• Stephanie Drax

The Power of Plants to Help & Heal You

When I gave birth naturally to both of my sons, it was with a muslin cloth steeped in lavender oil practically wedged up both nostrils. I’d listened to hypnobirthing techniques during my pregnancy in a calm and meditative state, and always with the aroma of lavender wafting around me. So, when I went into labour and the pain became – let’s face it – excruciating, it was the scent of lavender that got me back into a contemplative zone and distracted me from the pain. Even now, when I smell fresh lavender I’m hit by a wave of tranquillity and nostalgia for that exquisitely intense experience. I spoke to Susan Janikowski, a medical herbalist and reflexologist, about the power of plants and their magical properties. And thank you to Neal’s Yard – Britain’s much-loved organic natural health and beauty shop – who has given Storytellhers the low down on how best to take them.

I am not surprised lavender essential oil has such a positive effect on the birthing process. Fragrant flowers such as lavender and rose are commonly used to work on emotional issues. Simply smelling a flower or an essential oil can have a profound effect. It works via the limbic system, which affects memory and emotions.

I did the first herbal medicine degree on offer in the UK in the 90s and have never stopped learning. I also grow some herbs and forage whenever I find the time. During my time as a globetrotting model, whenever I found myself run down I turned to herbal medicines. I spent a lot of time in Asia where it was very much part of the culture to take medicinal plants, so that was a huge influence on me. It later turned into my passion and career.

Plants have been used for medicine throughout the ages, in every single culture. We’ve evolved alongside plants and have adapted to assimilate them easily. Many modern day medicines were originally extracted from plants, like aspirin’s salicylic acid taken from willow bark. Unlike pharmaceutical drugs, which are made from isolated compounds, herbs are taken in their whole plant form. In their complexity, they have many active principles which give them multiple, therapeutic properties, as well as helping counterbalance side effects. The central philosophy of herbal medicine is the recognition that the body has an innate intelligence to heal itself given the right conditions, and herbs help support this self-healing and to restore balance and regulate function.

The public and media perception of herbs seems to be changing as people are waking up to their power and potential. Research is now confirming the traditional uses of plants and showing them to be effective medicines. They are suitable for all ages; many herbs are very gentle and can be safely given to children (for instance, the herbs we commonly forage for, like nettles, elderberries and rosehips.) Of course, herbs are medicines need to be respected and some have the potential for reactions so are best prescribed by herbalists. There is also a class of herbs known as Schedule 20 which are restricted by law – these can only be prescribed by herbalists or taken as diluted homeopathic preparations as they are toxic outside of their narrow therapeutic index (examples being arnica and belladonna.)

The following are five of my favourite herbs – they are easy to acquire and each has a multitude of benefits. They can use be used as an essential oil, as a tincture (an extract in alcohol, to be taken internally), as a floral water spray or sipped as tea.

Lavender. (Lavendula angustifolia). It works on the autonomic and central nervous system as a sedative with incredible calming powers. It stabilises mood, lowers blood pressure and is the first thing I think of if I’m panicky, stressed, or want to sleep. It has an uplifting effect too, so can be used with depression. It helps with cramping and pain, headaches, infections, and is effective in calming children with ADHD. A small minority of people can be over-stimulated by it.

How to Take (by Neal’s Yard)…

Dried Herb Infusion: Take 1 cup of a standard infusion of the flowers up to 3 times a day to help calm the mind and body. A cup before bedtime can also help if you have trouble sleeping. A standard therapeutic infusion is 1 heaped tsp of a single dried herb (for fresh herbs use double the amount) to 175ml of boiling water. Place the chopped herbs in a cup or teapot and pour the boiling water over the herbs. Leave for 10 minutes – preferably covered to avoid the loss of volatile oils in the steam – and strain before use.

TinctureHerbal tinctures extract the therapeutic properties of plants using alcohol and water. Dosage is normally between 1ml and 5ml added to a little water up to three times a day.

Essential OilMassage oil: Add 12 – 20 drops of essential oil to 2 tablespoons of base oil and massage into skin. Bath Oil: Add 8-12 drops to 1 tablespoon of essential oil to a base oil or full-fat milk and disperse in a relaxing bedtime bath.

Rosehip. (Rosa canina). This is fantastic for ear, nose and throat issues and head colds. It’s very rich in vitamin C, is good for the adrenal gland and safe for children to take. During the World Wars, when citrus fruits were scarce, the Women’s Institute were involved in the mass picking of rosehips, which were made into syrup to help the health of the population. Rosehips can be taken as a syrup using sugar or honey for children or taken as a tea.

How To Take…

Dried herb: As a general guide use one to two teaspoons of dried herb or mixture of herbs to a cupful of water. Place the herb in a saucepan, pour on the water, cover with a lid and simmer for ten to fifteen minutes before straining.

Rose. (Rosa damascena). This is my absolute favourite, and I always carry a bottle of floral water spray with me. I love the smell – it’s like being hugged. It takes huge quantities of petals to make the essential oil, but you only need one drop to have an effect (I use the essential oil, floral water spray and tincture). Rose isn’t called the ‘flower of love’ for nothing: it is specific for grief and heartbreak in depression and is aphrodisiac. The floral water is also great as a spray during labour. Rose is a plant I use also for postnatal health, menopausal problems like hot flushes, for PMS and pelvic congestion. It really has a profound effect: sit and meditate with the fragrance of rose and see how you feel.

How To Take…

Dried herb: This can be taken as a standard infusion, however, Rose is most commonly used as an essential oil.

Essential oil: Bath & Shower: The essential oil is inhaled through the aromatic steam, as well as being absorbed by the skin. For adults, add up to 5 drops in 2 tbsp bath oil, shower gel, or carrier oil. For children over 2 years old or adults with sensitive skin, reduce the amount to up to 2 drops per 2 tbsp. Not suitable for children under two years old. Inhalation: This technique helps to clear your head and nose. For adults, add 4–6 drops to a bowl of steaming water, pace a towel over your head and breathe. Children over 2 years old, adults with sensitive skin and asthmatics should not inhale directly. Instead, place the bowl of hot water with added oils in the room nearby.  Not suitable for children under two years old. Massages: Balances your body and mind while helping to soothe aching muscles. For adults, use up to 15 drops in 2 tbsp of base oil. For children over 2 years old or adults with sensitive skin, use up to 6 drops in 2 tbsp of base oil.  Not suitable for children under two years old. Diffusers & Burners: A natural air freshener, this technique creates a balancing ambience and mood. For adults, add 1–3 drops in a diffuser or burner. For children over 2 years old, add 1–3 drops in a diffuser.  Not suitable for children under two years old.

Nettle. (Urtica dioica). Spring is the best time to pick them when they are young (until they start flowering) so it’s interesting that nettle is good for allergies and hay fever which show up then. It’s a nutritive tea for fertility, good during pregnancy, an excellent post-natal food that enriches the milk with vitamins and minerals, and a restorative tonic for menopause. It’s also effective for anaemia, gout, and kidney stones. I call it our native superfood, and it’s free – if you pick it, go in with long gloves or aggressively to avoid getting stung. Nettle tea can be made with fresh or dried leaves and steeped for at least 10 minutes but I prefer to steep them overnight before drinking as a morning tea. Packed with minerals, iron, silica and vitamins, nettles are so undervalued.

How To Take…

Dried Herb: Create a standard infusion that can be taken three times a day.

Tincture: Between 1ml and 5ml added to a little water up to three times a day.

Rhodiola. (Rhodiola rosea). This plant is part of the rose family and is an adaptogen – a group of herbs that help us tolerate various stressors. This group of herbs was well researched by the Soviets post-war to help their workers, athletes and astronauts with chronic stress – mental, physical and environmental. Rhodiola is safe and non-toxic and increases serotonin in the brain (but be wary as it can be too stimulating for those with bipolar disorder or mania.) It is great for memory, focus, ageing, allergies and helps us to withstand the cold. It’s a herb for those particularly under stress, such as mums who are working, have a lot on and need to maintain focus. I’d use rhodiola as a tincture that you can ingest but it can be also used in capsules or as a powder.

How To Take…

Superfood Powder: Neal’s Yard sells rhodiola as a superfood powder and recommends a half to one teaspoon of powder daily. It’s great to add to hot chocolate, milk drinks, smoothies, desserts.

To get in contact with Susan for herbal medicine and reflexology for women’s health issues (including fertility, pregnancy and postnatal support) visit Flourish Naturally: www.flourishnaturally.co.uk