Herbs on top

I've long been a fan of topical herbal applications. They're effective because we can apply them where they're needed, often receiving quick results on demand. They've got a long history of safe use and a relatively long shelf life, among other strengths.

Herbal extracts, infused and essential oils, poultices, salves, compresses, liniments and other preparations penetrate deeply and can be combined, providing pain relief, drawing action, improved circulation, disinfection and other beneficial effects.

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To watch a video of Michael Altman describing topical herbal preparations, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRV9ju4waFQ

These herbal helpers come in a range of colors and aromas limited only by nature's brilliance, our creativity, time and budget. They're all relatively inexpensive, however, and some we can make or prepare with basic, household items.

You've probably consumed infused oil and maybe hadn't thought about it before. Remember that great-aunt or person you saw years ago on "The Martha Stewart Show" who has an herb garden and picked her basil and rosemary, immersed them and other herbs in a jar of olive oil and added a new dimension of flavor to her dishes. In effect, she made an infused oil that's safe for internal use.

Arnica is a great herb for topical use. Although on occasion I prepare measured, water-alcohol extracts of arnica for clients' internal use, I generally stick with arnica applied to the skin for localized pain.

Arnica montana is native to European highlands, and we have varieties that grow in the Cascades and Siskiyous that substitute, but I typically recommend purchasing reputable brands of arnica oil in stores or through herbalists I know because getting to the harvesting site and preparing the infused oil isn't your garden-variety endeavor. Moreover, the point is to have these remedies available when needed.

If someone is into the do-it-yourself approach, for similar relief from painful bruises, achy joints and sprains, I suggest using rosemary-infused oil instead of arnica and applying after a warm, Epsom-salt bath. Many people find homeopathic arnica preparations worthwhile, too. These are available in many natural-food stores and herb shops.

When pain persists, and topical remedies don't work after a few days, it's possible that a more aggressive and individualized approach will be needed, perhaps with dietary and lifestyle adjustments or a visit to your health care provider.

Making an herbal oil infusion is easy. The main thing to keep in mind is using mostly dried herbs because excess moisture in them will lead to possible contamination and a shorter shelf life.

If you're interested in learning more preparations, books abound — websites, too — and now there are even smartphone apps, such as Wild Edibles, for plant identification. Safety is paramount. Always positively identify a plant, preferably with an experienced forager or herbalist, before using.

Imagine making a topical preparation with poison oak by accident — yikes, me neither.

Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and teaches at Southern Oregon University. Email him at altmanm@sou.edu.

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