I find gardening a big stress reliever and I’m happiest in the morning, pottering among the flower beds, still in my pyjamas. One of my favourite spots is my little herb patch, which survived the winter and is now pushing out new shoots.
Herbs really are a tonic, bringing flavour to our food and life to our homes. A few pots on a cool windowsill, a balcony or the kitchen table look and smell wonderful, and are ready to be snipped and sprinkled on to dishes to add their pungent freshness. A good friend of mine who is unwell at the moment calls it ‘assembling’. When she has only enough energy to put a few ingredients together, she adds herbs to impart their intense taste and tempt her appetite – torn basil over a fresh or grilled tomato salad, dill stirred into smoked mackerel paté, or mint leaves sprinkled over mango or strawberries.
Some herbs have soothing properties and work as everyday remedies for conditions such as indigestion, or help to relieve more serious symptoms of illness or the side effects of treatment. Peppermint, for example, helps to soothe an acid stomach and can banish wind and bloating. Chamomile has many therapeutic properties, including the power to calm an upset digestive system and to reduce tension (it’s the valerianic acid in the leaves that encourages you to wind down).
Chamomile also contains sprioether, a powerful antispasmodic that relaxes tense, aching muscles, making a cup of chamomile tea soothing when you are suffering from pain. And as Beatrix Potter famously mentioned in Peter Rabbit, chamomile tea is one of nature’s best ways of encouraging children (and adults), to drop off into a deep, replenishing slumber. You can buy good chamomile tea bags, but I particularly like to use the dried flowers, available from health stores, as they taste sweeter and more apple-flavoured. Infuse 25g of dried chamomile flowers in 500ml boiling water for 10 minutes before removing them from the water. Lavender flowers can also be dried and made into a digestion-soothing tea (prepared the same way as chamomile tea, above) or as lavender milk – a wonderfully comforting bedtime drink.
My array of pots wouldn’t be complete without rosemary. This is traditionally burnt in the homes of Greek students who are preparing to take exams, as it is renowned for improving memory and concentration. A 2017 study from Northumbria University found that students who worked in a room scented with rosemary essential oil performed better in memory tests – and I’ve certainly found that burning a little rosemary while I’m writing helps the words to flow faster. Alternatively, try adding a few drops of rosemary essential oil to your morning bath or dropping them on to your sponge to revive you as you shower.
Rosemary tea can also raise low blood pressure, so if you have a tendency to be hypotensive and frequently find yourself flagging or feeling light-headed, drinking a cup may stimulate your circulation sufficiently to banish your feelings of weakness (but if you have these symptoms, do consult your doctor). Steep a sprig of rosemary for between five and 10 minutes in a teapot. A longer brew will infuse more of the essential oils but the taste will be stronger and more bitter.
Last but by no means least, rubbing sage leaves on bites helps to take the sting out of the pain, and I make a sage tisane to gargle with when I have a sore throat. Many of my patients who have irregular periods have found sage a useful regulator, and it can also alleviate menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes and night sweats.
Herbs to relieve stress: valerian, chamomile, oatflower.