“The first wealth is health.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
When visiting my darlingest friend earlier this month in New York, she took me to her country’s oldest apothecary’s, CO Bigelow, in Greenwich Village. We had already decided that (a) apothecary is our favourite word of all time, and (b) we love rummaging through these traditional pharmacies. And it was delightful, though a far cry from what it must have been like when it opened in 1838.
Apothecaries were the chemists of yesteryear. Now with medicine mostly taken over by pharmaceutical giants who profit from selling patented drugs to the masses, these individualised old-school mixers and dispensers of herbs and oils have largely disappeared in the Western world and are tucked away in corners elsewhere, except perhaps China.
Most of us have a first-aid kit and I’m no exception. Because of severe allergies, I am never without various pharmaceutical wonders on my person at all times. But natural, un-patentable items have replaced everything else.
It was ten years ago when I was moved to distraction from a toothache while on a film shoot in Goa. I didn’t have time to visit a dentist. A local assistant gave me a vial of clove oil and told me to put a few drops on a cotton ball and tuck it against the troublesome tooth.
Sceptical of all things herbal, I did it out of sheer desperation. The pain disappeared within hours, whereas fistfuls of extra-strength painkillers had had no effect for days (though I dread to think of the pills’ load on my poor liver).
Another grisly pain-on-a-film story: I was once so stressed on a shoot that two of my toenails fell off. And if that wasn’t charming enough, I also had fungus growing on another toenail.
I went to see a chiropodist (also called a podiatrist, a licensed practitioner for the feet, available on every high street in London; I’m explaining this as they’re uncommon in the US). She had me use a commercial antifungal ointment for a year. Did it help? No. So I turned to tea tree oil, applying it neat daily with a clean Q-tip, and the fungus was gone in a month.
I’ve since become a convert and now keep a few oils at home.
- 10ml or 20ml (0.33oz to 0.67oz) bottles are available. A little goes a very long way.
- Usually packaged in dark glass jars, if stored in a cupboard away from sunlight and heat, they should last for years.
- I prefer pure (organic where possible) oils that have not been diluted. If there’s any mixing to be done, I’d rather don the apothecary hat myself.
- As with any medication, there may be adverse reactions and contraindications, so please use judiciously.
These are the oils I like:
- Clove oil: analgesic, antiseptic, antimicrobial, antifungal. It should be used prudently as it’s powerful. It can also be used internally and on the skin, but its unbeatable effectiveness with dental pain alone makes this worth having. Avoid your tongue touching the oil – one taste and you will hate me forever.
- Tea tree oil: antimicrobial, antiseptic and antifungal. Works best diluted (with water) on a range of skin ailments such as dandruff, lice, acne and cuts; 100% neat on those dratted toenail fungal infections. It’s toxic if ingested, so steer clear of using it around the mouth.
- Lavender oil: antiseptic and relieves pain. Its scent soothes the nervous system, helping with anxiety and even depression (dab on a handkerchief and sniff periodically). It’s also a popular sleep aid (put a few drops on your pillow, or on an oil diffuser). Antibacterial, it’s used for acne, lice, dandruff and skin cuts, though best to start using it in a diluted form. For eczema, add a few drops to coconut oil for topical application. To be avoided by pre-pubescent boys in case of possible hormonal disruption.
And my daily drug
I’ve previously written about using oil for the face, but I’ll mention my current personal favourite for this list too – rosehip seed oil – as it’s the only medically-proven treatment for scars, both old and new. I don’t mind scars (I have plenty of ’em, some pretty gruesome too) but for those who do, this would be worth considering.
Rosehip seed oil: anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, with essential fatty acids and beta-carotene. A “dry oil”, it sinks quickly into the skin without leaving a greasy residue, except on very oily skin. Soothes itchiness and dryness, helps acne and eczema, rejuvenates skin, evening out raised scar tissue and hyperpigmentation. Organic and cold-pressed is best.
To use this (or any other oil) on the face, put drops on the tips of three or four fingers on an upturned hand. Rub against the fingertips of the other hand, then pat over the face to evenly distribute the oil. This is the only non-washable product I put on my face now. It replaces: eye makeup remover, serum, eye cream, day cream and night cream.
A side note: as for that vomit-inducing term – anti-ageing – rosehip seed oil is ever-present in those over-priced potions sold by multinational corporations. That’s because it also helps to keep wrinkles and lines at bay. Beauty writer Sali Hughes wrote in the Guardian last month: “Oil, more than any other product, will give the impatient woman the visible results she craves.” I recommend bypassing the commercially packaged products with fillers and preservatives, and go straight to the pure oil.
A second side note: in the West, it’s all about “anti-ageing”. In the East, it’s “skin-lightening” (also called “fairness” – ironically enough). Both are as ghastly and damaging as each other. Because they perpetuate the notion that ageing and dark skin colour are shaming. Because they are yet another fear-inducing ploy to taunt women (and increasingly men) about never looking good enough. Because nothing can make us actually reverse ageing or lighten our skin tone without resorting to frightening tactics, ending with frightening results – see Michael Jackson.
Powders over pills
Traditional apothecaries also knew the potent healthy and healing properties of herbs, spices, roots and seeds. In ancient China, doctors were paid to keep a patient healthy, and would not be paid if/when the patient fell ill, as this meant the doctors were not doing their job.
The chances of this happening in our time are inconceivable. Nevertheless, let’s do what we can to keep ourselves healthy.
When I’m in Dhaka, I start the day with my own homemade “multivitamin” of sorts. I was introduced to this by a family friend who had even more severe allergies and health problems than I do. She slowly weaned herself off all her other medication (with her doctor’s blessings).
I take my version before breakfast every morning:
- ¼ teaspoon raw, ground turmeric (unadulterated dried powder is also fine)
- Pinch of ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon freshly grated ginger (dried ground ginger also works)
- Squeeze of lemon or lime
- ½ to 1 teaspoon of honey (which I don’t usually add, though it’s fine if sweetness doesn’t suck you into a sugar-craving vortex)
- Swirl them all together (they don’t dissolve) in a glass of warm water and gulp down.
- I also take a ½ teaspoon of whole black cumin seeds (though its oil, which I haven’t yet been able to source, is even more beneficial). As the seeds mix poorly in water, I take that separately.
Note: turmeric can stain teeth, so it’s best to chase this with more water, or a quick gargle.
Properties and benefits:
- Turmeric: its primary compound curcumin is anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, antiseptic and antioxidant. No wonder it’s used in cooking in hot countries, where the risk of food going off is higher. It’s believed to purify the liver, improve memory, bolster heart health and possibly even help prevent cancer.
- Black pepper: magnifies the benefits of turmeric by making the curcumin dramatically more bio-available. It’s also an anti-inflammatory in its own right.
- Ginger: provides relief to stomach ailments, aids absorption of nutrients, and its warming qualities help bolster the body’s immune system. (Ginger is not to be taken alongside blood thinners.)
- Lemon/lime: helps purify and strengthen the liver, its vitamin C is an antioxidant and helps strengthen the immune system against symptoms of the common cold.
- Honey: antibacterial, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, it has niacin, calcium, riboflavin, magnesium, iron and a whole host of other vitamins and minerals in small quantities. Raw, unheated honey works best, which is why mixing it in hot water will make it lose its benefits. If having honey, keep the water tepid, or have separately.
- Black cumin seeds (also called Nigella Sativa seeds, or “kalonji” in South Asia): used widely by every ancient civilisation, it is believed to reduce tumour growth, boost the immune system, and lessen allergic reactions, among its many heroic qualities.
Preparing this is marginally more complicated than taking a factory-processed pill from a bottle, but the benefits are vastly superior. I’m not at all a virtuous health-conscious type (anyone who knows me will howl with laughter at the very thought) but this much, even I can do.
Multivitamins and supplements are commonly known as “expensive pee” because much is excreted without being absorbed (note the colour and there’s your evidence…). Moreover, I’m not convinced extracting the “active ingredient” from a plant necessarily works in isolation, even if in triple strength.
My morning concoction, on the other hand, is not costly, is made using fresh or freshly ground ingredients that are widely available year-round, and makes me feel as if I get ill less often.
Plus, it’s definitely fun being my own apothecary.
“The more you know, the less you need.” — Aboriginal saying
Watch Fire in the Blood, made by my dear friend, Dylan Mohan Gray. This multiple-award-winning documentary looks at how the American pharmaceutical industry manipulated patent laws, resulting in the unnecessary deaths of tens of millions of people in Africa. It’s narrated by William Hurt, and has interviews with Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu, Joseph Stiglitz and many others. One of the few films I can say is unmissable. And once watched, unforgettable.
One of my most favoured shops, and the closest thing I’ve found to an old-school apothecary’s in Britain (and now beyond) is Neal’s Yard Remedies. In addition to their popular packaged skincare products, they have a wide range of dried herbal goodies in jars behind the counter that you can purchase by weight. When I was in London last week, I spent some blissful hours sighing over its many delights.
Watch Jamie Oliver give his 2010 award-winning TED talk, Teach Every Child About Food. It’s just as relevant to adults, especially when he talks about sugar in our contemporary food culture.