Homemade balms are easy to prepare herbal remedies for sore muscles . . . and will save you a bit of money, too.
ILLUSTRATION: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
When fighting against winter's workload try these homemade herbal remedies for sore muscles.
There's not much anyone can do to lessen the workload that comes with these busy, chilly months . . . but I can tell you about a few treatments that'll help you relax your fatigued body and perhaps make tomorrow's chores seem just a bit easier.
When muscles tighten (as they do when they're overworked), they hamper the circulatory system, thereby preventing nutrients from reaching the muscle cells in adequate quantities. Moreover, lactic acid builds up in the stressed tissue, causing soreness. It makes sense, then, that the first step toward bringing some vitality back into your aching frame is to get the blood pumping to those undernourished cells again by using these homemade herbal remedies for sore muscles.
As most folks know, heat causes blood vessels to enlarge, thus encouraging circulation. However, as anyone who had, labored on a hot afternoon will likely attest, excessive heat can cause a feeling of sluggishness . . . so be careful not to overdo this type of "cure". In coping with minor muscle pain, for example, two or three applications of heat a day should be more than adequate. (If swelling accompanies the soreness, though, your muscle may be torn or sprained . . . and in such a case the area should be elevated to encourage draining, and cold compresses should be used to reduce the inflammation. Keep in mind that the following remedies are for sore—not swollen—muscles.)
You'll find that heating pads—the usual means of applying soothing warmth to aching limbs—come in various styles. I prefer strip (as opposed to the more traditional rectangular) warmers, because the scarf-like shape is ideal for wrapping around a sore area. Some brands even come equipped with an insert that can be moistened and safely attached to the heating unit, and this feature provides penetrating wet heat.
Balms and ointments are also popular means of applying heat to sore muscles. And, since the main ingredient in the various commercial products (Ben-Gay, Absorbine, Tiger Balm) is wintergreen oil, homemade balms are easy to prepare herbal remedies for sore muscles . . . and will save you a bit of money, too.
To make your own rub, simply put one tablespoon each of several herbs—lavender, rosemary, calendula, chamomile, camphor, ginger, eucalyptus, and wintergreen are all good choices—in the top of a nonmetal double boiler. (Note: Never use iron, brass, copper, zinc, or aluminum containers for preparing herbal remedies, as the plant ingredients may chemically react with the metal . . . corroding the vessel and contaminating the solution.)
Each of the herbs mentioned here falls into one of three medicinal categories: external tonics, anti-inflammatory agents, and counter-irritants. Lavender and rosemary, for example, which both have camphor in their leaves that helps draw blood to the skin surface (as does the oil of camphor available at drugstores), are considered external tonics . . . ginger, calendula, and chamomile are anti-inflammatory agents . . . and eucalyptus and wintergreen are penetrating oils, which irritate and stimulate the muscle, causing lactic acid to be flushed out. Therefore, to prepare an effective balm, herbs from all three categories should be included.
Once you've measured out the herbs you've chosen, cover the mixture with two to four cups of oil—corn, safflower, sesame, sunflower, peanut, olive, or almond oil will work—and gently simmer the concoction for about an hour. Then strain the blend through a fine-meshed cloth—pressing the herbs as you do so—and store the oil in a sterilized jar. (You can add two to three tablespoons of beeswax or paraffin if you'd prefer an ointment.)
Because rubs offer only surface relief, they're unable to tackle deep muscular pain. You can, however, obtain greater heat penetration—with these same salves—using a homemade hot pack. To do so, put the oil or ointment on your tender spot and cover that area with gauze or a piece of lightweight cotton cloth. Next, cover the bandage with a sheet of plastic wrap, thereby creating a vapor trap, and secure the clear film with skin-sensitive tape (it's available at most drugstores). Finally, enclose the whole shebang in an Ace bandage. (You'll find this pack particularly useful when circumstances force you to go on working after doctoring your ills.)
The herbal bath is yet another common means of treating aches and pains. I've found that a mixed infusion of stinging nettle, yarrow and pennyroyal (don't use pennyroyal oil . . . the herb is too potent in liquid form) is extremely effective for relaxing sore muscles. You'll probably want to experiment with other herbal recipes, too. For example, try substituting mint, chamomile, calendula, comfrey, mullein or marigold flowers, hops, mugwort, or wild marjoram for the herbs listed above. Chamomile and mint are valuable for their antiseptic properties . . . mugwort, wild marjoram, mullein, hops, and chamomile are "nervines", or substances that have a calming effect . . . and the remaining herbs mentioned here are known for their effectiveness as anti-inflammatory agents.
To brew up your herbal soak, fill an enamel, earthenware, or glass pot with two quarts of water and add a handful each of yarrow and stinging nettle (if the latter is fresh, you'll want to wear gloves when handling it). Use plants that are no more than a year old (if possible, harvest your own fresh herbs), as their potency does generally diminish with age. Bring the concoction to a boil and let it simmer for three minutes, then turn off the heat and allow the pot to sit—covered—for another 20 minutes. After it's had time to steep, strain out the plants and add the infusion to your bath.
The temperature of the water in the tub should be comfortably warm, rather than piping hot, to prevent a shock to your system and to be sure you're left feeling refreshed rather than fatigued. To obtain the best possible results, soak in the herbal brew for a good 20 minutes . . . and, while doing so, gently massage your body until you feel a comforting warm glow all over.
This treatment should cause you to perspire more than usual and will slightly raise your body temperature, so avoid employing it if you have a heart condition. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Herbs, like any other medication, should be applied cautiously and in moderation. Remember, too, that a treatment may have different effects on different people. For instance, most experts agree that pennyroyal—in any form—should be avoided by pregnant women. In short, thoroughly research any plant before you use it.]
No amount of herbal care can make firewood cut, split, and stack itself, of course. But by treating your body to a bit of afterwork attention, you might just find that many of winter's chores will once again become rewarding—and even enjoyable—tasks.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Two excellent books on practical herb lore—including information about the specific plants, remedies, and recipes for liniments, oils, and ointments—are Dian Dincin Buchman's Herbal Medicine (David McKay, 1979, $8.95) and Herbs & Things by Jeanne Rose (Grosser & Dunlap, 1972, $6.95).