What Is It?
One of the safest medicinal herbs, chamomile is a soothing, gentle relaxant that has been shown to work for a variety of complaints from stress to menstrual cramps. This herb has a satisfying, applelike aroma and flavor (the name chamomile is derived from the Greek kamai melon, meaning ground apple), and it’s most often taken as a delicious, mild therapeutic tea. Concentrated extracts of chamomile are also added to healing creams and lotions or packaged as pills and tinctures.
Two species of chamomile–German chamomile and Roman chamomile–are used in healing and both work equally well. In North America and central Europe, products made from the German–sometimes called Hungarian–chamomile (Matricaria recutita) are the most widely available. In Great Britain, Roman (or English) chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile or Anthemis nobilis) is more commonly sold.
Although best known as a muscle relaxant and antispasmodic, chamomile also has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory capabilities. The plant’s healing properties come from its daisylike flowers, which contain volatile oils (including bisabolol, bisabolol oxides A and B, and matricin) as well as flavonoids (particularly a compound called apinegin) and other therapeutic substances. Chamomile may be used internally or externally.
Specifically, chamomile may help to:
Promote general relaxation and relieve stress. Animal studies show that chamomile contains substances that act on the same parts of the brain and nervous system as antianxiety drugs. Never stop taking prescription medications, however, without consulting your doctor.
Control insomnia. Chamomile’s mildly sedating and muscle-relaxing effects can help those who suffer from insomnia to fall asleep more easily.
Treat diverticular disease, irritable bowel problems and various gastrointestinal complaints. Chamomile’s anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic actions relax the smooth muscles lining the stomach and intestine. The herb can therefore help to relieve nausea, heartburn, and stress-related flatulence. It may also be useful in the treatment of diverticular disorders and inflammatory bowel conditions such as Crohn’s disease.
Soothe skin rashes (including eczema), minor burns and sunburn. Used as a lotion or added in oil form to a cool bath, chamomile eases the itching of eczema and other rashes and reduces skin inflammation. It can also speed healing and prevent bacterial infection.
Treat eye inflammation and infection. Cooled chamomile tea can be used in a compress to help soothe tired, irritated eyes and it may even help treat conjunctivitis.
Heal mouth sores and prevent gum disease. A chamomile mouthwash can help soothe mouth inflammations and keep gums healthy.
Reduce menstrual cramps. Chamomile’s ability to relax the smooth muscles of the uterus helps ease the discomfort of menstrual cramping. Note: Chamomile has also been found to be useful for a number of other disorders. For information on these additional ailments, see our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Chamomile.
Special tips: –Because chamomile is available in so many forms, it’s important to read the labels for exact dosage. Look for pills and tinctures formulated with concentrated extracts of chamomile that contain at least 1% apigenin, one of the herb’s key healing ingredients.
–Many people use chamomile tea for healing. It’s important to know the proper brewing method: Use 2 teaspoons of dried flowers for each 8 ounces of water. Pour very hot (not boiling) water over the flowers, steep for 5 minutes, and then strain.
For muscle relaxation and antispasmodic effects: Drink two or three cups of chamomile tea a day (many people find that the process of simply brewing and drinking the pleasantly fragrant tea can have a relaxing effect). Or take 2 or 3 capsules or 2 or 3 teaspoons of tincture.
For insomnia: Drink a cup of double-strength chamomile tea at bedtime or take 1 capsule or 1 teaspoon of tincture. Alternatively, put half a cup of dried chamomile flowers in some cheesecloth, tie it up, and place it under the running water as you fill a tub; the resulting fragrant bath will produce a relaxing effect.
To soothe rashes, mild burns or sunburn: For quick relief of mild burns or sunburn, apply a dressing soaked in freshly made chamomile tea; cool the tea quickly in the freezer or with ice cubes first. Alternatively, add 10 drops of chamomile oil, or several cups of chamomile tea, to a cool bath (this also helps dry skin). Another option is to mix a few drops of chamomile oil into 1/2 ounce of almond oil (or another neutral oil) and apply it directly to the skin. Finally, you can apply a ready-made chamomile cream or lotion to the affected area three or four times a day.
For eye problems: Prepare a strong cup of chamomile tea, cool it, soak a washcloth in it and place it over the closed eye three times daily. Make fresh tea daily and store it in a sterile container. Be sure to check out our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Chamomile, which lists therapeutic dosages for specific ailments at a glance.
Guidelines for Use
Chamomile is so gentle and safe at recommended dosages that you can use it long-term without risk.
The effects of chamomile tea are cumulative. To get the maximum benefit, it should be drunk regularly, even if you’re not suffering from a specific ailment; this is because each cup of tea prepared from chamomile flowers contains only a small percentage of the plant’s therapeutic volatile oils.
Some chamomile lotions and creams sold as beauty products actually contain very little chamomile. Their fragrance makes them pleasant to use, but they are not actually therapeutic. For maximum healing effect, look for preparations with at least 3% chamomile.
There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated with chamomile.
Possible Side Effects
Chamomile is generally considered safe and nontoxic. Side effects are extremely rare.
If you suffer from allergies to plants of the Compositae family (a large group including such flowers as daisies, ragweed, asters and chrysanthemums), you may wish to be cautious about using chamomile at first. While there have been isolated reports of allergic reactions, causing skin rashes and bronchial constriction, most people can use this herb with no problem.
When using chamomile to treat burns, choose creams or tea-soaked dressings instead of greasy ointments. Ointments contain oils that can hold in heat and prevent air from getting at the wound. This can slow healing and actually increase the risk of infection.
Acne Add 1 tsp. liquid extract to hot, not boiling water, and let cool. Rinse face. Or follow package instructions on chamomile cream.
Burns Use a strong tea: 2 or 3 tsp. dried herb for each cup of hot water. Cool quickly in freezer. Or add 2 tbsp. liquid extract to 1/4 cup cool water. Apply tea-soaked cloth to the burn for about 15 minutes.
Crohn’s Disease As a tea: Pour 8 ounces hot water over 1 tbsp. of dried herb or 1 tsp. liquid extract; drink up to 3 times a day.
Gum Disease Use 1 cup cooled tea as a mouthwash. Or mix 1 tsp. liquid extract into 1/4 cup of water and swish around in your mouth.
Insomnia Drink one cup double-strength tea before bedtime.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome 2 or 3 cups tea a day; or 200-350 mg capsule (flowers and leaf) 3 times a day; or 1/2 to 1 teaspoon liquid extract 3 times a day
Stress Drink 2 or 3 cups tea a day.
Sunburn For mild burns: Add 10 drops essential oil to a cool bath and soak for 30 minutes. Use with lavender oil. For more serious burns: Mix a few drops essential oil with 1/2 ounce almond oil (or other neutral oil) and apply to skin twice a day; use with lavender oil. Chamomile cream applied to the affected area several times a day also promotes healing.
David Edelberg, M.D.
If there’s any herbal tea that most Americans can spot in a lineup, it’s chamomile. For the rest of the planet, however, chamomile is also a valued medicine–and has been since antiquity. In fact, chamomile has a real role to play in treating ills as diverse as arthritis, colds, ulcers, and anxiety.
HOW IT HELPS IRRITABLE BOWEL SYNDROME
Since many IBS flare-ups are associated with day-to-day stressful situations, pausing for a soothing cup of chamomile tea certainly makes infinitely more sense than getting further wired by yet another caffeine-laden cola or cup of coffee. More important, sipping strong chamomile tea may actually calm painful spasms in the smooth muscles lining the stomach and intestines, a result of its anti-inflammatory and muscle-relaxant actions.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
The biggest challenge you’ll face with chamomile is finding a product that contains enough of the active ingredients–volatile oils, flavonoids (particularly a compound called apinegin), and other therapeutic substances found in the daisylike flowers.
Chamomile may be used internally or externally. Read labels carefully; chamomile comes in a slew of forms and dosages. Tea brewed from dried whole flower heads should be quite strong and drunk three or four times a day for IBS. The chamomile teas in those cheerfully colored boxes may contain enough chamomile for you to enjoy its pleasant applelike flavor, but they’re probably not strong enough to do anything clinically useful. Fluid extract is not always easy to find but should work well for IBS. Place 3/4 teaspoon in an 8-ounce mug of hot water three or four times a day. Tinctures are alcohol-based by definition, although most of the alcohol is vaporized with the addition of hot water. Because of this vaporizing effect, the amount of alcohol you ingest is negligible. When it comes to treating IBS, the tincture dose, 15 ml (one tablespoonful) three times a day, is higher than that for a fluid extract. Capsules should also be formulated with concentrated extracts of chamomile that contain at least 1% apigenin (400 mg. three times a day). Lotions, creams, and other topical formulations often contain too little chamomile to be therapeutic. They won’t work for IBS, in any case.
Look for products that contain at least 1% apigenin, one of the herb’s key healing ingredients. Shopping tip: Two species of chamomile are used in healing: German chamomile (Matricaria recutita, the type most commonly used in North America) and Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile or Anthemis nobilis). They work equally well.
It may take several days of regularly sipping strong chamomile tea before you begin to notice positive results. To get maximum benefit, drink the tea regularly. Chamomile is so gentle and safe at recommended dosages that you can use it long term without a worry. There’s a very small potential that drinking chamomile tea can cause an allergic response if you have hay fever or are sensitive to ragweed, asters, or daisies. In fact, this kind of a reaction is probably pretty rare, but start out slowly if you fall into this category.
David Edelberg, MD