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Witch Hazel

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With its crimson or vibrant yellow flowers that bloom in winter and its name evoking the dark arts, witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) might seem to merit some connection to a magical realm.

With its crimson or vibrant yellow flowers that bloom in winter and its name evoking the dark arts, witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) might seem to merit some connection to a magical realm. But don't be concerned; it's not the dark arts but rather healing that witch hazel portends.

The name "witch" is a variant of the Old English "wych," meaning weak or bendable, referring to the plant's pliant branches used to make baskets and wicker. Still, those who have benefited from the soothing astringent action of witch hazel will never be fully convinced - the relief is truly magical.

From mouth sores to hemorrhoids, from sagging skin to abrasions, witch hazel has you covered. First Nations in Eastern Canada used the leaves, twigs, and bark of this indigenous plant to treat wounds, insect bites, ulcers, and piles. According to Steven Foster's Herbal Renaissance (Gibbs Smith, 1993) Algonquin tribes rubbed down their legs and arms with a witch hazel infusion to stay limber before athletic competitions and to relieve sore muscles after. A poultice of the bark soothed eye inflammations.

It's the Tannin

Of the more than 340 compounds identified in witch hazel leaves, stems, and bark, the most powerful are the water-soluble tannins, specifically hamamelitannin. These provide an astringent action, forming bonds between the collagen fibres of the cells of skin and mucous membranes, pushing out inflamed proteins and infection-prone mucus and pectin. In contrast the leaves and stems contain proanthocyanidins and gallic acid at levels two to three times higher than the bark. Leaves and stems thus have a more antioxidant, protecting action.

In simple terms, witch hazel sweeps away swelling, pain, and toxins and speeds the healing process, making our cells cleaner, stronger, and more resilient. Where tissue is enlarged due to inflammation (as with hemorrhoids) or loose due to damage or infection (as with diarrhea), witch hazel will tone and tighten, shrink and protect.

What's Available

Many different preparations of witch hazel are available at health food stores. Liquids, lotions, saturated pads, capsules, and suppositories can all be found. The most common product is distilled water of witch hazel, which sells over a million gallons each year throughout North America, according to Malcolm Stuart's Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism (Crescent, 1987). Bark, leaves, and stems of witch hazel are used to make the extracts or distilled waters and are also sold in bulk powders.

Safe to Use

Witch hazel is so safe to use the American Herbal Products Association has awarded it the highest safety classification. Some people have reported gastrointestinal stress from consuming too much witch hazel so don't use more than is recommended on package directions, according to the strength of your preparation. Distilled water of witch hazel is not intended for internal use. Instead make a tea or infusion: steeping two to three grams of leaf or bark in 150 mL boiled water for 10 to 15 minutes provides one serving. Consume no more than three servings per day. Externally, use as needed. It is very rare that someone has a reaction when witch hazel extract is used topically.

Begin your practice of the healing arts with a simple preparation of witch hazel and you too will feel the magic.

Family First Aid

My favourite form of witch hazel is a homeopathic preparation of arnica in a gel made from distilled water of witch hazel. It's ready to use and always with our family whenever we're outdoors. For sunburn we mix this gel with some refrigerated aloe vera gel for an extra soothing, cooling, and healing balm.

A Fresher Mouth

Some people who experience dry mouth claim to get relief from a pinch or two of witch hazel bark powder placed on the gums. Those who try this will first experience a rough feeling on the tongue and roof of the mouth because of the astringent action of the witch hazel tannins. Many will find their mouth feels drier than before but soon a fresh, cleaner layer of saliva will lubricate the mouth and, with a few days' use, the witch hazel bark powder will help strengthen mouth cells and prevent undue water loss.

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