Herbs to Beat the Heat & Combat Climate Change

The endless days of summer sunshine are truly a blessing of the season. But sometimes high summer heat can become uncomfortable or outright dangerous, especially in these unpredictable times of escalating climate crisis and record heat waves, which are quickly becoming “the new normal”. The climate situation is going to force us to recognize that we have to rely on one another and that we are all in this together.

Natural disasters are becoming more commonplace and we need to be ready. We need to cultivate community care as a social ethic & public good before and until it becomes necessary as a disaster response. Herbalism offers a great deal to us in this regard.

Every bioregion has its own herbs that lessen the effects of heat and sun. I recommend learning the weeds in your own backyard: Every place has its own distinct natural medicines that nurture the people and animals that live there. Get out there and meet your plant neighbors!

Herbs to Beat the Heat

As the mercury rises, so do our internal temperatures and our emotions. Also keep in mind that dry heat is more “comfortable” than a damp heat up until a certain point. Sweat evaporates from body and allows you to regulate body temperature, which is why many cultures drink hot beverages or eat spicy foods to induce sweating in warm climates. However, if there is very high humidity, sweat does not evaporate from the body and can leave us feeling hotter and more uncomfortable. Try these herbs to soothe the overheated body, heart, and mind.

Demulcents for Moisture

The first class of herbs to discuss are demulcent herbs. A demulcent is a herb rich in mucilage and can soothe and protect irritated or inflamed internal tissue. Demulcents are used whenever a membrane is raw, hot, irritated, inflamed or over excited.These herbs will work to to improve hydration and help us to replenish any lost fluids (especially with a bit of sweetness such as honey or maple syrup or even sugar added as the body will absorb more liquid, and at a faster rate, if there is some sugar). Demulcent herbs include: marshamallow root, linden, slipper elm (use with caution as it is at risk), violet prepared with fresh leaves as well as seaweeds. These herbs are best prepared as a cold infusion, using room temperature water over the plant matter for a few hours to extract the medicinal qualities.

Mineral-Rich Herbs for Replenishing Trace Minerals

When the mineral balance is depleted in the body, this can have a negative effect on organs that require minerals to function properly, such as the heart. Profuse sweating and mineral depletion can cause cardiovascular issues, which we need to be very conscious of. A mineral additive or supplement that includes a broad spectrum of trace minerals, including magnesium is really important. You can also add a pinch of pink mountain salt or sea salt to your beverage.

A class of herbs that are helpful in this category include the mineral-rich nutritive herbs that can correct the balance of minerals in our bodies when we sweat. These include nettle, red clover, horsetail and red raspberry leaf. Use caution with these herbs as they also tend to be diuretic and have an overall drying effect. You can either balance your formula with demulcent herbs, or if you are someone who tends to have damp stagnation in the body, this class may be especially helpful for you. For example, if you suffer from edema, which tends to be exacerbated in high heat situations, you will want to include some of these herbs, but be careful not to go overboard.

Diaphoretics to Support Sweating

It is also important to keep pores open to sweat and to release heat. If you are tense then it can be hard to keep pores open. Relaxing and cooling diaphoretics such as elderflower, linden, catnip, lemon balm and all mints are really helpful here. These relaxing & cooling diaphoretics to open the pores and allow release of heat.

Cooling diaphoretics (plants that open pores as pathway of elimination) include skullcap, passion flower, betony, motherwort, vervain and lobelia (this antispasmodic herb helps to relax the body quickly). Many of these herbs are bitters, which have a cooling effect on tissues, so again be sure to supplement with more demulcent herbs to avoid dehydration or drink plenty of water with them.

More Cool Customers for Hot Dates

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is one of my favorite hot-weather herbs and the backbone of my daily summer tea. The leaves have a wonderfully fresh, sweet, lemony-minty flavor; even the mere fragrance when you brush against them along the garden path is transformative. Lemon balm is physically and emotionally cooling, dispelling excess heat and stress. Its calming, grounding energy helps us to settle into our bodies in the present moment, brightening our minds and our experience of the world around us, and helping us get the most out of long summer days. Lemon balm is safe for most people.

Borage (Borago officinalis) is one of the most cooling herbs. It has a cold, moist nature, similar to cucumber; in herbalism, we call such plants “demulcent.” Borage is immediately cooling to an overheated body, and can be used before activities to help prevent overheating. As well as cooling the physical body, borage is calming and soothing to a frazzled, overheated nervous system. When moments of stress or exhaustion make us vibrate like a taut wire, overreacting to minor, everyday stresses, borage helps to cool this overheated responsiveness. Borage is also specific for trauma and grief, helping us to stand strong, heal, and flourish; the old phrase “borage for courage” comes to mind.

Borage leaves and flowers are most appropriate in water-based preparations, such as tea or frozen yogurt, because the gooey goodness doesn’t extract well in alcohol-based remedies. Borage isn’t recommended during pregnancy, but is otherwise safe for most people.

St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is a famous traditional remedy for sunburn. It’s a powerful antioxidant and skin-healing vulnerary. Externally, the leaves and flowering tops can be infused in oil to protect exposed skin from sunburn and oxidative damage from daily sun exposure. The oil can be applied directly or blended into a cream. It can also be taken internally as a tincture to decrease oxidative damage at the cellular level, a treatment of particular interest to people with a history of skin cancers. St John’s wort tincture is specifically indicated for people who have viral outbreaks from sun exposure, especially cold sores, because its antiviral properties help keep chronic viral infections at bay, especially if you combine it with lemon balm. St John’s wort oil can easily be made into lip balm for this use.

St John’s wort is safe for most people, but some people may experience photosensitivity, rashes, or burns when taking large daily doses of hypericin, an isolated, concentrated constituent of St John’s wort available in some commercial products. This effect is especially likely when St John’s wort is combined with other medications, so only use whole plant extracts of St John’s wort if you’ll be spending time in the sun. Some people may experience photosensitivity reactions when using whole plant extracts of St John’s wort, so — as always — trust your gut to teach you the lessons of your own body. Those who take daily pharmaceuticals that pass through the liver should use caution and consult their herbal professional, because St John’s wort can alter liver function, making the amount of time medications are active in the body unpredictable and unreliable.

Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum, O. tenuiflorum) is a gloriously scented flower in the mint family, sacred in Hinduism, and a major pillar of Ayurvedic medicine. It’s an adaptogen, an herb that brings whole-body balance by balancing the endocrine system — hence its reputation as an ally for stress, which is mediated through hormones. The leaves and flowers are particularly appropriate for those coping with depression or anxiety. Another of its adaptogenic functions is to regulate metabolism; although we often hear about metabolism as it relates to digestion and weight, it also regulates our sleep cycle and the body’s heating and cooling mechanisms. Tulsi balances our response to the physical stress of hot weather and exertion. It increases our ability to cool ourselves through perspiration, opening of blood vessels, and managing our metabolic rate. It’s also an antioxidant, protecting cells from oxidative damage during sun exposure.

Like St John’s wort, tulsi increases the function of the liver, so those who take pharmaceuticals that are metabolized by the liver should use caution and consult their herbal professional to avoid unpredictable concentrations of medication in the blood.

Hibiscus (Hibiscus spp.) is a powerhouse of a cooling antioxidant.. Roselle hibiscus makes the tart Agua de Jamaica drink from the Caribbean. Roselle calyces — the outer part of the flowers — make a gorgeous deep-red iced tea, alone or with other herbs, to protect skin from oxidative sun damage and to lower overall body temperature, guarding against sunburn, heatstroke, dehydration, and skin cancer.

Peppermint (mentha x. piperita) is a flavor we all know and love. It’s cooling, refreshing, invigorating, and slightly tingly. A cup of iced peppermint tea on a hot summer day is a wonderful treat, as is an after dinner mint, particularly after a heavy meal. Adding fresh mint to hot and spicy dishes, particularly to sauces, marinades and dips can balances the dish and cools the palate. Many spicy Middle Eastern dishes include peppermint for this reason. Peppermint also relaxes tension in our bodies and increases circulation, which helps to regulate our body temperature and also speeds healing. For this reason, peppermint can also be a special ally for menopausal women who experience hot flashes.

Other Ways to Stay Cool

Staying hydrated and sweating is only part of the process. Improving our ability to cope with heat is only going to be more important as the climate crisis accelerates. What can we do in our daily lives to increase our resilience in this era of unpredictability? Likewise, how can we lessen our reliance on fossil fuels and air conditioners? Using cooling herbs in food, drink, and remedies is one step toward more eco-conscious comfort in hot weather. Here are some other ideas to incorporate:

Cover your windows so you are not getting direct sunlight and close your windows if humidity is high and there is no breeze. This keeps the humidity out of the house as much as possible. As soon as temperatures drop in the evenings, open windows and put on fans to fill house with cooler air. Do not put a fan on if the temperature outside is very hot as this will only blow hot air into the house.

Another great idea is to plant vines up a trellis or plant shade trees to keep the temperature around your house cooler. Shade will offer a considerable amount of cooler temperatures and shelter you from the sun.

Install tiles as they are able to trap and keep the cool temperatures and will be helpful for your pets as well. Even if you can only do so in part of your home, tiles are really helpful in keeping your home cool.

Use a damp towel to put around your neck to keep your core body temperature down. Especially since heat rises, it helps keep the heat out of your head region and helps you avoid headaches and dizziness.

Cooling Summer Recipes

Here are some cooling summer recipes to help you get through this summer:

Frozen Yogurt Infusions

Ingredients:

1 cup lemon balm, tulsi, or hibiscus iced tea

2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt or labneh

Instructions:

Strain any solids out of tea and use an immersion blender to mix with yogurt or labneh. The infused yogurt will solidify more in the freezer, but it won’t freeze completely solid. Freeze in popsicle trays for a satisfyingly cool treat on a hot day. Modify the ratio of tea to yogurt to your taste, or add seasonal berries for extra flavor and texture.

St John’s Wort Oil Infusion

Ingredients:

1 pint fresh St John’s wort flowering tops and leaves, finely chopped

Olive oil

Fresh calendula or lavender flowers, finely chopped (optional)

Almond or jojoba oil (optional)

Instructions:

Pack a pint canning jar with St John’s wort and other herbs, if using. Add organic olive oil and other oils, if using, until the herbs are completely submerged. Cover and steep on a sunny windowsill for 24 hours, and then move to a dark, dry place for 1 to 2 weeks, until the oil is bright-red and fragrant. Apply directly to the skin to protect from sun damage, or use the oil in a cream, lotion, or lip balm.

Herbal Ice Cubes

Make a strong tea of any of the herbs featured in this article, and freeze in ice cube trays. When cubes are frozen, they can be stored in jars or bags in the freezer. This is a fun and easy way to save water-based herbal medicines, and the ice makes a great base for summer cocktails.

Garden Iced Tea

Ingredients:

1 handful lemon balm leaves

1 handful tulsi leaves and/or flowers

1/2 handful borage leaves and/or flowers

1/2 handful hibiscus flowers

These amounts are approximate and can be adjusted to taste. Feel free to add other fragrant garden herbs as they call to you: mint, lavender, or a few sprigs of bee balm all make lovely additions.

Instructions:

Put the kettle on. While you wait, finely chop and blend together the herbs. Put chopped herbs into a large glass pitcher or jar; I find that a half-gallon jar works well. Pour boiled water over herbs, cover, and steep until cool. When cool, pour tea through a mesh strainer to remove plant matter. Sweeten with raw honey for a probiotic and electrolyte boost. Garnish with fresh lemon or lime slices.

Mint cilantro chutney

Ingredients:

1 1⁄2 cups packed fresh mint leaves

1⁄2 cup packed fresh cilantro leaves

2 Serrano chiles, stemmed

1 clove garlic, coarsely chopped

1 tsp. grated fresh ginger

1⁄2 tsp. ground cumin

1 tsp. finely grated lemon zest

1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

2 tbsp. chia seeds

Kosher salt, to taste

Sugar, to taste

Instructions:

In a blender, combine the mint, cilantro, chiles, garlic, ginger, cumin, lemon zest and juice, and ½ cup cold water; blend until very smooth.

Transfer the chutney to a small bowl. Whisk in the chia seeds, then refrigerate for 15 minutes to allow the seeds to thicken the sauce.

Once thickened, season the chutney with kosher salt and pinch of granulated sugar to taste. Use immediately, or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

Lavender lemonade

Ingredients:

1 cup raw honey (local if you can get it)

5 cups filtered water

1 Tbsp. dried, organic culinary lavender (or 1/4 cup fresh lavender blossoms, crushed)

1 cup fresh lemon juice (fresh squeezed, organic)

ice cubes

2-3 sprigs dried, organic culinary lavender (for garnish)

Instructions:

Bring 2 1/2 cups purified water to boil in a medium pan

Remove from heat and add honey, stirring to dissolve.

Add the lavender to the honey water, cover, and let steep at least 20 minutes or up to several hours, to taste. You can put the lavender into a tea infuser or

reusable tea bag for easier clean up.

Strain mixture and compost/discard lavender

Pour infusion into a glass pitcher

Add lemon juice and approximately another 2 1/2 cups of cold water, to taste. Stir well.

Refrigerate until ready to use, or pour into tall glasses half-filled with ice, then garnish with lavender sprigs.

Skin and body care recipes

Try these herbal recipes to cool down from the outside in. Just don’t eat them!

Herbal sunburn cubes

Ingredients:

1/4 cup chopped fresh plantain leaves

1/4 cup chopped fresh violet leaves

1/2 cup witch hazel extract

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup fresh or bottled aloe vera gel

Instructions:

Place the fresh plantain and violet leaves, witch hazel, and water in a blender.

Mix thoroughly until you create a thin plant juice or slurry.

Strain the mixture through a fine mesh strainer into a clean jar.

Rinse the blender briefly with water to remove any stray bits of herb. Pour the strained plant juice back into the blender. Add the aloe and mix well.

Pour the mixture into ice cube trays and freeze until solid.

Store the frozen cubes in airtight containers or bags in your freezer until needed, or for 6 to 9 months.

Peppermint rosemary body spray

5-10 drops of essential or fragrance oils

4 oz. distilled water

This is the most basic recipe. From this, you can add more ingredients to get different effects.

Body Spray Recipe #2:

1-2 tbls. Food flavor extract

8 oz. distilled water

2 tsp. Glycerin

Body Spray Recipe #3:

1 tbls. Witch hazel

5 drops lemon oil

5 drops cucumber oil

8 oz. distilled water

Body Spray Recipe #4:

1/4 cup vodka

1/4 cup scented distilled water

2 tbls. sweet almond oil

Instructions:

To scent the water, pour boiling water over fresh herbs, citrus peels, vanilla beans, flower petals, etc.

Allow the water to cool, and then strain it before using in a recipe.

For a relaxing body spray, use essential or fragrance oils of sandalwood, bergamot, chamomile or lavender.

For a more uplifting body spray, use rosemary, peppermint or citrus oils.

The best way to store and use body sprays is to pour the mixture into a small spray bottle after it is made. It is important to shake the bottle before each use.