Friday, July 20, 2007

Herbal Healer Q & A (Part III)

Q: I have very dry skin and during the cold winter months my knuckles crack and redden. Is there a good herbal salve I can use instead of perfumed lotions that make my skin itch?

A: This is a good question for this time of year and one that many people will want to know! I think that you already identified your problem when you said "perfumed." Most commercial creams and lotions are scented with synthetic essential oils. Sad to say, this is even true of many body care products sold in natural food stores. Why? Because synthetics are cheaper and come in all sorts of scents such as peach and berry that are not available naturally.

The problem is that synthetic essential oils are made with chemicals that, in my opinion, are not fit to put on your skin. Lots of people-probably yourself included-have a sensitivity to them that makes their skin itch, redden, or even develop into a rash. Add the drying effects of wintry, cold weather to this scenario and you're asking for troubled skin.

While an herbal salve is a logical alternative, finding a more natural lotion or cream is even better. That's because a salve is based on just oil. Oil does form a barrier to keep water from evaporating out of your skin, but lotions and creams contain protective oil plus water. It's a great partnership! The surface layers of skin are able to replenish themselves by absorbing the water and the oil keeps it from evaporating. Regular use of a cream or lotion should stop the redness and cracking.

Meanwhile, if the cracks are already deep and painful, then do opt for using an herbal salve in addition. The skin-healing properties of the herbs used in it will heal your skin and the additional oil will create an extra protective barrier. One tip is to apply the salve on your hands before you go to bed, then put on soft, cotton gloves, and leave them on all night. The gloves will keep the salve on your skin.

If you try several skin lotions that contain only natural essential oil, then your problem may be due to other ingredients in the product. In that case, try an unscented lotion that contains only very basic ingredients or make your own using simply water, oil, and beeswax. There is a basic recipe for cream and one for lotion in my book, Aromatherapy, The Complete Guide in the Healing Art (Crossing Press, 1995).

Q: Lately, I've had trouble sleeping from family problems. I'm terribly sensitive to drugs and over-the-counter sleep aids leave me groggy most of the day. Can herbs help?

A: You, and the millions of other people having temporary or long-term sleeping are in luck. Studies show that valerian and kava are two herbs that may work better than pharmaceutical sleeping pills, yet without feeling groggy the next day. In fact, people in one of the valerian studies reported that they actually felt sharper the next day-probably because they had such a good night's sleep! The probelm with herbs like valerian is that they are not such heavy hitters and may not work overnight like the drugs.

Don't stop with just herbs-treat yourself to a hot bath or massage with aromatherapy oils before sleep as often as possible. Good choices of essential oil are the stress-relieving lavender, chamomile, and/or ylang ylang. For a bath, add 3 to 5 drops of essential oil to the water. Also, be sure to get plenty of vitamins B and C in your diet, and consider taking additional supplements since stress rapidly depletes your body's supply of both these "anti-stress" nutrients.

There's an excellent book on dealing with stress by Dr. Emmett Miller called Deep Healing: The Essence of Mind/Body Medicine (Hay House, 1997).

Q: Can an anti-depressant such as St. John's wort help with my tendency to overeat when upset?

A: Probably not. As its recent media publicity describes, St. John's wort does indeed act as an anti-depressant. Apparently it does so by adjusting brain chemistry that is responsible for some types of depression. However, it sounds like you're not really looking for a way out of depression, but an avenue to better cope with life's disappointments. You may want to read up on self-help techniques such as meditation, yoga, bio-feedback, and positive thought and try to channel emotional distress into another direction besides eating.

Having said that, there may be other herbal allies that will help you. While herbs like valerian, fresh oats, and scullcap may not be the solution by themselves, they can work wonders to calm down your nervous system and alleviate stress. You'll find these popular ingredients in herbal combinations. Also see the other suggestions given for the previous question about sleeping better.

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