Thursday, February 1, 2018

Taking Health into our Own Hands - Usnea Tinctures!

Taken October '15 when I harvested usnea for medicine!
Yikes, what an insane flu season we're having this year!! Practically everyone I know has been sick at some point since the new year has started. Whether it's bacterial, the flu, or some other miscellaneous pathogen, it has seemed to be persistent for a lot of people. In many ways, we rely only on Western medicine (which certainly can save lives!) to help us, but is that the only option? For some, the answer is yes--our media and culture are sure to convince us of that in this society.

You know those drug commercials that show footage of overly happy and perfect-looking families enjoying themselves in a park or running on the beach or something, while the spokesperson very radiply runs through the terrible side effects in a sing-songy, light manner? Yeah. That's often how I personally visualize Western medicine as a whole, but most especially the drug industry; not necessarily supporting your personal health and well-being, but turning healthcare into a business and trying to make money off of your ill self by convincing you of false truths. What I will say is that there are many amazing advancements, discoveries, and treatments found in Western medicine, and it is an institution filled with millions of very dedicated, educated, benevolent, and hard-working people that save lives everyday. Know that I am not referring to these aspects when I talk about this subject. What I am talking about are the larger puppeteers (especially the "leaders" in our drug companies) behind our healthcare system itself that may not have those same good intentions--aka - "Big Pharma".

You can simply look at inexplainably asinine raises in price of various very common pharmaceutical drugs within the last few years to get a sense of how healthcare is in tandem with big business in this country. Additionally, a Harvard study proved that the fourth leading cause of death is appropriately prescribed pharmaceutical drugs (and that does not included mis-prescribed pharmaceuticals and overdose drugs!). The bottomline is that, because of these reasons (and a many of my own personal experiences), I have great difficulty in fully trusting in our healthcare system as institution that genuinely cares about the health and well-being of it's patrons. Because of that, I will only seek its help if I absolutely have no other choice--especially when it comes to drugs. Although our broken healthcare system is a whole other subject for another potential blogpost; I'm writing today to talk about the aspects in health and well-being that do work--at least for me anyway.

While some may be more wary of telling of their private medical information, I have little problem doing so--especially if the information could potentially benefit others. This story begins a couple years ago; after just starting my day at work, where I felt a little twinge after I went to the bathroom...I knew that feeling. Not a huge concern, I thought, as I had had urinary tract infections before, and they have just gone away on their own. I will be fine. Until it progressively got worse and worse, until the end of the work day where I was peeing every half hour, in a lot of pain, and couldn't stand/sit still. Y'all who have had UTI's know exactly what I am talking about.

Long story short, I left work at 5:30pm on a Friday and found that there was no 24-hour urgent care anywhere near me. I was in so much pain and releasing very bloody urine--I couldn't even drive ten minutes without having to stop at a grocery store or two to bolt to the bathroom! Hence, I had no other choice but to go to the emergency room. I was there for a total of 30 minutes, I did a simple pee test, and they told me that I wasn't pregnant and I definitely had a urinary tract infection--two things I knew and didn't need the doctor to tell me, I just needed the prescription for my infection. I didn't find out until months later when I got the bill that the total cost was $3,000+. (Moral of the story is DO NOT go to the emergency room unless you absolutely, absolutely, absolutely have to--go to urgent cares, and have information on stand-by of addresses, phone numbers, and open hours are for those near you.) If urgent care was open, the same treatment would've costed most likely no more than $ needless to say, "upset" doesn't even begin to sum up how I felt.

But anyway, the doctor gave me a prescription for Cipro (antiobiotic) and a pain reliever, both costing me no more than $15 combined. While this method did eventually work (even though I spent a mostly sleepless night and another full day in absolute agony--took awhile for them to kick in), the consequences were more than I would've bargained with if I only knew. Because sure enough, I got another uti a few months after that (used antibiotics to treat it), and another after that, and plenty more "smaller," less severe ones after that.

After doing plenty of research, I learned that there were many women out there who were just like me. They had started with a uti, took antiobiotics for it, and kept getting on getting them once, twice, thrice again, and continuing to treat them with antibiotics. It didn't matter what methods women used to avoid utis, they just kept happening. Some women were getting them so often and so frequently that the doctor prescribed them low-dose antibiotics to take everyday, always! I then read about how e.coli--the bacteria to blame 90% of the time one contracts a uti--can become antibiotic-resistant after taking antibiotics too many times. I was absolutely shocked at this--how could modern medicine be failing us so badly regarding a simple, well-known infection that has occured countless times in the human race?

I went to a different (non-emergency room) doctor the second time I had a uti, and we had a wonderful conversation on antibiotics, one that I hadn't had with any other Western medicine doctor prior. She said that we should always be careful when we choose to take antibiotics; since they effectively kill all bacteria in our systems, including the "good" bacteria that serves as immune support, we can end up putting our bodies in more susceptibility than if we first tried other methods that were less abrasive. She gave me a prescription for cipro again, just in case I needed it (which I did out of fear when the pain was reeeeeally bad at one point), but she highly recommended some other supplements for me to try first. One of them was usnea, which I remembered identifying in the Colorado Rockies while on an amazing and extremely informative herb walk with Brigitte Mars from Boulder, CO. I got very excited, and did further research--perhaps I could make my own medicine!

So, Usnea is a gray-green lichen that grows on tree branches/trunks. Like all lichens, usnea is a living organism made up of a symbiotic relationship between alga and fungi. Usnea is also called ‘Old Man’s Beard,’ which is fitting considering its condensed filaments that resemble a tuft of hair. One way you can identify usnea is by tugging on one of the gray-green filaments which reveals an elastic white cord within; the gray-green portion is the alga, and the white cord is the fungi. The lichen itself is known to be the ‘lungs of the forest,’ as it is sensitive to air pollution and absorbs toxins in the air. This means that usnea should be harvested as far from urban development as possible. That said, usnea essentially grows only in healthy forests, so its presence in itself is a good indicator of a safe environment to harvest. As usnea is a slow-growing lichen, it is important to harvest them from fallen branches (say, after a storm) rather than from living trees. This said, always have an herbalist identify a plant before you harvest yourself!

Usnea is found across the world and has been used as a medicine and food (in small amounts) for at least two-thousand years by the Chinese, the Egyptians, the Greeks, and Native Americans. This lichen is a powerful antiseptic, analgesic, antibiotic, antimicrobial, antifungal anti-inflammatory, and even possesses potential anticancer effects. It additionally cleanses the lungs, cools fevers, controls bleeding, removes toxins, and lowers congestion. Usnea is considered by the Chinese to be a cooling and drying herb that is said to work best to counteract situations of heat and moisture, so: 1.) Be sure to be drinking plenty of water while taking it, and; 2.) Don’t use usnea if you are experiencing chills. Also, usnea supposedly works very well in conjunction with Echinacea.

Usnic acid (a.k.a. sodium usinate) is the main component in usnea that fights off many gram-positive bacteria and multiple kinds of infection. The list includes strep, staph, bronchitis, tuberculosis, pneumococcus, athlete’s foot, cellulitis, gangrene, candida, vaginosis, chlamydia, trichomonas, yeast infection, bladder infection, kidney infection, colds, flus, and skin infections; it can treat both chronic and acute infections. The herb can be ingested for internal infection or applied topically to wounds to prevent and/or fight infection; it’s even said to be more powerful than penicillin! Usnic acid is effective in the human body because while it wipes out bacteria, it doesn’t harm human cells. Usnea is additionally used in skin creams, sunscreens, toothpastes, mouthwash, and other skincare products as a preservative or active ingredient.

However, too much usnic acid can cause damage to the liver which is why it’s important to not take more than the suggested dosage and duration. We know this since there’s a man who supposedly sold a weight-loss cure that was composed of only usnic acid, and recommended such high doses of the drug that it had caused customers to suffer from liver damage. But in much smaller doses as well as giving periods of time between usnea treatments, this herb shouldn't affect one's overall health outside of improving it when ill with infection. After all, how could it have been discovered independently by various cultures all over the world and used so successfully to treat common infections for hundreds of years?

Alright, now that I know the background on this amazing lichen, how do I put it to use for my health?I did more research into making tinctures, and found that certain ones require water while others use grain alcohol to essentially pull the nutrients from the herb. I found this awesome video (directly below) showing all of the steps in making an usnea tincture, which truly gave me the incentive and further eradicated the fear in my mind of, "what if this all goes wrong?" Anyways, this man essentially filled a ball jar with usnea lichen he himself harvested in the forest, and further filled it to the very top with vodka (70% alchohol content is the minimum you're looking for). He then closed the jar, put it in a dark space (a cupboard, in his case), and left it to gain its potency over a few months.


After doing further research to verify the information in the video was valid, I did exactly what he showed in the video. I went foraging with my dear mother on a beautiful hike in the middle of a forest of tall ponderosas and pines, and we found so much Usnea; it was very fulfilling and exciting. I also bought a giant bottle of vodka at Costco (told the cashier I was using it for medicine, and he laughed...he thought I was joking). Five large jars were filled with my usnea harvest and vodka using the method described above.

From my Usnea, Prickly Pear, and Juniper Berry Tincture-Making Adventure of Fall/Winter '15!

Additionally, I ordered tincture bottles on Amazon that I filled months later after the tincture had developed. I have been taking these tinctures to successfully treat utis (and any other infection I have!) ever since--I have not taken antibiotics since, and have not needed them! (Disclaimer: I did lots and lots of research on dosage, herb content, and alcohol content before establishing my own safe dosage for my tinctures, and I insist that you do the very same for yourself if you ever choose to make tinctures!).

Here's another very informative video about using usnea as medicine! He describes how usnea fights pathogens in a less invasive but still very effective way compared to other herbs.

While I recommend you absolutely still turn to Western medicine when you have to, I write this blogpost to encourage us all to perhaps look to the ancient, plentiful, affordable, and powerful medicines we have in the herbs we have around us. And perhaps you can use them in tandem! Taking probiotics through supplement form and/or eating probiotic foods is highly recommended while taking necessary antibiotic courses; you can oscillate the timing so that your gut and immune system can have a chance to build and continue to keep at least some stores of good bacteria; for example, if you take antibitics every 12 hours, you would also take probiotics every 12 hours, just 6 hours after each time you take the antibiotics.

Garlic is another unbelievably powerful root used for immune support, and has been for hundreds of years! Consuming as much raw garlic as possible is important when you're sick, and can make all the difference. Salad dressing is a great place to put your raw garlic in that makes culinary sense, although depending on how sick/unwell I may be, I may just put a teaspoon of chopped, raw garlic in a glass of water and quickly chug it, once every few hours. If you can handle that, I highly recommend it--it's a highly effective way to boost your immune system! Echinacea, colloidal silver, goldenseal, cayenne, vitamin C, dandelion root, astragalus, elderberry, and reishi mushroom are also among a long list of mightly herbal/supplemental immune-boosters out there for when you're feeling under the weather, or even as a preventative during flu season. Pineapple can be used to treat persistent coughs, and Throat Coat tea by Traditional Medicinals will soothe throat pain pretty miraculously!

Regarding any post about foraging and making your medicine go, you got to have the disclaimer: please do not harvest/consume any plants until you have identified the plant(s) with an herbalist--we do have poisonous and noxious plants here in Colorado (as most places do), and making the wrong mistake with identifying plants can be deadly! Regardless of what specific medicine we're talking about--whether it's a traditional brand-name drug or a long-used herb--it's always important to be cautious. Certain chemicals in their timing, dosage, and chemistry with other chemicals (in other drugs, medicines, foods, etc.) within our bodies can certainly be harmful to us if we aren't careful. Ephermerality is a concept we don't fully mentally grasp too often; I think we easily forget that our bodies are temporary, merely borrowed molecules, eventually from one living being to the next.

I only got into herbs and making tinctures after spending many hours researching plants and going on hikes with other herbalists. It started with realizing that all the plants I look at when I go for a local hike were had some common purposeful use from the Native Americans who once resided there; this giant blob of plants I regarded as being one thing became this diverse and multifaceted group of  beautiful, unique living beings that contained a wealth of uses. I became very empassioned about local plants and decided to expand my knowledge in how to utilize their medicine. If this is something you are interested in and you live in the nearby area, I highly recommend Brigitte Mars' herbal hikes! There's also The Boulder School of Herblism, which I have certainly seriously looked into getting into! And of course, there are many books on the subject as well as online resources out there.


While everyone has different stances on healthcare and what methods work/don't work, I truly hope you all are staying healthy and taking good care of yourselves during this brutal and record-breaking flu season. Whether you ever think about making tinctures and discovering the magic in the "weeds" that exist all around us, I can't tell you how freeing and gratifying it was and is for me to take my health and well-being into my own hands when nothing else worked for me. Regardless how you personally go about your health, I hope you successfully discover the methods that work best for you. Feel free to write in the comments if you have tried any other amazing remedies that you found successful in curing infectons! :)

As always, thank you deeply for taking the time to read this blogpost! Have a most wonderful week!