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By Nicole Griffis, RN, MS, APRN-BC, HNP
What do you think of when you think of chamomile tea? Some people might associate common herbal tea with their elderly relatives. Many people reach for chamomile when they are feeling stressed and worried, they find it comforting. I drank chamomile tea all throughout my workday a few years ago when I was having persistent digestive issues related to stress. These days, l reach for chamomile in the evenings when I sit down to read before bed. Its effects are so gentle, that people may not realize that it is working on many different levels. You may think you know chamomile, but this lovely little flower offers so much more than meets the eye. Let’s take a deep dive into all things chamomile.
The history of chamomile used medicinally can be traced back to old Europe and has its roots in the beginnings of homeopathy. The chamomile plant that Americans have come to know and love is known as German chamomile (Latin binomial Chamomilla matricaria). Antique medical literature will recommend chamomile for fussy babies who may be teething or have an earache. Chamomile was also suggested to treat temper tantrums in toddlers. The renowned Western herbalist, Matthew Wood, states in his book The Practice of Western Herbalism that “Chamomilla is suited to ‘babies of any age.’ “ In other words, chamomile can help when someone feels hopelessly irritated and inconsolable either physically or emotionally. According to Mr. Wood, the specific indications that chamomile is traditionally used for are the “terrible twos,” petulant and quarrelsome adults, whining and complaining, colds and fevers, acute digestive upset, lack of appetite, menstrual pain, and tight muscles. When used as a wash or compress chamomile is recommended for dandruff, eye irritations, earaches, edema, and abscess.
The pioneering Western herbalist, Rosemary Gladstar, speaks highly of chamomile in her essential book Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide. She credits the herbs primary volatile oil, known as azulene, for having anti-inflammatory and antipyretic properties. In her advice on growing chamomile, Ms. Gladstar states that chamomile is beneficial to its neighboring plants and is “a popular companion plant in the garden and is often planted near other plants to keep them healthy and disease free.” She recommends consuming tea before bed to relieve general aches, pains, headaches, and arthritic pain and to promote restful sleep. Aside from calming the nervous system, chamomile is an excellent balm for the digestive system. It’s not just colicky babies that get cranky and can’t sleep when they are having gas pain and indigestion. Plenty of adults know this unpleasant state and can turn to chamomile tea for relief. The same goes for states of nervous agitation and chronic stress. Ms. Gladstar promotes chamomile baths, massage oils, and eye packs for relieving irritation, inflammation, tension, and stress.
Contemporary scientific data supports what traditional herbalists have known about chamomile for centuries. In one systematic review published in 2016, the phytochemical constituents of chamomile were analyzed and affirmed to show antibacterial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antidepressive, angiogenic, anticarcinogenic, analgesic, hepatoprotective, antidiabetic, and antidiarrheal activities. Wow, chamomile! There have been multiple small clinical trials published that support the use of chamomile in treating generalized anxiety disorder in healthy adults for up to 12 weeks. One such study reported improvement in symptoms of depression as secondary measures. No adverse events were reported.
As a student of Western herbalism, an aspiring clinical herbalist, and a holistic nurse practitioner, chamomile is a staple of my apothecary. I would recommend chamomile tea to almost any patient (save those with allergies to the plant itself). Chamomile also makes a lovely tincture and can be combined with herbs such as fennel and catnip for GI distress. Another approach would be to combine chamomile in a tincture for stress headaches with skullcap. Chamomile would pair nicely with passionflower for a tincture to be taken for anxiety. There are a whole host of possibilities available to the casual and professional herbalist alike. This humble plant with a proud history and impressive biology is a robust ally in treating many common and perturbing ailments for children and adults alike. Maybe don’t share that it is for those acting like babies when you recommend it to an irritable loved one, just say it is a gentle herb with strong healing capabilities.
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