Herbal Help for Summertime Injuries

Ahh, summer — the delicious season when you can spend many pleasurable hours out of doors… and get bug bites, sunburn, blisters, rashes and, if you love picnics, maybe even food poisoning! Fortunately, for every minor hazard that nature brings in the coming months, Mother Nature also provides safe, natural treatments that soothe and heal. You can put together an herbal arsenal now that will serve you throughout the warm months ahead. To find out what substances we should all have on hand, I called Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council in Austin, Texas. His natural first-aid kit…

Olbas Oil

Blumenthal’s first pick happens to be a product I use all the time — Swiss-made Olbas Oil, an extract of the essential oils of six medicinal herbs (among them eucalyptus, peppermint and wintergreen plus menthol). It is immensely popular in Europe and useful for so many things that Blumenthal, who always carries it with him when he travels and in his backpack for outdoor activities, jokingly refers to it as “20-in-one oil.” Olbas Oil squelches a mosquito bite itch in three to five minutes and reduces the pain and swelling of bee stings almost as fast. When applied to a bruise, it minimizes both its size and discoloration (especially if applied soon after the bruising injury), and it soothes and helps heal blisters. Olbas can be delightful as a massage oil (added to a more neutral oil, such as almond oil) to limber up muscles before sports and afterward to relieve stiff and sore muscles. And that’s not all… Blumenthal says you can put one drop (but no more) of Olbas into a glass of water and drink to ease an upset stomach… or place a drop or two on a tissue tucked in your pillow case to open stuffy nasal passages for a better sleep. This refreshing remedy is available in many health food stores and online (www.olbas.com).

Activated Charcoal

Though food poisoning can strike at any time of year, there are some particular hazards during the warmer months when we eat so many salads and fresh produce (which has become the most common source of food-borne illness) and when higher temperatures bring on spoilage more quickly. Blumenthal said that a helpful treatment for nausea and minor vomiting from suspected food poisoning is pharmaceutical-grade activated charcoal. It neutralizes the toxins in your system by absorbing them so that they’re able to pass through without causing further discomfort. Seek immediate medical attention if symptoms persist for more than several hours, worsen or you have frequent vomiting or diarrhea, or if you experience dizziness, fainting or violent cramping. Activated charcoal is sold in tablet or capsule form at health-food stores — there’s also a cherry-flavored liquid version that can be a wise medicine cabinet staple for homes with small children. Follow dosing directions on the manufacturer’s label.

Ginger Capsules

For milder stomach symptoms, try ginger capsules. These may be especially helpful for quelling nausea from motion sickness — whether from riding in a car, on a boat or even on a roller coaster. To keep nausea at bay, take two ginger capsules (500 mg each) 30 minutes before you start your journey, and they might even help if motion sickness has already started. Unlike with the drugs dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) or meclizine hydrochloride (Bonine, Antivert), which are antihistamines and induce sleepiness, you will remain alert with ginger.

Witch Hazel

Poison ivy, a common summer problem, has been the subject of considerable research to establish which botanicals might successfully treat its itch, pain and blisters. One remedy from way back when is worth a try — witch hazel, a clear liquid made from the flowering tree of the same name. It can be dabbed on with a cotton pad to help dry and heal the blisters and reduce itch and redness. Blumenthal notes that many American commercial witch hazel preparations contain a small amount of alcohol, which may also help healing.

Hibiscus Tea

Heat can leave you feeling drained and uncomfortable, and in the tropics, says Blumenthal, people often drink chilled hibiscus tea to help themselves feel better. People have long believed that the tea lowers blood pressure, and modern medicine has verified this with several successful clinical studies, the most recent from Tufts University. Many believe that the tea also reduces body temperature, although Blumenthal says this has not been scientifically substantiated — but given how pleasant it is to enjoy a tall, cold glass of iced hibiscus tea on a hot day, it’s certainly worth a try. You can find hibiscus tea in health-food and gourmet stores.

Mullein Flower Oil

Known for its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, mullein flower oil is a traditional treatment for swimmer’s ear (otitis externa), a painful bacterial infection of the outer ear canal, Blumenthal says. Just drip a few drops into each ear and cover with a cotton ball inserted into the outer ear. Caution: Do not do this if there is any possibility you have a perforated eardrum, symptoms of which include discharge (clear, bloody or pus), ear noise or buzzing, increasing pain or a sudden decrease in pain followed by discharge or hearing loss. In fact, it’s best to check with a doctor before you use this oil or any other substance in the ear to determine if it is safe and will be effective for you.

Aloe Vera

Blumenthal recommends one more all-purpose natural remedy — aloe vera, the succulent houseplant that has long been valued for its medicinal properties. You may be surprised at how much scientific evidence backs up its use, in particular for soothing and healing skin problems such as sunburn and minor kitchen burns. While the gel inside the leaves of the aloe plant (just cut one across the middle and squeeze) is 95% water, it contains trace amounts of vitamins (A, C, E and B), enzymes and minerals. These make aloe a moisturizer, an anti-inflammatory, an antimicrobial and an analgesic (pain killer) to boot. That’s a lot of bang for your buck — and speaking of that, you don’t need to purchase any of the many drugstore products that contain aloe vera unless you’ll be traveling. Keep a plant in a sunny spot in your house (plant in sandy, well-drained soil and water only when very dry) and pick the mature leaves on the bottom of the plant for instant first-aid gel.

Generally speaking, these natural soothers are safe for almost everyone — but, as always, it is smart to check with your doctor before adding these and other remedies, natural and otherwise, to your personal first-aid kit. This precaution is even more important for people with any type of chronic medical condition.