Two Herbs For Street Medics: Ai Ye (Mugwort) and He Huan Pi (Mimosa Tree)

Due to recent events, I have been thinking more specifically about the ways that acupuncture and herbalism can benefit the hearts, minds and bodies of people involved in social struggles. Let’s face it, protests in the US (and especially Portland) involve state and city-sanctioned police violence. Protesters at Occupy Wall Street in Portland can expect the possibility of being beaten, pepper sprayed, shot with bean bags, and forcefully detained. Bruises, cuts, nosebleeds, symptoms of shock, lung and sinus damage, and occasionally broken bones and teeth can afflict people trying to exercise constitutional rights. Attorney Chris O’Connor has written a spot-on (if cynical) article about the dangers of protesting, published in local weekly The Portland Mercury. If you are an herbalist who is considering helping out at any protest across the country, here are two herbs which can help before and after, and even right in the middle, of protests. They are both considered weeds in the US. They break through cracks in the sidewalk and fare well in areas where the soil has been disturbed.

He Huan Hua: Mimosa Tree Flower. Courtesy Deb Mae via Flickr

He Huan Hua, the flower of the Mimosa Tree, and He Huan Pi, the cortex of the Mimosa Tree, both provide mental support and emotional balance. The literal English translation is “collective (or conjoined) happiness bark” and “collective happiness flower.” Sounds pretty fluffy. However, the Mimosa Tree embodies the ideal of perseverance to the point that it has become a vexation in the South. To quote from The Grumpy Gardener:

“Mimosa adapts to almost any well-drained soil, laughs at heat and drought, and does not mind if you spray-paint the trunk white, hang tires from the branches, or park your pickup on top of its roots. In hort class, we called it a “pioneer species,” because if you disturb the land, remove native vegetation, and open the tree canopy to light, it’s one of the first trees to appear. That’s why you see it growing along just about every highway and country road in the South.”

Mimosa Tree

He Huan Pi (the bark of the Mimosa) and He Huan Hua (the flower of the Mimosa) have similar medicinal effects, but He Huan Pi has a much stronger action. To quote from Bensky: “[He huan pi] is most often used for…stifling sensations in the chest, worry, bad temper, forgetfulness, and insomnia, but it is also useful for injuries from trauma, and the pain of sores and boils.” That sounds perfect for the common side-effects of protesting in any major city. This herb helps to reconnect sinews and bones and to regenerate flesh and muscle, while exhibiting a harmonizing effect on emotions during crisis. It is also used to treat vomiting of sputum and blood due to lung abscesses, which can occur due to excessive exposure to pepper spray.

Pepper spray can cause nausea, vomiting, nosebleeds, seizures, and even death.

According to the Treasury of Words on the Materia Medica,

“He huan pi, sweet, warm, and tonifying, has the marvelous quality [of allowing] the five spirits to open and reach outward, and eliminating [extremes of] the five emotions … it primarily harmonizes and moderates the Heart qi: when the Heart qi is harmonious and moderate, then the consciousness naturally opens to happiness without care! (Bensky 938)”

Regarding dosages for this herb, some say that one needs to consume this herb for an extended period of time at dosages of around 10 to 15g per day in order for the “happiness” effect to be felt. It could be incorporated into a general “activist tonic” if combined with other herbs to address an individual’s constitution (Bensky 938). For more acute emotional disturbance, however, it can be combined into a stronger formula with Suan Zao Ren (Semen Zizyphi Spinosae), Bai Zi Ren (Semen Platycladi), Long Chi (Dens Draconis) and Hu Po (Succinum). ALERT: please do not use this in large doses or if pregnant. It is a CNS suppressant and Uterine Stimulant, causing sedative and hypnotic actions while also possibly stimulating smooth muscle and causing contractions of the uterus (Chen 768).

Wine Barrel (image courtesy umami.typepad.com)

If one is looking to treat acute traumas, pain and swelling, it should be used externally along with the following herbs: Dang Gui (Radicis Angelicae Sinensis), Chi Shao (Radix Paeoniae Rubrae), Tao Ren (Semen Persicae) and Su Mu (Lignum Sappan) (Chen 768).

My favorite usage, which I will try out this weekend, is taken from Secret Records about Mothers and Children: using the flower He Huan Hua as a stand-alone herbal powder for “pain from knocks: take 6g as a powder mixed with wine”(Bensky 939).

Ai Ye: Mugwort, in classic roadside habitat. Courtesy helen.2006 via Flickr

The second herb is not as visually glamorous but is arguably even more important: Ai Ye, Mugwort, Folium Artemisiae Argyi.

Stephen Buhner speaks of Mugwort in his book Sacred and Healing Herbal Beers:

“‘The Mugwort is said to have derived its name from having been used to flavour drinks. It was, in common with other herbs, such as Ground Ivy, used to a great extent for flavoring beer before the introduction of hops…Until recent years, it was still used in some parts of the country to flavour the table beer brewed by cottagers.’ – Maude Grieve, 1931.

Mugwort is one of the primary sacred herbs of the ancient Europeans and is noted as one of the nine sacred herbs in the Lacnunga, a Wessex writing of the tenth century. Remains of smoked mugwort wreaths have been found in ancient Irish archaeological sites. One of the most ancient pre-Christian lays about mugwort comments on its powerful attributes (379-380).

Have in mind, Mugwort, what you made known,/ What you laid down, at the great denouncing./ Una your name is, oldest of herbs/ Of might against thirty, and against three,/ Of might against venom and the onflying,/ Of might against the vile She who fares through the land (380).”

So we find that mugwort has been consumed in beverage form for centuries, has been revered as a sacred herb by European (and Asian) culture for millenia, and on top of that portfolio it has been used extensively both internally and externally for many ailments.

Artemisia ludoviciana, a type of mugwort that grows in Colorado.

Ai Ye, or Mugwort, provides a host of healing benefits.  It prevents loss of blood and relieves pain from physical trauma. It can stop a nosebleed or vomiting of blood, can treat excessive loss of blood, and can  alleviate menstrual and abdominal pain. Ai Ye is also great for the respiratory tract- it can stop cough, relieve wheezing, and resolve phlegm. Those are the more severe types of conditions it can treat, but mugwort is a beautiful preventative and overall tonic when applied to the body in a steam or a bath.

My favorite way to use mugwort is to visit a Korean Spa such as Olympus Spa in Washington, where mugwort is an important part of several baths and dry saunas. I’ve only been there once due to cost. Most often, I do modified self-treatments using large pots of boiling water, a large towel, and a large bag of mugwort to create my own mugwort-steam-tent. I also use it for foot baths, compresses, and I often just add it to bath water after simmering it for 15-30 minutes. This is the spa’s explanation of Mugwort’s importance in maintaining good health:

Mugwort has been used for hundreds of years in Korea and is known to be effective in balancing women’s hormonal levels. [It] contains natural antibiotics and sterilizers that help keep your skin healthy and young.

The plant stimulates appetite, promotes good digestion, reduces fevers and relieves tension. When prepared as a tea, mugwort also provides an excellent source of minerals, especially calcium.

Mugwort Well

…[It] is added to healing baths to ease discomfort from eczema, gout and arthritis. Its sagelike, spicy flavor makes a delicious seasoning for meat dishes.

The juice and an infusion of the herb were given for intermittent fevers and aches. The leaves used to be steeped in baths, to communicate an invigorating property to the water.”

Basically, this use of mugwort helps to prevent and recover from the cold and damp of autumn, winter and spring in the Pacific Northwest, which has a climate very similar to Korea. Arthritic conditions, join pain, colds and flus, skin conditions, and everyday stresses can be treated and prevented with this therapy.

The most important use of this herb, however, is its role as the main ingredient of moxa. Moxa made from mugwort is the processed floss of the mugwort leaves. This fluffy material can be compressed into sticks and burned over the skin without touching it, or used as small “grains” of moxa applied and burned directly on the skin. This therapy creates a strong anti-inflammatory effect in the local area, helps to remodel scar tissue, and strongly reduces pain. I have used direct moxa with many musculoskeletal conditions, such as sprained ankles, bruised bones, spasming muscles, torn muscle tissue, and strained and torn ligaments and tendons. In my personal experience it has helped to immediately relieve pain from tearing and cold-damp accumulation in the quadriceps femoris.

Moxa fluff being inserted into mulberry-paper tube to create a moxa stick. Todd Wymer demonstrating "Thunder-Fire Needle Moxa Sticks" following directions from The Great Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, by Yang Jizhou, trans. by Lorraine Wilcox.

The usage of Mugwort in Moxibustion Therapy has been documented for use in emergency situations since the Tang Dynasty. The “earliest block-printed edition of acupuncture and moxibustion, [A New Collection of Moxibustion Therapy for Emergency], which appeared in the year 862, specially [described] the moxibustion therapy for emergencies”(CAM 7).

We can as practitioners find many ways to help treat traumatic events (physically and mentally) with moxibustion. Moxa is definitely something that I will be keeping in my medic bag, sealed tightly. I recommend using a version that looks different from the image below, so as not to confuse any officers during a search!

Completed Moxa Sticks. Ready to go! Courtesy of Todd Wymer.

For tips on how to use moxa, on yourself or others, you can see my page Winter Care for Bikers and Adventurers.

A fantastic site has been created on Facebook which allows practitioners to share their experiences with Moxibustion: The Power of Mugwort Fire. Recently this could be found on the website:

The following is a haiku by the Japanese haiku master Matsuo Bassho written in 1694. Bassho summed it up exquisitely in the requisite seventeen syllables.

春雨や蓬をのばす草の道
harusame ya yomogi o nobasu kusa no michi

spring rain –
the mugwort grows
along a road with weeds

Michaux's Mugwort, an Alpine variety of Mugwort. Photo from East side of the Rockies, MT

I hope to stimulate conversation about how to support populations involved in social struggles. It is important to keep in mind that for many populations in the US and abroad, this type of structural violence can and does occur on any given day. I’m looking to help create a discussion about ways that acupuncture, moxibustion, and herbalism can be used in emergency medical care, on the street, and in support of humanitarian causes and communities in confict.

What are your go-to herbs? Please comment below with ideas or stories about your experience in emergency medicine.

And finally, recently I was happy to find out that Acupuncture Ambassadors mentioned me kindly on their blog, which “is always looking for those in our community who are exploring the rising movement of “Humanitarian Acupuncture.” My thanks to Mr. Anthony M. Giovanniello MSAc, LAc for expanding the discussion of Acupuncture’s role in Humanitarian Aid. You can learn more about his excellent work at the main Acupuncture Ambassadors website. This organization is working to connect the many disparate yet amazing non-profits across the globe which have a similar goal of reaching out to populations in crisis. They plan to have an international conference in Kathmandu, Nepal in autumn of 2012. However, we need to begin organizing ourselves in the US as well. I hope that through organizations like NADA, we can begin to create a true network of socially aware and active practitioners in the US as well as internationally.

NOTE: Please consult a professional herbalist before using these herbs, and recognize that this does not constitute medical advice on my part.

References: 

Bensky, D, Clavey, S, & Stoger, E. 2004. Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica, 3rd Ed. Seattle, WA: Eastland Press.

Buhner, Stephen. 1998. Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers. Boulder, CO: Siris Books.

Chen, J., and Chen, T. 2004. Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology. California: Art of Medicine Press.

Xinnong, Cheng, ed. 2006. Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion. Beijing, China: Foreign Language Press. 

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