One of our favorite herbalists, Olivia Amitrano, of Organic Olivia answers all our herbalist questions. As a clinical herbalist, Olivia is a wealth of knowledge and passionate about helping people use herbal medicine to tackle chronic, physical health complaints. She is also committed to teaching people to utilize plants to help them regulate their nervous systems.
Olivia believes that each of us has a vast emotional world full of highs and lows that undoubtedly contributes to health hurdles. To her, true ‘holistic’ health means addressing both the physical and emotional aspects of our unique root causes.
Q: What is the most common cause you see across the board in your practice?
Chronic lifestyle-driven conditions we see today (especially thyroid and hormone issues) have “stress” as a root cause. Fortunately, herbs have a unique way of helping us become more resilient to life’s obstacles. By slowing us down, they help us get back into our bodies instead of wanting to numb out of them — and by grounding us, they allow us to hear our body’s needs and be present to the emotions that are ready to come up and out. That’s why I try to create herbal tools for both your body and mind, that are not only easy to fit into your routine but truly get to the root issue.
Q: As a herbalist, our first question for you is — what are some of your favorite herbs for general well being?
A: Number one would have to be ginger. It’s such a common grocery store or “kitchen medicine” herb that we tend to overlook it. “Superfoods” are not actually the exotic or expensive items we’re told marketing tales about; they’re often the most common plants that have been used for thousands of years in teas, foods, and seasonings. Ginger tea is one of the easiest things you can prepare first thing in the morning. Plus, because it’s a ‘food,’ it’s safe (and effective) for almost everyone on the planet when it comes to modulating the gut microbiome. Ginger is antimicrobial and antifungal (meaning it maintains that delicate balance in the gut between good bugs and opportunistic pathogens). It also helps to repair your gut’s mucosal lining, and even promotes elimination. Digestion-wise, ginger stimulates bile acid production, which helps our build-in detoxification pathways and improves our ability to digest the fats we eat. I drink ginger tea every day without fail, especially in the summertime when I’m indulging in more sweets and treats. Other herbs I love for general wellbeing are mineral-rich plants like nettle, horsetail, and oatstraw. These are herbs that do well when brewed overnight to make a “multi-mineral” tea that has plenty of bioavailable calcium, magnesium, silica, B vitamins, and more.
Q: What about more common specific flare-ups? Things such as hormonal issues or digestive issues?
A: These categories are too broad for me to make effective recommendations, as everyone’s imbalances and root causes are complex, layered, and unique to their lifestyle and history. However, there’s one category of herbs that often ends up in protocols of those dealing with either (or both) of these complaints: bitters. Bitter barks, roots, leaves, and flowers have been traditionally used around the world for thousands of years to stimulate the secretion of our digestive juices (such as stomach acid and bile), and thus, aid digestion and nutrient absorption. When our taste buds recognize the bitter flavor in these plants, they send a signal to other parts of the body to ‘rev things up’ and release the secretions we need to experience more robust digestion without gas, bloating, and other signs of sluggishness. The coolest part is that we have bitter taste receptors all throughout the body — not just on the tongue! They’re present in the lungs, the thyroid, esophagus, pancreas, stomach, and more. When the receptors in various parts of the body are activated by the ingestion of bitter compounds, crucial metabolic processes are turned on and optimized. This leads to better metabolic health, and is a reason why bitters before meals are also used by herbalists to help balance blood sugar spikes (which can lead to hormone imbalances and nervous system dysregulation). There’s also a category of bitters called ‘hepatic bitters’ (bitter plants) that have an affinity for stimulating our liver’s detoxification pathways and the release of bile acids. The liver is responsible for getting rid of things like environmental toxicants, and even excess hormones (like estrogen). As these toxins go through our liver pathways and eventually become our bile, hepatic bitters before meals can not only help with digestion and blood sugar regulation, but also hormone metabolism and ultimately hormone balance as well. Using a bitters blend before your meals is one of the easiest things you can do to upgrade your digestion and built-in metabolic and detoxification processes.
Q: Can you share about the connection between our gut health and our oral health?
A: Essentially, your oral microbiome is what “seeds” your gut microbiome. Think about it — we swallow over a liter of saliva every day, and that saliva contains quite literally trillions of bugs. So every time we swallow, we’re sending those microbes down into the GI tract. When we take care of our oral health and promote the growth of “probiotic” or beneficial bugs in the mouth, our gut gets the benefits. But if we’re dealing with an imbalance of overgrowths in the oral cavity, now the gut’s immune system has to actively work to deal with those. Additionally, overgrowths in the oral microbiome increase pro-inflammatory cytokines in the body, which increases body-wide inflammation and can even contribute to issues with metabolic health.
Q: Can you share some oral health practices or herbs that you use?
A: I find oil pulling to not only be the most effective way for me to naturally whiten my teeth. It also helps me to reduce cavity-causing bacteria and maintain balance in my oral microbiome. In fact, one study found that oil pulling was just as effective as chlorhexidine when it came to fighting plaque-induced gingivitis. I add about 1 tsp xylitol to 2 tsp gently melted coconut oil and swish for 5-10 minutes in the morning to help break up biofilms of bacteria that can form on the teeth and gums. Another great thing to do is swish with a little unsweetened green tea if you’re a tea drinker. Green tea catechins display strong antimicrobial activity by binding to infectious bacterial cell membranes. And EGCG, one of its major catechins, binds to and helps to damage that pathogenic bacteria. Interestingly enough, studies looking at adults found that gargling with a green tea extract solution resulted in at least half as many cases of influenza compared to control groups! That’s because the oral microbiome not only ‘seeds’ the gut, but the lungs, too. Keeping your oral cavity balanced can help reduce your risk of respiratory illnesses and imbalances.
Q: Is it safe for people to experiment and self-study with herbs?
A: Many of the herbs I use and teach about, just like the ginger above, are more medicinal foods than anything — just like how many of us grew up drinking chamomile tea before bed or with a meal for digestion. While chamomile is such a ‘normal’ thing to have on hand, it’s also a really potent and effective herbal medicine, all while being safe and gentle. When self-studying and experimenting, you want to work with these nutritive, time-tested, food-like herbs, flowers, and roots that can be made into teas and added to foods. Again, it’s not about going for the strongest or most rare and exotic herbs, it’s about looking at what’s accessible and local to you, herbs and spices your family traditionally used, and getting creative with how you bring those into your life today — and consistency is key! I think so often, we underestimate the ability of simple medicines like lavender and rose when it comes to calming the nervous system. Instead, we feel we need to go for the big guns or what’s trendy like CBD — but there are so many powerful healers right in front of our faces just waiting for us to get to know them. Of course, when it comes to higher doses of plants that you’re not familiar with, or working with plants in formulation to address a complex health concern, this is not something you want to do on your own. This is where you’d want to work with a trained herbalist who can be mindful of your health history and possible contraindications.
Q: What’s the one thing you wish more people knew about herbs?
A: Sometimes, the herbs will tell you when they’re done with you — and it can be abrupt — but it’s only because they want what’s best for you. I knew someone who was working with a calming nervine herb called skullcap for her anxiety and sleep issues. Every night for several months, it worked like a charm, teaching her that nervous system balance was not only possible for her, but showing her exactly what it looked and felt like. One day, it just stopped working even though she hadn’t changed the brand or dose. I explained to her that realistically, you don’t want to be dependent on any one plant, tool, or substance forever, even if it’s completely natural and safe; the plants want you to be able to use their lessons to continue to achieve healing and regulation on your own. In this case, skullcap was teaching her that it was time to make the lifestyle changes that would lead to the very same nervous system regulation she felt using its medicine. She could no longer mindlessly scroll on her phone before bed and forgo self care practices just because she knew she could rely on skullcap. She eventually ended up creating a deeply nourishing evening routine, setting boundaries with her phone (AND some people in her life that were creating undue stress), and spending more time exploring her emotions rather than avoiding them with distraction. After that, and with a little time journaling, she no longer needed her skullcap tincture at night.