The Snakeskin Medicine – Black Cohosh, Women, and Skin Care

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Black Cohosh (Actea racemosa), imperiled and replanted in Iowa City, IA – Photo Credit Mandy Garner-Dickerson, Moon in June Herbs

*Disclaimer* This article is meant to be a shared experience and insight by the author, not a suggested hormone therapy regime.  If you are curious about how certain hormone therapies and herbs could help treat your acne, please refer first to the guidance of a professional healthcare provider, your doctor, or a trained herbalist.

It’s a more interesting topic for the female half of the population: having healthy, glowing skin is a focus for many of us girls and women. Arguably, for the majority of us.

Females are most driven in our society to look good and appealing in the eyes of others.  Quite an unbearable pressure for some of us, but I won’t get into the whole feminist pickle that is here – and instead I’ll just stick to the herbalism.

Ironically, skin problems and acne tend to be the worse for women to deal with than men in our adult age.  Why?  Hormones.

As all of us females know, hormones control many aspects of our lives, and that is barely an overstatement.  Sometimes even our thoughts, feelings, opinions, and reactions during the day-to-day are governed by those crazy things.  Our only hope is to shrug off that idea, and pretend it isn’t true.

But if you ever find the time, sit down and have some tea with the closest woman to you in your life who has gracefully passed through menopause.  She is likely to agree with this sentiment, 100%.

The Hormone-Acne Connection

An herbal client of mine (and voluntary herbalist’s “guinea pig”) came and talked to me not too long ago on a completely non-herb related matter: her pretty much life-long struggles with acne.  What she ended up mentioning was that her doctor recommended she go on birth control pills to help control her skin problems.

I was honestly a bit flabbergasted, and as any herbalist with at least some handle on things would probably blurt out, I said “Why the heck would you do that?”

Followed immediately by “Why don’t you just start taking Black Cohosh?”

A little bit of science first: some women’s acne directly has to do with hormonal imbalance, as I stated earlier.  Thanks to a million different little factors in our modern-day existence, our estrogen gets screwed with – whether it be from “xeno-estrogrens” found in plastics all around us (packaging our food, for example), or from the birth-control pills that we think should be the standard for regulating our reproduction.

Through one way or another, the balance between estrogen and progesterone gets wacky.  This is especially noticeable right before menstruation- when estrogen levels plummet to give way to testosterone, one of the reasons why we get cranky and irritable.

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Graph of Average Hormone Fluctuations in Women – Women in Balance Institute – National College of Natural Medicine

When testosterone levels prevail over estrogen/progesterone in women’s bodies, that’s when acne erupts.  You get those big chin pimples, or zits on your chest, your cheeks, shoulders, or right underneath your shoulder blades.  Funnily enough, they pop up right where men usually have body hair.  The body secretes oils that it just doesn’t know what to do with.

It’s true – hormones don’t only affect our moods sometimes, but also the health of our skin. Fluctuations of female (but mostly – yes, believe it or not – male) hormones create excess sebum in the skin, which then lead to acne. For an excellent understanding of how it all works, check out this article here by the American Academy of Dermatology.

Back to the story about my client- her doctor told her just as much, that some women may not produce enough estrogen to counteract testosterone levels (this often has a lot to do with body type, genetics, or diet).  So he mentioned the idea of prescribing her birth control pills, something that is actually quite common. Even some dermatologists recommend it.

But what do you do if you want to take something natural, and moreover, if you aren’t sexually active or don’t even need contraceptives?  What if you are wary of the many side effects that birth control pills and I.U.D.’s might have?

Black Cohosh – Its History of Mimicking Estrogen

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, formerly Cimicifuga racemosa), along with some other popular herbs out there, is beginning to be an experimental treatment for acne among professional healthcare providers all over the country – not just herbalists.

Cohosh contains “phyto-estrogens,” or plant compounds that are thought to mimic estrogen.  When the herb is taken, the body reacts to it as if there was estrogen present – though it’s still not clear how.

Whatever goes on, human estrogen receptors are in some way affected by the plant’s constituents, making the body respond as if responding to estrogen.There are studies to support this use: here, and here.

Put two and two together – and you have yourself a possible alternative to birth control for acne treatment.

Traditional Use of Black Cohosh

Traditionally, Black Cohosh’s use is rooted in Native American medicine, used for female health and complaints long, long before its capsules have shown up on the shelves of natural food stores.

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One of the other names for the plant was once “Black Snakeroot,” believed to have an affinity to snakes (and specifically rattlesnakes – the flowers of the plant look an awful like the rattle on this venomous serpent).  Eastern First Nation peoples also used the plant as a cure for snake bites.

Now, the plant has a modernized use that emulates its “spirit animal” – for the skin.  Like a snakeskin being shed, Black Cohosh is an herb that can be of immense help to certain individuals to put on a new skin, shed the old, and find a new-found sense of confidence and beauty in their appearance.

Needless to say, my client was grateful and happy that she discussed the idea of taking birth control with me before she went ahead and just did it– sight unseen.  At my suggestion, she decided to give Black Cohosh a try.  A week later she emailed me.  “My skin is beginning to clear up!”

A few months later, I saw her in person, and I had never seen her skin that clear in years.

Mainstream healthcare still dubs the use of many herbs as “experimental” or “unproven,” but this is one where I saw the results right before my eyes.

Please consult with a professional healthcare provider or physician before considering taking Black Cohosh for any reason.

The Snakeskin Medicine

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Licorice of the Woods – Sweet Cicely or Sweetroot in Herbal Healing

**Disclaimer** The information in this article is NOT intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Its intent is to be purely educational; if suffering serious illness, please contact a professional healthcare provider.

Properties: Tonic, Bitter Tonic, Aromatic, Carminative, Adaptogen, Stimulating Expectorant, Demulcent, Anti-spasmodic, Immune Booster, Antimicrobial, Emmenagogue

Energetics: Damp and warming, Sweet

Parts Used: Root, sometimes leaves

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When first walking the woods of Iowa out by where I live, I came across swathes of forest that were completely carpeted with an interesting looking herb.

I turned to a few people I knew and asked them what it may be, describing it in detail.  One of them was an ecologist, another a biologist, and yet another a dedicated explorer of wilderness.

I was surprised that they were each baffled, having not fully noticed the plant before – as it really isn’t all that memorable or interesting to look at.

One of them suggested it was Greek Valerian, or Jacob’s Ladder, but those were not matches.  One of them even brought up Poison Hemlock: “No, no, no- definitely not that!”

A lot of time went by before thinking of the plant again, even though I continued to see it everywhere: while hiking, fishing, or gathering other herbs.  It is quite ubiquitous, but unremarkable in appearance.  Nonetheless, it learned how to catch my eye.

Then, through a series of interesting events, I stumbled upon a picture of this plant in one of my favorite plant guides.

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Sweet Cicely was what it was called, an obscure member of the Carrot Family, Apiaceae.  There was little information on it in herbals, so I didn’t focus on it too much.

Then, I was shocked and pleased to discover that it was considered to be a very important cornerstone in Cherokee Herbal Medicine, via herbalist David Winston.

With some study I came to understand that it was also important to many other First Nations in our history as well, collectively a stomach/bowel remedy and Woman’s Medicine.  In the end, though – it was the word adaptogen that rang in my ears.

This plant is not to be confused with the Sweet Cicely of European Herbalism fame, Myrrhis odorata.  They do have some effects in common; but this low-growing plant found in damp, intact woodlands is very much native to the United States, and here in Iowa particularly.

To avoid mix-up with its cousin Myrrhis, I have opted to call it “Sweetroot” instead, and will refer to it as such throughout this article.

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The fuzzy leaves of sweet cicely, or sweetroot, slowly unfolding in spring.

Belonging instead to the genus Osmorhiza, the species longistylis and claytonii are quite prevalent in the Midwest, with occidentalis being the denizen root of the Rocky Mountains and the West.

As my beginning story foretells, this plant blends inconspicuously and expertly with the surrounding undergrowth.  There is hardly anything remarkable about it, nothing suspicious in its humble appearance, as it grows undistinguished and modest among its fellows.  

It’s only when you read about it, and learn to pick it out – like I did – and dig up your first plant at the root, taking a little nibble at its sweet, licorice taste, that you realize the true significance of the medicine you’ve stumbled upon.  Then, standing up and looking around at the sheer numbers of this plant surrounding you, it dawns on you exactly what wonderful prospects this plant may hold!

Smelling or taste-testing Sweetroot, in the process of its harvest, is quite important.  Some roots are medicinal, and some are not.

The most medicinal ones are those plants with roots having the strongest licorice aroma, a smell found also in some of Sweetroot’s relatives in the Carrot family.  This smell indicates the presence of anethole, a camphor that is found in other herbs like Licorice, Anise Hyssop and Basil.

Anethole spans across different plant families, but is most commonly found in the world’s favorite medicinal and culinary herbs.

The smell itself is a signal of Sweetroot’s remedy.  You can usually tell with a few sniffs of the plant, or smelling your hand after handling the root.  I personally like to take a few nibbles.

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Poison Hemlock, a dangerous look-alike to Sweet Cicely. Especially when both are young, they look quite a bit like one another – only Sweet Cicely (or Sweetroot) will have that strong, licorice aroma. – Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

First of all, though, make absolutely, 100% sure that the plants you are looking at are indeed Sweetroot plants.  

Some people have been known to mis-identify Sweetroot with its dangerous cousin, Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum).  A nibble of Poison Hemlock root will send you head-long into the beginnings of poisoning and symptoms of heart failure.

If you are not confident with your plant identification skills, bring someone with you who is experienced with this plant for harvesting –  whether that be a biologist, botanist or very experienced herbalist.

For those who are confident, Poison Hemlock leaves have a stronger resemblance to Parsley (also a relative) while Sweetroot leaves have a softer, feathery look, more similar to Angelica (yet another relative, too!).

With so many mentions to its close relatives, Sweetroot shares in some of their attributes too.  Southwestern herbalist Kiva Rose touches upon Sweet Cicely’s actions as a gastrointestinal aid.

With roots that remind one of the tastes of Anise, Fennel and Tarragon, Sweetroot occupies a similar herbal niche, promoting and assisting with difficult or troubled digestion.  Says Rose of the occidentalis species, “[Sweetroot is] very belly soothing for all kinds of nausea, infection, and general belly out-of-whackness.”

Its warming actions are perfect for cramps of the stomach, and the spasms of hiccups.

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A preparation of the herb would do well as an aperitif or digestif; and with its delicious taste, I can’t help but envision it as the perfect addition to an herbal beverage, swirling with cool cucumbers or a sprig of mint.

My fiance and fellow wild-food enthusiast William Lorentzen, upon taste-testing the root along with me, commented on how awesome it would be stir-fried and thrown into Indian and or Thai dishes!

As a warming ally to the digestive tract, Sweetroot’s effects also extend to female complaints.  Like another one of its close relatives, Angelica, a signature of bitter aromatics indicates a calming remedy for cramps and spasms of the uterus.

A classic bit of herbal lore holds the use of candied Angelica root, on hand, for chewing during the worst of menstrual cramps.  I have often thought that, to the same capabilities, Sweetroot may be excellent for the very same use – a candied root would be quite scrumptious.

Finnish Herbalist Henriette Kress talks about keeping candied Angelica roots in her purse for chewing at the onset of “moon sickness,” in the first installment of her book, Practical Herbs.  

American Indian women from various tribes were apparently acquainted with its ability to ease difficult menses.  The Chippewa particularly were cited to use a hot decoction of the root for bringing on delayed periods.

In fact, we certainly have Native American tribes to thank for the knowledge of its use at all, even though it is not one of the most recognized herbs today.

Predominantly Midwestern nations, who would have had access to the species Osmorhiza longistylis and claytonii, are mentioned as pioneering Sweetroot’s use as both a stomach and female remedy, but also as a “woundwort.”

Among these are the Omaha, Meskwaki, and Ojibway peoples, but doubtless there are many more.

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Through David Winston, practitioner of Cherokee Herbal Medicine, we have knowledge of its use by the Cherokee Indians.  Thanks to him and Cherokee folk medicine people, a bit of recognition for the plant is slowly entering the consciousness of mainstream herbalism, and it’s about time!

Winston says the root was, and still is, used to strengthen the weak and those with “depleted life force,” helping the frail put on weight.  The root was decocted and drank as a tea, most likely.

In Matthew Wood’s classification of herbs, this plant would likely to be designated a Bear Medicine for the very reasons of being nutritive, sweet, tasty, and restoring strength.

But what is probably of greatest interest to herbalists is Sweetroot’s ability to fulfill the role of an adaptogen- because it is an adaptogen!

Strengthening and toning the body is only one thing it does.  But Cherokee herbalism would have it that it is also tonifying to the lungs and mucus membranes, replenishing what is called “deficient lung qui” in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and improving our overall abilities to cope with illnesses, stress, and other undesirable changes.

Having the plant handy going into the winter and cold/flu season is another facet of its use.  It can be categorized with other herbs like Ginseng, Reishi mushroom and Schizandra for having similar effects to some extent.

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Winston goes so far as to say, with confidence, that one could replace the use of both Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) and Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous) with Sweetroot in their herbal practice.  Sweetroot was actually compared strongly to Licorice, having similar flavor, adaptogenic qualities, and effects suited to colds, coughs and sore throats.

That, to me, isn’t even the most intriguing part of discovering Sweetroot’s capabilities as an adaptogen.

Due to its availability, as well as comparing it to other adaptogens – and being an herbalist who prefers the forage/use of wild native herbs – Sweetroot is perfect for someone who wants to keep their practice as ethical and sustainable as possible, without having to think about the welfare of the entire species. Populations of Osmorhiza, around that States, are considered federally stable.

One thinks of the examples of more widely-known adaptogens: plants which typically are known for being rare or endangered, as in the case of Ginseng; plants that are a challenge to fully cultivate and use as our own personal medicines, such as Ashwagandha or Reishi; or herbs that seem unethical or very distant, as they are sourced from other countries thousands of miles away, like Jiao-Gu-Lan.

Many famous adaptogens are of Asian origin, and the native ones that we wish to feel close to here in the Midwest are herbs that we should leave alone: that includes the wild Ginseng and Licorice we take pride in.  Of course, they can be cultivated, but experienced herbalists know firsthand that cultivation just isn’t the same.  Neither is knowing a plant strictly through a capsule or imported tincture as satisfying as knowing and working with the plant personally.

Which is why I would urge any herbalist who relies on adaptogens to get acquainted with Sweetroot, whether it be just for themselves and their families or a clinical practice.

If you wish to be an herbalist and fit seamlessly into an ecological or bioregional niche of herbalism, you’re not being practical leaning on a plant like Eleuthero to cover those bases (although Eleuthero has its own wonderful virtues).

Popular adaptogens are amazing and legendary for their effects on health – but can you form a wild relationship with the plant?  Probably not.  The best adaptogen you can form a personal rapport with, in the wild Midwest, would be Sweetroot.

If you live in the Midwest or Eastern United States, take a walk in damp woods near a creek or river, and you’ll probably find Sweetroot: growing with Wood Nettles, Virginia Snakeroot, Elder, even Morel mushrooms in spring.

Just like its common forest companions – there is plenty to spare.  Not something that could be said for an admirable and unequivocal adaptogen like Ginseng, even though Sweetroot is not near as strong.

All the same, it is amazing what the bond of herb and herbalist can do.  If you do choose to harvest it for yourself or others, remember always to harvest responsibly.

Homemade Sweet Cicely Tincture - Photo taken by Adrian White
Homemade Sweet Cicely Tincture – Photo taken by Adrian White

 

References

A Modern Herbal by M. Maude Grieve.  Randall Scheiner, Federal Ecologist.  Lisa Maas, Federal Biologist.  David Winston, Cherokee Herbalist/CRC Handbook of Medicinal Spices, James A. Duke and other editors.  Kiva Rose/The Medicine Woman’s Roots.  Practical Herbs by Henriette Kress.