Localised healthcare options
Some people ask me why we need localised healthcare. This idea is hugely important, in a number of ways. First, and most importantly, we need to find ways of rediscovering our connection to our immediate environment, not simply develop an abstract identification with the romance of the rainforest or the oceans. Shrubs and hedgerows and roadside brambles can seem uninspiring, but Nature is real and alive there too. What’s more, take one artificial pacemaker, deconstruct it, and you’ll notice thousands of components, all made from finite minerals and materials from every geographical region of the world, all requiring highly toxic and linear processes to come into existence and finite resources to get to our localities. Not only that, they also depend on the destruction of habitat for both human and non-human life, the exploitation of people who live on top of these ‘resources’ that we believe we have the right to acquire, and the politics that go with all of that. It is self-evident that you cannot continue using finite materials forever, therefore it should be self-evident that you can’t continue with the healthcare systems that depend on them. Non-localised healthcare systems are simply not sustainable. As Dr. Dan Bednarz and Dr. Kristin Bradford reported in their 2008 article Medicine at the Crossroads of Energy and Global Warming, “through our unrestricted use of energy and resources in the healthcare industry, as well as our production of greenhouse gases, we are actually contributing to the ill-health of our planet and ensuring future suffering of the Earth’s inhabitants”.
If healthcare is to be healthy for the whole, and not solely for a human culture that now perceives itself as separate from everything else, it must be localised, as hard as that is to conceive today. We’ve created a huge mess for ourselves, with most of the Western world now dependent on one form of mass-produced medication or another – antidepressants and the like for our decline in medical health and all sorts of toxic concoctions for our myriad modern physical problems. Yet localised healthcare offers some inspiring examples. For example, in The Transition Timeline, Shaun Chamberlin notes that “Cuba today has similar life expectancy (78 years) and infant mortality rates (0.5%) to the UK, but uses a far lower energy, lower cost system. It is very much community-based, with a much higher doctor-patient ratio than ours providing a small surgery in each village, and giving doctors the ability to diagnose on the basis of the social and psychological factors affecting the patient, as well as physical symptoms. It is also based far more on preventing illness rather than treating it after the event. Here in the UK we often hear laments for the old ‘family doctors’ who used to provide a similar service.”
This reminds us that despite the sometimes overwhelming challenges we face, there are many options still available to us. If we combine all we have learned from The Industrial Age with new stories that value meaning, fulfilment and happiness over financial growth and Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and mix that together with a redesign of how we live, then anything is possible if we roll our sleeves up and get to work. Our greatest challenges can be transformed into our greatest actions.
Herbal medicine has somehow become described as an alternative approach to healthcare, despite the fact that, for obvious reasons, “herbal medicine is the original medicine”.(261) Both humans and animals have been using herbs to maintain health and cure themselves throughout their history. The brilliant thing about herbs is that you can cultivate them using very little space in your garden by, for example, creating a medicinal herb spiral. Medical centres too can take advantage of this, as demonstrated by the Ruskin Apothecary in Gloucestershire, who are developing the concept of the ‘One Mile Pharmacoepia’, aiming to source as much of their medicine as possible from within a one mile radius.(262) Many useful herbs still grow wild, meaning that you can pick them as you go for a stroll. As with wild food foraging, make sure you consult an experienced forager or other reliable source before using wild plants as some of them can be toxic and poisonous to humans. (Disclaimer – do check with your qualified health practitioner before taking any of the remedies stated in this book, especially if you are on other medication.)
The UK has an amazing range of medicinal plants that can be gathered or grown for free. Don’t waste your money on well marketed, imported exotics.
Understanding disease is crucial. Illness is a sign that your body is out of balance. It doesn’t occur spontaneously, your body isn’t letting you down, it means it has been adapting its normal function to cope with restrictive things in its environment.
Our bodies evolved to run away from, or fight off, things that are life threatening. When the dangerous thing has gone, the body rests, replenishes energy, absorbs nutrients required for repairs and eliminates all waste materials and toxins.
We are each uniquely programmed through our DNA and emotional patterning to unconsciously perceive what is dangerous or safe. The unconscious brain then instructs the body to respond via the nervous system and hormones to ensure our survival.
If you want to become proficient at using plant medicine to prevent disease or to help your body to recover from illness, then identifying things that inhibit ‘normal’ functioning is essential.
Basically, medicinal plants work on the body in four main ways, via stimulation, relaxation, nutrition and elimination. You choose appropriate plants that support the processes the body is struggling to achieve. These actions do not suppress symptoms – they are supporting what the body is trying to do naturally. Herbal medicines take time to work as they facilitate the body to heal itself.
Try not to think “I’ll take this herb for this ailment”. Instead consider “What does this body need to be balanced and functioning optimally”.
When foraging for plants that you intend to ingest ensure that you have identified them correctly. Find your local wildlife group or botany club or see if your local qualified Herbalist is doing any guided walks. Take a good plant key with you. Check and double check. If in doubt don’t use it. Take a sample home or photograph it and look it up in as many sources as possible.
There are general rules that apply to harvesting. Herbs that have special requirements are discussed in their entry.
• Handle plants gently to avoid damaging them.
• Collect on dry days, after dew has dried but before the heat of the sun.
• Don’t harvest by obvious sources of pollution.
• Reject diseased or damaged plants.
• Do not over-harvest or gather more than you can prepare in one go.
• Take gloves, a digging tool, secateurs and something to carry your harvest home in.
• Get permission from land owners.
• Be sustainable, only harvest when the plant population is strong and try to encourage plants by scattering seeds, replanting root crowns etc.
The most basic methods of preparation are:
• Infusions (tea) using water and fresh or dried herbs, made as you need them. Use externally or internally. Put 1-3 heaped teaspoons of herb in a teapot, soak with a mug full (200ml) of boiling water. Cover. Leave for 5-10 minutes. Strain and drink hot or cold or use as a compress or skin wash.
• Tinctures are alcohol based, they preserve the properties of fresh and dried herbs and are taken as required. Pack the chopped herb into a jar, just cover the herb with strong alcohol (vodka). Put the lid on, shake daily for 2 weeks. Strain. Bottle. Take 1 teaspoon up to three times per day.
• Infused oils are for external use. Pack dried herb into a jar and cover with sunflower oil. Leave in a sunny place for 2 weeks. Or heat it gently over a bain-marie for 2 hours. Then strain and bottle.
• Syrups are made with honey or sugar. They can disguise unpleasant tasting herbs and can be frozen or kept in the fridge for a few months (see elderberry).
I have described my preferred method for each plant but these aren’t hard and fast rules. Experiment and find what works for you. My essential herbs are:
Yarrow – Achillea millefolium
A common meadow plant flowering in late summer. Gather the entire stem and flowering head and dry for tea or use fresh for tincture. It relaxes blood vessels, allowing blood into areas of tension. The bitter taste helps the liver eliminate accumulated wastes. It is also anti-inflammatory. Take a strong hot infusion to promote sweating and reduce high temperatures, or for urine infections. Make a tincture to take regularly for irritated skin problems(eczema), period pains and heavy bleeding, before food for indigestion and sluggish bowels with piles. For toothache dig up fresh root, chew it into a pulp and pack it round the affected tooth. While you’re waiting for it to work, dig up a few more for later and a couple extra to dry for another time.
Elder – Sambucus nigra
Commonly found in hedgerows; flowering in May/June and ripe berries in August/September. Gather the flower stems, snip off as much of the green stems as you have the time or inclination for. Spread the flowers on paper to dry. Take them as a tea to tone up mucous membranes in the ears, nose and throat. They reduce catarrh and ease hayfever. Drink a hot tea to promote sweating and cooling of the body, perfect for colds and flu. People with hot, dry skin conditions that don’t sweat easily will benefit from this tea too. The infused oil of elderflowers is moisturising for dry skin.
Elderberry inhibits the flu virus. Collect bunches of purple berries and strip them from the green stalks with a fork. Dry them for tea, use them fresh for syrup or make a tincture.
Nettle – Urtica spp.
Nettles are a super food. Collect fresh young plants in early Spring. Cook and freeze in batches, dry to use for tea or in stews or soups.
To make nettle vinegar: chop fresh leaves and stems into in a jar and cover with cider apple vinegar. Shake daily for 2 weeks, strain and bottle. Use in salad dressings or add to vegetables, soups and bone broths.
Nettles inhibit histamine and reduce allergies. Drink daily before and during hayfever season. They are rich in minerals: iron, potassium, calcium and vitamins: C, B complex and beta carotene. These are all antioxidants. They promote urination and removal of inflammatory wastes from the blood, good for skin and joint disease like eczema, gout and arthritis. They also stop bleeding and their iron levels benefit new mothers, women suffering from heavy bleeding or anyone with anaemia. They also increase the flow of breast milk. The root is used as a treatment for enlarged prostate in men with problems urinating.
Dandelion – Taraxacum officinalis
Dandelions thrive everywhere. Harvest young leaves to eat in salads, chop into cider vinegar (see nettles), dry for teas or to tincture. The leaf increases urination and elimination of wastes. They are rich in potassium. Eat them daily for high blood pressure, joint disease or water retention. Dig up the roots in winter for fresh root tincture or dry them and gently roast until brown, to grind and use as a coffee substitute. The roots help the liver process wastes and toxins and improve digestion. Use them to cleanse a sluggish system that shows up as skin disease, PMT, hormonal imbalances, headaches, irritable bowel, gallstones, constipation and indigestion.
Pot Marigold – Calendula officinalis
Once you’ve grown Calendula it should self-seed every year. Pick the flower heads regularly to encourage more flowers. Use the fresh petals in salads and dry petals for teas.
Pack dried flowers in a jar, cover with sunflower oil and leave for 2 weeks. Strain, bottle and use it to heal itches, rashes, scratches and sore skin. Melt some oil and beeswax together for a salve.
Make a tincture with the flowers and take teaspoon doses regularly to promote healing, reduce scarring and inflammation, and to support the immune system. Calendula is antifungal, viral and bacterial. Its bitterness supports the liver, digestion and regulates menstruation.
Garlic – Allium spp.
Wild garlic (A. ursinum) grows wild but cultivated garlic (A. sativum) can also be used. Gather wild garlic leaves in spring for salads, soups and for pesto that can be frozen. Cultivated garlic bulbs store well. Garlic is a powerful anti-infective against virus, bacteria and fungus.
Infuse a chopped clove in oil for 12 hours, then strain and use for ear drops or rub on athlete’s foot or ringworm. Store the oil in the fridge and make it fresh every week. Chopped garlic on toast, or a salad of the leaves, fights infection anywhere in the body. Eat it till you smell of garlic, then keep eating it, until you are better. The smell is the anti-infective part. Chop cloves into honey and take a teaspoon every 2 hours for coughs, sore throats and colds. Garlic has powerful antioxidant properties protecting the heart and blood vessels from damage that leads to high blood pressure and heart disease. Include it daily in your diet for all its wide ranging health benefits.
Peppermint – Mentha spp.
There are many wild and cultivated mints in the UK. They are all medicinal. Peppermint relaxes spasm in the muscles of the intestines, skeleton and blood vessels in the head. Take a strong tea of fresh or dried leaves for colic, wind pains, irritable bowel, nausea and headaches, or to decongest sinuses and mucous coughs. It combines perfectly with elderflower and yarrow for colds and flu.
Make a cooling poultice for painful muscle injuries, aches, itchy bites, rashes and sunburn by moistening 4 tablespoons of dried herb with hot water and folding it into a clean cloth. Allow to cool and apply to the affected area for 30 minutes. Repeat as required.
Thyme – Thymus spp.
Cultivated thyme has the strongest medicinal effects. Wild thymes are smaller and difficult to gather in good quantities without affecting the population. You can gather the whole plant all year round. Thyme is anti-infective against viral, bacterial and fungal infections. Drink a strong tea of fresh or dried herb for infections in the mouth, throat, lungs, bladder or intestines. Dab thyme cider vinegar onto fungal feet daily for at least 3 months. Thyme is also antispasmodic and relaxes the airways and intestines. Take a tea or tincture regularly if you have asthma or irritable bowel.
Chamomile – Matricaria recutica
I have rarely found true chamomile in the wild. Those that look like it are usually mayweeds. The smell of the flowers and the hollow yellow centre of the flower is how you identify it.
It grows easily from seed. I have successfully grown it from an organic tea bag emptied into a seed tray! Scattering seedy flowers in late summer ensures baby plants in Autumn that will flower next year. Harvesting a decent amount of flower heads is a long job. Bunch together large flowering areas and cut them, green bits and all. The green bits are also medicinal. Dry it for tea or make a fresh herb tincture. Chamomile calms and comforts distress. Drink the tea for upset tummies, irritable bowel, stress and anxiety, insomnia and agitation. Use weak tea to settle teething, colicky or feverish infants and children.
A selection of local remedies
Migraines and headaches
If you suffer from headaches or migraines, feverfew is a herb you ought to grow. It’s an anti-inflammatory, and got its name from an age-old belief that it helped people suffering from fever. Today it is used mostly as a preventative measure for people wanting to relieve or stop migraines coming on. A survey of people suffering from migraine in the UK found that “more than 70% of them felt much better after taking an average of 2-3 fresh feverfew leaves daily”.(265) Chewing on a bit of white willow (Salix alba) bark will also help with any headaches, as it contains chemicals that work in the same way as aspirin.
One important note: herbs (or any painkillers) can be very effective in dealing with the pain and discomfort, but they are not cures, and therefore it is crucial that you begin to understand what is causing such pain in the first instance. Diet, levels of exercise, stress and digestion issues (amongst many other factors) will all play a role.
As well as hayfever, I get cold sores from time to time. There are a number of pharmaceutical brands that admittedly do work quite well (though I’ve no idea what the subsequent health consequences are of using them in a system as complex as the human body), but they really are unnecessary. I switched over to using lavender when I began living moneylessly, and if I use it early the cold sore doesn’t even get its foot properly in the door. It’s free, it’s natural and it’s an easy win.
Being allergic to grass is a weird ailment to have. I’ve suffered many summers with it in the past, and because higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere lead to higher levels of pollen,(266) many more of us are suffering too. As anyone who has tried to ease the symptoms using pharmaceutical products will attest to, they simply don’t work very well, and in my experience they just made me feel worse.
The great news is that there is a solution, and it requires zero money and only five to ten minutes of work. The remedy is a weed that grows as commonly as grass (you will find it amongst it) called plantain, and you’ll find it in plentiful quantities in both urban and rural settings. It’s a natural antihistamine, and turning it into the most potent hayfever remedy I know is easy:
• Harvest 10-30 leaves of this plant (depending on how acute your hayfever is), after using a reliable friend or book to help you identify it correctly. If you want to save time, pick as much as you can in one go and dry the rest in a pillow case on the radiator.
• Put the leaves in a saucepan, pour some cold water on them (so you don’t scald them) before soaking with boiling water. I’d recommend one or two litres, again depending on how potent you want it to be.
• Allow it to cool down before putting it in the fridge.
• If you want to sweeten it up, add some apple juice to it, but I find it fine as it is.
• Drink about 200ml twice or three times a day, as needed. Start before your hayfever normally starts, and keep it going throughout the hayfever period, or until it stops.
• Get outdoors and make up for all those summers you couldn’t fully enjoy.
• Tell any other hayfever sufferers about it if it works for you.
• Alternatively, make a fresh tincture from the leaves and take 1 teaspoon 3 times per day. It is also good for long-term allergies such as eczema and asthma. It also cools and calms hot, sore and irritated tissues in the bladder, stomach, intestines and airways.
I hesitate before telling you the next part of this story, for fear I’ll be labelled a bit kooky, as I’ve zero scientific evidence for it bar the empirical evidence gained through living my own life. After having spent a summer using plantain, which drastically reduced my symptoms, I decided that I was no longer going to do this silly hayfever thing. For over twenty five years I’d done it, and I’d had enough. It was stupid to be allergic to something as ubiquitous as grass. So around January of 2011 I decided to stop having hay fever. No drugs, no plantain, no nothing. Enough was enough. So everyday for the next six months I reminded myself that to be allergic to Nature was ridiculous, and told my body to stop reacting to harmless pollen in this way. It’s my body, after all, so I should be able to instruct it to react in ways that are helpful to me, the one who inhabits it.
This is the bit I am worried about relaying to you – it worked. I should be excited about telling you that, but I’m not, because I have no scientific evidence of why. I just know it worked. The reason why I am concerned is because the war between science and religion is now over. Science has become the new religion, and its followers are stricter fundamentalists than any you’ll find in Christianity or any conventional religion. This is not because I believe science has no place in the world – of course it has, and a very important one. But it is just one of a range of ways of understanding the world.
These are just a few examples from my personal experience of herbal medicines. For a much more comprehensive guide to herbal medicine, I would recommend Zoe Hawes’ Wild Drugs and James Wong’s Grow Your Own Drugs.(267) To learn how to cultivate natural medicines, Jekka’s Complete Herb Book(268) is useful.
Other local forms of healthcare
Apart from herbalism, there are many other forms of medicine and healing that don’t require complex technologies or infrastructure and that can be done locally. All that is needed is people with the right knowledge and skills, methods that were mastered in various parts of the world long before industrialisation. Options to choose from range from acupressure and chiropractic therapies to naturopathic medicines. Each one of these is a life’s work and a book in itself, but if you want to get an overall picture of the menu you have available to you, then Goldberg’s Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide is a very good place to start. I would also recommend asking members of your local Freeconomy group for advice, as alternative health-care is one of the most frequently shared skills on the global network.
Plasters for cuts
The underside of a birch polypore (a bracket fungus that you’ll find on birch trees) is a perfect moneyless alternative to plastic plasters. Simply mark out the shape of the plaster you want from its bottom side, using a knife. Peal away the outer layer of it, and place on your cut. It will often almost stick itself, but you can hold in place by twisting some grass together and tying it over the plaster and around the part of your body you’ve been cut on.