Orange as medicine.
“We entered and were in the court of oranges. There stood the palms, of which tradition says one was brought by Abdarrahman himself from his dealy loved Damascus; but in truth I suspect Abdarrahman’s palm is a thing of the past, though he certainly planted the first that was ever known here. There, at any rate, was the fountain at which the Moslems were wont to wash before entering the Mosque; and there the great old orange trees, with their weight of dark-green fruit. It gave one the strange sensation which I have had elsewhere in Spain, as if I had seen all this before, in childhood or in a dream. It was like coming back to something well known, but half-forgotten.”
-Mrs. Ramsay, From ‘A Summer in Spain’.
One of my earliest memories is of running barefoot through an orange orchard in Portugal when I was 2 or 3. The memories are foggy, as they often are of things that happen so young, and cut with other memories like being covered in mosquito bites and my very first near-drowning. But the thing that sticks out the most is that orchard, and the feeling I experienced in it at such a young age: joy. That memory has woven itself through years of my life, and for some reason every time I peel open an orange and breathe in that citrus smell, I am reminded of that slice of a memory from such a young age and am overwhelmed with that same joy, as if it were happening in the present and not 30 odd years ago.
It was only when I was in Chinese medical school that I learned of orange being used medicinally, and the another possible reason for that spontaneous joy became apparent: citrus fruits move stagnation and uplifts the spirits. Here in Los Angeles we have an abundance of citrus fruits so I started working with them a little more. I’ve started to rely on citrus fruits in formulation to provide a necessary little spark to formulas to get things moving. Below are outlined some of my experiences and research on them.
Citrus aurantium: bitter orange (and other orange species)
Actions and energetics: stimulating, relaxing, bitter, aromatic
Parts used: flower, fruit, peel, leaf
Thought to have originated in south China, the orange tree is now common in mediterranean climates around the world. So popular is it in Spain (which I think supplies the entire European Union with its oranges) that entire swaths of countryside have been mowed down to plant orange monocrops. Here in Southern California, you can’t walk down a residential street without seeing some kind of citrus tree, be it orange, lemon, lime or grapefruit, and in the Coachella Valley (the Palm Springs area) citrus trees are so common that the city governments are trying to come up with plans to use all of the citrus fruits that end up dropping and rotting and wasting every year. Which is to say that citrus is, in some areas, incredibly common indeed. And it makes sense, when something is that common, to make good use of it.
The first documented used of the bitter orange is in Avicenna’s Canon. Avicenna is, incidentally is responsible for the spread of the orange tree to Southern Europe— his works were heavily studied in Cordoba, where the first European bitter orange trees were planted. While most historical use of orange in medicine is of the bitter orange (citrus aurantium), that is quite hard to come by commercially nowadays, while we have, at least here in Southern California and other Mediterranean climates, access to an abundance of oranges that aren’t bitter. I’ve found that their properties are similar regardless of species, so while the books I’ve read talk about c. Auranteum, my personal experience is that any orange can be used.
Orange peel has a few things going for it: it’s aromatic, it’s bitter, it’s sour. But there’s also that quality that seems to only be there in all citrus fruits: it’s got a brightness to it. If you peel open an orange, that brightness is like a break in the clouds on an overcast day: it lets the light in, dispels the dampness, shining light into the dark shadows. Orange, when it comes down to it, regulates energy movement, moving stagnation and smoothing the flow of energy around our bodies. So let’s apply this to the areas where it’s most common uses are:
The peel of the bitter orange (and all oranges) is highly aromatic, stimulating, and bitter. Its primary effects are on the digestive tract, where it stimulates digestive secretions in the stomach and gallbladder, which then cause digestion to be jump-started and the heaviness of indigestion to be lifted. In this regard it can be used like any other bitter carminative— even a simple vodka tincture of an orange peel will be of great use before or after meals.
One of the most useful things I learned when staying in India was that people waste *nothing* there. Pushpa, the lady I was staying with, after eating an orange, would break the orange peel up and lay it out on a newspaper in the sun to dry, so that she could use it for a digestive tea after meals. It’s something I’ve started to do too, and makes a delicious, quick and easy carminative tea. It’s also something that is easy for other people to start doing, especially those who aren’t necessarily into herbal medicine. Having someone go out and pull dandelions up is a big step, but having someone save an orange peel? Most people can do that. I’ve had Lyft drivers start to do it, people I meet at the farmer’s market, strangers at the grocery store. The times I’ve heard back from people (which admittedly isn’t often as they are usually strangers), it’s been to say that the bloating/ gas/ indigestion was resolved from drinking some orange peel tea. Most people who I do talk to however are incredibly enthusiastic about trying it: using a common fruit as medicine removed the ‘unknown’ factor that often scares people away from starting using herbs.
I recently made an orange bitters that was mostly a blend of orange peels (a combination of Cara Cara, blood orange, Valencia and a few tangerines), gentian, cardamom and a splash of orange blossom water. Making herbal formulas that taste really good is a great way to ensure patient compliance. I’ve enclosed an orange bitters recipe so that you can make your own.
Anxiety/ nervous system:
That same lifting of heaviness also applies to the spirit: orange peel relieves irritability and calms the mind, making it useful in heightened stress or anxiety situations. What’s actually happening is that nervous tension is being released. I think of it in this way: We have a certain amount of energy in our bodies— like an energy bank account so to speak. If that energy is being used in one place then it cannot be used in another, just as if you spend your money on a sandwich you cannot then spend that money on a pair of shoes. For many of us, stress causes all our energy to be shunted to the places where it’s traditionally effective in times of high stress: to the muscles and nervous system, so that the body is capable of running from the source of stress. At this point, the body, run by it’s lizard brain, cares not an iota about whether your sandwich is digesting well, because it has perceived itself to be in danger and so its only motive is to escape the danger. It doesn’t matter to your brain that the danger is a deadline, or being late for something, not a tiger; it didn’t evolve in the modern world. And so the energy that should be in your GI tract digesting your sandwich gets shunted to your muscles and nerves so that you can run, and your digestion is effectively shut off.
You can change this in two ways: one, move the energy back to the digestion which will in turn move it away from the nervous and musculoskeletal systems, or two, relax the body so that the energy goes back to the digestion. Orange peel works in the first way; the flower in the second.
It’s uplifting and calming, and it’s been proven to be so: a study published in 2013 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3598547/) showed the anxiolytic effects of the oil of the bitter orange. But as with a lot of similar situations, is it really necessary to go through the expense of a scientific study to find out that the smell of citrus oil makes us happy and calm? Picture what happens to the air when you peel open a satsuma. The spray of aromatic oils that coats your fingers and sometimes splatters on your shirt, and the first thing you do is take a deep inhale and smell it. It’s impossible not to. And that brightness— the quality that belongs to citrus fruits alone— it invades your mind, gets into the corners and crevices and shines that brightness into places that were feeling dark and sluggish. For this reason it’s really helpful for certain types of depression too.
There are many types of depression, as those of us who have been through it can attest to. Some depressions are due to life situation— citrus won’t help there. Some are due to exhaustion— it won’t help there either (and can actually make it worse). But there’s that depression that’s caused by stagnation— sedenterism, lack of movement, both physically and with regards to a life path. Citrus can be of great use here. Think of that image again of the sun bursting through the clouds— the dampness of the clouds dissipate, the colours, once flat because of the shade, spring to life in the sunlight. You turn your face to the sun and feel the warmth dispel the chill that had sunk into your bones, slowing you down, making you feel sluggish. That is what citrus does in your body: it brings brightness, and with that, attention. Given an abundance of citrus fruits here in Southern California, I often add a little orange peel to formulas just for that brightness and sense of movement alone.
A recent case I had was a man in his thirties who was experiencing a lot of lymphatic stagnation, but his overall demeanour was one of sluggishness. I don’t see this very often around here, as Los Angeles is a very choleric environment where people are on the go and moving very quickly a lot. This man, let’s call him Bob, came to me because he was stuck in life. His physical symptoms were basic lymphatic stagnation: he was swollen and bloated, having trouble digesting big meals. Emotionally he was a bit of a wreck: he’d been fired and just couldn’t seem to get the motivation he needed to get out there and find another job. I gave him ocotillo, albizia and orange peel, with a hint of rose. I think the formula gave him the kick in the pants he needed to get up and about again: last I heard he’s working again and doing well. I have no idea if his lymphatic stagnation symptoms came back, though it seemed constitutional and I assume it’s something he’s always going to battle.
With regards to the easing of stagnation, orange peel makes a nice addition to formulas for congested lungs. I don’t find it very effective as a primary herb in a lung formula but as an adjunct when there’s that same pattern of heaviness, congestion, and stagnation, it’ll help to thin mucous and allow someone to cough it out. I’ll throw orange peel into a lung tea formula to improve the taste especially if its for kids.
Citrus auranteum flower
Energetics: Bitter, aromatic, cooling
Actions: anxiolytic, nervine
Orange blossoms have been used as medicine since Avicenna’s time The energetics of orange blossoms are slightly different to the peel and I’m going to treat them like an entirely different medicine. Where the peel moves stuck energy first, the blossom calms.
But this makes sense— look at how much more dense the peel is than the flower. In the life cycle of the plant, the flowers are the most airy, lightweight, quick to blossom and fade away. If the root is there for ages, the flower is ephemeral; gone before you know it. With its fragrance floating on the air, subject to the whims of its environment, the blossom is there and then it’s gone, and this is a quality I always associate with the nervous system. The nervous system is the first responder of the body. It’s aware of danger before the rest of us is, and often times it’s hyper-aware, alerted to possible dangers at every turn. Some people have childhood traumas that hardwire them to believe that everything is dangerous, some people have ancestral traumas that do the same. Some people are just super nervy and it’s just their constitution. Regardless, this nervous energy is where the orange blossom works best. Where with the peel it regulates the smooth flow of energy in the middle of the body and digestive system, the flower regulates the smooth flow of nervous energy. It relaxes tension that restricts the flow of energy around the body, and has an affinity for the heart, both physical and spiritual.
The orange flower is a gentle remedy, not something I’d necessarily use as a primary therapy but a really nice, fragrant, delicious tasting adjunct to other therapies, or useful to know if it’s all you have on hand.
Calms the mind/ relieves anxiety:
Where the orange peel relieves anxiety by brightening and grounding, the flowers calm and soothe agitation. Think of the agitated nervous system, irritability, insomnia, anxiety. It works especially nicely for the type of anxiety that is focused in the chest— palpitations, shallow breathing, circular panic-state thinking. A cup of orange blossom tea can calm this type of anxiety attack and nip it in the bud if it’s caught in its early stages. I’ve had opportunity to try this with my little sister who experiences panic attacks regularly. Once she’s in the throes of the panic state theres very little that can be done, but at the beginning before it’s become full-fledged, when she’s just starting to feel the fluttering in her chest, a cup of orange blossom tea can pull her out of it. I think it does this in more than one way— in drinking the tea, you hold the cup, inhale the aromatics, and the smell is so divine that it’s truly impossible not to smell it and close your eyes and appreciate it. This in itself pulls one out of the mental anxiety loop for a second, and in that second one is given a little perspective. I think it’s in that little second that the orange blossoms can do their work and calm the agitation down.
It’s not an overt sedative— while orange blossom is calming, and will help you sleep, it’s not going to knock you out or render you unable to string together a coherent thought. I find that when my to-do list is very long and I’m feeling a little panicked over the amount of work on my plate, a cup of orange blossom tea actually helps me to get it all done, as it’s calming the agitation that’s preventing me from focusing.
Taken at night, a cup of orange blossom tea can help calm an overactive mind and make sleep come much more easily. A hot orange blossom bath (recipes for both below), with a cup of orange blossom tea are lovely and calming. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not so strong as to have much effect on someone who has serious sleep issues but as a gentle remedy if you’re feeling slightly more agitated than usual, it’s a perfect time to try it.
Orange blossom, with its aromatics and ever so slight bitter flavour, stimulates activity in the upper GI tract, not as strongly as the peel does, but still noticeable. Use orange blossom water after meals as a nice digestif to ease bloating and flatulence. I like to pass it around after a heavy meal at dinner parties (or if I’m going out then I’ll hand out bitters) and watch as people start to look less uncomfortable. In this regard I think the peel is much more effective though.
Internally, the orange blossom, in its ability to relax and calm an agitated mind, can be really useful as an addition to a protocol for liver stagnation type depression. It comes back, again, to that combination of stimulation and relaxation— the orange blossom relaxed the over agitated nervous system, but at the same time stimulates the smooth flow of energy in the heart and brain. What I mean is, that in stagnant states, there is still energy there, regardless of where the stagnation is, it’s just not moving. When you relax the tension holding energy in place, all of a sudden what was stuck can flow. This provides not only a feeling of great relief (I liken it to the feeling you get of being stuck in traffic when you want to be on the open road with your windows down and One Direction blaring), but also in many cases, the stagnation itself is the reason for the depression in the first place.
‘Liver qi stagnation’ as its called in Chinese medicine is tied in with that feeling of frustration mixed with anger mixed with teariness. It causes things like a combination of emotions boiling to the surface all at once, emotional outbursts (crying or anger usually), headaches, an inability to deal with stress, feeling overwhelmed. If the liver in Chinese medicine is responsible for the free-flowing of energy around the body, then stagnation of that will cause the opposite— the lack of free-flowing energy. It can be caused by repression of emotions, for example, if a person learns early on that expressing their emotions is not allowed or accepted then they will find places to put them that aren’t on the surface, simply because emotions usually need to go somewhere. Regardless of the reason, I’ve found that orange blossom with a little rose and albizia is a really nice little formula. Add calamus if they want to be able to express how they feel but don’t know how; black cohosh if they need to understand how they feel in the first place, and hawthorn if they need to exercise compassion.
There is a lot less information to be found about orange leaf’s medicinal uses, but Bensky provides a little insight, noting that their action focuses much more on the liver. I have no personal experience with using them as anything other than a bitter tea but thought it should be noted here anyway.
I rarely if ever use orange or orange blossom as the primary herb in a protocol. Where it excels however is as an adjunct, added to formulas to give them a little kick. Think of it as the spark that can bring a formula together to bring the energy of the formula to the middle of the body and to provide it with a little kick of movement. In that regard, here are some formulas I’ve found to be quite effective:
Rose, hawthorn, orange blossom: Calms an overactive nervous system when there’s a lot of anxiety, grief, frustration and tension that need to be expressed and moved but the person has no outlet. Works really nicely on emotional teenage girls.
Orange peel, mint, fennel: A lovely digestive blend, either in tea or tincture, for after meals.
Orange blossom bath
(Calming, soothing, relaxing and uplifting)
A lovely way to use the medicine of orange blossoms:
Pour 1 quart of epsom salt and 1 cup of orange blossom water into a hot bath. Get in quickly as the scent does fade, but while it lasts it’s a really lovely experience.
Orange blossom tea
(A mug of which before bed is incredibly relaxing and tasty)
1 teaspoon of orange blossom water
1 cup of boiling water
1 tsp honey
Combine all ingredients in a mug and stir to dissolve the honey.
(Orangello makes a lovely after dinner drink)
7 medium oranges, preferably organic
1 750ml bottle of vodka
2 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups sugar
Peel the oranges, dropping the peel in a quart jar. Cover with vodka, and steep for a week. Then, combine the water and sugar in a saucepan, bring to the boil and simmer until the sugar is dissolved. Strain out the orange peels, saving the infused vodka and discarding the peels. Combine the syrup and the infused vodka. Pour into a bottle and keep refrigerated, not for preservation (it’ll keep at room temperature indefinitely) but because it’s so very tasty served chilled.
Holmes, Peter: The energetics of Western Herbs.
Ross, Jeremy: Combining Western Herbs and Chinese Medicine
Scott, Keith: Medicinal Seasonings.
Wood, Matthew: The Earthwise Herbal.