You asked, and our expert answered!

You sent us your questions about herbal medicine and we sent them on to herbalist and Body into Balance author Maria Noël Groves. She selected a few to answer and we’re excited to share her insights on topics from tick bite prevention to getting to the root of psoriasis. Even if these questions and answers don’t apply specifically to you, they may be helpful to someone you know. So read, enjoy, share, and help spread good health!

MariaNoelGrovesQ&A

A reader asks:

Because of the mild winter here in Maine, ticks are going to be more of a problem than usual. What is your favorite recipe for tick repellent?

Some of my favorite tick repellents include lavender and rose geranium essential oils, as well as tincture made from yarrow aerial parts. You can make a topical spray from a mixture of the three (follow this basic formula: 10 percent essential oils [5 percent lavender plus 5 percent rose geranium] to 90 percent yarrow tincture). You’ll need to reapply often, though — natural repellents have a very short lifespan.

No repellent is 100 percent effective, but you can help limit your exposure by wearing light-colored clothing and tucking pants into socks. Being in good health and having a strong immune system may help your body fight off an infection if you are bitten, though medical attention may still be necessary. The sooner you remove a tick, the better your chances of avoiding infection, so I also recommend tick checks during and after outdoor activity and at least one full-body check per day. A nice summary of tips for what to do if you get bitten by a tick can be found on my friend and colleague Dr. Cora Rivard’s blog.

A reader asks:

I would like to know what herbs I can use to clean a child’s colon and help keep them regular.

While there are herbal laxatives out there, giving laxatives without addressing the root cause — even when the laxatives are natural — is not a holistic approach. Assuming you and your child’s doctor have ruled out any more serious underlying conditions, here are a few things you could consider:

Hydration: Does your child get adequate moisture in his or her diet? Make sure he or she is drinking enough fluids throughout the day — ideally water, though broth, or water with a splash of juice or light herbal tea may also help.

Fiber: Is your child eating enough whole foods that are rich in fiber? “White” and processed foods are inherently constipating. You can add a fiber supplement like ground psyllium, but it’s even better to get fiber from whole foods like beans, vegetables, fruit, and some whole grains. You may need to add fiber to the diet gradually, to give the body a chance to learn what to do with it. Hydration is important with fiber, especially if your child is taking a fiber supplement.

Lifestyle: Being in a stressed state and not obeying the urge to go will dampen the body’s natural peristalsis response. Reducing stress and listening to the body, as well as taking bitter-yet-relaxing herbs like chamomile, lemon balm, or catnip tea can help. Also, specific food sensitivities or allergies can aggravate the situation, so check to make sure they’re not a contributing factor.

You could also try:

Probiotics: Beneficial bacteria help to regulate colon health and can ease both constipation and diarrhea. Your child can take a children’s probiotic supplement and/or you can add fermented foods, like kimchi and live sauerkraut, to his or her diet. (Yogurt may not provide a sufficient dose of probiotics, and often kids with GI issues don’t tolerate dairy well.) Eating a high-fiber diet will give the good bacteria some of its favorite food.

Gentle Laxatives: One of the best kid-safe gentle laxatives that can help change patterns is prunes. Prune juice, figs, and a lot of blueberries or grapes can also be helpful. These are just a few ideas. The chapter on digestion in my book has more information.

A reader asks:

Psoriasis runs in my family, but over the years I’ve heard it’s everything from an autoimmune response to a symptom of leaky gut syndrome and/or caused by poor liver functionality. Doctors have prescribed me topical creams, immunosuppressive pills, and steroid injections. The best was a tar-based ointment applied before bed and then wrapped in plastic wrap overnight! My current doctor — who is great and seems more open-minded than most — has me using Neem oil. It soothes the symptoms but I’d really like to get to the root of the problem. Any ideas?

Psoriasis is quite common but not well understood. It’s generally considered an autoimmune disease, which can be aggravated or caused by underlying problems like leaky gut, poor liver clearance of everyday toxins and metabolic waste, stress, etc.

I don’t have any surefire protocols to eliminate psoriasis because it’s really based on the individual. However, you’ll want to rule out potential food allergies or sensitivities (gluten, dairy, and eggs are common), and work on stress reduction and increasing important nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids (especially from fatty fish) and vitamin D. Reducing inflammation and improving immune function can also be beneficial. Drinking a few cups of oolong tea daily may help. Astragalus root or medicinal mushrooms like reishi, shiitake, and maitake simmered in broth or tea for several hours, as a double-extraction tincture, or in specially-made capsules taken long-term may help send your immune system back to boot camp so that it stops fighting your own body and is better able to deal with true pathogens.

A reader asks:

There are so many different preparations for herbal remedies, from tinctures and vinegars to compresses and creams. Is there a significant difference in effectiveness between taking an herb internally versus topically? How do you know which approach is best, and would you ever use a combination of the two?

Generally speaking, taking herbs internally will have a whole-body effect while topical preparations primarily offer medicine directly to an affected area. Even when I use herbs topically, I often use herbs internally as well, to deal with the underlying imbalance.

The specific types of herbal remedies you use will depend on personal preference, the area affected, and how the desired herbs are best extracted and delivered. For example, teas and other water-based extracts are nice for the kidney-urinary system. Alcohol extracts get into the bloodstream quickly but may irritate sensitive stomachs. Vinegar can improve digestion but it can also aggravate sensitive stomachs. Syrups and honeys are easy to take and gentle on the body, but they’re usually not as strong as other remedies and the sugar content can create problems of its own. I have a whole chart devoted to the pros and cons of all the common forms of herbal remedies in my book (if you have a copy, see pages 299–300).

A reader asks:

How did you get your start as an herbalist? What drew you in?

As a child, I was fascinated by nature. My mother was interested in medicinal plants and I remember reading her books and being amazed by plants’ potential healing powers. I didn’t really start to use herbs medicinally myself until college. On the path to a degree in journalism, I began to use my college papers as a chance to learn more about natural medicine. An intensely stressful experience my sophomore year that gave me panic attacks and insomnia at last drove me into an herb shop for the first time (for kava and valerian, respectively). Almost everything I’ve done in my life since has involved herbal medicine. After college, I covered the “herb beat” as an editor for Natural Health magazine, and I left that job to begin formal studies to become a professional herbalist.

As for what drew me in, I love the ways herbs work. Although they can be profound medicines, more often they work by nudging the body into balance on it own — sort of like training wheels.

Thank you to everyone who submitted a question, and to Maria for her responses!

Maria Noel Groves

Maria Noël Groves is an herbal practitioner, teacher, columnist for Remedies magazine, columnist and health editor for Herb Quarterly magazine and the former editor of… See Bio

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