Constituents of Herbs

What makes herbs work?  A vast array of chemicals that act together in ways that, for the most part, are too complex to understand.  Science has however pinned down a few groups of chemicals, some of which have varied actions and other that are a bit more uniform.  Here’s a quick rundown:

Tannins are what give strong black tea it’s mouth-puckering quality.  They precipitate proteins- that is, they affect the proteins in your mucous membranes so they become stronger and more resistant to damage.  Their functions are mainly along these lines- they stop bleeding and secretions, strengthen gastric and oral mucosa, they are anti-inflammatory and antiseptic.  Two herbs high in tannins are Geranium maculatum (American cranesbill) and Hamamelis virginia (witch hazel)

Alkaloids have wider ranging actions, from hallucinogens to cholagogues and anti-microbials.  Some you may have heard of include Berberine (from Barberry), Morphine (Poppy), Cocaine (Coco leaf) and Mescaline, the stuff the gives Peyote Cactus it’s reputation.

Resins are sticky solids that usually have a localised effect. They stimulate phagocytes in the area they are applied, are antispectic, healing and protective making them great for wounds and ulcers.  Calendula officinalis is a great example of this.

Volatile Oils are also present in Calendula and are more commonly known as Essential Oils.  They have a vast range of therapeutic benefits but are very potent and need to be used with care.

Mucilage in herbs consists of complex carbohydrates.  They only affect what they touch and act as a fibre when taken in large doses.  In smaller doses they are used for coating and lubricating the mucous membranes or skin to protect and sooth.  Ulmus fulva (Slippery Elm) and Althaea officinalis radix (Marshmallow Root) are two of these herbs.

Flavonoids are mostly water soluble and increase tissue and capillary integrity, are anti inflammatory and stabilize cell membranes.  Silybum marianum and Achillea millefolium (Milk thistle and Yarrow, respectively) fall into this group.

Saponins are soapy- they foam when mixed with water and agitated.  They potentiate other herbs (increase the actions) but can irritate the GI tract in large doses, so use with care.  Glycyrrhiza glabra (Licorice) and Dioscorea villosa (Wild Yam) contain saponins.

Anthraquinones are the laxative constituents of herbs, present in commonly used herbs like Senna and Cascara.


I’m curled up on the couch as dusk approaches. The room is cool and dim, warm light coming from the kitchen. I hear the soft hum and crackle of the oven and my hands, tucked up under my chin, smell like the rosemary sprinkled over vegetables for tonights dinner. Occasionally I hear the soft voices of the kids, playing together nicely for a change. I snuggle in, listening but not really, drowning in the scent of home cooked meals. Bliss.

The trouble with time

There’s just not enough, is there? Get up, get ready, pack lunches, feed kids, feed the dog, get dressed, get THEM dressed, drop the kids off, go to work, work, come home, unpack, stop fights, walk the dog, cook dinner, eat dinner, feed kids, feed the dog, break up more fights, clean up, send them to bed, send them to bed again, send them to bed AGAIN, clean up a bit more then Phew, it’s time to sit down and study for a few hours. Only, your tired and cranky and just plain over it. Your brain won’t work and Facebook or bad TV is just so soothing to your frazzled nerves.

You know what would help? Brownies. Not the chocolate sort, the ones in fairy tales that clean up your house when your not looking. And if you say ‘but my husband does some/most/all of the cleaning’, I will slap you. Not kidding.

I am not a domestic goddess. I’m sitting on a couch covered in broken biscuits, courtesy of a small tantrum over afternoon naps. There is a pair of smelly work boots next to me, a dress hung over a chair that’s been there almost a week and the furniture looks like Dorothy’s house after the tornado struck. There is, however, apple pie in the oven. I think I should eat it all.

I’ve had a long week. Not much study done, too busy with work trainings, first aid certification (yay, finally done!), long commutes and stuff to do. My weekend, the traditional catch up slot, is 3/4 over. I have to clean the couch, do the floors, eat the pie, fix the furniture, cook dinner, wash clothes, sort clothes, then when the house is finally quiet, get stuck into some coursework…. And here I was just going to do a yoga class, relax a bit and study for an exam.

If only perfect worlds existed.

Cacao and Date balls


These are a great study snack and so easy to make!

Into a food processor pop:
200g dates
1/2 cup mixed seeds
1/4 cup cranberries
1/4 cup goji berries
2 tsp super greens (use wheatgrass, kelp, maca, whatever’s on hand)
2 big tbsp cacao powder

Whizz it all together until it starts to bind. You can add a drizzle of coconut oil if its too dry to stick together. Roll a tsp of the mix into a ball. You can then roll it in sesame seeds or coconut flour if you want. Refrigerate to store. Try not to eat them all at once!

Blood Tests and Lab Resources

Looking at a blood test and trying to decipher it? Wondering which test to order for a patient? Just had a test done yourself and wondering what it was for? There are two great resources for this- the Royal College of Pathology Australia’s free online manual, and Lab Tests Online.

The RCPA manual is an easy way to look up an individual test and check reference range and indications. The reference ranges are not absolute- as each lab has a slightly different meld of testing, they will give reference ranges with the results. It’s great for an overview though if a patient comes in without their paperwork and says, ‘the doctor said my TSH was X’.

Lab Tests Online doesn’t give reference ranges for the above reason, but it gives a great explanation of how they are developed and the limitations they have. It breaks down each test, telling you (or the patient) exactly why a test would be ordered and what an abnormal result might indicate. It’s designed for the general public, so language is simple and the format is easy to understand.

Both sites allow you to search by test or by condition- I’ve found the lab tests site to be more useful in most cases, but the RCPA has some great decision making tools (just browse through until you find what you’re after).

They both make a great reference for assignments and I’ve used them in the shop a few times, to help explain someone to a customer. Bookmark them, they will be invaluable!

Course Update

With one month to go before my due date, I’ve completed all the course work for this unit! I’ve typed the bulk of the written assignment, it just needs some tweaking and referencing. I have 2 practicals to do- one is an hour long case taking exercise, the other is a demonstration of physical exam techniques. I’ve booked in with a friend to act as my victim for these. Patient. I said patient…

Overall, I’m about to start my second unit, in block 2 of 5. Block one was mostly theoretical- anatomy, chemistry, counselling and some legal and business stuff. So far in block 2 I’ve completed Microbiology and Infection Control and the one I’m at the end of is Patient Assessment. It goes into examination techniques- turns out, I’m really awful at taking manual blood pressure! I really need some practice before I do the assessments.

Next unit is Herbal Fundamentals, which I’m super excited about. Yep, totally geeking out over this one! It’s going through a whole bunch of herbs, so there will be a lot to memorise. I’m fortunate- I work in a health food store, so I already know a lot of Latin names and indications for commonly used herbs. I just hope I can remember them when it comes to the crunch! It’s a unit which will give me a huge part of the knowledge I’ll need to use Every Single Day so it’s quite an important one. From memory, it’s four exams, a written and one or two practicals. I’m going to have to get very adept at filming myself by the sound of it (practicals are submitted via video assessment). I also have to complete a 30 hour clinic block for this subject, but that’ll happen down the track a bit.

I will throw a quick update up when the last video for this unit is sent in, and share my grade as well. By Monday I should be starting the course content for the herbal unit. Can’t wait!

Small Beginnings

My assessment item is to complete 3 case studies and form a primary and differential diagnosis for each. I don’t get to offer treatment though- I’m not up to that part yet, though I think I could do a passable job of offering basic advice in a nonclinical setting.

The cases they’ve given me aren’t too bad. They come with enough relevant info to form a basis for further investigation and guess at a likely diagnosis or two. Which is not like real life at all!

I work in a health food store so we get people coming in with lots of different problems. Often, they have a multitude of symptoms that don’t seem to match up. Sometimes they are treating things symptomatically without knowing what they are, or they may have run the gamut of doctors and been put into the too hard basket.

It’s very hard to make a ‘diagnosis’ or give thorough advice in a complicated case, while standing on a shop floor with people milling around trying to get your attention. Studying this course has definitely given me some great tools to help me form a strong, logical thought process when collecting and assembling the relevant data, and I think it will allow me to help people better as a shop assistant. I just hope that sitting in a real consult, with privacy and time will make things a bit easier!