Podcast 223: Herbs A-Z: Ulmus & Uncaria

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This week we return to our home herbal apothecary shelves and discuss two medicinal barks: slippery elm and cat’s claw.

Ulmus rubra, slippery elm, is an at-risk plant. We don’t work with it frequently, for this reason – other demulcents will usually do the job, just fine. It is a standout mucilaginous plant, though, that’s for sure! It can be difficult to strain cut & sifted herb for tea, in fact, because of the thickness of mucilage creates when infused in water. For this reason it’s often easier to work with it as a powder. Never forget that other elms – especially the abundant / “invasive” species Ulmus pumila, the Siberian elm – can do all the same work as slippery elm!

Uncaria tomentosa, cat’s claw, is an herb with a lot of reputations. It’s reputed as an “anti-cancer” herb, as an “immune stimulant”, as an “herb for joint pain”… It’s easy to put herbs into conceptual boxes when we talk about them this way. To break out of those boxes, try two paths. One is a return to fundamentals: here is a cooling, drying, tonifying herb, which acts correctively on hot/damp/lax areas in the body. Another is a dive into research: here’s an herb with extensive research demonstrating its activity on chemical messengers of the immune system involved in the regulation of inflammation. Weaving these threads together is a good way to broaden your application of this plant and evade the trap of selecting herbs “for” diagnoses.

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Episode Transcript

Katja (00:14):
Hi, I’m Katja.

Ryn (00:15):
And I’m Ryn.

Katja (00:16):
And we’re here at Commonwealth Holistic Herbalism in Boston, Massachusetts.

Ryn (00:20):
And on the internet everywhere. Thanks to the power of the podcast, whose power is intermittent, but in no way diminished. How about that?

Katja (00:31):
It is like a torrential rainstorm, and the power has flickered off and on several times today. Just enough to have to reset the clock on the stove, but not enough to… you know.

Ryn (00:46):
Yeah. So, we’re doing great is what we’re saying. And we hope you are too. And we hope you haven’t missed us too much, but here we are. And it’s time today to talk about slippery elm and about cat’s claw.

Katja (00:59):
Which I’m pretty excited about.

Ryn (01:01):
These are some exciting barks.

Katja (01:02):
These are some… Now…

Ryn (01:06):
Cat’s claw bark is a good bark when you’ve been clawed. No, uh… You know, woof, meow.

Katja (01:14):
Yeah, yeah. No, I get it. I just have the Who Let the Dogs Out song with the barking. I will not sing it, so don’t worry.

Ryn (01:24):
Thank you, yes.

Katja (01:25):
You’re all welcome.

Ryn (01:26):
So, those are our herbs to talk about today. But before we get to that, it’s December. There’s still time left in the month. And that’s good news for you, because all December long we have our sale. It is 20% off of everything. That is one individual course, or a bunch of courses, or a whole program, or everything we’ve got. It’s up to you.

Katja (01:49):
It does work on payment plans. So, if you are enrolling in one of the large bundles and doing a payment plan, don’t worry. It will automatically take 20% off of every payment for you. You don’t even have to think about it. It will just do it for you.

Ryn (02:04):
Yes. And new, shiny, available for you now is that you can also give courses as gifts. Yes. There’s an option.

Katja (02:13):
Yes. So when you are at checkout, you just click the little box that says this is a gift. And then it’ll open up, and it’ll give you a space to put in the recipient and a gift message and all that kind of stuff. If you want to give a gift, and you have any kind of trouble with that system, just email. We’re at info@commonwealthherbs.com. We will totally help you out. You maybe have been listening to us for a really long time and just been like hey. Those people make a podcast I like. You can email us at info@commonwealthherbs.com, and we will email right back to you. We will.

Ryn (02:49):
We encourage this. We do. You’re going to need to know something though for the sale, which is that there’s a code. And the code is kindness.

Katja (02:57):

Ryn (02:58):

Katja (02:59):

Ryn (03:00):
Don’t forget that part.

Katja (03:01):
It’s important to remember kindness.

Ryn (03:04):
Don’t forget the kindness.

Katja (03:04):
Yes, exactly.

Ryn (03:05):
Or you don’t get your sale price.

Katja (03:07):

Ryn (03:09):
Sure. That’s how this works. Why not? Okay. Let’s give the reclaimer. That’s where we remind everybody that we are not doctors. We are herbalist and holistic health educators.

Katja (03:19):
The ideas discussed in this podcast do not constitute medical advice. No state or federal authority licenses herbalists in the United States. So, these discussions are for educational purposes only.

Ryn (03:31):
We want to remind you that good health doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. Good health doesn’t exist as an objective standard. It’s influenced by your individual needs, experiences, and goals. So, keep in mind that we’re not attempting to present a single dogmatic right way that you should adhere to.

Katja (03:48):
Everyone’s body is different. So, the things that we’re talking about may or may not apply directly to you, but we hope that they’ll give you some new information to think about and some ideas to research and experiment with further.

Slippery Elm: Waste Not in Either Direction

Ryn (03:59):
Finding your way to better health is both your right and your own personal responsibility. This doesn’t mean that you’re alone on the journey. And it doesn’t mean that you’re to blame for your current state of health. But it does mean that the final decision when you’re considering any course of action, whether it’s discussed on the internet or prescribed by a physician, that’s always your choice to make. Yeah. So, let’s turn to the slipperiest bark around. That’s slippery elm bark.

Katja (04:29):
You know, I feel like whenever we talk about slippery elm bark, we say slippery elm. Work with marshmallow instead. And then we talk about marshmallow.

Ryn (04:43):
Yeah. Slippery elm. Work with this only for people who really, really need it. For someone who’s convalescing after a serious accident. For someone who’s got a chronic disease, and it’s really knocked over their digestive capacity. And they need something nourishing and easy to digest. And hey, that’s slippery elm. That’s pretty great. But save it for only that situation.

Katja (05:04):
Yeah. Or like during chemo kind of a situation, because it’s safe. And they usually have a lot of trouble eating, and chemo is very drying. So, it’s like okay, this is a super moistening nourishing thing. But you see how the theme here is very serious situations. And for everything else, marshmallow root.

Ryn (05:27):
Yeah. Well, we’ve taken that advice to heart possibly a little too strongly. And so I wanted to share that with you, right? What happened was we moved. And this was a while ago now, right? This was a year ago and two months, but who’s counting? We are. We are, yes. But we moved, right? And so we moved all of our herb jars. And we were looking at things we hadn’t looked at closely for a minute. And I was like wait a minute. There’s this whole jar of slippery elm in here. Wait, there’s this whole backup bag of slippery elm in the cabinet. And it’s just been waiting and sitting around, because slippery elm is for some day special for someone who really needs it. All of those words capitalized, right?

Katja (06:09):
Yeah, and like bold font. Yeah.

Ryn (06:12):
Yeah. And there we were letting it sit there. And here’s the good news. It didn’t go to waste because it’s a bark, and barks are pretty resilient when it comes to storage.

Katja (06:22):
And part of the reason that we forgot that we had it was because it was in dark storage. It was in a tub all closed up in a cool space that was dark. So, all the degradation factors were controlled for. Yeah.

Ryn (06:38):
Right. But still, you know, you don’t want to leave things forever. And so after the move I was like well, I’m going to put some slippery elm in my tea from time to time. It’s going to be so nice. And you know what? It is. It is. That’s what I kind of wanted to come around and say is that we don’t want to waste this herb, right? But we don’t want to waste it in either of the ways. We don’t want to be buying a million pounds of slippery elm, and throwing it all around, and just taking it whenever we need a little bit of a demulcent activity. We can have marshmallow for that. We can have other demulcents for that. We can have other elms for that for that matter, right? But slippery elm, yeah. We should treat it with respect, because it is an at-risk plant, and we don’t want to exacerbate that issue any further. But on the other hand, don’t waste slippery elm by buying some and then saving it for no, no, the really serious case. No, no, the next person with the big digestive discomfort. No, the other time when I need a nutritive food that’s got a vulnerary impact on the guts while it’s also getting you some minerals and so on. Don’t let it go to waste that way either, right? And this isn’t just about slippery elm. Some of you have some cabinets and closets you need to go digging in. I know, I know.

Katja (07:55):
I think probably every herbalist has some back stock that they’re either saving for a special occasion and therefore just never using. Or they maybe forgot. It was under something else, and maybe they forgot. And so it’s really just good to make sure that you actually are drinking up the herbs that you buy or making them into whatever you like to make them into. For us it’s usually tea, but whatever you like.

Ryn (08:30):
Yeah. So, you know, but in the course of that, I kind of had a reappreciation for slippery elm. And like ah, yeah. This adds a moistening element to my tea formula. I can put in some ginger, and some fennel, and some catnip, and maybe even some sage, and a little bit of slippery elm. Like marshmallow, it’s going to help to reduce the drying impact of the formula or even balance that out depending on how we formulate, and our proportions, and so on. But it also has a nice flavor of its own. It’s sweeter than marshmallow root is. It’s more pleasant, if you were to taste it by itself, than marshmallow root. And that’s nice. That’s very nice.

Working With a Super Demulcent

Katja (09:12):
I mean, it’s kind of like just the more intense version of marshmallow root. And listen, marshmallow root is super, super sustainable, because you can just grow more of it next year. And it does everything that slippery elm will do. But like to 9, and slippery elm is to 13. Marshmallow is just nearly at 10. But then, okay. Slippery elm, it just is amped up. More demulcent, if you can imagine that. And yeah, more sweet, and a little bit more nutritive, and a little bit more… you know. Yeah.

Ryn (09:55):
And demulcent really in the slime way, right, in the mucilaginous way. As opposed to we’ve talked in, I think, not so recent episodes but other ones about licorice, and about fennel, and how they’re demulcent but not really mucilaginous. They’re not slimy. They’re velvety and coating, and they have that feeling of soothingness. But they’re not slimy the way that your marshmallow can be, or your slippery elm will be when it’s in the water.

Katja (10:24):
It’s also important – just since this is a tangent but relevant – marshmallow root’s mucilaginous quantity can vary from batch to batch of the actual roots, depending on the growing conditions, the soil, the this, the that, the other thing, how it was dried. There are a lot of factors that really do impact how much slime you’re going to get out of the marshmallow root. And I feel like slippery elm is much more consistent in that slime, the quantity of the slime. Now listen, all herbs are variable from year to year, from region to region, from whatever. And slippery elm also will have some variability. But that variability is much less noticeable, and the slime is pretty much always present at a very high level. Whereas with marshmallow, sometimes you get a batch that doesn’t slime up quite as much. It doesn’t mean that it’s not doing other good things. Sometimes you really want that thick slime. And occasionally you get a batch of marshmallow that doesn’t slime up quite as thick.

Ryn (11:38):
Right. So, the mucilage, the slime, that’s something you really have to consider when you want to work with slippery elm. And when you want to work with it as tea, right, you want to do a water extract of it. And so there’s a couple things to know about that, right? So first off, if you get the shredded bark, the cut and sifted form. And you put some in a jar, and you pour water on. It will get quite thick. Depending on how much water and how much bark you’ve got, it can get so thick. That you take it, and you pour it into a strainer, and it sits there.

Katja (12:12):
It will never strain.

Ryn (12:13):
And a few drops come out, but most of it is just sitting there in this hydrocolloid matrix. Mwah-ha-ha, right? So, yeah. So, you have these polysaccharides, these long chain, structurally related to sugar and also related to starch, these kinds of things, right? But they’re long complex molecules, and they kind of make a web, or a pile of spaghetti, or a net. And then water molecules come, and they get sort of trapped in that net. And so the whole thing holds together. And it’s wet, and it’s slimy, but it doesn’t really flow. And so it can be hard to be like okay. I’m going to make my slippery elm infusion and drink it, because it won’t pour through my strainer. And this is a whole jar of sludge. And it’s a little hard to consume in that format, right? So, here are some things that can help. One is just formulating it, putting it together with other herbs. And we’re talking one part out of five or something like that. So, yeah, like 20% of your formula, something like that. That doesn’t tend to get too stuck in your strainers, or in your French press, or whatever else. I’ve been making tea in our press pot. And when we do it in the press pot, there’s a couple things that help us. One is that the water stays really hot the whole time, right? And that does kind of thin it out a little bit. Even though those mucilages are extracting, they’re a little more mobile. They’re a little more flexible. And so they do flow easier. In the press pot in our version we’ve got a made filter that attaches right to it. It’s made out of a metal mesh. And it just attaches right to the bottom of the strainer, and so none of the bark itself is getting sucked up into the tube. If we didn’t have that, it would not be a great idea to put slippery elm into your press pot tea. Because it will get stuck in the tube, and that’ll be hard to get out of there.

Katja (14:05):
Everybody always asks about that pre-filter or the strainer that is on there. And so in the Medicine Making course, there is a chapter that includes how we use a press pot to make long infusions. And there’s a video where I showed step-by-step how I made that strainer. And there’s a quickie version of that on our Instagram feed as well.

Ryn (14:34):
Nice. So, that’s an option. But if you were going to put things into a mason jar. And then you were going to pour it through something to strain. At that point, it really does depend on how much slippery eIm versus how many other herbs you’ve got in there. And also again, the temperature. If you let it sit and you let it set it, it really will. And then it’ll become more resistant to flow at that point also. So, in a lot of cases it might be easier to work with slippery elm powder in some water. And we’re not talking about just a little bit of water. Like if you had a glass of water, and you take a spoonful of slippery elm powder. You put it in. You stir, and you stir, and you stir, and it’s kind of swirling around as you’re drinking it down. That’s a good way to get it all the way into you. It’s also a nice way to get the full benefit of the plant, right? You’re getting in that mucilage and all of the slimy, slime creating stuff. But you’re also just literally eating the bark at that point, right? You’re getting the mineral content it has. You’re getting some protein and other things in there too.

Katja (15:40):
If you were taking it for pain in the esophagus, either from heartburn or pain in the upper digestive tract, so the esophagus and the stomach, either because of acid problems. But also chemo kinds of problems can cause burn-y sorts of problems there too. Then stir in that powder, sure. But let it sit for an hour. Stir it a few times through the hour and let it get thicker. Because that way if you’re trying to get the moistening action to the lower part of your digestive system, then it’s okay to drink it before it gets totally thick. Because it’s going to kind work its way through. But if you really want that moistening action up at the top, then let it get thicker so that it… The lower digestive tract is long, and stuff stays in there for a while. But the upper digestive tract is… I mean, your esophagus is just a straight tube, and there is gravity. Stuff doesn’t stay in the esophagus for very long. So, having it thicker will help it to stick in the esophagus a little bit longer, just coating the sides of the tube.

Ryn (16:57):
Nice. But listen, if you have the cut and sifted or the shredded bark to work with, don’t throw that out. And don’t worry that you have to get a really good herb grinder and turn it all into powder before you can do anything with it.

Katja (17:11):
No, it’s not needed.

Eat Your Slippery Elm

Ryn (17:12):
Like I say, you can mix it with other things in a formula and work with it that way. You can also take that cut and sifted bark, and you can cook it up like a porridge. It’s like preparing oatmeal, you know? It’ll absorb water as it cooks. And then if you let it cool a bit, it will set in even more, and it will be very much like that. So, you can cook that with some spices, maybe some pumpkin spice, cinnamon and clove and ginger. You can throw some raisins in there, blueberries or whatever, and cook it up and eat it like that. And again, this is a really excellent food for people whose digestion is just a wreck. It’s like it feels like I’ve been swallowing sand and nails, and everything’s all scratched and red and inflamed and painful and blah. That’s a really great time to eat something like this.

Katja (18:03):
Yeah. Let’s say you have some digestive issues like Crohn’s or IBS or whatever. And your guts are just sore and inflamed and cruddy. Then you might add that slippery elm into soup. You might add it into some other hot breakfast cereal that doesn’t irritate your stomach. You could go with just plain rice. Hot rice that was cooked with too much liquid, so that it gets really, really soft and mushy. And a little cinnamon maybe, and then put the slippery elm with it. If you make porridge with just the slippery elm and nothing else, then even though it’ll be slimy compared to breakfast, like hot breakfast cereal, it will be quite thin. And so if you are really in a lot of digestive pain, that’s probably going to be super appealing. But if you’re in medium digestive pain, then the amount of appealing that it is might not be enough to make you really want to do it as often as your digestive tract would like you to. So, you can kind of decide how much do your guts hurt? And if they hurt tons, then eat it straight, just how it is. And if they hurt a medium amount, put it in with something else, so that you are definitely getting it. But it might be a little more palatable that way.

Ryn (19:44):
Yeah. Nice. Okay. Well, shall we, uh, talk about cat’s claw?

Cat’s Claw: An Early Monograph

Katja (19:51):
I’m really excited to talk about cat’s claw. When we were looking at the herbs for this week and thinking about cat’s claw, we both in two different mechanisms realized that we’ve kind of had a real journey with cat’s claw.

Ryn (20:13):
It’s true. I’d like to read something to you. This is the second monograph that I ever wrote.

Katja (20:21):
You can tell that it is the second monograph that he ever wrote because there’s just not enough words.

Ryn (20:25):
There’s so much missing here. It’s amazing. So I’m going to read this just as it is, and we’ll have comments after. But I bet a lot of you…

Katja (20:33):
It’s not even a whole page.

Ryn (20:34):
will also have comments and thoughts about this as we go along, right? So, I’ve got on here cat’s claw: Uncaria tomentosa. Parts used: bark and root. Taste: bitter, woody, astringent. Constituents: pentacyclic and/or tetracyclic oxindole alkaloids, tannins, saponins. Actions: anti-inflammatory, immune stimulant, digestive tonic. Indications: cat’s claw is useful for treating rheumatoid arthritis, reducing inflammation and to a lesser extent pain. As an immune stimulant cat’s claw has gained widespread use, even being used in therapies for cancer and HIV it was traditionally used in Amazon cultures as a daily immune tonic and gastrointestinal cleanser. It has tonic and healing actions on the digestive system for conditions ranging from gastric ulcer to parasitic infection to colitis. Cautions: women trying to become pregnant should avoid cat’s claw. It can be an abortifacient. It may be avoided by those with any chronic conditions resulting from overstimulation of the immune system, such as lupus or multiple sclerosis. Preparations and dosage: Decoction of cut and sifted herb, or a powder, tincture. Tannins in the herb are released in an acidic medium. Add a dropperful of tincture with some lemon juice to a quarter cup of water. Sorry, my voice is giving me away here. And then lastly, capsules. 300 milligram capsules, three times a day. Wow. I have notes.

Katja (22:03):

Ryn (22:06):
First of all, the word used is in here like 12 times. And you know we don’t do that anymore, right? And it’s been a long time. It’s been since, well, this was 13 or 15 years ago now.

Katja (22:18):
Yeah. You wrote this a million years ago. You can even just tell because you have very little to say, and none of it is your own words.

Ryn (22:25):
Absolutely not.

Katja (22:26):
All of this was copied from somewhere.

Ryn (22:30):
I guarantee I had no idea what… I could not give you a definition of alkaloid at the time, let alone oxindole. Let alone why it matters whether they’re pentacyclic or tetracyclic. By the way, most of that isn’t actually that important. Some of the difference between the POA and the TOA has been overstated, it seems. If somebody out there is like I know a lot about cat’s claw already, ha ha. But look, that is a problem. Energetics isn’t addressed here at all, right? It’s just not even indicated.

Katja (23:01):
I mean, a smidge in the astringency. But you didn’t realize that you were doing energetics when you were putting astringent. Yeah.

Ryn (23:07):
Yeah. Digestive tonic is not descriptive enough as an action, unless you literally mean that it exerts a tonifying impact upon the digestive apparatus. But I don’t think that’s what I meant at the time.

Katja (23:21):
Plus gastrointestinal cleanser. What does that even mean?

Ryn (23:25):
Very nice. Yeah. And then look, also, I don’t regard cat’s claw today as an effective abortifacient herb.

Katja (23:35):
There are no effective abortifacient herbs.

Ryn (23:38):
That’s a big reason.

Katja (23:41):
I also don’t have really any concern. I don’t have any generalized concern about cat’s claw with autoimmune issues, especially MS.

Ryn (23:53):
Yeah. You see what that is, is leaping from immune stimulant to therefore contraindicated in all states of autoimmunity. In fact, there’s research out there, which I’ve become aware of, which indicates that this has actually been very, very helpful for people with autoimmune arthritic conditions and specifically helping to bring down the inflammation there. And you know, today, we can talk about this more in a moment, but we’d think of cat’s claw as at most a selective immune stimulant. And in fact, in a lot of cases the palpable or the observed effect of it is to calm down the arm of the immune system that we call inflammation and to sedate that in some ways rather than to stimulate that.

Katja (24:36):
Which makes it in fact helpful for people with chronic inflammatory diseases. And that is often a component of autoimmunity.

Ryn (24:46):
I like how in the preparations and stuff, there’s weird specificity in some places and then not enough in others. Like how do I even make my decoction out of cut and sifted herb? Where do I start? Or I don’t even have any idea what was going on with the tannins, and the acidic medium, and all of that. None of that’s accurate, by the way. It’s fine to put some tannins into something that’s a little bit acidic. There might be a little bit of binding between them or some precipitation, but not a lot. And I don’t think the word released is really appropriate for what’s going on there.

Katja (25:17):
Also, all of it is if you want the acidity in the tincture – and sometimes you do want that – you have to put it in at the time of making the tincture. You can’t just put the tincture into some water with some lemon juice and get the same effect because the plants aren’t there anymore. The action of the acid on the tincture is acting on the plant matter and helping to release certain constituents. And we could have a whole debate about whether that’s really the case, or if it is just hyper-specific, and it doesn’t really matter in the functional aspect. And that debate would be probably different from one herb to another. But yeah.

Ryn (26:05):
Yeah. So yeah, we can do better.

Katja (26:09):
Well, and the thing is that listen. You were just learning herbalism at the time. The concept of writing a monograph was really new. And so part of the reason to share this is that all of y’all are also learning herbalism. And for you maybe writing a monograph is new, and intimidating, and whatever. And so the first lesson here is just write it. It doesn’t matter. It’s not written in stone. And it turns out that actually things written in stone are not as… They’re more permanent than paper, but they too wear away. But whatever level you’re at right now, just take some notes. And if the notes that you’re taking are pure research that you are just getting from other sources, that’s fine. You have to start somewhere. So, start wherever you are now. And I guarantee that wherever it is that you’re starting, 15 years from now, when you look back at it, you will laugh at it just as much as we just did on this one. Because in 15 years, or in 25 years, or in however many years it is, you are going to learn so much.

Ryn (27:18):

Putting Herbs in Boxes, Lyme, & Joint Support

Katja (27:19):
So that, and then one other thing I do want to mention is that because we were saying that there’s no personal experience in that monograph. And people all write their monographs in different ways. And there’s no virtue in writing monographs. There’s no inherent on its own value in that, unless taking notes helps you to learn. But the thing that there is value in is personal experience. How does the plant feel when you work with it? And if you can get some friends to be experimenters with you, what do they report? Because they might not report the same things. And so if you’re going to write a monograph. And you are like oh, every monograph I’ve seen has been really science-y, or has been really highly formatted, or lots of things that maybe you don’t feel like you would normally do. The single most important part of a monograph is your personal experience. Well, and maybe also the Latin name. You do need to know that. But your personal experience with that plant, honestly, is more important than all the other stuff. And plus you can look up all the other stuff anytime you need to.

Ryn (28:36):
Yeah, right. So yeah, at the time I didn’t really have personal experience with cat’s claw. And honestly, it’s not one that I’ve worked with a lot, like day in and day out over the years. But honestly, I think you have done more direct consumption of cat’s claw than I have.

Katja (28:52):
Yeah. And the funny thing is okay, so we made fun of your monograph. But also, we now have to tease me. Because we always talk about don’t put herbs in boxes. And we have to say this because human brains want to put things in boxes, like in categories. You know, like ah, that is a thing. And it’s just the way that human brains organize information. And so we have to be really aware of that and work to keep the broad spectrum, multifaceted, and nuanced information about all the different things that we’re learning. It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be any topic. And so when I first started working with cat’s claw, I had it in my Lyme box because I was working with it to support clients with Lyme. And all I focused on was Lyme, Lyme, Lyme, Lyme. How can cat’s claw help with Lyme? Okay, well that was I don’t even know how many years’ worth of work. But for years cat’s claw was Lyme. And then…

Ryn (30:10):
Which is not unusual among American herbalist, because of the much-vaunted B protocol.

Katja (30:19):
Yeah. So, yes. Really, in the US almost everywhere you will just find people reporting cat’s claw and Lyme, cat’s caw and Lyme. You’ll probably see stuff about CD57. You might not even know what that means, but you read it in a book by some guy. Not the best Lyme protocol on the planet, but cat’s claw itself can be quite helpful. It is worth noting that it is on the drying side, and most people who have Lyme also experience quite a bit of dryness. And if you just Google herbs for Lyme, almost all of the herbs that you Google will be super, super drying.

Ryn (31:05):
Cat’s claw, red root, high dose eleuthero.

Katja (31:08):
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And so, it is really important to keep that drying aspect in consideration, and make sure that you are correcting for it for the person’s constitution. But even if a person has a constitution that before they got Lyme, they weren’t a dry person. Lyme does tend to dry people out, so it’s always important to pay close attention to that. But correcting for that, actually cat’s claw is helpful for many people with Lyme. Okay. Well, fast forward. Then I started to get really interested in cat’s claw for joint problems. And in my own body, specifically the joints in the back, the vertebrae, right? We don’t always think about the spine as made up of joints, but every vertebrae is a joint. They all are capable of that movement. And so, I had a spine injury when I was in my twenties. And it has been in varying degrees of severity over my lifetime since then, depending on how active I manage to stay versus how much I am sitting at a desk. And so throughout my life I have gone through many different phases of working with different herbs to support joint health. And I really got in a rut with cat’s claw about my back, and it was super, super helpful. But that rut lasted for years. And suddenly I really just threw the whole Lyme disease box out the window.

Ryn (33:01):
You just forgot it entirely and swapped it out for a new one.

Katja (33:03):
Yeah. I swapped it for a new box.

Ryn (33:05):
Can you say anything about the kind of pain you had, and the way that cat’s claw itself was changing that feeling?

Katja (33:13):
Yeah. So, in this particular case, the pain was very inflammatory pain. So, sometimes you have a joint pain. And it could be any joint. It doesn’t have to be your back. And you step wrong, and you get a sharp kind of pain. Or if it’s in your hands, you use a knife and you hold the knife the wrong way. And you get like that sharp pain that goes kind of in the joint, and then it’s so sharp that it maybe goes up the bone from the joint. That’s not the pain I’m talking about. I’m going to call that an impact pain, even though it’s a residual kind of pain. It’s a pain that can last for a really long time, but it’s not always that sharp. That sharp is happening in the moment of I stepped off the curb wrong or whatever. I have a chronic problem here. I have a chronic level of dull pain, whatever. But in this moment it is super painful. Okay. Cat’s claw is not necessarily what I’m going to reach for in that moment. In that moment I would be looking for topicals probably with some cayenne, with some Solomon’s seal, with some maybe St. John’s wort, some maybe wintergreen. And also if there was a dampness component, maybe also some prickly ash or something that would help move things through that dampness. What I’m talking about with cat’s claw is the other kind of pain. The one that reminds you that you shouldn’t step off the curb the wrong way, but you were in a hurry, and you forgot. The one that’s just sort of with you all the time. You just wake up, and you’re like yep. There’s that joint pain. The one that’s just always there. It’s a duller kind of pain. And it’s the kind of pain that you can acclimate to, and you can work in spite of whatever that work is. If it’s in your hands, maybe you’re like well, I like to knit. I’m going to knit anyway, because today is not a really bad day, you know?

Ryn (35:32):
Yeah. It’s not one of these pains that’s like innervating the capacity of the muscle to even contract anymore. Sometimes if you have an arthritic issue going on, you’re like well, I can get this far. But then if I try to press harder, first I get a spike of pain. And at the same time all of my muscles don’t work.

Katja (35:49):
Or cramp up or yeah, yeah. No, it isn’t that one. It is the old friend pain.

Cooling, Drying, & Tonifying: Ideal for a Decoction

Ryn (35:57):
And you started off by talking about inflammation. And this is again, not like an acute situation of I smacked myself with a hammer. And now there’s an inflamed part there as my body responds. This is like we’ve had this fire burning for a while, right? It’s burning up some resources in there. And it’s making everything tender and a little achy. And it’s like a slow burn situation. So, that has an element of persistent heat and some degree of some dampness to it as well. Yeah. And, you know, I’m just, I’m raising that because this tracks straight to the energetics with cat’s claw. This is like an herb that’s cooling. It’s drying. It’s tonifying. And so it matches that particular tissue state, which leads to this particular type of pain that you were feeling there.

Katja (36:41):
Yeah. It is that chronic inflammatory kind of state, which then often, even if you’re not a damp person, becomes a dampness issue. But I am a damp person, so that is like an extra bonus. If you are a person who runs cold, or if your chronic inflammatory state has created coldness – because that can also happen – then it’s important to remember that cat’s claw is cooling. So, we’re going to need to correct for that. It’s easily done with ginger or any number of other things. Okay, so…

Ryn (37:21):
Right. So you had Lyme, sort of an immune-hovering thing around there, but mostly Lyme, right? And then this focus on the joint pain. And not just this particular back issue. But like I said before, there’s a lot of research onto this for rheumatoid arthritis and some other, again, of these chronic, long, slow burning, inflammatory type issues but yeah, with that joint affinity to them.

Katja (37:44):
Yeah. So, the way that I took that was I make notCoffee. And it always has like a bunch of different roots in it. And it has a vaguely coffee-like flavor, especially when you mix in a little cocoa and a little milk of your choice. And then you call it mocha. Yes, absolutely.

Ryn (38:05):
It’s an herbal roots and barks and sometimes fungi decoction.

Katja (38:09):
Yeah. It usually has… No, it always has reishi, ashwagandha, and angelica.

Ryn (38:17):
For the last five years. For the first five years you were drinking this, reishi was not invited.

Katja (38:22):
Oh, that’s true. Or I would put one tiny little thing of reishi.

Ryn (38:25):
You put a little nub of reishi in there. Yeah.

Katja (38:26):
Now I put like two handfuls of reishi. Yeah, it’s funny. Reishi took me a while, but now I think it’s delicious. But there’s always something warming in there, so that already deals with the cold aspect of the cat’s claw.

Ryn (38:40):
Yeah. Ginger, angelica, calamus.

Katja (38:43):
Yeah, exactly. Elecampane if there’s lung stuff going on. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Ryn (38:47):

Katja (38:49):
Okay. So yes, and I really feel like a water decoction is the best way to work with it, because the water is counteracting some of that astringency as well. But also, oh man, I wish I could put my finger on a really good science reason about solubility, and cell types, and whatever. I feel like it is there. And whenever I talk about my preferences for water versus tincture, I feel like it sounds like vibes. And it’s not. It’s just that I need to take the time to sit down and work out the math of my reasoning. But there are some things that I feel pretty strongly about. Water feels drastically more effective in my body. And cat’s claw is one of them. I wouldn’t say a blue vervain, for example. But yeah.

Ryn (39:55):
We would need to dive in pretty far, I think. Because usually when people talk about cat’s claw, it’s all of that focus on those alkaloids. We mentioned those briefly earlier, right? Why? Because alkaloids act strongly on mammals, basically. They tend to have either a noticeable impact on nerve function, sometimes on immune activity. And that’s kind of more where cat’s claw falls in. And so they capture attention that way. Alkaloids tend to be the thing, if you find one in a plant, that’s most likely to be ultimately developed into your synthesized pharmaceutical. You know what I mean? So, that’s where they tend to get the attention. But I mean, you know, there’s tannins in cat’s claw. There’s saponins. Most of that would come out in alcohol okay, but it does come out differently in water. It feels differently.

Katja (40:43):
And the alkaloids also do come out in water. I mean alkaloids are very alcohol soluble, but they’re also super water soluble. Just try coffee. You’re getting so many alkaloids there.

Ryn (40:54):
Yeah. They’re a little promiscuous in that sense. It’s a chemistry term. Go check.

Immunity Support & Topical Applications of Cat’s Claw

Katja (41:03):
All right. So, anyway. So, cat’s claw then got stuck in this joint pain box for a really long time. But then covid happened. And especially in the last year of covid research, which that isn’t fair. Some of this research does go back to 2020. Some of this research was done really early on and just didn’t get a lot of publicity. But a lot of the research about how covid damages the immune system specifically, incidentally, tracks very closely with the ways in which HIV damages the immune system specifically, right down to many of the same immune responder cells have the same types of damage. And I’m thinking here specifically of CD4 and CD8. But there are others, but those are two that are with great big tags on them. And so, that kind of damage is really interesting because we already have a lot of research of cat’s claw with respect or with regard or working with HIV specifically.

Ryn (42:16):
Right. I mean, in my terrible monograph, here we have it’s being used in therapies for cancer and HIV, right? And again, not to be pulling that out of nowhere, right? Uh, we can probably dig in further and be like well actually, how were they preparing the herb? Or was it some extract, or was it just these oxindole alkaloids that they were working in a Petri dish? And all of that can get us to how relevant this is going to be to real humans. But on the other hand, that’s not the extent of it. There is some lab science stuff there. And then there is also folk practice, and people saying well, yeah. We were really sick. We couldn’t afford that medicine. We drank this and seemed to do a little better than the people who didn’t. And that does count for a lot in our view of this world.

Katja (43:01):
And there’s also that middle place between the lab science and the anecdotal data. Which is maybe we call it the functional science. Probably somebody’s already using that term for something else, but I’m going to just say it for this right now.

Ryn (43:14):
I mean, I’m fine with folk wisdom. I’m fine with empirical observation.

Katja (43:18):
Yeah. I guess what I’m thinking about here is like okay, we took that folk wisdom. And we tried it clinically a lot. And now we have some data where we were specifically trying to see if we could instigate improvement. Okay. All the folk wisdom also, they were also trying to specifically create improvement. But we just…

Ryn (43:42):
Do it for a reason.

Katja (43:43):
Listen, science is when you test out a theory or a hypothesis. And then you get a result. And then somebody else tests it out too. And then lots of people test it out. And then we all compare our results. And then we say hey, they look like they’re the same, or they’re not the same, or whatever else. And so really when we of this generation, of this time and place, are doing clinical not even trials necessarily, but just working with it clinically as herbalists. We’re just adding to the base of research that allows us to draw conclusions. It’s not like science was invented when laboratories were invented. Humans have always been doing science with whatever tools they could get their hands on.

Ryn (44:27):

Katja (44:28):

Ryn (44:29):
Okay. Covid, right? Yeah.

Katja (44:30):
Yeah, yeah. So, now I have swung right back around to the immune actions of cat’s claw. And so now I’ve described a situation in which I just oscillated back and forth between two functions. But that still isn’t enough, because cat’s claw has many more actions, even if we just start with the reality that it’s astringent. Just starting there, there’s so much work we can do.

Ryn (44:58):
Yeah. And you look at this plant and its applications, and there are some topical approaches to work with this herb. And there the astringency is going to be really important. When we’re working on a wet wound, when we’re working on like a viral sore like from the herpes virus family for instance. The astringent activity of those tannins is going to be really important, even though that may not have a direct impact on white blood cell activation in the region. It doesn’t have to. This other element of its effect is going to be really, really relevant. When we talked about this herb in the Immune Health course, we talked about a lot of these ideas around this capacity to bring down inflammation, to help your body make better choices about where to cultivate inflammation and where to cool it off. On a mechanistic level, some of that is done by these things called t-helper cells, right? They’re a type of white blood cell, but their job isn’t to go down and kill things directly. They’re also referred to as immunomodulators.

Katja (46:12):
They’re like managers. Like really good managers though, not managers you don’t like to work for.

Ryn (46:19):
Right. So, in a sense it’s like cat’s claw can stimulate the activity of somebody who goes in and says let’s cool things down around here.

Katja (46:26):
Yeah. And so when we hear immune stimulant, and it’s just super general, the immune system is so complex, and there are so many layers all working together. And so when we hear immune stimulant, that is wildly generalized. And immediately what we imagine in our mind is dialed up inflammation. But it’s really important to ask what part of the immune system is actually being stimulated here? Because parts of the immune system that you can stimulate dial down inflammation.

Ryn (47:01):
Yeah. Right, right. So, look. If you want to dig into some studies, and some research, and some details about immune system cells with names that have letters and numbers in them, there’s actually a really great monograph put together by the American Botanical Council folks a while back. And this is one that they’ve got available for free on their website in the extended version. So, we’re going to link to that in the show notes here. And there’s some cool stuff in there. There are some fun things to see. I find it interesting when you kind of zoom out a little bit. And you say okay, so here’s this plant that has these actions on the chemical messengers of the immune system that are involved in regulating inflammation. And that does connect directly over to oh, this is an herb where you take somebody, and they have these like hot wet expressions in their body. Maybe in their lungs as part of what today we call asthma, or maybe in some other part of their body as some pathology there. Maybe in the joints, right, with those inflamed, long, slow burn things going on. And the herb comes in and it cools that down. And it dries it up a little bit. And it helps things to function a little more smoothly. So, these are two ways to look at, or talk about, or kind of work towards the actual experience of a living person who feels bad, drinks some cat’s claw a bunch of days in a row, and starts to feel better. So, I think I bring that up because that’s a way to think about how do we get out of boxes. How do you get out of the box that you’ve put an herb into? So, coming at it from more than one perspective I think is really handy. To say all right, well what does folk practice look like? What does ancient practice look like, if we have any information about that? If I go to PubMed, and I put in the name of my herb, what comes up there is like the newest thing or a recent review that’s digging into a whole bunch of papers put together. And then ask a bunch of other herbalists what they do with it, right? Because that’s another important point of our compass of information sources.

Katja (49:00):

Ryn (49:03):
All right. So, that’s some thoughts on cat’s claw and getting herbs out of boxes. Some thoughts on slippery elm as well. And that’ll be it for this week. But before we go, one more reminder. Sale, sale, sale. Twenty percent off everything all month.

Katja (49:21):
Twenty percent off everything, including the Immune Health course where you can learn more about cat’s claw and lots of other immune-helping herbs. Stimulating, modulating, all those things.

Ryn (49:31):
Yeah. That course has a really healthy serving of how to read and interpret scientific studies. But don’t get worried, because it’s hooked directly to materia medica study. It’s directly into the herbs that you’re going to be learning about and how to work with in that course. Yeah.

Katja (49:49):
And also you could take 20% off of the Musculoskeletal course if you deal with back pain, or joint pain, or any of those things. And then you can learn more about cat’s claw in that context. You could take 20% off the Digestive Health course and learn more about slippery and marshmallow root. And you could take 20% off all of them because it’s totally unlimited. You can have as many as you want. It doesn’t matter. You could get the entire Community Herbalist program, which has all those courses and 13 more, 14 more.

Ryn (50:23):
More others. Yes, indeed.

Katja (50:25):
Right. So, the code that you need is kindness. It works until the end of December. If you are listening to this way in the future, the end of December 2023. If you are listening to this in the future, and you missed it, don’t worry. Our sales are semi-annual. They’re in July and December every year, so that you can plan your herbal learning to fit into your budget. So, stock up now, is what we’re saying, for the first half of the new year.

Ryn (50:55):
Yeah. All right. We’ll be back soon with some more Holistic Herbalism podcasts for you. Until then, take care of yourselves. Take care of each other. Drink some tea.

Katja (51:06):
Drink some tea.

Ryn (51:07):
And clean your claws.

Ryn (51:12):
All right, everybody. Bye.

Katja (51:13):


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