SAGE
Common Names

Sage, Red Sage
Botanical Name
Salvia officinalis
Family
Labiatae

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What is it?

In herbal medicine, as in the culinary arts, we use the leathery greyish leaves of that wonderful hairy, shrubby herb called Sage. Popular in gardens all over the world, it’s a tough little grower, it smells good and it produces beautiful whorls of blue to purple flowers.


FLOWERS


PLANT


DRIED

How has it been used?

Despite being relegated in most modern people's minds to a herb used for stuffing chickens the medicinal virtues of Sage used to be regarded to such a degree that its Latin name Salvia comes from the word salvere 'to save!'

Arab physicians revered Sage and believed its regular use would increase life-span. Similarly in France Sage was called toute bonne; 'all's well'

English herbalist John Gerard called Sage 'singularly good for the head and brain, it quickens the senses, restores health to those who have palsy and takes away shaky trembling of the members'

An old adage goes 'Sage helps the nerves and, by its powerful might, Palsy is cured and fever put to flight'.

Sage has been used for a great many illnesses since ancient times. The most enduring uses of Sage that persist to this day can be divided into several categories.

  • External use: as a rinse, wash or gargle for inflammation or ulcers of the mouth, gums or throat. 
  • Brain: as a tonic for poor memory, headaches, anxiety, depression and confusion.
  • Hormonal: to assist with excess hot flushing in the menopause, to reduce breast milk production, to reduce high sugar in diabetes.
  • Digestion: to aid excess gas, weak appetite or an over-sensitive stomach
  • Circulation: to help with excess sweating or night sweats (taken as a cold tea)

If you have the habit to think about medicine in a ‘this for that’ kind of way then you will find it hard to wrap your head around a herb like Sage. How can it be good for so many seemingly unrelated problems? We should give the ancients their due, they were by no means stupid just because they didn’t have telephones or computers, if anything they had to be more aware of what helped or hindered them through life as there was no kind of social security if they got it wrong!

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Science on Sage

~ In a number of open studies, Sage has reduced sweat production in patients with hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating). The daily dose ranged from the equivalent of 2.6 to 4.5 grams of leaf (European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy monographs, UK, March, 1996)

~ A product containing Sage and Alfalfa extracts produced improvement in the menopausal symptoms of hot flushing and night sweats in an open trial conducted for 3 months (De Leo V et al: Minerva Ginecol 50(5):207-211,1998)

~ Laboratory studies with Sage have shown that is has anti-microbial properties and has constituents that protect against damage to the walls of our cells. Sage extract and Sage oil can reduce a substance called acetylcholinesterase in the human brain and it may be that this is how it has its effects on such diverse symptoms as excess sweating and poor memory (Oerry N et alL Int J Geriatr Psychiatry 11(12):1063-1069,1996)

~ There are well over 300 published studies and articles on Sage, a PDF showing their titles, authors and when and where they were published can be found here

Safety of Sage

For most people, young or old, Sage is a very safe medicine that can be used in high doses if required. However Sage is best avoided as a regular medicine during pregnancy and it has traditionally been used to help dry up breast-milk so it should not be taken during breastfeeding unless coming to an end.

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Personal experiences

Sage can work very quickly however, like many of our medicinal herbs, dosage can be the crucial difference between success or failure and for most people high doses of Sage may be initially required. My advice is to be prepared to start strong with Sage, make sure it is working well, then be ready to cut the dose back as soon as you feel your system needing to back off.

If you who are reading this are studying herbal medicine or if you just want to understand this ancient plant ally at a much deeper level for your own reasons then I warmly encourage you to make some Sage tea (just a half a tsp in a cup of freshly boiled water for 5 minutes will be ample for this experiment!) or take 10 or 20 drops of its tincture and then, with a quiet and attentive mind, observe for yourself how it makes you feel. This old way of experiential learning is a tremendous way to appreciate the power of these plants beyond where academic study can take you. I have done this experiment enough myself and with others to know not to predict to you how it will make you feel but I can say for sure that you will feel something! Just try and see with an open mind and I think you will be pleasantly surprised!

Further to this, if you would like to learn more about the ancient art of pulse testing, a simple but powerful way to ask the intuitive intelligence of the body for its responses to a herb by feeling the pulse whilst giving a tiny dose by mouth, read here

Sage mouth or throat treatment

This recipe is from Dr Rudolph Weiss from his chapter on mouth and throat disease where he says that 'the herbs used in mouth and throat washes are some of our most indispensable therapeutic aids, and later... the speed with which pain disappears never ceases to amaze me'
~ 10 mls Sage tincture
~ 10 mls Chamomile tincture
Put 20 drops of this formula into a glass of water and gargle or rinse the mouth at regular intervals, up to once every hour if needed.

Sage for Excess Sweating

Sage can be a stand-out remedy for excessive sweating; from any cause, but be prepared to take it strong for it to really work!

For a strong medicinal tea of Sage take up to 2 heaped tablespoons (dried or fresh are equally good) and place in a saucepan with about a litre of water. Bring to the boil then lower the heat right down and just simmer for a good 10 minutes. Then take off the heat and leave for another 15 minutes. Strain the tea and either drink when sufficiently cooled or refrigerate.

For some people with excess sweating this tea will be fine to drink at room temperature but for others it will be even better if it is chilled right down by being placed in the fridge. For some people a small and regular dose through the day will clearly work much better and for others it will make no difference to their results to have one or two large doses that then appear to have a lasting benefit. Be guided by your own body and what makes you respond the best. It is okay to add some honey or maple syrup to taste.

Note that the above recipe is a way to make Sage about as strong as it gets. If this is more Sage than you need to get a good result then either simply decrease the amount you drink or decrease the amount of the starting materials. In practice I also give Sage in tincture form where we can easily adjust the dose up or down as needed. I have found that some people respond to quite small doses e.g. just 2 or 3 mls in a day, whereas another person might need 3 or 4 times that much to see an obvious reduction in their excess sweating.

I hope that by now you have clearly got the idea that there is not one fixed dose or regime that works best for this herb - this is true of most of our great herbal remedies and it is why much of the art of the successful herbal medicine lies in the 'dose'.

Sage combines perfectly with Rosemary as a brain tonic, with Echinacea for mouth and throat problems and with St John's wort to improve mood and lessen anxiety. I have found that small and frequent doses of Sage combined with Vitex has worked brilliantly in some particularly difficult menopausal transitions.

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Constitutional note

Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Sage is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with plant B. There is value in this approach, especially in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another, but it falls short in one vital area; and that is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Something that works brilliantly for one person may do less for another -- why is this?

The reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are either hotter or cooler and, at the same time, either dryer or damper. This interesting and useful subject is introduced further here

There is an old wisdom in treating the person first and the condition second and in this light Sage can particularly offer its benefits when an activation is needed in the 'cycle of healing', more about this here

Excerpt from Felter & Lloyd's Kings Dispensatory from 1898

Sage is tonic, astringent, expectorant, and diaphoretic and it has properties common to aromatics.

An infusion is beneficial in flatulence connected with debility, and will, when the skin is soft and relaxed, the extremities cold, and the circulation enfeebled, prove efficient in restraining exhausting sweats. Should the sweating be preceded by hectic fever, and dry harsh skin, it is less likely to prove beneficial.

The infusion may be taken cold throughout the day; it may likewise be used warm, as an anthelmintic, and for the purpose of causing diaphoresis in some febrile diseases.

The warm infusion will cause active diuresis by checking its diaphoretic tendency. The infusion is much used as a gargle for inflammation and ulceration of the throat.

Sage for Itching

This excerpt is from John Heinermann, Medical Anthropologist.

'Any kind of intense itching, whether it be due to an allergic reaction to some unknown substance, general nervousness, psoriasis and eczema or coming in contact with poison ivy or sumac, may be effectively relieved and healed with an old folk remedy from Nassau in the Bahamas.
A kindly old cook by the name of Mistress Marshall, who lived to the decent age of 102, was known far and wide for her practice of bush medicine. One of her favourite remedies for itching was to steep a handful of cut, fresh sage leaves
(firstly lightly crushed) in 1 pint (600mls) of recently boiled water for about one hour. After this, the strained liquid was used to bathe the afflicted parts. Then while the skin was still wet with this solution, she would generously sprinkle whole wheat flour (not white) over the entire area and leave to dry. Relief came within 10 minutes as a rule and never failed once that I'm aware of'.

(Dried sage will convey the same action as we know that the active properties of Sage are not lost if it is carefully dried)

Please understand that I cannot advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in person in my clinic but for ideas on how you might find a good herbalist in your area read here

This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!

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© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd