Friday, May 29, 2015

Herb Life

As stated in Distillation and the Learning Curve, I often look at the similarities between things to find deeper truths in commonalities. For example, in my non-medical opinion, if beauty products are pimping plants in their concoctions, whether it be sea buckthorn or seaweed, I find it safe to assume that plants are helpful aids in the beauty routine. While the aforementioned post dealt specifically with plants and beauty, I'd like to take some time to deal with the topic of plants and health.

In a previous blog post entitled, All in One, I spoke of how a simple BuzzFeed article brought me back to basics, reminding me that while carrots and radishes and eggplant might be delicious and generally healthy, it's the leafy greens like kale and spinach which really pack a (vitamatic) punch. To this extent, I started thinking of other green plants, mainly herbs, which I could infuse more heavily into my diet.

When I began this blog, I talked about how water (again, in my non-medical opinion) should be at the bottom of the food pyramid. According to the Mayo Clinic (and basically everyone else) women should generally consume 9 cups and men should consume 13 cups of water on the daily. Water, obviously, has a myriad of benefits for our bodies from flushing toxins to keeping our muscles energized but there can be elements added to our water that deliver unique benefits in and of themselves. While we may not wish to add kale to our water, I have often written about adding herbs, spices and citrus to boost the flavor and nutrients of something we should already consume each day.

As stated before, I've written a lot on herbs in the past, however, for me, the repetition of information is always helpful and I tend to learn something new (and I hope you do too!). Recently, I came across a post on Into the Gloss entitled There's and Herb for That which detailed herbs for hair growth, herbs for calming the skin (can't wait to try this), etc. However, beyond maintaining the appearance of our exterior, herbs do a lot to aid our interior. But what is an herb? Herbs, according to Wikipedia, are, "plants used for food, flavoring, medicine or perfume." To this extent, it seems as though kale could be an herb but we'll stick to the tried and true category containing your oregano, basil, etc. To further pare down our category of herbs, below lies a list of herbs I've been using as of late and their benefits.

Mint: I've been using mint a lot as of late. I hate to admit it, but my students have been reading a Batman book (that's not the embarrassing part) in which Bruce Wayne takes a cup of tea at night. This ritual struck me as thoroughly calming and something I wanted to do despite the fact that the weather on the Eastern Seaboard is turning warmer. Conventional teas have given me some pause, however, as I'm tentative to use (often bleached) tea bags with what seems oftentimes like old, brittle tea leaves. Enter mint. Mint has always pleased me as an herb. Oddly enough, there are some herbs I really don't like but I think I have enough positive associations with mint to really enjoy its flavor. To make a mint tea (which may be preferable to rosemary or sage in the Spring), I simply boil some water, slip some tea leaves into my floating tea infuser and, voila, I have a pleasant tasting tea for the evening.

Above: Nightly mint tea sans infuser.

Instead of relying on dried mint leaves, I purchased a small mint plant from my local farmers' market. I find that fresh mint leaves often taste, well... fresher and I'm hoping my purchase of a pre-grown plant will grow larger and spread as I have an alternate use for this herb in the future. In addition to brewing tea, I'd like to start using (pepper)mint in the creation of essential oils.

I recently came across a great blog entitled The Crunchy Moose. The blog is "crunchy" in its focus on all-natural ingredients in one's beauty routine but every suggestion I've taken from the site has been miraculous. The blog's author, Ashlee, also offers an online "class" on essential oils which sends a info-filled email to your inbox each day. To access the site where you can "enroll" in her class, click here. Through Essential Oils 101 and my own research, I've come to find that different essential oils (obviously) offer different functions. Below is a list of some commonly used essential oils and their strongest areas of aid.

Peppermint: Often used for energy
Lavender: Often used for calm
Lemon Balm: Often used for focus

Essential oils, or the, "highly concentrated, aromatic essences of trees, shrubs, hers, grasses, resins or flowers," (according to The Crunchy Moose) are often used by patting a dab behind the ears or on the neck, added to teas or food or diffused through the air. While the benefits of these liquids seem to be endless, it takes a lot of plant to make a scant (amount of oil). However, once the essential oil is distilled and bottled it will not expire (though it may evaporate). Therefore, buying a mint plant allows for great, natural teas but will also grow wildly in your yard, perhaps allowing for enough leaves to create an individual sized essential oil. If you are interested in making your own essential oil, you can click here to learn more about the process.

(Note: The process of creating essential oils is rather involved, so if you wish simply to add mint to your tea and purchase essential oils from your health food store, you will still reap all the benefits of this antioxidant rich, digestive aiding, breath freshening herb.)

Lavender: Lavender oil comes next on my "bucket list" of essential oils and, likewise on my list of herbs to cultivate this summer. Lavender is often grown in the south of France but can easily be grown stateside in Hardiness Zones, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8. While mint is said to energize (at least in essential oil form) lavender is said to calm. I remember learning about the color wheel in high-school art class and seeing how the "cool colors" were claimed to impart calm on the viewer. But beyond looking at lavender, consuming it can aid in reducing nausea and/or a loss of appetite, help with insomnia, nerve pain or even hair loss (according to WedMD).  While the smell of lavender can relax you (I plan on growing, cutting and keeping a lot in the house) it also lends itself well to teas. You can either make lavender tea by placing a few of its flowers in a tea infuser or you can simply buy it pre-made (just try to get pre-made lavender tea in unbleached tea bags).

(Note: If you are taking certain medications, tread lightly in using natural, lavender tea. You can read more about this issue here.)

According to Whole Foods, essential oils can be added to bath water, moisturizers or even our pillowcases to impart the specific effects of the herbs they use. As opposed to mint, lavender seems to lend itself well to a beauty routine with its pleasant scent that's a little less obvious than peppermint. In order to receive lavender's calming benefit on the daily, I plan on adding a few drops of its essential oil to my shampoo and perhaps to my pillow before I fall asleep. While I had grand plans of keeping an apiary this summer (however, honey extractors are insanely expensive) I had thought of planting lavender as a source of pollination for my bees. Had I done this, I would have considered making my own lavender essential oil but, as I'm finding, Whole Foods has a great beauty department replete with a myriad of oils to choose from. I think I'll just go there.

So, there you have it, an "essential" yin and yang of my herb use with mint used for energy and lavender for relaxation. Both herbs, however, can aid in digestion and both have deeper benefits for the body and mind than simply affecting our energy levels (read: mint and lavender have been shown to reduce the risk of some cancers). While I had thought of including lemon here, it is not an herb even though I place it in water like a tea and use its essential oil. We'll save lemon for another post. Enjoy!
I didn't include lemon in this post but I figured a picture would suffice. You can't see it but there's mint and honey too!

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