Defeating Pain

One Person's Battle Against Chronic Pain


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Birch, The Watchful & Giving Tree

Sorry to everyone out there, this took so long to post since my left arm is slowing me down a bit, and there are spasms in my hand and face that are starting to make doing a lot of things painful. But what better inspiration to talk about something that is a good pain reliever for aches and pains!

Everyone knows birch, the tall silvery trees that seem to stand out so starkly against the forest background. It has many species and all are a part of the genus Betula. I always love paintings that include birch trees, and birch is the state tree of New Hampshire. Birch in Sanskrit is bhurga and translates basically to “tree whose bark was used for writing on,” and may be the root word for the Anglo-Saxon word for birch – beorgan which means “to protect” or “shelter.” In Czech the month of March is Březen and is derived from bříza which means birch, since birch trees tend to flower in that month there.

Source National Geographic

No matter what you call it though, it is always slender, silvery, and beautiful birch.

The birch, no matter where it grows, seems to draw notice from humans. Be it for functional use, mythology, or their own aesthetic beauty, every culture that has them in their region holds it in high honor and has a wide range of uses functional and spiritual, almost universally. The slash like markings on the tree are often a feature of mythology, though sometimes they look less like slashes, and more like eyes, hence one of its epitaphs – “The Watchful Tree.”

Mythology & Historical Use of the Birch

The common English name birch, is a very old word, and has evolved from the Old English birce or bierce. The genus Betula is from Latin, but is a lone-word (from influences of the languages of the Gauls) bethe (Old Irish), bedw (Welsh). Birch bark was used like paper in India and was what the Vedas were written on, as well as many other things since birch paper is sort of like papyrus, strong and does not start to rot. Even some Native American tribes that in general did not have written languages, recorded important events in pictorial form on birch bark.

Wikipedia

A birch bark inscription excavated from Novgorod, circa 1240–1260.

I grew up reading the Narnia books, and one of my favorite scenes is where Lucy goes to a Dryad party. I loved the description of all the Dryads and how they were pale, slender, graceful and limber. I was always envious of her being able since the spirits of the trees all seemed so beautiful and so individual. One of the trees she sees is birch, and this is how C.S. Lewis describes her –

“[s]he looked at a silver birch: it would have a soft, showery voice and would look like a slender girl, with hair blown all about her face, and fond of dancing.”

"Birch Dryad of Narnia" by Matthew Davidson

I just really liked this drawing, she looks most like what I thought the birch dryad would look like.

Birch is a common tree to find in mythology and due to species of it existing all over the world, birch is in most traditional crafts, knowledge and medicine. It’s history spans the ages, and the world, and pretty much everywhere it grows it is a valued and respected tree.

In C.S. Lewis’s homeland of the British Isles, the birch tree held a sacred place in the mythology of the land. Beth is the first consonant of the Ogham alphabet, and is represented by the birch. In proto-German (which would be one of the invading languages of the Isles) the letter berkanan means birch which is also what it represents in the Scandinavian cultures. There is a legend that a birch tree halted a fire that would have destroyed the Swedish town of Umea, and the city is unofficially known as the “City of the Birches.”

Interestingly, if you are a Game of Thrones fan, the God Trees used in the stories are extremely similar to the Warden Trees used on burial mounds in Scandanavian cultures. Warden trees, or Vörðr, were planted on top of burial mounds as protection, or some think it is also as a representation of Yggdrasil, and they were often birch. One birch warden tree was still alive and being offered libations of beer until 1874 when it was finally cut down. The Warden Tree’s job was to keep people who would disturb the dead away, sometimes through physical force, spooky manifestations, or just a simple weird feeling that makes you not want to stay. In some cultures the tree houses a spirit that protects the area bringing vengeance and misfortune to any who dare upset it. Like most spirit dwellings you could save yourself from their ire by providing the required sacrifices. Which would keep the spirits happy, and engaged in their job of hanging out to protect things – sorta like a spirit security guard. The word wraith is derived linguistically from the warden trees, and this is why burial mounds are generally believed to have wraiths or why Tolkien wrote about barrow-wights inhabiting mound tombs.

In Russia, the birch is considered the national tree, and some of the Siberian Shaman traditions hold birch to be sacred. Some of the plains cultures of Asia and Eastern Europe would place deceased shamans in birch trees, since they were the way point between this world and the spirit world. Allowing that deceased shaman to travel to the spirit world where they could continue to help, heal, and guide their people. It is possible that the birch held such a high spiritual value since fly agaric mushrooms are often found growing around their roots. Reindeer eat them, and people noticed would then act very strange. They would be “tripping balls” to use the parlance of our times. Eventually one brave soul wanted in on that action, and for some strange reason they jumped to the conclusion that the best way to get to whatever was making the reindeer act weird, would be to drink the deer pee. My current suspicion is that it was probably some distant relative of Bear Grills. Fortunately, later some bright spark decided that pee drinking was a) gross and b) unnecessary since you could skip the reindeer middleman and just eat the mushrooms themselves.

You would probably see a lot more than spirits eating these anyway.

These mushrooms were a key part of most “vision” rituals as they are a powerful hallucinogenic. Other cultures used the birch as the center pole for their Siberian plains tents, called yurts. The tree represented the way point between the worlds and shamans would sometimes climb them, or have initiates climb them, since the climb symbolically represents the traveling to the spirit world.

Freya and Frigg were tied to the tree, since they are both goddesses associated with love, and fertility like the birch. Eoster, the debated goddess since she is only referenced by Bede, is associated wtih birch and is the root of our modern word for Easter and is most likely the “pagan” ritual that was then co-opted by the converted Christians unwilling to give up their old ways. Many people are familiar with Loki due to the recent comic book movies, but Loki was a real Norse God who got up to many shenanigans, frequently involving his incredibly strong, but usually quite daft, brother Thor. One of the most famous is the story of how Loki caused Baldur to be killed with his trickery. Loki was chained for his evil ways, and is the reason that he was said to be “fortunate in his deceit” in a Rune Poem – since he was chained and not killed.

Birch has the greenest leaves of any shrub;
Loki was fortunate in his deceit.

Because it is one of the first trees to bud and show leaves in spring, as well as it being a pioneer species (that means it tends to go where no tree has gone before, or were before and aren’t now), has led to it being a symbol of life, growth, and fertility. It is often used in “spring cleaning” rituals to keep evil out of the house. It was this use that is probably the reason it was also used in the Beating of the Bounds rituals in the British Isles, as it would drive out any lingering bad luck from the previous year.  Birch was also used as the disciplinary rod of choice since it was thought to deliver punishment as well as driving the evil out of the child that was misbehaving.

There is also the belief that striking cattle with birch twigs would make them more fertile. This is similar to the tradition of bringing birch saplings into barns and houses to promote fruitfulness, and sometimes the striking with birch twigs was used on people, for the same fertility reasons. Other regions, a birch twig given from a girl to a guy she likes, is a sign of encouragement. There is even an old form of marriage ritual is called a “Besom Wedding,” that was recognized as a legally binding ceremony up until the 1800’s. The couple jumped over a birch broom, and they were considered wed.

Birch was considered a protective force, and branches were placed over doorways, or lent against barns to protect them from evil. Birch was also a common tree to use for a Maypole for May Day celebrations. Also birch twigs or boughs were put over cradles to protect babies, as well as making their toys, and sometimes even the cradle itself, of birch to protect the baby from unseen forces and evil spirits. In the highlands of Scotland, a cross was made of birch twigs for ceremonies for St Brigid, and a straw, or stick, effigy representing the child placed in a cradle, as part of a ritual for protection. Then a rod was placed next to the effigy, sometimes made of birch (sometimes other woods but usually birch), which was known as Bride’s (Brigid) birch or wand, and this ritual would protect the baby, until the next celebration of St. Brigid. Some other cultures just made children’s beds of birch twigs for the same sort of Brigid rituals. Though birch twig beds in more often for fertility rights, and feature in a lot of  love poetry and stories where lovers meet on the bed of birch, or under birches.

Birch has always been known for its flexibility, there is a Native American legend from the Blackfoot Confederacy tribes telling how the birch despite intense wind bent, but never broke. Infuriating the creator, who then slashed the bark of the birch with his hunting knife for its disobedience. The Ojibwe people (better known as Chippewa) tell the story that the marks come from the Thunderbird throwing lightening at the tree after Waynaboozhoo (the hero of the story) steals fire in the form of a rabbit from the Thunderbird. This is has also led to the belief among the Ojibwe that the birch is immune to lightening strikes, and is the best place to shelter during a lightening storm. The Odawa people tell the story of the helpful birch, which is the manifestation of an extremely helpful warrior that lost his life in battle. He was gifted with the ability to help people in a good way, and after his death, the birch tree grew from his grave and continued to help the people.

Birch is an extremely helpful tree, and is probably why it is featured around the world in mythology as well as local crafts. Birch can do many many things, its bark as we mentioned was used as paper, and makes great paper pulp, but it was also used as clothing. Birch hats have been found in burials, and birch bark was used as leg coverings in Scandinavian cultures to keep out the damp. The twigs were used as kindling, to make besoms (a type of broom), and the shavings were great for smoking meats. The shavings or sawdust was good for creating dyes, as well as tanning leather. Its outer bark due to its lack of decay and waterproofing oils was used to make baskets and containers, as well as roofing, and canoes. With the bark removed, birch is the choice of wood for the Yule log, and is a great firewood, but needs preservative treatment if it is to be used for woodworking (things like furniture, flooring or utensils). The “Spruce Goose” is actually made mostly of birch, despite its name. The oil in the wood makes it combustible and burns similar to a candle, and that oil is collected and used to tan leather (which results in Russian leather). You can also extract it and cook it down into Birch Tar, which has been used as one of the oldest types of super glue (Ancient Greek pots have been found fixed with it). The sap can be brewed into a delicious alcoholic beverage, and is also a great home-made soda. (I haven’t made my own birch beer yet, but I plan to, and I generally buy as much as I can when I am able to find it, because it is awesome. Like spicy root beer awesome.)

Seriously, it is so good that every time I find some Birch Beer this dance happens

Birch as Medicine

After all those uses, birch is also a great medicinal tree. If you are ever lost in the woods and you break an arm or a leg you can use the outer birch bark, after it is soaked in some water, to make a cast to keep the limb immobile. It will also deliver pain relief if the inner bark is included and can be used as a topical pain “patch” for injuries if you are out in the wild. For a long time sweet birch (Betula lenta, or sometimes called black birch) was used to commercially produce wintergreen and was sometimes used for commercial production of a type of wintergreen oil (since it is much safer to ingest), so if you buy wintergreen oil, again be sure you know you are getting the real wintergreen. Like wintergreen, it is a good topical analgesic and birch does carry methyl salicylate, again like wintergreen, and is why it is sometimes sold as such. Birch is good for treating joint pain, back pain, the usual daily aches and pains, and headaches. The salicylate is held in the inner bark and is basically aspirin, and it is the reason it was used in most cultures as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, arthritic pain in general, as well as “moon time” cramps.

Birch also contains a lot of vitamin C, and we already know how important vitamins are for your body to work and reduce your pain. Birch has betulinic acid in it as well which is a known anti-inflammatory, and has promise as an anti-malarial and anti-retroviral, but not enough research has been done yet. There is also a lot of mentions that it is being studied for treating tumors, since it could inhibit or reduce growth, but this has been mostly focused on for melanoma treatment. Betulinic acid also is very astringent and works well for skin complaints, like eczema and psoriasis, even insect bits. It is also antiseptic so it is good for wounds and preventing infection topically. Other uses of birch, specifically betulinic acid from birch, include helping with lymphatic diseases, urinary infections, respiratory infections (like tuberculosis), and due to its diuretic nature it helps with edema and gout. Birch bark also has a mild sedative action, and is a great addition with rosemary in the bath to relieve pain as well as relax the body and mind.

There are loads of species of birch, and they all generally have the same properties, but I suggest only using the above mentioned black birch, or if you are in Europe or Asia silver birch (Betula pendula). You can use other species, but make sure you do your research before using any species of birch, and again always use any thing you put in and on your body in moderation.

Birch Recipes

Leaves are safer to use in teas than bark, since just like wintergreen you need to treat this with respect. So small doses and use common sense, and make sure you speak with your doctor to make sure this won’t interact with anything you are already taking. That doesn’t mean you can’t use the bark or small twigs, they are safe to use and a small twig green from the tree is a safe teething option for children since it provides relief from the pain and tastes quite nice (obviously they would need to be supervised while doing this, just sayin’). There are a lot of pre-made options here too, you can buy capsules of birch bark, oils, and so forth, make sure before using any of them you are researching which species is used in the preparation.

Birch Tea for Pain

  • 5-7 whole leaves of Birch (1-2 teaspoons if dried and crumbled)
  • 8 oz Boiling water

You will need to collect the leaves in spring, and you want new leaves that have just come out on the tree. You can use them fresh, or dry them in a dehydrator or in the sun, you may want to put a net, muslin, or cheesecloth over them if you dry them out side. They are ready to use dry when they snap under pressure and then crumble easily. Steep in a covered teacup for 4-8 minutes, the longer you steep the stronger the tea. This is good for pain, pretty much anything you would take an aspirin for, but it is also good if you are suffering from water retention, or have edema since it is a diuretic. Also this is a good rinse for your hair, and it smells nice.

ProTwigTip: You can also make this with young twigs or bark, you need the cambium (that’s the layer between the bark and the wood) to be green. That is the part that carries salicylate in the woody parts of the tree. You can use a teaspoon of twigs or bark (just make sure you include the cambium), and steep it just like the leaves. This will be stronger though, and again you should treat all of these with respect and use common sense. Don’t take more than 3 cups a day.

Birch Twigs for Pain

  • Birch twigs, fresh off the tree (preferably)

You can also chew the twigs for headache relief, pain from braces, and these are great for teething babies (used with supervision of course) since chewing the twig will release the salicylate and bring pain relief. All you have to do is just break a twig off a branch, give it a wash, and chew it.

Birch Leaf Bath for Pain & Inflammation

  • 2 handfuls of fresh or dried Birch leaves
  • 4-5 large sprigs of Rosemary
  • 1-2 tablespoons of Lavender flowers

Draw a warm bath, and throw everything in and have a good soak, but for no longer than 20 minutes. This will help with muscle and joint pain, and its anti-spasmodic properties will relax spasms, and help relax the body to bring on sleep if needed.

ProTwigBathTip: Twigs are obviously pokey if you use them in a bath, and bark as well, so they aren’t great for the bath. If you don’t want to spend the time cleaning the tub afterwards or if you need to make a stronger bath, this is also another good option to use the infusion instead. To make the infusion use 2 large handfuls of twigs or birch (or leaves), and cover with enough boiling water to submerge them, allow to steep for at minimum 10 minutes up to an hour. Pour liquid into a warm bath, and soak for 20 minutes.

Epsom Birch Bath Salts

  • 40 ounces (5 cups) Epsom salts
  • 10 drops Birch Essential Oil
  • optional: any other oils, like rosemary and lavender above, or even chamomile could be added to this to help with whatever sort of pain you have.

Mix well, no lumps, and store in an airtight container. Add a cupful to a bath and enjoy a relaxing soak that will bring pain relief and sooth painful joints and spasms. You do need to be very careful using the essential oil of birch, but diluted this much you should have no issues, but it is best to do a test patch before doing this bath if you haven’t been exposed to birch before. Make sure you also know what species the oil is made of as well.

Birch Tincture

  • 1 part birch bark
  • 2 parts alcohol (vodka, grain alcohol)

Add everything to a seal-able jar, mason jars are usually best, and store in an undisturbed place for about a month. Make sure to shake once every day or so. Never take more than ½ a teaspoon, and you should start with a ¼. No more than 3 times a day. This can be added to teas, honey, juice, or under the tongue. Birch, I think, tastes very nice and isn’t offensive to the palate to where it would need to have the taste masked.

There are birch essential oils out there, but make sure you are using one you know is sourced and distilled reliably. Buy local if you can. Both oils and tinctures are difficult to use on the go so you can always make a quick salve or a beeswax salve for on the go applications. These are also good for skin issues like eczema or psoriasis.

Birch Salve

  • 1/3 c Oil (any good quality oil)
  • 1/3 oz Beeswax, granulated or grated
  • 10-15 drops Birch Oil or 20-30 of Birch Tincture

You can always add other things to this, but birch smells quite nice on its own. It goes well with floral scents like lavender or jasmine if you don’t care for the smell. In a double boiler, heat the oil and slowly add in the beeswax stirring until it is completely melted and mixed. Remove from heat and stir in birch oil or tincture, pour into containers with lids and allow to cool.

Birch Quickie Salve

  • 2 ounces Coconut oil (solid at room temp)
  • 10-15 drops Birch Oil or Tincture

Using a mixer, whip oil and add in the oil a drop at a time while whipping. Whip until fluffy with a texture similar to a whipped lotion. Store in a container with a lid, and this is also great for skin issues as well as for pain, joint pain, and muscle spasms.

There are a lot of birch beer, and birch wine recipes floating around. Many countries that use birch use the sap fresh or fermented, so you can always use an old family recipe if you have one floating around. If you don’t, you should make your own. I plan to make some myself in the near future but locating birch syrup is difficult. If you live in an area where birch grow you can tap your own sap (instructions here). You can drink the birch sap right from the tree, and is supposed to be quite good this way.

Birch Beer (Birch Soda) from GroupRecipes

  • 5 gallon crock
  • 4 quarts finely cut sweet birch twigs
  • 1 gallon honey
  • 4 gallons birch sap
  • 1 cake soft yeast (or a packet of yeast)
  • 1 slice toasted rye bread

Measure 4 quarts of finely cut twigs of sweet birch into the bottom of a 5-gallon crock.
In a large kettle, boil together the honey and birch sap for 10 minutes.
Pour over chopped twigs.
When cool, strain to remove the twigs.
Return to the crock.
Spread cake of soft yeast on the slice of toasted rye bread.
Float on top of the beer in the crock.
Cover with a cloth.
Let ferment until the cloudiness just starts to settle, about a week but it depends somewhat on temperature.
Bottle the beer and cap tightly.
Store in a dark place and serve it cold after the weather gets hot.
It should stand in the bottles about 3 months before using.
If opened too soon, it will foam all over and pop worse than champagne.

Since birch isn’t frequent in my area, extract is my only option for birch beer and it does not have the same medicinal properties, but it sure does taste good. So don’t despair if you want to make birch beer but have no birches. I also have never made these wines, but the recipes looked interesting, I plan to (if possible) since it has a lot of fans that say it tastes like a good sweet wine. There are a lot of recipes floating around but the easiest I found is the one here, which I have copied here with some of my own additions to it.

Birch Wine

  • 8 pints sap
  • ½ lb Raisins
  • 2 lb sugar
  • 2 Lemons, juiced
  • ½ a packet of Red Star Champagne yeast
  • 6 ounces White Grape Juice Concentrate

You need freshly collected sap for this, bring to a boil and add the sugar and simmer for 10 minutes. Place the raisins in a fermentation bucket or carboy, pour in the boiling liquid and lemon juice. When it has cooled to 86 degrees or cooler add the yeast and seal with an airtight brew vent to prevent messy explosions. Allow to ferment for three days at minimum no more than 7, before straining, and transferring to a secondary fermenter also with a brew vent. Let stand for about a week and then bottle the wine and store in a cool place for at least a month. Though, I suggest 3 months for this since that seems to be the consensus on the older recipes, but one month should be plenty of time for it to develop an alcoholic zing to it.

Lastly, bark bread, and ersatz food has existed for ages and while making all your bread out of bark flour won’t taste so great a small addition to it will provide a good punch of vitamins to a hearty type of bread. This seems to be one of the tastier looking recipes, and this is one last thing I have not tried but am now excited to that I know about it.

Ingrid’s [Birch] Bark Bread from Julie’s Kitchen

  • 100 g or 3.5 oz yeast
  • 1 liter or 1 quart lukewarm water
  • 1 liter or 1 quart rye flour
  • 1.5 liters or 1.5 quarts white flour
  • 2 dl or 1/2 cup bark flour (Ingrid uses bark from her own pine forest) [Refer to this guide or this guide for harvesting birch bark, and drying it to make bark flour]

Blend the ingredients and knead the dough. Allow to rise for one hour. Roll out into smaller rounds. Baking time varies according to the size of the bread.
(I suggest for medium rounds which are the size of pita breads 10 minutes at 225 C or 437 F – sprinkle water over before baking)

Finally, you must remember that everyone is different and you need to start with small doses of this and increase slowly. Keep in mind that this should only be used internally in large amounts under supervision, it is not the same level of danger as wintergreen being ingested but you can quickly toe the line of safety if this is used unwisely. You always want to make sure anything you use is not going to interact badly with anything else you are taking, so check for interactions on sites like WebMD. Always do your own research, and if you are in doubt in any way whatsoever, ask a professional!

For more information on Irish trees and their legends, this is a fantastic resource.

For an interesting break down of a birch poem that was part of a collection Tolkien worked on go here, and for Robert Frost’s poem on birches go here, they are both very good.

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Move It, Or Lose It

Move it or lose it, everyone has heard this. You have got to move your body, exercise is necessary for everyone, even if you don’t have a chronic pain issue. It keeps you mentally healthy, releases stress, fights depression, and keeps everything pumping and moving as it should. When you throw in CRPS, it becomes 1000 x’s more important since all activity helps keep the your brain and nerves connected, and talking. Which means in general that symptoms are better kept in check, and could even help reduce some of the symptoms.

Exercise – do it. No excuses.

Daily exercise and stretching goes against a lot of the early recommendations for sufferers of CRPS, then known as Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), they were generally advised to not exercise the limb that was afflicted. While we don’t know a ton still about CRPS, we do now know that was the wrong advice. Movement is a big part of keeping the symptoms in check, and possibly keeping them from getting worse. Most people have an aversion to moving a limb that is painful, when movement is exactly what it needs. It is a natural response to protect, and develop protective habits, for areas in pain. If you have CRPS in the arm or leg, they tend to used less and treated gingerly, when what they need is to be moved more. This protective instinct is a natural response, but we do not realize that we are most likely making the situation worse. It is important not to allow yourself to give into the fear of pain, since bad habits will develop that could cause more injuries. So as much as you want to don’t give into the negative voice that says it hurts too much to do anything, and try to be mindful of using that limb more than unaffected ones.

It is vitally important to move and use your body, everyone needs to. It is even more important if you have any part of your body affected with CRPS. You will need to, as I said before, move as much as possible. It can be hard to be disciplined about this, trust me some days I really don’t feel like moving, it all just hurts too much. And sometimes, even though it is hard, I just have to accept that I am just not able to. Other days, it comes easily and I make myself get up and move, in pain or not I almost always feel loads better after. The feeling better after moving, mentally and physically, gives me the knowledge that if I put up with the pain and just get on with it, I will be rewarded. Rewarded with a sense of accomplishment, as well as pain relief. Being able to check off “do some exercise” from your list of things to do, is a great feeling of accomplishment as well as relief from pain. I have to be strict with myself, and to keep with telling myself I have no excuse for not moving because it hurts, since I will feel better once I do. Even if that day, all you can manage is a walking circuit around the house, you still made sure you got up and moved around.

Some days we all feel deathly ill 🙂

Some days we all just feel too crummy to work out, that is OK, now and then. You need to listen to your body and understand what it is telling you, pain is a signal that something is wrong so you need to listen to that signal and understand its nuances. Know your limits, pain exhausts the body so push yourself to move, but be reasonable. Muscle pain from working out is good, that familiar fiery ache you get from working out, push through that. But if it feels like a sharp stabbing pain or sharp pain, is a bad sign and means you should probably consider stopping, slowing down, or a different exercise. Again know your limits, you may not be able to walk 3 miles everyday, so if it is just around the house celebrate that you were able to do it. Remember there are some that can’t even do that, be happy you can.

Exercise means better blood flow, and that’s a good thing.

Movement gets the blood flowing better, and helps to move along fluids that may be pooling in the area causing edema. Vasomotor dysfunction (a fancy way of saying the veins and arteries have issues expanding or contracting like they should) is a symptom of CRPS, and leads to the color change and temperature change in the affected areas. By moving the body, it makes the heart pump faster, which signals the rest of the circulatory system to dilate, making the path wider to allow more blood to travel. Blood brings nutrients, oxygen, and the body’s immune system to the muscles and other parts of the body. If it isn’t allowed to make it’s full circuit in the circulatory system it can’t do it’s job.

One of the first things I noticed about my “bad” leg was my heal was dry and cracking no matter what I did, and was quite the mystery until my CRPS diagnosis. The leg was paler compared to the right one, as well as swollen, with a sickly blue hue to it. This was because the de-oxygenated blood was backing up in the leg, amongst other things, and was not allowed to move back to the lungs due to the swelling narrowing vessels blood needs to pass through. De-oxygenated blood, referred to as blue blood in the video (blood isn’t really ever blue, just dark red when low on oxygen, bright red when high in oxygen) has to travel back to the lungs to pick up a load of oxygen and then goes round the circuit again. Oxygen is a major part in proper cell functioning, and when you exercise you start to breathe more as well making sure that the blood that is traveling to the lungs can pick up more oxygen. Oxygen saturation can give you an idea of how well your body is moving things around, and is sort of a good test to see if you are breathing enough (we will go over breathing in another post). My blood when they check it, is generally 98% and higher thanks to all the breathing I do, you can check yours with an oximeter that are generally easy to get. They also tend to check your pulse too, which you can see your resting pulse rate versus your exercise heart rate. It should increase, as well as oxygenation after working out.

Another reason to move about is that the push/pull action of the muscles, actually helps to move the circulatory system along. The veins have a little flap like valve system, similar to the heart valves, which allows the blood to flow up instead of down.

You can see the valve at the top

Contracting and using the skeletal muscles helps to squeeze the veins and help move the blood in an upward direction more efficiently. If you are sedentary, it is just the heart that has to work harder to move blood up. This again helps prevent pooling, can help with chronic edema, and makes sure that the pumping system is working at maximum capacity. Pooling is what happens when you are in rest mode, blood will tend to be drawn to the core, to the digestive system, reproductive system and so on. The blood will tend to pool in the center of the body, so it can help with digestion and other functions, reducing flow to extremities. Moving around makes sure that the body knows that it isn’t time for rest mode, but work mode, and to keep blood pumping to the extremities.

Blood flow to an area is a large part of making sure the parts of the body responsible for healing can get to where they need to be. If you have pinched off or narrowed flow of blood like I do in some places, exercise can sometimes relieve some of the pinching of the vessels, or allow blood from other areas to flow more easily to where it needs to be. Making sure lots of fresh blood can travel to an injured area means the body will be able to heal that area faster. Moving around and getting the heart rate up gives the circulatory system that extra little bit of help that could be the difference between large painful swelling, and normalcy. The concept of having increased blood flow to an injured area is an old one, and it is part of how Graston works. Oxygen is one of the main ingredients to proper cell functioning, if you are working out more your blood is more oxygenated.

Everything you eat gets broken down by your digestive system (talked about in detail here) which then is dumped into the blood stream and delivered all over the body.  But cells also generate waste, cells like all living things have to poop, just like us. The circulatory system takes all of that waste, and any additional detritus from the regular repairs your body undergoes, to the liver for it to be cleaned from the body (which then ends up in your feces) or kidneys where it is expelled as urine. So blood is food and communication delivery as well as cleanup crew.

NoUrineTherapyTip: Just don’t do it. There are some people that tout drinking pee for a healthy body, and that it will cure anything. This is not true, and even though people in ancient China, or whatever, drank it doesn’t mean it is a valid treatment today. There is a reason it didn’t carry over into modern day, it doesn’t work. Urine Therapy has shown no medical benefits, and you are basically putting everything your body just worked hard to filter out, back. That is like sweeping the floor and then throwing the dust back down on the ground. Do not be fooled by pee drinker propaganda!

I guess that’s a reason…

Exercise helps the lymphatic system, and it needs all the help it can get.

What is the lymphatic system? It is considered part of the circulatory system, and it is a major part of the delivery of the body’s immune system. It carries a clear fluid, hence its name since lympha means water, as well as other cells and chemical signals. Unlike the circulatory system, it is not a closed system. That means since blood never leaves its vessels, it is closed, and all material passed back and forth does so through the vessel walls. The lymphatic system is not closed, and can have sort of a back and forth with the circulatory system. While it does not carry red blood cells, it does carry the white blood cells, hormone signals, as well as the other things blood carries like waste and other detritus. The immune system and the endocrine system depend heavily upon the lymphatic system, but unlike the blood circulatory system, the lymphatic system does not have a muscle dedicated to pumping the fluids around like the heart does with the blood. That means that the only way it is going to move is from you moving.

And as you can see the lymph system covers a lot of ground.

 

So to make sure your lymphatic system is moving and getting around as best possible. A lot of people that suffer from vein disorders, and other diseases that cause edema, like CRPS, from backed up lymphatic fluid as well as blood and these all can be helped with things like compression socks, and physical movement. This is why they tell you to pump your legs if you are in the hospital, moving the legs in a pumping motion (bringing your knee up as high as possible and then extending the leg) or making pumping motions with your feet (point your toes then pull them as far back as possible). All of those exercises are to help combat edema, and to make sure that everything keeps moving while you are in a horizontal position.

Exercise is good for the mind & body.

Exercise allows one to have the empty mind, but what is an empty mind? It is the mind that is not thinking about what you will do next, the grocery list, what you have to do later that day, or what ever it is that is tying your mind in knots. Focusing on a specific motion, like you have to if you are exercising usually, allows your mind to be so occupied with the task that it stops focusing on all those other thoughts. That means your mind, if it is like mine, doesn’t have a chance to become the negative comity. Depression is a big risk to people with chronic pain, or any chronic disease, and exercise has been shown to be a vital part in maintaining a happy, and healthy, mind. Along with a good diet, and sleep, it is needed for the body to function as it should. Now that doesn’t mean you need to do crazy amounts of exercise each day, just simply walking and working out a little harder every other day is sufficient, over working out is just as bad as not working out at all. Moderation in all things, remember. But this is one place where you will have an almost immediate effect from what you do, after a work out you always feel good. And you sleep better too!

Since neurological pathways are re-enforced with use, they more likely to repair or reroute around damaged areas if you are making sure that signals are always being sent. The area of the brain associated with the affected limb in CRPS can shrink in some sufferers, which means lost capacity for moment since the limb can atrophy to a point that removal is required. The more you move, no matter how painful it is, the more you are ensuring that the CRPS will advance more slowly if it advances, and could significantly reduce likelihood of amputation and atrophy. We really don’t understand why the nervous system, or body, behaves as it does when someone has CRPS, but we do know that the more you work out your nerves, the better connected they seem to be. You can also help override some of the pain signals by basically flooding the pathways with “louder” instructions that can help break the infinite pain signal loop that can be a part of the symptoms of CRPS.

What sort of exercise is good for limited mobility?

Exercises like light stretching, walking, water aerobics, Yoga, Qigong, and Tai Chi, are all great ways to get everything flowing. You should examine all the options you have in your town and go with whatever works best for you. First, it matters that you first consult your doctors on any limitations you might have, you don’t wan’t to make things worse. It is also important that you find an instructor that you feel good working with, you should feel comfortable working with them and in the class if you are in one. You should also enjoy the activity you pick, if you don’t care for it and it becomes a chore you will be less likely to stick with it. If you enjoy it your exercise you will be amped to go, and more likely to do it. Every person is different, I did Yoga for many years and enjoyed it, but not nearly as much as Tai Chi, and that is what I stuck with. It may not be right for you, maybe you are a water aerobics person, maybe you just do walking, or Qigong. I don’t just do one exercise either, so I also use walking and swimming for my exercises. Changing it up is a good way to keep things interesting by giving me new things to do instead of the same thing over and over.

Just make sure you know that whatever exercise you choose you stick to it, and it is approved by your doctor if you have any issues that could limit your work out ability. Shop around, try things, get out of your comfort zone and you will be well rewarded. You may find a new exercise that you fall in love with, and changes your life. Remember if you are ever in doubt about anything at all, ask a professional!

There are some theories that vitamin C after surgeries could help prevent symptoms, and that sufferers of CRPS should increase their intake of calcium and vitamin C. It also can not hurt to increase vitamin D and magnesium as well. To read more on why vitamins are important, go here


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Peck of Pickled Peppers for Pain

Well, they don’t actually have to be pickled, but jalapeño relish is just about the best thing ever, especially on eggs! Chilies any way you have them are a great way to bring the heat, which is what they are known around the world for. It is hot in the summers here, and counter-intuitively this is the best time of year to eat and drink hot things. Hot foods help the body to cool in hot countries, that is why hot tea and coffee are always so popular in hot places. We love chilies here, year round in every grocery store in Texas chilies can be found. Dried, fresh, in powder, and even in the Mexican candy they always have calling to you at the check out. Here we are intimately acquainted with the chili, it is featured in a lot of Mexican, Tex-Mex, and Traditional Texas foods. They also have a medicinal value, which make them so much more than something that adds a real kick in the pants to your 5 alarm Texas chili. Chilies have capsaicin, which is the active chemical in all of the capsicum species, has always been popular, but recently gained a lot of popularity for its analgesic effects, as well as the soothing heat it produces.

Chilies many varieties

Just a few of the chili pepper varieties dried and fresh

Its popularity as a food and a medicine goes back to ancient history in the Americas, and then after the “discovery” of the Americas by Europe has made its way around the world via trade routes. Now chilies are internationally used, and I am sure most people could not even imagine Indian,  Chinese, or Thai food, or lots of cultures foods really, without chilies in them. Chilies were a large part of cooking and medicine, and were probably first cultivated in Bolivia and spread North and South from there. In most Middle American cultures,  the tribes dubbed the Aztecs by the Spaniards, and the other tribes that inhabited pretty much from much Mexico and right on down, depended on these chilies as a regular source of Vitamin C and A, and carotene. They were a vital part of cuisine providing vitamins that are part of the building blocks of a healthy human life, and we all know how important they are for pain. Chilies it is believed, were not used in the US South West native cultures until after European contact, but they did use wild chilies in some foods which are smaller and not as hot usually. So remember all foods that have chilies came into existence after America came in contact with Europe, though people will still find it hard to think of some cuisines without chilies. There was no paprika, no chilies, nothing until they landed on the Iberian peninsula in the 1490’s and by the 1500’s they had made it to the Middle East and through the Turks to Hungary.

The capsicum species is a member of Solanaceae which is the nightshade family, so they are relatives of tomatoes, believe it or not. Which also means that chilies, the fruit of the capsicum plant, are actually a type of berry, since its seeds are enclosed by a fleshy fruit. The species name comes from the Greek kapos – “to bite,” which is an appropriate name for a species that has such a powerful kick. Chile plants are all the same species, but come in many varieties, and they originally developed the capsaicin in their fleshy berries to prevent animals eating them that would destroy their seeds, which pass easily and whole through digestive tracts of birds but not other animals which would crush the seeds. The heat of the capsicum plants fruit is probably a defense mechanism, but it seems that since the intense heat also releases all sorts of brain chemicals in humans, which may be why we are drawn to these spicy fruits and they became cultivated. Some people seem to want to eat the absolute hottest possible, which to me seems silly but is basically like riding a roller coaster, a safe risk that allows us to experience the feelings and chemicals of extreme behavior. It was this drive that led to a lot of the hotter chili species we see now like Ghost Peppers, which are not naturally occurring and were grown and developed exclusively for their heat. That heat is what led to chili’s epitaph of peppers. When Europeans first encountered them the hottest thing they knew that could be applied to this spicy plant was “pepper,” and hence is why they are often referred to as chili peppers, and not chili berries. Chilies are native to only the Americas, and have been used since 7500 BCE but were completely unknown to other cultures as far a we can tell until the European contact with the Americas. This European contact is also where the corruption of the name began, the original word, chile, was a Spanish transliteration of a Nahuatl word chīlli.

Chile merchant from Codex Florentino

Chile merchant from Codex Florentino

It was later “Americanized” into chili, which you will see used internationally as well, like in chili powder. Though the chilli spelling is frequent in the UK and some of its previous colonial holdings, but all spellings are basically correct. With tons of modifiers like sweet peppers, new local names like paprika, and almost infinite local variations from there they have made themselves at home in most countries. Really most spellings are OK, and people will get what you are talking about which ever one you choose, in the States chili and chili peppers are interchangeable. Or even just peppers, but this tends to be reserved for the milder end of the spectrum, like with bell peppers.

Chilies in their native home of the Central and Southern America’s native cultures were eaten with pretty much every meal and they were believed to cure colds, strengthen the body, and even cure depression. And it is fascinating that as they spread to new cultures, meals began to be not considered meals without chilies, or a dish with chili. In some Zen monasteries chilies are the only spice to life and food and without them meals feel empty. Delicious kimchi is required at every meal in most Korean households, and I know most Ethiopian food would seem odd if it was served without the kick of heat from chili powder in Berbere. They were used as a spice in drinks made of cacao beans, the tepid, sacred, liquid drink was known as xocolātl in Nahuatl, which is the origin of our word for chocolate and was the proto-hot chocolate that evolved into what we know and enjoy today. Champurrado, or Mexican Hot Chocolate, a drink with I mentioned previously, is a great marriage of hot chocolate, spices, and of course chili, is a somewhat more direct successor to xocolātl, but more to modern tastes. Chilies were thought by some cultures to prevent or ward off witchcraft, and any person that abstained from chilies was immediately thought to be a witch.

Their pungency has been used as a weapon, as in pepper sprays, They were also used by high class Aztec families to punish boys who were extra naughty, they were held over a fire that had chilies on it burning, which as you can see is not very kind to the eyes. And you will definitely feel his pain if you ever chopped up a chili and didn’t wash your hands well enough before touching your eyes. Luckily for us girls, they were just threatened with the fire and the possibility of receiving the fate of the boys.

From the Codex Mendoza, a boy of 11 is held over a fire with chilies, and a girl is being shown it.

From the Codex Mendoza, a boy of 11 is held over a fire with chilies, and a girl is being shown it. Its good to be a girl sometimes

Since chilies were so revered and despite their heat so good for you, they became revered in all the places they traveled to. Columbus was introduced to chilies in the Caribbean when he landed there and was the first to append the name pepper to the fruit. It is speculated that the species that made it there made it in the digestive tracts of birds which were then exploited and cultivated by the native peoples.

Then the chili began to migrate north, and it found its way into what is now the Southwestern United States. The Nahuatl word for irritate or burning hot was tzilli, derived from the older Mayan word tzir, which then linguistically migrated north with chilies into the pueblo tribes (Hopi, Zuni, Laguna, Acoma, etc) the word was changed to tsil or tsi which then became a figure in rituals, as well as kachina doll. The “chili runner” dancer, dressed like the Tsil kachina below (in general some variations occur), was part of most of these areas rituals. The chili runner’s job in ritual performances was to goad men and boys into chasing them. Winners of the races got prizes, and if you lost well, expect to be force fed chilies or even have mud thrown at you. Notice his handy headdress of chilies and the ones he carries, keeping them handy for stuffing in the losers faces.

Tsil or Chili Runner Kachina, hes a bad motha…shut yo’ mouth. No really, or you will get a chili all up in your business.

Once they migrated around the world they were adopted into many cultures and were used to ward off evil, its potency was thought to be linked to its otherworldly or a supernatural element. In India, ashes from the cooking hearth, chilies and other things, like curry leaves, are waved over the head of a person to ward off bad luck, or evil spells. One form still seen today in the form of ristras that you see all over the Southwest. You hang them over or next to a doorway to ward off the evil eye, and keep bad spirits out of the house. Some cultures include a dried lemon as well to help in warding off bad luck.

Ristras a common sight in the Southwest, and when I spot them I always know that I have left the state of Texas and am now in the land of the adobe pueblos.

You may have noticed that most of the locations listed, or even ones you already know that like spicy hot foods are in hot countries. This is because it helps to activate the body’s natural cooling system. Chilies heat causes sweating, and increased circulation, thus they help to cool the body more. But some chilies cultivated for their heat have gotten so potent that the capsaicin in them will cause the bare skin to blister, so be very careful when handling chilies and it is generally wise to wear gloves. Wash your hands well after handling them, and rinse hands with vinegar (after soap and water) to remove any residual capsaicin. Capsaicin is what makes chilies hot, and was developed as a defense against animals eating them as I said before, and it needed to be powerful enough to stop the offending munching mammal before it gets too far. So, be mindful, it is not there just for fun, it is a seriously powerful chemical you should treat with respect. Capsaicin, carried in the oils of the plant, is not water soluble. So next time you eat something that has a hot chili in it do not reach for water! Capsaicin is lipid, or fat, soluble and it is best neutralized with a fatty liquid, like milk products which are the best, or with alcohol to dilute it (but you need a lot as to be prohibitive as a solution, as Alton mentions in the clip further down). So grab that glass of milk, next time you bite off more heat than you can take.

The heat a chili has is different depending on the species you use, there are many, many different types of chilies and each one has a different level of heat. Some people think the heat is in just the seeds, but the heat is actually contained in both the seeds and the membranes inside the chili fruit. Removing these can reduce the heat of a chili, and if you are heat sensitive will allow you to get more of the flavor. Chilies are very sweet once you get past the heat, and it is why they go so well with desserts and are even ingredients in ice creams here. The oils containing capsaicin are released upon breaking the seeds or membranes, but are also present on the skin of the chili so don’t think they are safe to handle even if they aren’t cut. When you see experienced cooks grabbing chilies at stores, we always use the plastic produce bags as makeshift gloves. Now you know why, and a lot of us learned the hard way.

Of course due to the heat variations depending on the plant environmental and human cultivation variation, and we humans love to quantify things, there eventually came a scientist who wanted to quantify how hot is HOT when it comes to chili peppers. So how the heat is measured based on the Scoville Scale, which is developed by Wilbur Scoville and a poor, unmentioned, lab assistant(s) used as a guinea pig. Wilbur would feed a pepper to his “helper” and then they would count the amount of sugar water sprayed on the tongue it took to neutralize the heat. Which I imagine to be very much like this clip from Good Eats (sorry about the quality, it was the only one I could find, but I do love AB so)

This then gives the pepper its rating on the Scoville scale, which can be noted as SHU for Scoville Heat Units and ranges from zero to over two million. As per wikipedia, here they are broken down by examples of chili varieties and the approximate range of their heat. Of course you must note that climate and soil has a lot to do with the heat of the chili as well.

Scoville Heat Units Examples
2,000,000-2,200,000 Trinidad Moruga ScorpionCarolina Reaper
855,000–1,463,700 Naga Viper pepperInfinity ChilliBhut Jolokia (ghost pepper)Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepperBedfordshire Super Naga,
350,000–580,000 Red Savina habanero
100,000–350,000 Habanero chiliScotch bonnet pepperDatil pepperRocotoMadame Jeanette, Peruvian White HabaneroJamaican hot pepperFatalii
50,000–100,000 Byadgi chilliBird’s eye chiliMalagueta pepperChiltepin pepperPiri piriPequin pepperSiling Labuyo
30,000–50,000 Guntur chilliCayenne pepperAjí pepperTabasco pepperCapsicum chinense
10,000–23,000 Serrano pepperPeter pepperChile de árbolAleppo pepper
3,500–8,000 Espelette pepperJalapeño pepperChipotleGuajillo pepperHungarian wax pepperFresno pepper
1,000–2,500 Anaheim pepperPoblano pepperRocotillo pepperPeppadewPasilla pepperGochujang
100–900 PimentoPeperonciniBanana pepperCubanelle
No significant heat Bell pepperAji dulce

As you can see some of these chilies can get to levels that I would only describe as insanity. But these extra hot chilies are useful for defense and has allowed for stronger pepper sprays and repellents to be made. But it is also that heat that helped them spread so far in Europe, when they were discovered Europe was obsessed with black pepper. It was so precious and so expensive it was relegated only to the foods of the extremely rich and wealthy. But when chili peppers came on the scene, it was a whole new ball game. Black pepper was easily replaced by chilies who provided all of the heat but none of the cost. One of the court historians of the Spanish court, Pietro Martire de Anghiera wrote-

“Something may be said about the pepper gathered in the islands and on the continent – but it is not pepper, though it has the same strength and the flavor, and is just as much esteemed. The natives call it axi, it grows taller than a poppy – When it is used there is no need of Caucasian [black] pepper.”

Capsaicin, and the fruits of the capsicum plants also have their medicinal side, recognized in the past by the native tribes of the Americas, and now again in modern times. Recently some studies have shown that people that consume chilies more in general have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, but I am sure this is just the same sort of myth as the fad Mediterranean diet or the Red Wine diet, but who knows maybe science will prove this one? Also as I said before they are a great source of some of the big vitamins that humans need to live, like vitamin C & A but it also contains a lot of trace minerals and other vitamins depending on variety and soil it was grown in.

If you want to get the most out of your chilies it is best to eat them raw, chop them and throw them into a salsa, or on top of a burger, or anything really. My husband and I go to a wonderful Mexican restaurant near us, and we are friends with the owner and his wife, and she never leaves home without a small plastic bag with a few habanero peppers in it, so she can put them on her food when she eats out. Which you could imitate with a milder version, if you so desired. My husband loves bell peppers, and jalapeños frequently throws them into burgers, fresh salads, chopped or just sliced onto pizzas. They are a great way to liven up a meal and get some healthy vitamins, which they generally contain the following listed in USDA daily percentage amounts.

Pepper Vitamins & Nutrients

  • Vitamin A – 6%
  • Vitamin B6 – 39%
  • Beta-Carotene – 5%
  • Vitamin C – 173%
  • Iron – 8%
  • Magnesium – 6%
  • Potassium – 7%

So you can see why they were so quickly adopted into most cultures as a daily food, they contain so much vital vitamin C it would ensure that none of them suffered from the debilitating disease scurvy. Chilies also help produce mucus and saliva aiding in digestion, and while they may not be directly related to the seemingly endless stream from your nose when you consume a really hot one, they are a great way to relieve congestion. I remember taking a few shots of a hot sauce of habaneros and I can say they definitely made you forget about how sick you were feeling even if they didn’t fix you up. Also the high vitamin C content helps the body fight off and fend off colds, so it is doing double duty.

I previously mentioned here and in my post about cinnamon, champurrado. You seriously owe it to yourself to make this, it is a fantastic cold morning breakfast drink and keeps you going until lunch. Or a great quick meal in the evening on a cold night, to warm up and relax you before bed when you don’t want a heavy meal. Dried chilies do retain quite a bit of their nutrition, and can help to make you feel not so guilty about this treat.

Champurrado (Mexican Hot Chocolate)

  • 1/4 cup masa harina
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 cups whole milk (or milk substitute)
  • 1 round Mexican chocolate, coarsely chopped (Abuleita or Ibarra is great)
  • 2 cones (about 2 oz) piloncillo, chopped or grated
  • 2 quills Ceylon cinnamon, whole or ground
  • 1 whole star anise, optional
  • a pinch of ground Ancho, and Ceylon cinnamon ground, or quills for garnish

In a large pot, over medium high heat, mix the masa harina together with the water using a whisk, until it is thoroughly blended. If you want to start with the water already hot add a small amount of water to the masa harina before adding it to the hot liquid to avoid clumps. Add the rest of the ingredients, and whisk vigorously until chocolate and sugar are melted. As it is blended a froth forms, you want to keep this, some people skim this and set it aside and whip again. It is served with the froth on top, and you can purchase a traditional wooden whisk to do this, but you can also rotate the handle of a regular whisk between your hands to get a good froth going. Remove whole spices and ladle into mugs. Serve warm, with a pinch of Ancho (or more), or any dried and ground chili you like, and a sprinkle of cinnamon or a quill to stir with, and enjoy. For substitutions and more information see the original recipe listed here.

Another great way to get some chilies into your life is with salsa, salsa really just means sauce. But it has come to mean that junk that they pour out of jars in some restaurants that is bland and mostly just pureed tomatoes and onions. A really great salsa that you can make is one of my favorite, and most versatile salsas called Pico de Gallo. It can be made with just about anything fresh you have handy but I am going to list the simplest, and from what I have been told, the most traditional form.

Pico de Gallo (Fresh Salsa)

  • 2 medium Tomatoes, diced
  • ½ of a White Onion, finely diced
  • 1 handful fresh Cilantro, roughly chopped
  • 1-2 small Limes
  • 1-2 Jalapeños, seeded and diced
  • pinch of salt

You can always use different chilies in this than just jalapeños, any pepper will do.  Dried chilies don’t always work well in this (and are not traditional) but you can always experiment and see what you like. You can also use a red onion instead of white. Garlic, either chopped finely or smashed in a mortar and pestle is a good addition as well. Throw everything except for the limes in a bowl, halve and squeeze the juice of one lime into the mixture and mix well. If it seems too dry, add the second, really it is your preference on what “too dry” is. Also a lot of people don’t like cilantro, which I think is crazy, but many of my good friends loathe it. So you can just leave it out if you are one of the mutants …I mean peeeeeeople that cares not for cilantro.

ProSalsaTipYou can roast the chili peppers before hand to give a nice smoky taste, or even roast them and the tomatoes and give them a rough chop or smash into a pulp – it ceases to be pico de gallo at that point but oh well it tastes damn good and is still technically salsa. Remember though they lose a bit of their nutritional value when they are cooked and raw is best here for all of the ingredients. Some mashed garlic goes well in this and my favorite roasted salsa chili is the serrano.

ProPicoTip: You can add any meat you like to this, fish, chicken, beef, pork, and whatever catches your fancy. This can also go on pretty much everything, got some fish? Bake that fish, throw some pico on that bitch, now its fancy Fish with Pico de Gallo. Got some Steak? Add pico instead of marinara! Bam, bistec milanesa. Make it from Mango and chilies, and lime, and it is now dessert pico, great on vanilla ice cream. It is good on tortilla chips, on fajitas, mixed into your guacamole, on tacos, on Navajo fry bread, it is just plain GOOD.

Jalapeño Relish

  • 25 large Jalapeños, diced or cut into small strips
  • 1 large White onions, diced
  • 1-2 Carrots, diced or cut into small strips
  • 3 cups Vinegar (White or Apple Cider)
  • 3 cups Water
  • 2 tablespoons Salt
  • 2 tablespoons Sugar
  • Canning supplies

The jalapeños can be all green or you can throw in a few red ones for color. When you dice them need to be de-seeded, and you should always wear gloves doing stuff like this, seriously people it is important. If you want more heat, you can leave the seeds in this recipe. You want about an equal sized mound of jalapeños and onion, and half that for the carrots. Throw them all in a pan with everything else, you could 2 teaspoons of cumin to this or 2 of pickling spice, depending on what you like. Bring the mixture up to a boil, and then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 20 minutes. It is best to make this and let it sit for a bit, so wait to use it over night if you are feeding an army eggs in the morning and if not, can the relish. This goes on loads of things and is a sweet and spicy replacement for any where you would use pickle relish. Scrambled eggs with sharp cheddar cheese and jalapeño relish rivals biscuits and cream gravy as my favorite southern breakfast food.

ProCanningTip: If you have never canned anything check this out for a good how to.

Capsaicin is a great topical analgesic, and can relieve pain while providing a soothing heat. You can purchase a ready made cream, that can be applied for minor aches, pains, minor back ache, tired and sore muscles, or even sprains. There are also capsules, and other methods of delivery you can purchase over the counter. One that is as well known as the creams is dermal patches that you can purchase pre-made that work for pain as well. The theory on why capsaicin works so well for pain, and some neuropathy (nerve pain), is it floods the nerves by making them take up calcium, which prevents pain reporting. It also can deplete neurotransmitters with regular exposure preventing the chemicals that cause pain, or inflammation, to be released or taken up by the nerve cells. This renders them also unable to report pain, breaking the pain loop. It also contains an array of salicylates which tend to function like aspirin and may be why it is so good at relieving pain. It also promotes healing by drawing blood to injured areas, and is great for spasmed muscles and other circulatory issues. There have been quite a few clinical studies done to determine effectiveness, and there has been enough information to be very positive about its possibilities for natural pain relief, or possible new, less addictive or stomach destroying options than we have in man-made forms now.

There is a down side though, some people react very poorly to capsaicin in large amounts, and as I mentioned before could cause blisters or skin issues if too much is used on sensitive skin or if you have an allergy. I can not stress enough that it is important to respect the power of these plants. Do test patches and know your limits here, start on the low end of the scale and work your way up. I am pretty used to heat, but one evening I made a ton of chilies relleños one evening, and was literally cursing myself as I went for the vinegar afterwards for not first of all wearing gloves, and learned the hard way that shoving my bare hand in 10 poblanos was my skin’s limit. I didn’t blister but trust me when it is too hot, you know it pretty quickly. I already mentioned this salve in my honey post, but I am going to review it here with more information about the chilies and heat levels

 Capsicum Salve for Pain

  • 3 tablespoons Chilies (3-4 good sized jalapeños, 1 if you use poblanos or other larger peppers, no more than 3 habaneros), finely pureed or crushed
  • 1 cup Oil (jojoba, almond, olive, any good quality oil)
  • 1/2 ounce of Beeswax, granular or grated

To make this you will want to heat the oil in a double boiler, and add in the chili paste, or powder, and mix well until completely combined. Add in the beeswax slowly stirring to combine fully. You can pour this directly into a seal-able container, or you can whip it with a hand mixer (or stand mixer) so it is more like a creamed lotion for ease of application. Apply directly to painful areas, and if kept in the fridge it will store for about 2 weeks. This is great for joint pain, muscle pain, and neuralgia. Some people use it for warmth during migraines, and it certainly can help if you have an area hurting that is hard to put a heating pad on, like your temple or cheekbone area. This is basically like icy-hot, but without the icy. 🙂

ProHeatTip: You can use dried cayenne pepper powder, but I find that it is less effective than the fresh since the heat in processing as well as the age can have a negative effect on the potency and effectiveness of the end product. You should never go hotter than habanero, any chili will do to make this except for the ones rated with Bell or Aji peppers which have little to no heat, and that means less capsaicin. The stronger (hotter) the chili is the more effective for higher levels of pain this will tend to be, and including the seeds and all in the puree will make sure you get maximum heat from each pepper. Though you want to do test patches since exposure to large amounts of capsaicin could cause blistering and actual burns. So make sure you do tests to make sure you can stand the heat. It is smart to wear gloves when chopping hot chilies (bell peppers and the like don’t count) but as soon as you hit any level of Scoville heat, glove it up. If you make the salve recipe and find it is too hot you can melt it all down, and add more fats (oils) to it to help dilute the capsaicin. You want to add oil a tablespoon at a time and test it on your hand, until the level of pain has reduced to a hot or warm feeling (whatever you need). Based on the amount of tablespoons of oil added, add more beeswax and attempt to keep the ratios the same. If you are unsure you can always remove a small amount on a spoon and let it cool, if its the consistency you want, you’re done!

mmkay?

mmkay?

Capsaicin is not water soluble and sometimes if you don’t scrub your hands enough (and don’t forget rinse with vinegar) and you have residual amounts, and you will have an unpleasant experience if you touch sensitive areas, like your eyes or “other” parts, guys pay attention here. So be smart, wear gloves.

ProPlasterTip: You can smear this salve on some fabric and apply it to an area to create a DIY heat plaster.

Some people find that an infused oil works better for the relief without as much burn and it is extremely simple to make. It can also be added to other salves and preparations to bring its warming qualities to other things you make.

Capsaicin Infused Massage Oil for Pain

  • 1 cup Oil (any good quality oil will do, coconut or olive is best since they are probably the most easy to get)
  • 1-4 tablespoons Chili puree or powder
  • Jar
  • Sunny windowsill

Throw it all in the jar, and seal it tightly. Put it on a windowsill shaking it daily for 7-14 days, the longer the stronger here. Then strain, and store in a dark bottle. This is a great massage oil for bringing heat and circulation to painful or stiff areas, allowing the muscles to relax. It is also a great way to ease the pain of stiff joints or lower back pain, as well as topical nerve pains. You can add peppermint oil for a cooling effect and increase the effectiveness of it relieving muscle pain and spasms.

Capsaicin Tincture

  • 1-4 tablespoons Chili puree or powder
  • 1 cup Alcohol (vodka or grain alcohol)
  • Jar

Throw it all in the jar, and let it sit for a few weeks about 3-4, but give it a shake every day or so when you remember. Strain and store in a dark bottle as well. A drop or two on the skin and rubbed in can be a good local joint or muscle pain reliever. Also, if you have a cold, a drop or two under the tongue, or even in some lemon tea is a great way to get a stuffed nose flowing.

I have also heard of people putting a small sprinkle of chili powder in their socks to keep feet warm in winter even, which I am not sure I could get into trying that. But if you are going to be out for a long time in the cold, it is a sure way to make sure blood keeps going to those areas. You could use the oils or the salve to do the same as well, but seeing how we don’t have a lot of snow this isn’t something I have been able to test out.

Again, respect the chilies and they will be your friend. But if you are careless you will have instant regrets for your foolhardy ways, as the burn is a great teacher of limits. If you have allergies or are on medications, checking places like WebMD first is a good place to start for if this is the right remedy for you. Do those test patches, listen to your body and know your limits. This stuff is NOT a toy. Do your own research, and if you are in doubt in the slightest, ask a professional!


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St John’s Wort, Works Like A Charm

This will probably show my age, but in the 90’s I was in High School and the new rage in herbal fads was St John’s Wort. It was the “new” thing to put in drinks and the like, sort of like açai berries, and goji now. Times change but the world always stays the same!

Even though it was a fad, it was with good reason it is more than just the “anti-depression” drug it has been advertised to be. St John’s Wort, or Hypericum, has many uses and many useful species, and is a really useful herb to have handy for all sorts of situations. It is a native to Europe but quickly has spread globally following trade and later colonialism until it was almost universally known.

It’s Latin name of the species we have the most interest in is Hypericum perforatum, comes from its believed ability to banish spirits, in Greek hyper means above, or over, and eikon means image, effigy, apparition. It was used as a charm against evil spirits as it’s first recorded use. Eikon is the root of the word icon, and has all of the spiritual meaning you would expect. It was thought that suspending the herb over an image of a saint, or icon, it would ward off everything from evil spirits, to lightening strikes. It’s scent was thought to be so vile smelling to evil spirits they simply couldn’t stand to be around it.

“Trefoil, vervain, John’s Wort, dill,
Hinders witches of their will.” ~ “The Nativity Chant”, Sir Walter Scott

It’s species name, perforatum, derives from the small window-like holes in the leaves of the plant. Some of the chemicals in St John’s Wort are toxic to cows and sheep, and can be considered a pest species in some ranching areas. It is a small plant that tends to inhabit meadows, and its bright sunny flowers were possibly associated with sun worship in the past in the places it grew.

Bright yellow and full of  the start of summer sunshine.

It is colloquially known as Klamath weed in California and Oregon from its prevalence there, sometimes goatweed, chase-devil (again for warding off evil), Tipton’s weed and rosin rose. It was widely used in antiquity documented in classical medical texts, medical texts from the middle ages, and even some scant documentation on its use by Native Americans though the uses may be lost to time.

It’s present name, St John’s Wort comes from a lot of possible origins, possibly from the practice of hanging the herb above the picture of St John, or that the flower tends to bloom on the day of the feast of St John, June 24th (which is also said to be the birthday of the saint as well). There is also legend that St Columba carried a sprig of the herb, the red spots that appear on the plant were symbolically said to show the blood of St John on August 19th the date of the Saint’s beheading in some Christian traditions.

There is also folk magic that said if you step on a St. John’s Wort plant you will be stolen by a fairy horse, and by fairy I mean The Little People of folklore. And was a charm to ward off most evil intent as evidenced in the old English rhyme –

“St. John’s wort doth charm all the witches away.
If gathered at midnight on the saint’s holy day.
And devils and witches have no power to harm
Those that do gather the plant for a charm:
Rub the lintels and post with that red juicy flower
No thunder nor tempest will then have the power
To hurt or to hinder your houses: and bind
Round your neck a charm of a similar kind.”

It also kept you from being “fairy-led,” like following a will-o’-the-whisp, or being confused and unable to find your way home in an “enchanted” forest. Another folk magic use for St John’s Wort was divination, hanging a sprig over the bed, or just one sprig for each member of the house, and waiting over night would tell by how wilted the herb was how soon, or whom next, would die. Or a sprig under your pillow would bring a dream vision of St John who you could request a promise from him that you would live another year. If he doesn’t show, it would not be the time to make long term investments. Usually these rituals are tied to mid-year solstice festivals, that were then adopted into local Christian traditions as the areas converted, but retained their association with life and the sun since St John is often represented as or associated with light.

This plant was well valued and its usefulness is what drove its expansion and was often used to treat burn and skin issues like sunburns, small abrasions and burns. Dioscorides used many species of Hypericum to treat burns, chest complaints and when mixed with honey great for sciatica pain and neuralgia. It was name dropped by all the famous medical writers of classical history – Pliny, Hippocrates, Galen, and even Theophrastus. And they unanimously recommend this herb for mostly the same uses, healing wounds, burns, nerve pain and of course warding off demons.

Later, Middle Ages up to Renaissance herbalists frequently mentioned this herb, Gerard uses it in wound ointments saying St John’s Wort was a –

“most precious remedy for deepe wounds…there is not a better natural balsam…to cure any such wound.”

But it was also widely used for neurological complaints, sciatica pain was well documented in most historical medical texts, and one of the most common remedies was to use St. John’s Wort. Neurological pain and other disorders related to the brain and nervous system were often treated with this herb since it seemed to sooth the illnesses that were mysterious at the time. Culpeper, the infamous renegade doctor of Tudor England, used St. John’s Wort for all the normal uses of healing burns, wounds and other common injuries but also for

“sciatica, the falling sickness and the palsy.”

Then in the 19th and 20th century it mostly fell out of fashion, but even with it’s lack of attention in the later part of the 19th century, it is mentioned as being used to treat spinal irritation, shocks, concussions, wounds and hysteria. Then there was a huge return to popularity for fighting depression, naturally, in the 1990’s a great era of filling all ages full of psychological drugs that we still have no idea what those drugs really do (even though they are still prescribed). St John’s Wort has been shown to alleviate some symptoms of mild depression, which everybody gets a little down sometimes. But that does not mean it is a good option for self medicating for chronic depression. It can help lift the spirits if you are feeling a bit bummed out, but if you are having symptoms of depression frequently, you should consult a physician or trained professional and discuss the options available for you (I don’t think medication is always the answer for depression, cognitive therapy, diet, and other non-prescription therapies should be attempted first, I speak from experience not as a medical professional /rant).

Overwhelmingly though, in history, is the use of St John’s Wort for neurological pain, and that is really what it does best. Of course it is good for burns, and minor wounds since it has a mild antiseptic quality and is great for the skin, which means it is a great addition to skin creams and soaps. But it is also a mild sedative, analgesic and anti-inflammatory that make it a fantastic fighter of nerve pain, muscle pain and inflammation, and helps bring relaxing sleep. It can be taken daily, like with chamomilegingerturmeric, Holy Basil (Tulsi) and lavender, to help reduce inflammation and help with nerve pain. Or at night with Tulsi, chamomile and lavender to help bring on restful sleep, relax spasmed muscles, or just relax nerves raw with stress or anxiety. This is a very easy herb to grow, in fact it can quickly become a pest (like that wily lemon balm) so I highly suggest you plant this in a container, to contain its wanderings.

It contains chemically a lot of stuff we have mentioned before, the usual volatile oils for pain, mild sedation, and antibiotic properties – α & β pinene, myrcene, limonene, caryophyllene etc. Flavinoids are present the most important is rutin, like in rue. Then there is a new set of chemicals we haven’t discussed, anthraquinones, like hypericin. Hypericin is a possible antibiotic as well as antiviral (which is why it has also drawn the interest of researchers for the Herpes spectrum of viruses), and it is the chemical in St John’s Wort that may be causing the increase in dopamine, this is that “reward” or “feel good” chemical everyone seems to talk about these days, which can improve moods significantly. Dopamine may also be the key to reducing pain chemically, since some pain conditions cause reduced dopamine levels. St John’s Wort’s is packed with all sorts of other chemicals and vitamins, and as I said before is just an all round useful plant for more than I have gone over.

The oils you want are in the leaves and flowers

The oils, bright red and full of healing goodness, are in the leaves and flowers.

The oil in the flowers and leaves add to the plant’s mythos that it is related to the beheaded saint since it is dark red. It is that oil that is packed with the above chemicals, and what you would want to use from the plant so leaves and flowers (preferably just bloomed) are what you would want to collect if you grow this plant at home. If you are buying pre-made versions of dried St John’s it tends to be just leaves, but some pre-made preparations will include flowers and are not as effective since the dried version is less potent as the oils are lost in the drying process. All of the below recipes use fresh St John’s Wort, or the essential oils.

St John’s Wort Relax & De-Stress Tea

  • 2-3 teaspoons St John’s Wort
  • 8 ounces Boiling water
  • Honey to sweeten

Pour boiling water over fresh herb (or over dried herb in tea bag if pre-made) and let steep for 4-8 minutes in a covered teacup (or teapot). Allow to cool and I advise adding honey to improve the taste as this can be bitter. This is a great daily drink if you suffer from Fibromyalgia, since it is something you can safely take almost every day for nerve pain.

ProTip: You can add turmeric and a pinch of pepper to help with inflammation and pain. Or you can add Tulsi or lemon balm, to reduce anxiety, you could add lavender or hops (with LOTS of honey) for relaxing spasms and sleep, or chamomile for sleep and relaxing painful muscles as well. For migraines combine it with passion flower, or skullcap for relief and reducing of the inevitable anxiety they cause. You could even add St John’s Wort to the prevention tea too.

St John’s Wort Compress – for Nerve & Muscle Pain

  • 1-2 tablespoons St John’s Wort (or 2 large pinches)
  • 16 ounces Boiling water
  • bowl
  • towel or rag

Throw the herbs in a bowl and cover with boiling water, cover with towel, plate or pot lid while steeping. Soak towel or rag in liquid once it is cool enough to have on the skin, wring until damp and apply to painful area. This is a great remedy for nerve pains, achy muscles, and spasms. It is a great compress for the head during a migraine as well, since it can help ease the pain and applies lovely soothing heat during an attack.

ProBathTip: You can also just chuck all of the liquid in your bath and have a nice soak, though the oil can stain so you may want avoid using white towels unless you want them to look like they were previously used to clean up a murder scene.

ProOilTip: If you don’t have fresh St John’s Wort, this can be made just as easily from essential oils, a drop or two in water that is warm but not scalding and applied to the painful area will work just as well.

ProTip: This can be combined with rue, rosemary, valerian (for sleep), clary sage (for migraines), chamomile, eucalyptus, juniper, and pretty much any other bath soak or compress we have discussed.

St John’s Wort Bath

  • 5 cups (40 oz) Epsom Salts
  • 5-15 drops St John’s Wort Essential Oils

Mix well and store in a water proof container, add about a cup of mixture to a hot bath and soak in delicious muscle relaxing bliss. This is a great soak for nerve pain, muscle pains, and helps with migraines from muscle tension or spasms.

St John’s Wort Honey (or Oil)

  • 1 part St John’s Wort, fresh rough chopped (flowers and leaves preferred, 2 parts if you use oil)
  • 3 parts Honey (or a good quality oil)
  • Large mason jar with lid
  • Sunny windowsill (oil only)

Add 1 part of the well cleaned fresh St John’s Wort to the jar, cover with 3 parts honey (or oil), seal tightly and place in an undisturbed location for a week or two. If you are using oil, place on a sunny windowsill and wait two weeks, shaking every so often, then strain and add the second part of fresh, roughly chopped St John’s Wort. Re-seal and wait another two weeks. Strain again and store in a cool place, it should be a beautiful red color, almost scarlet, when done. This is a great oil to massage into aches and pains that you get from day to day life, muscle spasms, areas of nerve pain, sun burns, wound care, pretty much if it needs healing St John’s Wort will do the trick. It is even safe for pets and is a good addition to their wash or spray on treatments.

ProTip: You can make this into a tincture by just switching the honey or oil to alcohol (vodka, grain alcohol), and you need just enough to cover the herbs. The tincture dose would be a about 1/2 a teaspoon twice a day dissolved in honey, tea, water or under the tongue. You could go as high as 3/4 of a teaspoon 3 times a day

 St John’s Wort Salve

  • 1/3 c Oil (Sunflower, Almond, Apricot, any good quality oil)
  • 1/3 oz Beeswax, granulated or grated
  • 15-30 drops of St John’s Wort Oil
  • optional: 2 ounces Raw honey

In a double boiler heat oil, add beeswax slowly stirring to combine fully. Remove from heat and stir in the St John’s Wort oil from the recipe I listed above, or St John’s Wort essential oils (if you do use less 10-15 drops) and the raw honey if you are using it. You can always cool a small piece and make sure it is the right consistency, and add more beeswax or honey/oil to thicken or loosen it respectively. Pour into small seal-able containers and allow to cool. This is a great on the go solution for nerve pain, or really any pains. Massage it right into the painful area, or if you have wounds or burns you can massage it into them as well. You can also combine other herbs we mentioned previously in this article for other properties as well.

You can buy all sorts of store bought preparations, if you do so make sure you follow the doses provided on the box/bottle. Also if you are taking St John’s Wort daily for mood elevation, you would want to “ween” off of it, as after regular use of any herbal (or otherwise) products can lead to physical addiction to the chemicals. Weening off any drug you use for an extended period of time is needed, that is why you can’t quit coffee cold turkey, caffeine is a drug. A delicious coffee flavored drug, mmmm coffee.

Remember to treat this herb with respect, it is “mostly harmless” but just like water becomes poison when you have had too much, too much of anything is bad. Make sure to check for any interactions with present medications, since St John’s Wort can affect a lot of medications so check it out and make sure. Places like WebMD are always a good place to start, but if you have any questions or have any doubt about anything in the slightest, ask a professional!