Defeating Pain

One Person's Battle Against Chronic Pain


1 Comment

The Broken Column

Art can be something you do to express yourself, or something you view to move your soul. Art has always been a passion of mine, I love viewing art, and I used to draw much more to help deal with sadness, especially during my years in high school and college. Recently, I have been drawn to looking at a painting by a personal heroine of mine, the Broken Column by Frida Kahlo.

Says so much doesn’t it?

When I was in high school, I had the extreme luck of having a Spanish teacher that was full of passion about a lot of things, and a fantastic outlook on life. Her intense love of art, music, and the general beauty in things was so strong, that you could not help catching the bug too. She probably doesn’t know what a huge influence to my life she was, and probably will continue to be because of her introducing me to Frida. The way she spoke about Frida, hearing her sad life story, and then seeing her art moved me deeply. Frida has been one of my favorite artists ever since.

Back then I didn’t care as much for her “weirder” stuff like the Broken Column. I liked the self-portraits, they were safe and comfortable, didn’t make you feel too much, unless they made you feel good. I was a teenager much more concerned with other things to get too deep about art expressing such deep sorrow and pain.

Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940

Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940

Frida’s self portraits I always found very serene looking, and her depiction of flora and fauna surrounding her always seemed so beautiful. She paints her self critically, but also is proud of her heritage and loves to show that through her art. As a Texan you can sort of connect culturally with this deeply Mexican artist that struggled with her mixed roots.

Her more tortured art, I understand far better now. When you look at the Broken Column, you see the cracked spine represented by the broken and seeming unstable column, that seems to be close to the collapsing point. I feel this is exactly the image that describes the best how it feels to have a serious back injury, like your main support is now shaken and the rest of the body is now a shell and a shadow hung around the faulty core. The landscape is barren, she is alone in the desert. Pain is isolating, you spend so much time alone.

“I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”

The surgical brace, her physical jail, the thing that holds this now injured body together. The nails, only someone with neurological pain can understand this, the sharp stabs that seem able to appear all over the body. The pain in her face you don’t see at first, a quick glance will not catch it. Once you notice the tears, you realize her expression is not what it first seemed. These tears are not the tears of sadness, they are the tears of overwhelming pain, the pain crying where you have no say in the matter and the body simply weeps because it knows nothing else to do. All of these things I have felt, and I do feel. This painting reflects in a single image what a life of pain from an accident is like.

When she was about 18 she was on a bus that collided with a trolley car, she suffered serious injuries to her bones and spine, and was pierced by a handrail through her abdomen. This rendered her unable to conceive, which was a major blow to her, and her back and other places were broken. Injuries this significant even now would be a life sentence of pain, and  it was for her. She had 35 surgeries over her life. She spent a lot of time in a body cast and would paint them, and portraits of herself. No matter where she was, or how bad off she was, she was always creating. She was traveling in her mind where her body could not.

Frida painting her body cast in bed with a hand mirror.

Her life was pain physically and emotionally, she had a stormy relationship with Diego Rivera, and both influenced her art. The most poignant paintings I find that move me now, are her paintings that speak of her immense physical pain. I feel that on a very deep level I understand them much more than I did as a young teen that only knew emotional pain as the deepest. I also admire that despite all the pain and isolation, she stayed strong and was a powerful and opinionated woman. She would not let anything stop her. I think her stubbornness like mine was the thing that kept her going. The woman that says –

“I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.” 

Knows and accepts that this is the way things will be, but that she will not let it ruin her life. She will not live an unhappy life. So she found a way to be happy, and she uses this as powerful inspiration to create some of the most moving art.

No matter what comes her way, she is able to overcome it due to her strength of will, before a surgery to amputate her foot she said –

Pies, para qué los quiero
Si tengo alas para volar

Which translates as “Feet, what do I need them for[,] I have wings to fly.” Everyone has something that can transport them like this, and even if you can’t paint you can enjoy looking at a painting and knowing that person felt as bad as you, but still saw all this beauty in the world.

“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”

You are never alone, pain can be isolating but it can only take your life away if you let it. All of this is why I dearly love Frida and her art, and I think she should be a symbol to all pain sufferers just what can happen if you don’t let your pain stop you.

We all have wings, you just have to get out there and use them.

Advertisements


4 Comments

Fennel, Aniseed’s More Famous Cousin

I have written before about anise and fennel is like it’s better known cousin. Fennel is used more for culinary purposes than medical but just like anise, it has a lot of uses. Some are similar to anise, and some are not. One big similarity is the smell and taste, this is another one of those licorice-y plants.

In historical texts there is a bit of confusion between fennel and anise, and that can cause a modern mix up when researching benefits for either. The do have some similarities in how they help but for pain the really the big difference you need to remember if you are taking this for pain – is anise is for numbing and fennel is for spasms.

Fennel was used and grown by historical cultures, Romans grew and ate it. Pliny wrote about it and had multiple uses, and believed serpents ate it before shedding. Most traditional uses are for stomach complaints, or for other culinary uses. Romans ate the young shoots, and it was frequent in French and Anglo-Saxon cooking prior to the Norman conquest. Otherwise, it is usually added to foods for the same stomach calming effects, like if you are eating cabbage, or other “hard to digest” foods like anise assists with.

Fennel though is great for spasms, the oil is great to use for those painful spasms that just won’t release. For me a massage of fennel oil into a tight muscle helps alleviate some of the pain and helps it to let go. It is also great to rub into muscles that feel tight after intense stretching or working out. I do like to rub the oil direct into muscles but you can make a massage mix for sore muscles with other oils for added muscle relaxing goodness.

Sore Muscle Massage Oil

  • 1 oz Carrier oil – any good quality oil will do, just make sure it is as pure as possible.
  • 20-30 drops Fennel oil

This is just for a straight fennel oil, which is warming, so it can be too much for delicate skin. So you may need to increase or decrease from 20 to 50 as you find works for you, but you can add in other oils in the below lists to add any of their properties.

The amounts below are in parts, you should not go above 50 drops per 1 oz of oil, so use this measurement to determine the amount of drops for each part to go in your ounce of oil. This should make it easier to increase these recipes to make larger batches, and easy to calculate if you chose to only use one oil or multiple oils depending on your needs. Make your own blend that works best for you, get creative!

Remember some of these oils are warming as well and you will need to test and find out how sensitive you are, and a few of these oils we will be covering in later posts.

As I said previously, fennel is also great for easing stomach complaints and you can make a tea from fennel seeds to ease stomach cramping and pain.

Fennel Seed Tea

  • 2 teaspoons Fennel seeds, slightly crushed
  • 8 oz Boiling water
  • optional: add a teaspoon of coriander seeds, chamomile, or peppermint to increase relief

Steep for 5 to 10 minutes and drink, should ease pain fairly quickly and is a great remedy for holiday over indulgence as that time of year is fast creeping up on us.

You can also include fennel in your food preparations to help with digestion, extra boost of pain relief, and even lactose intolerance. I like to include fennel seeds on pizza when I make them to help deal with my lactose intolerance, and it helps to reduce the pain and cramping that comes with eating dairy. You can also include it with things like the previously mentioned cabbage to decrease the “wind” that most cabbage causes. Another way is eating the fennel bulb, it does contain the same oil but you do need to consume more. It tastes so good though that is not much of a chore, as long as you don’t hate licorice, and I love this recipe I got from Williams-Sonoma, Braised Fennel with Olive Oil and Garlic and since it has garlic, it is a great meal to help take the edge off pain.

  • 4 fennel bulbs, about 2 lb. total
  • 3 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 tsp. ground fennel seeds
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 lemon peel strip, about 2 inches long
  • 2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
  • Lemon wedges for garnish

Directions:

Cut off the stalks and feathery fronds from the fennel bulbs. Reserve the stalks for another use. Chop enough of the feathery fronds to measure 1 Tbs. and reserve some of the remaining fronds for garnish. Set aside. Remove any damaged outer leaves from the bulbs and discard. Cut each bulb into quarters lengthwise and trim away the tough inner core.

In a large saucepan over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 minute; do not brown. Add the fennel quarters and the fennel seeds. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the fennel begins to soften, about 5 minutes.

Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the water and lemon peel, cover and cook until the fennel is tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the fennel to a serving platter and keep warm. Increase the heat to high and cook until only 3/4 cup liquid remains, about 5 minutes. Discard the lemon peel. Add the lemon juice, then taste and adjust the seasonings with salt and pepper.

Drizzle the sauce over the fennel and garnish with lemon wedges. Sprinkle with the chopped fennel tops and garnish with the whole fennel fronds. Serve immediately. Serves 6.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Seasonal Celebration Series, Autumn, by Joanne Weir (Time-Life Books, 1997).
One final use I personally love fennel for is just 2-3 drops in a capsule prior to eating, and I can eat any amount of dairy I want. The pain and stomach cramping that comes with eating dairy doesn’t come on after taking fennel. It is strong enough that I can eat alfredo sauce, which I couldn’t previously using over the counter medications for lactose intolerance.
Remember you always need to do your own trials and tests and make sure you are checking for interactions with anything else you take on sites like WebMD. Educate yourself and make sure you understand what you are taking, if you are ever in doubt ask a professional!


Leave a comment

Is your Doctor listening to you?

One of the most upsetting things I hear when speaking to other chronic pain sufferers, or just any person seeking medical attention, is that they don’t like what is being done but because it is a doctor, and therefore a position of authority, they are complying anyway. This is one of the worst things you can do, you should always question and always educate yourself on the available options. Never just take what you are given without asking the whys and hows. This holds true for any medication Western or Herbal, do not ever treat any medication of any sort as mostly harmless. If it is strong enough to work, it is strong enough to be bad in large doses. Be smart, know as much as you can about anything you do or put in you. You are much more in control of your pain management, or medical treatment of any sort, than you think!

This is something I have had to learn for myself the hard way, not all doctors are created equal. Many are just in it for the money, no real care for you, it is just the most expensive procedures so they can get a fatter pocket. This issue is rife within the Pain Management section of medical treatment. I had to go through many, many pain doctors until I found one that would listen to my requests. I did not want to be put back on opiates for another two years, and I wanted a medication that was less addictive and did not make me feel so awful. Before her, I was just handed a script, and told to just take it. And when I told them I was still in pain, I was offered even more powerful, and addictive medications. Nothing was done to find out why I was hurting. I felt they were not listening to me, and my pain wasn’t being addressed properly, and I was right. 

This goes the same for Chiropractors as well, don’t them just adjust you then ask questions. They should sit and talk to you, ask you where the issues are and then only adjust the issue areas (unless of course you both discover a new one). If they are just adjusting whatever they want willy-nilly, you can end up even more injured. 

A grievous sin of the Western medical community is just slapping a band-aid on some symptoms and considering the patient treated. Just treating symptoms and not attempting to attack the root cause of the issue is something I can hardly stand to hear. It is upsetting for me, because I have experienced it and it only leads to more suffering for the patient. If the doctor is not treating the root of your issues, you definitely need to start looking for a new one. You shouldn’t be handed pills as a solution for everything.

So just like finding a good life partner, you have to go through a lot of weeds to find a flower when hunting for a good doctor. Here is a list of things you should do to help yourself find a good doctor.

Read Reviews & Check Online

Google them! Look on Yelp, any site that has reviews and testimonials from existing patients. Look for things like “listened to me,” “receptive to input,” etc, etc. And also look at satisfaction, did they feel they were well treated and issues resolved. Did the doctor fix the root cause, were they asking for input from the patient on their treatments, or were they just band-aiding things. The NY Times wrote a great article on how to do research on doctors before visiting them and it is a great resource for online places to look up reviews, go here to check it out. 

Speak Directly to Patients

If you can, this is a great way to find out about a doctor, if you have friends or relatives with pain issues ask them who they use, and why. Look for support groups for chronic pain online and in your area, ask them who they are seeing and if they are listened to. Are their issues being treated to their satisfaction? This is a lot like reading reviews, but you get a much better idea of a doctor when speaking to people about who they see and why.

Talk to Nurses

They are the best resource ever is Nurses. Nurses always know the good from the bad doctors and will usually be happy to share that information. Hospital Nurses are easy to talk to and you can sometimes just call a Hospital and request to speak with them. You can also look online, there are sometimes Nurse lines depending on your area.

Ask Your Insurance Provider

Call your insurance and go to their sites, see who is available, if they are rated. Find out what will be covered and not with visits before you go. No one likes a surprise bill or charge. Insurance providers can be a great resource for you in finding a list of available doctors in your area.

Interview Them

Talk to them, do you like them? Do they seem nice? Are they interested in what you have to say? Your doctor should be someone you trust, someone you can say “Hey, I don’t think this is working can we try something else?” And they listen, and provide you with options. You should feel comfortable with your doctor and feel you can trust that they are giving you all the available information, and receptive to your input.

If you would like another article on how to pick a good doctor check out this article.

Do Your Homework

Like I always say, educate yourself because no one will do it for you. Make sure you know what you are taking, or having done to you. Ask your doctor questions, then look things up for yourself get as MUCH information as possible. Make sure you aren’t taking medications that will react with anything that is prescribed to you by other doctors (trust me I have had this happen, it pays to check for yourself). And remember you can voice your opinion, if you look something up and you don’t think it is a good idea – tell your doctor. They should be able to discuss this with you and provide either a better reason why, or an alternative option.

Finally, remember your doctor and you should have a relationship, a give and take from both sides. Not just you taking what they give without question. Empower yourself, and you will receive better care overall, and all the hard work you put into finding that awesome doctor will pay off.


1 Comment

Your Mindset Matters

I recently got some bad-ish news. I may be looking at a yet another surgery in my future, it isn’t terrible news but not the most fun. Surgery is really an inevitable thing with my current issues, but it is disheartening that it is so soon. Plus no one (well I would hope no one) gets excited about going under the knife.

Stuff like this happens, such is life, especially in chronic pain issues. There are times where it feels like all the hard work, emotion, effort, blood, sweat, tears and ground you have gained is lost with one fell swoop. It could be a fall, a really bad pain day/week/month after a reprieve, or even just a bad day at work. Small things can seem HUGE when you are in pain or low on sleep or just feeling like you have reached your limit. There are two choices when you are feeling emotionally and physically pushed to the extreme.

First choice – give up, throw your hands in the air and just throw in the towel on life. Things like “it’s too hard,” “it’s not fair,” “I can’t.”

Second choice – knock the lemons out of life’s hands, punch it in the solar plexus, pull it by its hair to the ground, and sit on its chest force feeding it the lemons until it whistles Dixie. ( 9 ._.)9 bring it!

If you can’t tell, I am more inclined towards the latter. It wasn’t always so, I struggled in my early years with depression and nearly lost the fight a few times. And I admit I tried to give up a few times, but thanks to having good people in my life, I made it through all of those times. Learning along the way, with failures and successes, I came to understand that those who give up will always lose. Those the fight for everything with all their body, mind and soul, will always succeed in what they set their mind to.

Everyone has heard a news story or heard of someone who was told they wouldn’t be able to walk, or use some limb, live past a certain age, and then out of sheer determination were able to. If you look at the people who do this, they all are incredibly focused on regaining what was lost, or keeping what they have. Some even seem to accomplish their healing through sheer force of will. And it is scientifically possible that their mind actually did play a large role in their healing.

Really. No joke.

There are tons of psychosomatic disorders, where a belief in the mind actually causes a physical manifestation in the body. One of the most dramatic (or at least I think so) is Pseudocyesis. This is a false pregnancy that due to the strong belief in the mind that the body is pregnant, and the body starts to display symptoms of pregnancy. There have been studies that prayer, of any sort, can help heal where other conventional means couldn’t. The religion doesn’t matter, praying for your self, or knowing others are praying for you really does help. You don’t even need to believe it seems in some cases, it seems just knowing that people are praying (and therefore caring about you) can help with healing. Prayer has been studied for the past few decades by medical science, and we still do not know why it works, but it does. There are also lots of studies being done with phantom limb pain and the mind, by tricking the mind to believe that the body is whole with mirror visual feedback or through other methods pain and other issues are able to be treated.  People who study martial arts, especially in a traditional way, will know that you can use “brain hacks” to trick your or your opponents body into behaving the way you want it to. The most famous mind trick is the placebo effect, scientists still don’t fully know why a sugar pill in some cases works as well as the actual medication. The mind is a powerful thing, but it can be fooled, and you can use that to your advantage.

How does this all relate to you and your pain? Well in loads of ways, I used to study Yoga, currently practice Tai Chi and have thoroughly studied many meditative practices. The one thing in common is the harnessing of the mind and the senses, and bending them to your will. Yoga itself means to harness, to rein in the senses. Basically actively taking steps to control your emotions and stress you will improve your mood, it will help greatly with pain, and has a positive impact on recovery. You are worth the effort, and you deserve to live well. So how do you start?

The positive man will pass. 

The positive man will pass. The positive man will pass. The positive man will…

Oh Indy! *swoon*

Anyway, your mindset matters. In all of your treatments and most importantly in your everyday life. Have a positive outlook on everything- your pain, your mood, even painful procedures. This can mean the difference between a great recovery and a mediocre or even a poor one. Trust me it is difficult, to be positive all the time, but this is something you can “fake it ’til you make it”. I remind myself constantly that I have no choice in what I have wrong with me, but I DO have a choice in whether I am going to be happy or not. You decide to or decide not to be happy, it is all up to you. You are completely in control of this and no one can do it for you.

Again I struggle to make that choice some days, there are many mornings when I wake up in horrible pain, and I know I have to push on through a long, long day. I could just give in to being grumpy, it would be so easy to, and a ton of excuses to back it up. But if I am the people I interact with will be grumpier, the day will get worse, and I will spread my grumpy malaise faster than an influenza virus. I stop looking for the things that make me happy and you can easily fall into the trap of wallowing in your pain. Some migraines make me so short I will cause more stress on myself just due to the pain I am in. The grump takes hold, the pain takes over and then when friends reach out to you…

I am…Nacho!

If I consciously make the choice to not do that, and to be happy instead, I usually have a super day and my pain decreases, and better controlled by whatever method I am using. Plus I just feel better overall, you really do start to feel happy pretty fast even if you are just faking it at first, and the grump just melts away. 

Just the simple act of smiling releases endorphins and we all know how great those free pain chemicals are. Plus if you are smiling people automatically smile back at you, they really can’t help it sorta like yawning. Try it! Go to a grocery store and just wander around with a smile, you don’t even have to make eye contact, and count the people that turn their frown upside down because they looked at you. You will be surprised, and you will feel kind of good about it. Like you’re a smile ninja.

Take pleasure in the small things, delighting in the small things uplifts the mood and reminds us that not everything is horrible. Look for that silver lining, if you think you have it badly, remind yourself that things could be worse. You remember the old “eat your green beans there are starving children in China” routine your parents tried? Well, remember it always, it is very true, not everyone has it as good as you do. If you have one form of something, there is bound to be someone much worse off. Don’t let yourself be negative, eliminate it!

Don’t Stress it!

If you are thinking positively, it is much harder to be stressed out. Stress, as we all know, is one of the worst psychosomatic “illnesses” one can have, but it is also the most common. Stress literally kills. But stress is not something that you have to have, you can take the bull by the horns and kick it out of your days.

There are lots of things you can do to combat stress, the big three ways to combat it are:

  1. Exercise – get up and MOVE. Do it! Even if you can not move far or very much, movement is vital. The saying “move it or lose it” is so, so true. If you stop moving you lose flexibility and muscle mass, so do your physical therapy, get exercise, park at the back of the parking lot and hoof it, just move as much as you can. Regular exercise is key to a healthy body and mind, and is something that everyone needs to make time for. No excuses about you are too busy!
  2. Sleep – it is so important to get enough sleep, your body heals when you sleep. With the lives we live these days, it is difficult to get your 8 hours, and even more when you are in pain. Set up a bed time routine, this helps the body realize “hey, I should shut down” at the right time. Keep glowing screens and phones out of the bedroom as much as possible, try to not use one at least 2 hours before bed time. Make your sleeping area as dark as possible, wear an eye-mask or get light blocking curtains if you need to. You can diffuse calming smells, things like lavender work great, and so do “sleepy” teas. Remember keep the bed area for sleeping only, and if you have trouble try some of the sleep aids I list.
  3. Environmental/Action – assess your surroundings, and daily activities. Where can you make improvements to reduce stress? Can you take a break and do some exercise at set times? If you sit all day, can you exercise at your desk? Do you get up and stretch at least once an hour? Are you taking mental breaks through out the day to think about something that is other than work? Can you diffuse/burn relaxing smells? Even if you are in a highly restrictive workplace you can sit and be still for 5 minutes and meditate, pray alone or with people, do focused relaxation exercises, or deep breathing.

Reducing your stress, at work and at home, forcing yourself to make active changes to improve your mood will help make life over all easier, and less stress a habit. And that is a habit I am sure we all need.

There isn’t a lot a sufferer of chronic pain can control, and your mood is sometimes the easiest, and sometimes the hardest to do. But it is worth it, most chronic pain syndromes have very high suicide rates, and low return to work rates, I think choosing to be happy and not becoming one of those statistics is not only worth it but so important. The main reason is it makes the sufferer’s life that much easier, but also their loved ones who suffer in different ways. When you, and the people around you are happy, everything else will follow too.

If you are interested on more information on phantom limbs and the brain check out this video with V.S. Ramachandran


Leave a comment

Tarragon the little Dragon

This little herb has been a bit overlooked historically, which makes me a bit sad since it really is quite useful and versatile. It is mentioned by Hippocrates, and was eaten frequently as more of a vegetable than a herb. There is mention of its use as a cure for toothaches in Greece, but other than that it is not really in the spotlight. It originated most likely in Siberia, or Mongolia and was brought West via trade, and probably made it to continental Europe through the return of the Crusaders (lot’s of stuff made it to Europe this way, and thank goodness, I hate using Roman numerals for maths). The Tudors were known for planting this in their gardens, and the French are well known for loving Tarragon and using it liberally in cooking. It’s common name in French is Esdragon, in the Middle East it is know as tarkhūn both names mean “Dragon” or “little Dragon” and this most likely alludes to the belief that it cures poisonous bites. Even in English it is sometimes referred to as Dragon Wort.

Great with fish, eggs, and poultry 🙂 I really love it stuck under the skin of a roasted chicken. Mmmmm dragon chicken

Tarragon has been a little overlooked in herbal medicine, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have great uses medicinally. Tarragon has eugenol the same chemical that makes cloves work. Eugenol helps with pain and has a slight numbing effect, and this is why both work so well for tooth pain, and other pain, topically. Tarragon like clove, works great for muscle pain, but this is a warm oil like Peppermint and it can sting a little if you have sensitive skin. So you can mix it into a good carrier oil and apply to any painful areas topically. A carrier oil means any good quality oil to dilute the essential oil – olive oil, sweet almond oil, jojoba oil, coconut oil, V6 oil, etc. For a quick fix just mix a drop of the essential oil to a little bit of the carrier and apply. For more regular usage you may want to make your own blend.

Tarragon Essential oil blend

  • 10-30 drops Tarragon Essential oil
  • 1/2 fl oz of carrier oil

Mix the oils and place in a preferably dark or amber glass bottle, best done with a pump dispenser or if you have a roll on that works well too.

I highly recommend this method since it smells fantastic and the smell definitely brightens my spirits as well as alleviating the pain. Remember to purchase therapeutic grade essential oils, and apply externally. You can ingest the oil, but I find for pain topical application has the best results.

You can purchase therapeutic grade Tarragon essential oil that I use here and use 1453322 as your sponsor number.

Tarragon oil is also great for settling the stomach, you can rub the above oil blend right on the abdomen. Or you can take an empty capsule, put in a few drops of Tarragon, close and swallow. This works great for those stomach issues you can get from taking medications, or the nausea that can come from pain.

Tarragon works great for settling the stomach, it calms that upset queasy feeling you get when you are in pain, or the upset stomach you can get from taking pain medications or the like. I prefer tea to the oil for stomach settling, I find it is just a more pleasant way to take it.

Tarragon Tea

  • 1 handful (or a heaping tablespoon) of fresh Tarragon leaves
  • 8 0z boiling water
  • Covered teacup

Steep for 10 minutes for stomach settling or to reduce stress, or up to 40 minutes for a more sedative draught to help with sleep. I am listing the recipe for just a single cup here but if you want to increase it just use the same amount of tablespoons of Tarragon that you do cups of water. It is best to use fresh for this since the oils that work so well in this plant to ease pain are diminished when dried and deteriorate over time. You can used dried though if that is all you have available, if possible add a drop of the Tarragon oil to dried Tarragon tea to increase the effectiveness.

This tea will settle the stomach and with the stronger infusion will have a mild sedative effect. With its strong flavor, of anise or licorice, it is a good herb to add to any sleeping teas you make with bitter herbs.

I have also read of but not tried a similar infusion with apple cider vinegar instead of water but only a teaspoon is needed and it should settle the stomach. If you try this and it works, let me know!

Tarragon while tasty, is also a great medicine but always check it out for yourself and do your own trials to see what works for you. Remember to check for interactions, things like WebMD. Do your research and educate yourself, if you are in doubt in the slightest about any of it, ask a professional.


3 Comments

Hoppity Hops

Oh hops, hops, hops! I love hops, I am a home brewer so I am extremely familiar with them. I have grown to love them very much, I used to dislike them in beers but they have worked their bitter spell on me and I am a fan of those highly hopped beers now. Most people have had experience with hops through beers, but they are useful for so much more! Hops got their name from an Anglo-Saxon word that means “to climb.” Its Latin name Humulus lupulus comes from possibly humus for the type of soil it grows in, but almost definitely the lupulus portion comes from the aggressive growth noticed and commented on by Pliny the Elder, he described them as strangling other plants, as a wolf would a sheep.

Hops, if you haven’t noticed, are serious business.

Hops are antibacterial, so they make a great beer preservative and the first mentioned use of hops in brewing comes from the 11th century, but there is documentation as early as the reign of Pepin the Short, of what would become France, that hops were grown in the royal gardens. Bacteria can spoil beer and is what makes the newly popular sour beers, sour. One of Hop’s early known uses was the preservation of beverages. This is why IPA’s are such powerfully hopped beers, the additional Hops were to help preserve it for the long, un-refrigerated train ride from England to India in the day’s of the British Empire – hence India Pale Ale. It is also why in the past beer was actually used as medicine. Mummies have been found with beer around them in burials, in them and on them. Which Anthropologist say they look to have been used as an early antibiotic, and were later noted for their ability to keep tuberculosis at bay. So remember that the next time you have a beverage choice, choose beer for your health! (Remember though, all things in moderation, too much of a good thing is bad)

But brewing aside! Hops are believed to have originated in China but quickly spread to Germany and are documented as being grown there as far back as the 8th century. And when I say quickly spread, I mean fast, hops grow at ridiculous rates anywhere from 3 inches to a foot (30 cm) a day. Pliny the Elder mentions that they were grown and the new shoots eaten in Roman times. King George III, with his famous madness, was purportedly a user of hops and slept on pillows of hops to help calm and soothe him. They are mentioned in Arab medicinal treatises as early as the 10th century, and were noted not only for their sedation and anxiety reduction, but also for their anti-inflammatory ability, and mild pain relief. Many Native American tribes used Hops as well as an analgesic (for pain) for minor issues like toothaches. It also gets mention in Ayerveda who recommend the use of Hops for treating anxiety, as muscle relaxers, and for treating tension headaches or migraines.

Hops for sleeping

As we have discussed, hops are a sedative, and in my previous post about Lavender, I said I’d be talking more about the hops pillow that I have made for myself (and if you’re interested in getting one you can check out my Etsy store).*

All you do is place the pouch inside your pillowcase, generally in a position you can easily smell them while you sleep. You will fall asleep fairly quickly, and I tend to find I stay asleep even if I am in minor amounts of pain. I have also had good results with friends that have trouble sleeping due to anxiety, obsessive thoughts, or stress. Remember though, these are pretty powerful little flowers and if you want to read in bed, or just generally be conscious, you should probably remove the pouch out of smell range, and then place it in your pillow when you are ready for sleep. I have mostly had positive feedback about the smell of them, though some have said that they smell vaguely cheesy at first but the smell was not offensive. If you are worried about this, generally if you like the smell of IPA’s you will like the smell of Hops.

This Hop pillow or pouch is one of the most common and well known ways of using Hops for therapeutic reasons, but it is mostly to assist with calming sleep.

What about anxiety while you are awake, or pain?

Glad you asked!

There are a few other tricks up Hop’s sleeve, it does so much more than just helping with sleep or flavoring beer.

Hops for anti-inflammatory, analgesic (pain reliever), and anti-anxiety 

As an anti-inflammatory, this is a fairly new discovery, inflammation occurs due to COX enzymes. Hops act in the same way the ibuprofen would, and reduce inflammation, thus reducing pain. They do this by inhibiting the COX enzymes. But unlike ibuprofen, Hops have none of those stomach wrecking side effects. (If you have issues with the tummy, Hops actually could aide in digestion, since this is another ancient use for it.) Hops have long been known for their reduction of anxiety, and they do promote a general sense of coziness and well-being. It helps to calm the mind and are great for people who have issues sleeping due to anxiety.

For both pain, inflammation, and anxiety, a tincture is one way to take Hop’s, 6 drops to start with for anxiety, and up to 20-30 drops will usually do the trick for pain (and sleep). You can do the under the tongue method but I prefer to add this to a hot tea, something like Chamomile or Holy Basil (this will also mostly take care of the alcohol).

Tinctures may be a great way to ingest it quickly but as Hops have a bitter taste, they can be a bit hard on the palate for a first timer, even when you mix them with something else. This bitter side is what makes them such a great stomach tonic. You can purchase or make your own tinctures, and personally if I had to choose, I am not a fan of this method, as it is just too much for my taste-buds. But this is a fairly immediate sort of delivery for pain reduction, so weigh your own pros and cons here for delivery method.

Hop Tincture Recipe

  • 1 part Hops flowers
  • 4 parts Grain alcohol (everclear, vodka, etc)
  • Jar, preferably large enough to hold at least a few ounces of Hops

You want to use a 1 to 4 ratio of solids to liquids to make this tincture, start in ounces (that means 1 oz dried OR fresh, can be right off the vine to 4 liquid ounces of grain alcohol). You should let it sit for at least 14 days but you may want to let it sit in a cool undisturbed place for longer. The liquid should be amber, and you will need to strain and bottle, label…all that normal tincture stuff.

ProTip: The best way to increase surface area, and make a better tincture, would be to put the Hops in a food processor and blitz it a few times. you don’t want to create a powder but you do want to break them up into smaller pieces. Again the stuff you are wanting here is the oils, which are always temperature sensitive, so do this in pulses and avoid heat build up from friction.

Hops Tea (Version 1)

  • 1-2 tablespoons of Hops
  • 1 c boiling water

Steep for 10-15 minutes (at most 20), and drink. This is one of the weaker preparations, but if you choose to include a teaspoon of Skullcap this works great for anxiety and mild headaches.

Hops Tea (Version 2)

  • 1 oz Hops
  • 1 quart boiling water
  • 1 quart (or larger) jar with a lid

Place Hops in the jar, and cover with boiling water. Place the lid on and let steep for at the minimum 4 but no more than 8 hours. This will be extremely strong, so be careful about “operating heavy machinery” if you are going to drink this.

ProTip: These are all going to be pretty bitter so you will want to mix them with something to make things a bit more palatable. Honey, Ginger, Chamomile, Peppermint, Valerian, Stevia all of these can be added depending on the effect you are looking for, and many more would work. As long as the flavor is fairly strong and helps to make the bitterness more tolerable.

You can as always purchase pills or pre-made supplements, or even better make your own. If you decide to go this route, do not take more than 500 mgs of Hops at a time 1 to 3 times a day. Hops are available for purchase pre-ground or grind them yourself. You should wait about 4 hrs between doses, and when you are first taking Hop’s make sure you account for the sedation and see how they effect you, so take them when you plan to stay in. The pills will tend to treat most of the listed ailments in this post.

Remember, do your trial and error tests yourself. See what works best for you, check for interactions with any medications you are already taking. WebMD is always a great resource for checking for issues. Do your homework and if you are ever in doubt about anything, consult a professional.

*A side note – Hops can be paired with other sleep aides, such as Valerian, Holy Basil (Tulsi), Chamomile, and Lavender to name a few. The Hop and Lavender mix I use in my pouches, I have found to be the most pleasant smell and best results. But there are other variations that will soon be available on my Esty Store (so stay tuned there!). Refill offers are available if you pm me on Etsy, since they will need to be refreshed after a few months of use.


Leave a comment

Kava, the intoxicating pepper

Kava is surprisingly a relative of the pepper plant, and is a shrub that originates in Polynesia or better known as the South Pacific region. Since written history is a recent addition to the islands of that area, documentation of its use is more in the anthropological arena, and we tend to only have passing mentions in history. Captain Cook who did much exploring in that region gave it the name we know it by, and he chose it since it meant intoxicating pepper.

Kava has been used by island people for many thousands of years and it has little connection with health issues, but Kava drinking is a group activity and it is usually done in moderation. A good history of Kava is here, and they are one of a few good sites to purchase through, along with this one that also sells and blogs about Kava. There are some cultures that use Kava daily but it is generally a social setting. If you are interested in the island Kava cultures you may want to check out Wikipedia.

Kava being served to a group from a traditional Kava bowl. From the Kava Culture Wikipedia article.

Western cultures have a poor understanding of moderation, and in most cases of too much of a good thing, good things quickly become bad. I say this because there has been some “addiction” to it in western areas. And I don’t mean addiction like you can get addicted to opiates, but there has been issues, from what I have read, of being addicted to the euphoria and feelings of relaxation it brings. So I would compare it’s addictive nature to possibly a cannabis or caffeine, not physically addictive but can be mentally addictive and could impact daily life.  As long as you use it respectfully, like any herb or medication, and in moderation, you should have no issues.

This is another herbal medicine that has received some negative media attention, and the main issue listed for this herb is that it may cause severe liver damage. It was later found that this was due to the inclusion of the plant with the root in some preparations, and the plant itself should never be ingested. If you are interested in using Kava please purchase from reputable dealers, ones that sell the root only and do not contaminate with stems or leaves of the plant. In 2001 Duke did a study and they were able to prove that Kava is save for the liver causing no noticeable problems. The culprit of this consistent belief that it causes liver toxicity is from a German study that was soundly proven to be to have been as a study “shoddy and baseless” one. So it seems the contaminates were the issue and there are quite a few other studies that you can look up. And some Kava sites include further information.

So! On to the good stuff!

There are a few strains of Kava (kinda like Kratom) and each one has a different effect and potency so you may need to try a few strains to find which one is your most preferred. It seems to be a consensus that the Vanuatu, though some say Hawaii, is the most potent with other strains varying in strength from there. Age is a factor here though, older it is after harvesting, the less potent the brew!

Kava is great for relaxation, it really helps reduce anxiety and stress. It also is a good muscle relaxer and helps induce sleep. It will promote the relaxation of muscles like a muscle relaxer, and just generally reduces anxiety and stress levels and promotes a sense of well being. Often described as a feeling of the spirit being at rest.

The thing that makes Kava so relaxing is the kavalactones. So if you are purchasing an extract the larger the listed amount of kavalactones, the more potent that extract will be. At present, I have had the most experience with the extracts, but have just obtained some kava roots and am enjoying the potent brew thoroughly. It definitely has an immediate numbing effect to the throat, and its use for easing sore throat pain is pretty obvious.

So lets do some chemistry! (Or Kava-stry possibly?)

Kavalactones are hydrophobic and lipid-soluble, therefore to be more easily emulsified in aqueous (water only) solutions you will need to add a chemical in this case the addition of lecithin. Traditionally this was done by pounding yellow hibiscus, and adding it to the soaking liquid. This addition will allow the kavalactones to “like” dissolving in water, instead of “fearing” it, thus creating a more potent brew. You can purchase soy lecithin for those vegans out there, and there are others that are animal based available for sale too. But it seems the overall online favorite is the soy lecithin.

Another way is fat, milk is a favorite here, as milk contains a significant amount of fat in general and kavalactones are lipid soluble. Any milk or milk substitute would do as long as it has some fat content. If you want to reduce the amount of milk used you can use a 1 to 2 part ratio of milk to water respectively.

Lastly you can add fruit with enzymes or high acidity to break things down, just add to the water (or water and milk) some pineapple juice (fresher is better) which its high acid content helps to break things down. Or papaya which has the infamous papain, a well known enzyme for aiding digestion, and it can really help break things down to release the most kavalactones. 

Ok, chemistry is cool and all but how much do I use, and how do I make this stuff?

Great question! The amount seems to vary for users, but a good starting point is a tablespoon of powdered root, or root solids, per 8oz of liquid. You can upgrade to a heaping teaspoon afterwards and increase slowly if you need more, or decrease if you feel you need less. If you have an instant kava drink, best to prepare it according to package and if you have powdered kava extract you want to take into account the amount of kavalactones. You should immediately notice a numbing effect in the mouth and throat, if you don’t the kava was probably too old as the root does degrade with time. Later you will notice a relaxed feeling, some describe as mellow or even sleepy. This is relaxed state generally helps stress reduce, and can be used as a sleep aid for those who suffer from sleeping issues. Or just moments of strong anxiety, such as I use it before I receive cortisone injections since I tend to faint from pain and anxiety. It works great for migraines too, for some people the behind the eye pressure is alleviated better with kava than with skullcap.

So on to the recipe! It is in 3 easy steps, you do want to gather your supplies, your kava, your liquid, your strainer and a soaking bowl.

First – Soak it!

When you soak your roots (which are generally sold pre-chopped and dried, and a prefered method of making Kava) or powder you want to use a fine muslin bag, cheesecloth and use it like a tea bag. Or strain the liquid through muslin or cheesecloth after soaking. I have read that any fine weave fabric will do, and nylon stockings are even used by some for straining. While it is soaking you will want to gently kneed the kava once to help with extraction.

You will also notice a color change, the liquid should take on a brownish color, sort of coffee with cream colored if you used only milk. If it was water with a small amount of milk, juice, or lecithin the liquid will be a bit darker colored like coffee with only a splash of cream.

Second – Strain and squeeze!

When extraction is over, make sure to squeeze out as much moisture as possible from the remaining mass, and this is fine to compost or discard. You can determine if you have extracted all the kavalactones from the roots by feeling them. If they are slippery feeling, think soap slippery or oily feeling, there is still more to extract, if they squeeze dry and don’t feel oily you have gotten all you will get from them. You do want to retain some of the finer solids in the liquid, so the straining is not to remove all particles. So don’t overdo it.

Third – Slam it.

That’s it, drink it down, its pretty awful tasting but the numbing helps and so does a strongly flavored food “chaser.” You can also hide the taste in a smoothie and all you have to do is add the cup of liquid to your favorite smoothie mix.

Temperature is key in all of this!

This is a chemical reaction, so it is really important here to use cool temperatures, heat kills everything with Kava so room temperature is best but can use cool water from a fridge. I wouldn’t suggest water colder than 60 F, since if it is too cold the process slows down. If you want to add it to a blended drink, blend in pulses so the friction does not create too much heat, or at the end and mix with one quick pulse.

ProTip: The ideal soak time seems to be about 1.5 to 2 hours, and longer doesn’t always mean stronger. If you increase the liquid from 8 to 16oz it will decrease the potency.

PartyTip: If you are brewing for a large group of people you want to use about a cup a gallon and do the same soaking times and process.

WARNING! This can cause extremely quick sedation in some cases and you should not drink kava when you are going to be driving, swashbuckling, minding a child playing with a balloon on a cliff, or anything where falling asleep suddenly will cause you or others instant horrible death. It is best to stay in and in a party situation have friends stay over.  There have been driving under the influence tickets issued in Hawaii for driving on kava so be smart. Be smart, and use kava responsibly.

Remember, do your research and purchase only from reputable dealers of Kava, you want to avoid those leaves and stems and get pure roots only.

If after all this, you are worried about interactions please talk to your doctor, or other professional, prior to using Kava. If you have liver issues, since most liver issues that were claimed to be associated with Kava were with people with pre-existing liver issues, you may want to discuss it with your doctor more thoroughly prior to use.

Always do your homework, no one will do it for you, and make sure you do your own testing to ensure you find the strain that is right for you, check for reactions on WebMD. And I can’t say this enough, when in doubt, ask a professional!