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Reviving the Art of Poulticing

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Reviving the Art of Poulticing

To our fast world of instant fixes, herbal poulticing may seem outdated and hardly worth the trouble required for preparation, but it can save time in the long run.

To our fast world of instant fixes, herbal poulticing may seem outdated and hardly worth the trouble required for preparation, but it can save time in the long run.

Once, while still a student of herbal medicine in England, I was stung by a bee. I was working on a herb farm in the depths of the Sussex countryside. The bee was exceptionally vicious and was undoubtedly protesting at the loud noise and smell of the lawn mower which disturbed his hive. The last time I had been stung by a bee, the bite had swollen to an enormous size even after administering slow acting antihistamines. "The next time this happens it could be fatal!" warned the old family doctor at that time. "You should get to a hospital as fast as you can."

Sure enough, my arm continued to swell but the hospital was 20 miles away and I didn’t have a car. Then I remembered chickweed. It’s called Stellaria media because of its tiny white star-like flowers. It’s also recognized by the little row of hairs that grow along one side of the stem. I crushed some between my fingers and applied the juice firmly on the bite for about 20 minutes. The fiery sting cooled almost at once and the swelling went down. After another 20 minute treatment, there was no evidence of the sting.

Chickweed draws the bee venom out of tissues and saves the body the much more costly process of putting up an allergic response. Applying this simple herbal poultice on an insect bite as soon as it occurs is much more efficient than injecting antihistamines after an allergic reaction is in full swing. It also effectively prevents the possibility of an anaphylactic shock. Chickweed can be used in the same way for removing slivers or broken glass. Plantain or ribwort (Plantago major or Plantago lanceolata) can also be used the same way. It’s less easy to crush but once you chew it a little, it works almost as effectively as chickweed.

Burn Out

Herbal poultices were relied on in our grandparent’s day to ward off more life threatening afflictions like pleurisy, bronchitis and pneumonia. An old stand-by was the mustard poultice which was thought to "burn out" a pulmonary infection. The 1867 British Pharmacopoeia lists the instructions for making a Cataplasm sinapsis or poultice. Two and a half ounces of powdered linseed (flax seed) is mixed with two and a half ounces of powdered mustard and hot water is added to make a paste. Put the linseed, into a coffee grinder for a minute to bruise the seed sufficiently to improve its drawing qualities.

Mustard can be obtained at the grocery store where it is still sold in little tin boxes. This mixture is then applied to a clean cotton cloth and placed face down on the chest over the lung and bronchial area. Do not leave it on the skin too long. Three to five minutes is enough for the first treatment. Make sure that all mustard is washed off. Keep the patient warm during the whole process.

Between poultices, oil of eucalyptus can be massaged on the chest, helping to disinfect the lungs. Yarrow, elderflower and peppermint tea breaks up catarrhal congestion.

Comfrey Poultice for Broken Bones

In days of yore, comfrey (Symphytum officinale) was called "knitbone." It was used to help mend broken bones and fractures. The plant contains alantoin, which heals bone tissue. I have seen outstanding results when comfrey poultices are used to heal broken hips in elderly people.

To make a comfrey poultice, the leaves and stems should be gathered before midday, while the alkaloids are lowest in the plant. Pass them through a juicer and then remix the juice and pulp. Spread onto a piece of clean cotton, the size of the area to be healed. Place face down on the skin with towels around it to protect from staining underwear or furniture. Leave for two hours and apply twice a day for several weeks. It’s a messy, time consuming process. Sitting still for four hours each day with a comfrey poultice often brings complaints from the patient, but the long term results are certainly worth the trouble. It should be noted that comfrey poultices are not advisable for healing open wounds and deep cuts as they heal the surface very quickly, possibly leaving lower layers to fester and abscess.

Kelp Soothes Arthritic Joints

The English physiomedicalist herbalist, Albert Priest, pioneered the use of kelp poultices for arthritic joints. Because kelp (Fucus vesiculosus) contains such a wealth of trace minerals and micronutrients, it is capable of "remineralizing" joint tissue which is notoriously poor in circulation. Kelp also works on swelling, drawing out inflammation and easing pain. By supplying local nutrition for reconstruction, it gradually resolves inflammatory joint conditions locally.

Kelp plaster or poultice is made by covering a quantity of powdered kelp with cold pressed olive oil and allowing it to be "digested" in a warm place for 48 hours. The paste-like mixture is then spread onto a clean piece of cotton and applied to the joint face down. It is then wrapped with plastic to keep it from drying out. It can be taped in place since it must remain in contact with the skin for 24 hours or more. The patient doesn’t have to remain immobile if the plaster is firmly affixed.

After removal, the area should be further poulticed for seven or eight minutes with alternating hot and cold water poultices to flush the tissue and help remove toxins. The kelp poultices can be repeated every two days. Good results are often achieved using this method for knees and hands. But the effects will be permanent only if the patient avoids sugar, salt, refined carbohydrates and acid forming foods such as pork and beef.

In my experience, the application of herbal poultices externally can be every bit as effective as taking them by mouth. Not only does the local application concentrate the medicament precisely in the area to be healed; it also provides rapid decongestion of the area, improved local circulation, antibacterial and scarring activity, and regenerative stimulation. Although to our fast world of instant fixes, herbal poulticing may seem outdated and hardly worth the trouble required for preparation, it can often save time in the long run, as well as resolve infections and inflammations that may be resistant to antibiotics and antiinflammatories.

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