What is the world’s most popular herb? Chamomile, of course! It is said more than one million cups of the tea are consumed daily. I believe it, because I am one of the many, almost daily chamomile tea drinkers. It is one of the best de-stressers known to the modern world.
Chamomile in ancient Egypt
The Egyptians had such great reverence for chamomile that they dedicated it to their gods and to the sun. They used it to cure ague, a malarial fever with chills and sweating that occurs at regular intervals. They also used it as a massage oil to reduce aching in muscles.
The fresh chamomile plant is strongly and agreeably aromatic, with a distinct scent of apples. This characteristic was noted by the Greeks and for this reason they named it “ground apple” (kamai—on the ground, and melon—an apple.) The Spaniards call it “manzanilla,” which signifies “a little apple,” and they gave the same name to one of their lightest sherries flavored with this plant.
When the chamomile plant is walked on, its strong fragrant scent will often reveal its presence before it is seen. For this reason, it was used as one of the aromatic stewing herbs in the Middle Ages and was often purposefully planted in green walks in gardens. Remarkably and unexplainably, walking over the plant seems especially good for it! In fact, the whole chamomile plant is very fragrant and of value, but the quality is chiefly centered in the flower heads or capitula, which is the part employed medicinally. The herb itself is used in the manufacture of herb beers.
Universality of use
The Germans have a saying for chamomile that translates to “capable of everything.” America’s nineteenth-century eclectic physicians recommended chamomile poultices to speed wound healing and prevent gangrene. The Greek physicians, the Roman naturalists, and India’s ancient Ayurvedic physicians all employed chamomile for similar uses at the same time in different parts of the world.
Benefits of chamomile’s flowers
Nicholas Culpeper gives a long list of complaints for which chamomile is “profitable”: “The flowers boiled in lye are good to wash the head; the bathing with a decoction of chamomile takes away weariness, eases pains, to whatever part of the body it is employed.” [Culpeper’s Complete Herbal & English Physician, p. 39.] It has been used in shampoos since the days of the Vikings, because it adds luster to blonde hair.
The flowers of the chamomile plant are recommended as a tonic for dropsy and for the abnormal accumulation of fluid in certain tissues and cavities of the body. Beneficial in their diuretic and tonic properties, they are combined with diaphoretics, which produce perspiration, and other stimulants with benefits.
Chamomile flowers are also extensively used alone or combined with an equal quantity of crushed poppy heads, as poultice and fomentation for external swelling and inflammatory pain. The extracted oil when diluted in vegetable oil eases the pain of rheumatism and gout.
Chamomile’s essential oil
Chamomile’s essential oil is very valuable in cosmetic preparations. The main component of chamomile’s blue essential oil is a compound called azulene. Azulene is said to reduce inflammation and inhibit bacterial growth, which would coincide with why it was traditionally used to speed wound healing and prevent gangrene.
Up to 50% of the essential oil consists of bisabolol, which is highly regarded for its relaxing action on the skin. Bisabolol has numerous pharmacological effects that may account for many of its historic uses. It is known to be effective for reducing inflammation, and its antimicrobial properties make it advantageous both on the skin and to aid in formulation preservation. A recent study shows that bisabolol taken internally speeds up the healing of ulcers and can prevent them from reoccurring.
Other components of chamomile, principally the flavonoids, also contribute to the anti-inflammatory process. Flavonoids represent a widespread group of water-soluble compounds, many that are colored yellow to purple. The most active flavonoid, apagenine, a yellow-crystalline compound naturally occurring in many plants, is considered to have anti-spasmodic properties also contributing to its relaxing action on the skin.
Chamomile extracted in the water phase contains only about 10 to 15% of the oil present in the plant. However, the flavonoids, being water soluble, are better extracted by water or alcohol. The best method for extraction of the oil is through distillation, but some of the oil can be extracted by a hydroglycolic process.
Popularity of chamomile
Like calendula, chamomile is greatly loved and used often by cosmetic chemists because it is known to be virtually non-toxic, except to a few people allergic to ragweed. Chamomile penetrates the skin easily and seems to work well with all other herbs. In fact, my personal experience is that putting chamomile in a product aids in the penetration of all the herbal extractions and makes the product more effective. Many formulators also use it in products for marketing reasons—it is the world’s best-known herb. Whatever the reason, chamomile is beneficial in all body care products, including, but not limited to, flower or massage oils, astringents, mists, bath products, steam facials, moisturizers, cleansers, lotions, creams, eye products to reduce puffiness, sensitive skin, and shampoos.
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