~:photo by Janina Holubecki of High Weald:~


wood betony

stachy officinalis (betonica officinalis)

Wood Betony was once one of the most revered of herbal medicines... there was indeed a common saying that one had "as many virtues as Betony" and  Colonial herbalist John Sauer wrote that "there is no illness brought on by cold in which Betony cannot be administered effectively."  Today, however, it is generally an obscurity, used by few and seldom available to the general public by way of health food stores.  This is a great tragedy, for I have found it to be one of the most useful herbs available in addressing a number of common but pernicious maladies.  Its material properties of astringency and mild bitterness have long made it a valued wound and digestive remedy, but paramount among its virtues is its unique efficacy in treating tension, pain and disorganization centered in the head and mind (which is to say both the physical and energetic).

I first used Betony for a friend who suffered a closed head injury in a car accident.  Four months after the initial trauma she still experienced frequent dizziness, headaches and disorientation, and on a few occasions had up and keeled over.  She was unable to work or drive, which, as one might expect, made being a mother a rather difficult endeavor.  Although by nature not one to lean towards the use of herbs or natural therapies, desperation resultant from the lingering effects of the injury led her to accept my offer of herbal help.  I gave her three pellets of Homeopathic Arnica to address the impact related origin of the injury, and had her take a dropperful of Betony extract as needed when her head hurt, going on a traditional use of Betony to treat concussion.  I didn't hear back from her, but saw her a couple weeks later, and to my dismay, her pained expression told that she was still suffering from the terrible headaches.  I offered her two droppersful of Betony tincture in a glass of water, thinking that perhaps a stronger dose was in order (strange, nowadays I'd tell her to take a smaller dose…).  In about 10 minutes she asked "What was that? My head doesn't hurt anymore..."  When I told her it was the Betony I'd sent to her a couple weeks ago she replied, "Wow! I'm going to have to start using that."  Doing so, she recovered completely.

I have since found that Betony is excellent for headaches of all sorts (tension and migraine alike), and beyond that have seen it to act in a decidedly restorative manner.   I have noted several instances when, in addition to its more immediate effects,  regular daily use of Wood Betony as a simple has decreased the frequency and intensity of chronic headaches until their occurrence was drastically reduced or even eliminated altogether.  I talked recently with my friend Heidi Knab (herbal-patron saint of strays both feline and human), and she told me that since she started mooning till about age 23, she always got a terrible hormonal migraine on the last day of her cycle.  A friend offered her some Wood Betony tea and each sip notably reduced the pain till by the end of the cup the headache was gone entirely.  She continued to use Wood Betony for about 6 months, and has not (a good ten years later) had a migraine with menses since.  That's really quite notable, no?  She says "It changed the way my head worked", and proceeded to elaborate thoughts on its mode of action that mirrored mine more or less identically, in some cases even word for word.  These restorative benefits are the gradual result of continued use, and I would guess are unlikely occur if used sporadically or without intent


To address the acute (the "ow" is happening now) pain and discomfort of headaches, I am more likely to use Wood Betony in combination with other herbs.  One such blend I've used consists of equal parts tinctures of Wood Betony, Black Cohosh and Jamaican Dogwood.  I have seen this formula work remarkably to stave off an oncoming migraine, if taken in small frequent intervals as soon as the first indications of its coming are felt.  It will often work if taken after the migraine has taken hold, but is a bit less effective, and at times ineffective altogether.    Of course, the other herbs with which Betony is combined are best varied as indications apply.  If chronic stress and incessant overexertion are involved, if could be of great merit blended with Milky Oats; if intense worry and breathless palpitations, Motherwort.  If, if if... like all things herbal, the potential to customize is infinite.


In regards to "how Betony works", there are likely myriad factors at play.  Like most mint family plants, it possesses both stimulating and relaxant properties.  This may seem contradictory, but only if we make the false assumption that stimulation and relaxation exist at opposing ends of a spectrum.  In truth, the stimulation is of the circulation of the body's vital energy, and the relaxation is of the resistance to that circulation.  So we see that these principles are not at odds, but rather work towards the same end and enhance each other's ability to reach it.  Betony clearly relaxes tension in the head: the tension of muscles, of blood vessels, of thoughts and of emotions.  It doesn't simply act physically, but seems to change the way we process energy in the both head and mind in a manner that resolves the conditions of tension and congestion that prevent the free and relaxed flow of the vital force.


Going further into this "head" association, I like to use Betony when a person's stress is stuck in their head; they can't stop thinking and relax, they over-analyze, they aren't grounded and are generally suffering from mental overexertion and subsequent exhaustion.  They channel all the energy they can into their head and it gets stuck there because they don't release it; they won't let their thoughts go.  This often happens when we try to come to terms with a stressful situation by coming to an intellectual understanding of it.  Unfortunately, there are many situations that cannot be understood or resolved intellectually, and trying to do so will only lead to mental exhaustion (which headaches will often accompany).  One might find themselves trapped wondering "Why did they die?" and have no intellectual answer to resolve their query.  Trying to use your intellect in such a situation is like trying to eat soup with a light bulb; it just doesn't work.  When caught in such a situation, Betony helps to both relax the mind and free the energy trapped there, and in doing so lets our other faculties offer us resolution where our intellect cannot.

Betony also acts as a tonic for the digestive tract, and is believed to strengthen the solar plexus, a topic covered very nicely by Matthew Wood in his Book of Herbal Wisdom.  The solar plexus is believed to house a person's instincts and intuitive faculties; this is why we have expressions like "gut feelings" and "trust your gut".  By freeing energy trapped in the head and strengthening the solar plexus, Wood Betony will be of aid to people who ignore their gut feelings and try to intellectualize and rationalize all that goes on around them.  We might imagine the person who meets someone and intuitively gets a "bad feeling" from them, but then chides themselves for being "judgmental" and then ends of in some baleful relationship replete with all the qualities foreboded by their initial impression.   Wood Betony, I deem, is useful in such situations.


And if, indeed, the use of the word "baleful" is true to the definition (deadly or pernicious in influence; foreboding or threatening evil) and not an exaggeration of a person's ill character, we might access another of Wood Betony's virtues, which is its ability to dispel evil and ward off spirits of ill intent.  The manifestations of that need not be supernatural (though I think it good protection from bad magic and those who deal in that, and Matthew Wood has used it on several occasions for those suffering PTSD from alien abductions), sometimes we may know or be related to such people.  To access these more esoteric virtues, one might carry the herb with them in a medicine bag, or rub doses of the tincture into their wrists or temples.  Sure, this may make you question how very weird your belief system is becoming, but when you see situations change around you in a way that reinforces this usage a few times, you can just flow with it.  It's quite likely, after all, that your friends and family already think you a bit "eccentric".

On a strictly physiologically level (if perhaps I'm losing you with my penchant for energetic uses, magic and superstition), Betony is warming, astringent and slightly bitter, and has been used to improve digestion by strengthening and restoring tone to digestive tissues.  It has likewise been used to strengthen the tissues of the urinary tract, and this astringency also explains its long history of use as a "woundwort", being used to staunch bleeding both internal and external.  It has been historically poulticed over injuries of all sorts, and deemed specific to concussion, stroke and facial neuralgia (there are, as well, formulas specifically for head injuries that have left the brain exposed).  It is a nervine tonic, nourishing and building the vital energy with regular use.  It is  a warming and drying expectorant, good for damp coughs brought on my cold.  Though I have not seen it often attributed as a diaphoretic, as a mint this action would not be surprising.  Really, the plant has traditionally been recognized as a panacea - improving any condition to which it is administered.  In my experience, I have little reason to disagree with this.  It is effective fresh or dried, taken as tea or tincture, ground in honey, infused in vinegar or wine, smoked (Grieve writes that the leaves were smoked with Coltsfoot and Eyebright for headaches), snuffed or brewed as a beer (betony beer is a peculiar thing... I have yet to adequately describe its flavor or effect to anyone).

Because a different family of plants, Pedicularis (Lousewort), also goes by the name of Betony or Wood Betony, be sure that you are using the right one.  The Latin name of the European Wood Betony I'm discussing may be Stachys officinalis, Stachys betonica or Betonica officinalis.  Though both Stachys and Pedicularis are considered nervines they are not really interchangeable (Pedicularis species not having such a strong affinity for the head), and in any case you should be aware of what plant you are using.


Also, I have seen one idiosyncratic reaction worth mentioning:  A woman who felt a migraine coming on ("it was just getting bad") took a few 3 drop doses over a few hours and found that while the migraine initially receded,  it dramatically worsened after discontinuing, to the point of throwing up and suffering an extended "hangover" from it the next couple days.  Don't know that this can be entirely attributed to the betony (as neither did she), as other factors were involved, but there it is.  David Hoffmann expressed to me that when he used Wood Betony a lot while practicing in Wales, he had never seen any aggravations.


Wood Betony is not widely naturalized here, but is easily grown from seed and thrives on neglect.  Opting once again to snatch an old saying quoted by Grieve in her Modern Herbal, I would advise you to, as the Italians once said, "Sell your coat and buy betony."

© jim mcdonald

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