Chamomile is a plant that has been used since ancient Egypt in a variety of healing applications. Chamomile is a native of the Old World; it is related to the daisy family, having strongly scented foliage and flowers with white petals and yellow centers. The name chamomile is derived from two Greek words that mean "ground" and "apple," because chamomile leaves smell somewhat like apples, and because the plant grows close to the ground.
There are two varieties of chamomile commonly used in herbal preparations for internal use and for aromatherapy . One is called Roman chamomile ( Anthemis nobilis ), with contemporary sources in Belgium and southern England. Roman chamomile grows to a height of 9 in (23 cm) or less, and is frequently used as a ground cover along garden paths because of its pleasant apple scent. German chamomile ( Matricaria recutita ) is grown extensively in Germany, Hungary, and parts of the former Soviet Union. German chamomile grows to a height of about 3 ft (1 m) and is the variety most commonly cultivated in the United States, where it is used medicinally.
Chamomile has been used internally for a wide variety of complaints. The traditional German description of chamomile is alles zutraut , which means that the plant "is good for everything."
Chamomile has been used internally for the following purposes:
- Antispasmodic: A preparation given to relieve intestinal cramping and relax the smooth muscles of the internal organs. Chamomile is used as an antispasmodic to relieve digestive disorders, menstrual cramps, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), headache, and other stress-related disorders.
- Anthelminthic: Chamomile has been used to expel parasitic worms from the digestive tract.
- Carminative: Chamomile is given to help expel gas from the intestines.
- Sedative: Perhaps the most frequent internal use of chamomile is in teas prepared to relieve anxiety and insomnia.
- Anti-inflammatory: Roman chamomile has been used to soothe the discomfort of gingivitis (inflamed gums), earache, and arthritis. German chamomile is used in Europe to treat oral mucosities in cancer patients following chemotherapy treatment.
- Antiseptic: Chamomile has mild antibacterial properties, and is sometimes used as a mouthwash or eyewash. It can be applied to compresses to treat bruises or small cuts.
- Other: Mexican Americans, especially the elderly, have been reported to use chamomile for the treatment of asthma and urinary incontinence. It is one of the two most popular herbs in use among this population.
The external uses of chamomile include blending its essential oil with lavender or rose for scenting perfumes, candles, creams, or other aromatherapy products intended to calm or relax the user. Chamomile is considered a middle note in perfumery, which means that its scent lasts somewhat longer than those of top notes but is less long lasting than scents extracted from resinous or gumbearing plants. Chamomile is also a popular ingredient in shampoos, rinses, and similar products to add highlights to blonde or light brown hair.
Other external uses of chamomile include topical preparations for the treatment of bruises, scrapes, skin irritations, and joint pain. The antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties of chamomile make it a widely used external treatment for acne, arthritis, burns, ulcerated areas of skin, and even diaper rash. The German E Commission, regarded as an authority on herbal treatments, has recommended chamomile to "combat inflammation, stimulate the regeneration of cell tissue, and promote the healing of refractory wounds and skin ulcers."
The flowers are the part of the chamomile plant that are harvested for both internal and external use. Chamomile flowers can be dried and used directly for teas and homemade topical preparations, but they are also available commercially in prepackaged tea bags and in capsule form. The essential oil of chamomile is pressed from the leaves as well as the flowers of the plant; it costs about $22–$35 for 5 ml. Chamomile is also available as a liquid extract.
The chemically active components of chamomile include alpha bisabobol, chamozulene, polyines, tannin, coumarin, flavonoids, and apigenin. However, no single factor has been credited with all the major healing properties of whole chamomile; it is assumed that the various components work together to produce the plant's beneficial effects.
Children may be given 1–2 ml of a glycerine preparation of German chamomile three times a day for colic; or 2–4 oz (57–100 g) of tea, one to three times a day, depending on the child's weight.
Adults may take a tea made from 0.7–1 oz (2–3 g) of dried chamomile steeped in hot water, three to four times daily for relief of heartburn, gas, or stomach cramps. Alternately, adults may take 5 ml of 1:5 dilution of chamomile tincture three times daily.
For use as a mouthwash, one may prepare a tea from 0.7–1 oz (2–3 g) of dried chamomile flowers, allow the tea to cool, and then gargle as often as desired. To soothe an irritated upper respiratory tract during cold season, adults may pour a few drops of essential oil of chamomile on top of steaming water and inhale the fragrant vapors.
For relief of eczema, insect bites, and other skin irritations, adults may add 4 oz (110 g) of dried chamomile flowers to a warm bath. Topical ointments containing 3–10% chamomile may be used for psoriasis, eczema, or dry, irritated skin.
Because chamomile is related botanically to the ragweed plant, persons who are highly allergic to ragweed should use chamomile with caution.
Chamomile is generally safe to drink when prepared using the recommended quantity of dried flowers. Highly concentrated tea made from Roman chamomile has been reported to cause nausea; this reaction is caused by a compound found in Roman chamomile called anthemic acid.
Women who are pregnant or lactating should not use chamomile.
Persons taking warfarin or similar blood-thinning medications should use chamomile only after consulting their physician, as it may intensify the effects of anticoagulant drugs.
Chamomile can cause allergic reactions in people who are sensitive to ragweed.
Chamomile can increase the effects of anticoagulant medications. In addition, its tannin content may interfere with iron absorption. Chamomile may also add to the effects of benzodiazepines, including Valium, Ativan, and Versed. No other noteworthy medication interactions have been reported.
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American Botanical Council. PO Box 144345. Austin, TX 78714-4345. <www.herbalgram.org> .
National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA). 4509 Interlake Avenue North, #233, Seattle, WA 98103-6773. (888) ASK-NAHA or (206) 547-2164. <www.naha.org> .
Rebecca J. Frey, Ph.D.
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