Monday, July 6, 2009

Herbally Yours

I first heard about herbal infusions and nettles in a class at Bastyr University called Therapeutic Whole Foods, taught by Jennifer Adler. During class, she drank regularly from a large Mason jar filled with a deep green liquid. After explaining to us that what she was drinking was an infusion of stinging nettles, she said something like, “Since I’m drinking water all day long I figure I might as well make it count.”

Wild plants are generally significantly higher in nutrients than domesticated plants. Nettles (Urtica dioica) in particular are high in iron, calcium, and magnesium, as well as a number of trace minerals and vitamins. They’re also about 10% protein, according to Susun Weed, an expert in herbal medicines. I’ve used freeze-dried nettles in capsules to successfully stop allergy attacks and to still my restless legs, so I knew they were potent and was intrigued by what they could do in an infusion.

In another class, we learned that nettles are one of the whole foods sources of compounds that have anti-inflammatory properties. Turmeric is another. I promise to talk about inflammation in another post, but for now just know that nettles are anti-inflammatory – a beneficial thing for most Americans, who generally eat highly inflammatory diets and suffer from a number of diseases that have been linked to excessive inflammation in the body.

A few weeks after that first class, Jennifer had us taste an infusion of oatstraw (Avena sativa) and then talk about any effects we felt. Most people said they felt a calming effect almost instantly.

I started off my fall quarter that year with a daily regimen of 2-3 cups of an infusion made with both nettles and oatstraw, as well as an additional herb for flavor, such as lemon verbena or lemon balm. These other herbs have properties of their own, of course, but an expert herbalist reassured me that they were safe to use together in my infusions.

Jennifer’s recommendation to the class was to start with an infusion made with only one herb, known as a “simple,” in order to get a sense of the effect of that particular herb before trying another one. Though I didn’t follow that recommendation, I think it’s valid and worth doing.

Recently, I’ve been using rooibos to flavor my infusions and it's my favorite combination so far. Rooibos is an ancient herb that's become trendy in the U.S. as a substitute for coffee or black tea. It contains some antioxidants and has been used medicinally in South Africa for hay fever, asthma, eczema and heartburn. I find that the rooibos adds a slight anise flavor to the infusion and lends its red color to the liquid (as pictured below).

Now, before I tell you about the effects this preparation had on me, I want to emphasize that these effects are not necessarily reproducible. There are lots of factors in how we each react to different nutrients and plant compounds, including when and where the plant was grown and our body’s individual ability to metabolize these compounds.

I also need to voice the important disclaimer that I am NOT an expert in medicinal herbs. Before you make your own infusions, please find a reputable source of information on herbalism. Most vendors for medicinal herbs have a trained herbalist on staff who can answer your questions.

As for my personal experience with these infusions, it was very positive. Having experienced a summer-long bout of insomnia, I was excited to find within two or three days that I was again sleeping through the night. This effect has continued, along with a general increase in energy and a very welcome decrease in stress. However, I've found that if I drink the tea past early afternoon, I don’t sleep as well.

Nine months later, I’m noticing longer-term effects. Though my allergies haven't disappeared, this is the first spring in six years in which my eyes were not constantly itchy, hot and overly sensitive to light. There had been times over these past few years when I had to wear sunglasses indoors at night to function! An end to that discomfort is a very welcome thing. My ND agreed that this improvement in my allergies is likely due to the anti-inflammatory and antihistamine properties of nettles.

How to make a cold herbal infusion:

Nettles, oatstraw, and lots of other herbs and medicinal plants are available through companies like Dandelion Botanical in Seattle. Find a source close to you geographically to keep shipping and environmental costs low and to ensure that at least some of the herbs come from your more immediate environment. And speaking of cost, these herbs are generally inexpensive, about $1 to $2 an ounce. Four ounces of each will get me through a few weeks of nourishing infusions.

I do a cold infusion, meaning that I steep the herbs overnight in cold water rather than pouring boiling water over them and allowing them to sit, which is the usual method. I learned last summer from a reputable source (at the time, she was the chair of the Department of Botanical Medicine at Bastyr – here she is talking about the science behind some folk remedies) that a cold infusion has two advantages over a hot one. First, fewer of the tannins in the plant are released. Tannins are the compounds that lend bitterness to plants and make your mouth pucker. Second, more of the minerals are released from the plant with a cold infusion.

Added 8/16/09: Since writing this post, I've learned from a friend who is in the process of taking a course in herbal medicine-making at Bastyr that the tannins that are released with a hot infusion bind the minerals that are released, making them less available to us when we drink the infusion. So while the cold infusion does not necessarily release more minerals, fewer are available for absorption.

To make the infusion, I put about a quarter cup each of the dried nettles and oatstraw into a wide-mouth glass jar, with a little less than a quarter cup of whatever herb I’m using for flavor (or about one tablespoon of rooibos). Then I pour cold water over the herbs, put the lid on the jar, shake it gently to make sure all the herbs get wet, and let it sit overnight for about 8 hours.

The next morning I strain it through a fine-mesh strainer, put the strained tea back into the jar and drink it throughout the morning. You can also double or triple the recipe and keep it in the fridge for 3-5 days.

Making an herbal infusion is an easy and cost-effective way to add flavor and nutrients to your drinking water. Here are a few resources for initiating your own study of the wonderful healing properties of herbs:

Susun Weed Warning: Susun Weed is quite eccentric. She is also a renowned expert on herbalism and provides good advice about using herbs.

Rosemary Gladstar: Another renowned herbalist with a number of books on herbs and their uses.


  1. It helped your insomnia? Hmm... I need to get back to my infusions then-- i have had serious insomnia since before finals. I don't understand why a cold infusion would release more minerals though-- the hot water would break down the herbs... ?

  2. I think this is only true with dried herbs. Fresh herbs would definitely need hot water. I think the rehydration of the dried herbs would be slower with cold water than hot, and that might break open more of the cell wall, thereby releasing more of the minerals. That's just my guess, and I'll try to get a confirmation from Sheila.