Arnica is derived from the medicinal herb Arnica montana of European origin. It is a perennial member of the sunflower family, and grows wild in mountain ranges across Europe, but several closely related species are native to the subalpine parts of North America.
The small plants that arise from a whorl of large, downy basal leaves carry a few leaves and golden yellow flowers that look like smaller versions of thin-leaf sunflowers. The leaves of Arnica used to be smoked by shepherds, earning it the name mountain tobacco. Other common names include leopard’s bane, wolf’s bane, St. John’s strength flower, and wound herb/wundkraut.
Not only the flowers, but the root is also used for herbal preparations. This, as well as the loss of habitat due to urbanization, has resulted in an alarming reduction of wild stocks in many places. Although cultivated on a large scale for the ready market, the demand always exceeds supply.
History of use
Arnica has been made popular by homeopathy, but traditional herbalists had been using it to treat bruises and other injuries for centuries before the advent of this medical stream. You can find all kinds of homeopathic ointments and lotions as well as herbal preparations in the market today. Although modern medicine is all too eager to rubbish their claims, most people who have benefited from these products swear by their efficacy.
Despite the skepticism by allopathic practitioners some modern researchers, arnica continues to be popular, especially with athletes who depend on it to get pain relief and fast recovery from sports-related strains and sprains. Mothers often keep it handy to treat their children’s minor injuries. Their trust in the benefits of this herb is backed by the ancient traditional remedies independently developed in Germany, Russia and North America.
There are several records of its use for treating wounds, fever, and various other conditions from as early as the 16th century. The Russians used it for gynecological problems and certain heart conditions. An herbal tea of arnica to ease back pain was used by the North American Cataula tribe.
Although herbal preparations of arnica for oral use had been prevalent earlier, it is now mainly used for topical applications, except in homeopathy. The main active agent helenalin in arnica has a toxic effect at higher concentrations, but it should be harmless at the infinitesimally small amount contained in homeopathic preparations. The arnica pellets may actually work like vaccines, triggering a self-healing reaction in the body.
Active compounds in Arnica:
The bioactive compound helenalin is mainly responsible for the therapeutic effect of arnica preparations. Chamissonolid and 11,13- dihydrohelenaline are two other active agents belonging to a group of biochemicals known as sesquiterpene lactones (STLs) which have specific actions at cellular level. These three STLs in arnica have been shown to have strong anti-inflammatory properties in lab studies.
Other constituents include several types of lignans and flavonoids such as astragalin, luteolin-7-glucoside, and isoquercitrin. Thymol and other thymol derivatives constitute the volatile oil component. Phenolic acids include caffeic acid, chlorogenic acid and cynarin. Coumarins such as scopoletin and umbelliferone are also present.
How they work:
Anti-inflammatory– Treatment with arnica before and after a surgery or other injuries significantly reduces the inflammation that invariably follows. The STLs helenalin and dihydrohelenalin inhibits several biochemical reactions involved in the inflammatory process such as lysosomal rupture, neutrophil migration and prostaglandin synthesis.
Anticoagulant – Helenalin and, to a lesser extent, 11,13-dihydro helenalin inhibit platelet aggregation and thromboxane formation. These reactions reduce clot formation following an injury to the blood vessels and help resolve bruises faster.
Analgesic – Topical application arnica extract relieves pain due to inflammation, such as following injuries, insect bites, sprains, arthritis, and phlebitis. Helenalin and other STLs may be having an analgesic effect similar to salicylic acid besides their anti-inflammatory action.
Cholesterol lowering – Laboratory experiments in mice have shown that the STLs in Arnica can lower serum cholesterol by inhibiting lipogenesis. However, on account of the toxicity of helenalin at higher doses, oral intake of arnica extract for cholesterol control is not recommended.
Cutaneous absorption – The sesquiterpene lactones from the tincture of arnica has been found to be easily absorbed into the body within 3 three hours of topical application.
How to use Arnica
Arnica is available is various forms, all of them useful in some way or other. The most basic form is the dried flowers that can be used to prepare infusions and tinctures.
To make Arnica infusion:
Place a handful of dried Arnica flowers (which can be purchased from here) in a bowl. If you are using powdered dry flowers, use one tablespoon per cup. Pour a cup of boiling water over the flowers and cover it with a cloth. Allow to sit for 5 minutes. Filter the infusion.
For bruises or areas with pain or swelling, wring out a towel in the warm infusion and apply. You can make a larger quantity of this tea to soak swollen feet.
To make Arnica infused oil:
Helenalin and other active ingredients in arnica are better absorbed into the skin when combined with a fatty acid such as oleic acid. Oil infusions help preserve the potency of the active ingredients for longer periods. They are easier to incorporate into salves and combine with other herbals to make mixtures. You can prepare an oil infusion of arnica with olive oil or almond oil.
Place one cup of dried arnica flowers in a sterilized glass jar. Add 2 cups of olive oil. Shake the bottle gently to mix the herb with the oil, or use a clean spoon to mix them well. Make sure that the flowers are completely immersed in the oil and there’s an inch of free space at the top.
Cover the jar with its lid and place in a sunny spot throughout the day. Bring it inside at night, but repeat the process for a month. You can see the oil taking on the color and smell of the herbs. This is a slow infusion method where sun’s heat is used for the process.
In case you need to make the infusion faster, you can use a double boiler or slow cooker to accelerate the process. The bottle is prepared the same way and placed in a slow cooker for 24 hours, making sure that the temperature remains below 130F. You can reduce the infusion time to just 4-5 hours with the double boiler method.
The bottle is kept inside the double boiler and allowed to sit in the heat of gently simmering water in the outer container. Care should be taken to keep the boiler at the lowest possible temperature throughout the period. We don’t want to cook the herbs, but the heat aids the infusion of the active agents in arnica. The infused oil can be filtered out and stored in another bottle. Or you can filter out the required quantity as and when you need it.
The arnica infused oil can be applied directly on bruised areas or massaged into aching back or knees. Mix it with beeswax to make an ointment that can be easily carried around, or with other essential oils for more potent preparations.
To make arnica ointment:
The Arnica infused oil can be made into an ointment for easy handling. Melt beeswax in a double boiler and allow it to cool slightly. Stir in the arnica oil infusion before the wax solidifies. Adjust the consistency according to your preference. You can mix in some coconut oil to make a lighter ointment for children. A drop or two of lavender oil will give it a more pleasant fragrance.
To make arnica tincture:
Tinctures made by infusing herbs in alcohol facilitate their quick subcutaneous absorption into the body. The active ingredients in the herbs are drawn into the alcohol, and when the alcohol evaporates, they become concentrated. That is what makes tinctures stronger and more effective than infusions. Tincture of arnica is particularly useful for treating deep tissue injuries.
Take a glass jar and fill it halfway with dried Arnica flowers. Fill it up with high quality alcohol. Mix well with a clean spoon and put an airtight lid over the bottle. Store it in a cool place, giving it a good shake every day. The tincture will be ready to use after a 4-6 weeks, but you can keep it for a few more months to extract every bit of goodness out of the herbs. Strain the tincture into clean bottles seal them with airtight caps. Kept in a cool place, they remain good for years, getting more potent with the passage of time.
Apply a few drops of arnica tincture on affected areas for quick relief from pain and to resolve bruises faster. Visible changes within hours of application can speak for the efficacy of the preparation.
Arnica infused oils and tinctures are available in the market, but they are not as good as the ones you make yourself. you cannot be sure about the quality of your preparations unless you can source good quality organically grown dried arnica flowers. But the scarcity of good quality material can be a problem these days. Our grandmothers could gather fresh arnica flowers from the wild, but with wild stocks dwindling, your best bet is to grow your own plants.
Arnica essential oil
The essential oil of arnica is extracted from the flowers of A. montana through steam distillation. This highly concentrated preparation should be used with great caution because of its potency. A few drops can be mixed with a carrier oil such as almond oil or coconut oil to make healing salves.
Arnica oil has analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. It acts as a vasodilator, improving blood circulation and lymphatic drainage. That makes it particularly useful in reducing fluid accumulation in joints and muscles.
The fatty acid content of arnica oil includes the essential fatty acids linolenic and linoleic acids. Along with the active ingredient helenalin and a few other sesquiterpene lactones, it also contains thymol and derivatives of thymol such as phlorol isobutyrate and thymohydroquinone dimethyl ether which are responsible for the various therapeutic effects of arnica.
Arnica oil is commercially used for the preparation of perfumes and cosmetic products, but it is not used for inhalation in aromatherapy.
How to grow Arnica
Although the European species A. montana is the commercially available herb, closely related American natives such as A. cordifolia, A. chamissonis and A. sororia contain the same active ingredients. They naturally grow in the mountain ranges of the United States and Canada, but A. chamissonis, commonly called Meadow Arnica, adapts well to lower elevations.
Arnica plants can be grown from seeds and rhizomes, but the latter is the more reliable. The plants are quite fussy about their growing conditions, one of the main reasons for their decreasing numbers in the wild. They cannot tolerate lime or acidic soils. Hence, before planting arnica, the beds should be carefully prepared and amended.
In the first year, the rhizome grows only a whorl of basal leaves which remain close to the ground. A flowering shoot with a few leaves is sent up in the second year. It may branch lightly and carry a single flower at the tip of every branch. The central disc of the flower is surrounded by daisy-like petals arranged in a single layer.
The solitary flowers appear in summer, and can be harvested when they are fully mature. They can be used fresh to make herbal teas and extracts, or dried in the shade for storage. Handling of the flowers may cause you to sneeze, a common reaction that gives arnica the common name sneezewort. Dried flowers retain their potency for a year. You can prepare tinctures to make it last longer.
Some of the most common uses for arnica oil:
For hair – Arnica is known to promote hair growth and control dandruff.
It is a common ingredient in many in hair oils and gels used to reduce hair fall. Improved blood circulation could be behind this beneficial effect. Mix a few drops in coconut oil and massage into the scalp.
For face – Acne control, reducing puffiness (edema) and clearing dark circles under the eyes. Add a few drops to a tablespoon of almond oil and use sparingly, but never on acne that have burst.
Rheumatism – Massage oil containing arnica and other essential oils such as wintergreen can reduce rheumatic pains.
Arthritis – Significant reduction in swelling and pain in the joints make it popular with people suffering from arthritis, especially osteoarthritis.
External injuries – It is not advisable to apply arnica oil on cuts and wounds, but it is safe to use on unbroken skin for faster healing and relief from pain and inflammation.
Pre- and post-surgical use – Although arnica has not gained the approval of allopathic doctors, many cosmetic surgeons and plastic surgeons recommend it to patients before and after surgical procedures to reduce bruising and pain. Oral intake of homeopathic preparations and topical application of ointments are often prescribed.
Arnica is extremely useful to have on hand for its intended uses, but toxic at higher doses. Vomiting and diarrhea are the usual symptoms of arnica poisoning, but excessive use can lead to life-threatening hemorrhages. Topical application of herbal preparations is generally safe but can cause adverse reactions in people allergic to daisy-family plants.