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As the days grow shorter and the holidays are upon us, I’ve been considering the role of the various herbs and spices that contribute to the vast array of seasonal traditions this time of year. By stimulating our senses – especially our eyes, noses, and taste buds – herbs conjure strong memories and emotions. Discover the power of nutritional holiday herbs in health and how they came to be a traditional part of the festive season.
In addition, herbs play a major role in the folklore surrounding the holiday season, such as the gifts of the Three Wise Men. Though gold, frankincense, and myrrh aren’t typically part of a modern holiday affair, their symbolism and medicinal uses are forever tied to the season at hand.
In this blog, we’ll explore the significance of the wise men’s gifts, their historical holistic health benefits, and their current medicinal applications, as well as some more commonly used herbs to delight our senses during the winter holidays.
Precious as it is, gold isn’t something we require in our diets or as bling for survival, though the human body does contain a small amount of it, about 0.2 mg for an average 70 kg human. As a good conductor of electricity, gold helps transmit electrical charges in the body and also plays a role in joint mobility and health.
Alchemists toiled relentlessly to try and transmute other metals, like lead, into this precious substance, well known for its spiritual and medicinal properties.
Thanks to its inert, nontoxic, and pliable properties, gold has been used to restore teeth, like Joe Pesci’s famously lost a gold tooth in the holiday classic, Home Alone. Gold salts were commonly used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, a therapy known as chrysotherapy, though this practice has declined since the 1980s in favor of safer treatments.
Currently, gold nanoparticles are a hot topic in research, as they are being studied for applications in cancer therapy, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, ophthalmology, and tissue engineering. Mechanistically, gold particles are useful because they have a high affinity for sulfur-containing compounds, which makes them helpful for drug delivery and targeting. They are also quite dense, able to absorb radiation, and exhibit fluorescence.
Nutritionally, eating gold isn’t going to provide any health benefits because this inert metal passes right through the digestive tract without being absorbed, though sometimes high-end dining establishments include gold flakes for aesthetic value.
As a gift from the wise men, gold represented kingship on earth, a precious metal used to adorn the worldly, the wise, and the faithful.
The next gift from the wise men comes from the trunk of the Boswellia tree, native to Arabia and India. It is harvested by cutting into the bark of the tree, which causes the tree to weep. A few weeks later, when its tears have dried, harvesters return to collect the hardened resin that covers the tree’s wounds like a Band-Aid.
This resin is typically burned as incense, which is how it got its name, frankincense, from an old French expression, franc encens, meaning “high-quality incense”.
Symbolically, frankincense represents holiness or godliness, and was often used in religious ceremonies to purify the air. Burning frankincense also conveys medicinal properties, thanks to the antibacterial and antiseptic properties of the resin.
Modern research conducted on extracts of the Boswellia tree shows promise for the treatment of conditions including asthma, arthritis, wound healing, and inflammatory conditions, such as Crohn’s disease. The principal mechanism of action is the anti-inflammatory effect of the active constituents of frankincense – boswellic acid and other pentacyclic triterpenic acids. They work by inhibiting the pro-inflammatory processes in the body.
Frankincense is not commonly consumed orally, rather it is burned as incense or applied topically from dilutions of the essential oil. The latter is popular in skincare regimens to improve acne and to reduce signs of aging.
The wise men bestowed this gift unto Jesus as a symbol of the heavens, representing deity and light.
Another herb harvested from trees native to Arabia, myrrh, is an oily resin obtained in the same way as frankincense, only from the Commiphora tree instead of Boswellia.
In Biblical times, myrrh was used as an anointing oil to cleanse and purify for religious ceremonies. It was also used for embalming, and therefore was a symbol of death.
Medicinally, myrrh has been used for thousands of years for the treatment of indigestion, sore gums, ulcers, cold, cough, asthma, and arthritis (the wise men must have really cared about the little lord’s joints!). Preparations of myrrh from essential oils or using the gum resin contain terpenes and organic acids with antiseptic, astringent, analgesic, and anesthetic properties.
Together, frankincense and myrrh may convey even more powerful health benefits because of the transformation of their chemical constituents displaying synergistic effects.
Though current medicinal research is encouraging, these herbs remain uncommon these days, especially in the West, as the trees only grow in their native land. In addition, overharvesting of Boswellia and Commiphora trees leaves them vulnerable.
Thankfully, other holiday herbs are easy to find and offer their own characteristic beauty, aroma, taste, and medicinal benefits.
As fall transitions to winter and the deciduous trees have dropped their leaves, evergreens get their time to shine. Displays of fir and pine trees as Christmas trees and wreaths delight our eyes with their beauty and noses with their fragrance.
Pine needles are also a wonderful addition to a holistic nutrition regimen. Common preparations of pine needles include infusions of the needles, tinctures made from the bark or needles, and essential oils.
These preparations maximize the extraction of pine’s chemical constituents including:
- Pinene (a terpene responsible for the characteristic smell of pine trees)
Due to the antioxidant and antimicrobial properties of these phytochemicals, pine is a subject of scientific research exploring the benefits of this herb for liver disease, inflammation, memory, lipid disorders, and as a natural food preservative.
“Oh, ho the mistletoe, hung where you can see…”
If you know the rest of the words to the song, then you know that mistletoe is an iconic symbol of romance for the holiday season.
Its reputation likely began with the Celtic druids who marveled that mistletoe bloomed during the dead of winter, thus becoming a symbol of vitality. It was often used to improve fertility in humans and animals.
A story from Norse mythology established the practice of smooching beneath a sprig of mistletoe when the goddess of love, Frigg, declared it a symbol of her gratitude for the savior of her son, Baldur, and vowed to kiss anyone who passed beneath.
Mistletoe prevailed for many years as a Christmas tradition, though it was also used historically to treat headaches, arthritis, menstrual cramps, epilepsy, and infertility.
It grows as a parasite on common trees such as apple, oak, pine, or elm, spreading from tree to tree with the help of birds who eat the berries. The berries and leaves are toxic to humans and animals, so it’s best to stick to decorations with this holiday herb.
Another holiday herb, ginger, is safe for consumption. This delicious herb is the highlight of gingerbread men and houses and also offers nutritional benefits.
Originally cultivated in China, this herb spread to Europe as part of the spice trade. By the 16th century, ginger was a popular spice often used for flavoring desserts. It became popular for holiday confections likely because of its warming nature during the cold winter.
Queen Elizabeth I gets credit for the invention of the gingerbread man. It is claimed that she had gingerbread men designed to represent members of her court. In the 1800s, gingerbread houses also came into fashion in Germany following the release of the popular Brothers Grimm story, Hansel and Gretel. A trend that remains to this day.
In addition to sweets, ginger can also be consumed fresh, dried, pickled, or crystallized. It has been used for thousands of years medicinally to treat colds, nausea, arthritis, migraines, hypertension, digestive complaints, and cancer.
Its chemical constituents and metabolites are numerous, including gingerols, shogaols, zingiberene, and zingerone. These constituents have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiemetic, and antimicrobial properties.
Ginger is a pungent spice suited to many types of cooking, but since it’s the holiday season let’s focus on cookies! Here’s a recipe for ginger molasses cookies from the Nutrition Therapy Institute’s archives to get you in the holiday spirit. You can even fashion them to resemble members of your own friends and family if you like 🙂
May your holiday celebrations be warm, merry, bright, and accented with holiday herbs!
About the author
Karyn Lane is working towards her holistic nutrition certification in NTI’s Nutrition Therapist Master Program. She finds her chemistry degree a useful tool in her study of holistic nutrition and loves to treat herself as a laboratory for new recipes and cooking techniques. You can follow her on Instagram @feel.alive.nourishment.
About Nutrition Therapy Institute’s Holistic Nutrition Certification
Nutrition Therapy Institute (NTI) is a leader in holistic nutrition education. Since 1999, NTI has provided students with the highest quality in nutrition training by offering comprehensive holistic nutrition courses online and in-person to help students achieve thriving careers as holistic nutrition therapists in the field of holistic nutrition counseling and wellness. Interested in starting our holistic nutrition courses and earning your holistic nutrition certification? Attend an informational webinar to learn more by signing up HERE.
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