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Yarrow: Everything You Need To Know About This Powerful Healer & Herbal Ally

 

Yarrow is a plant that is near and dear to my heart (I mean, I did name my business after it!), not only because it's lovely white flowers and long feathery leaves bring me joy, but also because it’s a medicinal powerhouse. In fact, yarrow was one of the first herbs that convinced me herbal medicine really does work!

Let me tell you a story…  

I’m in the Utah mountains attending a rainbow gathering (if you’ve never been to one, it’s essentially a grassroots festival type gathering). I’ve traveled all the way from Alberta, Canada to attend! Although hippie-type events are usually my thing, I’m not here for the event itself. I’m here to meet a well-established, well-known herbalist from New York named 7song. I’ve heard amazing things about him- how he runs a free clinic in Ithaca, NY as well as being the founder of the Northeast School of Botanical Medicine, and I want to learn from him in person. He’s run a herbal first aid tent for years at the rainbow gatherings and has helped countless people get the resources they need to address their emergent health issues while at the gathering. It’s super remote. No help for miles and miles, so this herbal first aid tent is THE first aid tent of the gathering. I wanted in on this. I wanted to see it first hand and wanted to help. In a brief interaction beforehand, he frankly told me: “If you show up, I’ll teach you.” Apparently, many people have bailed in the past...but not me. I was stoked. 

So on one particular day, we got called to a campsite where someone had a nasty foot injury. We got all our supplies ready and started trekking up to the campsite to find the person who was hurt. As we were tending to the foot injury, we heard a loud holler coming from someone further back in the campsite. In no time, the person was rushing towards us holding up a finger that he’d chopped the tip off of while preparing dinner! It was bleeding profusely.

Someone in our group yelled loudly: “Find Yarrow!” So the group quickly split up to scour the mountainside looking for fresh growing yarrow...and found it. We quickly picked the leaves and got the man to chew up the leaf to make a poultice to apply to his finger. I couldn’t believe what I saw. Where moments before there was a panicked man with his finger profusely bleeding, was all of a sudden a very relieved man thanking us because the bleeding had completely stopped. Yarrow almost immediately made the bleeding stop. It was truly incredible to witness. 

And there began my deep respect and love of Yarrow. (Shout out to 7song, as I’ll always be so grateful for the opportunity to have such a profound, hands-on experience with the plants under his mentorship!)

While Yarrow’s styptic action (the fancy herbal term to indicate it stops bleeding) was a shock to me, it’s use for wound healing has been long known by Indigenous cultures across North America for thousands of years. 

Yarrow: Indigenous Use & Plant Wisdom   

With Yarrow being native to this land (Turtle Island/North America), Indigenous peoples have a long-standing relationship with the medicinal and spiritual properties of this respected plant.  According to Native Languages: “Yarrow plays an extensive role in the medicine and oral history of Native American tribes throughout North America,” particularly used as an astringent poultice applied to wounds (known to stop infection, pain and bleeding), and as a treatment for headaches, toothaches, and gastrointestinal problems. (10)

Yarrow is considered one of the sacred Life Medicines of the Navajo tribe. (10) The Anishinaabe “attribute spiritual values to yarrow, as well as to four sacred plants: sweet grass, sage, cedar and tobacco. Related to sweet grass and cedar, yarrow wards off negative energy, where Sweet grass attracts positive energy and cedar helps maintain balance.” (12)* Interestingly enough, to this day, yarrow flower essence is used as a protective force to hold safe boundaries and ward off negative influences. (12)

*If you would like to share any of your traditional uses for Yarrow and feel it is missing from this representation, please let me know in the comments below and I’ll gratefully add it to the above paragraph (with permission).  

It’s from this traditional knowledge that our use for Yarrow as a powerful medicinal plant follows us into today’s practice of herbal medicine. So with gratitude for all those who came before us and imparted this knowledge, let’s explore Yarrow’s incredible healing medicine. 

Yarrow: “Master of the Blood” 


Yarrow seems to have an “intelligence” about what needs to happen with the blood, whether that be stopping it, starting it or dispersing it appropriately in the body. Herbalist Matthew Wood refers to yarrow as “the master of the blood”, and for good reason. (4) Let me explain... 

Yarrow’s use for healing wounds goes back to the time of Ancient Greece all the way up to the First World War, being used to stop bleeding and prevent infection in wounded soldiers. (1,2) This is where some of its common names come from: soldiers’ woundwort, staunch weed, nosebleed, woundwort, and carpenter’s weed.  It also contains antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, making it ideal for decreasing swelling, pain and the risk of infection. (3)

Yarrow can also minimize excessive and heavy menstrual cycles, which can prevent anemia from too much blood loss every month. Of course, always make sure the underlying cause of excessive bleeding is investigated, but when needed, yarrow can be a wonderful ally for a heavy cycle. 

Now here’s where it gets wild. So as we’ve seen yarrow can stop bleeding and hemorrhaging when needed, but it can also encourage blood flow and circulate blood where needed. 

For example, working as an emmenagogue, yarrow can bring on a delayed menstrual cycle. (5) As a peripheral circulatory stimulant, yarrow circulates blood through the body and dilates blood vessels which can in turn decrease high blood pressure. (6) It is also reputed to tonify and strengthen blood vessels (useful for hemorrhoids) and decreases the risk of clotting making it a supportive ally for a wide range of cardiovascular conditions. (4)  

Yarrow for the Digestive System 

As a bitter tonic, Yarrow supports the whole digestive process. Traditionally, herbal bitters are used to increase gastric and digestive secretions (saliva, stomach acid, bile), which in turn improves overall digestion by enhancing nutrient breakdown and assimilation. Yarrow has been used for bloating, indigestion, loss of appetite and intestinal spasms. It’s thought that the antispasmodic effects of Achillea species might be due to the flavonoid constituents of the plant, “which are reported to cause a potent relaxation of the ileum.” (3)

One review study found yarrow to be “effective in protecting the gastric mucosa against acute gastric lesions,” which makes it a great remedy to soothe irritated mucosa in the case of ulceration or inflammation in the digestive tract. It was also found to contain anti-inflammatory phytochemicals, including flavonoids, which help decrease harmful inflammation in the body, particularly in the gut. (3)

Yarrow: An Ally for Colds and Flus 

One of Yarrow’s strong suits is as a diaphoretic, meaning it induces sweating to support the fever process by bringing heat to the surface, and will ultimately break the fever. (4) One of the classic herbal recipes for a fever is a mixture of yarrow, elderflower and peppermint drunk hot to induce sweating. All of these herbs not only work together as diaphoretics, but the peppermint makes the tea a little more pleasant to drink as well (remember, Yarrow is a bitter herb!). 

The volatile oils (essential oils) in Yarrow have been shown to have antibacterial and antiviral properties, which backs up its traditional herbal use for colds and flus. (7) This makes it an excellent herb to support respiratory infections, such as sinusitis, bronchitis or pneumonia, along with other relevant herbs (4).

Could Yarrow Be Phytoestrogenic & Protect Against Cancer? 

Some of the recent research on Yarrow is really interesting! One recent study found that Yarrow has shown some estrogenic activity based on the phytochemicals called luteolin and apigenin. According to the study, "Apigenin can stimulate Estrogen Receptor (ER)-dependent biological pathways, but less than the endogenous hormone," which is in line with how herbalists have come to understand the action of phytoestrogens. (14) Phytoestrogens fit the same receptor site as our natural estrogen, but have a "smaller" estrogenic effect, which is thought to be beneficial for estrogen-dominant conditions, for example. When there is a lack of estrogen, in menopause let's say, phytoestrogens can fill the estrogen receptor sites to create the effects of estrogen that otherwise wouldn't be present. In this way, phytoestrogens have the potential to bring balance to the hormonal environment as it relates to estrogen imbalance. However, this isn't how herbalists tend to use Yarrow up to this point. I know I never learned it to be phytoestrogenic in school, so this research may be onto something that will be become more well-known down the road! 

As it relates to cancer, Yarrow is showing some promising results in cancer treatment. One study recently investigated the antitumoral properties of Yarrow in pancreatic cancer. The study found that "Yarrow extract diminished cell viability of pancreatic cancer cell lines by induction of apoptosis (programmed cell death). Importantly, Yarrow extract synergized with the antimetabolite 5-fluororacil which is currently used in clinics to treat pancreatic tumors, making the treatment more effective." (15) That means that Yarrow was not only found to contain phytochemicals that naturally assist in reducing cancer growth, but was found to increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy medications used in cancer treatments. That's pretty amazing! Of course, this study was done on mice, and more research is likely needed, but it goes to show that Yarrow may possess some potent medicinal properties that are still being uncovered by modern science. 

 

Yarrow: Mythology & The Wounded Healer 

Yarrow carries with it some pretty rich historical and mythological significance too. Historically, it’s thought that Yarrow’s use dates all the way back to the Neanderthals, with a recent discovery that found remnants of Yarrow and Chamomile in tooth remains. (13) 

You know how we speak of someone’s “Achilles heel” being their weak spot? Well, there’s a great mythological story that tells the tale of Yarrow’s species name, Achillea, coming from the Greek hero Achilles. He supposedly gained his renowned strength when his mother dipped him in a bath of yarrow tea at birth, except for his heel by which she held him, leaving him with his one weak spot- the “Achilles heel” (1). The Achilles heel reference also speaks to the archetype of the “wounded healer”. Meaning, the weakness of a healer will give way to their true strength, once they’ve gone through their own healing journey. Coming through the other side of hardship, growth and learning makes a healer more equipped to help others. I love this! Another reason I love Yarrow so much. 

Are There Any Safety Considerations for Yarrow? 

People who are sensitive to plants in the Asteraceae family may be sensitive to yarrow. Yarrow is not recommended during pregnancy and its safety has not been established for use during lactation (8). 

How Much Yarrow Do I Take? 

Tincture: 2-4 mL (1:5, 25%) 3x/day 

Infusion: 1-2 tsp dried aerial parts in 8 fl oz boiling water 3x/day. During fevers, 1-2 tsp dried aerial parts hourly 

*Doses taken from Hoffmann (5)

What Are Yarrow’s Herbal Energetics? 

Yarrow is cold, dry & astringent. In Ayurvedic tradition, it will aggravate Vata, and decrease Kapha and Pitta. (9)

And there you have it my friends! One of my favorite plants, explained in detail. May you now feel more love for this versatile and incredible herb! 

With all my Wild Yarrow love, 

Bree xo

 

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References: 

  1. Berger, J.L. (1998). Herbal rituals. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
  2. McIntyre, A. (1996). Flower power. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.
  3. Saeidnia, S., Gohari, A., Mokhber-Dezfuli, N., & Kiuchi, F. (2011). A review on phytochemistry and medicinal properties of the genus Achillea. Daru : Journal of Faculty of Pharmacy, Tehran University of Medical Sciences, 19(3), 173–186. Retrieved on September 14th, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3232110/
  4. Matthew Wood. Retrieved on September 14th, 2021 from https://www.matthewwoodherbs.com/Yarrow.html
  5. Hoffmann, D. (2003). Medical herbalism. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
  6. Khan AU, Gilani AH. Blood pressure lowering, cardiovascular inhibitory and bronchodilatory actions of Achillea millefolium. Phytother Res. 2011 Apr;25(4):577-83. doi: 10.1002/ptr.3303. Epub 2010 Sep 20. PMID: 20857434.
  7. Rezatofighi, S. E., Seydabadi, A., & Seyyed Nejad, S. M. (2014). Evaluating the Efficacy of Achillea millefolium and Thymus vulgaris Extracts Against Newcastle Disease Virus in Ovo. Jundishapur journal of microbiology, 7(2), e9016. https://doi.org/10.5812/jjm.9016
  8. Gardner, Z., & McGuffin, M. (2013). American Herbal Products Association’s botanical safety handbook (2nd ed.). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
  9. Vasant, L., & Frawley, D. (1986). The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine. Lotus Press. 
  10. NativeTech: Native American Technology and Art- Indigenous Plants & Native Uses in the Northeast (Yarrow- Achillea Millefolium). Retrieved September 14th, 2021 from http://www.nativetech.org/plantgath/yarrow.htm
  11. The Niganenakwemin exhibition project: Medicinal Plants. Retrieved September 14th, 2021 from http://kopiwadan.ca/wisdom/medical-plants/?lang=en
  12. Flower Essence Society: Yarrow. Retrieved September 14th, 2021 from http://www.fesflowers.com/yarrow-protection-maintaining-integrity-our-healthy-boundaries/
  13. National Geographic: Neanderthals Self-Medicated? Retrieved September 14th, 2021 from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/120720-neanderthals-herbs-humans-medicine-science
  14. Saeidnia, S., Gohari, A., Mokhber-Dezfuli, N., & Kiuchi, F. (2011). A review on phytochemistry and medicinal properties of the genus Achillea. Daru : journal of Faculty of Pharmacy, Tehran University of Medical Sciences19(3), 173–186.
  15. Mouhid, L., Gómez de Cedrón, M., García-Carrascosa, E., Reglero, G., Fornari, T., & Ramírez de Molina, A. (2019). Yarrow supercritical extract exerts antitumoral properties by targeting lipid metabolism in pancreatic cancer. PloS one14(3), e0214294. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0214294

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