Podcast 052: Intentional Inconvenience, Rhodiola Rhapsody, Stimulants for Midwives, & “Poisonous Mints”

This is our one-year anniversary episode! This week we cover a lot of ground. Katja talks about ways adding a little inconvenience to your home environment helps encourage you to move more. She also talks about how she came around to appreciating rhodiola as an herb on our honeymoon to Iceland, and offers some non-caffeine-containing stimulant herbs for midwives (and anyone who may have long nights ahead). Then, Ryn shares some of his discoveries on looking for exceptions to the herbalist’s adage that “nothing in the mint family is poisonous”.

Herbs discussed include rhodiola, angelica, eleuthero, tulsi, betony, calamus, yarrow, ground ivy, & pennyroyal.

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Episode Transcript

Katja: 00:00:12 Hi, I’m Katja.

Ryn:: 00:00:13 And I’m Ryn.

Katja: 00:00:13 We’re here at the Commonwealth Center for Holistic Herbalism in Boston, Massachusetts.

Ryn:: 00:00:16 And on the internet everywhere, thanks to the power of the podcast.

Katja: 00:00:21 We want to remind you that we’re not doctors; we’re herbalists and holistic health educators.

Ryn:: 00:00:26 The ideas discussed in our podcast do not constitute medical advice; no state or federal authority licenses herbalists in the US. These discussions are for educational purposes only. Everyone’s body is different, so the things we’re talking about may or may not apply directly to you, but they will give you some good information to think about and to research further.

Katja: 00:00:45 We want to remind you that your good health is your own personal responsibility. The final decision in considering any course of therapy, whether it’s discussed on the internet or prescribed by your physician, is always yours.

Ryn:: 00:00:56 It’s possible you’ve heard us say that before. It’s possible that you’ve been hearing us say that for a whole year, because this is podcast 52.

Katja: 00:01:06 Not only is it podcast 52 (so, 52 weeks worth of podcast), but it is November 2nd and that is the date last year that we recorded the very first podcast. That’s pretty exciting.

Ryn:: 00:01:19 We might have put it out the day after, but…

Katja: 00:01:21 But that was when we recorded it. I know because I have one of those five year journals where you just read a couple sentences every night, and last night when I was writing, I was looking ahead at last year today and I thought, “Oh my goodness–there it is!” So, one year anniversary!

Ryn:: 00:01:44 Thank you for being with us, and don’t worry, there’s more coming. Starting with this week.

Katja: 00:01:51 This week, we have shout outs to: Vanessa, who’s interested in the Foundations program, and Jennifer, who listens to the pod in her pottery studio and sent us pictures of her work, which we really admired. I am afraid that there might have been a few people on Instagram that I may have missed this week because with all of our student exams–we had the advanced students having their exam last week and this week our first year students are having their exams–we’re a little bit crazy over here and I am sorry. If you gave us a shout out on Instagram and I missed you, it’s not because I don’t love you, it is just because it’s been a little crazy. Also, we have a shout out to Paula, who wants to hear more about melding herbal practice and movement practice. I’m pretty excited about that, and so I want to kick off with just a short thing on that topic. On one hand, she asked us to talk more about movement stuff, and my very first thought was it’s really hard to talk about movement because you kind of need to see it, and that’s not true in all cases–it just means that I have to be more creative. Then the next thing that I thought was that how we integrate movement into the clinic and into our own lives, that’s something that we can definitely talk about. I have a small grab bag of topics today anyway, so this will be item number one. One of the ways that we integrate movement into our own lives is that we have a sort of philosophy of ‘intentional inconvenience’ in our house, and that’s a way that we really make movement practical. I have to tell you guys, I do not like to exercise. In fact, I hate exercising. I think it is so boring, such a waste of time that I could use being productive and making something in the world, like…

Ryn:: 00:04:05 Muscle? [laughter]

Katja: 00:04:10 I know. Part of this is because this is what I was socialized to value, I value sewing something if I have free time over building muscle or building flexibility, and I value doing work. Like if I stacked an entire pile of wood, that’s valuable to me, that’s time well spent and it’s movement. But if I just went and did 100 push-ups, to me in the way that I was raised, that’s a waste of time. The first problem there is that I need to change my mindset, but the other thing is that I don’t have to change my mindset to be successful at movement. That is something that we’ve really learned in our house, that if we choose inconvenience on purpose, then already we are creating so much more movement in our lives. There are so many ways that you can choose inconvenience. A simple one is that we have a long hallway in our apartment and Ryn likes to tape string across the hallway at different heights, and then you have to crawl under them, jump over them, or do some other thing to get past them. If you’re holding a cup of tea, that’s twice as difficult, and if you’re holding a cup of tea and your laptop, that’s three or five times as difficult. Another simple way is that we put monkey bars up in that long hallway and so you can jump over, crawl under things, or just get on the monkey bars and go across that way. On one hand, it might sound a little bit out of reach to just put monkey bars up in your hallway, but actually, it was not expensive. We used two 2x6s and a few Home Depot closet rods, and you cut it into pieces and that’s all we did. You don’t have to be a super DIY person. In fact, we’ll put some pictures on social media; we’ve it done before, but I’ll put some close-ups so that you can see how we built it. Our social media accounts are CommonwealthHerbs on Instagram, Facebook, and even Twitter. Then some other intentional inconvenience has to be built in a little bit. I like politics, I really do. I like to read Twitter and I don’t even know if it’s terrible, maybe it’s great, but I like it. One of the things that is inconvenient is that I’ve said if I want to read Twitter, I have to stand at the ballet bar (we have a ballet bar in our living room) and I have to be stretching while I’m reading Twitter, or if I’m going to do it somewhere else then I need to get on the floor and stretch. Those are my rules. Building in those kinds of things, where just in order to walk down the hallway you have to get some more complex movement or in order to do something that you want to be doing you have made an agreement with yourself that you will be getting more movement, are really simple. Choosing to walk instead of drive whenever you can (which, if you live in a city, is a nice choice to make anyway because driving is a pain in the city), choosing to carry things in the subway instead of driving. Like bringing all the towels home from school, washing them, and now having to take them back to the school; instead of putting them in the car and driving, put them in a big Ikea bag and take the T [train] anyway. Those are ways that you can build movement into your life without having to carve out an hour and a half to go to the gym, and that also is how we integrate it in the clinic. Everybody’s life is really busy and nobody really has time to spend an extra hour and a half in the gym. Some people, that’s their hobby and so they can make that time and that’s good. But if you’ve got a bunch of kids, a job, and whatever, it’s really hard, so think about movement in these ways and think about movement in non-exercise terms. Even dumb stuff, like we don’t have a table and chairs anywhere in the house, we have cushions on the floor and we have a very low table that’s eight inches off the floor (I’ll put that on social media); that means if we’re doing work, we are sitting on the floor or standing at a countertop, and so you can be stretching, squatting, or all these different things. It’s inconvenient and it definitely is not mainstream. Sometimes if people come over to our house, they’re like, “You want me to eat on the floor?” Well, we do have a table, it’s just really short. It’s not mainstream and it is uncomfortable, but the whole purpose of doing it is to be a little bit uncomfortable and to be a little a little bit inconvenient because that requires more movement. Then clinically to be really creative with people about how we can be inconvenient in your life in a way that works. You don’t have to be inconvenient in the same ways that I am inconvenient, as long as we can build in a certain kind of inconvenience that is both tolerable to you and your lifestyle, but also encourages you to do the things that you otherwise maybe wouldn’t do. It is so important; you might be thinking (if you’re new to the podcast), “Why do you care so much about how much you move in a day?” It’s because walking is kind of an extra organ in your body. To move your blood around, you’ve got a heart (okay, and a lot of skeletal muscles, but we’ll just go with the mainstream thinking here) that pumps your blood around your body, but you can’t pump your lymph around your body unless you move your skeletal muscles. The movement of your skeletal muscles also helps your blood move around your body, so you literally will stagnate if you’re not moving. If you don’t move your body, your blood isn’t moving, your lymph isn’t moving, there’s trash collecting in your toes–it’s a whole thing. So movement is so, so important. I think that’s what I want to say.

Ryn:: 00:11:43 We can expand more on this in the future, I think that’d be a good thing to come back around to. One of the things we find really important for clients is to emphasize this idea that it’s not just about exercise; we’re talking about movement in a broad sense, and there’s been some really good work on the difference between exercise and movement. I can put something in the show notes. Katy Bowman recently had a nice concise article about this that was on the difference between exercise (as a lot of us have absorbed from the over-culture) and movement, how they’re not equivalent, and some important differences between them. Practically speaking or in terms of clinical work, one of the most important things you can do for somebody is distinguish between exercise and movement and encourage them to find ways to get more movement in their day without focusing so much on ‘exercise’ as such. The difference is “I have to move to go to the kitchen and feed myself”, “I have to move to go outside to catch my bus”, “I have to move basically to do anything”, but exercise is a particular type of movement or movement with a specific purpose of becoming healthier, growing muscle, or something like that.

Katja: 00:12:59 And often it’s very repetitive.

Ryn:: 00:13:01 Those are super important things to do. We want to be healthy, we want to have muscle, but if we only think of that as the movement that makes you healthier or the movement that builds you muscle, then we can start to have things be kind of lopsided, like start to believe that my hour-long running on the treadmill in the gym was going to make up for my other eight hours that day where I was sitting still. Unfortunately, the human body doesn’t really work that way. The dog body doesn’t really work that way either, Elsie would like me to remind you. We want to find ways to integrate movement into daily life instead of having it be making time that you block off for movements and the rest of the day you’re not thinking about it or, even worse, not engaging in it.

Katja: 00:13:50 I just had this great idea for people who work in an office. You work in an office, maybe you’ve got a cube, and something that is widely available in offices is copy paper in those packages of however many pounds they are. You get yourself a whole stack of copy paper packages, the ream or whatever it’s called. You get a whole stack, get 10 of them, better if you can get 16, but they might miss those. Put them in your cube and every hour–better twice an hour–you get up from your desk, go get yourself a drink, go pee, or whatever, but before you do, you bend over, you pick up a ream of paper, you put it on your desk. Now go get your drink. When you’ve bent over and picked up all the paper and put it on your desk, then you start picking up the paper and putting it on the floor. That means every time you get up from your desk, which hopefully is many times during the day, you also are picking something up off the floor, and it’s something that has a little bit of weight. They’re not wicked heavy, but they’re a couple of pounds. And you can vary the way that you bend over to pick it up; maybe you squat, maybe you bend on one leg. I’m kind of excited about this.

Ryn:: 00:15:17 I used to work in an office and I was actually supposed to refill the copy machines with paper sometimes. They would keep the paper up in a room up on the ninth floor and I was on the sixth floor, so I would take the stairs and go and grab the whole box all at once, carry it down three flights of stairs, bring it down the hallway, and put it over in the thing. Then I’d feel warm; this is a good thing.

Katja: 00:15:44 Maybe you don’t feel like you’re up to that level of physical fitness yet. Don’t worry, it’s okay to just pick up one ream of paper, carry it around with you. If people ask why you’re carrying a ream of paper, just say, “This is George, what are you talking about?”

Ryn:: 00:15:59 Or you could hand it to them and say, “Oh, it’s for you.” [laughter] People love to accept things when you hand them to them.

Katja: 00:16:06 Those are some thoughts about movement and we will try to find creative ways to talk about things that normally you look at and share more. Okay, next in my grab bag of things I wanted to talk about was rhodiola. Karen asked about rhodiola and my feelings about rhodiola. I felt really excited about that question because I have some pretty strong feelings about rhodiola. Basically my entire herbal life until 2014 (however many years of herbal life that was), I sort of had rhodiola in the box that I was taught, which was it’s good for ADHD, and I didn’t really know much more about it. Someone told me that it’s the ‘happy herb’, those are the sorts of things that I had learned from teachers. In my own practice, what I did find about rhodiola was that it is actually really great for ADD in a specific way. People who take Ritalin or Adderall and like it and find that it works for them (not everybody does), but don’t want to take it because of the side effects or they can’t afford to because they lost their insurance or whatever, for those people rhodiola has, in my experience, been a really good substitute. Especially for people who lose their insurance and in order to function at work need to do something, I have really found that rhodiola can be swapped right in. This is not going to be true for every single person with ADD because ADD is a spectrum and people have it in different ways, but for people with that pattern where Ritalin was really working, it can be very, very helpful. It has the same types of things to think about, like don’t take it too late in the day because it is quite stimulating, but that is what I found. That’s pretty much where I left it for a really long time. The more that rhodiola got trendy, the more that I kind of turned my nose up at it, because I do have that tendency as soon as something gets really trendy, I’m not interested anymore. I feel like normally that’s a pretty good position to have because when things get trendy they also tend to get exploited and I don’t want any part of that. I just didn’t work much with rhodiola. Then we got married and we went to Iceland on our honeymoon. The very first day, we met with Anna Rosa and spent a day with her driving around the western part of Iceland. She was filming some stuff for HerbMentor if I remember correctly, and we were looking at different plants and she was filming a segment on rhodiola. We got to talking about it afterwards and listening to her talk about rhodiola was this whole different world for me. She had dug up a rhodiola plant from a garden (with permission) of one of her friends for the purpose of the video so she could show the root and the whole nine yards. Then the video was over and she had this plant, she told me to take this plant, work with it for a week, and see what I thought. You can actually consume the entire rhodiola plant. What I discovered was that rhodiola leaves are one of the most delicious things I think I’ve ever come across, so delicious.

Ryn:: 00:20:36 It’s no wonder that she wants to eat all of them.

Katja: 00:20:41 It’s a real problem; rhodiola has trouble in Iceland because the sheep want to eat it.

Ryn:: 00:20:50 Anna Rosa pointed out to us that you’ll find a lot of it in places where the sheep are kept away, like in the national park, Thingvellir, where the Althing used to be held.

Katja: 00:20:59 Or high on rocky cliffs because sheep can’t get up there. The first thing that I noticed was that it was super delicious. The second thing was that I began to understand rhodiola in the context of its own ecosystem–and I mean the entire ecosystem–not just the soil that it grows in, but also its relationship with the animals, with the plants, with the fact that Iceland can be covered in lava at any moment. Just the way that life is in Iceland is very extreme. The other thing about rhodiola is that I find it to be very astringent. I’m a reasonably damp person so that’s not the end of the world for me, but I don’t take buckets of it. I take just a little bit, but in Iceland, Anna Rosa doses it by the tablespoon. I said to her, “How can you do that? It’s so drying.” She said “No one here complaints that it’s drying.” Well, of course not because Iceland is really, really damp all the time and of course she gives it by the tablespoon, and it’s not for ADD in Iceland. It’s because everyone–not just the plants and animals, but really everyone–in Iceland leads these really extreme lives. It’s not actually an easy place to live; the environment is very beautiful, but extreme, and it’s a small island with a small number of people and you have to work really hard to survive in that sort of environment. The more that I got to know it and to understand the environment of Iceland, the more that I came to really love rhodiola. Personally, every time that I can, I get a bottle of rhodiola tincture from Anna Rosa herself. She hand-harvests all of the rhodiola that she works with. I don’t think she ships to the U.S. anymore, but every so often I get a chance to get some from her. I work with it when my life is getting extreme, and when I start working with rhodiola I also know that I need to make a change, because I am not Icelandic and I don’t live in Iceland. If I notice that I am living in a extreme way, then I also notice that I need to start sleeping more. [laughter] It’s really helpful for me. I think about it in terms of a traditional way to work with rhodiola, which was the vikings with their very colored history. They literally rode in open boats all over the place, in the ocean, in the dark, in the cold, in the fog, and everything. These were tremendously strong people who were doing this (mostly men). It was cold and wet and tomorrow you were going to row again and you were going to keep rowing until you got to someplace far away, like America. [laughter] So, that’s what I think about when I think about rhodiola. It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s gray, and tomorrow you also will row. That kind of leads me into my third thing that I wanted to talk about today, which was that Maureen in West Virginia, who is a midwife, wanted to know about caffeine-free stimulants for midwives. Her requirements were that she needs something that’s grab-and-go, she does not have time to make tea if she is on-call for a birth. It has to be something that’s not caffeinated, because caffeine makes her jittery. Did I have any thoughts about blends for that? I did, and one of them is rhodiola and angelica. Two plants that grow beautifully in Iceland, two plants that have a long history of being worked with in cold, damp, long-endurance kind of climates, and these are two plants that I also work with when I am in a long-endurance kind of situation. I think that when you’re a midwife, that definitely is what we’re talking about. I was in labor for 52.5 hours. Most labors don’t go quite that long, but if you’re a midwife, you’re going to be there for a good long time. And that is like ‘we’re just going to keep growing until we get to another country’, we’re just going to keep on doing it. If you’re a midwife, you are going to keep midwifing until that baby comes out. That’s the time when I’m really thinking about angelica and rhodiola. Rhodiola has stimulant action, angelica a little less so, but it has stamina action and endurance action. Those two together I think are really beautiful and could easily be made into a tincture or an elixir and easy to take with you. Another blend (and I think it would be fine to have both of these; I’m not sure I would want them in the same bottle, but a lot of times I think I would take them at the same time) is tulsi, betony, calamus, and yarrow, and I would put those in basically equal parts (when I say wood betony, I mean stachys officinalis). Tulsi is very uplifting, especially when things maybe get a little dark; even if everything is going well at a birth, sometimes it’s the middle of the night, sometimes it is dark, sometimes you have to keep going until everything is done. Even if it isn’t dark because everything is going wrong, sometimes there is sort of that moment in labor where you just can’t anymore. You can and you do, but it’s nice to have a plant that gets you through that dark moment. Wood betony is here because I really love the grounding effect, the ‘get out of your head and get into your body’ effect. Obviously there’s a lot to think about when you’re midwifing, but there’s also a lot to body when you’re midwifing. There is a connection to the work that’s being done that is feral, ancestral, ancient. I’m going to sound cheesy in a minute, but if you’ve ever had or delivered a baby, you know what I’m talking about. There is a rhythm, there is a muscle memory that at some points your head can kind of get in the way of. Giving birth is not cerebral work, it is body work. If you are a super cerebral person (and I am), a person who’s easily abstracted, a person who if anything might go wrong might be thinking about the 17 steps you’re going to take if you need to do that. When you do that, you can get a little lost in those 17 steps that aren’t even happening yet. Betony is a plant that really supports that physical work and, if you’re a person who can get stuck in your head, can really disengage that, get you into your body, and ready to work. It’s not like it dumbs you down or makes it so you can’t think, it just shifts that energy into the body. Calamus is a plant of grounding, moving you into the parasympathetic and being in that grounded and and open kind of place where you are ready for whatever’s going to come but you’re not in a panic position. Also, calamus is a great plant for when you’re meditating and you are wanting to enhance your peripheral vision and other peripheral senses; these are also things that are important as a midwife, that peripheral-sensing action. Then yarrow I always call on, whether it’s for first responders, for midwives, or for anybody who’s going to be in some sort of position of responding in a disaster, or midwifing all night, or whatever else it is. It’s a warrior’s plant, it’s an armor plant, it’s an I’ve-got-you-covered plant. So, those were some thoughts that I had there.

Ryn:: 00:30:49 That’s really interesting. When I think of caffeine-free herbs for stimulation, I think more along the lines of rosemary, sage, peppermint, ginkgo, a lot of these herbs to bring circulation up to the head and to the brain and get that kind of thing flowing. I wasn’t sure about your betony there until you explained it and now I get you. Because betony on its own, that’s going to be more sedative.

Katja: 00:31:17 I wouldn’t go all the way to sedative, but definitely relaxing. But if I were to take rosemary, sage, peppermint, and gingko and then go to a birth, that would get me really in my head. I’m not a midwife, but I have attended births and I’ve also given birth and that’s just not a place where I need to be engaging more thought into my head. But that doesn’t mean it’s that way for everyone. For some people, maybe that is what you want to be stimulating–moving oxygen to the brain and stimulating your thinking parts. You know, different people are different and so I think that’s a really great blend to have on hand, especially if you’re a person who does want to stimulate that thinking part, or if you know it’s going to be a complicated birth.

Ryn:: 00:32:11 The other one that might occur to me here is eleuthero, only because this sounds like a marathon the way you’re describing it. Eleuthero is an herb that I think of when people are describing a stressor, difficult period, or otherwise outlining some kind of trouble that they’re having and it sounds to me like something that’s been going on for a long time, is going to keep going on for quite a while, and you need some stamina. Stamina is the word that I always think of with eleuthero.

Katja: 00:32:43 You know, that’s another one of those northern, cold weather, high altitude kind of plants actually. I think that would be really lovely in with the angelica and the rhodiola.

Ryn:: 00:32:56 They can make a nice trio together. Anything else you want to talk about?

Katja: 00:33:06 I’m actually done. That was a lot, sorry. I’ve been saving it up. [laughter]

Ryn:: 00:33:42 Alright. This week what I wanted to get into was about poisonous mints. If that sounds scary, don’t worry, this is going to be in the realm of a little bit of gentle herbal mythbusting or maybe like myth-reformatting. Kind of like what we did in episode #46, where I was talking about botulism and how there are some legitimate aspects to that worry, but in most cases you don’t have to stress about it too much. If you haven’t heard that episode yet, then I gave it away for you. [laughter] You can go back for all the details there. This week I wanted to talk about this idea of poisonous mints because this does come up every now and again. The way it came up this time was a student emailed me to say: “I was watching the skullcap video in the Materia Medica program and I noticed Katja say that nothing in the mint family is poisonous. I just wanted to check in about that because as I heard this before, and was all set to make a tea and experience this beautiful looking plant I’d found; I knew it must be in the mint family until someone on Instagram told me it was galeopsis speciosa and it can cause paralysis–oh no!” That got me to look back into this idea. You will often hear many herbal teachers (not just Katja) say that the mint family is safe and there aren’t any poisonous members, and so I just wanted to double check the math on that one a bit and see what the deal was. What I’ve come to is that it is indeed true that there are a few members of the mint family, Lamiaceae, which can be toxic or can be poisonous ‘under the right conditions’. The ‘right conditions’ here is the thing that needs a little bit of explaining, because sometimes the right conditions are if you are a sheep and you have been eating nothing but this particular mint plant for the last day, then that can make you sick. Or maybe if you are a baby and somebody feeds you several cups of this tea every day for many weeks, then that can strain your liver a bit. The ‘right conditions’ here are ones that you’re not going to encounter very often, let’s say that. I’ve also found that it’s not the easiest thing to determine the degree or severity of toxicity, or the specific mechanism that a lot of these plants have. This is a general problem with looking into plant toxicity or plant poisonousness is that lots of resources will use the word ‘poisonous’ or the word ‘toxic’ for everything from water hemlock, where if you bite it you might die, to one of these mint plants, where it’s very unlikely to cause you any kind of a problem except under some very unusual and extreme circumstances. In a lot of resources, you’ll see the same term used/applied to or a little icon with a skull and crossbones attached to both of those plants, and there’s not a strong differentiation made between them.

Katja: 00:36:58 Or you might hear it for lobelia; they’ll say that it’s a toxic plant because it makes you vomit.

Ryn:: 00:37:05 That’s just slander from the 1800s really. [laughter]

Katja: 00:37:08 But sometimes you need to vomit. If that’s what you want, then lobelia is the plant for you. Also, not every dose of lobelia makes you vomit. But it’s not going to vomit you to death, so I don’t think it’s fair to even call that toxic. It’s vomitous, it’s emetic.

Ryn:: 00:37:25 One of the places I looked at for this was a blog post (I’ll link you all to) about poisonous plants. It was sort of a review article by a guy named Marc Williams at the website BotanyEveryday, which is really great resource if you’re trying to learn botany; it’s a self-paced walk-through exploration of the book Botany in a Day by Thomas Elpel (which is also linked to, because that’s a fantastic book).

Katja: 00:37:57 I want to take a moment here to shout out for another book written by Thomas Elpel, which is Shanleya’s Quest, a sort of very scaled down version of Botany in a Day. It’s a child’s book actually, but it’s a really great explanation of some of the major plant families and is a great introduction to botany, if botany is intimidating for you.

Ryn:: 00:38:26 This author, Marc Williams, was writing about a bunch of different plant families and their potential for poisonousnesss. He writes: “The mint family, Lamiaceae, is probably one of the safest in the world. However, several members can be toxic in high doses or in the case of pregnancy.” He writes out a few examples, including creeping Charlie (which you’ve heard us refer to more often as ground ivy), perilla, germander, and pennyroyal, and he cites a few sources for this.

Katja: 00:38:57 I’m already freaking out. If you’re out there freaking out, I’ve read his notes, he is going to get to it.

Ryn:: 00:39:07 We’re going to get to it, hold your horses please. He goes on to say: “Some plants are toxic to livestock but not to humans, and vice versa. This phenomenon largely has to do with levels of typical intake and differing digestive regimes.” I think that’s the key to a lot of these issues around the so-called poisonous mints. So, I looked for another kind of a resource on this, something a little more focused on plant toxicology, also I was looking at a number of other sources that were talking about this particular plant that my student, my interlocutor had asked about–galeopsis speciosa–because that was one that I wasn’t familiar with. In looking for that, I found a really nice resource called Toxic Plants in North America, Second Edition; authors are Burrows and Tyrl and that book is from 2013. What they had to say about it I found illuminating. Writing about the disease problem and where it comes from, these authors say: “Although it affects other animal species, galeopsis has primarily been a problem when its seeds contaminate feed for horses. Feed containing 1.1 to 2.5 percent seeds fed for about one week was fatal to 4 of 18 horses and 79 of 150 pigs.” Not really great odds there, honestly. “The signs were typical of digestive tract irritation. The toxin is unknown, but it appears to be an irritant type, such as galiridoside.” Just a particular constituent there.

Katja: 00:40:52 Can I interrupt for a second? I have a question. I used to be a farmer; I had sheep, pigs, cattle, ducks, chickens, and turkeys in Vermont for about 10 years. One thing that I learned is that everyone will say that tomato plants are poisonous to sheep, and they are but a sheep will not eat them, a grazing sheep will not eat them. So, I am curious in those cases (and I don’t know if anybody has this information) if those animals were being kept in captivity and sort of only being fed what they’re being fed and didn’t have any other option for food, they weren’t out grazing, what that difference would be versus a horse who was out grazing and maybe got one of those seeds and said, “Ew, I’m going away from this place, I’m not going to eat here anymore.” Because what I have found is that all those plants they warn you about that will kill your sheep, it turns out sheep won’t eat them. Sheep who are free-grazing won’t eat them.

Ryn:: 00:42:06 Well, they used the phrase “if it has contaminated the feed for the horse”, so that sounds to me more like a captive or a fed animal than one that’s free-grazing. In describing what kind of problem this actually causes, the authors say initially there is a loss of appetite, followed by abrupt onset of sweating, and there may be tremors. These signs are accompanied first by constipation and diarrhea. What’s basically happening is there’s an irritant effect inside the gastrointestinal tract; if it was really severe, there can be hemorrhaging of the lining of the stomach and the small intestine. There’s some fluid stagnation that happens, some edema, and there also seems to be some liver trouble because the animals develop jaundice, too. But I think that your thoughts are on point and the thing that I noted strongly here was that this describes fairly high consumption of the seeds. First of all, seeds tend to be higher in concentration in potent constituents and things that are capable of causing these kinds of irritant reactions. The galiridoside that’s a suspect here is a terpenoid derivative. Terpenoids occur in lots of different parts of the plant, but this particular one is definitely much more strongly concentrated in the seed than it is in other parts of it, probably in part as a deterrent to grazing animals from feeding. It’s the plant saying “Please don’t eat my babies.”

Katja: 00:43:47 Just like lectins in grains and legumes, like beans make you fart. The reason that they do is because they are intentionally causing gastrointestinal irritation so that you will not eat them.

Ryn:: 00:44:05 Galeopsis species are sometimes referred to as hemp nettle. The species that was mostly discussed in this book was galeopsis tetrahit, but there are galeopsis speciosa and a couple of others that are probably similar, but, again, this one mainly seems to be an issue with sheep, horses, and grazing animals. If you’re not consuming 1.1 to 2.5 percent of your diet in the form of seeds, you’re probably going to not have this problem. When we work with these herbs anyway, we tend to work with leaves and flowers, aerial parts as it said, so there’s probably some protection for you there. But you’re also not going to be eating an equivalent of, one to two or three percent of your diet in this. I am spurred to look up how many pounds of food does a human eat in a day. Hold on for just a moment here. Most humans eat between three to five pounds of food per day. One percent of five pounds is five hundredths of a pound. That’s not useful.

Katja: 00:45:26 We’ve got to convert that to ounces or something.

Ryn:: 00:45:34 An eighth of an ounce.

Katja: 00:45:40 An ounce of seeds–if you think about fennel seeds, an ounce is like the whole jar they sell you. That’s actually kind of a lot. For a minute, I was thinking, “What? Not even an ounce?”, because I was thinking about something like hamburger.

Ryn:: 00:45:59 Even if you look at a plateful of salad, it doesn’t weigh very much. Most of the weight in our diet is coming from meat, fat, and potatoes, not so much from the green leafy stuff, it’s pretty light all told. When we give herbs to people, say I gave a single herb, I might have you consume an ounce or two ounces of that herb over the course of the day as tea, and that’s a lot.

Katja: 00:46:29 But we also have to know if these constituents are water soluble.

Ryn:: 00:46:34 These are terpenoid derivatives, they’d probably come out in the water. We can go on and on, but again, the likelihood for this is going to be pretty small.

Katja: 00:46:43 You’d have to be making tea from the entire jar of seed. Like the spice jar of fennel seeds that you buy at the grocery store.

Ryn:: 00:46:51 Again, this is a wild mint plant. You’re not going to be harvesting yourself a whole ounce of seeds; you’re more going to be working with the leaves and flowers and it’s going to be reduced in that way. I was dwelling on this one for a minute, even though it’s not really an herb that we work with, because it gives you a basis to examine some of the others.

Katja: 00:47:11 Did we establish whether there is any human toxicity or if it is only with ruminants?

Ryn:: 00:47:16 It’s not clear. There were no reported cases of human toxicity in this source, and I also compared with the Botanical Safety Handbook from the American Herbal Products Association, and they didn’t even list this herb in there. So, this is certainly not one that is a common herb or one that’s in commerce or something like that. This book, Toxic Plants in North America, also listed a number of other lamiaceae herbs and mint family plants, so let’s just do a brief survey of those. They looked at the herb henbit (or lamium amplexicaule), that one does turn up in the Botanical Safety Handbook as well, but they don’t have any cautions about it at all. It’s a class 1A herb with no warnings about safety or drug interactions. In the Toxic Plants book, they were mainly discussing problems from this in sheep, horses, and cattle, and it requires high consumption of fresh–not dried–plant, plus additional physical stressors in order to induce a disease state. Basically, if your sheep were grazing on a lot of henbit/lamium species, and then you drove them through the pasture or over a big trail or something, some of them might get some digestive upset or some problems. But in the source it said that even if they’re not stressed, if they’re not forced to walk, run, or to move around, then this can resolve itself within minutes.

Katja: 00:48:57 As a person who has raised sheep, if you want to impose your will upon a group of sheep, that’s enough to screw up their stomachs for a day anyway. If you’re trying to moving pastures and you’re in a hurry and stressed out, like you’ve got to do this in five minutes because you have to go somewhere, let me tell you, your sheep are going to be unhappy about it. But if you leisurely take a stroll on over when they’re ready, when they get around to it, they’ll be fine. My point is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be the henbit.

Ryn:: 00:49:41 This seems to be a similar case to the galiridoside from the hemp nettles, the galeopsis species. There’s another similar story about a plant called stachys arvensis, or stagger weed. This is in the same genus as our wood betony, stachys officinalis. Stagger weed isn’t listed in the Botanical Safety Handbook; wood betony is listed there, but there’re no warnings, no cautions, no notes about it. This one is very similar to the henbit, the lamium species, in that requires high consumption plus additional stressors, and probably also for you to be a ruminant animal in order to get sick from it. So, those don’t seem to be any particular worry for humans.

Katja: 00:50:31 I’m having a really hard time calling these things toxic.

Ryn:: 00:50:36 Well, that was the whole point of this podcast. [laughter]

Katja: 00:50:43 I mean, there are some effects, but I wish we had more words than just toxic.

Ryn:: 00:50:51 At least a scale or something. Okay, a few more to get through here. Ground ivy was the next one (that’s glechoma hederacea), people also call it creeping charlie or gill-over-the-ground. This one interestingly doesn’t turn up at all in the Botanical Safety Handbook. I was kind of surprised by that because it is fairly popular in British herbalism. In the toxicology book here, again it was horses and cattle; again, it was to be ingested in large amounts. There was possibly a related compound to the galiridoside, or possibly an issue of some sapogenin (or saponin-like constituents), and the kind of problems this was known to cause in the horses and cattle was again some irritation in the GI tract and maybe some trouble with breathing as well. Ground ivy, of all these plants, is one that we do work with pretty extensively and so I feel like we can speak to the safety of ground ivy pretty clearly, given that we work with it a lot ourselves and we’ve given it to lots of students and clients. One thing that occurs to me is that when we make our tincture from ground ivy plants that are flowering, we find them to be a little bit stronger for the lymphatic activity that we get from that herb. If you’re not familiar with ground ivy, it is a lymph-moving plant with affinity for the head, neck, and the ears–your sinuses and ear canals. When there are stagnant fluids there, whether it is sinus fluid or whether it’s lymph in the channels underneath, ground ivy is really good for draining that out, and that can help to relieve earaches and sinus stagnation. It’s even helped in some cases of tinnitus. I think we spoke about this at length in a previous podcast about tinnitus–number 47–so you can bounce back to that one if you’d like to hear a bit more. When we make our own tinctures of that, I tend to prefer getting them when the plant is flowering. I prefer that to ones made from plants gathered before they flower or afterwards, and that may indicate that the same potentially “toxic” saponins there are in fact also contributors to the medicinal activity of the herb. When we work with ground ivy for these reasons, we’re taking maybe a couple droppersful of the tincture, and we might take three or four doses that size in the span of three or four hours. If you were to do the math on this, the amount of herbal material that you’re ingesting over that whole period could be up to two grams. It depends on how you made your tincture and a bunch of different factors, but if you imagine a 1:5 strength tincture and you’re taking 12 to 20 droppersful over the course of four hours, it could be that you consume the equivalent of two grams of plant material in that time. It’s not enormous, it’s not nothing, it’s somewhere in the middle in terms of amounts that you would consume of a given herb in a given day. But we’ve obviously never had anybody pass out, have breathing difficulty, or anything like that from taking that herb. I think that it is likely, as far as I can see from here, that those constituents that could be problematic for a ruminant are in fact part of the medicine of the herb for the human.

Katja: 00:54:51 Well, that’s awfully lucky because ground ivy keeps me ear infection-free and I would be very sad if I suddenly found out it was toxic.

Ryn:: 00:55:02 A couple of other herbs here that were listed in the Toxic Plants in North America, mint family plants–there’s one that I haven’t run into yet called perilla frutescens. It does seem to have the common name perilla. This one is a little better known for causing problems with animals again, so livestock. People have noted a variance in the degree of toxicity amongst different plant populations, like that patch of perilla over there gave animals problems, but that patch over there didn’t seem to. So, there could be some subspecies differentiation going on here, maybe a chemotype or something like that happening. The thing that’s causing the problem is a volatile constituent, a furan ketone called perilla ketone. This one is interesting to me because it seems that it has to be ingested and then it needs to be biotransformed in a particular way by the animal body. Whether that’s happening in the GI tract or in the liver, there’s something that the animal’s body does to this perilla ketone that activates its toxic potential.

Katja: 00:56:19 So, this is like a secondary metabolite situation?

Ryn:: 00:56:23 Exactly. The risk for this is way greater when the plant is flowering or in seed, and usually the advice people are giving to farmers is don’t let your animals graze if there’s a field with a lot of this plant and it’s in flower, otherwise you’re going to be fine. The trouble that it causes is kind of intriguing; these furan ketones are absorbed from the digestive tract, then they get bioactivated by the animal body (the animal body is trying to break it down, get rid of it, or something like that), then these ketones become toxic. What they most damage is actually up in the lungs. There’s a particular kind of a lung cell that is damaged and then a different type of lung cell overgrows to fill in that space, then they actually fill the lungs up. There’s a lot of comments in the notes on this that if you dissect the animal, the lung tissue has become rubbery and firm instead of being soft and flexible and everything. It sounds pretty bad, but again, this is mainly a problem with the animals eating them when they’re flowering or when they have seeds on, and eating them in high doses. I also discovered that perilla is a human food crop in Southeast Asia, where both the leaves and the seeds are eaten by humans in food amounts. So, it could be that there is that chemotype difference, like maybe the perilla that’s grown for human food has very low amounts of the furan ketones, or it could be that our bodies don’t biotransform those ketones in a way that causes them to become damaging.

Katja: 00:58:14 It’s just one data point, but I do remember one of our online students in one of the Tuesday night live Q&A webinars was talking about her love of perilla and that she harvests it wild. She lives in the south and she harvests it wild, dries it, has that as tea, and loves it. Just because one person loves it and they never died doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the thing is safe, but especially given what you were saying about it as a food crop in Asia, it might not be that it’s a different chemotype, it might just be that it doesn’t carry that toxicity in humans.

Ryn:: 00:58:57 This kind of thing is interesting, it’s important, and it speaks on a couple of levels to me. One of them is how many things have we looked at in animal studies for toxicity, and then roundly applied that to humans? In a lot of cases you can do that and it’s pretty close because we’re all mammals here, but in some cases there’s a big divergence. So, take all of that, hash it out, see what you think about it. For me, once I saw the thing about it being a food crop, I thought, “Okay, I’m not going to worry about this one”, but your mileage may vary and remember that I’m not your doctor, I’m just your friendly internet herbal podcaster. One or two more from Toxic Plants in North America mint section here–there were a couple of salvia species listed, salvia coccinea and salvia reflexa. Again, it was a livestock issue and in this case, it was a bit different. It seemed to be that these particular species of sage uptake a lot of nitrates from the soil and incorporate them into their plant tissues, and this one, even more than the others we’ve talked about, takes the animal to be consuming large amounts of it to get sick. Like if it was the only thing they had to eat for a whole day, then they could get nitrate intoxication from that. This wouldn’t really apply to salvia officinalis growing in your garden. It wouldn’t really apply to red sage, or dan shen, from Chinese medicine, although that has some of its own warnings around blood thinning effects, blood pressure lowering effects, and stuff like that. This one is not going to be a real issue for you. If you know that you’d like to wild harvest some sage plants and you know you harvest a lot of salvia reflexa, then maybe you think a little bit about the nitrate content of the soil, but you’re not going to eat it like an animal who had nothing else to eat that day, so I wouldn’t stress about that one either. Then the last two that were listed in this resource were American pennyroyal and European pennyroyal as well. The American pennyroyal is called hedeoma pulegioides and the European pennyroyal is mentha pulegium. With both of these the issue is with the essential oil, which contains a compound called pulagone. The concentration is really different from European versus American pennyroyal. European pennyroyal could be one or two percent pulegone by weight, which is really kind of a lot, whereas the American pennyroyal number range I saw was .0017 to .0057 percent. That’s a thousandth, it’s pretty small. When people make an essential oil of that plant, they do end up being very similar though. It’s basically just that the American pennyroyal has substantially lower volatile content overall. That would be hundreds or thousands times more plant to do it. For this one, you kind of have to look at the toxicity warnings around pennyroyal essential oil or around pulagone itself. When you look at that (I’m switching over to the Botanical Safety Handbook as a source here), I found a really fascinating sentence which said, “A review of pennyroyal toxicity identified 22 adverse events from 1883 to 1996.” If you were to keep reading forward and let that just be a bunch of numbers that hit you, you would think that 22 cases is a bunch, but that spans 113 years. That’s kind of a long time and this is a really popular herb. People work with penny royal a lot, and that’s a pretty low incidence of case problems.

Katja: 01:03:41 Plus, some number of those cases (that is larger than one) are documented as people who consumed a large quantity of the essential oil.

Ryn:: 01:03:54 In fact, most of the cases that were listed were to do with ingestion of essential oil, and mostly, even at that, greater than 10 milliliters of essential oil at a time. Now, I don’t advise you to consume any milliliters of essential oil [laughter], so that’s kind of a lot. There were some cases that were, the polite phrase is “incompletely described”, which is to say that there could have been a lot of other things going on and we’re not really clear there, but somebody mentioned pennyroyal at some point that day, so it got written into the case reports.

Katja: 01:04:29 And they couldn’t figure anything else out, and it was easy, so let’s just call it that.

Ryn:: 01:04:30 Right, now on the other hand, there were a couple of cases that were about tea ingestion, but when they were given to infants–one of them eight weeks old, one of them six weeks old, and not a single dose, but multiple offerings of this tea to the baby–and there were some serious complications. I think there was a death, some pretty serious liver issues, and stuff like that. But this is not an herb that I would want to give to an infant. I can see wanting to give some spearmint or peppermint to a young baby, but pennyroyal would not be the first mint I would reach for.

Katja: 01:05:17 A baby that young, pretty much only chamomile. Calendula, maybe.

Ryn:: 01:05:28 Yeah, we’re going to be really gentle and cautious there. Now, pennyroyal tea for adults is very safe and it tastes good. The thing with pennyroyal here comes down to the fact that its reputation as an emmenagogue has been misinterpreted as a potential for abortafacient activity, which is a big issue with herbs. But the cases of people actually dying or getting seriously ill were people who were drinking the essential oil and that’s a very bad idea and a great way to hurt yourself. It basically damages or destroys the liver tissue and it’s an extremely unpleasant way to die also. So, I don’t advise that, I’m going to come out against it. Overall, if we look this over, the toxicity of all of these mint plants is very low, especially compared to something like poison hemlock, water hemlock, or something like that. When we take these herbs as infusions–even if it’s your Susan Weed-style nourishing infusion, you’re going get two ounces of herbs in there and steep it all night and drink it tomorrow–even when you do that, you’re not really eating them at the same quantity that livestock are going to graze at. The cases where the animals have gotten really sick, in most of these herbs, it’s been more than that 1% or 2.5%. it’s been the only thing they ate that day or something extreme like that. Then, like we were saying before, it’s also possible for some of these that humans are not subject to the same toxic potential as a livestock animal is. So for basically any of these plants, I’d say that they’re relatively safe for humans when they’re taken in tea or tincture format, when it’s made from the leaves and the stems, and don’t harvest some random mint and give a bunch of tea to your six week old baby and don’t eat pounds of it. That’s really all you need to do. That may be an anticlimax, but this is one of those things that I’ve seen many people saying that mint family plants are safe, don’t worry about it, and then other people wanting to push back on that a bit and bring up perilla and other mints with toxic potential. This would be the third round of that conversation, which is that not really, or not to any degree that I think really merits the term poisonous or toxic, in the way that we usually understand that.

Katja: 01:08:22 The thing is that there are–it’s a small number–plants that will kill you and I’m just not a fan of crying wolf about these plants that will make you throw up, give you diarrhea, or will hurt a sheep if that’s all they ate in a day. I don’t want to put those in the same category as the plants that will legitimately kill you because I don’t want people walking around thinking that plants and the natural world are dangerous. The natural world is what it is; you should be educated. You shouldn’t go out there and think that nothing can hurt you because it’s nature. No, but the flip side of that is we also don’t need to say it will all hurt you. That’s not true either. So, I would like to save the word ‘toxic’ for the plants that truly actually carry a risk of death or serious harm, and not the ones that might give you diarrhea if you eat a bunch or you might puke. So you puked, people did that in college. [laughter] They chose that so I’m not going to vilify a plant for that.

Ryn:: 01:09:44 Alright folks, well as always, we welcome if you have other information that conflicts with anything we said. If you think that I’m out here being completely irresponsible, I would love to hear that. I kind of doubt it so I’m not going to hold my breath, but feel free to reach out.

Katja: 01:10:00 He also likes to hear that you think he’s completely responsible. He likes that, too.

Ryn:: 01:10:03 Well, it’s nice. [laughter] I think that’s it for this week and again, thanks for being with us. Thanks for listening to us, if this is your first time or fifty-second time listening to us.

Katja: 01:10:17 There are people out there who have been with us for a whole year. If you’ve been with us for a whole year, send us an email this week (info@Commonwealthherbs.com) so that we can shout you out next week, because that’s pretty cool.

Ryn:: 01:10:35 And if you are brand new, then stick around, look back through the archives if you want to, and otherwise come and tune in again next week. We’ll bring you some more herby goodness.

Katja: 01:10:45 If this is your very first episode, also send us an email. That will be super fun. I can’t wait to hear from you and I can’t wait to talk to you next week.

Ryn:: 01:10:58 Take care.


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