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Chamomile - Matricatria recutita

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By Steven Foster © 2009

 

In the realm of "simple" herbs, those plants, whose parts are used in whole form for the treatment of common ailments by the common people, few herbs have garnered such a reputation for success as the lowly chamomile. Gerarde, paraphrased, said (1624) ". . . it is a special help against wearisomeness; it eases and mitigates pain, it mollifies and smooths, and all these operations are in our vulgar 'Cammomill', as common experience teacheth. . ." He recommended it as a diuretic, carminative for colic and to dissolve kidney and gall stones. He said the oil is good for all manner of aches and pain, bruising, and swelling. Mixed with wine, he claimed, the decoction of the flowers was good against coldness in the stomach, brings down the monthly courses, and is useful for sour belching. The Egyptians, Gerarde tells us thought so highly of it that they consecrated it to their deities.1

Nicholas Culpepper, at once the most famous and infamous of all English herbalists, claimed that "The bathing with a decoction of Camomile takes away weariness, eases pains, to what part of the body soever they be applied." The chamomile quote immortalized in the American mind comes from Beatrice Potter. In The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Mrs. Rabbit gave her undisciplined son, Peter. "One table-spoonful to be taken at bedtime." Like a cup of warm milk, chamomile has gained a reputation as a soothing, quieting night-time beverage, gently calming the digestive system, helping a child to drift off into serene sleep. Over the centuries, chamomile has gained a reputation as an herb of many uses. It is said to have been one of the herbs of choice of Asclepiades, a physician who lived in Bithynia around 90 B.C. Pliny the Elder, one of the most famous of Roman naturalists who wrote extensively on herb use, is said to have given over his medical care to Asclepiades, because he was so skillful in prescribing herbs.1

Slovakian chamomile specialist, Dr. Ivan Salamon, writes, "Chamomile is the most favoured and most used medicinal plant in Slovakia. Our folk saying indicates that an individual should always bow when facing a chamomile plant. This respect resulted from hundred years' experience with curing in folk medicine of the country."2

"As a popular remedy, it may be thought of as the European counterpart of ginseng," writes Varro Tyler, in The New Honest Herbal (1987, p 66). Dr. Tyler tells us that the Germans call it alles zutraut - "capable of anything." He also notes that the Germans refer to Matricaria recutita as the genuine chamomile.3 Indeed, the word chamomile (also written "camomile", especially in English literature) means different things to people in different parts of the world. In the herb trade there are two types of chamomile. German chamomile (sometimes called Hungarian chamomile) is the flower of an annual plant Matricaria recutita (also known in the older herb literature and scientific publications as Matricaria chamomilla or Chamomilla recutita). All of these names refer to the same plant. This is the plant of which Dr. Tyler wrote. The other well-known chamomile, familiar to the herb gardener is English or Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile). It is sometimes listed by the obsolete scientific name Anthemis nobilis. This is the "cammomill" of Gerade and the "camomile" of Culpepper. The uses of both German and English chamomile parallel each other. If you are in England, the chamomile you would use is likely Chamaemelum nobile. In the rest of the world, German chamomile Matricaria recutita dominates commerce. Such a complex situation for such a simple plant. The word chamomile is derived from Greek roots -chamos (ground) and melos (apple), referring to the fact that the plant grows low to the ground, and the fresh blooms have a pleasing apple-scent.4

German chamomile is an annual native of Europe and western Asia, growing from one to two feet high. The many terminal flower heads are in comb-like formation, and are about one-half to five-eighths of an inch in diameter. The disk flowers are yellow surrounded by ten to twenty white ray flowers. The receptacle is smooth, conical, elongated, and hollow inside. Good quality German chamomile is about three times cheaper than the English variety. Major suppliers to the world market for German chamomile include Argentina, Egypt, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, Hungary and Poland. English or Roman chamomile, a perennial native to Western Europe, northwards to Northern Ireland, is a low-growing herb with a creeping rhizome reaching a foot in height. It is often grown in herb gardens as a low, mat-like ground cover. The flower heads are about an inch across and sparse compared with German chamomile - a solitary head sits atop each flower stalk. The disk flowers are yellow; the ray flowers are white though sometimes absent. The receptacle is conical and solid. One showy double-flowered variety has large white blossoms. Nearly all the yellow disk flowers become white ray flowers. A petalless flower form is also available. 'Treanague', a cultivar named after the estate from which it originated, is flowerless. There are also double-flowered cultivars (well-known by the sixteenth century). Commercial supplies come from England, France, Belgium and Eastern Europe.5 It's great for walkways, as it stands being walked on, as Shakespeare notes (in King Henry IV, Part 1, Act II, Scene 4), "Though the chamomile, the more it is trodden on, the faster it grows, yet youth the more it is waster, the sooner it wears."

In modern terms, the uses of chamomile differ little from ancient authors. Its use is not a throw-back to Medieval times. Chamomile flowers are still an official drug (recognized by government authority) in the pharmacopoeia of 26 countries. Its medicinal value is due to the constituents of its essential oil. Antiinflammatory, antiseptic, carminative, antispasmodic and sedative activity are attributed to Chamomile flowers in addition to promoting wound healing. Chamomile is widely used as a medicinal herb in Europe. The European Scientific Cooperative for Phytotherapy (ESCOP), a coalition of scientific organizations was formed to develop "harmonized" herb regulations in Europe. ESCOP is producing comprehensive scientific reviews and suggested regulatory texts for herb use. One of the first herbs for which they produced such a document was chamomile.6 How do the Europeans use chamomile? It is used in a wide variety of forms, and dozens of products. Compresses, rinses or gargles are used externally for the treatment of inflammations and irritations of the skin and mucosa, including the mouth and gums, respiratory tract, and for hemorrhoids. A chamomile bath is also used. The ESCOP monograph calls for about a quarter ounce of the dried flowers in a quart of water. Extrapolate that to a bathtub containing 30 gallons of water, and you're talking about a pound and a half of dried flowers. Alternately, alcohol extracts of the flowers are available in Europe. Pour the recommended amount in the tub and you have a much more convenient way to take a chamomile bath. Chamomile bath products are also available in the U.S.6 Internally, a tea made from just two to three grams of the herb is used, or appropriate amounts of tinctures (alcohol extracts). Various proprietary preparations are popular in Europe (some of which are available in the U.S.). Chamomile tea or tincture is used to relieve spasms and inflammatory conditions of the gastrointestinal tract, as well as peptic ulcers. A mild tea is also used as a gentle sleep aid, particularly for children. All of the medicinal indications of the ESCOP monograph are not only backed by intensive research of recent years, but many centuries of common use.

The essential oil of chamomile flowers contains the compounds responsible for the many uses attributed to the flowers. The oil of German chamomile contains compounds called chamazulene, farnesene, alpha-bisabolol and other components. In fact, well over 120 components have been identified from oil of chamomile. High quality oil should be of a deep blue color. The essential oil has antibacterial and fungicidal properties. The component chamazulene is anodyne, antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-allergenic. Chamazulene was once thought to be the primary active component. But now scientists believe that pharmacological activity, such as antiinflammatory, antispasmodic, antimicrobial, and mild sedative effects, are primarily the result of a component chemists deem alpha-bisabolol.7,8 Extracts and a number of components of Chamomile, including azulenes (chamazulene) and alpha-bisabolol have been shown to have anti-inflammatory activity. Chamazulene, comprising 5 percent of the essential oil, is an artifact component formed during heating of teas and extracts. This activity has been demonstrated, not only by long empirical use, but by a number of different laboratory models as well. Studies also show that alpha-bisabolol has a protective effect against peptic ulcers, as well as antibacterial and antifungal activity. Alpha-bisabolol has also been shown to reduce fever and shorten the healing time of skin burns in laboratory animals. These two compounds are considered primary active components in German Chamomile. Many commercial German Chamomile preparations are standardized to chamazulene and alpha-bisabolol content.6-8

Ironically, chamomile has been found to induce allergies, as well as have an anti-allergenic effect. Both histamine release and inhibition of histamine discharge have been advanced as mechanisms for the potential antiallergenic action of the azulenes in chamomile oil. It has been theorized that since the azulenes themselves seem to prevent allergenic seizure, inhibition of histamine is probably involved in their true mechanism of action.7 Persons allergic to other members of the sunflower or aster family (Asteraceae or Compositae), are known to sometimes experience cross-reactivity to use of chamomile products. Those allergic to other aster family members, such as ragweed, should be aware of this potential side effect of using chamomile. At least one case of anaphylactic shock has been attributed to chamomile tea use.9 The ESCOP monograph on Chamomile warns of the potential "Extremely rare contact allergy." What's rare? Dr. Tyler answered that question in The Honest Herbal. Between the years 1887 and 1982, 50 allergies resulting from "chamomiles" use were reported in the literature. Of these, only 5 were attributed to German chamomile. Nevertheless, if you are an allergy suffer, you don't want to be one of those rare statistics.

Chamomiles have been used for centuries in teas as a mild, relaxing sleep aid, treatment for fevers, colds, stomach ailments, and as an anti-inflammatory, to name only a few therapeutic uses. Extensive scientific research over the past 20 years has confirmed many of the traditional uses for the plant and established pharmacological mechanisms for the plant's therapeutic activity, including antipeptic, antispasmodic, antipyretic, antibacterial, antifungal, and antiallergenic activity. In addition to medicinal use, chamomiles enjoy wide usage, especially in Europe and the U.S., as a refreshing beverage tea and as an ingredient in numerous cosmetic and external preparations. Rob McCaleb, President of the Herb Research Foundation in Boulder, Colorado estimates that over one million cups of Chamomile tea are ingested worldwide each day, making it probably the most widely consumed herb tea.

References

  1. Savage, F. G. The Flora and Folk Lore of Shakespeare, Stratford-on-Avon, Shakespeare Press, 1923.
  2. Salamon, I. The Herb, Spice and Medicinal Plant Digest 1992, 10(1): 1-4.
  3. Tyler, V. E. Herbs of Choice - The Therapeutic Use of Phytomedicinals, Binghamton, New York: Pharmaceutical Products Press, 1994.
  4. Foster, S. Chamomile, Botanical Series, No. 307. Austin, Texas, American Botanical Council, 1991.
  5. Foster, S. Herbal Renaissance, Layton, Utah, Gibbs Smith Publisher, 1993.
  6. ESCOP. Proposal for a European Monograph on the Medicinal Use of Matricariae Flos (Chamomile Flowers). Brussels, ESCOP, 1990.
  7. Mann, C. and E.J. Staba. In Herbs, Spices, and Medicinal Plants: Recent Advances in Botany, Horticulture, and Pharmacology, edited by L.E. Craker and J.E. Simon, 1:235-280, Phoenix, Arizona, Oryx Press, 1986.
  8. Der Marderosian, A. and L. Liberti. Natural Product Medicine: A Scientific Guide to Foods, Drugs, Cosmetics. Philadelphia, George F. Stickley Co, 1988.
  9. Benner, M. and H. Lee. J. Allergy Clin. Immunol. 1973, 52: 307-308.