Medicinal Herbs

Posted: 12 Oct 2011
Updated: 17 July 2012

In this post, I discuss news reports and address topics critical for understanding how medicinal herbs work. Please check out my blog posting “Eating Wild Greens” for information about other herbs for both nutritional and medicinal purposes. I approach this topic very differently from most authors. I believe that less is more and that it is better to treat conditions nutritionally when possible before resorting to any medication, either pharmaceutical or herbal. However, there are many conditions for which pharmaceutical drugs or medicinal herbs are fast, thorough, and important lifesaving techniques available to us.
Just because an herbal book suggests that a particular plant is effective for a particular condition does not necessarily mean that effectiveness has been measured. Most herbal books are anecdotal in nature. There are some exceptions, however, and these books say in the title, the introduction, or preface that the author(s) will discuss only or especially herbs which have been shown to be effective in scientific tests. I will critique some news reports and scientific studies which I feel do not explain the research well enough or which are misleading in the conclusions made by either news reporters or scientific researchers.

We have to remember that herbs have co-evolved with animal use. Thus, many herbs are adapted to human physiology in a positive way and help to balance our chemistry faster than we could ever achieve without them. These herbs are called “adaptogens.” We are still learning which herbs belong in that category.

Many conditions will correct themselves over time. However, for some people they will not or will take too long, and herbal medicines can speed up the process. Regardless of the success of herbal medicine, when we use it we still have to learn what caused the imbalance to begin with. I learned in my years of working with mind and body that there are no physical conditions we have that are not linked to emotions or unconscious thought, either causing the physical condition or sabotaging efforts to heal. Mindfulness  and Muscle Reflex Testing techniques are always useful for helping to discover causes. These techniques are always useful when we try to heal since they tell us not only what the problem is, what caused it, and how to heal it, they help us understand how our brains are intimately tied into state of mind AND body. When we use them, we learn how our brains work, and come to understand ourselves as individuals far better that we did before.

For more serious concerns we need to consult professionals who may understand the pathology better. The problem is knowing when to do so. Many physicians have too little background to deal with some symptoms, e.g., those caused by toxins (see my blog post “Toxins”), so finding a professional can be nearly impossible in some cases. However, most physicians can deal with life-threatening symptoms and should be consulted when needed. Unfortunately, our medical professions tend to be quite ignorant about herbal medicine, when to use it, how to use it, how safe it is. Most however, have received training about drug interactions involving herbal medicine.  For these reasons, I always caution those taking any pharmaceutical or supplement to consult with their physician or pharmacist before taking any medicinal herb.

Bug Repellants

Comment on “Repelling Bugs With The Essence Of Grapefruit” on Morning Edition 04/18/11 where I discuss how the new drug derived from grapefruit may not work to repel ticks. Because the drug is not yet on the market, I suggest a recipe that may work to repel bugs using grapefruit rind.


NPR reporter Richard Knox interviewed Marc Dolan of the Center for Disease Control’s vector-borne infectious disease laboratory at Ft. Collins, Colorado about a new bug repellant being investigated as a natural alternative to man-made chemical, DEET. Nootkatone is so nontoxic, the CDC is talking about putting it into soaps or sun screens. Nootkatone is a natural insect-repellant found in Alaska yellow cedar trees and in citrus fruits, particularly grapefruit.

Dolan says it is so safe you could drink it. He also says it is environmentally safe because it doesn’t just repel bugs, it kills them. The essential oils in nootkatone are volatile and thus do not last long in the environment, although a single dose of a 2% solution will kill ticks for as long as 42 days, at a greater than 97% efficiency. It also breaks down fast and has not been found to contaminate soil or groundwater.

Nootkatone doesn’t seem to affect bees or butterflies, so that these beneficial insects are not harmed. It is so different from other pesticides that mosquitoes are not resistant to it yet. The CDC is hoping to use it to prevent malaria infection.

Dolan says that it acts by blocking receptors for octopamine on the insects’ nerve cells. Octopamine is like human adrenalin. Blocking the receptors causes the insects to “vibrate themselves to death.” Because humans don’t use octopamine, nootkatone is considered safe, although we do not know if adrenalin is similar enough to octopamine that we would be affected. He suggests that it is so powerful that ticks that had already started feeding on you would detach and die when exposed to it.

The CDC now owns patents on nootkatone and has licensed them to two companies to manufacture insecticides and repellents.


1) Nootkatone will repel all ticks. We need to test it on all species, especially the ones carrying Lyme disease.

2) It is environmentally safe when it kills bugs. Some bugs which bother us are important for the survival of other animals or plants. Nothing was said about ants, which are critical in the ecosystem as detritus-feeders. We spray this stuff around our shrubs to keep bugs away from humans, and we may end up making it a very unsatisfactory habitat for the birds who depend upon bugs for food, or on other bugs who eat the one we are repelling who also pollinate our plants. There are a lot of assumptions being made about this repellant being beneficial that have not been tested.

Posted at NPR

Does nootkatone work on cockroaches?  Probably not.  Nor for lice.  You do not have to wait for nootkatone to hit the market.  You can scare away bugs with grapefruit extracts.  Just prepare one by adding 2 tbsp. freshly grated rind to 8 oz of propyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol).  Keep it in a non-spray glass bottle with metal cap. Rub on skin as needed.  Do not spray because you do not want it in your mouth, nose or eyes. Make a gel application by thoroughly mixing in the raw grapefruit rind with aloe vera, add 2 tbsp. rind to 4 oz (by weight) of pure aloe vera extract gel–keep in refrigerator. If you want to carry this gel around with you during the hot summer months, you can add a pinch each of ground clove and thyme to it as a preservative.  Be sure to label all bottles with grapefruit rind as not edible. But once you rub a gel onto the skin, then it is pretty much diluted enough that if your baby mouths your arm, he won’t get sick. Same goes for the alcohol preparation once the alcohol has evaporated.  It will leave grapefruit rind extract behind on your skin in very low amounts.  It won’t taste good, though and most babies will think twice about mouthing your skin when it smells like that stuff.

I doubt that this stuff will repel ticks.  You could add ½ tsp crushed, dried geranium leaves to 8 oz bottle of shampoo to keep ticks off your hair, but it won’t stop them going for skin.  Crushed, dried juniper berries added to a liquid body soap might work for keeping ticks off the rest of the body (a pinch to 6 oz bottle), same amount to your shampoo might keep them off your scalp.

My Extended Comments

Below is a copy of a letter sent to me in response to my comments posted at NPR:

Dear Martha,

I am writing to you in regards to your comments following Richard Knox’s NPR story (April 2011) on the beneficial properties of nootkatone. (I found your e-mail address on your blog.)

I live in a highly infested tick area in Maryland and have two young girls (2 years and 5 mo.).  My toddler loves to be in the woods and down by our neighborhood lake.  I have been concerned about diseases contracted from ticks, especially since two dear friends of our family contracted Lyme’s disease and have suffered cruelly.   I was very excited about the CDC’s work to make this
naturally derived chemical available in a commercial insect  repellent but know that the process is yet to be completed.

I was interested in your posting on the NPR website in regards to the recipe you gave for ground grapefruit rind in aloe vera or rubbing alcohol. Do you mind me asking how you came upon that ratio?  Do you think it would be harmful if I increased the rind proportion for an increase in potency/strength?  I also saw your recommendation about adding crushed geranium leaves to shampoo.  Would you recommend this for my young daughters?

In one of your comments you seemed skeptical about nootkatone’s effectiveness against preventing ticks. * Do you think there isn’t enough scientific research demonstrating the effectiveness of making a homemade nootkayone repellent for ticks?

I appreciate any time you are able to give in the form of a reply and hope you are well.
[Name Withheld]
Columbia, MD.

My Reply:

Dear [Name withheld]

The nootkatone or grapefruit rind might repel some ticks, but probably not all, and the ones carrying Lyme disease probably fall into the latter category.  I can hazard a guess about your kids. 2-yr olds either listen to you or don’t and most often do not or not for long enough. When washing hair with the shampoo/geranium mixture, they have to keep their mouths closed, and a baby hasn’t learned not to swallow shampoo. Most baby shampoos take that into consideration. Thus, I doubt that adding geranium to their shampoo would be wise.

However, you could add it to a separate bottle of grapefruit rind and alcohol and label it for hair only, with skull and cross-bones (I exaggerate here, see below) and rub it into their scalps, bypassing any change to their shampoo. I am not sure that geranium works for all ticks but neither grapefruit nor geranium is particularly appetizing to ticks. They can smell it, so you don’t need to be extremely thorough in covering every inch of skin/scalp with either (or the aloe vera mix).  The geranium in the ratio given won’t kill a baby unless she drinks a lot–an unlikely event. I don’t know any baby who loves to drink grapefruit juice. So if you get it on your hands and she sucks on one of your fingers, it will taste bad enough for her to stop doing that and she shouldn’t get sick. I would just be careful enough to wash my hands (e.g. a quick wipe with a wet wipe/washcloth nearby).

This doesn’t mean you won’t find a confused tick on the skin once in a while. But it is unlikely you will find one burrowed into the skin, (depending upon the tick species, but you should always check a kid out often in tick-heavy areas). I know that Maryland has a lot of ticks, but it also has a lot of deer and the two go “hand-in-hand”. If your lake has little or no deer, there are probably little or no ticks.

You should still be aware of actions the kids take that might put this stuff into their eyes, especially when the skin/scalp is still wet with the stuff.  For this reason, most of what gets sold on the market will always be very weak because the parent has to be educated enough to understand the risks. Take note of how long this letter is. No manufacturer is going to put such long instructions on any product, unless it is prescription medicine, and most of what they write is unreadable.

I heard about grapefruit from an old Indian friend of mine. I can also surmise that it is effective against most bugs just because grapefruit is a pretty powerful smell, and these little guys have a very tiny respiratory system that gets easily overwhelmed.  They depend upon oxygen, too, so if the percentage of O2 goes down, they tend to droop, much as we do. There is a protein in grapefruit rind (and, to a lesser degree, in other citrus fruits) that binds readily with chitin, causing it to expand, which means that the tiny respiratory tubes that travel up to their carapace get swollen shut. This protein is attached to the volatile fatty acids in grapefruit rind which make up the bulk of that powerful odor–meaning that the protein molecules travel in the air close to where you deposited the rind. This means that there is an expiration date on what you put on the skin, since the volatile fatty acid-proteins can evaporate, along with the alcohol. However, ticks have very robust tracheae (those tiny tubes) and some species might not be so overwhelmed by the smell. You can tell when your kids need a re-application when you can’t smell grapefruit on them anymore. But if you have it on yourself, you will become immune to the smell, too. An independent nose is always welcome here.

More is not necessarily better in the ratio I mentioned in the comment on NPR. What I said about the baby mouthing your arm only applies to the ratio I gave. You put more into it than that and the extra amount is a waste to your benefit, but the first mouthing by the baby makes her sick. Just remember, the longer you have the rind/geranium in the bottle of alcohol, the stronger the solution becomes, up to about 3 weeks. If you keep the cap on tight, there is no expiration date on the potency. Caps on glass bottles stay tight for longer than ones on plastic bottles, as long as the caps have true screw lines and not just one crimped edge. Obviously, if you use a lot over the next 3 weeks, the plastic bottle is just fine. Or you could make up several bottles (after you test its effectiveness, of course) so that you always have a 3-week-old supply.

One problem with determining effectiveness is that you are looking for no tick to be present. You won’t be happy with fewer ticks on the skin, because you won’t know if there are fewer. But you also won’t know if the chances of having a tick on you are less this year or in that place than before. The only way you could ever be sure of this formula is if your kids have it on and other kids do not, both sets of kids are in the same place at the same time, and most of the other kids get ticks and yours do not. Most parents won’t wait for that information but will be willing to try almost anything to increase the insurance of safety from Lyme disease. However, there is always a risk to using any kind of medicine. Thus, the length of this letter.

Furthermore, none of the recipes I mentioned are water-repellent, so a swim in the lake pretty much removes its benefit, except for the shampoo, which has oils in it that will hold the stuff in the hair (for a while). So there is another possible way to keep the stuff on the skin and that means using oil as a base instead of alcohol. A light oil like safflower oil is ok to use instead of the alcohol, in the same ratio (but not olive, coconut, or soy oil, and definitely not mineral oil). But obviously it isn’t great to rub into the scalp unless you don’t mind if the kids’ hair looks oily. Aloe has little oil or fat in it, since most of its gel-like property comes from water-attracting fiber.

I truly sympathize with you about your fear of Lyme disease, but regardless of anything that ever becomes available that claims to be effective, the only method that is 100% effective is not to be in tick habitat. Second to that method is two people visually checking out the same skin/scalp. We become so used to turning to a medicine to “take care of the problem” much faster, that we also forget that there is a chance of failure in that medicine. There is a race to get things onto the market before adequate testing is done so that few manufacturers put a failure rate on the package to remind the consumer that there is one in anything we make. This means that you have to be the one to decide when the product you buy fails any criterion you want. You just have to learn what criterion you can reasonably set for any product you buy.

I wish you well and let me know of successes or other risks that haven’t occurred to me and are thus not mentioned here. I might publish your letter (without your name, email, of course) on my blog in the future, along with my reply.

Martha L. Hyde, Ph.D.

Sexual Stimulants

Comment on “Caterpillar Fungus: The Viagra Of The Himalayas” reported on All Things Considered
10/09/11, where I describe how medicinal herbs are different in their effects on the body than pharmaceuticals, how they are misused, how we have to learn to describe all symptoms much more in detail than we are used to, how mindfulness techniques can help us do this, and how mind-body medicine techniques can help us find out what we really need when we list all of our symptoms.


NPR Reporter Lauren Silverman interviews Dr. Britt Bunyard (U of Wisconsin professor and editor of Fungi Magazine), David Winkler who has written about the caterpillar fungus, and freelance NY writer Eric Hansen who wrote about his efforts to find it in NYC’s Chinatown.  He found it there at $500-1300 per ounce. This fungus, also known as the Tibetan yartsa gunbu, is the Cordyceps Sinensis fungus, and some think that its value has skyrocketed because it is a “Himalayan Viagra”. Silverman reports that the fungus is so valuable in Asia that it has sparked violence in disputes over the fungus.  Hansen went to Nepal to study the people harvesting this fungus, and how it changed their lives. He even tried the fungus but claimed that it had no effects that he noticed.

This is an extended comment on medicinal herbs, and especially the caterpillar fungus (yartsa gunbu, or Cordyceps sinensis). 

My Comment Posted at NPR

This story sounds a lot like the “rhino horn is an aphrodisiac” story. As we have seen with Ephedra, you have to need the medicine to benefit from it. People who claim the fungus did nothing for them probably are expecting the feeling that comes from taking a pharmaceutical which will cause almost instantaneous responses, (e.g. cessation of symptoms or onset of side effects). Medicinal plants have co-evolved with human and other animal use, thus, their effects tend to be very subtle, and not necessarily dose-dependent but time-dependent. Furthermore, for most of them (those with the least harm), you lose it if you don’t use it. So if you do not need it, (translate: if you do not display all the symptoms for which it would be prescribed), your body will not do anything but metabolize it and dump the active ingredients out of the system.

At my blog post “Medicinal Herbs” at I describe how medicinal herbs are different from pharmaceuticals, and thus, what we feel when they work will feel different from what we expect, given that our nation is a drugged nation and used to using pharmaceuticals with their usually instantaneous and very un-subtle effects.

Ephedra spp.

More of My Ideas

Some, like Ephedra, can cause problems if not used properly (see also my blog posts “Science Says Diets Cannot Fight Chronic Pain” and “Eating Wild Greens“). For instance, some take Ephedra for its epinephrine-like qualities to enhance reflexes and strengthen muscles. However, the active ingredients are accompanied by other chemicals to get these ingredients to the lungs where it is supposed to be applied, when the lungs are not functioning well due to illness. The caterpillar fungus probably acts on the circulatory system as Viagra does, but only if the person has symptoms to show that certain tissues are not working correctly, and just “poor circulation” in a general sense is not specific enough. Americans are just too used to the sloppiness in application of terms describing symptoms by western medical practitioners.  TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) is meticulously detailed in its observation of symptoms, which helps it to prescribe the correct herbal medicine or acupuncture treatment.

I first noticed that plant medicines may not act like what we expect when I was feeling a great deal of depression many years ago and tried Michael Tierra’s Planetary Formulas (now known as Planetary Herbals) brand “Stress-Free” pills. I decided they were not working when I still felt depressed after taking them.  However, several years later, I tried it again and discovered that they worked because they took the edge off from the depression, but did not get rid of the depression, a much subtler effect. I had learned to use “mindfulness techniques” without ever realizing I had done so to figure out what was going on (see my blog posting “Mindfulness Techniques“).

In order to understand what you need to treat, you need to dissect out all symptoms and define them to yourself as to the physiological activities that have changed to cause the symptoms. The “edge” of depression is that feeling that comes from an amplification of a more common low-level depression. Low-level depression is caused by a continued ionic imbalance in the body. When the imbalance continues for several hours, it is “noticed” by the monitoring centers in the medulla, triggering mechanisms that amplify depression (but not the ionic imbalance). By doing this, the unconscious brain is getting the active participation of the conscious brain in finding a solution. When the conscious brain does not end up stopping the process, the brain gets stuck in a constant feedback loop, deepening the depression. I suspect that the Stress-Free pills stop this loop. The continued feeling of lower-level depression is caused by the continued poor ion imbalance in the body that lead to the depression to begin with.

We tend to think that all emotions stem solely from influences external to ourselves, e.g. a relationship problem.  However, that relationship has profound influences on our physiology. There is nothing to suggest that the reverse is not true as well. In fact, there is a tight association between emotions and basic physiological processes that reflect probable placement in the medulla of emotion centers (see my blog post “Emotional Representation in the Brain“). An ionic imbalance could cause depression because it triggers a conscious awareness of a problem that has no direct sensory receptors associated with it (e.g. itch, pain, touch, pressure, etc). Depression gets us to do something consciously to counteract this imbalance, even if what we choose to do falls into the category of salving our emotions in the conscious brain. This is often why many who get depressed look for “comfort food”. Such food may actually help in balancing the ion imbalance because of either its chemistry or its associations with emotions, or both.

I am planning to add a lot more to this post.


What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Traditional Chinese Medicine: An Introduction“. National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

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© Copyright 2014 by Martha L. Hyde and


One thought on “Medicinal Herbs

  1. I truly appreciate this information! Its an eye opener and I especially like the statement “We tend to think that all emotions stem solely from influences external to ourselves, e.g. a relationship problem. However, that relationship has profound influences on our physiology. There is nothing to suggest that the reverse is not true as well.” This is so true, I never thought of that before. Keep up the good work.


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