Become Your Own Herbal Doctor, By Elizabeth Y.

Common ailments can really keep you down in the best of times, but when the SHTF you won’t have the luxury of staying in bed and taking a sick day when a bad cold or diarrhea strikes.  In a TEOTWAWKI scenario, there will be no doctor to call and no over-the-counter medicines to treat your symptoms.  If that sounds at all scary to you…it should. But fear not!

Luckily, we all have the ability to become our own doctor, as plant medicine is all around us.  But it takes more than a reference book or cursory knowledge of herbal medicine to be prepared to use it.  To be really prepared to cure yourself when TEOTWAWKI strikes, you must start now, just as you have with your other preps. 

Before we embark on the path to natural healing, let me offer this disclaimer. I am not a doctor…at least, not in the sense that most people use the word. Rather, I am a self-reliant homesteader. I grow my own meat, vegetables fruits and medicinal herbs. Like many of you (hopefully), I make my own soaps/lotions/shampoos and have long sworn off chemicals and fancy pharmaceutical products. From my gardens and land, I make specialized medicines and use them to prevent or cure many family ailments, from arthritis relief to the common cold. But all of the information presented here is from my own experience and intended for informational purposes only.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s begin our journey to self-reliant health.

The first hurdle to over come may be the toughest – to realize that you can be your own doctor.  In a way, we’ve all been on life support our whole lives, having been trained that the doctors are experts and that they have the magic answer to whatever problem we present.  As a result, we have lost our own intuition and confidence in our ability to heal ourselves.  While a trained doctor may be what you need for surgery or severe medical trauma, there is no reason why you can’t heal (and even prevent) your own common ailments. 

Thanks to relentless advertisements and lobbying of doctors by the pharmaceutical industry, we have also been brainwashed into believing that a little pill made in a lab is safer to take than a naturally grown herbal tea of weeds we can find in our own backyard.  Medicine from nature has become a foreign concept, one we now look at as unsanitary or potentially toxic.  In retrospect, it’s amazing to consider how quickly we allowed this to happen.  Just a few generations ago our ancestors had knowledge of basic home remedies that included things like horehound cough drops and chamomile tea.  When the doctor wasn’t so easy to get to, families took care of their own during times of fever and flu.  So the first thing you have to realize is that people have used plants for medicine far longer than they have used pharmaceuticals, and without all the side effects. The knowledge is in our history and our confidence must come from our experience.  You can start preparing now by resisting the urge to call to a doctor when you feel a twinge of illness coming on, if at all possible.  Instead, begin experimenting with being your own healer and making your own medicine. This will prepare you for a time when it may be your only option. 

The second thing to do is to change your mindset of illness and medicine.  Start by knowing that being a little bit sick is actually a good thing.  When your body encounters invading bacteria it has natural defenses to combat them.  For example, one purpose of a fever is to raise the body temperature to a point in which it is inhospitable for the bacteria to live.  A bit of a fever can be a good thing!  Our reaction however is to quickly take a fever reducer at the first sign thereby limiting our body from doing its job.  Those fast acting chemical medicines have also trained us into thinking that medicine must work quickly in order to be effective. The medicine is also so concentrated and potent that it can alleviate symptoms often with just one dose.  In addition to introducing chemicals with potentially harmful side effects to your body, you are also treating your illness with a crutch rather than allowing your immune system to strengthen and do its job.  This means that the next time you encounter the bacteria, you will need more medicine rather than relying on your immune system’s memory, which could have built up a natural resistance, had you not taken the medicine.  The only one who benefits from this approach is the shareholders of the pharma giant that hooked you on the medicine!

Using plant-based medicine helps you to realize that tolerating a little bit of sickness will just make you stronger in the long run.  It also teaches you to listen to your body and feel the instant that something is out of balance. Plant-based medicine is also far gentler. This is good on your bodily systems, but also means you often have to take it at the first signs and in low doses over the course of a few days in order to keep symptoms at bay.  Much of what herbal medicine does is to boost your immune system so that your body can defend itself.  This, paired with the natural properties of the plant, can alleviate pain, reduce swelling, or increase circulation in order to help your body function at it’s most effective level.  Changing the way you think about being sick NOW will make an easier adjustment to herbal medicine.  Also, not reaching for an over-the-counter aid at the first cough or sneeze will help you to become more in tune with your body and allow you to focus on what it’s natural reaction is.  Practice listening to and trusting what your body is telling you and find natural remedies that will complement your own defenses rather than taking over the fight.  Most of all, don’t be skeptical when one dose doesn’t bring you back to 100%. Instead, realize that fully experiencing the illness is much like exercising your muscles.  Giving your body and your immune system this workout will make you that much stronger over time. 

One of the best things that experience will teach you is what you can treat on your own and what you need expert help with.  We will most likely each draw the line at a different point, but as your confidence grows you will feel able to treat more serious conditions.  This is why starting now is so important.  You do not want to wait until the doctors and medicine are unavailable before you turn to herbal medicine.  The best way to truly be prepared for TEOTWAWKI is to make it a commonplace every day thing that you are already accustomed to. 

To ease into it and start off simply, begin with herbs and plants that you are already used to consuming.  Culinary herbs and spices are easily identified and considered safe to everyone as we use them in cooking almost every day.  What we have overlooked is that they are also medicinal.  Learning to make basic medicines from kitchen herbs is a great way to feel comfortable and build your confidence. 

Now, let’s explore some basic medicine making techniques and apply them to some common every day herbs. 

Infusions and Decoctions
Simply put, this is making tea.  Tea used for medicine is much like regular tea that you drink, but it is just a bit stronger.  Having a mesh tea ball that can hold lose herbs is handy, but you can always just strain the herbs out through a clean piece of cloth, such as a bandana or T-shirt, if necessary.  Teas can be made from either fresh or dried herbs. 

Infusions are made from softer plant material such as leaves and flowers and decoctions are made from harder plant parts like bark and roots.  For either process, begin by boiling water and gathering clean, washed herbs.  To make an infusion, simply pour boiling water over the herb and then leave it to steep for 15-20 minutes.  You will want to cover it loosely so as to not let steam escape. Rather, the aim is to direct the essential oils of the plant back into the cup for consuming.  After steeping, strain out the herbs and press them to get the last bits of medicine out, and then drink the tea.  If the herb you are using holds it’s medicinal properties in the roots or bark (or something harder), then you will make a decoction.  Just add the herb to the boiling water, cover, and simmer for 15-20 minutes.  The continued heat will help to draw the medicine out of the tougher material.  After steeping, just strain, press, and drink the tea. 

Infusions and decoctions are great ways to take medicine if you have fresh or recently dried plant material and access to boiling water.  Once you harvest a plant, the medicinal value begins to deteriorate.  Fresh plant material is the most potent.  You can dry the material and preserve much of its power, but the longer it sits the less potent it will be. Therefore, if you require a certain plant that is only available for a short time, relying on tea to consume it may not be the most effective option and you should look to other ways of preserving it. However, teas are sometimes the best ways to take medicine due to the other properties that hot tea can provide.  A cup of hot tea can warm the body, soothe a harsh throat, and the steam can loosen congestion. Children easily consume teas and teas do not require previous preparation. Rather, they can be made in just a few minutes when symptoms first appear.  They are highly perishable, though, and will not last longer than a day or two before growing mold and bacteria.  

Try a simple infusion:
Mint is an herb that is easily grown.  It tolerates neglect and will spread like crazy in just about any environment.  Although starting from seed is more difficult, buying a transplant or taking a division of a plant from a friend is an easy way to start growing your own mint.  Try peppermint to help with stomach and intestinal complaints.  In many climates, mint is available year round, but in colder areas it may die back in the winter and then re-grow when the temperatures warm up.  The leaves hold the medicine and can be harvested whenever the plant is growing and dried for later use.  When a stomachache comes with gas and bloating, make a cup of mint tea following the infusion directions above.  Drink a cup every few hours until relief is felt. 

Try a simple decoction:
Ginger is an plant that everyone is familiar with.  The root is the part that holds the most medicinal value.  You can buy ginger root from the store and then sprout it yourself by submerging half of it in a cup of water.  It will take a few weeks, but will eventually grow roots and green shoots.  Then you can plant your sprouted ginger in a pot and it will grow into a beautiful plant.  Each year it will grow offspring roots that can be harvested.  Ginger plants like warm weather and will need to be brought indoors for protection during cold periods.  Chop or grate your cleaned ginger root and dry it for future use.  Make a decoction using the directions above with a piece of ginger root to ease a nauseous stomach.  Whether it is due to motion sickness or illness, a cup of hot ginger tea will soothe and relax the stomach muscles taking away the nausea.  Try a cup every few hours until relief is felt. 

A tincture is made by soaking the plant material in a strong substance such as alcohol or vinegar over a period of time, with the aim being to draw out the medicinal qualities.  The substance you choose to use serves two purposes.  First, it will attack the plant’s cell walls and release the medicine. Second, it will preserve the extracted liquid by creating an environment that is inhospitable for bacteria and mold growth. The stronger the alcohol or acidity content of your substance, the longer the medicine will last. This means that grain alcohol will preserve your medicine the best and substances with less alcohol content such as wine or brandy will not last as long. However, some may find them more enjoyable to consume. 

When stocking your pantry with food storage, be sure to include grain alcohol in abundance not only for bartering, but also for medicine making.  Otherwise, learning to make your own alcohol and vinegar will provide you with an endless supply of ingredients with which you can preserve your herbal medicine.  Once you have your extracting substance, then you must gather clean, washed fresh or dried herbs. 

Place the plant material in a sealable container, then pour the extracting liquid over it until all material is completely submerged.  If you are using dried plant material, then you may need to top it off in a day or two as the plant matter rehydrates and absorbs some of the liquid.  As long as all material is covered, it will not mold.  Put the lid on the container and leave it in a protected area that you can easily get to, as it will need daily maintenance.  Each day you will shake the container at least once, but more often will only help and not hinder the process.  By shaking the container you are helping to break apart the plant cells and forcing the extracting liquid deeper into the plant matter to extract more medicine.  You are also making sure that all parts of the plant matter are coated with the liquid that will preserve it.  In 14 days your tincture will be finished.  Strain out the plant material and press it to push out all of the last bits of medicine.  The liquid that remains is a concentrated form of the herb’s medicine.  Storing it in an opaque glass bottle out of direct light and protecting it from temperature changes will help it to last the longest.   

Tinctures are a great way to take medicine because they are preserved so well that they can last months to years depending on the extracting liquid used and how they are stored.  They are also easy to store and transport because they are concentrated, so only a little bit is needed.  Tinctures are usually taken by dropperfuls or teaspoon sized doses.  The drawbacks of tinctures are that they usually contain alcohol and might not be the best way for some people, especially children, to take medicine.  They also do not offer any other medicinal properties the way hot tea does.

Try a simple tincture:
Garlic is well known for its antibacterial and immune boosting properties.  It is also easy to grow.  You can buy a head of garlic from the store, pull off the individual cloves without peeling them and plant them in your garden.  Garlic is planted at different times of the year depending on your zone so refer to a planting guide for your area.  Each clove that is planted will grow into a new head of garlic.  Be sure to save some cloves from your year’s harvest to plant for your next year’s garlic crop.  Make a tincture by chopping a few cloves of garlic into very small pieces and then follow the directions above.  Your garlic tincture can be used for many purposes including lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, speeding the healing process of an infection, and serving as an antiseptic.  The next time you feel a common cold coming on, reach for your garlic tincture and take 20 drops three times a day to boost your immune system and help fight off invading bacteria.  To make the medicine more palatable, mix the dosage in a cup of water to dilute the taste. 

Medicinal Oils and Salves
Medicinal oils are made in a similar way as a tincture, but in this case it is the oil that extracts the medicinal qualities of the herb. The first rule to remember is that oil and water don’t mix and if you have water in your medicinal oil, you will get mildew and mold.  Fresh plant material contains water and therefore is unsuitable for making medicinal oils. 

In order to make medicinal oil, harvest and clean your plant material and then dry it until all of the water has evaporated.  A dehydrator works fine if you have electricity or a solar one, but you can just as easily dry leafy plant material by hanging it up in your house or laying a single layer of plant material in a dry spot outside.  If drying outside, cover the plant material with a screen or cheesecloth to keep bugs and birds off of it, and do not dry it in direct sunlight.  Also, be sure to take it inside if morning dew is expected.  Leaves, stems, and flowers can be dried whole and will crumble easily once brittle, but roots and bark should be chopped before drying to speed the drying process and also because they may become too hard to break up once dried.  You will also need oil and this is a good item to stock up on in your food storage. If you do not have oil, medicinal oil can also be made from animal fat or pressed from seeds if necessary.  Learning how to harvest animal fat and render it into lard and tallow is as valuable skill as is learning to grow things like sunflowers for seed. If you do grow your own seed for oil, having a simple hand cranked oil press will be a very valuable addition to your preps.   

Once your material is dried, put it in a sealable container and cover with oil.  You may need to top it off after the plant material rehydrates and absorbs some of the oil.  Make sure that all material stays covered with oil in order to keep it preserved. Seal the container and put it in a warm location, such as a sunny window.  The heat will help the oil to penetrate the plant material.  You will also need to shake it at least once a day to force the oil deeper into the plant material and to ensure that all parts are covered.  The ideal temperature for extracting the medicinal qualities of the herb is around 100 degrees.  Too cool and it will either take a much longer time to extract the medicinal values, or else will be unable to extract the plant’s properties.  Too hot and the heat could kill some of the valuable properties of the plant’s medicine.  In a TEOTWAWKI situation where mechanically creating a constant temperature via appliances such as a crock-pot or stovetop is more difficult, the sunny window is a perfect solution.  While constant temps at exactly 100 degrees would be sufficient to extract medicine in as little as 24 hours, a sunny window is less precise and therefore leaving your jar there for around 14 days is a better idea.  After this time, strain out the plant material and press it to extract the last bit of medicine.  Your medicinal oil should be stored in an opaque airtight container out of direct sunlight and protected from extreme temperature changes. 

Medicinal oils are best used for topical applications.  While you could soak a cloth in some freshly brewed tea and apply it to the skin, this would require fresh or recently dried plant material and is highly perishable.  Also, you could apply a few drops of tincture to the skin, but this could sting if it was an open wound.  Medicinal oils work great because they are preserved for a long time and can be applied in any circumstance.  Rub them into muscles, cover wounds and bruises with them, or even apply to a cotton ball and place in the ear for ear infections. 

Medicinal oils can be messy to transport and use though.  Turning your oil into a salve is easy with just one additional ingredient.  If you have access to wax, possibly by keeping your own beehives, all you have to do is to put the oil in a pot over a heat source or water bath and grate some wax into it.  The wax will melt into the oil and, once cooled, will harden in to a solid and more easily transportable salve.  The amount of wax you add depends on how hard you want the salve to be and will take some experimentation.  For a muscle rub you may want a looser salve that easily melts into the skin.  For soothing chapped lips you may want a stiffer salve that will sit on top of the skin without being rubbed away as quickly.  Try making your salve with only a portion of your medicinal oil. That way, if the texture is not what you want initially, you can re-melt your salve and add more wax to harden it or more oil to soften it as needed.   

Try a simple medicinal oil or salve:
Thyme is a very common culinary herb used to flavor meats and salad dressings.  It is also one of the most useful and powerful medicinal herbs.  Among its many properties, thyme is highly antiseptic and can be use to disinfect anything from kitchen counters to bed linens to infected wounds.  There are many varieties of thyme so you can choose the one that is best suited to your gardening needs.  Thyme is a perennial that can withstand cold temperatures, so in most climates you can have access to thyme year round.  During an extremely harsh cold spell the most care it may need is a blanket to give some protection from a freeze. Thyme can be started from seed or you can buy a transplant or get a division from a friend.  To make oil infused with thyme simply cut a few of the small branches and lay them out to dry.  Once dried you can follow the directions above to make an oil or salve.  Immediately rub the oil or salve onto any cuts or scrapes to kill bacteria and avoid infection.  If you already have an infected cut, blister, or incision, apply the oil or salve 3-4 times a day directly to the wound.  The thyme oil will draw out the infection and kill the bacteria promoting healing. 

A poultice can be thought of as an herbal bandage.  To make a poultice, you can use either fresh or dried plant material.  Gather and wash your plant material and then use a mortar and pestle to break up the plant pieces.  If you do not have a mortar and pestle, just smash the material between two clean rocks. Even chewing it will accomplish the same goal.  Fresh material may release enough water to make a paste, but dried material will need a few drops of water or saliva to rehydrate it enough to make a paste.  By smashing the material you release the medicine, and by adding just a bit of liquid you are able to create a substance that binds together. Shape a piece of thin cloth into a pouch and wrap the mass of plant material in it.  Cheesecloth or gauze work great, but you could also use a bandana or piece of T-shirt.  You want the material thin enough that the plant juices can seep through to the skin.  To use the poultice, hold it over the affected area or tie it on in place and leave it to do its work.

Poultices are great ways to apply medicine to the skin and will be most potent if you use fresh plant material.  They are very perishable, however. Therefore, they are only useful if you have fresh or recently dried material.  They are best to use if you have an ailment that will benefit from constant medicine.  For example, if you have an infected wound, then a tincture will sting and medicinal oil may wear off, but a poultice tied on the area will apply medicine all day long.  They are also very effective if you require something to be drawn out of the skin, such as venom or splinters.  One of the best things about poultices is that they can be easily made and used on the go.  For example, if you get a bee sting while out in the woods, you can quickly grab a leaf, chew it up, and hold it on the skin to draw out the venom. 

Try a simple poultice:
Oregano is a popular herb used in many Italian style dishes.  It’s also very easy to grow either from seed, transplant, or a division of a friend’s plant.  It is a perennial in most climates, but may need cover in extremely cold areas.  Oregano also grows very well indoors in containers if you live in an area where it is too cold to survive the winter.  The medicine is held in the leaves of the oregano plant.  To make a poultice, strip the leaves off of a few stems then follow the directions above.  Oregano has strong anti-inflammatory properties.  The next time you have a bruise or swelling, try adding an oregano poultice to the area.  Leave the poultice on all day or change the poultice a couple of times a day to a fresh one if the material becomes dry. 

By starting with some common herbs and spices that you already know and probably have on hand to treat minor conditions, you can familiarize yourself with medicine making and build your confidence.  Soon you will be researching the medicinal properties of other herbs and learning to identify native plants in your area that can serve as medicine.  Also, by starting now, you will begin to build up a natural medicine cabinet of medicinal oils and tinctures that will supplement your preps of stored bandages and gauze. 

The most important benefit of becoming an herbal medicine maker before you really need it is that you can develop a garden of plants from which you can always rely.  Once you have perennial herbs all around your home or bug-out location, you will learn to save seeds and cuttings from annual herbs that will provide you with medicine from year to year, no matter what happens in the world around you. Indeed, you may become one of the most valuable members of your community, a new-age doctor with skills so valuable that others will help trade their resources/skills to ensure your survival and allow you to prosper.