10 plants every athlete should know about:

Arnica montana (Mountain Arnica): use as a cream for muscle soreness with a bruised sensation.  Avoid contact with broken skin and with mucus membranes.  Use as an infused cream.

Hamamaelis virginiana (Witch Hazel): get the dried leaves and bark in the bulk herb section at Earth Fare, Greenlife or French Broad Co-op.  Make a strong tea and apply directly to all the chaffed areas from your runs and to sore, achy feet and legs.  Helps relieve varicose veins as well.  Decoct the bark and infuse the leaves.

Calendula officinalis (Marigold):  Keep some of the dried flowers around to make tea when you have abrasions.  Simply soak gauze in the tea, wring out partially and apply to the damaged skin.  Drinking the tea before meals improves digestion and GI inflammation.  Be aware that if you are allergic to this plant family, you should avoid using it.  Use as an infusion.

Harpagophytum (Devil’s Claw): used to treat musculoskeletal pain and inflammation, especially that of both osteoarthritis and rheumatory arthritis.  It appears to help protect against degeneration of cartilage pads within the synovial joints.  Caution with gall stones and peptic ulcers.  Use as a tincture, dried or fluid-extract capsule or decoction.

Melaleuca (Tea Tree): a few drops of the oil in hot water can be used as a steam inhalation for upper respiratory infections and to open congested sinuses.  The oil can also be added to creams for fungal or bacterial infections.  Some people are allergic to it, so try a small amount first.  Avoid applying to broken skin, rashes that are not from fungal causes and areas around the eyes, nose, mouth or genitals as it may cause irritation or burning.  Don’t use internally.

Salix alba/nigra (Meadowsweet/White Willow/Black Willow): these plants are where we originally derived Aspirin and they are an outstanding anti-inflammatory medicine.  An additional benefit is that they are an aid to the digestive tract… where aspirin is known to cause damage.  The reason for this is that the active ingredient we know as aspirin, salicylic acid, is not present in the plant when you ingest it.  These plants contain salicin which is digested to salicyl alcohol by beneficial flora in your gut.  The salicyl alcohol is absorbed and transported to the liver where it is converted into salicylic acid.  This and other constituents in the plants alleviate pain, reduce inflammation and decrease fever.  They are generally safe with stomach ulcers and other GI complaints but should be avoided in those with known allergies to aspirin and in children younger than age 15 with viral infections.  Use as a tincture, dried or fluid-extract capsule, or as an infusion (Meadowsweet) or decoction (Willow).

Zingiber officinalis (Ginger):  Probably one of the best friends an athlete can have!  It reduces inflammation, helps the digestive tract recover from the damage of chronic alcohol and NSAID use and is a mild analgesic.  Caution if already taking blood thinning medications.  Discontinue for at least 1 week before surgery.  Use as a dried or fluid-extract capsule.

Verbascum thapsus (Mullein):  This plant is soothing to dried, irritated and inflamed mucus membranes.  Helps with the “runner’s cough” and exercise induced asthma.  Use as a tincture, dried or fluid-extract capsule or as an infusion.

Eleutherococcus senticosus (Siberian Ginseng):  not actually in the ginseng family.   Entire cities of the former Soviet Union were “volunteered” as test subjects.  Where the citizens were given Eleuthero, workers experienced fewer sick days and improved quality and quantity of work despite extreme temperature, noise, overwork and exhausting conditions.  Athletes in the Soviet program relied on Eleuthero (amongst other things) to recover from intensive training schedules.  It is dosed with the diurnal rhythm of cortisol release, so that one dose is taken daily upon waking.  Use as a tincture, dried or fluid-extract capsule or as a decoction.

Rhodiola  rosea (Roseroot): Used to increase physical endurance, work productivity, to combat fatigue, to increase resistance to high altitude sickness (not used to treat it though), and treat nervous system disorders, depression, and anemia.  Insomnia and irritability may result in high doses or in late afternoon/evening dosing schedules.  Use as a tincture, dried or fluid-extract capsule or as a decoction.

How-To:

Herbal “tea” is actually either an infusion or a decoction (or a combination of both) depending on the part of the plant being used.  So when you read to make or to use a “tea”, use the following directions based on which plant parts you are using.

Infusions

This method is best for extracting the medicinal constituents from the more delicate parts of the plant such as fruits, flowers and leaves.  Place 1 quart (4 cups) of fresh filtered water in a pan with a tight fitting lid and bring to a boil.   Turn off the heat and add 4-6 tablespoons of the herbs.  Quickly place the lid on the pan and steep for 3-20 minutes.  Strain and store in a glass jar.  Refrigerate after the first cup.  For the best effect, drink your tea throughout the day, making a fresh batch each morning.  Discard what hasn’t been used within 3 days.

The length of steeping time is determined by the herbs that you are using and the active plant constituents you wish to extract.  For example, tannins are extracted quickly and if allowed to steep longer than 4 minutes you will have a very bitter tasting tea.  Think green tea steeped too long!

Decoctions

Decoctions extract the medicinal constituents from the more tenacious plant material such as the bark, nuts, seeds, and roots.  Place 1 quart (4 cups) of fresh filtered water in a pan with a tight fitting lid and bring to a boil.  Turn the heat to low and add 4-6 tablespoons of herbs.  With the lid firmly in place, allow the herbs to simmer for 14-20 minutes.  Remove from the heat with the lid still on and let it steep overnight.  Strain it the next morning and enjoy your tea!  Refrigerate the remainder for use throughout the day!

As a general rule, you can use your decocted herbs 3 times before discarding them.  The medicinal properties are so concentrated in the roots, and the barks are so tenacious, that you can still benefit from the plants’ chemical constituents with each subsequent brew.  In between brews store the herbs in a glass covered dish in the refrigerator.  Keep in mind that with each decoction the brew will become milder, so you may wish to add a few fresh herbs each time or simply enjoy the tea’s more subtle flavor!

If an herbal formula contains both bark and roots to be decocted as well as flowers and leaves to be infused, follow the instructions for the decoction.  Before you strain the decoction the next morning bring to a boil once more, remove from the heat and add the fruits, flowers, and leaves.  Let the combination steep for 3-20 additional minutes, strain & enjoy! 

Used consistently, these plants can make your athletic endeavors a little less painful and your reliance on NSAIDS, sinus sprays and cold relief formulas a lot less frequent.  If you are playing with pain or keep having recurring injuries, chances are extremely slim that these are due to a deficiency in pain pills, Meadowsweet or Devil’s Claw!  Taking these pills and remedies week after week, month after month is not doing you any favors.  To get to the bottom of solving that riddle, you’ll need to look outside the bottle.  And THAT, my friends is a topic for another time.

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