Six essential herbs for your first aid kit

by Danielle Charles

When I first began my studies of medicinal plants many years ago, my greatest teacher became the humble little kit of herbs I carried with me. As one teacher told me, the best way to become an herbalist is to start being one. By always having some first aid remedies on hand, I came across lots of opportunities to practice and actually experience the effects of the plants I was studying. The contents of my herb kit changed often in those first few years, as I experimented with different plants and began to get an idea of which we’re most effective. And as I refined my skill and got to know my plants a little better, my kit shrunk from a rather large and cumbersome bag – full of remedies for just about everything –  to a small and compact pouch with just a handful of essentials that could cover all the bases.

I’ve you’ve never used herbs before for yourself or your family, including a few herbal remedies in your first aid kit is just the place to start. What a wonderful thing it is to see the remarkable healing power of plants in action – to feel competent to rely on the plants and yourself for addressing many of the ailments you and your family will experience. For it is only quite recently that people have begun to feel so powerless in taking care of themselves, so unsure of how to address simple health concerns. In the past, if an injury or illness could be addressed at home, it was – using simple time tested folk remedies handed down through the generations. As herbalist Rosemary Gladstar says, “If your grandmother would have treated the problem at home, you probably can to.”

So, with the hopes of inspiring you to begin keeping your own herbal first aid kit, I’d like to share with you the herbs that I have found most useful and practical over the years, the ones that I include in my very own kit that I carry just about everywhere. I think you’ll find them quite useful.

Chamomile – Chamomile is such a wonderfully soothing plant – whether used topically to soothe rashes, burns or inflammations, or taken internally to soothe an upset belly or calm an irritable child. The plant contains an essential oil known as chamazulene that is strongly anti-inflammatory, quiets the nervous system and relaxes spasming muscle in the digestive tract. It also contains mucilage, a slimy type of polysaccharide that coats irritated membranes and cools and soothes. I keep a handful of teabags in my kit to use for any kind of digestive upset – from gas and bloating to diarrhea, finding it especially effective for children (even big children like husbands) who tend to get stomach upsets when they are irritable and tired. The soothing action can also help to slip you into dreamland, and hot tea bags can be applied topically to any sort of skin irritation, being especially nice to place over itchy, red or tired eyes.

Echinacea – Echinacea is an immune stimulant, helping to boost the activity of our immune system as well as providing its own anti-viral and anti-microbial properties. Taken at the first sign of illness, echinacea can often completely prevent a cold or flu, and used frequently throughout an illness,  has been found to dramatically decrease the length of infection. It’s anti-inflammatory and tissue strengthening properties make it wonderful for soothing sore throats. The tincture can also be applied topically to enhance local immune response in the skin and prevent the spread of infection – making it well suited for applying to cuts and scrapes, bites and stings or rashes. For colds and flus, take 1 tsp at the first sign of illness, and 2 dropperfuls every 2 hours after until symptoms subside.

Lavender – If you have just one herbal remedy in your home, it would have to be lavender essential oil – almost a first aid kit in itself. The essential oil is incredibly soothing to the skin, reducing inflammation and has antibacterial and antifungal properties. It is one of the best remedies for burns, and dramatically speeds the healing of cuts, scrapes and insect bites and stings. Applied to the temples, it helps to reduce headaches and nervous tension, and can be applied to a pillowcase to promote sleep.  When traveling on planes during cold and flu season, inhaling the oil can help protect one from the spread of infection.

Yarrow – Any herbalist would list yarrow in their list of essential herbs they couldn’t live without. It is simply the best remedy there is for stopping blood flow and promoting wound healing. While the fresh plant material is the best choice, I carry a small pouch of dried yarrow leaf for quenching blood flow from a wound. The leaf is simply crushed or chewed up slightly to release the active constituents, and then applied directly onto the wound, held in place with a little gauze or a band-aid. It works every time. It is similarly useful for slowing heavy menstrual bleeding or quenching blood flow in the digestive tract. Yarrow is also an excellent anti-viral, taken as a hot tea during a cold or flu to reduce fever by promoting diaphoresis. An infused oil of the fresh leaf can be applied to wounds and bruises to speed their healing time.

Arnica– Arnica homeopathic gel and tablets are another must have. Taken at the first sign of trauma, the tablets help to speed healing and reduce inflammation – especially useful before surgery. The gel can be applied to any injury or trauma, helping to reduce swelling and bruising, and speed recovery.

Crampbark – My last herb might be a different choice had I been a man, but being a woman who has experienced menstrual cramps, my first aid kit would not be complete without a uterine anti-spasmodic! Crampbark can work magic for painful menstrual cramps, taken internally  and applied externally on the lower abdomen. It also relaxes spasming in the digestive tract – useful for gas, bloating and diarrhea, as well as in the respiratory tract, helping to quiet a cough. I also apply it externally to relax tense muscles.

May these plants serve you and your family as well as they have served me. For more information on herbal first aide, please refer to The Healthy Traveler by Susan Kramer, Natural First Aide by Brigitte Mars, or Herbal First Aide by Rosemary Gladstar.