Bone broth is incredibly nutritious, providing protein, gelatin, collagen, vitamins & minerals and benefitting gut health, the bones & joints, and nourishing the nervous & immune systems.
Herbal medicine can help direct these benefits where you need them most, amplify their effects, and add complementary therapy. In our practices and in our shop we’re constantly navigating the intersection of food as medicine. We believe food is an essential foundation for health and wellness, and ought to be pleasurable.
In this post we draw from scientific evidence and the traditional practice of using herbs in broth & soups to achieve various therapeutic goals, whether specific clinical outcomes or basic nourishment. We examine the medicinal powers of traditional Western culinary herbs and spices, and we draw from East Asian dietetics, a rich tradition that intersects colloquial food medicine and herbal therapy.
Ready to enjoy some epic bone broth, grow your skills in the kitchen and learn some new methods to care for yourself and loved ones? Here’s how.
p.s. A great deal of the experimentation that informs this post has taken place at Michael and Lesley Tierra's East/West Seminars where our own Benjamin Zappin has been the annual chef for over 15 years. He's enjoyed the feedback loop of 100+ satisfied participants per week, reporting greater vitality, digestive ease, and other myriad health benefits. As with many herbal formula, these foods can offer immediate benefits while also offering a cumulative effect.
Aromatic and flavor profiles demonstrate the potency of any product. When you taste something medicinal, you should say “Wow!” High wow factor is a high value factor, which your body knows immediately, and can’t help but exclaim over. Including more aromatic ingredients into your medicinal bone broth is a great way to amplify your therapeutic objectives and support vitality. Culinary spices to the rescue! Any you can think of (ginger, cinnamon, cumin, fennel, turmeric, anise, basil…) are spicy and stimulating to digestive juices. Many also have anti-microbial effects that reduce undesirable bacteria and anti-spasmodic and carminative actions, which calm the GI in instances of pain and gas.
Here are some ways to take advantage of the medicinal action of culinary herbs:
Buy whole seeds. Crushing coriander, cumin, fennel, and black pepper using a mortar and pestle or coffee grinder will increase the flavor and potency of your food manifold over using powdered herbs. The fact that it is difficult to tell these distinct spices apart if you forget to label them in your cupboard, speaks to the superiority of whole, fresh seeds.
- Grow or harvest your own. Freshness matters. If you have parsley, thyme, rosemary, and oregano that can be picked moments before throwing into your recipe, you get the most out of these amazing medicinals, not to mention the added benefits of tending to a small garden. Almost all culinary herbs are easy to grow in many climates, even in pots in cities.
- In through the nose. Using whole seeds and fresh herbs amplifies the first stage of digestion – olfactory excitation. If you are adding herbs to an already prepared bone broth, this process is an easy way to heighten the therapeutic value, triggering a cascade of digestive events that optimize nutrient utilization from this rich medicine- a great way to make sure you are absorbing all those wonderful nutrients, collagen, and healthy fats. So take in those smells!
While there is a lot of hype around bone broth as a supplement for bone health, the truth is that a cup of milk has more calcium than a cup of broth. Despite this, consuming a variety of plant and animal sources of minerals and nutrients in a full spectrum approach is a meaningful pursuit.
Here are wonderful ways herbal medicine can step in to direct broth to the bones:
- Add medicinal herbs that have been used traditionally to support bones health. If you are making your own bone broth, throw these herbs in with the rest of your recipe for the full cook time. Otherwise, tie them up in cheesecloth or mesh bag and let them simmer for 20 minutes before adding into your soup, risotto, chili, or other meal. Use about a tablespoon of any combination of these herbs, which are full of vitamins and minerals, per pint broth: stinging nettle leaf, horsetail, dandelion leaf, alfalfa leaf, oat straw, & red clover leaf/blossom. (These are all available at our shop!)
- Add dark leafy greens & dairy to increase the mineral & calcium content. Here is a cream of nettle and dandelion soup we love:
Bring in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Chinese medical culture recognizes an association between the liver and kidneys, and nourishment of the tendons and bones respectively. This may also encompass ligaments and other connective tissue such as fascia, and thus nourishing these systems, which bone broth certainly does, can support not only bone strength, but flexibility, tissue repair, and general comfort in inhabiting one's structural apparatus. If maintaining bone and joint health is a therapeutic objective of yours, add Chinese medicinals that enrich the liver and kidneys to your bone broth. Here is a traditional recipe from East Asian herbal dietetics that utilizes eucommia bark (du zhong) and teasel root (xu duan), two versatile herbs used for supplementing the liver and kidney and benefitting the lumbar region for backache from debility:
Cooking with broths and stocks is an exceptional way to provide support to the nervous system and influence the mood, both in profound and subtle ways. Fats and minerals present in meat and bones nourish the nervous system while herbs and spices uplift and relax, informing the mood, mind and emotions.
Many of the clients we work with report that they experience very little desire for food and eat because they know they should or because of other compulsions. Employing aromatized herbs and vegetables, which shift the mood and stimulate desire, is a fantastic way to engage the senses and inculcate good eating habits.
When patients identify that they experience anxiety and depression, we always explore what existing skills and connections they have to experiencing reliable joy. Food is a common pathway that we use to create bridges to wellness through psyche and soma. We often work towards breaking down barriers to self care through cooking and develop simple and reliable recipes one can make and preserve. We also examine ways to facilitate fellowship and connection through food sharing as a means to support the mood. Soups, medicinal or otherwise, can be a reliable way to work with both of these therapeutic goals.
Due to the concentration and easy absorption of minerals, protein, and healthy fats, consuming foods with bone broth can bring the sensation of being fully nourished, engendering feelings of safety and security, which are calming to the nervous system. Similarly, the familiarity of aromas of a basic mirepoix (carrot, onion, celery) + a customized bouquet garni is comforting, and stimulates a cascade of digestive events from salivation to the release of digestive enzymes.
Here are some herbs to include in a bouquet garni to amplify the mood enhancing and nerve soothing properties of your (now) epic bone broth:
- Saffron is a potent herbal ally that encourages joy and even facilitates euphoria. A spice made from the reproductive parts of the Crocus flower, saffron has gained steam as a popular nutraceutical in recent years and can be found in capsules and tinctures. We don’t see many clinical herbalists using it, but strongly endorse its inclusion in medicinal soups such as bouillabaisse, paella, risotto, and a variety of Moroccan tagines we’ve learned while traveling there with our musician friends in the ensemble Aza. Saffron is versatile, combining well with fish and red meat, especially lamb:
- Rosemary is traditionally used to enhance cognition and boost the mood.
Lavender, commonly appearing in French cooking, soothes and calms the mind and body.
Oat straw and milky oat tops nourish the nerves.
Damiana is often included in stocks and sauces in rural Mexico, enhancing desire and uplifting the nervous system.
Adaptogens are a great addition to broths – eleuthero, rhodiola, & astragalus are wonderful choices.
- Chiles shift perspective and heighten mood with their ability to bring buried joy (and sweat!) out to the surface.
- Lily Bulb or Bai He (Lilium brownii) is a Chinese herb that has over 2000 years of written history detailing it’s ability to ‘Clear the Heart and Calm the Spirit’ as an action for symptoms including inability to concentrate, disorientation of speech and action, sensory impairment, with a bitter taste in the mouth, palpitations, insomnia and restlessness. TCM and other East Asian medicines follow guidelines for differentially diagnosing such imbalances, so if you’re exploring this food therapy and it doesn’t shift your consciousness in the way you’re hoping, we encourage you to visit a qualified practitioner. Here is a recipe to try with this trusted herb:
Here are our favorite ways to steer a broth or stock to support the immune system:
- Include aromatic herbs. We've already expounded on the importance of culinary herbs for flavor and digestion, but they also have anti-microbial properties and can kill fungi, bacteria, and viruses that are attempting to colonize the food we eat. Prior to the development of modern food hygiene methods such as refrigeration these same herbs were relied upon to mask rancidity and reduce the harm that proliferating microbes may create. Thankfully, we’re rarely up against such challenges, but can still wield these as allies to optimize our microbiome.
- Calm down. It is well documented that stress reduction can facilitate a more efficient immune response. As we’ve explored, the favorable influences of true nourishment, engaging the senses in the process of cooking, and remaining mindful, reduce stress and enable the immune system to function more effectively and respond appropriately to stressors.
- Poly-what? There is an exceptional amount of research on the immune enhancing properties of polysaccharides (complex sugars found in medicinal mushrooms & astragalus). These have been valued in Asian medicinal and culinary cultures for centuries, and scientific research is accelerating their adoption in the West.
- Mushrooms! Medicinal mushrooms benefit the immune system in a variety of ways via diverse set of compounds. Reishi helps optimize the immune response with triterpenoids, which can inhibit allergic responses and proliferation of histamines while Turkey Tails can increase natural killer cell activity. Mushrooms such as cordyceps, reishi, maitake, shiitake, and turkey tail can all be used to impart these benefits and earthy and savory flavors that many find delicious. Shiitake, cordyceps, and maitake can easily be consumed as vegetables in addition to imparting flavor and medicinal virtue.
The architecture of the below recipe will be familiar to any student of East Asian herbal medicine. Jade Windscreen, or Yu Ping Feng San, is used to fortify the wei qi or exterior qi which protects the body from external pathogens which are in our atmosphere. As we’ve learned to understand these herbs better, we see that they are supporting our immune system as it responds effectively to microbes that may cause illness throughout our body. This recipe includes polysaccharide rich astragalus & medicinal mushrooms. Come visit us to find these herbs!
Bring on the garlic! No medicinal herb/food has been studied more than garlic for its varied benefits in treating microbes and benefiting the cardiovascular system. Onions and other relatives from the Allium family possess volatile oils which act on bacteria, virus, and parasites in the digestive system. The same volatile oils are excreted by the lungs, making these plants useful in prevention and treatment of common respiratory infections. Garlic is also thought to support proliferation of beneficial bacterial flora in the gut. Here's a great recipe utilizing this versatile herb:
As folks who have lived in areas densely populated with vegetarian enclaves, and as clinicians, we've had the opportunity to hear a lot of people sound off their ethical concerns about eating meat. A common conviction that we hear, and agree with strongly, is that if you’re going to take the life of an animal, it is more ethical to use as much of the creature as possible. We have heard many personal narratives of individuals who become convinced that if they are going to eat a chicken, they’d like to learn to kill and clean the animal as well, and we commend this.
By making and eating bone broth, we acknowledge that this is a small planet and the impact of our every choice is great. Taking responsibility for the world in which we live has incredible therapeutic value, as we are empowered to make meaningful decisions and engage in relationships of reciprocity with what we are given.
Here are some practices to garner the ecological benefits of consuming bone broth:
Buy your bones or bone broth from reputable butchers that work with ranchers in your local landscape and economy. We love and stock Broth Baby, who sources bones from Marin Sun Farms. You can also walk next door to our whole-animal butcher friends at Clove and Hoof and obtain a variety of stocks they make, always ethically sourced.
When you consume this medicinal food, offer gratitude to the earth and animals, to the farmers and processors, and all that contributed to bringing this rich broth to your table, including your wonderful self!
- Use bone broth as a gateway to your local landscape. Cooking from one’s surroundings can nourish the soul in unspeakable ways. Many of our favorite herbs to cook with and use medicinally from the wild are in the Apiaceae (parsley family) or Lamiaceae (mint family) and are thus related to some of the most common flavors in our pantries.
The wild spice relatives are perfect for seasoning dishes cooked in wild places and can also be brought home, offering a unique dimension to food, along with a continued sense of connection to the wilderness. We love to cook with the seeds and leaves of Angelica breweri, Osmorhiza occidentalis, and Ligusticum grayii, all Apiaceous herbs related to cumin, coriander, fennel, parsley and celery.
Adding these into stocks and sauces, meat rubs, flavoring pestos, or even using them to flavor mead and other medicinal ferments brings joy beyond measure.
Since our palates are familiar with many of these common flavor rudiments, we use them to either replace a common herb in a spice blend or mix the more familiar spice with a wild one. Keep in mind that it is probable that the flavors in local plants will be more robust and pungent and that you may need to use less to achieve similar flavoring goals. Please read up on responsible harvesting practices and make sure you can identify your plants.
Thank you for reading our epic bone broth blog post! It is our intention that this post complements the existing body of methodology and commentary on bringing bone broths into one's nourishment.
We have made a point to leave some of the recipes open to your own experimentation and flexible application and hope you can relax into these methods and techniques as foundations for creativity. We're certain that we do not make the same recipe twice the same way!
We invite you to email us with feedback about the recipes and about ways this posting has informed your health or relationship to food. Please stay tuned for more culinary medicine offerings, and if you're in Oakland stop by and share recipes with our staff! Click here to download all the recipes from this post.
Five Flavors Herbs