Thursday, November 8, 2012

Herbal Profile: Valerian

As much as I love cooking, photographing and recipe development, sometimes I just don't have the energy. Especially after working a full day in a kitchen, or in my current situation, being laid up in bed healing from a lingering concussion.  Sometimes I will develop a recipe only to find out the end result looks like cat vomit. Or... I will throw a bunch of random ingredients together and think the dish looks beautiful and blog worthy but the last thing I want to do is break out my camera when I'm already borderline passing out from low blood sugar. Real life.

My food as of lately has been pretty boring since I haven't been able to be in the kitchen for more than 15 minutes without feeling like I'm going to hit the floor. Cooking is my creative outlet and without it I feel a bit.. well, empty.  It sounds strange, but food is my passion, my life force, if you will.  I cook professionally and when I'm not at work I'm either blogging about food, eating food or looking for new recipes.  I'm at a point where I want to cook and be in the kitchen. My mind says yes (er, sort of), but my body is telling me to rest.

So, out of this temporary hiatus in the kitchen, a new idea was born.  Why not write about something else that I am passionate about: Herbal Medicine. You see.. I'm really not a fan of western medicine.  I think it can be extremely helpful in certain situations but I think that we have become a culture that relies on pills to fix all of our health problems. Whether it be high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, gastrointestinal ailments, anxiety, depression, etc. there is surely a pill out there to "cure" what ails you.  Don't get me wrong many people benefit greatly by taking these medications, hell, it may be keeping some of you alive!  However, most of these pills come with unwanted side effects, and in the long term, who knows what it's actually doing to our insides.  I currently rely on prescription medicine and have done so in the past, but I think that there are other alternatives out there that have been proven to be just as effective and are alot easier on your body.  Changing your diet to include whole, unprocessed foods is a no brainer but alot of people are resistent to make such a huge lifestyle change.  A healthy diet is the foundation for good health along with exercise and stress management techniques.  But, lets be real.. we all get sick, even if we are doing everything "right".  The first thing we usually reach for is a pill that will make us feel better.  Heartburn, pop a pill.  Cold coming on? Pop a pill.  Can't sleep? They have a pill for that, too. These pills may help in the short term, but they are really just covering up the symptoms not getting to the root of the problem.

That's where herbal medicine comes in.  Why not try something that comes from nature (sometimes you can even find it in your garden or back yard), actually helps treats the problem and not just cover it up, and in most cases doesn't cause any nasty side effects. You don't even need health insurance or a prescription from a doctor. Herbs have been used for thousands of years and have been proven effective in the case of many ailments.  When taken, some herbs work immediately whereas others have to be taken in frequent high doses or taken over an extended period of time to see any noticeable benefit. 

So, this here post is the first in the herbal profile series.  I hope to post about a new herb once a week.  In these posts you will learn the history of the herb, what it's used for, how to prepare it (tea, tincture or decoction) and what it tastes like. Some say that the more bitter or vile an herb tastes the better, which is not always the case, but I usually find it to ring true.

**** Disclaimer: I am a cook and not certified herbalist. Everything you read here is based on what I have read or personally experienced. Do your research before taking any herbs as they can interfere with certain prescription medications (i.e. St. Johns Wort can interfere with birth control pills-YIKES!). Some herbs can actually worsen a particular health condition (i.e. Licorice can raise your blood pressure)

I am able to find most of the dried herbs and/or tinctures at my local health food store.  If you are interested in buying online I highly reccomend checking out Mountain Rose Herbs or Herb Pharm.

Herbs to Know: Valerian Root (Valeriana officinalis)

Valerian's name is derived from the Latin word valere, "to be well", "be strong" and has been used as an herb since at least the time of ancient Greece and Rome. Today ther herb continues to be one of the most popular medicinal herbs in the world.  Valerian is best known for it's effects on the nervous system. It is one of the best known herbs for insomnia/restless sleep/stress and anxiety. Valerian has powerful tonic effects on the heart and when combined with hawthorne berries it helps to aleviate altitude sickness.  It is also known for it's anti-spasmodic properties, helping to relieve spastic coughing.  Because of it's muscle relaxant properties, it's an excellent remedy for menstrual tension and stress. When combined with cramp bark it effectively relieves menstrual cramps.

Valerian's odor is a little, how shall I say.... ripe.  I'm not gonna lie, it smells a little bit like dirty socks.  The odor is actually an indicator of the strength of the root: the riper, the better!  It can be prepared as a tea or taken as a liquid extract (aka tincture). I prefer liquid extracts in most cases because they are easily absorbed, digested and assimilated by the body. Sometimes taking 30 drops in some water is easier than drinking 1-2 cups of the tea, especially when the taste isn't very pleasant.

Valerian is dose-dependent; in other words, in order to be effective, a large amount may be required.  Don't be afraid to take adequate amounts. Begin with a slow dose and work your way up until you feel the relaxing effects.  The herb is non-habit forming and will not make you feel groggy.  You can tell when you've taken too much when your muscles feel rubbery, or you experience a heavy, weighed down feeling. 

I've taken valerian tincture as a sleep aid and have combined it with cramp bark, ginger and pennyroyal to help alleviate menstrual cramps.  Unlike some herbs that you must take for an extended period of time to experience the benefits, valerian starts working immediately.  Next time you reach for an over the counter pain reliever for cramps or a prescription sleep aid to help you get some rest, give valerian a try instead.

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