Herbs at Home
Help Is Closer Than You Think
by Nicole Henry, ND
There are ways to ease your discomforts and help with your minor health concerns at home; in fact, these are as close as your kitchen.
Plants grow all around us; some with medicinal value we might not be aware of. Beyond health-promoting fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods, local herbs and spices and those easily obtained from the grocery store are ready and waiting for us to call on them for their assistance. If you are adventurous, you may want to grow some of these herbs yourself to have a ready supply.
Historically, both laypeople and conventional medical practitioners used herbs to treat illness and to provide comfort. Many of these same herbs are still available to us today, providing traditional and recently discovered benefits.
I will describe a few herbs that are easy to find and that can be used for common health concerns. If you are pregnant, breast-feeding, or taking any medications, be sure to consult with your health-care practitioner before using any of these herbs and spices for therapeutic effect.
I have grouped the herbs according to systems for which they are often used. The following chart shows that herbs can fall into more than one category, demonstrating the complexity of their effects. The classifications I have made below may be different from those created by other practitioners.
All these herbs and spices can be used in a variety of ways: They can be eaten, drunk as a tea, inhaled, or applied directly to the skin. What is described below is not an exhaustive list of all the ways these herbs can be used, but a brief introduction to a few ways to address some common concerns.
The aromatic herbs in this list have volatile (essential) oils to achieve some of their effects; this is especially true for the herbs that help with digestion. “Volatile” means that these oils dissipate after a while when exposed to air. When preparing these aromatic herbs as a tea, it is best to cover it while steeping to keep the oils in your brew.
Let’s get started.
Anti-Inflammatory, Antispasmodic, Digestive, Calming
Not only can chamomile be useful in calming you when you are feeling stressed or anxious, but it can also help with menstrual (period) cramps as it relaxes smooth muscle. A 2016 Cochrane review found that while the evidence was of low quality, there was some evidence that chamomile may be as or more effective than nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, e.g. Tylenol, ibuprofen, etc.) in reducing period cramps.
A less common way to use chamomile is topically, with some people using it in a steam inhalation to provide anti-inflammatory and soothing effects on the skin.
With chamomile comes the potential for allergic reactions that can happen if you are allergic to plants in the Asteraceae (daisy) family (e.g. ragweed). If you aren’t sure, you can do a patch test (if you will apply chamomile to the skin) or take a small amount of the tea and watch for any allergic reactions (some common allergy symptoms are watery eyes; itchy eyes, nose, and throat; and swelling of the lips).
Tea · Steam Inhalation
In addition to its use as a culinary herb, thyme has antimicrobial properties and can help with cough and phlegm in the lungs during a chest cold. It can be taken as a tea or put into a steam inhalation, the vapours being inhaled into the nose and lungs.
Garden Sage,Salvia officinalis
Antimicrobial, Hot Flashes
Many people pair sage with celery and poultry, but it has effects beyond a poultry seasoning. Traditionally, sage has been used to ease hot flashes in postmenopausal women, and recent research has shown that taking sage tablets can decrease the frequency and intensity of hot flashes in women when taken over several weeks. 
A Word of Caution: Though sage is generally well tolerated, more is not necessarily better when it comes to sage, as it may cause side effects such as seizures in very high doses.  It may be best to consult with a health-care practitioner before using it in high doses.
Diuretic, General Cleanser, Digestive
Eat · Tea
The common name (“dents-de-lion”; “teeth of the lion”) corresponds to the sawtooth shape of dandelion leaves.
Another common name for this herb is “pissenlit,” which alludes to dandelion stimulating water release from the body through urination, potentially causing one to urinate in bed (“en lit”)—the diuretic effect is not so strong that this happens, but it is a good reminder of its effect. This herb is abundant in the spring, and is seen in many fields; first their bright yellow flowers, and later their seed heads fluttering in the wind, reseeding them for the next spring. Traditionally, this herbs is thought to support an overall “cleansing” or removal of waste products from the body through urination and bowel movements. Part of this is via the bitter taste of dandelion, which stimulates bile production and release, promoting bowel movements.
Like chamomile, dandelion is a member of the Asteraceae (daisy) family, so if you have a ragweed allergy, it may be best to avoid this herb or to test it out before taking a larger dose (see Chamomile section).
Since dandelion is so readily available, if you are planning to pick your own, it’s best to do this in a place without a lot of road traffic, to avoid added pollutants from car exhaust on the leaves.
Masala Chai Spices:
Black Pepper,Elettaria cardamomum
Eat · Tea
All these herbs have a warming character, in that when people use them it helps them to feel warmer over time. This can help with digestion. In traditional Asian medicine (TAM), herbs with a warming character are used to “warm the digestion,” which—according to TAM theory—helps the digestive organs do a better job of absorbing nutrients and energy from food. This then fuels the body to function properly. There are other warming herbs, but these are commonly used together in masala chai (or spiced tea traditionally drunk in India).
Of this group, ginger stands out for its usefulness in reducing nausea and as a soothing digestive. Ginger has also been studied for its use in treating migraine headaches and easing menstrual cramps.
Eat · Tea
Both the bulb and seeds of this licoriceflavoured herb can be used. The bulb is eaten and provides nourishment for the microbes in the intestines, where it acts as a prebiotic (it feeds the existing intestinal bacteria, compared to a probiotic, which introduces specific bacteria thought to be beneficial into the intestines). The seeds can be chewed or made into tea to help decrease gas and bloating.
Lemon Balm,Melissa officinalis
Eat · Tea
If there is lemon balm growing in your garden that is not contained, you may soon have it in more than one place. A member of the mint family, it has a tenacious character and can spread itself throughout the garden. This may not be such a bad thing if you need help with gas and bloating or with calming your mind. The leaves can be eaten in salads for a lemon flavour twist, or made into tea, enjoyed hot or iced.
Eat · Tea · Inhalation
Some people really enjoy the aroma and flavour of lavender; others do not. Some people eat lavender in cookies or infuse it into honey. It has a calming effect, and while the essential oil is often used for inhalation, more recently capsules of the diluted essential oil to be taken orally have been studied for their antianxiety effects. Lavender can help with digestion, and many people use it to help them sleep, either by diffusing the essential oil into the air, putting a few drops on a cotton ball and placing it inside their pillow case, or putting lavender flowers in a sachet and placing that in the pillowcase to inhale the aroma as they drift off to sleep.
Eat · Syrup
Just about everyone can identify the smell of garlic when it is around. This is a pungent herb, and is quite heating to the body, especially when eaten raw. Raw garlic has a stronger antimicrobial effect than the cooked form, and can be useful for an acute cold—it can be infused into honey, or taken on its own or with other foods to decrease its warming effect on the stomach.
Eat · Syrup
In addition to using it to add flavour to foods, onion can be used as a cough medicine when infused into honey. When eaten, onion also acts as a prebiotic, similar to fennel.
Eat · Tea
Who hasn’t heard of turmeric by now? This golden spice is popping up in coffee shops (“golden milk latte”) and as a shot in juice bars. Turmeric is traditionally used in South Asian cooking, giving a yellow hue to curries and other foods it is mixed with. Is it worth the hype? Maybe. Its anti-inflammatory effects are thought to reduce pain in some conditions, and more recently it has been studied for its effects on depressive symptoms. If you have gallstones, turmeric is not recommended, though you can check with your health-care practitioner to see if this is a suitable herb for you.
Eat · Tea
People know cayenne when they eat it. The spicy, heating flavour is bold, and most people can feel its effects right away. The tongue and throat may experience a tingling or burning sensation, and some also feel a warming sensation in their bellies; some people may sweat. This shows the circulatory stimulant effects of cayenne. It can be useful in the common cold, increasing circulation and metabolism in the body to fight infection, and if the person has a fever, any sweating brought on by the cayenne may help them to cool off.
When using cayenne, less is definitely more. Use a much smaller amount than you think you can handle when you first use it to decrease your chances of overdoing it.
The natural world has provided us with plants in our environment that have been used to help ease our discomfort, both in the past and present day. Herbs are versatile, with the same herb affecting more than one body system. Many of these herbs to help with common conditions are readily available, either at home in your kitchen, in a grocery store close by, and maybe outside in your garden.