Herbal revival

It’s time to get back to your roots – literally! South African roots, stems, leaves and flowers of certain locally grown plants can help you with that ailment that’s been niggling at you for months. So, before that niggle becomes serious, here are some herb-inspired remedies to get you feeling more vital and healthy – the natural way.

Cape Aloe for sweetness
In traditional African mythology, the pungent yellow juice of the Aloe was used to alleviate disappointments and bitterness of the body and mind. A mother who had difficulty breastfeeding her baby was told to sleep with the sap on her body and in the morning, after washing it off, her milk would be sweet and tasty to the child. “Grown abundantly in the South Eastern Cape, the aloe herb can assist with many different ailments, from promoting bowel movements and alleviating indigestion to treating most skin problems,” says herbalist, Letitia Bezuidenhout of Barefoot Herbs. “For swollen feet, put a thin slice of the aloe leaf into the shoe and the swelling will lessen.” Markus van der Westhuizen, herbalist of Healthy Choice, warns that aloe should not be taken internally during pregnancy or if you suffer from disorders of the kidneys or liver. “Aloe vera is a powerful herb, especially when used as a laxative, which has been used for centuries,” he adds. 

Buchu for longevity
In 1652, the Khoi-Khoi and San people introduced the first Dutch colonists who arrived at the Cape of Good Hope to this almost magical herb, which was said to cure all illnesses and endow longevity. According to Margie Frayne, herbalist from the North West province, buchu, part of the fynbos plant kingdom, is a most effective natural remedy for kidney, bladder and urinary tract infections. Van der Westhuizen agrees; “It is an excellent diuretic for mild fluid retention, and an antiseptic,” he says. “Steep a few sprigs of fresh or dried buchu in a bottle of brandy in a dark cupboard. This tincture can then be used to soothe inflamed airways of chronic bronchitis internally and externally to treat rheumatism and gout.” Elsabé Baker, divisional director of Complementary Therapies for Healing Hands International adds that buchu is also effective for healing bruises, treating symptoms of high blood pressure and relieving pre-menstrual bloating. She recommends making tea with one or two teaspoons of buchu leaves and drinking it three times a day to alleviate symptoms. 

Cancer bush for healing
According to Frayne, the cancer bush herb has undergone intensive research by the Medical Research Council of South Africa and has been proven to have powerful healing compounds for treating diabetes and certain cancers. “It has also shown to reverse the wasting associated with cancer, HIV/AIDS and tubercolosis,” she says. Traditional health practitioner or Igquirha, Peter von Maltitz, founder of Zanemvula Traditional Healing, suggests taking about half a teaspoon of cancer bush dried leaves in the form of a tea. “This drink is excellent for when you can’t seem to get warm – even with warm clothes or blankets,” he says. Bezuidenhout points out that those on anti-retrovirals should be cautious when using the herb, as it might interfere with their therapy.  “As always, consult a specialist before you start using herbs to self-medicate,” she says. “It is also shown to be very good in stimulating weight gain, appetite and overall well-being and decreasing anxiety and stress.”

Wild Dagga for strength
Commonly found in many gardens, the wild dagga plant is an attractive, tall herb with tufts of bright orange flowers and is a magnet for sunbirds. It is not of the same plant family as the narcotic dagga plant, nor does it resemble it. “Wild dagga, also known as ‘lion’s ear’ is a great medicine to help alleviate fear and stimulate courage and strength,” says von Maltitz. “It can be chewed, taken as a tea infusion for the heart, or bathed in.” Bezuidenhout adds that the Zulu and Xhosa people use the leaves as a poultice for snakebites, scorpion stings and spider bites. “Some people also smoke the resinous flowering tops and leaves as a euphoriant, but caution should be taken, as it is mildly addictive – although there is no proof to date of this,” she says. In addition, wild dagga can be used externally for the relief of haemorrhoids, eczema, skin rashes and boils, explains van der Westhuizen. “It can also be used internally for the treatment of hypertension, coughs, fever, headaches, sinusitis, hayfever and other allergies, colds, flu, chest infections, diabetes, eczema, epilepsy, delayed menstruation, intestinal worms and constipation,” he adds. 

Blue Mountain Sage for peacefulness
Another plant native to South Africa, the Blue mountain sage can be used as an alternative to the Australian tea tree oil. “Place a few leaves in boiled water and drink as needed,” says Diane Aldworth, herbologist in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. “Alternatively, you can place five drops of oil into a teaspoon of almond oil and massage the affected areas for abdominal cramps, to ease the aches and pains of colds and flu or for skin irritations, nappy rash, shaving rash and scratches.” Baker adds that it can ease sore throats, flatulence, heartburn, colic, and cramps. “It also assists in calming you down mentally and emotionally – and is great to use for pre-menstrual stress and other symptoms, easing menstrual cramps at the same time,” she says. 

Rooibos for rest
“Rooibos was first introduced to botanists in 1772 by the Khoi people of the Cederberg region of the Western Cape – and has been cultivated since then,” says Aldworth. “Rooibos contains zero caffeine, a low tannin content and is antioxidant-rich, which may help protect against free radical damage that can lead to cancer, heart attack, and stroke.” Consumed as a tea, it can help as a digestive aid, to alleviate insomnia, and is rich in vitamins and minerals. Baker points out that it slows down the ageing process and prevents diseases like cancers and heart conditions, whilst maintaining healthy skin, bones, teeth, and assists in metabolic processes.  It is also great for the skin. Bezuidenhout shares her skin cream recipe for skin ailments; “Take one cup of aqueous cream and a half a cup of dried rooibos leaves and mix it together in a double boiler. Once the aqueous cream has melted, allow the mixture to simmer for 20 minutes. Strain the mixture through a sieve and add one tablespoon of honey and pour into jars – and voila! You now have a cream that can help heal a multitude of skin problems.”

African Wormwood for courage
It is said that good old Jan van Riebeeck noted the African Wormwood in his diary, writing that it was used for a variety of complaints – from gout to jaundice. This plant is known in Xhosa as umhlonyane which translates as “courage” and is still used as their first aid remedy. “It can be used for a wide variety of conditions, including colds, headaches and bronchial complaints.  It is a tonic which contains anti-inflammatory and anti-septic properties and can also be administered as an anti-depressant,” says Baker. “It relieves colic, blocked nasal passages, indigestion, loss of appetite and expels intestinal worms, as well as helps to  relieve aches and pains, clear acne and boils, and also to disinfect cuts and wounds.” She suggests wrapping some warmed leaves around sprains and swellings – or even on the stomach to relieve aches, pain and discomfort. Aldworth also suggests drinking African Wormwood as a tea, sweetened with a little honey to help feel better. “It is widely distributed in South Africa, and is an ancient medicinal plant that is still widely used by people of all cultures.”

African Potato for immunity
African Potato, otherwise known as Inkomfe or SA’s ‘miracle muthi’ was used in the Zulu tradition as a powerful emetic against nightmares and in Sotho folklore; it was used as a charm against lightning and storms. Today is known for being an overall tonic and proves to be effective in the treatment of reproductive disorders and prostate problems.  It can also be used to treat tumors, such as testicular tumors and is also recommended for people living with HIV / AIDS, because of its powerful immune boosting properties, explains Baker. Van der Westhuizen also points out that it can be used for reducing inflammation and also for treating symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Rather than making your own home remedy, it is advisable to use a commercial health supplement or herbal remedy that is readily available. Says Aldworth; “As a topical application in a base cream it can benefit eczema, psoriasis and skin lesions caused by the sun.”

All good things in moderation, from the experts…

  • At a maximum, use a herbal remedy for 5 to 10 days, then skip a few days. 
  • If a herb is taken therapeutically, it must be assumed that this is a drug like any other – and a safe dosage must be consumed. 
  • Always start with the lowest recommended dosage and monitor your response. Should there be any unpleasant side effects such as rashes, dizziness, nausea or headaches, stop taking the herb immediately!
  • Remember herbal remedies are extremely potent and can have side-effects and that natural medicine does not replace the advice of your doctor. 
  • Should you have any side-effects, stop using the herbs immediately and consult your doctor and herbalist.
  • Herbs should be treated with respect.  ‘Less is more.’ Many are under the impression that because it is natural, it is automatically safe too. This is not true – as some herbs can work against allopathic medicine, or block their activity by adhering to the receptor sites for the drugs. This is especially true of Hypericum that can block off 95% of the receptor sites. 
  • A lot can go wrong if you take the wrong herbs, especially since herbal mixtures are normally concentrated. 
  • Remember that herbs are plants – and as in food, it is not unheard of for allergic reactions to occur. It is best to consult a herbalist if you are not sure.
  • Each herb will have its own recommended dosage, so do not self-medicate unless you have discussed this with someone knowledgeable in the use of herbal medicines. Your age and vitality also determines dosage. 

Hemp, the taboo herb
“Hemp is prized for its medicinal qualities and the omega rich oil in the seeds,” says director of Hemporium, Tony Budden. “It is also useful because of the range of products that can be made from the plant – from textiles, to paper to building materials. There are literally thousands of uses for hemp.” Hemp is made from the cannabis sativa variety, which has no narcotic use – unlike it’s ‘narcotic cousin’, marijuana. “It was only during the last century that cannabis hemp has been associated with the drug dagga and therefore banned in many countries,” he says. “For 8000 years or more before that, it was the world’s largest agricultural crop, producing the majority of our fibre, paper, fabric, lighting oil, medicines, as well as food oil and protein for both humans and animals.” Bezuidenhout adds that cannabis is mentioned in the ancient Chinese pharmacopoeias dating back to the 5th century BC, where it was used for inducing sleep and easing pain. “Today, marijuana is often abused, but is also useful for patients of chemotherapy and radiation therapy and for HIV/AIDS patients to decrease nausea, improve appetite and relieve pain,” she says. 

Indigenous massage home recipes
“I believe that using what grows in one’s immediate surrounds is more suited and beneficial to us than something that’s grown in a different climate, altitude and season and had to travel far to reach our shores. We import no oils and rigorously support our local farmers,” says Sue Pugh of Still Pure Essential Oils and Handcrafted Products. “Our flora, indigenous to SA is fairly new to the essential oil arena, so exciting discoveries are being made every day about the properties and uses for each of them.”

Sue adds that when essential oils are used, the air smells wonderful and inhaling it will benefit you on both a physical and emotional level and no harm is done to any animals or plants in the vicinity. 

Try out one of these massage recipes recommended by Still Pure to help you move easily through your day: 

Stress Buster: African Chamomile, Lavender and Cape May
Indigestion-go-away: Spearmint, Sweet Orange and Lavender
All smiles today: Cape Snowbush, Grapefruit and Mandarin

Blends for massage should be mixed in ratio of about three drops of essential oil to one tablespoon of carrier oil, such as grapeseed, almond, olive or rosehip oil. 

Author: Charlene Yared-West, Longevity Magazine, July 2010, p34.

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