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Boo-boos, tummy aches, and skinned knees have been around forever—and so have herbal first aid kits stocked with remedies for these common complaints. Today’s ingredients may be sold in a store rather than gathered in the woods or plucked from a garden like their ancient ancestors were, but they’re every bit as effective.
Here are the top botanicals to pack in your own herbal first aid kit.
Minor burns: Lavender
No herbal first-aid kit would be complete without lavender, which had a modern rebirth in the 1920s, when the French chemist René-Maurice Gattefosse burned his hand and, by chance, found the damage to be relieved by a soak in pure lavender oil. You can use undiluted lavender essential oil to hasten the healing of just about any burn. Lavender also helps to treat bruises, strains, and even scrapes as it acts as a disinfectant. As a general trauma oil, try equal parts of the essential oils of lavender, blue chamomile, geranium, tea tree, and helichrysum, at a 2% dilution (2 drops of essential oil per 100 drops of a carrier oil).
Headaches: Peppermint & Eucalyptus
Herbal essential oils can also help relieve headaches when applied topically. German scientists found that when peppermint and eucalyptus were swabbed on the temples, the oils had a muscle-relaxing effect. In another study, researchers tested a topical mixture of camphor, clove, menthol, and cajeput for headaches. This essential oil blend was found to be as effective as acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) after three hours.
Traumatic Injury: Arnica
Few first aid herbs are as versatile as arnica flower, which can be applied externally to treat rashes, eczema, black eyes, sore muscles, sprains, strains, fractures, and bruises. It is widely used for traumatic injury of all kinds. In one study, arnica herbal gel showed significant relief of pain and stiffness when applied twice daily for six weeks for mild-to-moderate knee pain. The German advisory panel on herbal medicines, Commission E, approves it for external use as an anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and antiseptic.
Joint Pain: Curcumin
Curcumin is is the go-to herbal first aid remedy for a twisted ankle or swollen elbow. The anti-inflammatory effects of curcumin, the active constituent in the spice turmeric, are well documented. Curcumin has been shown to be more effective than drugs such as cortisone in acute inflammation. Curcumin also depletes substance P, the neurotransmitter of pain, in the nerve endings. The herb is widely used in joint trauma, and is said to have a general joint-rebuilding capability. And while anti-inflammatory drugs can have side effects, curcumin is safe. Take 500–2,000 mg in capsules daily.
Although a common garden plant, calendula, or pot marigold, is a standout in any herbal first aid kit. It’s anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, antifungal, and antibacterial. Calendula tinctures or capsules have a long history of use for headaches and toothaches. Calendula cream treats rashes and inflammatory skin lesions, and reduces the swelling and pain of bee stings and burns. One study showed that the cream stimulates skin regeneration and wound healing. Internally, calendula tea will soothe inflammation of the throat and nasal passages, and reduce menstrual cramps.
Nausea: Ginger, Peppermint, & Chamomile
If you’re planning a long car trip or boat ride, pack your herbal first aid kit with ginger, peppermint, and chamomile. All of these herbs work wonders for nausea. Research shows that ginger eases queasiness as effectively as conventional motion sickness drugs. Try them as teas or capsules, or if taking ginger, in chews.
Herbal First Aid for Allergy Attacks
Being outdoors more in the summer can worsen allergy symptoms for many people. The best herbal first aid for allergies? Think stinging nettle!
For about the past 20 years, natural medicine practitioners have recommended stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), or nettle leaf, to relieve allergy symptoms. Research points to the anti-inflammatory properties of nettle, and several studies have shown that stinging nettle produces an anti-allergy effect. One study found that nettle leaf acts against the histamine-1 receptor and inhibits the inflammation-causing enzymes COX-1 and COX-2.
Nettle’s benefits are likely due to its active constituents, which include bioflavonoids and polysaccharides. In order to retain these constituents, nettle leaf must be processed carefully, so look for a high-quality encapsulated product that has been freeze-dried or specially processed to retain the active compounds. This special processing costs more, so don’t be seduced by cheap imitations.
Use nettle the way you would use an antihistamine drug to terminate an acute attack. Many people take up to 3,000 mg per day of nettle leaf capsules to relieve hay fever reactions. Symptoms often begin to improve within 15 minutes, and the effect typically lasts for about four hours.
You can also eat fresh nettle leaves—they’re consumed as a spinach-like vegetable throughout Europe and are remarkably nutritious. They taste similar to Popeye’s favorite food, and also have a slight cucumber flavor. Cooking, drying, or soaking deactivates the sting you may feel when you touch them.
As a healing food, nettle is a general tonic and a nutritive, building herb. At its peak ripeness, nettle contains up to 25 percent its dry weight in protein, which is top-notch for a leafy green vegetable.
Is kale your go-to leafy green because of its high calcium content? You’ll go nuts for stinging nettle, which, at 428 mg of calcium per cup, boasts four times the amount of calcium as kale. Naturally high in iron, with 1.46 milligrams per 1-cup serving of cooked leaves (2 cups of fresh leaves or 2 tablespoons of crushed, dried leaves, which makes one cup of nettle tea), nettle is a champion for blood health.
Add that to substantial amounts of zinc, magnesium, copper, selenium, potassium, manganese, and vitamins A and C, and nettles rival spinach for total nutritional value, making them an extra-healthy addition to your herbal first-aid kit.