Author: Laura Carpenter

Learning more about the health benefits of fermented foods

Yesterday I attended a fantastic workshop with Katie at Tracebridge Sourdough bakery and fermenteria.

I learnt all about how fermented foods and drinks are not only delicious but good for health.

There is a lot of research now on how gut health affects most of the systems in the body (e.g. the immune system and mood), so fermented foods are a great way of keeping your gut healthy in a natural way, no supplements needed.

We began by looking at milk kefir and how it can be made, using both raw milk and plant milks. We tasted a fermented milk kefir with oats as a possible breakfast option, but that was a little too sour for me. I very much enjoyed the 2 day fermented kefir milk as a yoghurt drink though, which was our next taster.

So what is kefir?

Kefir comes from the Turkish word ‘keif’ meaning ‘good feeling’, but describes a probiotic milk/yoghurt drink that is full of good bacteria for the gut. It is made from kefir ‘grains’, which are a combination of bacteria, yeast, lactose and sugars.

The grains when added to milk and left somewhere warm, will ferment and it’s the product of this fermentation that is known as kefir. It can be drunk on its own or added to smoothies, porridge etc, or if you leave it for a day or two more you will get curds and whey and soft cheese is only one further step away.

You can also get water kefir that is fed on sugar water or coconut water.

For more information on the health benefits of kefir, I highly recommend this blog by Dr Axe.

kombuchaWe then moved on to kombucha, which is a drink made from fermented black or green tea and sugar. A SCOBY (symbiotic community of bacteria and yeasts), is needed to bring about the fermentation process, converting the sugar to acetic acid and alcohol (a small amount).

Kombucha has a two stage fermentation process, and on the second ferment you can add fruit or spices to provide natural flavouring and health benefits of their own. The fermentation process produces carbon dioxide so the fruity drink can be slightly fizzy, a great alternative to chemical sodas.

You can find out more information about the health benefits of kombucha here.

My favourite kombucha was definitely the raspberry, a beautiful deep pink colour, and a mix of sweet and sour flavours.

After a beautiful vegan and vegetarian lunch we moved on the sauerkraut and kimchi.

squeeze-juiceI have forayed into the world of sauerkraut before but with mixed results so I was keen to learn some great fermenting tips from Katie. I made a white cabbage and horseradish sauerkraut to take home but we tried many different types in the class, from a version of kimchi to pea, nasturtium, white cabbage and fennel (a big favourite in the class).

If you’re looking for a fool proof sauerkraut recipe, I can highly recommend Katie’s simple recipe from her blog.

Last but not least was kimchi, and while there are lots of versions and ways to make it, Katie taught us an easy recipe that you can make at home without anything more fancy that a food processor and a couple of bowls.

sauerkrautSauerkraut and kimchi are both made using an anaerobic fermentation with good bacteria, these live on the skin of vegetables, and so once you chop them up and add salt to get the juices out, and you’ve packed your jar as full as you can without any air in it, the juice should be spilling out of the top of the jar. Once a bit of warmth is added the bacteria do their thing and fermentation begins, gas is produced so depending on the jar used you may need to release the gas built up each day. Anything from a few days to 5 weeks is considered a good fermentation length. Once it’s fermented to your liking you can pop it in the fridge and it will last indefinitely.

You can then add it to salads, or as a side vegetable with any dish for some lovely probiotic goodness.

You can find more information on the health benefits of fermented vegetables here.


Katie and Gordon run sourdough baking classes as well as fermentation, take a look at their website for more details.


As a follow on – you may find this article on Kombucha helpful by Lisa at Happy Happy Vegan.

What is Polymyalgia rheumatica? Can herbs help?

What is Polymyalgia rheumatica?

Polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR) is an inflammatory condition, often linked to Giant Cell Arteritis (GCA). The condition occurs mainly in women over 60, and the cause is not known.

Symptoms include muscle aches, stiffness in hips, shoulders, neck and mid body, weakness, general tiredness, and weight loss. Some people get swelling in their feet, ankles, wrists and hands. (Vasculitis UK)

PMR is becoming increasingly common, with an estimated 1 in 1,200 people developing the condition each year.

How is it treated?

The standard medical treatment for PMR is steroids, usually prednisolone, to relieve the symptoms. The NHS state that high dose steroids are used to start with and then the dose is decreased, and treatments can last for two years or more to prevent symptoms reoccurring. (NHS website)

Are there alternative treatments?

There are three main aims to alternative treatments.

  1. Reduce the side effects of the drugs

The following are the main side effects that patients of mine have experiences from taking prednisolone.

  • Higher blood sugar
  • Weight gain
  • Sleeplessness
  • Osteoporosis
  • Cataracts
  • Thinning of skin
  • Bruising

While these things can be addressed individually through a 1 to 1 consultation with a medical herbalist, here are some ideas for home treatment.

Herbs for side effects


There are many very safe herbs to aid digestion and protect from damage the delicate tissues that are prone to ulcers. Examples are peppermint, chamomile, meadowsweet and marshmallow leaf.

Balancing blood sugar

There are several safe herbs that can be used to naturally bring blood sugar into balance. Examples are cinnamon and dandelion leaf.

Aiding sleep

There are several safe herbs that can be used to aid a good night’s sleep. Examples are chamomile, lime flower, passion flower and valerian.

Improving circulation

There are many herbs that can improve circulation. Examples include ginger, chilli, hawthorn and lime flower. Brightly coloured fruits and vegetables can also help to improve the functioning of arteries and veins.

Increasing cortisol

Often when taking steroid drugs for long periods of time the adrenal glands can stop producing cortisol. Cortisol is needed to fight infection and allow the body to cope with stress.

When you stop taking steroid drugs your adrenal glands can begin making cortisol again but it can often take time. There are a couple of things you can do to help, cortisol needs cholesterol so eating fats in your diet will help, cod liver oil and vitamin A is also important. It’s also important to reduce sugar, caffeine and alcohol.

  1. Reduce general inflammation to reduce pain

This is something that you can address yourself if you have PMR, there are some very useful studies on the use of herbs to reduce inflammation.

Arthritis Research UK lists the three main herbs for reducing inflammation as Devil’s claw, Frankincense, and Rosehip.

I agree with them, and these herbs are available as over the counter products, it is important to follow the directions for each individual product as directed on the bottle.

I would also add turmeric to the list, it is a very useful anti-inflammatory and is also available as an over the counter product.

  1. Get to the root cause of the problem

The key to a holistic treatment is treating the cause of the problem rather than just the symptoms; this is something you can work towards with a medical herbalist.

Remember to check with your doctor and/or medical herbalist before taking supplements or herbs, and it is important to source good quality ingredients.

To find a qualified, registered, medical herbalist near you they can be found on the following lists:

As an update to this blog, I actually gave a talk for a local branch of Polymyalgia Rheumatica & Giant Cell Arteritis UK and that really gave me a much greater understanding of the condition and the problems patients were facing.

The main thing I really took away from that was that people wanted help to reduce their medications, and almost every person in the room was already taking turmeric. I explained about how it is often not bioavailable in the body and ways to increase that (adding black pepper and or ginger).

Chaga – remember to be sustainable

It’s interesting to revisit this blog from a couple of years ago as I think things are starting to change. There does seem to be more awareness of sustainability, how to source herbs (and mushrooms safely).

If you’re in the UK I highly recommend checking out the work done by the UK Herb grower network and if you’re in the US the Sustainable Herbs Project.


If you’ve ever read any of my blogs you will know I have a real passion for medicinal mushrooms, especially British ones.

Just as we need to protect our medicinal plants from over harvesting, the same goes for our medicinal mushrooms. Chaga has become a ‘wonder treatment’ for just about everything and it’s being added to smoothies left right and centre. This is extremely wrong and irresponsible.

1. Chaga needs to be extracted in hot water for it to extract it’s medicinal properties, so unless your smoothie is heated to over boiling point for at least 15 minutes you aren’t getting any benefit from it.

2. Chaga is black and course mushroom when ground and powdered, so if your chaga isn’t either a dark brown to black and course, it’s highly likely it’s not chaga!

3. Chaga is rare (growing on birch trees usually in Scotland or further north), it takes skill to harvest it sustainably.

Here’s a picture of real chaga powder on the left (dark and course), and on the right is a sample of chaga powder from a well known high street health food shop. I will allow you to draw your own conclusions about that!

Chaga is becoming endangered and imported specimens from the USA, Canada and Eastern Europe are often contaminated. Chaga a fantastic restorative medicine and is a great treatment for things like chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and people recovering from chemotherapy. That said, it should be harvested correctly and from a sustainable source.

There is growing research for the use of chaga which is only exacerbating the problems with supply. In laboratory studies recently, an extract of the medicinal mushroom Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) was found to protect liver cells.

If you have chaga powder in your kitchen or medicine cupboard, check the quality of it, it should be a black and course powder. If it’s not, it’s not chaga!

As of yet I have not found a sustainable source of chaga, but my hunt continues.

Making herbal gifts for the festive season

If you’re into making presents, take a look at the following ideas for some herbal themed gifts.

1. For budding cooks and chefs – herbal oils and vinegars.

A really simple one to start, simply add a herb such as rosemary, thyme, chilli or garlic to a bottle of oil or vinegar and it will infuse into the oil/vinegar giving it great flavour, some of its nutritional benefits and also a hint of its medicinal properties. (It also looks great in the kitchen!)

You can use a fancy bottle or reuse an unusual shaped one that you have around the house.

Make sure that the herb you’re adding is dry, or it may start to ferment in the bottle. A great tip is to add 2 tsp of lemon juice to the oil to prevent mould growth.

2. For anyone who likes a tipple during the festive season

The old favourite sloe gin is a great present but you do need to have gathered the berries beforehand and popped them in the gin or vodka to make your herbal liqueur.

Another great favourite is hawthorn brandy, and often something people won’t have tried before, made in exactly the same way as sloe gin (but without the sugar), you add hawthorn berries to brandy and leave it in there for a month or so. (Again you will have needed to collect the hawthorn berries beforehand).

If you want to make a herbal liqueur but you don’t have sloes or hawthorn to hand, why not spice up some vodka with cardamom, cinnamon and ginger? Great in festive cocktails.

There’s also the classic mulled wine (or cider if you’re not so keen on wine), wrap up the following spices in some muslin cloth and tie to a bottle of wine (or cider), as an instant herbal gift.

  • A bay leaf
  • 2 cinnamon sticks (or a tsp of ground cinnamon)
  • 1 cardamom pod
  • ½ tsp black pepper corns
  • 1 tsp of ground ginger

3. Why buy expensive (and often chemical filled) toiletries as gifts, when you can make a lovely natural one instead.

Peppermint Sugar scrub

Use one cup of sugar (preferably brown and organic) to one cup of oil (olive or coconut is good), and add in some peppermint essential oil (10-20 drops). Mix together and store in a kilner jar to give as a lovely present.

Take a look at my natural cosmetic information sheet for more ideas.

4. Lip balms

Lip balms are easy to make and a lovely homemade gift.

Here is my festive lip balm recipe.

Basic lip balm recipe

10g oil

5g cocoa butter

5g beeswax (or carnauba plant wax for vegans)

(Makes 2 – 3 tubes of lip balm)

Melt the oil, cocoa butter and beeswax together at a low heat, in a double boiler (glass bowl over a pan of water). Allow to cool slightly before adding essential oils. (If adding essential oils stir well).

Carefully pour or spoon the mixture into the lip balm tubes. Because there is no water in this mixture it will last 1 – 2 years if kept well, but remember lip balms tend to re melt in hand bags several times and that will decrease the shelf life.

Festive flavours Lip balms can be coloured and flavoured naturally by ingredients you have in your kitchen cupboards. Why not try adding 3g of dark chocolate with 2g of cocoa butter? (More festive versions can be found here).

5. Give the gift of learning

11157347_10153299676429282_5056230117261585179_oFor the true herbal enthusiast, why not give them an extra special gift, one of my distance learning courses.

From herbal home remedies up to a year long courses, there’s something for everyone, and I do vouchers too if you can’t decide which to get.

Herb and health research – October and November 2016

This month the following research articles on herbs and health have caught my eye.

1. In laboratory studies, an extract of the medicinal mushroom Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) was found to protect liver cells.

2. In another medicinal mushroom study this month Lion’s mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) was found to not only protect against dementia but also gastric ulcers.

3. In a new study of a very ‘old’ herb, ginseng was found to have antimicrobial effects against infections.

4. Turmeric is a fantastic herb and one that’s been researched many times for different reasons. However, one of the problems with turmeric is that is can be tricky for the body to absorb when taken as a capsule, unless combined with black pepper. A new study has just confirmed the traditional way of preparing turmeric (usually in a milk product), makes the turmeric more bioavailable.

5. In laboratory studies, an extract of Andrographis paniculata was shown to reduce breast cancer tumours.

6. In another laboratory study, ginkgo has been found to be a treatment for spinocerebellar ataxia.

Learning to make natural soap – it’s not so scary after all!

untitledYesterday I forayed into an area that I’ve never been before, soap making, using the cold process method.

I’ve made soap before (many years ago), using the ‘melt and pour’ method, where you buy a pre-made soap base and then melt it using a double boiler, you can then add any ingredients that you may want.

I’d researched the cold process method before and it just seemed very complicated, all of those thermometers and the scary caustic soda (sodium hydroxide). So I decided to learn at a workshop so that I could gain the confidence with this temperamental process.

It all began at Elder Farm, where Helen Kearney (who was taught by Dawn Ireland at Green Wyse), laid out our ingredients for the day:

  • Sodium hydroxide
  • Oils (castor, sunflower, rapeseed)
  • Fats and butters (cocoa and coconut)
  • Carnauba wax (a plant wax – vegan alternative to beeswax)
  • Water
  • Essential oils

We began by measuring the fats, oils and waxes into a large stainless steel pan; this mix was then melted slowly, and then allowed to cool.

soap-making-2The sodium hydroxide was added to the water, in a very well ventilated area (outside), as the fumes from the exothermic reaction are toxic. This mixture was then allowed to cool.

When the mixtures were cooled sufficiently they were then combined (very carefully), and mixed together with an electric whisk. At this stage the essential oil was added, in this case lavender.

Once a trace was formed (you can see a line of mixture across the mixture), it was then poured into moulds containing juniper berries.

soap-makingThe saponification process will continue over the next 5 – 6 weeks, the soap will turn from an alkaline mixture to a neutral mixture that is a beautiful and natural soap.


For more information about workshops at Elder Farm, take a look here or on their Facebook page.

If you want to learn more about soap making, you can find more information here.


If you too are going to venture into the magical world of soap making, please make sure you take the necessary safety precautions, and if you are unsure, go on a workshop to learn how to make soap safely.

Herbal Medicine Research blog – September 2016

It’s been a little while since I’ve written a research blog but here are some research articles that have interested me recently.

1. A new trial is currently taking place in Australia, where young adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are being given water hyssop (Bacopa monnieri) instead of pharmaceutical drugs.

2. A follow up study in Brazil has confirmed that using Calendula can both prevent and treat radio dermatitis for patients undergoing radiotherapy.

3. A new analysis of mistletoe has shown that it could be used to treat arthritis and liver disease as well as to reduce blood pressure and reduce tumour growth.

4. Ginger and artichoke have been found recently to increase gastric motility, in the treatment of functional dyspepsia.

5. New research has confirmed the link between exercise and improved cognition and mood.

6. Onion juice has been found to lower cholesterol in a new study.

7. A new study in China has shown that medicinal mushrooms have a direct action on reducing cancer cells, rather than simply boosting the immune system to fight cancer.

8. Seaweed could be the answer to reducing obesity, a new study has shown as seaweeds change processes in the gastrointestinal tract.

Volunteering as a first aider in the Calais ‘jungle’

The church, one of the only remaining buildings in the Southern part of the jungle.

I have been thinking about what I should write about my experience in the Calais Jungle for about two weeks. But it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the most awful place I’ve been to, so I knew that my words alone could never capture the experience.

I could start with statistics, the charity Help Refugees’ census as of 1st April found that 4946 people are still living in the Calais Jungle. 4432 are adults, 514 are children, 294 of which are unaccompanied minors.

In March 2016, I went to volunteer with the Refugee First aid team in the Calais jungle, with three herbalist colleagues. During the three days that I worked as part of the Refugee First aid team we saw over 500 people, that was with a team of seven medics; three junior doctors and four medical herbalists.

The demolished Southern half of the Calais jungle.

On the first day of our trip we accidentally parked in the wrong part of the site and that meant we had to walk through the demolished Southern part of the refugee camp. Seeing the sheer expanse of the demolition and the feeling of desolation was a chilling first sight.

As we entered the Northern part of the camp we saw only a handful of people, and we walked past shops and cafes on the main street.

We got a little lost as we didn’t have any landmarks to navigate by, but we soon found the caravans that form the first aid centre on the camp.

There was already a queue and unfortunately the caravans had been broken into the previous evening, an often weekly occurrence, toilet paper and socks were taken but the drugs were left untouched.

Me outside two of the first aid caravans.
Me outside two of the first aid caravans.

We spent the first few hours in shock but getting to know the basic medical supplies available and how to work around the things we didn’t have. Our herbs were used instead of the stepsils, and paracetamol that were usually given out, mostly because the former were in short supply and by lunch time, completely gone.

Respiratory conditions, bronchitis and ‘jungle lung’ were common conditions, and unfortunately when living in a tent and sleeping on the floor, there was little hope that the conditions would resolve quickly. Thankfully we only encountered a handful of more serious cases of pneumonia and they were referred to the free medical clinic for refugees.

It was a pleasure to work alongside three junior doctors who were not only excellent physicians, they were very open to working with medical herbalists and we each shared skills, equipment and medicines. The Dr’s would often ask for a herbal medicine to be given to their patient and in return we would ask for a particular drugs to be given to our patients. It was a harmonious relationship that really helped in such a demoralising situation, as we were only ever going to be able to help some of the symptoms that people came to us with.

Chamomile growing wild amongst the detritus.

After the shock of the first day I was more prepared for another extremely busy day the following day. Many of the young men we treated had tried to jump onto trains the night before and we had a lot more bruises, torn ligaments, and some broken bones. We did what we could and recommended rest but they said they could not do that. They had to try and jump again that night, they would take a chance and jump, even though it meant risking their lives.

On our third and final day we saw fewer people but they were more in depth cases needing examinations, tests and referrals to the medical clinic. Our two excellent interpreters (refugees in the camp themselves), really helped with the more complicated cases, and I got to know them a lot better.

I was really moved by how thankful everyone was for help, even if it was only something small like a clean dressing or some more cough syrup. Our help was really valued and that made it worth the trip.

We had to get a ferry straight from our shift on our third day and we were sad to leave, finally getting into a rhythm and feeling comfortable in our roles. Although it was a difficult place to be, I was glad to have helped some people there, even if it was only help for that one day that I saw them. I wish fervently that I could have done more for them.

Returning to the UK was shocking, the things we take for granted so easily; a roof over our heads, a job to go to, family around us. All of the things that people only 20 miles from the UK do not have.

Since returning I’ve felt helpless because I don’t know what I can do as an individual to help thousands of people across Europe who are struggling to survive every day after being forced to leave their homes and families.

So I have been thinking about not only what I can do, but what you can do, whomever is reading this. Because if we don’t help these people no-one else will.

So here is my list of what individuals can do to help the refugee crisis across Europe:

1. Donate to my friend Catherine’s fund, she is regularly taking herbal medicines to Calais and beyond.

2. Donate or volunteer with Calaid.

3. Volunteer with your local group helping raise money or sort clothes etc for refugees across Europe. As far as I know there isn’t a UK wide list of these but a quick google search should show you what you’re looking for. For those near me, there’s a distribution warehouse in Taunton called RAFT You can volunteer with them most days, and the people there are lovely.

4. Petition the government to allow more refugees into the UK, look at Germany’s example.


Thank you to Helen, Dafydd and Carol for their support during a difficult time, and for the use of their photos.

Herbal remedies for children – new distance learning course

Would you like to know more about treating children with herbs?

If you enjoyed my blog on herbs for children, you might be interested to know I have now written a herbal remedies for children distance learning course!

As with all of my distance learning courses you will be emailed the course material to work through (although in this particular module there is no quiz or test at the end).

You will also receive a herbal goody box containing herbs specific for children, as well as jars, bottles and sundries needed to make the herbal remedies in the module.

What does the course cover?

  • Safety – when to give herbs and when not to
  • Dosages and how they are different for children
  • Herbal preparations for children – from sweets to ice lollies
  • A developing immune system – when to boost immunity
  • Herbs for babies – colic to nappy rash
  • Herbs for toddlers – coughs and colds
  • Herbs for infants – eczema and ear infections
  • Herbs for primary age – conjunctivitis and diarrhoea and vomiting
  • Herbs at 11+ – tonsillitis and acne
  • Plus lots of tips and recipes to use at home

How much does the course cost?


Who can complete the course?

Anyone with an interest in herbs and health. There is no prerequisite for this course.

For more information please get in touch.

To book click here.

Rediscovering British herbs with Native Awareness

11203591_10153299665834282_3942814190489003464_oA few years ago I decided to go on a Native Awareness course, native skills one, which is an introduction to bushcraft skills and the skills of native peoples’. Learning those native skills really got me thinking about how medicinal plants are used by native people across the world as well as our ancestors in Britain.

At the time my knowledge of British medicinal plants was limited and I suddenly saw that for the shame it was. I was a herbalist living and practising in Britain but the number of British plants I was prescribing could be counted on one hand. It was also obvious that my plant ID skills could also do with updating, especially poisonous plants.

That realisation sent me on a bit of a journey of personal study, and working with other herbalists who use a lot more British plants, expanding my knowledge and skills.



When James (the founder of Native Awareness) asked me if I would be interested in teaching a medicinal plants course with him, I was excited but also very nervous. James has a vast knowledge of plants himself and I was unsure what I could bring to such a course.



After months of planning we taught the first medicinal plants course in 2014, and it involved lots of experimenting. Neither of us had dried medicinal plants using fire before, and the results were interesting! But it forced me to look at alternative ways to make medicines like infused oils, balms, and poultices.

10314020_10152426359889282_4783032923788498560_nI couldn’t help feeling a deep connection with the medicine people across the world who must have had (and still do have) these problems. How breaking a plant down with a stone makes a very different poultice to one done in a food processor.

I was thrilled to be asked back to teach again in 2015, and I was raring to go with new ideas. The fire drying was improved and the infused oil was the strongest I’ve ever seen made. I also introduced a few new topics to the medicinal plant ID, wild crafting, and medicine making; poisonous plants and medicinal mushrooms.

11160059_10153299700634282_7411604696093964325_oYear on year as my knowledge and skills grow I add new things into my workshops. So no two courses are ever the same, this also stops me from becoming bored!

I also learn a great deal from the people on the courses, everyone has a story to tell about how they have used a plant, or how their granny always used to swear by nettle tea.

This year I will be back teaching with Native Awareness again, from 29th April to 1st May, Ravenshill Wood, Worcestershire. For more information or to book, please contact James at Native Awareness.

Click here for more great photos from the medicinal plants courses.