Wood Betony is a classic Western herb used as a cure-all in both home remedies and witchcraft of household cleansing and protection. Through out Old Europe, people reached for Wood Betony to ease aches and pains, soothe digestive complaints, and resolve headaches, insomnia, anxiety, depression, irritability, and all manner of nervous-system complaints. It was commonly planted to drive away demons, witches, and evil spirits, possibly as often as it was planted to provide household and praticitioner medicine. If you read Matthew Wood as well as many of today’s other well-known and respected herbalists, you’ll see accounts from Herbal Greats like Pliny, Dioscoredes, and Culpepper, all touting the almost magical qualities of Wood Betony’s medicine. It was an herb for their times.
What you won’t see as much of is accounts of Wood Betony in pratical use today. Herbalists like Wood and Sajah Popham are using it, but Wood Betony hasn’t gained the popularity it held in the Middle Ages in Europe. Perhaps that’s because it had become a commonly-known panacea by the time modern medical science was edging traditional systems out of use. Perhaps that’s because people didn’t need the grounding, balancing energy Wood Betony carries. Or, perhaps it was just an oversight among the dominant writers who documented use of plant medicines at home and among the doctoring folk. Whatever the reason, Wood Betony fell out of favor just over a century ago, but her medicine was not lost to us entirely.
The time for Wood Betony has long returned to world. We humans have built a world filled with stress, tension, trauma, and strife. There’s a lot that’s good and beautiful in our Human world, too, but the balance has shifted in favor of focus on the toxic with not enough compassion to keep everything balanced and moving. That’s one of Wood Betony’s fortes, keeping the energies balanced and moving.
Modern Western Herbalists who use Wood Betony often draw on it for complaints related to the head, as Jim McDonald’s account on the herb describes. Head injuries and headaches of a variety are eased by Wood Betony’s stimulating yet relaxing influence. He writes of offering Wood Betony tincture to several clients to help resolve migraine-level headaches, noting that the long-term use of Wood Betony seems to be key to resolving the underlying cause. Wood Betony’s action on the head seems to help the body re-order its patterns, thus resolving chronic headaches over the longer term while immediately easing the pain, often in partnership with other herbs.
Wood Betony in Traditional Western Herbalism
Matthew Wood talks about Wood Betony for chronic digestive complaints, too. I’ve used it in cases where digestion has long been disturbed, as is the case for IBS, Crohn’s disease, and similar inflammatory and debilitating conditions, as well as for hormonally-induced digestive and inflammatory irritation. Wood talks about Wood Betony helping smoothe the digestive flow, and I’ve seen that action. I’ve also noticed that typically there is an underlying pattern of trauma or disempowerment that supports the chronic digestive strife. It is as if the individual cannot fully digest the situation, past or present. Wood Betony helps the body and mind remember they have the power to make sense of it, to keep the lessons learned and to let go of the painful emotions wrapped about them by returning energy or circulation to the Solar Plexis and thus to the digestive system.
David Hoffman describes Wood Betony as a bitter nervine. Jim McDonald adds astringent, relaxant and stimulant to the list. Matthew Wood suggests Wood Betony for the Atrophy tissue state. Herbalists of old might have also claimed tonic among Wood Betony’s Virtues. I would perhaps add adaptogen for Wood Betony’s balancing influence on the digestive tract and nervous system, although I suspect purists would argue that Wood Betony doesn’t hae a notable and clear affect on the adreanal glands and thus doesn’t fit neatly into the definition they’ve set for adaptogens. Right there, you get a good feel for the complexity of this compact member of the mint family.
Ayurveda and Wood Betony
From an Ayurvedic perspective, Wood Betony balances Pitta while it increases Kapha and reduces Vata. This is in contrast to the description Drs. David Frawley and Vasant Lad offer for Wood Betony’s actions. They suggest it decreases Kapha while increasing Vata. This is another of Wood Betony’s complexities.
Since it can stimulate digestion while at the same time slowing it to allow for better absorbtion and also clearing away excess ama or phlegm, it could easily be argued that it both increases and decreases Kapha; while clearing phlegm Wood Betony is reducing the more watery aspects of Kapha and by assisting in the absorption of nutritients and thereby helping the body build tissues, Wood Betony increases the earthy aspects of Kapha.
Wood Betony helps to bring the energy and mind back into the body, seating one’s energy system around the Solar Plexis. In doing so, it decreases Vata by bringing one back into one’s body. At the same time, Wood Betony’s influence eases headaches and soothes the nervous system to allow for healthier and more empowered thinking, thereby increasing Vata.
In any case, what we agree on is that Wood Betony balances Pitta. As energy returns to the Solar Plexis and digestion improves, the basis of the digestive fire is strengthened. Wood Betony helps to make that happen. There is no question about Wood Betony’s ability to have a positive, longer-term affect on the digestive system, thus bringing Pitta into balance.
Traditional Chinese Medicine and Wood Betony
Dr. Michael Tierra connects Wood Betony with the Liver and Heart Channels, ascribing to it cooling, bitter energy and taste. This makes a lot of sense, given Wood Betony’s ability to cool digestive and other inflammation, stimulate and balance digestion, soothe the nervous system or mind, and ease headaches, including those of a tension, hormonal, or liverheat nature. Wood Betony is not typically used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, but Western herbalists today like Dr. Tierra have often included it in formulas as a supporting herb.
Wood Betony for the Emotional Self
I’ve shared the idea that Wood Betony helps us improve digestion already. Digestion is more than the process of breaking down food, extracting nutrients, and expelling wastes as defined by our modern culture. Digetion functions on all levels of our being, including our emotional body. We need to digest our experiences as well. On a purely practical level, many of us have experienced those times when we are haunted by an event, experience, or interchange. It keeps rising to the surface of our minds, churning over and over, until we finally experience a breakt-through in which we gain insight or a new perspective that allows us to release it and move on. That is precisely the process of digesting the event.
When we get stuck in the process, perhaps at the point where we’ve looked at the experience from all angles and just plain cannot make sense of it, cannot let it go, and are feeling quite exhausted by it, Wood Betony may well help us digest it. Sometimes, we need to not make intellectual sense of the matter. Sometimes we need a boost to see from that new angle or a little more umpf to break-through and understand. Sometimes, we’re so stuck on finding that intellectual understanding that we close all doors to understanding through other means. In all cases, Wood Betony can help us get back into our bodies and be present with ourselves, thus easing pressure on the mind to find some kind of solution to the problem and releasing the tension long enough for the shift we need to happen.
Likewise, when we try to move through the process too quickly, such as can happen when an experience has been too frightening or painful to process, Wood Betony can help us slow down long enough to become effective. Here, Wood Betony’s ability to help us return to center and feel the grounding, reassuring pull of Mother Earth’s gravity alongside the power of our own fire empowers us to move with more confidence through what had formerly been a frightening and daunting landscape. We realize we have the strength to feel all the emotions we need to feel, the ability to make sense of whatever it was that happened, and the power to give ourselves permission to Just. Let. Go. Wood Betony’s action in helping our bodies digest food shares a lot of common ground with it’s action in helping us process and make peace with or learn from our experiences.
- The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines
- The Earthwise Herbal, Volume I: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants
- The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine
- Medical Herbalism: The Science Principles and Practices Of Herbal Medicine
- Jim McDonald on Wood Betony
- Dr. Michael Tierra on Wood Betony (and others)