In an unusual turn of events, I came down with a summer cold in late July. This summer, I had intentionally planned a gap in due dates so I could take some time off, and this well-timed immune dip occurred before I had to attend any labors. Thank goodness.
The cold was tricky for me to kick, however. I rested and drank broth and elderberry tea all day. One of the factors in my slowed ability to fight this cold is my hypothyroid (which approximately ten million Americans also have). Having a slow thyroid makes me run cold, and it’s tricky for my body to build an appropriate fever to kill pathogens. I also tend to be super dry – and this cold definitely exacerbated that for me. When the body produces mucous, it’s actually healing itself. It’s a way your body expels the gunk that’s making you sick. It’s why an herbalist, for a dry cough, may recommend something like mullein (a strong expectorant) rather than cherry bark (a spasmodic cough soother).
I knew what I needed was wet heat. A steam is a way of bringing the medicinal qualities of plants directly to the tissues affected by a cold (mucous membranes in nose, throat, mouth, lungs). After a few days of these steams, I’d kicked the dry cough and was able to move on from my cold.
Included in my steam is fresh thyme from the front porch. Aromatic culinary herbs are very effective as antimicrobial and antibacterial agents. The essential oils come out with heat and perfume the air. I also included some usnea, from my friend’s land in Cape Cod. Usnea is a lichen (algae/fungus combo) that grows on trees in woodsy/seaside/oceany places. It’s known to have herbal antibiotic action, and is especially useful for mucous membranes (such as lungs, sinus, or urinary tract). Its constituent, usnic acid, is one of the more studied herbal extracts because it inhibits gram positive bacteria metabolism, making it potentially affective against tuberculosis, staphylococcus, streptococcus, and pneumococcus.
After a few days of thyme and usnea steams, I added in another before bedtime and focused on gently soothing/relaxing herbs. Pictured here – I added chamomile and lavender flowers. Lavender, like thyme, is also very aromatic and its essential oil has antibacterial action. Chamomile, while gently relaxing, also has some antispasmodic action (mostly when drunk as tea). It’s especially nice to add these if a dry cough (or any cold symptom, really) is keeping you awake at night. Quality sleep is important to healing! Remember: some folks are allergic to chamomile, so it’s not for everyone.
To prepare a steam:
- Heat a pot of water to boil and set yourself up a comfortable spot in the meantime. You’ll probably want a hanky or some tissues handy!
- Grab a towel, and place the herbs in a separate bowl. Because essential oils of herbs can dissipate quickly with heat, it is important to add the herbs to the hot water when you’re ready to breathe them in deeply.
- Once the water is boiling, place the pot in your comfy spot, tent a towel over your head with the steaming water underneath, and add your herbs.
- Breathe deeply, using both nose and mouth and focus on the scents of the herbs. Bring them in to your lungs. Come up for cooler breaths if you need to, but you’ll notice the steam making your nose run and your dry cough more productive.
- After about 15 minutes, the scent of the steam may not be as strong. You’ve absorbed the most medicinal parts – yay!
Steams can also be very kid-friendly, and herbs can be customized depending on the particular manifestation of an illness. To make a kid-friendly steam, build a blanket fort and read stories with a flash light in the fort with your steam water nearby, perfuming the area. This way, the direct heat of the steam won’t be too intense, and a kid is more likely to sit in one place for the duration!
This post has basically been years in the making. Like many folks, I’m constantly learning what works best for my body, and even that is a moving target over time. Things change, strategies get refined, new products are created, and bacteria get smarter and more resistant to antibiotics as time goes on. Many folks know all about cranberry for its urinary tract supporting affects, but I hope to go in with some more depth today.
As some folks know, I have a chronic kidney condition that informs much of the work I do. Heck – it’s what made me want to become an herbalist in the first place. From my intensive self-care practices between client births, daily herbal tea habit, and still frequent visits to doctors offices for lab works and check-ups, my membranous nephritis is never far from mind. In my experience, having kidney disease does not make me more susceptible to urinary tract infections. However, it does mean that if and when I show UTI symptoms, I may only have a day or two before the bacteria is able to spread to my kidneys. This creates a much more serious problem unless I take All The Precautions.
A word about autoimmunity
There are many people who have other ongoing urinary issues – Interstitial Cystitis, “overactive bladder,” and chronic urinary tract infections are just a few examples. In any of these cases, I highly recommend looking into an individual’s medical history (including family members) and see if there could be a link with autoimmune conditions. While medical science separates autoimmune diseases by many diagnoses, making them seem increasingly “rare”, the mechanism of an overactive immune system that attacks it’s own body’s tissues remains the same. At least 7% of Americans have some form of autoimmune disease, and with high rates of mis-diagnoses, the number is likely even higher. For example, chronic kidney disease is almost nowhere to be found in my family history – but autoimmune diseases (multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus) are increasingly common, and that link is very important.
With an autoimmune connection, I make no recommendation more strongly than researching the so-called Autoimmune Protocol, and identifying individual triggers. Poor digestion and chronic inflammation can lead to “leaky gut” and molecular mimicry. In terms of an overactive immune system, this means that leaked food proteins can potentially be a big factor in the severity of an autoimmune disease. The triggers I avoid include gluten (and all grains except rice), dairy products (casein), canola oil, soy, nightshades, refined sugars, coffee and getting less than 7 hours of sleep in a night. As a birth worker, I never know when I’m going to need to be up all night, so staying on top of everything that is within my control is absolutely necessary!
A little more background
It has been six years since I began to identify and cut out my allergens, developed a daily nettle infusion practice and slowly have seen my kidney inflammation drop to lower and lower levels. While I’m certainly not “cured” of the chronic stuff, I’m getting pretty good at avoiding flare-ups while coping with an unpredictable work schedule. The longer I meander down this path of improvement, the less severe my urinary tract infections are. Instead of needing to go to the emergency room within 24-48 hours, as I did 7-10 years ago, I now have a week or more to really fight off an infection herbally before it gets as deep as my kidneys and necessitates antibiotics.
Proper alignment is a major factor in repeat UTIs. As Katy Bowman explains in her blog, Nutritious Movement, pelvic alignment is vital for keeping bacteria out of the upper parts of our urinary system. Humans used to walk long distances and have varied movements as we went about our lives. Now, we’re used to tucking our pelvises backwards while sitting in cars in traffic, at office desks, on couches. While this is only one part of the story, chronically mis-placing our urinary tracts can make certain folks more susceptible to urinary tract infections.
Katy also has an excellent post about pregnancy-related balance here.
As one of my mentors, Katja Swift, once told us in class (in so many words)- humans have always had urethras near their anuses. We can take all the precautions with wiping in specific directions we want, but that doesn’t change the fact that the problem really comes down to an imbalance of the wrong kinds of bacteria in the wrong kinds of places. It’s becoming more well known that humans are made of 90% bacteria. Yes, urinary tract infections are most often (but not always!) caused by Escherichia coli. Another major consideration is that the average American consumes 130 pounds of sugar per year. This is absolutely unique to this time in human history – we did not evolve to cope with that kind of calorically-dense, nutritiously-devoid stimulant load.
Probiotics are important, but they’re also not the whole story. We need to avoid sugar and empty grain-based carbohydrates, especially when they’re triggers for flare-ups of a chronic condition. Homemade fermented food is a much more diverse source of happy balancing bacteria than any lab-created capsule (that needed to be shipped in a refrigerator truck, by the way). Many simple recipes for ferments are out there.
Another simple way to “diversify” the bacteria in your urinary tract is to actually go out in nature. Katja has brilliantly called this “naked in the dirt,” and says she’s recommended it to many clients. Yes, it’s kind of seasonally-specific, depending on where you live. However – I was once able to fight off a urinary tract infection while swimming in my local turtle pond. I was feeling a urinary tract infection come on, so I went to my doctor to have a urine test. The test came back without a high enough concentration of bacteria to confirm that I needed antibiotics. The count needed is in excess of 100,000, and with my sensitive system I was capable of feeling symptoms with a bacteria count of only 10,000 or so. As the week progressed, I’d guzzled tons of unsweetened cranberry juice and floated my way through the nearby spring-fed pond. I was still feeling symptomatic, and decided to get tested again. The results? “1,000 colony forming units per ml. MIXED FLORA (3 OR MORE COLONY TYPES).” Having multiple mixed colonies of bacteria present gave my body a leg-up when trying to flush out the E. Coli and I ended up not needing those antibiotics, after all.
Your own experience with diet, chronic illness, stress, movement and lifestyle all have a big impact on your body’s own “host defense” in fighting off any infection, including urinary tract infections.
On to the herbs!
Dandelion leaf (Taraxacum off.) is my favorite diuretic herb of all time. It grows abundantly, costs next to nothing, and simply just works. Part of the mechanism of beating a urinary tract infection without antibiotics is physically flushing it out of your system. Staying hydrated is incredibly important, but when your hydration consists of not just water but a dandelion infusion (tea), it also contains vitamins C and B6, thiamin, riboflavin, calcium, iron, potassium and manganese. Other nutrients present in dandelion leaves include folate, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper. The beauty of diuretic herbs is that they support the urinary system, and help the body avoid excess water retention while simultaneously repleting minerals, rather than depleting them (as pharmaceuticals do). Folks who have a sensitivity or allergy to Asteraceae plants, including chamomile, should proceed with caution.
Goldenrod leaf (Solidago canadensis – but your local variety of Goldenrod should do) is also a member of the Aster family. Its yellow flowers bloom in late summer to early fall, causing it to inaccurately be blamed for ragweed allergies. To the contrary, this diuretic plant actually helps relieve seasonal allergies, and can also relieve urinary tract infections. It is a more gentle diuretic than Dandelion, and is known for being a friend of the kidneys. Daily infusions of Goldenrod leaf and flower can be an important part of an anti-UTI herbal plan.
Nettle leaf (Urtica dioica) is my biggest herbal ally for living with chronic kidney disease. It is another nourishing diuretic herb, best served in a long infusion (think an 8 hour overnight tea). Nettle contains high amounts of calcium and iron (the longer you steep your tea, the more of these get extracted into the liquid), as well as magnesium and vitamins A and K. Nettle is great cooked fresh like any leafy green, but daily tea infusions are part of my years-long practice to nourish my body and kidneys in particular.
Marshmallow root (Althaea off.) is best served as a cold infusion. I’ll often add a pinch of Marshmallow root to a long infusion of diuretic herbs. Because I regularly ingest tea like this, the Nettle, Dandelion, Goldenrod would dry me out unless balanced with mucilaginous moisture. Marshmallow root infusion also plays well with unsweetened cranberry juice, which can be intensely astringent to drink in quantity. This soothing, cooling herb can ease the physical discomfort of a urinary tract infection and is great to include in an herbal protocol.
Kava Kava root (Piper methysticum) can be added to a cold infusion with Marshmallow. The famous anti-anxiety herb is also useful for urinary tract infections because it is mildly pain relieving. A little known urinary disinfectant, Kava works well with any of the above herbs as part of a UTI protocol. Generally speaking, I think it’s important to prioritize practicing with herbs that grow locally. However, when weighing the significance of avoiding antibiotics to my longer-term health, I’m willing to find alternatives that grow a bit farther away.
Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) is a fairly well studied local-to-me berry. Like any dark berry, Cranberry contains the polyphenol proanthocyanidins. These proanthocyanidins have been shown to help flush out E coli specific urinary tract infections. While I’m a big advocate for using plants in their whole (or close to whole) form, an extract of a sugar in the Cranberry, D-mannose has been shown to be very effective when dealing with an E coli UTI. This study shows that for folks who get frequent urinary tract infections, using D-mannose extract before using antibiotics lead to an almost 4 times longer window before getting another UTI (200 days vs. 52.7 days). I have used this type of D-mannose, which is just a dissolvable powder that is fairly tasteless when mixed with water.
A note about preparation
All of the herbal preparations and products I mention here are water-based. Generally speaking, herbs work best when they can come in contact with the tissues being affected. For a urinary tract infection, herbs may be helpful because they’re astringent, analgesic, diuretic, or anti-bacterial, but they should be drunk as tea or used in a bath in order to reach the urinary tract. For deeper infections, or for folks who are prone to kidney problems, internal use of herbs (and D-mannose) will be the most affective. For folks who get UTI symptoms often, consider lifestyle factors (such as diet, bacteria balance, or other chronic conditions that may be inherited), and a topical bath or steam may be affective.
There are so many herbs that can potentially be used to fight a urinary tract infection. This is just an introduction to what works best for me, as someone who has chronic kidney inflammation and desperately wants to avoid antibiotics. If you’re curious to talk more and get an herbalist’s opinion about your specific situation, check out my herbal consultations page.
Herbstalk 2017 is happening again at the Armory in Somerville on June 3rd and 4th. I’ll be there teaching a class about herbal support for pregnancy loss.
Herbstalk 2017 will be happening again at the Somerville Armory on June 3rd and 4th. Along with many other herbalists, I will be teaching a class at the event about herbal allies for pregnancy loss. Keep an eye out for the schedule falling into place, and I’ll see you at Herbstalk!
Last week, I had the pleasure of making a little video interview with local acupuncturist, Angela Bell. She often works with folks who are trying to conceive (including with IVF and other fertility treatments), as well as during pregnancy and generally focuses her practice on women’s health. More about her practice can be found on her Facebook and website.
One thing I so adore about Angela is her desire to connect and highlight others who are birth workers in the Boston area. She holds networking events, and has continued to host a video series on her social media pages for other birth workers to highlight their work. She’s chatted with doulas, massage therapists, midwives, yoga instructors, lactation consultants and others about the work we all do with clients.
In our 30 minute interview, we cover what it means to be a “full-spectrum” doula. I talk about why I decided to become a doula, the work I do with the Boston Doula Project, how others doing this work can best support LGBTQ+ families. We also chat about placenta encapsulation, my practice in Western herbal medicine and what it means to be an advocate for folks in all of this work. If you’re interested to get to know me a little better, check out this video interview!
Herbstalk 2016 was last weekend in Somerville, MA. The group of Saturday teachers gathered outside the Armory (it was rainy on Sunday), and I participated in my first ever “group jump” photo.
More on the class I taught:
With our culture’s strong focus on birth control and avoiding pregnancy, many people are left in the dark when they actually WANT to become pregnant! With the trend toward older ages for first-time parents (especially around Boston), many are wondering how to prepare their bodies best for parenthood. Why does it seem like everybody has babies so easily while others struggle for years, considering invasive fertility treatments? What does it even feel like to ovulate?
Come learn how to lay the groundwork for healthy fertility cycles, nourish your gametes and give yourself the best chance to have a healthy baby with the help of medicinal herbs and foods. This class is taught from the perspective of a birth doula who has years of experience helping parents (of many ages) have babies around Boston, MA.
I have an upcoming class at the CommonWealth Center for Holistic Herbalism on herbal support after abortion. More about the class and signup can be found here. Class will be Wednesday, April 20th from 7-9pm. Find us at 25 St. Mary’s Court in Brookline, MA (accessible off the green line – the school can be found in the alleyway behind the Whole Foods).
While volunteering with the Boston Doula Project, and working around Boston as a birth doula, a significant amount of the stories I hear from clients involve ending wanted pregnancies due to significant health problems, or needing to have a clinical abortion after experiencing an incomplete miscarriage. From ectopic pregnancies that significantly threaten the life and health of the mother, to chromosomal abnormalities that are considered “incompatible with life,” the path to abortion and pregnancy loss is rarely simple for anyone.
In this class, I hope to dismantle some of the stigma surrounding abortion and pregnancy loss. I will give an “abortion 101” for everyone, a general background on the available options for ending a pregnancy at various gestational states in the Boston area. We will learn how to know which providers are really providers, and which may be giving out inaccurate health information. Then we will focus on how to support someone you love (or yourself!) when going through this experience.
Herbs can be used to support us emotionally, as well as physically build us back up after blood loss, or help support the body in getting back to a hormonally non-pregnant place. With one in three cis-women experiencing an abortion in her lifetime, this class will definitely touch upon ways to support yourself or somebody you care about.