inflammatory.
This is not an herb that I would list as mostly harmless, it is something you can actually use too much of, so this should be used judicially, mindfully, and carefully. This is some pretty powerful stuff, and the oils are very concentrated and contain methyl salicylate which can cause blood thinning, and in large doses can be like overdosing on Aspirin. It is very close to the chemical that makes Aspirin work, and is in a lot of other preparations, is salicylic acid. Both of these acids, methyl and salcylic, work as an anti-inflammatory, they suppress the enzymes (like cyclooxygenase, aka COX, we talked about before) that cause inflammation. This also means that if you have bad reactions to Aspirin, or other similar medications, you want to avoid using this, in my humble non medical opinion, even externally. If you aren’t you should still be careful since the dose between helpful and harmful with any medications is very small, so I say unless you are being guided and dosed by a professional. Also if you are taking any sort of blood thinners, this is not something you want to try without professional advice first. One ounce of essential oil of wintergreen is equivalent to 171 Aspirins, a teaspoon is a whopping 21.5, so I think it is best to stick to using this externally. Always better to be safe than sorry!
Now, just because it has the potential to do this doesn’t mean you should avoid this very useful plant and oils. Their therapeutic power is fantastic, and as long as you use any plant in the right amounts and treat them with respect you should never have an issue. You should never be careless about anything you put in, and sometimes what you put on, your body.
So now that you are sufficiently knowledgeable about wintergreen, how do you use it?
Well firstly, if you are lucky enough to have your own wintergreen plant in your garden there are a few ways you can use the leaves.
You can make an infusion, or tea, with these leaves, but to extract the chemicals that you need to treat pain they must first be fermented slightly. There seem to be a few different camps on what time of year is best to harvest the leaves, some say young, some say in the fall when they go red. Any point in their cycle, as long as they aren’t dead, seems to be OK for making an infusion or tincture in my experience. Most plants will have natural yeasts that live on them as natural flora, but you may have to do an assisted fermentation if you do not see activity after a few days (usually 3 is enough).
Wintergreen Infusion (tea) for Compresses
- Mason jar
- Wintergreen leaves, fresh enough to fill the jar
- Water, enough to cover
Bruise or roughly chop the leaves and place them in the jar, cover with water and seal. After 3 days you should see bubbling, a sign of fermentation. If you do not see bubbling, you can add a quarter teaspoon of yeast to the jar. Or if you are very brave, you can leave the jar open and see if you can entice a wild yeast to ferment your leaves. This does leave your infusion open to mold and other nasty things growing in your jar, and is really the last resort sort of option. If you are only able to get dried wintergreen leaves you would only want to use the same amount for this recipe.
You do not want to use this recipe internally at all, this is best used as a compress for sore areas. To use this you simply heat a small amount of the liquid and allow it to cool to as warm as you can stand and soak a towel or other absorbent cloth in the liquid and apply directly to painful areas. This is great for joint, arthritis, over exertion, muscle spasms and other pains from general working out and life.
- 32 oz Mason jar
- 10 oz Wintergreen leaves, fresh or 7 oz if dried
- Grain alcohol to cover
Fill the jar with the wintergreen and cover with the alcohol, shake daily for 3-4 weeks. Strain and bottle and store in a dark place. For this you can use about 20-30 drops in some warm water, and use a compress to apply it to the painful area. You can also massage the tincture directly into the skin, but I suggest using much less 5-15 drops at most. This is a great way to topically treat pain, and inflammation from spasms, joint pains or just sore tired muscles. Remember even if it is on your skin it is still being absorbed and going into your body, don’t think that you can use more topically since its safer. And again, I would not suggest taking either of these recipes internally.
Wintergreen Massage Oil
- 1 oz Carrier oil
- 20-30 drops Wintergreen essential oil
Mix well, and store in dark container. This oil can be rubbed directly into the skin, but care should be taken to avoid sensitive skin areas. This is another great way to treat muscles and joints that are in pain or inflamed.
You can, if you are a wildcard like me, use wintergreen oil directly on your skin (known to most as neat application). A drop or two is all that is needed, and then just massage it into the painful area. This is my favorite way of using this oil, and it is one of my go to oils for migraines and painful muscle spasms. I don’t use this oil every day, and I try to limit its use to 1 drop or so every 8 hours, and I change it up and try not to use it twice in a row, or over consecutive days if I can help it, mostly because I find that it is best to be overly cautious with these things. But despite my caution, I love this oil and I find its relief when the pain is very bad, especially with migraines, to be the difference between feeling so horrible that I hate everything, and being happy about life. Which if you suffer from migraines is a big difference.
As always do your own research, find out what works best for you and make sure to always check places like WebMD for interactions before using any sort of medication, herbal or otherwise. This is one that I can not stress enough that if you are in doubt at all about dosage or interactions with medications you are currently taking, ask a professional!