Natural Cures for Common Ailments
From the common cold to insomnia, holistic gardener Fiann Ó Nualláin believes natural remedies can treat our health, boost our immune systems and save us money.
His third book, Natural Cures for Common Ailments, gives simple advice and recipes to make salves and ointments, teas, rinses and syrups using natural ingredients. Here, he talks us through solutions for the common problems of acid reflux, constipation and fatigue…
Acid reflux aka gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Acid reflux is a condition where the acidic gastric juices of the stomach (sometimes accompanying regurgitation of food) rise into the oesophagus – irritating the lining as well as sections of digestive tract en route – resulting in burning sensations in the throat and often in the chest known as heartburn. Heartburn is not always present and sometimes the reflux happens at night, unbeknownst to you or ‘silently’.
The causes of acid reflux or GERD can include an inefficiency of the lower oesophageal sphincter to close off, or abnormal oesophageal contractions – often a symptom of stress. Sometimes a hiatal hernia is implicated, or a case of slowed digestion (the stomach not emptying quickly enough) with excess digestive enzymes and gastric juices forming to counter the full stomach.
Garden treatments Several garden herbs, including rosemary, chamomile, catnip, lemon balm, basil and peppermint, are utilised for their soothing effects on the stomach and digestive system, and also for their ability to reduce the spasms that enable reflux. Fennel seed tea is a potent reliever of heartburn and a great general digestive aid.
Meadowsweet tea can help neutralise stomach acids and calm spasms. Traditionally marshmallow has been employed in the treatment of both reflux and digestive disorders as it helps provide a protective layer to the stomach and the oesophagus walls. The leaves, roots and flowers can be delivered via teas, decoctions and syrup.
Aloe vera juice can reduce inflammation and soothe irritation, which is beneficial for an oesophagus lining affected by acid erosion, and it also contains enzymes that neutralise stomach acid – just note that it can have a laxative effect.
In traditional Chinese medicine astragalus root has many healing applications – notably to stimulate the immune system and support adrenal-gland functions. It is packed with potent polysaccharides, saponins and flavonoids that contribute to digestive health by reducing stomach acidity and increasing the body’s metabolic rate, which not only speeds digestion but also promotes the faster and fuller elimination of waste.
It’s the food you eat that sets acid reflux off, so you need to look at making some dietary changes and opting for more alkaline choices. Eat more steamed or roasted vegetables, which rarely aggravate acidity – except tomatoes, which are strongly acidic. The less processed your choices the better, as additives often don’t help.
An apple a day is suitable here, and bananas are natural antacids too. Pineapple contains bromelain, an enzyme that helps regulate levels of hydrochloric acid in your gastric juices, so do eat more fresh fruits – just be careful with fruit juice, which can be acidic in nature. Vegetable juice, however, is mostly alkaline. Often the advice is to avoid spicy foods but cinnamon, ginger, turmeric and garlic all aid the functioning of the digestion process, slow acidic build-up and limit regurgitation.
Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is a base and so cancels out acidity – half a teaspoon well stirred into a small glass of water is the method of delivery. It is not suitable for chronic or prolonged reflux, more a reliever of short-term reflux or heavy meal-triggered heartburn. It contains too much salt for using beyond a week, but you can take the solution five times in a twenty-four-hour period for five days.
With prolonged episodes of reflux you might want to consider fighting fire with a type of fire – or should I say acidity with some kitchen acidity. Apple cider vinegar is actually an acidic compound and on paper it would seem like the wrong choice to introduce to a stomach leaking its acidic juices, but it has a powerful role in regulating pH. Amazingly the vinegar actually nudges the stomach towards an alkaline environment by signalling that there is enough acidity present.
A Tropical Beach Soothie Smoothie
Coconut water is alkaline and rich in potassium to soothe an upset stomach. Bananas and melons are antacids. Pineapple regulates levels of hydrochloric acid in your gastric juices. Oats are restorative and energising. Ingredients • 1/2 cup coconut water • 1 banana • 1/2 cup diced pineapple • 1/2 cup melon or cantaloupe • 2 tablespoons oats Method Blitz together all the ingredients. Chill before serving and use the same day.
Visualisation to Diminish Stress Give your stressed system a two-minute vacation. As you sip your delicious tropical smoothie, picture yourself on a tropical beach: the sun setting into the warm ocean, the waves gently lapping against your feet, all the worries of the world lifted from your shoulders. Feel good; feel the warmth on your face, a cool breeze on your neck, the water at your toes, the tropical taste on your tongue. In this way you are programming your brain to help your body feel good.
A successful bowel movement depends on three factors: peristalsis (the wavelike contraction of smooth muscle in your intestines), fibre and moisture. Constipation is a reduction in the frequency of your normal pattern of bowel movements, the usual frequency varying from person to person and often week to week.
Constipation can be ‘wanting’ to go but it just not happening – or it can be that activity has ground to a halt for a few days or is translating into intermittent and painful defecations rather than regular activity over an extended period. Diet, poor fitness levels, disturbed routine, ill health and some medications can all occasion constipation. It can be a factor of pregnancy. The good news is that it is short term and treatable.
The potent laxative senna won’t grow in every garden but is stocked in health stores – it can be more purgative than gentle, as is the case with aloe and buckthorn. Other milder laxatives include cramp bark, marshmallow root, dandelion root, burdock root and angelica root – all simply taken via a tea.
Heartsease is mildly laxative and diuretic. Both milk thistle seed and fennel seed tea are helpful to the digestive system and bowel movements. A salad of chickweed and dandelion foliage with some rosemary vinegar has roots in folk medicine – the ingredients can all stimulate the system and so promote movement.
Fenugreek, flaxseed and psyllium seeds are garden and health store staples that act as a herbal bulk laxative – ‘bulk’ being the physical potential to move things through, not the amount you need to ingest.
Mucilage herbs, which have a soothing, gelatinous nature, include marshmallow root and slippery elm bark. An abdominal massage of basil lotion or essential oil blend – in a clockwise direction – is beneficial.
Insufficient dietary fibre is perhaps the leading cause of or contribution to constipation – so in general more fruit and vegetables and a day started with wholemeal cereals will hasten an end to it.
Magnesium can help restore regularity and can be sourced through fruits and veg, and also through apple cider vinegar are all kitchen-cupboard cures for this condition, as they provide bulk, fibre and key vitamins that relax the bowel. Don’t forget the benefits of live yoghurt and probiotics to restore intestinal vitality.
Blackberry, Fig, Prune and Raisin Compote
These top fruits with laxative potential make a tasty compote suitable to stir into natural yoghurt (probiotic) or put over muesli (high fibre).
- 3 prunes
- 3 dried figs
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 6 blackberries
- 1 tablespoon raisins
- 1 tablespoon blackberry jam (or jam of choice)
Pit the prunes. Roughly chop the figs and prunes to raisin size. In a saucepan, heat the lemon juice and honey and bring to a boil, constantly stirring – then add all the fruit and the jam. Stir well. Turn off the heat and allow to fully cool and set. Chill in the fridge, where it will keep for three days. Use as required.
Ocean Motion Isotonic Drink
One of the old folk treatments for constipation was to imbibe some sea water (a natural laxative) to loosen affairs. You don’t have to buy a new bucket and spade, or have a repertoire of sea shanties – a glass of tap water with a tablespoon of sea salt from the spice rack will do the trick. This is not for sustained constipation, as salt intake brings other complications with prolonged use. Sometimes the issue is just inadequate fluids, and several cups of water or herbal tea will go a long way to remedy it.
We all get tired from time to time, but sometimes tiredness is less of a hint from the body that it’s bedtime, or a ‘cease and desist’ on that total dig-over of the allotment, and more a case of either periodic or chronic fatigue.
Tiredness: when not due to overwork, under-sleep or poor nutrition (not enough food for energy release, energy-sapping food or a diet lacking B vitamins), this can be related to impaired thyroid function. A GP can test for that and dietary changes can sort it out. In some instances over-active adrenals can trigger crashes and the garden can sort that out. Occasionally tiredness is not just a time of low energy midway through the day or before bedtime, but is a form of periodic fatigue.
Periodic fatigue is prolonged tiredness due to illness recovery, situational depression, stress, physical overexertion, malnourishment or a combination of these. It generally resolves with bed rest, decreased workload, dietary change and a sense of rejuvenation. It is not a complex illness, such as chronic fatigue, and resolves within days of you taking care of yourself.
Sometimes a little fresh air and garden aromas can clear the mind, bring about a relaxation response and set you up for a good day or a good night’s sleep. For aroma, rosemary is rejuvenating for concentration and diminishing of tiredness. Lavender is adaptogenic – it helps the body cope better with stress. Take as a tea or aromatherapeutically, or have a lavender bath made from a few drops of essential oil or plant parts.
Chamomile tea soothes nerves and tensions and calms the system. Some herbalists prescribe valerian and plants that promote sleep as way to eradicate tiredness – that’s certainly better than trying to pump up your energy and adrenals with sugary foods and caffeine.
Do less of what drains you.
That may mean taking your lunch away from dreary canteens and drearier colleagues and getting a burst of daylight or change of scenery. Or it may be going for a walk after work before the rush-hour commute to skip that stress. We get adrenal spikes from stress – it’s the evolutionary ‘fight or flight’, which meant you ran from the tiger or fought the tiger. You can do neither to the traffic light. Aim for a better quality of life. Spending more time in nature is rewarding and energising.
Herbal teas recommended for short-term fatigue include bee balm, passionflower, mint, rosemary, chamomile and gingko. Ginkgo increases the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which helps with cellular metabolism of energy and is also involved in how the brain metabolises glucose for its energy.
Think too of adaptogens (which help the body adapt to stresses and return to normal settings) such as liquorice root (its glycyrrhizin content enhances the activation of cortisol and stress control) or Siberian ginseng, which actively supports adrenal function and promotes stamina.
To fight your fatigue you need to avoid the sugar crash, the roller-coaster caffeine ride and other similar stimulants, and instead choose foods that release energy slowly and keep you topped up for sustained periods. Sustained energy foods include oatmeal, quinoa, whole grains, beans and proteins. More fruit and veg is recommended to energise, detox and support the body’s general health – but not all fruits and veg are equal when it comes to relieving tiredness or releasing prolonged energy.
In terms of fruits, apples, pears, plums, melons, cherries and berries are good – slow release, valuable fibre and nice phytochemicals too. Remember juices, dried fruits and canned fruits are all quick-release and sugar spiking. With veg it’s all about the non-starchy options to maintain a slow release of their carbohydrates and balance the starchy ones on the plate – so choose broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, kale and asparagus – the iron in these also remedies fatigue.
Energy Breakfast Muesli
Fast-and slow-release energy to keep you going throughout the day.
- 120g rolled oats
- 40g rye flakes
- 10g bran
- 25g flaked almonds
- 25g hazelnut nibs
- 25g raisins or sultanas
- 25g dried apple pieces – diced
- 15g roughly chopped dried apricots (or dried figs)
You can toast the grains and nuts at 160˚C (325˚F/Gas Mark 3) for 8–10 minutes or use them untreated. If toasting, cool completely before adding the dried fruits and stirring them through. This stores well in an airtight container. Serve with milk, natural yoghurt or cream and a sliced banana or strawberries or even a sprinkle of blueberries.
Once upon a time muesli was cutting-edge nutritional medicine, developed by Swiss physician Maximilian Bircher-Benner around 1900 to treat jaundice and fatigue. This is the original recipe – one that was not a collection of dry ingredients as we find on supermarket shelves today, but instead with an emphasis on raw fruit and oat soaking.
• 1 tablespoon rolled oats • 1 tablespoon lemon juice • 1 tablespoon chopped nuts – preferably almonds and/or hazelnuts • 1–2 tablespoons milk or cream • 1 small apple
Soak the oats overnight in 2 tablespoons of water. Next day add the lemon juice and chopped nuts and fold together, pour on the milk or cream and grate some apple over the mix before serving.
The Holistic Gardener – Natural Cures for Common Ailments by Fiann Ó Nualláin is published by Mercier Press and is available from all good bookshops, priced €12.99.