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Herbal: blood cleansers.

All traditional medicine is holistic in nature, putting as much emphasis on maintaining health as on defeating illness. In the western herbal tradition, one of the cornerstones of maintaining health is the idea of removing toxicity by cleansing the blood, using good diet and a category of herbs known as "alteratives," which alter the body's environment for the better, gently cleansing the blood and therefore the body in subtle ways.

How do you know when someone's toxic if they're not sick right now? Toxins can first show up as fatigue, mental dullness, and even a hangover kind of feeling. There is less ability to adapt to environmental stresses, and improper foods or environmental irritants more easily aggravate a person. Eventually, this can manifest as migraine headaches, allergies, poor immune system functioning, and skin disease. With a lifetime of toxic blood, toxins can create, an environment for arthritis, heart disease, and cancer.

Some cleansing herbs work in obvious ways, for example, bitter herbs that stimulate liver function, or herbs that increase urine production in the kidneys, or diaphoretic herbs that cause sweating, kind of an herbal sauna. Alteratives work in subtle ways, perhaps including stimulation of the liver, kidneys, or sweat glands, but most directly they work on the lymph system. Although some herbalists separate out lymphatic herbs from alteratives, there's enough overlap that we'll consider them as one category here.

The lymph system is one area to which herbalists pay more attention to than mainstream medicine practioners; herbalists have a much greater appreciation of subtlety, since herbal diagnostics are more based on pre-clinical conditions, and the remedies are gentler with a broader effect.

The lymph vessels parallel the blood vessels and are the overflow storm drain of the body fluids. When blood reaches the smallest blood vessels, fluids get pushed out of the capillaries into the tissues where they exchange nutrition and oxygen for carbon dioxide and waste products. But only about ninety percent of that fluid actually returns to the veins. The lymph system sucks up the other ten percent or so, where it stops at lymph node way stations to get picked through on its way back to primary circulation.

These nodes and lymph glands are major players in the immune system, because this is where an antibody response to an infection first gets mounted. This is most obvious when you think about catching a cold where the lymph glands under your jaw and around your throat start getting enlarged. But you can also see swellings in your armpits or groin because lymph nodes there protect the trunk of the body from infection. Lymph problems also undermine many female breast diseases from fibrocystic breasts to breast cancer. It's also worth working with alteratives for arthritis, skin disease, and autoimmune conditions. Many of them make great daily tonics!

Some of the best alterative herbs to clear the lymph system are red root, cleavers, mullein, calendula, burdock, stinging nettles, sassafras, and red clover, although the list could go on. These are all herbs that grow locally and abundantly and are relatively easy to find and harvest yourself, or are available on the shelf if you'd rather not.

Red root (Ceanothus americanus) is one of my personal favorites. Also known as New Jersey Tea, the roots of this plant are a rich blood red and even taste a bit like sassafras. Red root is most useful for throat swellings such as tonsillitis, pharyngitis, and sore throat, but it should also be part of any formula for fibrocystic breasts (in addition to quitting all caffeine, including chocolate). One of its key uses is for when the lymph system is slow moving and boggy-red root tightens up the junctions and gets the lymph moving.

For acute illnesses, red root can be combined with echinacea or baptisia, where it also exerts a mild expectorant effect. For chronic conditions, combine it with some of the gentler alteratives such as burdock, cleavers, or violet to clear out stuck conditions. It has a historical use for enlarged spleen (a mass of lymphatic tissue), prostate conditions, and cough. One specific indication might be someone with a sallow, doughy complexion.

Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) is probably the all-time favorite herb of many herbalists, and is a neat alterative because it gets you at both ends--both providing nutrition and assisting with elimination of waste products. It is one of the basic nourishing herbs of modern herbalism, with good amounts of iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamin C, vitamin A, and more. At the same time, it can help with allergies by drying and strengthening the mucous membrane of the respiratory system. As an alterative, nettles are also used for arthritis, kidney conditions, acne, and as a general cleansing tonic.

To make a proper nettles preparation, put a handful in a canning jar, fill the jar with just-boiled water, cap it and let it set for four or more hours. The result is a rich broth-like tea that you could almost chew it's so full of nutrition.

Burdock root (Arctium lappa) is a wonderful and under-appreciated medicine. So gentle it can be eaten as food (as can red clover, cleavers, and cooked nettles), Burdock moistens the body and can be used for dry skin conditions such as eczema, it balances blood sugar, and it also makes a great tonic for both the liver and kidneys.

Cleavers (Galium aparine) is an alterative that affects both the lymph and the kidneys, helping to clear out extra water waste by stimulating the kidneys to excrete more waste products in the urine. Red clover is an alterative with a specific affinity for the chest area, including both the lungs and the breasts. Calendula is a warming alterative that is also anti-viral and anti-fungal.

All of these herbs can help us maintain our health, and with a little knowledge and intuition, we can figure out which one is best for our own constitution. And always remember that herbs don't act in a vacuum apart from the rest of our lives-if we really want to cleanse, we need to begin at home with what we eat, what we clean with and how we live. Otherwise the best herbs will be for naught!

Alterative Herbs Quick List

Burdock (Arcticum lappa)

Part Used: Root or seeds

Finding & Harvesting: Common weed in meadows and fields with very large leaves and a long tap root

Uses: Cleanses the blood primarily through its action on the liver and kidneys

Contraindications: None known

Calendula (Calendula officinalis)

Part Used: Flowers

Finding & Harvesting: Grown frequently in gardens

Uses: Stimulates lymph & is anti-fungal and anti-viral

Contraindications: Occasional minor digestive upset

Cleavers (Galium aparine)

Part Used: Whole herb

Finding & Harvesting: A common mat-forming plant of wood edges, easily identified by its whorl of leaves and prickly hairs

Uses: Stimulates lymph movement throughout the body, especially in the lower half and kidneys

Contraindications: May be synergistic with pharmaceutical diuretics

Nettles (Urtica dioica)

Part Used: Leaves

Finding & Harvesting: Usually found in disturbed wet areas in towns. Grows in stands and looks mint like with opposite toothed leaves.

Uses: Both Nourishing and cleansing. Helps alkanize the blood and balance minerals.

Contraindications: None known

Red Clover (Trifolium pretense)

Part Used: Flowers

Finding & Harvesting: Common purple flower of yards and meadows with set of three leaflets, each with a "delta" on it

Uses: Useful for skin & lymphatic conditions, gently nourishing and has a special affinity for the lungs & breasts.

Contraindications: Not to be used while taking an anti-estrogenic

CoreyPine Shane is a Holistic Clinical Herbalist, Director of the Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine, and environmental activist. In his practice he combines the philosophies of Chinese and Western Medicine, using primarily local herbs. His website is www.blueridge He can be contacted at 828-275-6221
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Title Annotation:herbal healing
Author:Shane, CoreyPine
Publication:New Life Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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