Here's my exposition on the place for sweetness in our medicines and foods, and my "Sweet Melissa Divine" honey!
Who doesn’t enjoy the sweet taste of a special treat after supper, a little drizzle of honey in the evening cup of tea, or a morsel of sweet chocolate? It seems as if the sweet taste is irresistible to the human animal, and though will power and dedication can steer us away from indulging in sugary sweets daily that rot our teeth and lead us down the garden path of deteriorating health, there is still a craving for the sweet taste of fresh fruits and small indulgences that is natural to our taste buds.
Though I am the last person who will tell you that eating sugar is even remotely good for you, I want to explore how the sweet taste can mean so much more than “sugar” to our body, mind and spirit. Most traditional medical systems, including Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Unani Tibb reserve a place in the therapeutic toolbox for medicines and foods of a sweet nature. Yes, that is correct, the sweet taste DOES have a therapeutic value, and many traditional systems have recognized it and put it to work for thousands of years.
Both TCM and Ayurveda have a classification of the five or six primary tastes, which include sweet, sour, salty, acrid/pungent, bitter, and astringent. According to these systems the body must receive all the tastes on a daily basis to maintain balance. Too much of one or not enough of another can tip the scales in an unwanted direction. This is easily seen by the excess of sweet tastes in the modern SAD diet, and the resulting problems with obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes.
According to TCM, the sweet taste is warming, strengthening, harmonizing, relaxing and moistening. It builds up energy and strengthens spleen qi, nourishes body fluids and is associated with the energy of yang and earth. Too much of sweet flavor can produce dampness, obesity, and weakness in the kidneys, teeth and bones. In Ayurveda the sweet taste is used to pacify excess pitta and vata conditions (excess heat, dryness, or ungroundedness). It builds and restores the water element and ojas (life force/vitality). It represents the qualities of love nourishment and sustenance.
In a sense, the sweet flavor is the primary taste that provides nourishment and the building of energy both in the body and the mind. It is important to remember that the six tastes effect the spirit and mind just as much as they do the body, and the sweet taste will nourish the heart and spirit, build strength and energy of heart and spirit, and calm states of deranged pitta or vata (think bouts of anger, emotional upset, ungroundedness, bitterness, dryness or lack of luster and verve for living.) It’s not a surprise then that we crave sweet foods to console ourselves in times of emotional upset, or to soothe sensations of physical weakness, or deprivation. We must also remember that as much digestion as our stomach, spleen, liver and intestines do, our minds also digest myriad forms, thoughts, ideas, events and emotions on a daily basis. It is just as important to fill the mind with healthy, nourishing thoughts and emotions, and that our mind be able to digest well that which we provide it. The sweet taste is not to be reviled in our quest to shun refined white sugar which harms our health, but must be used with respect in appropriate fashion to nourish our minds with the sweetness of life, and nourish our bodies with strength and energy.
There are many foods which qualify as “sweet” that are completely unrelated to sugar, honey, syrup or candies. I generally recommend using the following foods as our main sources of “sweetness” on a daily basis.
Fruits (often of mixed flavor with sour, or astringent)
Winter squashes and other starchy vegetables
But there is a time and a place for sweet medicines and you will often find traditional formulas from ayurveda or TCM with raw sugar, honey or syrup added as an important player, either as a corrigent or as an active component. For example, rose gulkand, a very cooling, soothing food to pacify pitta (especially in hot, dry summer months) is made primarily with rose petals and jaggery (raw cane sugar). Many herbal formulas are administered in honey and ghee, i.e. Chavawanprash- a complex rejuvenative formula.
All that said, let’s dive into the sweetest, loveliest of sweet medicines I’ve been creating lately, herbal honey!
Honey is one of my favorite methods of administering herbal medicines, and I often mixed powdered herbs into a jar of honey for a sweet easy to take honey herb paste. This is much like the Ayurvedic herbal jam Chavawanprash, which combines herbs, honey, and ghee. These can be spread on crackers, fruit, or eaten off the spoon. Honey itself is considering warming, moistening (demulcent/emollient), and rejuvenative/nutritive. It is full of nutrients, enzymes and other health promoting compounds aside from the sugar content. Honey is used to bring herbal medicines deeper into all the tissues of the body.
My favorite way to use honey medicinally is to steep fresh aromatic medicinal herbs in raw, local honey for a week or so and infuse it with all the properties of the herbs. These medicinal honeys can be used as a dressing for wounds and burns, as herbal syrup, stirred into hot or cool water for a refreshing drink, mixed in tea, or even used as a beauty treatment (there is something lovely and luscious about smearing honey all over your face as a hydrating, soothing face mask. Or anywhere else for that matter!)
The most recent herbal honey I’ve made is a fresh lemon balm in mesquite honey, and it is a lovely, divine elixir. I think I’m going to call it “Sweet Melissa Divine” in honor of the plant, the bees that made the honey, and the Bee Priestesses called Melissa in The Fifth Sacred Thing. This summer elixir will be put too good use as an antiviral wound dressing, a sweetener for fresh lemonade, as a mood brightening sweet treat to dress fruit, berries, or fresh yogurt. In light of the mood lifting and soothing properties of the sweet flavor, and the sweet uplifting spirit of Melissa officinalis, this honey will be a perfect remedy for a mild case of the winter blues, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), insomnia, stagnant depression and mild anxiety.
Sweet Melissa honey has also found its way into a magical and delicious potion called Sweet Melissa Divine Elixir- a stunning and remarkably effective combination of the lemon balm infused honey and a full strength fresh plant lemon balm tincture. This sweet medicine is delicious, easy to take, and excellent for soothing those grumpies in adults and children alike. My partner Sean likes to use it at summer music festivals in cases of heat exhaustion. No complaints with this tasty medicine! It's a treat for everyone! I have a few of these available in my Etsy shop if you would like to get your hot little hands on one!
|Sweet Melissa Elixir @ Etsy.com|
Other favorite herbal honeys include rose, lavender, rosemary, bee balm monarda, and peppermint. I have a hankering to make St Johns Wort honey, but alas, I live in a land nearly devoid of fresh St Johns Wort, so will have to save it for another year.
Making herbal honeys is quite simple. Many times I’ve read to heat the honey, but heating raw honey too hot can destroy the properties, so I choose to cold process my herbal honeys.
1 pint jar
1 pint honey (raw and local if you can find it)
Enough herb of your choice to fill the jar full (do not pack it too tight, just loosely full)
Chop the herb finely and add to the jar. Pour honey over the herb until well covered, you may use a little less or a little more honey depending on the herb. Stir the concoction well with a spoon or chopstick to ensure all the herb bits are coated in honey. Put a lid on and set in a warm spot for 1-2 weeks. You may put it in the sun if it isn’t too hot.
After the allotted time (and several taste tests between putting it up and now), you may choose to strain the herbs from the honey using a wire mesh strainer. Hopefully your honey is relatively runny and warm from the summer climate and can be poured reasonably. If it isn’t, you may need to GENTLY warm it to thin it out. I recommend a hot water bath for just a few minutes. Reserve the honey in a special jar with a label. Eat the herbs! Or rub them on your body for an instant hydrating herbal scrub.
Use the honey generously and as often as you need to nourish the sweetness of life in your spirit and body.
Chinese Nutrition Therapy, Joerg Kastner
Ayurveda: The Devine Science of Life, Todd Caldecott
Ayurveda: the Science of Self Healing, Vasant Lad