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Prunella vulgaris: Self-heal - Eastern and Western Perspectives

by Anne McIntyre(more info)

listed in ayurveda, originally published in issue 205 - April 2013

Self-heal is a pretty member of the Lamiaceae family which grows all over Britain and Europe in pastures, woods and clearings and is loved by bees. Although largely neglected by western herbalists, Self-heal is an important herb in Chinese medicine in which it is known as xiakucao (meaning “weed that withers in summer”); its spikes of purple flowers turn reddish brown as they dry out during the summer.  It is classified as a remedy for clearing heat and purging fire, used to cool ‘liver fire’.

Prunella Vulgaris

Here in England the renowned apothecary Gerard said in his Herball printed in 1597 “the decoction of Prunell made with wine and water, doth join together and make whole and sound all wounds, both inward and outward, even as Bugle doth”. It was called Carpenter’s Herb and Hook Heal because the corolla is shaped like a bill hook. So according to the doctrine of signatures, Self-heal was used historically to heal wounds inflicted by sharp-edged tools. Culpeper writing in 1616 explained the name: “self-heal whereby when you are hurt, you may heal yourself”. He also said “the juice used with oil of roses to anoint the temples and forehead is very effectual to remove the headache, and the same mixed with honey of roses cleaneth and healeth ulcers in the mouth and throat”.

The name Prunella was originally Brunella or Brunellen, a name given by the Germans as it was used to treat “die Breuen”, an inflammatory mouth and throat problem, common to soldiers in garrisons. The doctrine of signatures also indicated its use for throat problems, for its corolla was seen to resemble a throat with swollen glands.

The constituents in Self-heal include volatile oils (including camphor and fenchone), antioxidants (including rosmarinic acid); bitter principles; alkaloids; saponins; phenols; tannins; mucilage; proteins; lipids; glycoside (aucubin);  urosolic acid; caffeic and urosolic acids; flavonoids (rutin) and vitamins (C, B1, K).

Its long list of therapeutic actions include: antiseptic, antimicrobial, thyroid amphoteric, anti-inflammatory, styptic, vulnerary, relaxant, restorative, febrifuge, immune-stimulant, anti-allergenic, antioxidant, astringent, digestive, cholagogue, hypoglycaemic, alterative, diuretic and kidney tonic.

Self-heal is indicated in: infections, flu, fevers, sore throats, mouth ulcers, laryngitis, tonsillitis, swollen glands, mumps, glandular fever, mastitis, tension headaches, diarrhoea, colitis, bleeding, haemorrhoids, gout, liver & gallbladder problems, diabetes, hypertension, thyroid disease, kidney problems and oedema.

According to Chinese medicine Self-heal is bitter, cold and pungent and enters the liver meridian, gently reducing liver fire and nourishing the blood. As ‘liver fire’ can be linked to inflammatory eye problems, Self-heal is indicated in painful and dry eyes, hypertension and glaucoma.  Its pungency disperses stagnant qi and constrained heat and helps resolve lumps and nodules caused by stagnation of liver qi and accumulation of phlegm and heat.[1].

From an Ayurvedic perspective Self-heal has light and dry qualities, it has all tastes except sour and has a cooling effect overall. It reduces excess pitta and kapha and can increase vata if used over long periods. It has an affinity for rasa / plasma and rakta / blood tissue and acts predominantly in the prana / respiratory, rasa / lymphatic, rakta / circulatory,  anna /digestive srotas / systems of the body.

Modern Medicinal Uses

Immune system: Just as the name suggests, Self-heal is used to enhance our own healing powers and improve immunity. It is an effective antibiotic against a range of bacteria and has a potent antiviral action, including activity against HIV[2, 3] and viral hepatitis.[4] This is combined with an immunomodulatory effect of the polysaccharides[5] helpful in lowered immunity, HIV, chronic fatigue syndrome and allergies.

Self-heal has an affinity for the lymphatic system, useful for swollen glands, mumps, glandular fever and mastitis. In Chinese medicine, it is used for resolving accumulations and masses, particularly in the upper body (chest, throat, and head). According to the Shennong Bencao Jing,[3] Self-heal is used for “breaking concretions and dispersing bound qi of the neck.”  It is still used in formulae for treating thyroid swellings and breast lumps as well as mumps. When taken in hot infusion, the diaphoretic action increases sweating and helps reduce fevers.

Rosmarinic acid contributes to the antioxidant effects of Self-heal,[6] whilst research suggest it has antimutagenic effects, indicating its possible use as an anticancer herb.[7] Urosolic acid is a diuretic that has also been shown to have anticancer properties[8] and helps to clear toxins and excess uric acid via kidneys. It is recommended in the treatment of gout.

Skin: Self-heal has a reputation as a detoxifying herb and used for boils and other inflammatory skin problems. In Chinese medicine it is classified as a fire-purging herb as it is used for inflammation and infections of the eyes and skin.[9] 

Nervous system: Self-heal’s relaxant properties can be helpful in headaches, particularly when related to tension, vertigo, over-sensitivity to light and high blood pressure. It is used in China for hyperactivity in children.

Digestive system: As an astringent Self-heal can be taken for diarrhoea and inflammatory bowel problems such as colitis. The bitters can be helpful in liver and gall bladder problems including viral hepatitis.

External Uses: Tinctures or infusions can be used as astringent gargles for sore throats and mouthwashes for mouth ulcers and bleeding gums. The tea can be used, or the fresh plant rubbed on to the skin to stop bleeding from cuts and reduce swelling from bites and stings. Self-heal can also be used for inflammatory skin problems, piles, varicose veins and ulcers, as well as in drops for inflammatory eye problems.

Cautions/Contraindications: Self-heal is considered safe if used appropriately.

Herb/Drug Interactions:  Self-heal should be used concurrently with insulin and other hypoglcyaemic medications (eg. Chlorpropamide).

References

1. Yang Yifan, Chinese Herbal Medicines: Comparisons and Characteristics, Churchill-Livingstone, London. 2002.

2. Huang Yarong, compiler, Advanced Textbook on Traditional Chinese Medicine and Pharmacology,volume 2,  New World Press, Beijing.1996.

3. Yang Shouzhong, translator, The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica, Blue Poppy Press, Boulder, CO.1998.

4. Chang HM and But PPH, Pharmacology and Applications of Chinese Materia Medica, World Scientific, Singapore.1987.

5. Markova H, Sousek J, Ulrichova J. 'Prunella vulgaris L.--a rediscovered medicinal plant' Ceska Slov Farm. Apr; 46(2):58-63. 1997.

6. Lamaison JL, Petitjean-Freytet C, Carnat A. 'Medicinal Lamiaceae with antioxidant properties, a potential source of rosmarinic acid' Pharm Acta Helv.; 66(7):185-8. 1991.

7. Lee H, Lin JY. 'Antimutagenic activity of extracts from anticancer drugs in Chinese medicine.' Mutat Res.  Feb; 204(2):229-34. 1998.

8. Foster, S. & Johnson, R.  Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine. National Geographic Society. Washington D.C. 2006.

9. Li Lin, Practical Traditional Chinese Dermatology, Hai Feng Publishing Company, Hong Kong. 1995.

Comments:

  1. Amy Goodman Kiefer said..

    That was so succinct and such a well presented piece on beautiful self heal!
    Thanks Annie!


  2. Jo said..

    Can we know the Ayurvedic or Indian name of prunella vulgaris


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About Anne McIntyre

Anne McIntyre FNIMH MAPA is a fellow of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists and a member of the Ayurvedic Practitioners' Association. She has been practising as a herbalist for 30 years and has also trained in remedial massage, aromatherapy, counselling, homoeopathy and Ayurvedic medicine. She is the author of several books on herbal medicine, including The Complete Woman's Herbal (Gaia), The Complete Floral Healer (Gaia), The Herbal Treatment of Children (Elsevier), The Top 100 Remedies (Duncan Baird), The Complete Herbal Tutor (Gaia) and Healing Drinks (Gaia). Anne's latest book Dispensing with Tradition: A practitioner's Guide to using Indian and Western Herbs the Ayurvedic Way has recently been published. She teaches regularly in the UK and USA and spends as much time as she can in her herb garden which she opens to the public by appointment. She practises at Artemis House, Great Rissington, Gloucestershire, (Tel: 01451 810096) and in London and Wales once a month. She may be contacted on Tel: 01451 810096  www.annemcintyre.com

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