Assuming you’re eating the healthiest plant foods, grown in the healthiest soils, that you can find or afford, what else can you do to increase your mineral intake without using pills?
In the first article in this series we discussed the relative nutrition available in supermarket veggies, heirloom veggies from bio-diverse gardens and farms, and edible wild plants.
In the second article, we explored what’s happened to the mineral availability of the plant foods we eat as a result of soil management, and also as a result of our food selection and preparation choices.
In this final article for this series, we’ll explore some ways to maximize our absorption of the minerals that our plant foods offer.
We Need “Outside Help” To Digest Plant Foods
Plant cells have a cell membrane, and then around the outside of that they have a rigid cell wall made out of cellulose and lignin (substances that are particularly hard to digest), which gives plants their structure in the absence of bones to hold them up. We need ways of breaking down this tough cell wall if we are to digest and absorb the nutrients held in plant cells.
Animal cells, in contrast, have a thin, permeable cell membrane which can regulate what comes in and out of the cell but provides nothing in the way of structure[i].
Cooking with heat, fermenting, pickling, or dressing with an oil and vinegar salad dressing are some examples of preparations that break open plant cell walls[ii] and liberate the nutrients they hold.
All these processes cause plants to lose their crunch and change their colour; that’s how you know the cell walls have collapsed.
Think of it as pre-digesting tough plant foods that our digestive systems are not equipped to handle without some outside help.
“… [We evolved] with increasingly complex tools and processing methods that allowed our diets to expand without requiring us to [develop the] physical attributes [needed to break tough plant foods down internally]. … In other words, we do part of our ‘digesting’ outside of our bodies!”
Dr. Sarah Ballantyne, PhD, “The Diet We’re Meant to Eat, Part 2: Physiological & Biological Evidence”
Hot Water Or Vinegar For Mineral Extraction
In herbalism, a solvent or menstruum is the liquid used to extract the nutritional or medical constituents out of a plant’s cells and into the liquid so that we can easily digest it.
Common choices include alcohol, vinegar, glycerine, hot water, honey, and oils.
Of these, the two that do the best job of extracting minerals for our bodies to assimilate them are vinegar and hot water[iii].
Let’s talk about hot water first.
Infusing Nutrients Into Hot Water
If you’re drinking tea for pleasure then by all means drink tea. But if you’re after nourishment, make it an infusion.
What’s the difference? Tea is made with a small amount of dried plant material steeped for a short time. It’s flavoursome and relaxing/invigorating, but not nutritive.
An infusion is a large amount of dried plant material steeped for a long time. Infusions are nutritive. They work cumulatively, just as nourishing foods do – ideally, you’d drink them as a lifelong habit or at least for several months at a time.
I enjoy a cup of hot tea with honey. But teas fail to deliver the mineral richness locked into many common herbs. A cup of nettle tea, for instance, contains only 5-10 mg of calcium, while a cup of nettle infusion contains up to 500 mg of calcium.
Susun Weed, “Nourishing and Tonifying Herbs.”
An infusion is an efficient way to consume the minerals and other nutrients from nourishing leafy plants, without having to chew through a large volumes of plant material.
Here is how to make and use infusions:
- Put a kettle on to boil. While it’s boiling, get out your dried stinging nettle or other nourishing herb (read more about which herbs to use, here) and pour about 1 cup of dried herb per litre of water into a jar.
- When the kettle sings, pour the boiling water over the herb, stir well, lid it tightly, and leave it for at least 4 hours or overnight. (I like ball mason jars because they can cope with boiling water without the risk of cracking. Another strategy is to warm the jar with warm to hot water first, then pour the boiling water into it.)
- When it’s finished steeping, I like to put it in the fridge, since I like to drink my infusions chilled. Then as soon as its chilled, or whenever you’re ready, strain it (compost worms LOVE the spent herb material) and drink it.
It takes me one to two days to drink a two-litre jar of infusion. That means I get to digest the nutrients from the equivalent of at least 4 to 6 cups of fresh, leafy plant material every one to two days without having to chew through any of it.
Even the most motivated person would struggle to maintain that rate of consumption of leafy greens if you had to chew them all. And because you’re drinking these herbs rather than eating them (drink between meals, so you don’t dilute your digestive juices at meal time), you get all that extra nutrition ON TOP of all the healthy foods you eat at mealtimes.
Can you grow and dry your own herbs to use? Yes, you could, but ideally, you’d have plenty of spare time, a dry climate, and lots of space to hang drying herbs.
Start by ordering dried herbs online, get in the habit and get committed to drinking infusions, then consider if you want to dry your own herbs. It’s a big commitment.
Next, let’s talk about herbal vinegars.
Extracting Minerals Into Vinegar
Vinegar can dissolve minerals from plant materials and hold them in solution, ready for you to digest them.
The addition of an herbal vinegar to your salad dressings or a splash of it on your cooked veggies both provides you with any minerals that the vinegar is holding in suspension, and ALSO aides in the digestion of the minerals in your entire meal.
Be aware of the difference between a flavoured vinegar and a medicinal, or nutritive vinegar. If you’re making an herbal vinegar for flavour and aroma, all you need is a couple of sprigs of a herb that will still look good after a long time submerged in vinegar, an attractive jar or bottle with a non-metal lid, about 2 weeks of steeping time, and you’re good to go.
But (as with the difference between tea and infusion) if the goal is to make a medicinal or nutritive vinegar then you need LOTS of whatever plant you’re using[iv], and you need more time.
Flavoured vinegars are ready to consume after 2 weeks; nutritive vinegars can benefit from 6 weeks of steeping before you use them.
Here’s how to do it.
- Choose a jar with a non-metallic lid. (You can also put a piece of grease proof paper or cling wrap between jar and lid, but I find it easier and less messy just to choose a plastic lid.)
- Choose a sunny day, ideally after rain or after you’ve run the sprinkler the day before, to harvest your fresh plant material (there are suggestions on which plants to use, plus links to more suggestions, below). You want leaves that have been recently washed clean and then dried by the sun.
- Pack your jar snuggly with chopped fresh plant material (chopping—the finer the better—creates more surface area to expose to the vinegar).
- Fill the jar a second time, with vinegar, all the way to the top. Make sure your plant material is fully submerged.
- Label your jar and put it on a shelf out of direct sunlight for 6 weeks. (Yes, I start using them sooner if I have nothing else. It takes time to build up your vinegars so that you’re 6 weeks ahead of yourself).
Which plants should I use to make my nutritive vinegars? I use stinging nettle, chickweed, plantain, and dandelion, because that’s what grows in and around my garden.
Raw or pastuerised vinegar?
This seems to be a matter of preference. Some herbalists don’t specify which to use; others warn of funky things happening with raw vinegar that might make your final product unappealing.
I’ve been using raw apple cider vinegar because I’m keen on its additional probiotic benefits and so far, I haven’t had anything weird happen in my vinegar jars. But that doesn’t mean it won’t, one day.
I wish you good luck in maximising your nutrition while you minimise your visits to the supermarket and the pharmacy!
[ii] I didn’t include juicing or blending in the list of food preparation techniques because, firstly, they don’t break down plant cell walls (you need heat or acid for that), so your juice or smoothie will contain the intra-cellular fluids while the real nutrition is still locked behind the cells’ walls. Secondly, juices or blends may contain too much sugar relative to the fats, minerals, and fibres needed to metabolise the sugar. Thirdly, if you’re juicing or blending raw plant foods, they may be high in unfriendly bacteria (which are obviously either removed or altered into a friendly state by the actions of cooking or fermenting).