The technology we possess today is truly amazing. That said, there are many situations in which traditional thinking can be far superior. I am of the opinion that this applies in particular to the subject of food. The technology behind the 'refinement' and mass production of food has done us harm in many ways. I advocate a return to more traditional approach to food production, whether it relates to farming practice, food sources or cooking methods. Even the choices we make at the grocery store can help to improve our health, rather than harm it. The father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, said "Let thy food be medicine and thy medicine be food", and that truly is the way people lived, up until the last 100 years or so. I like to use Root Beer as a good example of food (and drink) which is also medicine. In fact, I like traditionally made root beer so much, I wrote a research paper on the subject. I'm going to share some of the finer points with you, and then I'm going to share my recipe and method with you so that you can make your own homemade medicinal root beer right in your own kitchen.
The term “Root Beer” instantly conjures images of childhood for many North Americans. It triggers memories of the hiss and pop of a frosty can being opened on a hot day, or the excitement that comes from the foamy overflow once a scoop of vanilla ice cream has been dropped into the glass. Perhaps it inspires thoughts of gun slinging cowboys ordering ‘Sarsaparilla’ in a dusty western saloon. Whatever the connection, root beer is part of a legacy for which many hold affection. It is truly a beverage that people of all ages, shapes and colours have enjoyed, evident from the number of grocery store shelves filled with bottles and cans of it even today. It also has a uniquely North American history combining indigenous healing practice with European tradition and a touch of modern technology. Today, root beer is a pale shadow of what it once was – a rich, medicinal and often alcoholic beverage brewed in the home or by the local pharmacist or apothecary. In a can of root beer found on a shelf today, the roots, fruits, barks and honeys have been replaced with ingredients such as glucose/fructose, caramel colour, sodium benzoate, natural and artificial flavours, modified corn starch, calcium disodium EDTA, etc. This is hardly a healing tonic by any means.
Fortunately, in many cases what is old is becoming new again. For growing numbers of people traditional methods of healthcare, food production and lifestyle are increasing in popularity and many are beginning to turn back to less modern ways of living. There has been a recent upsurge of interest in yoga and meditation practice, chemical free farming, avoidance of processed foods, brisk trade in heirloom seeds, and many are relying on herbal medicines and whole plant extracts again. The plants originally used in the making of root beer have powerful healing abilities and perhaps now is the opportune time for a return of that tradition. The idea of making medicine enjoyable, and an activity of the home rather than the clinic or hospital is one that can happen with current trends of thinking.
The traditions behind the making of root beer go back much further than most people realize. Many believe that root beer was invented by a pharmacist named Charles Hires in the mid 19th century, and while he did play an important role in popularizing it, history shows us that this is far from the truth. First of all, the brewing of beer dates back at least 10 thousand, possibly as far back as 30 thousand years. Secondly, the combination of medicinal ingredients (the main ones, at least) originally used in making root beer, had been used by First Nations people as medicine for longer than anyone even knows. There are records showing the use of Aralia nudicaulis (wild sarsaparilla), Sassafras albidium (sassafras), Arctium lappa (burdock root), and several others by native people for many different afflictions. By the time Charles Hires became interested in root beer, many families across North America had a family recipe that had already been handed down through generations as a tasty way to improve vitality.
Despite the wide range of medicinal applications of the plants used in root beer, they all have something in common: They are all what became known in the early 1800s as "tonics". In his book titled Herbal Tonic Therapies, Daniel Mowrey defines a tonic as ‘any substance that balances the biochemical and physiological events that comprise body systems'. The key word here is balance. Homeostasis, defined as the tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, as maintained by physiological processes, is the body’s natural state. This means that we are naturally in balance. As circumstances internal or external push or pull the body away from equilibrium, health can become compromised. As Mowrey explains, ‘a substance that tends to maintain the optimum state or that moves a system back toward the optimum state is a tonic'. What makes a tonic herb unique, is that it can offer two or more seemingly opposing actions simultaneously. This idea may seem strange due to the fact that modern medicine does not have such a thing, but there is plenty of empirical evidence. Tonics can calm an overactive body system, or stimulate that same system if it is performing weakly. For example, Panax ginseng has constituents which have opposing actions on blood pressure, and as well on blood sugar.
Interestingly, while there have been no scientific tests yet to explore the use of tonic medicines, there is medical precedent which can be combined with recent research. The Eclectic physicians of the 1800s believed in the concept of tonic herbs. Dr John Scudder worked to identify traditionally used botanical medicines with the ability to increase the body’s resistance to harmful influence. To Scudder, a plant had to fulfill 3 criteria to qualify as a tonic. The first was that the plants had to be entirely safe, with little or no side effects. Secondly, the plants must increase the body’s nonspecific resistance, meaning that they provide support to the human body in coping with the pressures placed on a wide range of its functions by both the internal and external environments. Finally, the plants must normalize the functions of the bodily systems, regardless of the direction of abnormality.
Interestingly, Dr. Israel Brekhman, a scientist in the former Soviet Union who coined the now common term “adaptogen”, agreed with Scudder. In fact, Brekhman’s list of criteria for an adaptogenic plant is exactly the same as Scudder’s list of tonic criteria. They appear to be essentially the same thing. Adaptogenic plants are those which are used in modern herbal therapy to mitigate the effects of stress, whether it is from physical, emotional or environmental sources. Adaptogens have been studied extensively and their effectiveness in helping us deal with stress is clear.
For most of us, life is extremely busy and as we know, the modern lifestyle does not afford adequate access to the ‘other’ 3 Rs: Rest, Relaxation, and Recuperation. As a result, many are faced with stress-related illness. With an understanding of how tonic or adaptogenic medicine works, there has never been a more appropriate time for a root beer revival. What a great combination! A delicious drink that many of us have grown to love since childhood that can also help our stressed-out bodies resist illness and increase our energy!
Traditional herbal root beer recipes are difficult to come by. It is not the popular past time that home-brew beer making or wine making has become. However, there are a few resources I can recommend to get you started. The very best book I have ever found on the subject is "Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers" by Stephen Harrod Buhner. Here is a link to an online copy: Sacred And Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets Of Ancient Fermentation.
Also, I found this YouTube video helpful: How To Make Craft Brewed Root Beer From Scratch.
Its a step by step guide to making a tasty (although not overly medicinal) root beer and you get to see how it's done from start to finish. I strongly suggest you refrain from using maraschino cherry syrup though. Good on the tongue, but not so much in the body!
So, enjoy the process and don't be afraid to get creative. Let me know what you come up with and feel free to contact me if you have any questions. Have fun!!
Chris the Herbalist