Managing Chronic Illness With Herbs
Plus two recipes!
Hello, wonderful witches!
As someone who is currently sick with a mystery respiratory virus (not COVID, hooray!), I’m pretty excited for today’s issue. Our writer manages a chronic illness, and I know some of you do as well—so hopefully the story and recipes included are helpful.
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Managing Chronic Illness With Herbs
By Siobhan Ball
My introduction to herbal medicine came from a slightly unusual place: a school trip to a medieval monastery that was also a living history site, with men dressed as monks trying to make history come alive for a group of 12-year-olds through age-appropriate medieval crafts. A couple of months earlier I’d started having really bad headaches that would later be diagnosed as migraines, and so when the “monk” taught us how to make a herbal tea for headaches, I was all on board. The very first thing I did when I was picked up from school at the end of the day was tell my grandfather, “I want an herb garden.”
My grandfather, a retired science teacher, researcher, and keen gardener, was more than happy to help me with the growing parts but was significantly more dubious about me mixing up tinctures and potions in his kitchen to treat various maladies. Starting from the position that I wasn’t to use the herbs we were growing at all, I managed to negotiate him down and he agreed to let me make myself basic teas—lemon balm for headaches, mint and honey when I had a cold. The rules were that I had to let him know what I was doing, and he retained veto power if I came up with something that he thought was dangerous or just wasn’t a good idea. And of course, if I was sick, I had to let an adult know and not try to treat myself with something from the garden. I think he thought I’d grow out of it, but, sadly for him, I did not.
I loved the entire process of it, the way it made me feel connected to the cycle of life and the planet. I loved selecting and plucking the leaves, thanking the plant for giving them to me, and watching my tea or steam or bath of the day infuse. I also, in my twelve-year-old nerdy way, loved how it made me feel like a medieval apothecary or village cunning woman, and I loved the sense of autonomy that being able to help myself like this gave me. But I also had a practical reason; though less effective, lemon balm and lavender are significantly easier on the liver than paracetamol and ibuprofen. Especially if you have to take them a lot. Growing up I was aware that there was a chance I’d inherited a nasty liver condition, the kind that often stays dormant until the organ is placed under stress. Even as a tween I was keen to avoid that, and when I was having multiple bad headaches a week, the garden seemed like a much safer option.
Ironically, while I seem to have escaped that particular genetic curse, I have ended up with another one, hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (hEDS)—a connective tissue disorder that very little can be done about. Though painful and inconvenient rather than life threatening in my case, it’s still, well, painful and inconvenient, and it’s led me back into more in-depth kitchen witchery as I try to find ways to ease the symptoms and make the whole thing more bearable. That’s not to say I’m replacing conventional medicine with herbs or magic; instead I see them as complementary. There’s a meme I periodically come across on Facebook that says something like lemon and honey for a cold, ginger tea for nausea, and antibiotics for strep throat, and I think that’s a really important balance to have. We can do a lot for ourselves in our own kitchens, but at the same time, conventional medicine is the result of thousands of years of medical practice, rooted in herbalism that’s been tested and refined. To reject that, I feel, is hubristic. I’m not going to give up my inhaler, but I am going to treat my migraines with lavender heat packs, herbal teas, and dark glasses as far as I can. Like I said, it’s all about balance, at least for me.
Bone Soup (for the bones)
Named by my wife who was trying to make me laugh after I dislocated my collarbone while sitting on the couch (the sort of thing that just happens sometimes when your connective tissue behaves like old rubber bands), the purpose of this soup is to get as much collagen—along with some anti-inflammatory spices—into me as possible. Some preliminary research has apparently shown that consuming animal protein in what seems to me to be truly unreasonable amounts may help reduce hEDS symptoms, so meat is unfortunately back on the menu. There are also some anti-inflammatory spices in here, both because they taste good and because inflammation is another issue with this disorder. Obviously this soup isn’t a magical cure-all (though it does actually make me feel a lot better when I have a cold), but I do think that since I changed my diet, my symptoms have improved quite a bit. Importantly, as I am not a doctor, none of this is medical advice and you should check with yours before making any dietary or other changes.
1 whole chicken carcass with some of the meat intact
1 small knob of ginger
1 small bulb of garlic
1 medium carrot
2 celery sticks
1 large yellow onion
2 teaspoons turmeric
2 teaspoons thyme
Salt and black pepper, to taste
Making this is incredibly simple as you just put all of the ingredients, vegetables roughly chopped, into a large stock pot, cover them completely with water, and let them simmer for four to six hours. You’ll need to skim the fat and scum from the surface of the water periodically while you do this, but don’t be alarmed by it—it’s a normal byproduct of making bone stock. After you’ve finished simmering, you strain it, throw away the now inedible mushy vegetables, and pick the meat off the carcass before adding it back into the broth along with any fresh vegetables or starches you want. We like to add rice, a squeeze of lemon juice, and some carrots and onions. Make sure you don’t salt the stock until right at the end, otherwise you may end up over-salting it as the liquid cooks down. When I’m cooking this, I tend to be quite approximate with spices, adjusting for the tastes of the people there, so while I’ve given you those spice measurements as a starting point, feel free to adjust them to your own preferences.
Throat and Sinus Tea
This is the simplest thing; I’ve been making it since I left for university and discovered that freshman flu never actually goes away. Often, at the beginning of autumn, I’ll finely dice a large amount of ginger and dump it in a honey jar so I’ll have my supplies already prepped when the first round of sniffles starts. I’ve never been sure if ginger actually helps clear the sinuses or if it just feels like it does because the endorphins from the burn are a natural pain reliever, but this tea is very soothing for sore throats and sinus infections. I’ve dosed nearly all of my college friends with this and we’re still friends now, which I feel is a pretty decent recommendation.
Diced or grated ginger
A whole lime
I usually make this with two large teaspoons full of the diced ginger and two to four teaspoons of honey, depending on taste. I prefer to use Chalice Well honey if I have it, made by bees on a sacred site in Glastonbury, England, but any honey will do just fine. I put the ingredients straight in a mug, pour boiling water into it, and allow it to steep. Adding the juice of a whole lime after it’s already cooled down a little is optional, but I think it tastes better that way, and the extra vitamin C can’t hurt.
Siobhan is a journalist, medieval historian and jeweler who lives in Scotland with her wife, their cat, and too many plants. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @SiobhanFedelm.
In the next issue…
Next up, an author interview.
See you then!