Most of us know a few tricks when it comes to administering food as medicine. We know that ginger soothes a queasy stomach, that horseradish is good for blowing the doors off blocked sinuses and that a cup of chamomile tea before bed is calming. If you’re like me, that’s where the tricks stop and the harrowing trips to Walgreens begin.
But did you know that just around the corner from your sick bed there’s a trove of remedies? Not in your medicine cabinet but in your spice rack.
Kitchen herbalism is a rich body of folk knowledge that dominant culture has often relegated to old wivey superstition or new agey foolishness. The truth is a good chunk (the UN Food and Agriculture Organization says 25 percent) of the pharmaceuticals we now employ are derived from plants. Aspirin, for example, metabolizes into salicylic acid—a substance occurring naturally in meadowsweet and willow bark and used for centuries to treat aches and pains.
And lo, we inhabit New Mexico, a land rich in alternative subculture, curandero heritage and open minds. When I set out to learn a little something about self-medicating, it wasn’t difficult to find a local expert. Dara Saville is the founder of Albuquerque Herbalism School. She also partners with Albuquerque Old School, a local initiative to revive lost domestic arts. She has spent years studying under renowned herbalists like Dr. Tieraona Low Dog, and offers a class at Old School titled “Kitchen Herbs as Plant Medicine.”
Here are some specific health scenarios you or a loved one might encounter and a few of Dara’s suggested remedies from your spice rack.
• Indigestion / bloating: Your entire family, baby included, went a little hog wild at a Chinese buffet. You suspect you may have eaten some tainted clams. You may have stupidly fed some to your baby! What do you do? Go home. Spoon up some fennel seeds, and steep them in hot water for a vibrant licorice-like tea that soothes digestive distress. Note to parents: Cooled and strained fennel tea is perfectly safe to slip into your colicky baby’s bottle. Second note to parents: The Chinese buffet thing was a dramatization. I know you wouldn’t feed clams to your baby. Note to everyone: If you don’t have fennel, substitute dill seeds.
• Arthritic Pain / Sore Muscles / Bug Bites: You and two other desperadoes are running from the law. One of you is quite elderly. One of you has been sleeping (poorly) in boxcars and one of you has been eaten alive by skeeters. What do you do? Put on your best disguise and head to the nearest general store for some cayenne pepper. Cayenne, mixed with a little oil or water, can be applied topically to arthritic trouble spots, sore muscles and bug bites for quick relief. According to studies, capsaicin in cayenne blocks what is known as substance P, a neuropeptide that acts in the process of transmitting pain. Cayenne is probably the most badass thing in your cupboard.
• Cold / Cough: You caught a virus and can’t stop coughing. What do you do? Infuse some honey with dried sage for an exquisitely fragrant and sweet ready-made remedy. Sage possesses antiseptic and drying qualities, and honey cuts mucus and coats the ol’ throat pipe. As cold season approaches, place dried whole sage leaves in a clean glass jar and cover with honey before replacing the lid. Let the jar sit for a couple of weeks, then warm slightly and strain. Sooo good.
• Massive Headache: You’ve been crying for Argentina for the last hour. Your head seems to have split in two, and there’s a buzz saw still working in there. What do you do? Reach for some rosemary, a favorite of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and prepare as a tea. Rosemary contains carvacrol, a substance shown in a 2012 study at the Federal University of Piaui, Brazil to counter inflammation. Along with treating headaches, rosemary also cuts mucus, calms indigestion and cools fevers.
• Weak Immunity: You want to be indestructible and don’t mind smelling like an Italian granny. What do you do? Pop a raw garlic clove every day. Saville says garlic kicks all manner of viral, bacterial, parasitic and fungal ass. It helps create an internal ecosystem that’s very inhospitable to invaders—from influenza to colds, Giardia to athlete’s foot. Science backs her up: A 2001 study in the U.K. showed that people taking a garlic supplement were less susceptible to the common cold and recovered more quickly from the symptoms when they did get it. For even greater superpowers, chase your garlic with some raw ginger.
These suggestions are, of course, a mere brush with the potential of your spice rack. There is magic to be found in cinnamon, thyme, turmeric and a dozen more kitchen herbs. When we cultivate a deeper knowledge of these household plants, we’re empowering ourselves, saving money and safeguarding a hard-earned body of knowledge. It’s also nice to have more curative tricks up your sleeve than just a glass of ginger ale.