NATURE’S INTENDED MEDICINE: Jamie Sparks offers herbal tea blends at Dobra Tea.
As cold and flu season lingers on, herbal medicine is “definitely a frontline treatment,” says Ceara Foley, director of the Appalachia School of Holistic Herbalism (ASHH). “The first things we should go to in order to bring ourselves back into balance are the most obvious, natural things our body needs to achieve homeostasis — sleep, good water, food choices and then herbs as both food and medicine.”
Jamie Sparks, owner and director of Herban Farmacy, is also helping to promote wellness throughout the winter season by encouraging the use of herbs in addition to good self-care as a daily practice.
Sparks, a self-described “herbal concoctress,” offers shares of herbal products through her CSA (community supported apothecary), which is the first of its kind in Asheville. Sparks makes her remedies in small batches from local herbs that she grows and harvests sustainably. From its inception, the business “was a community endeavor, with small farmers, small business owners and friends working together to propose the new model, and it continues to grow with support from the community,” she says.
The CSA’s winter wellness shares contain “herbs that support the physical and emotional needs of our bodies during the season, with lots of immune-supporting herbs,” says Sparks. She explains that the herbs range from the least invasive, used to prevent colds and flu, to curative herbs designed to fight first symptoms or full-blown illness.
The gentlest herbs, in the form of essential oils and spritzers, serve as a “first defense, offering protection to the body — similar to how plants use their own essential oils to protect against disease and pests,” says Sparks. Her Five Finger Spritzer, made from essential oils of lemon, cloves, eucalyptus, cinnamon, and rosemary, is based on an herbal formula that robbers of the dead used to protect themselves during the plague in France.
The next level of defense in the CSA remedies, Sparks continues, include “teas, tinctures, and syrups to support optimal immune function, relieve stress, and increase warmth and circulation in these colder months.” One of her most popular syrups is elderberry, which she describes as a “gateway herb because people get hooked on it for its tastiness and effectiveness.”
The more potent remedies in the CSA, Sparks says, are a First Tickle Formula, which includes reishi- and echinacea-infused honey, and Funk Formula, which includes herbs such as boneset, yarrow and elder flower for all-out flu.
The original idea behind Herban Farmacy, Sparks explains, was to harvest the abundance of herbs within Asheville, which include plantain, chickweed and dandelion, and to share the plants and healing knowledge with the Asheville community. Over time, she has expanded her business, growing and wildcrafting herbs that thrive locally.
Foley points out that many herbs are abundant locally, such as white pine needles and rosehips, both of which can be made into tea that is high in vitamin C. “An herbal teacher of mine told me that vitamin C is something you never have to buy because it’s always available in nature,” says Foley. Another herb that’s everywhere, she adds, “is usnea, sometimes called witches hair. It’s a green, stringy lichen that grows on tulip poplars. It can be made into a tea that’s good for the respiratory system.”
According to Foley, the top go-to herbal remedies for colds and flu are elderberry, which is anti-viral, and echinacea, which is an immune stimulant. She says it’s best to have both on hand when a cold or flu strikes. For long-term immunity throughout the year, she recommends astragalus and medicinal (reishi) mushrooms.
Foley notes that food herbs, which can be added to soups, are also beneficial, such as onions, leeks, chives, ramps, rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage and minced garlic.
Foley has a special name for an herbal mix she creates that heats up the body to kill off cold and flu viruses: COWA, or can o’ whoop ass. COWA is a blend of hot, spicy herbs, including ginger, garlic, horseradish and cayenne. “It’s a traditional remedy that can also be taken as a preventative,” she adds.
Herbs have an advantage over pharmaceuticals, Foley says, because for the most part they “don’t create side effects, are not stressful for our bodies to process, and have nutritional value that helps us achieve homeostasis.” The problem with pharmaceuticals, she claims, is that they are usually single, highly concentrated chemical compounds that are not found in nature, so they are more difficult for our bodies to process and assimilate. Herbs, on the other hand, have several constituents that balance each other out, thereby buffering constituents that could cause side effects. “Antibiotic resistance has become a problem because organisms can mutate when there’s only one constituent, as with pharmaceuticals, but herbs avoid that problem because they have several constituents,” she says.
Foley became interested in herbs as a result of having rheumatoid arthritis from the age of two. “Doctors told me that if I didn’t take drugs for my arthritis I wouldn’t be able to carry a child or have natural childbirth because I’d be too crippled, and that I’d be in a wheelchair by now,” says Foley. She stayed on the drugs when she was younger, but as she got older she became interested in natural medicine and started researching the side effects of the drugs she was on. “It just made common sense to me not to take meds that weren’t helping much anyway and had the potential to cause leukemia, if there were alternatives that are healthier,” she says. She last took pharmaceuticals 20 years ago, opting for herbal remedies instead, and was able to give birth naturally. She has not ended up in a wheelchair.
“It’s not that I believe people should stay away from modern medicine and pharmaceuticals,” Foley says. “They definitely have their place … [but] herbs are nature’s intended medicine.”