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Natural Rx: Your Home Apothecary

Christine Cioppa

The scuttlebutt on many bases is that home apothecaries are a must-have. In the hopes of their medicinal properties, more and more people are turning to fresh or dried herbs, tinctures or herbal extracts, topical salves, herbal teas and essential oils. But is it safe? How do you know if you’re doing it right?

Especially when three of your neighbors are selling essential oils door to door and leaning on you to buy some.

“There are people who are using concentrated essential oils in ways that are frankly unsafe and they are telling other people to do the same,” warns naturopathic doctor Orna Izakson, ND, RH (AHG), Traditional Roots Institute lead physician at the National College of Natural Medicine. Essential oils are typically diffused, inhaled or diluted and used topically. What’s definitely not safe is using the concentrated or distilled essential oils internally without the proper medical guidance.

How potent are distilled essential oils?

Dr. Izakson says that the bottles of distilled essential oils are very concentrated, powerful, potentially dangerous medicine.

“For example, it takes 625 pounds of rose blossoms to make one ounce of oil. For peppermint, it's 16 pounds of leaf to make one ounce of essential oil,” explains Dr. Izakson. “What is happening now is people are being taught to use large doses of very intense essential oils directly on the skin undiluted or orally,” she adds. Even when used improperly in baths, distilled essential oils can cause rashes, burns and other problems, says Dr. Izakson.

While there are safe ways to use distilled essential oils, she cautions that the misuse of them can really hurt people.

Fortunately, using fresh herbs as medicine is a bit less tricky than working with distilled essential oils, tinctures or making a topical salve by infusing an herb into a fixed oil. Also, using manufactured herbal remedies is complicated. Manufactured herbal products are not regulated in the way drugs are.

The products that you buy at the store are not tested for effectiveness or safety by the government before they hit the market, according to the National Institutes of Health. What is imposed on the makers of these products is their guarantee of the strength, purity, identity and composition of their products. Still, it’s a lot less strict than drugs.

If you are new to the concept of starting a home apothecary, begin with simple herbal teas as well as the spices and culinary herbs in your pantry, says Jenny Perez, education coordinator at the American Botanical Council. Work up to the more complicated therapies — but do the latter with the guidance of a trained herbal professional or naturopathic doctor. “For the most part, the common herbs we are used to using in our kitchen are very safe,” says Dr. Izakson.

The herbs below are a great addition to your home apothecary, regardless where you live, because these plants can be grown indoors. This list was compiled with the help of Dr. Izakson and Perez, as well as Moe Hemmings, senior horticulturist at Atlanta Botanical Garden and Ken Johnson, extension educator, horticulture, at the University of Illinois Extension.

THYME (Thymus vulgaris)

Getting it started: Start your thyme plant with a cutting from someone else’s plant or by buying a plant. It needs six or more hours of full sun. Thyme prefers a drier soil than other indoor herbs. (See herb growing tips below.)

Medicinal use: According to the American Botanical Council, thyme leaves inhibit a variety of viruses, fungi and bacteria. One way to use thyme is in a steam. Perez says thyme steams are used for disinfecting the mucus membranes and thinning and clearing excess mucus associated with colds, flus, bronchitis and pneumonia. “If you have general lung crud or buildup of mucus, breathe in the steam and it will loosen things up. The essential oils — from steaming the fresh or dried herbs — specifically support mucus membranes to do what they need to do to help you feel better,” says Dr. Izakson.

Steam recipe from Dr. Izakson: Take a large handful of fresh thyme (or a small handful of dried thyme from your spice rack). Place in a bowl. Pour hot water over it. Put towel over head like a tent and breath in steam. Repeat a few times a day as needed.

ALOE (Aloe vera)

Getting it started: Buy a plant instead of trying to grow it from seed.

Medicinal use: The American Botanical Council says the gel within each leaf of aloe can be used topically to treat first- and second-degree burns, superficial wounds and hemorrhoids.

HOLY BASIL (Ocimum tenuiflorum)

Getting it started: This medicinal basil species is known as tulsi, or holy basil, says Perez. You can grow it from seeds or a cutting or you can buy a plant. “If you grow it from a cutting, you are going to get a larger plant faster than if you grow it from seed,” says Johnson. It needs full sun.

Medicinal use: The American Botanical Council says drinking tulsi tea may shorten the duration of colds and flus as well as reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

LEMON BALM (Melissa officinalis)

Getting it started: It grows well in a container and can take shade, says Hemmings. It does not need a full-sun area. It can tolerate moisture.

Medicinal use: The leaves of this plant are mildly anti-depressive; antiviral against Herpes simplex cold sore virus (topically); and helpful for Graves disease, according to the American Botanical Council. The herb, however, should not be used by people who have an under-active thyroid. Dr. Izakson says it may help those with PTSD. “This is one where you want to work with somebody because you want to know that you are not depressing the thyroid; you are going to be doing it at higher doses; you are going to be using a tincture. So you want someone paying attention,” she explains.

Tea recipe (for topical use) from the University of Maryland Medical Center: For cold sores or herpes sores, steep 2 to 4 tsp. of crushed leaf in 1 cup boiling water for 10 to 15 minutes. Cool. Apply tea with cotton balls to the sores throughout the day.

PARSLEY (Petroselinum crispum)

Getting it started: Grow parsley from seed. Since seeds are slow to germinate, Johnson suggests soaking seeds overnight. Give this plant full sun. You can also buy the plant. It also grows well in shade, says Hemmings.

Medicinal use: Parsley leaves are nutrient dense (vitamins A and C, potassium, folic acid), alkalinizing to the body and act as a diuretic, according to the American Botanical Council; however, because parsley contains compounds called oxalates, the herb may not be the best choice for those with kidney disease and gallbladder problems.

GINGER (Zingiber officinale)

Getting it started: You need to order a ginger root from a seed catalog; the root in the grocery store won’t work because it has been dried out, says Hemmings. However, organic ginger from the grocery store may work fine, since it is not allowed to be irradiated; it can sprout and be planted, says Perez. Hemmings says it takes some effort, but once established it does well. You can start it in a pot. It can take shade and be placed in the corner of the house that stays warm. It doesn’t necessarily need a window. Hemmings says to harvest just a portion of the plant, not the whole plant, since it is a root crop. You can shave down the ginger root and eat it fresh.

Medicinal use: It relieves nausea, enhances circulation, reduces acute and chronic inflammation and may help tinnitus or dizziness, according to the American Botanical Council.

Dried herb spices and herbal teas can also be considered a part of your home apothecary. For example chamomile and lavender tea is calming before bed. Cinnamon as a spice can help reduce blood pressure and cholesterol. Mustard seed powder has been used topically for pain and inflammation in those with arthritis and rheumatism. (See “Resources” below for research links.)

Whatever home-based remedies you use, be sure to tell your doctor — especially if you have a health condition. If you are pregnant, check with your doctor before use, as certain remedies can be risky during pregnancy or aggravate pregnancy symptoms.

In the words of Hippocrates, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

Indoor Herb Growing Tips:

Horticulture expert Ken Johnson of the University of Illinois Extension offers the following tips for a successful indoor herb garden:

  • Plants should sit next to south- or west-facing windows if in the Northern Hemisphere.
  • Ideally, plants should get 6-8 hours of full sun.
  • If your home doesn’t get enough sun, supplement light exposure with florescent lighting. For every hour of required sunlight, plants need 2 hours of florescent lighting. Keep florescent bulbs 6 to 12 inches from plants. Closer than that the leaves can burn. Farther than that and plants will not get enough light.
  • For homes that get enough direct sun, rotate pots every couple of days to prevent plants from leaning. Give it a quarter turn.
  • Make sure leaves don’t touch cold windows because it can kill the leaves.
  • Avoid putting plants under heating vents.
  • Mist plants with a water bottle a couple of times a day during the winter to help increase humidity.
  • Place a container of small rocks and water next to plants. The water will evaporate and increase humidity.
  • For all these plants, you can grow them in pots outside in the spring and summer and bring them indoors in the fall.
  • For indoor herbs, use a well-draining potting mix. Don’t use garden soil.
  • Use pots with drainage holes in them.

Health Insurance Coverage

Q: Does Tricare cover complementary and alternative medicine?

A: Sorry. No! Tricare doesn’t cover alternative treatments or naturopathic care. You can check what Tricare covers at: Dr. Izakson suggests telling the individual responsible for your benefits that this is coverage that you want.

Want more information? Check out these resources:

Botanicals, Including Herbs

Get a free e-newsletter from the American Botanical Council at

Find out more about botanicals and how safe they are at

Read a free e-book on herbs from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at

Get info on growing and preserving herbs (and get recipes too) at,

View safety info from the Mayo Clinic at

Find herb recipes from the Traditional Roots Institute at

Essential Oils and Aromatherapy


National Cancer Institute:

National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy:

Natural Products

Whole Foods:

Herb Seeds and Starter Plants

Johnny’s (seeds)

Burpee Seeds (seeds and plant starts)

Mountain Rose Herbs (organic herbs and spices)

Horizon Herbs (seeds and plant starts)

Richter’s Nursery (seeds and plant starts)

Crimson Sage Nursery (plant starts)

Finding an Expert

Licensed Doctors Who Practice Integrative Health

Not all people who call themselves naturopaths are trained to be licensed physicians. In the U.S., seventeen states license naturopathic doctors. To find out more, go to the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians website at Also check your state’s licensing board if your naturopath doesn’t appear here. Dr. Izakson says some licensed doctors practice in states that don’t license. “For instance, New York doesn't license NDs, but qualified NDs in New York usually have a license from another state — often Oregon, Washington or Connecticut,” she says.

Registered Herbalists

These professionals are not doctors, but many receive professional education and training. Not all herbalists have the same training. Learn more at the American Herbalists Guild at

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