Herbs with healing potential

Not Just a Garnish

by Mollie Doyle

Not Just a Garnish

Arthur Shilstone

The world's most popular herb, parsley, is used in kitchens everywhere. Aside from being dusted on top of finished plates, this plant has a feel-good factor.  

I love fresh herbs. they not only taste good, they make food feel special. A few chives transform scrambled eggs into a celebration. Sage makes butter elegant and wise. And the simplicity of fresh mint in boiling water feels ceremonial. One of the most thrilling things about this time of year is the promise of an herb garden. I can’t wait to walk outside in the cool, early summer air to snip a few sprigs of rosemary for my water, or to crush a few leaves of lemon thyme between my fingers and inhale its earthy fragrance.

A friend in New York, who suffers from acute arthritis, told me about a doctor who prescribes fresh herbs for the health of his patients’ spines and joints. A physiatrist is a medical doctors who helps patients restore muscular, bone, tissue and nerve function after an injury (such as stroke). Intrigued, I checked out his book, Arthritis RX. Dr. Vijay Vad, of New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery, makes the case that fresh herbs are a key nutritional agent for helping the body fight inflammation. He explains that inflammation is a naturally occurring self-protective process that the body develops when hurt. White blood cells will rush to an injured area and immediately begin to fight any potential harmful bacteria.

Unfortunately, because of the increasing amount of chemicals in our food, this response now happens when we eat. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG.org), no matter how well we feed ourselves—organic, local, even vegan—most of our food has traces of chemicals in and on it. Our white blood cells react to these chemicals in our food by attacking them. Over time, our gastrointestinal tracts and other body systems become irritated and inflamed. This pattern of inflammation can eventually lead to disease. In fact, a recent and highly lauded Harvard Medical School study has linked this kind of chronic inflammation to arthritis, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and even the onset of type-2 diabetes.

Wanting to learn more, I called Holly Bellebuono, the proprietor of Vineyard Herb Teas & Apothecary in Chilmark, which makes some powerful tinctures and teas. While using herbs as a means of preventative and alternative care for our bodies may be new to Western medicine, it is not be new to Holly, who has spent her career helping people learn to use herbs to address specific health needs. When I asked her about the anti-inflammatory potential of herbs, she told me, “Yes, but herbs are so much more than that. They offer an amazing amount of vitamins and minerals and can deliver them to the body more efficiently and effectively than even a fruit or vegetable—especially if you imbibe them via a tincture or an herbal tea.”

She explained the difference between eating a plate of kale versus drinking a cup of nettle tea: “While they are both high in iron, calcium, and other important minerals like zinc, tea is much easier on your digestive system. The water has extracted the key vitamins and minerals so you don’t have to digest the fiber. As a result, your body absorbs the nutrients more quickly. Additionally, you might drink several cups of nettle tea every day, whereas you are not likely to eat three plates of kale every day.”

My love is justified, and not just for taste or beauty: herbs are curative. I can plant, harvest, wash, chop, and eat herbs to my heart’s and health’s delight. Shallots and dill in a vinaigrette for potatoes. Lemon balm leaves on vanilla ice cream. And my favorite, Chef Walter Redaelli’s Ragged Pasta with a Thousand Herbs (in Michele Scicolone’s A Fresh Taste of Italy).