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Gesundheit! (thank you)

We are sick.  Nothing dramatic, just the Common Painintheass Cold.  The whole household. My husband and I have it the worst.  And he’s horribly busy at work, and I’m entering the toughest week of the year with the longest hours, so “sick days” aren’t really an option. (Besides, we have kids. No sick days for parents.)

No one has time to cook, no one wants to cook.  Or shop.  And we’re both fairly alt-med and aren’t big on most of the over-the-counter meds, since they don’t seem to work anyway. So we are going into our default mode:

Traditional Medicinal Teas: Throat Coat and Cold Care PM.  The Traditional Medicinal line of teas is awesome, and we have about seven different boxes in our drawers–but these are the two we come back to again and again.  The Throat Coat has licorice, slippery elm, marsh-mallow, wild cherry, and fennel–with some cinnamon and orange peel for flavor.  I actually really like it, and it’s the absolute best ever for healing a trashed voice.  (I had to sing a church service this morning, and between the Throat Coat and Dr. Thayers Slippery Elm Lozenges, I did not disgrace myself.)  The Cold Care has elder, linden, chamomile, yarrow, eucalyptus, and more licorice, with a few other things–good for relaxing, decongesting a bit, building up the immune system, and such.  When both of us are sick, it’s easy–we just brew a pot at a time, sometimes with two tea bags of each of the two teas, and just slurp them down. (Key is brewing them as instructed–15-20 minutes, and keep the tea covered while it’s brewing!)

I’m also a fan of liquid echinacea, a few drops in some juice or water several times a day.  I’ve taken to making my own tinctures, and have an “immune booster” tincture of echinacea root, lemon balm, yarrow, lavender, chamomile, and a few other goodies…but you can easily buy it or something like it at Whole Foods or other natural stores.

At night we spray our pillows with a eucalyptus essential oil spray.  I used to actually use a diffuser more often, to keep the essential oils in the air–they are actually one of the best “room sanitizers” you’re ever going to find, if you put the right blend of oils in there. Nature’s Gift has some really good anti-germ blends that are great diffused through the house or office.  I haven’t been doing it lately for the deep philosophical reason that I never found the box with my diffuser in it after we moved a year and a half ago.  Coincidentally, I’ve been sick a lot during that year and a half. Hmm. But the eucalyptus is good for clearing our sinuses out a good bit a night and helps us sleep.

We are also huge hot soup fans, even if the kids won’t eat it.  So tomorrow, since no one will feel like cooking, it’ll be crockpot mushroom and barley soup:

  • Chop up an onion and some celery and a few carrots and throw them into the crockpot
  • Quarter a few small golden potatoes, toss ’em in too.
  • Chop up half a pound of mushrooms, any kind
  • Add a cup or so of barley
  • Over it all pour 6 cups mushroom broth, or a little more, or a little less, whatever
  • Cook on low all day, maybe 8 hours.  Season if needed with garlic, tarragon, salt, pepper…
  • 20 minutes before serving, if desired, toss in some chopped frozen spinach

Hard to beat this.  And it’s one of many soup possible variations–the crockpot was invented for soup, as far as I’m concerned.  And we’ll eat this stuff for days–you can add new things to the leftovers, add more broth, add more veggies, and it’s like The Soup That Never Dies. (As long as there’s no meat in it, it keeps quite well for several days.)

The best cure for the common cold  is prevention, of course, and the best prevention I’ve ever found is staying rested and avoiding stress, something I’ve failed at miserably these past couple of weeks.   But with any luck, some good rest now can help kick it quickly enough that I can get through my next week…


Make your own lotions and creams, part DEUX

Over on The Green Phone Booth today I posted about how to make one’s own face/body creams and lotions.  (That’s Part UN) It’s honestly much easier and involves many fewer ingredients than I ever would have thought, and it works better for my skin too–no space age magical potions, just simple natural stuff, and my skin has never looked or felt better.  Click on over there for the basic recipe…what’s below won’t make a whole lot of sense until you do.

I thought maybe over here, at the same time, I could post some of my recipes for more specific “formulas” for specifically targeted body parts.  The basic recipe will still be the same; what changes will be the base oil (since some oils are more absorbent and some are heavier) and/or the essential oils you use to give it fragrance.

If you’re not interested in going the whole lotion route, these recipes could also be made by just adding the essential oils to an oil base and rubbing a little bit on moist skin; for the non-facial blends, you could also mix a little oil-and-fragrance-blend with epsom salts or coarse sea salt, or brown or raw sugar, and make a nice salt or sugar scrub for before a shower…

I use lavender oil as a sort of basic fragrance oil for almost everything; it’s a great blendable scent which easily takes on the fragrances and healing qualities of other oils it’s blended with. Plus it’s fairly inexpensive.  Also, remember that the proportions below are just my own preferences, what’s worked for me–feel free to mess around! Note: many aromatherapists caution against using any citrus oils on the skin at all, because they can cause allergies and sensitization.  Sweet orange oil is considered one of the most benign of the citrus oils, and I have never had any problems with it.  But just so you know!

For lotion–Facial blend: grapeseed, apricot kernel, or sweet almond oil (or any combination) as liquid oil, beeswax with maybe a little cocoa or shea butter as solid oil, with one of the following combinations:

  • 15-20 drops lavender oil
  • 12 drops lavender oil, 5 drops chamomile oil
  • 10 drops, lavender oil, 5 drops chamomile oil, 2 drops sweet orange oil
  • 15 drops lavender oil, 3 drops sweet orange oil
  • Note: may substitute up to 1 oz. jojoba oil for some of the liquid oils. Jojoba is more expensive but is wonderful for use on the face and absorbs rapidly.

Facial blend for mature skin: Grapeseed, apricot kernel, and/or almond oil as liquid oils, and a 3:1 ratio of beeswax to shea butter for solid oil, with:

  • 15 drops lavender oil, 5 drops rose geranium oil, 2 drops sweet orange oil (opt)
  • Note: may substitute up to 1 oz. jojoba oil for some of the liquid oils. Jojoba is more expensive but is wonderful for use on the face and absorbs rapidly. Great for mature skin!

Facial blend (oily skin):  Grapeseed, apricot kernel, and/or almond oil as liquid oil and only beeswax as solid oil, with:

  • 15 drops lavender oil, 5 drops rosemary oil
  • Note: may substitute up to 1 oz. jojoba oil for some of the liquid oils. Jojoba is more expensive but is wonderful for use on the face and absorbs rapidly.

Tired Foot Blend: 1/2 cup olive oil and 1/4 cup grapeseed oil as liquid oil and half and half mix of beeswax and cocoa butter (or heavier on the cocoa butter if you’d like!) as solid oils, with one of the below: (these make great sugar/salt scrubs! Once the salts and oils are mixed they don’t keep very long, though, so mix just before using)

  • 10 drops peppermint oil, 5 drops tea tree oil, 5 drops sweet orange oil (opt)
  • 8 drops peppermint oil, 6 drops rosemary oil, 5 drops tea tree oil
  • 10 drops lavender oil, 5 drops peppermint oil, 4 drops rosemary oil
  • Note: If you’re making lotion instead of scrub or salve, go heavier on the cocoa butter and lighter on the beeswax

General Body Cream–Women’s blend (believe it or not, this is a great PMS combo for me and does wonders to lift my spirits):

  • 15 drops lavender oil, 10 drops clary sage oil, 5 drops lemon oil (or substitute sweet orange–again, take care with the citrus oils!)
  • Choose carrier oil type based on your own skin type; olive oil for drier and more mature skin and lighter oils for oilier skin or more humid climates. Cocoa and shea butter are better for mature skin but avoid them for oily skin

Salve for tired muscles:

  • eliminate the whole water/blender/lotion thing here–just melt 3/4 cup of a combination of olive and grapeseed (or almond or apricot) oils with 1/4 cup beeswax/cocoa butter mixture, add essential oils, and let cool. (Well, you could make a lotion if you wanted to, but this is more specifically medicinal…
  • Essential oil blend: 15 drops lavender oil, 10 drops chamomile oil, 10 drops ginger oil, 5 drops helichrysum italicum oil (opt–great stuff, but very expensive). A little eucalyptus is nice for this too.

Important: feel free to play around with your carrier oils till you find the combination that suits you–but be careful not to introduce any other organic material to your lotions, or they will grow mold within the week.  No matter how many places you read that cucumber or strawberries are great for the skin, mixing them into your lotions will result in an incredibly short shelf life! Same goes with herb-infused carrier oils: essential oils are fine, but oil that’s had fresh rosemary macerating in it for two months and is then strained will make a lotion that might smell lovely for a week but which won’t last much beyond that.

Other Recipes:

I actually got into this whole aromatherapy/cosmetic-making thing from learning to make some of my own baby products–diaper ointments, baby oils, and such. If you have a friend with a new baby, these could be a nice gift:

Butt Goo (Yes, that’s what we always called it in our house. We used it for everything, though–diapers, first aid, rashes, whatever.)

  • In double boiler (or pyrex in pan of simmering water) melt 1/4 cup beeswax in 1/2 cup olive oil and 1/2 cup grapeseed oil.
  • Test hardness by dripping a little bit onto something from the freezer–if it hardens immediately into a consistency you’re happy with, you’re done.  If it needs a little more beeswax or a little more oil, do that and try again.  Remember if you’re not happy with the finished product you can always re-melt it (salves only–re-melting doesn’t work as well for lotions!)–but the essential oils can’t take too much heat, so try to avoid this if possible.
  • Into melted oil/wax, add essential oils of lavender and chamomile (Roman or English) in a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio. Newborn infants should only have 2-3 drops of essential oil per ounce of carrier (i.e., if you follow this recipe and have 10 oz. total liquid oils, you’ll want maybe 15 drops of lavender and 5 of chamomile.) Older children can increase this a little.  By the time a baby is maybe 6 months old, I’d increase the essential oils in the blend slightly, and also probably add a few drops of tea tree oil; this is a great antifungal.
  • Stir well; pour into containers and let cool. Label. (Always label!!!)

Baby Oil: This is the easiest of all! Follow the above instructions, but leave out all the heating and melting and wax–just add your essential oils to your carrier oil and mix well.  I like sweet almond oil as a base for babies, but grapeseed or apricot work really well too.  A little of this as a massage oil after a baby’s bath is lovely.  (Mom can use it too!)

So…I hope this gives folks some ideas!  Buying essential oils can get expensive if you try to build up your stock too quickly; a small bottle each of lavender, orange, and chamomile oil will get you a long way, and if this turns into something you enjoy you can always build up your collection over time.  I’ve been doing this for about 5 years and I’m only on my third bottle of lavender oil, which is by far the one I use more than anything else; remember that you use this stuff by the drop.  For me it’s been a worthwhile investment on a really great adventure–if you try any of this, drop me a comment and let me know how it goes!

Feel the Burn! (Fire Cider and Thieves’ Vinegar recipes)

Apple cider vinegar is one of those universally magical substances that’s supposed to cure practically anything, depending on what and where you read.  I personally have never had much affinity for it–I use the white stuff for cleaning, and the balsamic stuff for food, but cider vinegar has never been one of my staples. 

So it was intriguing when, in this season of Awful Flu-ness, I again came across the Legend of the Four Thieves.  It goes something like this: during the Black Plague, these four brothers made their living going into the houses of dead plague victims and relieving them of the belongings they now, being dead, would no longer need. And somehow they never got the plague themselves.  When they were finally captured, the authorities gave them their freedom in exchange for the secret to how they had managed to stay alive all that time.

The secret, apparently, was this herbal vinegar–lots of well-known antibacterial and antiviral herbs steeped in cider vinegar (or in their case, probably whatever fruit vinegar they had access to), drained, and a teaspoon or so taken every few hours.  There are lots of recipes floating around the internet, but the basic bare bones seem to be something like this:

Thieves Vinegar

Fill a quart jar lightly with  more or less equal parts of the following freh or dried herbs: lavendar, sage, rosemary, and thyme.  Some recipes add garlic, others say lemon balm or mint, but the ones purporting to be “original” only have those first basic four. (I’m assuming one would chop the herbs.) Pour cider vinegar over it all and let it steep in a fairly cool out-of-the-sun place for about six weeks, shaking every day or so.  Strain out the solids, retain the liquid, and take by the teaspoonful, or put over salad, or what-have-you.

So that’s Thieves Vinegar.  I haven’t tried making that one yet–maybe a mistake in this particular year, as my own flu is backing off and my husband and daughter are starting to sniffle…

On the other hand, the one I have made a few times and thoroughly enjoyed is FIRE CIDER!

This is another really old brew using apple cider vinegar, but to me it seems to have a little more oomph.  Like Thieves Vinegar, it’s something to take a spoonful or so of several times a day during cold and flu seasons, just to build up the immunity a little more.  And I may be crazy, but I find it absolutely delicious.

FIRE CIDER RECIPESupposed to cure practically everything. (Including, perhaps, the annoying flame of life, but whatever…)

  • 1 quart apple cider vinegar 
  • 1/4 cup grated fresh horseradish (I’ve used the stuff from a jar when I couldn’t find the fresh stuff) 
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 ginger root, chopped
  • 1 head garlic  peeled & chopped
  • cayenne pepper (not sure how much of this to use!–maybe half a teaspoonful or so? Depends on your tolerance.)
  • 1 cup honey, to taste

Place herbs in a glass jar. Pour in enough vinegar to cover herbs by 1 to 2 inches. Seal jar tightly and let sit for 4-6 weeks.

Strain out and discard herbs and sweeten the infused cider vinegar with honey to taste. (you might need to warm the mixture gently in a saucepan to dissolve the honey…or not, it’ll eventually dissolve in the jar.)

I made this last winter and took a little slug in some apple or other juice often, as well as using it on salads and such, a few times a day.  It’s very strongly flavored, but it’s also in its own way sort of fabulous.

Because of Throat Coat tea, I can sing its praises

Okay, I’m not usually a “product placement” kind of person, but this one product is so amazing and has saved my professional life so many times, I have to mention it.

I’m a musician–conductor, singer, teacher, mostly. (Also organist/pianist, composer, but those things aren’t voice-affected.)  I am also depressingly prone to vocal-and-respiratory bugs, which get in there and just sit for weeks.  And tend to come at very inconvenient times. (I wonder on some level if it’s performance anxiety manifesting psychosomatically, warning me that I really don’t want to make a career out of singing, even if I have a pretty adequate instrument to work with. On some level I think I’m conflicted about whether I want to or should sing more…but that’s beside the point.) 

So while normally I like to make my own funky medicinal concoctions, I happened upon the Traditional Medicinals line of teas some years ago, particularly the one called “Throat Coat,” and it has been my salvation on numerous occasions.

Traditional Medicinals teas are available at most natural food stores (Whole Foods, etc.) and I’ve even seen them in some conventional grocery stores.  They have a whole line of products, very clearly stating on the box what conditions each blend is intended for.  I took the “More Milk” tea while I was nursing, the “Pregnancy” one (I forget the name) when I was pregnant, and I take “Herba-Tussin” and “Cold Care P.M.” regularly when I have colds and flu.  There are a couple of good ginger-based ones, too, for upset tummy.  Like most herbal treatments, they are not intended to be a magic bullet or to immediately clear all symptoms; rather, they strengthen and tone the system so that the body can heal itself in particular ways. 

Throat Coat, on the other hand…okay, it’s probably not intended to be a magic bullet, but it’s served me as such.  A lot. 

The active ingredients are as follows:
Licorice root
Slippery elm bark
Licorice extract
Marshmallow root
Wild cherry bark
Bitter fennel fruit
Cinnamon bark
Orange peel

I think the last two are mostly just for taste, and I don’t honestly know what bitter fennel does, but the first five ingredients are a powerhouse of soothingness for mucous membranes.  Licorice, Slippery Elm, and Marshmallow are for example well known mucilagenous herbs, which sort of put a very light coating of, well, goo I suppose (but it doesn’t feel goopy or mucousy at all, as opposed to not using these herbs in which case you either have raw tissues or actual mucous or both) which protects and sooths the inflamed tissues and sort of helps the whole vocal mechanism function under really adverse conditions.  Wild cherry bark is usually used more as a cough supressant, but it also does it in a soothing and gentling kind of way.

I have gone from effectively mute to functional over the course of a few hours with this tea more times than I can count.  (I mean, it’s not like I would go sing Azucena or anything, not that anyone has ever wanted me to, but I’ve been able to manage choral concerts and recording sessions.)  

If you hate licorice with an ungodly passion, you probably won’t be able to deal with it.  It has a very delicate licorice flavor which I happen to really like, not overpowering at all.  And licorice is one of the naturally sweet herbs, so it doesn’t have the bitterness of some herbal teas.

A note about brewing herbal teas: To get good medicinal use out of them, you must let them brew for the recommended 15-20 minutes, and you must cover them while brewing or all the good stuff will evaporate out of them.  Plus they’ll taste yooky if you don’t.

Enjoy!! (well, okay, if you have laryngitis you’re probably not having too much fun, but you know what I mean.)

Stomach flu is the pits

I have the flu. This time it’s my stomach, and my equilibrium–dizzy spells every so often, for no apparent reason.

So it seems like a good day to share my favorite natural tummy remedy.

**note: only very rarely do I take any essential oils internally. They are extremely concentrated and can be harmful or sometimes fatal in too-large doses; most should never be taken internally at all.  Do your homework. And keep out of reach of your kids. **

Yucky Tummy Potion
Heat up a mug of water in the microwave

While it’s heating, drizzle a little honey onto a spoon.

Onto the honey drop one drop each ginger essential oil and sweet fennel essential oil. (ONE drop each. Two max.)

Drizzle more honey over that. (This helps the eo dissolve a little; it is still very volatile and most will just escape into the air.

Stir mug of hot water with the honeyed spoon.

At this point you should have a lovely fragrant steaming beverage; inhaling the fumes is honestly about as helpful as actually drinking it, IMO, but it tastes lovely anyway.

And now I’m going to go make some more.

Aromatherapy, herbs, flower essence, and my PPD

(Okay, standard warnings–I’m not a doctor, and anyone who takes anything I say as actual medical advice is sort of ill-advised. Do your own research and talk with your own health care providers. I’m a musician, not a doctor. But I read a lot.)

After my daughter was born, a little delayed, actually, I got slammed witha  case of post-partum depression. (Had it after my son was born too, but at the time I really didn’t know what I was dealing with–I thought I was just a bad mother who couldn’t cope.) Suicidal thoughts, self-damage, bursting into hours of tears at the slightest thing, retreating into my room in fetal position for hours at a time (or until a child needed me). It lasted several months before beginning to back off.

My midwife, who couldn’t prescribe anything for me, recognized the signs during my pregnancy that it would likely hit me later, and urged me then and throughout to get help, but my doctor (the one who could actually write prescriptions) thought I just needed to relax and “do less” and “not be so hard on myself. This is the same doctor who said, based on nothing more than a family history, that another family member would probably be on SSRI’s for the rest of his life.  The family member stopped on his own almost 4 years ago and has been doing really well. That’s a story for another time–the short version is simply this: don’t try this at home, get your doctor’s help. Unless your doctor is an idiot like ours was, in which case I don’t know what to tell you. (By the way, this man is no longer our doctor.)

So here I was with a crazywild case of PPD working me over and nothing to treat it with. Honestly, I don’t know if I would have gone for the SSRI’s even if I had the option; I’d seen and done research on what can happen when one later tries to get off them (or some of them), and it would have been a scary step for me to take.  (Note: I know a whole bunch of people who swear by their meds, whose lives have quite literally been saved by them. Please don’t take my hesitation to go there as in any way a slight on those for whom they make the difference between life and death, or between non-life and life, shadow and sun, etc.)

So I started doing research into alternative methods. In the end, I used three main things:

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Dandelion Wine

Okay, one of these years I’m going to try this:
(taken from )

Dandelion Wine Recipe

Dandelion wine is an actual drink that is made from the blossoms of the humble dandelion. Below is a recipe from an old cookbook that dates from the early 1900’s. (Be certain that there are no pesticides or herbicides on the plants, such as weedkiller!)

“Four good quarts of dandelion blossoms, four pounds of sugar, six oranges, five lemons. Wash dandelion blossoms and place them in an earthenware crock. Pour five quarts of boiling water over them and let stand 36 hours. Then strain through a muslin bag, squeezing out all moisture from dandelions. Put the strained juice in a deep stone crock or jug and add to it the grated rind and juice of the six oranges and five lemons. Tie a piece of cheese-cloth over the top of jug and stand it in a warm kitchen about one week, until it begins to ferment. Then stand away from stove in an outer kitchen or cooler place, not in the cellar, for three months. At the end of three months put in bottles. This is a clear, amber, almost colorless liquid. A pleasant drink of medicinal value. Aunt Sarah always used this recipe for making dandelion wine, but Mary preferred a recipe in which yeast was used, as the wine could be used a short time after making.”

For dandelion wine made with yeast: “Four quarts of dandelion blossoms. Pour over them four quarts of boiling water; let stand 24 hours, strain and add grated rind and juice of two oranges and two lemons, four pounds of granulated sugar and two tablespoonfuls of home-made yeast. Let stand one week, then strain and fill bottles.” Source: “Mary at the Farm and Book of Recipes Compiled During Her Visit Among the “Pennsylvania Germans,” by Edith M. Thomas, 1915.

Disclaimer: if you make dandelion wine using either of these recipes, you do so at your own risk.

This just looks sort of…cool.  But no time this year.