Herbs are the undervalued helpers in our diets. Sure, they spice up our foods and beverages, but they also play a role in supporting digestion, mood, and healthy immune system function. Jenny McGruther helps us explore their role in the diet and in our health. Jenny is a nutritional therapist, herbalist and the author of three natural foods cookbooks: The Nourished Kitchen, Broth and Stock, and Vibrant Botanicals, her latest cookbook which features culinary and medicinal herbs.
Jenny tells the story of how her own struggle with anxiety led her down the path to explore the world of culinary and therapeutic herbs. She explains how herbs have different vital properties (some stimulate, some relax us, for example) and how understanding these properties can help us choose the herbs that might be the most beneficial for our bodies. She gets specific about herbs that help the body handle stress, like astragalus, and offers advice about which herbs to start including in the diet.
Visit her website: nourishedkitchen.com
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Herbs For Energy, Healing, & Vitality
Within the below transcript the bolded text is Hilda
Herbs are the undervalued helpers of our diets. Of course, they spice up our foods and beverages but they also play a role in supporting digestion, mood and healthy immune system function. This is episode 322 and our guest is Jenny McGruther. She is a nutritional therapist, herbalist and the author of three natural foods cookbooks, The Nourished Kitchen, Broth and Stock and Vibrant Botanicals, which is a cookbook featuring culinary and medicinal herbs.
Jenny tells a story of how her own struggle with anxiety led her down the path to discovering the world of culinary and therapeutic herbs. She explains how herbs have different vital properties, some stimulate and some relax, for example and how understanding these properties can help us choose the herbs that might be the most beneficial for our bodies. She gets specific about herbs that help the body handle stress like astragalus and she offers advice about which herbs to start including in the diet.
Thank you to our sponsor EarthRunners.com . Use the code WISETRADITIONS for 10% off your order. Happy earthing.
And our sponsor The Health Freedom Defense Fund, go to HealthFreedomDefense.org.
Visit her website: nourishedkitchen.com
Learn more about the Health Freedom Defense Fund
Welcome to the show, Jenny.
Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
I’m excited to talk about herbs. Talk to me a little bit about motherwort, one of the herbs you mentioned in your book.
Motherwort is an herb that is traditionally used for women after childbirth in European traditions and it is wickedly, aggressively bitter. It’s in the mint family. Unlike aromatic mints such as peppermint and spearmint, motherwort lacks that menthol-like aroma. Instead, it comes with this aggressive bitterness. Initially, it’s off-putting but for me, but there was something in my body that craved this plant over and over again. This was shortly after I gave birth to my second child. My body was highly responsive to this herb. It resonated with me. You’ll find that when you work with herbs and taste, try, sit down and meditate on how you feel when you eat, you will likely find an herb that resonates for you in the same way that motherwort resonated for me.
What did it do for you, Jenny?
I have dealt with anxiety throughout my life. Motherwort has a unique ability to help soothe anxiety and ease worry. This is why it was traditionally used postpartum for women. What was interesting about it is that its Latin name or binomial is Leonurus cardiaca, which means lionhearted. It has this ability to fortify the spirit. If you imagine feeling lionhearted, that’s what motherwort does. It has this twofold approach to supporting people with anxious worry. One, it helps to quell the anxious worry and also on the second part is it helps to support and soothe the heart. If you are the type of person, when you feel anxious or worried, that your heart starts to pound or pulse increases, motherwort is a good option. I found that it helped me a lot.
Is it related to St. John’s wort? Because I’ve heard of that.
It’s not related. St. John’s wort works on a different biochemical path but for a lot of people, St. John’s wort can be incredibly helpful, too. That’s the thing that’s so fascinating about herbs. You have this plethora of botanicals from which to choose so it is about finding which resonates with you.
That is fascinating and I want to explore that. I want to talk to you more about motherwort. If it’s indeed bitter, how do you think our ancestors or traditional peoples found that it would work? Usually, if we taste something that’s bitter, our bodies don’t want any part of it or at least our mouths don’t.
Bitterness usually indicates toxicity on some level. How do you come to know these bitter plants and their benefits if initially, they taste so awful? There’s a lot of traditional foods that are off-putting. Let’s think of hákarl, which is the Icelandic fermented shark. That stuff is a tough go when you first try it. Many of these foods are foods of desperation and foods of hunger. Eventually, they become part of our traditions in general, our food traditions and our food culture.
With motherwort specifically, there’s this element of bitterness being therapeutic that you see run through quite a few traditions. It’s in European traditions when you think of digestive bitters. It is in East Asian traditions when you think of the balance of flavors that people attempt to relay in their cooking. There’s this worldwide perspective in both culinary and herbal traditions that value bitterness for its therapeutic properties. That speaks to its importance in the same way that you also see other threads of unity in traditional foods, broth making or fermenting. This idea that bitterness is somewhat therapeutic is another thread that you see cross-culturally.
Is that how you got introduced to medicinal herbs and this whole world of vibrant botanicals through the kitchen?
Absolutely. For me, it’s about creating something on the plate that is impactful and beautiful that is flavor-forward and makes you feel good. Our food should taste good. We have this idea that healthy food needs to taste like cardboard. Healthy food has to be a punishment. It’s this puritanical approach that you see woven into the threads of American food culture, specifically wellness and diet culture. For me, our food tastes amazing and herbs are one way to do that.
My focus is definitely culinary. However, my particular interest in healing botanicals and medicinal herbs comes from my own health journey. I was sick in my early twenties. I go to the doctor and they’d be like, “It sounds like a thyroid disease,” or, “It sounds like this. All your labs are fine. Go home. It’s all in your head.” This went on for 3 to 4 years before the labs finally caught up with how I was feeling. This is a common thing that we see especially among women who tend to see a longer period between the onset of symptoms and receiving a diagnosis. When you’re not getting what you need, you have to look elsewhere for it. My interest in herbalism and nourishing real foods came from my own journey in seeking answers for my own health as well. All the better that it tastes delicious.
Let’s go back to the kitchen since you mentioned things tasting so good. Why do we get in these ruts, Jenny, of using only garlic, ginger, rosemary and thyme?
Here’s the thing, I get in those ruts, too. I write cookbooks and I develop recipes. I understand that we do fall into these ruts. It’s because there’s so much vying for our attention at any given time. We have obligations with work and with family. We’re caretakers and we have volunteerism. There are so many things that are vying for attention that it’s hard sometimes to find the time, energy and creativity to put something new on the plate. You fall back on what you know and what’s easy. Garlic and ginger are wonderful, by the way. Garlic, ginger and rosemary are all fantastic herbs. If that’s what you’re comfortable cooking with and that’s what we love, more power to you. There’s a wealth of other things that you can begin to try and sometimes, you just need a little push in the right direction to get out of that rut and rediscover that creativity and make time for a little self-care, too.
It blew my mind in your book that you talked about the vital energy of herbs. In other words, they don’t just bring us flavor. They bring us much more. Do you want to talk about those different elements of vital energy?
In concepts of herbalism, there’s this idea of herbal energetics that certain herbs, in addition to their specific actions and that is how they work within the body. There’s this energetic level in which they work as well. Some herbs are drying, moistening or stimulating. Think of coffee or tea or chocolate. Those are all stimulating plants. Some herbs are relaxing. Think of chamomile or lavender. Even mint or thyme has a relaxing component to it.
All of these energies are broad ways in which plants work. When you respect that vital energy, the energetic level of these individualistic plants and then you take that and look at it in the context of how they specifically work. For example, there’s some research that points to lemon balm as being supportive of people with anxiety or astragalus as being supportive of the stress response system. You look at those actions and then you look at the broader energetics of the plant and you can find what may work for you as an individual.
Do you think you can do that on your own? Should I go and buy a bunch of these herbs and start experimenting? Do I need somebody to walk me through?
If you are looking at herbs as part of a therapeutic approach to wellness or your health, I would caution you to work with a clinical herbalist or a doctor who is well-versed in herbs. If you’re looking at them as part of your healing, those people can help to navigate all of the herbs because they come from this wealth of knowledge to help you pinpoint what might work for you. If you were then, instead of looking at just enjoying more herbs in your kitchen, read about them, try them out, try a few teas and infusions and throw some parsley and thyme into your soups and stews. Find out how they resonate with you on a personal level. You have the option to explore what’s out there on your own and to see if it resonates for you. If you’re looking at herbs from a therapeutic perspective, working with a trained practitioner is the way to go.
What’s crossing my mind is in the olden days, there were grandparents or people around us. We lived in multi-generational households where you would get guidance like, “She’s not feeling well. Let’s add this herb. My grandmother used the bark from this tree for that condition.” We’re so far removed from that now that maybe that’s one reason we need help.
Many people in these upcoming generations were never taught how to cook, let alone how to maybe support somebody who has a light fever or who has the sniffles through botanical medicine. All of this generational knowledge has been stripped of us and that’s a great loss. Fortunately, we’re seeing a rise in interest in herbs, nourishing foods and these culinary traditions that healed and supported generations of healthy people. That rising interest is fueling new industry.
Speaking of industry, some people are like, “This sounds way too involved. I would rather just pop a pill if I’m feeling sad.”
If that’s how you feel and that’s what works for you, you should be empowered to make those decisions for your health just as I should be empowered to make decisions to choose motherwort and lemon balm for myself. Ultimately, respecting one another’s individual choices is valuable. However, I find it empowering and I find it to be a better course of action for myself and my family to choose natural methods as a first course.
I’ve noticed a few times in this conversation, Jenny, you’ve said, “See if it resonates for you,” or, “Do what would work for you.” Why this leaning toward intuition so much?
Our bodies have an innate intelligence to them. In many ways, our ability to tap into that innate intelligence has been quashed. It’s an act of self-care. Trying to move into that place of intuition can be a valuable and empowering action. We’re always looking on the outside for answers, not just about food. Sometimes, those answers can only come from within. It’s not just an exercise and saying, “Does this mint infusion resonate for me?” “Jenny has a poached pear recipe with chamomile. That sounds good. Does that resonate for me?” It’s more about using your intuition to come to the world in an empowered sense. That’s what it is for me. It’s more than just the food.
That is a beautiful thought because not only are we disconnected from our ancestors and this wisdom that we’re talking about but we’re disconnected from ourselves.
In many ways, that’s true.
I’m appreciative because you give us the Vibrant Botanicals book as a resource for those who are ready to explore. Was it just a bunch of recipes or do you give some of the ideas behind the vital energy of the herbs, for example?
The first chapter goes into herbal energetics. For example, if an herb is stimulating, what does that mean? If an herb is drying, what does that mean? What are the implications in which herbs are that? What are the energies of herbs and how do you know? It then goes through safety precautions and finding which works for you, as well as providing a couple of basic recipes for herbal oils.
Safety precautions, is an herb going to try to kill me?
All of the herbs that I’ve chosen for this book are safe in culinary amounts, which is the case for almost every year. If you’re eating or cooking with herbs in culinary amounts, it’s going to be safe. However, there are certain people who should take precautions with herbs. Remember, they are bioactive and then paying attention to that. For example, if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you’ll need to pay attention to which herbs are acceptable for that part of your life.
If you are taking other medications, remember these herbs, their naturally occurring chemical compounds will work upon along the same pathways as a pharmaceutical drug will. There are maybe herb-drug interactions if you are taking a pharmaceutical medication and also wanting to use herbs therapeutically. By therapeutically, I mean to exact a result as opposed to just splashing a few sprigs of fresh mint to your morning yogurt. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, if you are taking medication or if you have a medical condition, it’s always wise to seek counsel from your practitioner.
What resources did you go to Jenny in exploring all this? How did you become so knowledgeable about herbs?
There are many resources available. There are wonderful herbalists working who have written brilliant books. There is Aviva Romm who wrote Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health. She’s a fantastic resource. I did my coursework through the Herbal Academy. I studied with herbalists as well. In addition to that, I dove deep into the clinical research on herbs which is profound. There’s a lot of research on herbs being done in Southwest Asia and East Asia, as well as Eastern Europe. They’re studying the herbs and their implications for diabetes, depression and all sorts of things.
What herb are you using in your kitchen or therapeutically that’s second nature now that maybe several years ago you weren’t using? I’m curious.
I have been using a lot of nettle and red raspberry leaf. I was using these several years ago, too. Those are my go-to for nourishing mineral-rich herbal infusions. They’re nutrient-dense herbs and high in various minerals. They’re good in general but particularly for women in their childbearing years. I favor those two.
Where can we get those?
You can buy those herbs at just about any herb shop if you have a local herb shop. Sometimes farmer’s markets will have people selling herbs but I would recommend Mountain Rose Herbs. That’s where I bought my herbs for years.
We know them. We love them.
Mountain Rose Herbs always have such impeccable quality and you can grow your own as well if you can do it.
When you were starting to stretch your routine and your kitchen and add new dishes with new herbs, which was one of the first ones that you were like, “This tastes so good.” Which ones surprised you by either their flavor or their healing medicinal properties?
One of the ones that I have found to be the most versatile has been lemongrass. That has such an incredible pop of flavor. It is incredibly bright with this floral citrusy flavor that pops. It’s used a lot in Southeast Asian cookery where you’ll find it added to soups, stews and things like that. I like to add it to other infusions to get that zip of citrusy floral aroma going. It’s good when added to poultry mixed with vanilla in a panna cotta. We make ice cream from raw milk and I’ll infuse that milk with lemongrass and lemon balm. It has this delicate but citrus-like flavor that is more versatile than we give it credit for.
I am feeling inspired already to try to get a little bit more variety in the herbs that I choose for my cooking. One herb that surprised me in the book that I hadn’t heard of before was astragalus. Can you tell us more about it? You said it helps support our body’s ability to handle stress.
Astragalus is the woody part of the root so it’s a root. It is what we call an adaptogen. An adaptogen is an herb that helps your body respond to various stressors, whatever those stressors might be. They could be external stressors such as traffic, tough relationships or anything that is contributing stress to your body, as well as stressors such as viral illness. It’s an interesting herb. It works along the HPA axis, which is your body’s stress response system. It helps to buffer your body against all of these stressors. In addition to that, it has some antiviral components as well, which are worth looking into. If your body is stressed by illness or the sniffles or whatever, it’s a great herb to choose.
What recipes do you have in your book that include the astragalus?
There is a good astragalus immunity tea. It’s got all of these other herbs in there. You’ve got astragalus which buffers your body against stress and has some antiviral components. It also has ginger which is great for blood sugar management and is strongly anti-inflammatory. It also has star anise. Here’s a trick about star anise. Most of what is grown go to the pharmaceutical industry for the production of things like Tamiflu. It also has some immune-supportive activity. There’s a nice Assam tea to finish. You infuse those medicinal herbs and then you add the Assam tea and milk. It becomes this wonderful, delicious and spicy tea but not spicy hot. It’s more delicate than that. It supports the immune system. It tastes phenomenal and it’s a great winter tea.
I was wondering, could you put it in the freezer and turn it into popsicles?
Yeah. You could pour it over ice like an iced latte. That is delicious, too. Can you imagine sipping that on a summer day? You get all these wonderful spices. It’s nice and cooling.
Jenny, what would you say to the hardcore carnivore? There are a lot of people out there leaning carnivores who might say, “Herbs are for herbivores. I have no need of them.”
If you find that a hardcore carnivore diet works for you, more power to you. You know you’re probably the best. However, you are missing out on huge amounts of flavor and pleasure and botanical medicine that comes from herbs. You can still eat a predominantly carnivorous diet while incorporating a few botanical plants here and there.
That’s what I was thinking. You could add the herbs to the meat.
It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. What’s most important is that there’s a pleasure to be had here. We make things taste good.
That’s our perspective at the Weston A. Price Foundation. The Wise Traditions diet or way of life is not one of deprivation. It’s a great pleasure because there’s nothing particularly off the table. To add herbs sounds like it’s going to make it even more pleasurable so I’m glad we’ve had this conversation. I have two more questions for you. What’s a simple herb that folks might start to include to get started with a more herby life so to speak?
Mint is a simple herb that you can add. You can find it at just about any grocery store. You can grow it yourself and you will have more than enough for yourself and your neighbors. It’s easy to use. It’s great to chew a few mint leaves after a heavy meal for digestion. You can make yourself an herbal tea from it. You can add it to all sorts of different foods. We like to add it to salads. There are loads of recipes for mint in the cookbook as well. It’s easy to find, easy to use and has great flavor. It provides some digestive support, which we all could use.
There’s a reason they include that flavor in all the toothpaste and stuff.
Also, after-dinner mints.
There was something behind that.
Bitter cocktails before your meal because bitters help us stimulate digestion. Those are made from herbs and then you have your meal and then you have your after-dinner mints which help soothe digestion after your meal. Here’s the coolest thing. We have these traditions existing now, where you go out to eat and you have a cocktail with bitters. You start off with a salad of bitter greens and maybe some lemon and olive oil or vinegar and olive oil. Those traditions started because they were nourishing to your body because bitterness helps to kick start digestion then you have your meal. You finish off with fennel or mint or something like that. You can see where these traditions are still included in our culinary culture but we forgot what the meaning is behind them.
Also, all that they can do for us. You’re so right. I want to pose the question for you now, Jenny that I often pose at the end. If the reader could do one thing to improve their health, maybe related to what we’ve been talking about or maybe not, what would you recommend that they do?
I recommend that people focus on small incremental steps. For example, maybe it is just making your first batch of broth or switching out from a store-bought salad dressing to a regular salad dressing. Maybe it means you’ve already done those things and now it’s time to start incorporating medicinal plants into your life. One small step at a time until it becomes part of your lifestyle and then move on to the next.
That’s exactly how I started with the Wise Traditions way of living. I was like, “One year is the year of butter.” It’s just a little swap to that real fat and away from the country crock and stuff. Little by little, now we’re all about this stuff all the time, which is amazing.
You’ll feel incrementally better and it doesn’t overwhelm you. It works.
Thank you for your time, Jenny. It’s been a pleasure.
It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much, Hilda.
Our guest was Jenny McGruther. Visit her website, NourishedKitchen.com. I’m Hilda Labrada Gore, the host and producer of the show for the Weston A. Price Foundation. You can check out my website at HolisticHilda.com. Now, for our review from Apple Podcasts, Always uplifting by Tigerboii. “I’ve been subscribed for the last year and have felt absolutely nurtured by this podcast. In a time of growth and perseverance, I am in awe of how well-balanced and supportive this show is. Go somewhere else if you want to be told what to do. This podcast encourages you to make changes while enabling you with excellent information straight from the source of knowledge and experience.” Tigerboii, thank you for this positive review. It means a lot. If you’d like to, you can also go to Apple Podcasts and click on the rating and review little tab. Leave us a few stars and tell us what you think of the show. Thank you in advance and stay well, my friend. Thank you for reading. Hasta pronto.
About Jenny McGruther
Jenny McGruther is a nutritional therapist, herbalist and the author of three natural foods cookbooks including The Nourished Kitchen, Broth and Stock and Vibrant Botanicals – a cookbook all about cooking with culinary and medicinal herbs. You can follow her online on at Nourishedkitchen.com.
- Jenny McGruther
- The Nourished Kitchen
- Broth and Stock
- Vibrant Botanicals
- Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health
- Mountain Rose Herbs
- Apple Podcasts – The Wise Traditions Podcast
- Earth Runners
- Paleo Valley
- Health Freedom Defense Fund
- Donate to the Weston A. Price Foundation