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Kitchen Medicine

Rediscover household herbal remedies for common ailments

We believe it is part of what might be called a "medicinal intelligence" to seek to become more aware of the potential health value of food and food-related products stored but often ignored in our kitchens

Julie Bruton-Seal

In times past, kitchen medicine was practiced by every housewife. She may not have used the term or even thought about it much, but she would have learned how to treat her family for everyday ailments and minor emergencies with what she had to hand. We think it is time to revive this disappearing tradition of using your pantry as your pharmacy. We believe it is part of what might be called a "medicinal intelligence" to seek to become more aware of the potential health value of food and food-related products stored but often ignored in our kitchens. The following are but a few examples of the wealth of healing items in your fridge or pantry that can meet your medicinal needs.

Everybody is aware that lemon is a remedy to take when a cold looms, its high vitamin C improving resistance to respiratory infection, as well as cutting mucus. Lemon is equally protective for stomach infections, poor circulation, and, especially, arteriosclerosis. Gargling diluted lemon juice is a zingy way to treat a sore throat. What makes lemon particularly valuable is that, despite being a source of citric acid and the acidic vitamin C, once lemon juice is digested its action is alkalizing for the body. This is why it is used for treating rheumatic conditions that are typified by overacidity. Lemon strongly reinforces the body in those areas that scurvy weakens. So it strengthens the gums, is healing for mouth ulcers, and is a remedy for whitening the teeth; it reinforces connective tissue and blood vessel walls; it supports the immune system and the liver. Its sourness helps stimulate bile and enhances appetite. This last quality makes lemon good for treating anorexia, nausea, and morning and travel sickness.

Lemon & Sage Tea
Good for:
* Coughs
* Colds
* Sore throat
* Bronchitis
Steep in 2 cups boiling water for 15 minutes: 2 teaspoons grated organic lemon rind, 1 teaspoon sage leaf, 1 teaspoon thyme leaf. Strain and add the juice of half a lemon, and honey to taste. Take 2 or 3 times a day, hot or cold.

Thyme's original Greek name meant both "strength" and "cleansing." As an herbal medicine it embodies both qualities, especially in treating the respiratory and digestive systems, accompanied by a sweetness and uplifting aroma that are themselves healing and restorative. Thyme is a small Mediterranean herb with hidden depths. Thyme remains a powerful medicinal presence in western herbalism. Thyme's strength relates to thymol, its main essential oil, which is twenty times stronger than phenol (carbolic), the standard medical antiseptic. Thymol was first isolated in Germany in 1725 and has been in pharmaceutical use ever since. Thyme's rich chemistry includes tannins and phenols that make it bitter medicinally, but it also contains an uplifting sweetness that can be tasted and smelled.

Thyme Cough Syrup
Good for:
* Colds
* Fevers
* Antiseptic
* Sore throat
* Asthma
Mix 2 parts dried thyme, 1 part fennel, 1 part licorice, and  part poppy seed. Bring these to a boil in a pan of water, then cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain off the herbs and continue simmering until the liquid is reduced by at least a half and a syrup has formed. Use for sore throat, deep coughs, or asthma.

Thyme Vinegar
Pick enough fresh thyme to fill a jar (use at least a 1-pound size); crush the herb in a mortar. Put into the jar and cover with wine, cider, or fruit vinegar. Keep closed jar in a sunny spot for at least a month, then strain off the vinegar. The vinegar is good for headaches (rubbed onto temples and swallowed in small amounts), for sore throats, as a general antiseptic, and for cleaning kitchen surfaces.

Corn Silk
It is a strange thing that the most medicinal part of corn is always thrown away before cooking the cob. It may be surprising that cornsilk, the fine threads that are attached to the cob, shown below with the husk leaves, is an "official" diuretic and urinary demulcent in the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia. What this means is that taking a tea made with fresh or dried cornsilk assists the body to produce urine and is soothing to the urinary tract. Conditions such as cystitis, urethritis, and prostatitis, along with edema (water retention) and kidney dysfunction are all benefited by the gentle effects of cornsilk tea. This has been called one of the best natural diuretics, especially as it combines this quality with a soothing action on the kidneys and bladder. It is a front-line remedy, for the first signs of urinary unease, when early action can flush away the infection. It is antiseptic, restorative, and pain-relieving. Oddly for a diuretic, in small doses it can alleviate bedwetting. Other symptoms that can be relieved by cornsilk tea include high blood pressure and fluid retention.

Corn Silk Tea
Good for:
* Cystitis
* Bladder irritation
* Urethritis
* Prostatitis
* Fluid retention
Gather the corn silk-use fresh or dry it for later use by spreading it on brown paper to dry. Use about a tablespoonful of fresh corn silk or a teaspoonful of the chopped, dried corn silk and infuse in a cup of boiling water. Leave to brew for at least 5 minutes. Take either hot or cold, up to 3 times a day. This is very helpful for bladder infections.

Like dill, its cousin, coriander is an ancient herb grown for its green leaf and later its fruit or seeds. Both plants are excellent digestive remedies, but coriander has a further claim: Its leaves have acquired their own name, cilantro. Archaeological records show that coriander was used in the Middle East some 7,000 years ago, and it spread from its ancestral home around the Old World, and thence to North and Central America. Remains of coriander fruit have been found in the tomb of Ramses II, and it was both food and medicine in ancient Egypt, India, and China. Its early domestication is recognized in the choice of "sativum" ("cultivated") in its name.

Whether the fruits are taken as a tea or by chewing, coriander is antispasmodic, meaning it helps settle spasms and cramp in the gut, and associated tension headaches. A juice made from grinding the leaves has an expectorant property, and will help release mucus from the lungs by stimulating the cough reflex. The juice contains plentiful iron and vitamins A, B, and C. Building on this eliminative quality, in Ayurveda, the traditional holistic system of Indian medicine, coriander tea has a role in the safe excretion of heavy metals like lead, arsenic, or mercury. The tea is also used in Ayurveda for treating kidney problems, with the fruit boiled in water as a decoction. The same remedy is applied in India as an eyewash.

Used externally, a damp poultice made from coriander fruit crushed in a pestle and mortar or powdered in your coffee grinder can be applied to rheumatic joints to ease the pain. This worked in ancient Egypt and should be effective for you today. Add a little hot water to the crushed seeds, and you can use cornmeal or flour to thicken the paste. Note, though, that some people may find the oils in coriander irritating on the skin, so if you develop rashes or red blotches, be ready to abandon this treatment. Overall coriander has a reputation as a safe remedy, without counter-indications or drug interactions. It is certainly not the monster of foul smell and bad repute that many people have depicted.

Coriander Tea
Good for:
* Irritable bowel
* Tension headaches
* Kidney problems
Tea made from coriander seed is helpful for irritable bowel, kidney problems, and tension headaches. Coriander seed should have a fresh lemony taste. To extract the most flavor, crush the seed before making the tea. Use 1 tablespoon crushed coriander seed to 2 or 3 cups boiling water. Brew for 5 minutes.

Cilantro and Lemon Lotion
Good for:
* Dry skin
* Freckles
* Chapped hands
Blend the juice of two lemons with an equal amount of olive oil until emulsified and creamy. Add a handful or two of fresh coriander leaves and blend until smooth. Use fresh or store in the fridge for several days until needed. Use as a face, hand, and body lotion, or drizzle on vegetables or pasta-after all, folk wisdom says, "Don't put anything on your skin that you can't eat."

Cumin in your kitchen is often used for making Indian food, and you might suppose it is a spice of Indian origin. Actually native to Egypt, it was once grown widely in Europe as a condiment and used medicinally for digestive problems, coughs and chest conditions, and insomnia. In herbalists' terms, cumin is a carminative, which means it works on the digestive system to relieve gas, bloating, and griping pains as well as to promote digestion generally. It is no accident that our modern kitchen cupboards hold various other spices kept for much the same carminative purpose, such as anise, caraway, fennel, dill, and ginger. Cumin's pungency being of a drying nature, its particular value is in stimulating slow or "damp" digestions all the way through the system, from freshening the breath to easing diarrhea. Cumin has an old reputation in relieving coughs, by relaxing a tight chest and helping move mucus out. For extra stimulation combine with ginger and pepper, as a tea or a flavored water. As with other aromatics, dry-roasting the seeds slightly before use brings out maximum flavor.

Cumin Tea
Good for:
* Gas and flatulence
* Weak digestion
* Coughs
Use about  teaspoonful of cumin seeds per cup of boiling water, and infuse for about 5 minutes. Drink after meals or as needed.

Digestive Tea
Mix together roughly equal amounts of dried cumin seed, coriander seed, fennel seed (or aniseed), fenugreek seed, and twice the amount of peppermint. Use about a teaspoonful of the mixture per cup of boiling water, and infuse, covered, for about 5 minutes. Strain and drink hot or cool.

Vinegar is a weak acid based on bacterial fermentation. As such it readily destroys fungal and yeast infections on the skin, such as athlete's foot and thrush. Spray vinegar in your shoes if you suffer from fungal foot infections. Used externally, it will neutralize the venom of wasp stings, is cooling and soothing for burns and sunburn, and also relieves dandruff. A cold vinegar compress draws heat from swellings, and can be applied to the feet in fevers.

Vinegar Bath
A daily 20-minute bath in hot water (100F) and cider vinegar (add 1 cup to the bath) can cleanse the body of acid residues. Vinegar baths are an additional therapy for fungal skin diseases and for treating vaginitis. Vinegar baths can be safely taken over a 6-week period.

Reprinted with permission from Kitchen Medicine 2011 by Julie Bruton-Seal, published by Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press. Available in stores or visit lyonspress.com

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