Anxiety of the young and Immunity of the old

Renata Rottova is a herbal specialist and one of the people I trust the most when it comes to herbs, teas, or tinctures, as she works in one of my favourite go-to shops; ‘Gresik Herbs & Spices’. Gresik is a company based in the Czech Republic and has a small store in the Old Town centre of Prague, a small walk away from the ‘Astronomical Clock’ well known by tourists.

This hidden gem down one of the narrow old cobble streets is packed with brown bags full of teas, herbs and herbal blends, spices, tinctures, ointments, and dried bunches of herbs hanging from the ceiling. Whether you have a pain in your back or suffer from heartbreak, Renata will help you to find the right thing for you.

Gresik is a family business that recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, owned by Mr Valdemar Gresik, who is using only local produce of the highest quality to provide their customers with tailored herbal blends and single herbs, as well as a range of other products. The Gresik Company also have their own microbiology and analytic laboratory, where they test the quality of the herbs used in their herbal blends for specific health complications. For me, this company is a great combination of science and the traditional wisdom and knowledge of nature and how to responsibly use it to support our health and wellbeing.

As I paid many visits to this shop, mainly to top-up my home collection of herbs for everyday use, I thought who better than Renata, who speaks to all different types of customers, to share with you what people in these odd times use to help them with both their physical or mental difficulties.

Renata is sitting down behind the counter and our interview begins.

How did you come to your position here in the shop? How long have you been working here for?

I’ve been working here over three years now and I found my way to this position through my passion for herbs, which I discovered probably about 20 years ago. I always enjoyed drinking different herbal teas and reading old herbariums (herbarium – collections of plant specimens and data for their scientific studies). After some time, I realised how much of an effect those herbs had on my life, so I started adding them to my children’s diet as well to support their health. Whenever they fell ill, I started them off with herbal teas related to their condition or using a compress, as well as using different balms and inhalations e.g. against a cough. The way those herbs worked convinced me so much of their power so I stayed loyal in using them. Since then, whenever some illness crosses our path, it rarely ever progresses so much we have to use modern medicine. However, sometimes it is obviously necessary to do so.

I can see how much you’re enjoying working here, especially when you get to help your customers. How long did it take you to get to know all the herbs and products in this store?

Oh I love it so much. The range of products here wasn’t really a problem for me as the all come from the same producer and herbalist, Mr. Gresik. He is the owner of the company and I believe it is important that all the products go through the same procedures and are up to his standards. He also has a particular way how he mixes the herbs so the blends are powerful and do the job. Thanks to that, it was easier for me to get the grip of it after learning the way they are blended, but it took me around a month or so to get the basics and build my knowledge from there. But I learn every day and I still have to keep up with the contents of the herbal blends. For example, if you have a herbal blend to support the pancreas, I have to know every single herb, its effects, and contraindications. So it keeps me on my toes and I keep learning new things.

Every time I come to see you, I notice that customers often ask for your advice, especially when it comes to their health conditions. What do you think it’s the most common health condition that people come to see you for?

In the past three years, I’ve worked here, a lot of people come back and we have seen a growth in customers through time. Our customers vary, but they often seem to fit a certain category, for which a particular condition dominates. Younger people often come to see us when they feel generally under the weather, with cold or cough, therefore wanting something to strengthen their immune system to prevent it from happening too often. However, I can see that there are many young people coming here with mental health issues such as anxiety. They often have been taking medication to improve their mental health for a long time and would like to start to phase it out and are seeking further support for their wellbeing in what they see as a more natural way. Many of them will become returning customers. It does take slightly longer than some modern medicine as herbs do not bring about the benefits overnight, however, although it takes longer to see the benefits, it does act as a support in the long-term, almost like using crutches, to help them come out of a psychological state they don’t know how to solve on their own at that time.

Then there‘s a category that fits for the adolescent to middle-aged women, whom turn to herbal medicine because of urinary tract issues. This can be a major health issue for them and it often comes back. Women, therefore, use herbs which have great benefits for the urinary tract, either single herbs or combinations, which is often good to swap between every so often. The major cause of this condition, however, is that they get cold from their feet. Therefore a simple anecdotal remedy like soaking their feet in hot water with some lemons for about 15 minutes helps to battle the cold and prevent the symptoms from getting worse.

Then there is a category of older people, which are more likely to suffer more from communicable diseases and therefore want to support their immune system. This category also tends to focus on the prevention of some non-communicable diseases such as hypertension or high cholesterol in the blood, which tend to scare them more. As these are common problems, we already stock blends of herbs targeting these conditions. However, we try to tailor our advice so we can also recommend a single herb known to target a more-specific issue or research a more appropriate solution, depending on the individual.

Lastly, there is a category of people of all ages, who seek herbal remedies to “cleanse” their body and organs. This is also often linked with the time of the year, for example, we see this a lot in spring; when organs such as the liver can be supported by certain herbs. It is also after the winter when people want to focus on supporting their lymphatic system or kidneys and therefore reach for a herbal blend they can use for 2-4 weeks and follow up with something they just enjoy drinking.

The variety of products you stock is great; from single herb teas to blends targeting a certain health issue or even tincture version of both. What would you say is the most popular product and in what version?

I think that the most popular are the already made blends of herbs from Mr. Gresik, as they focus on a particular issue and they are very effective. Even though it requires more effort, most people actually prefer loose herbal blends and they can adjust the dosage. Those with limited means to make their brew prefer tea bag versions, tinctures are usually popular amongst those who don’t enjoy the taste and therefore stick with something simple.

I know I’m not making this one easy for you, but what is your favourite herb?

There are so many great powerful herbs, but my favourite lot is probably horsetail, St John’s wort, and sage. Those are some basic herbs which are the main go-to group, along with the lime tree, lemon balm, and wild thyme, which I think should be a part of every household.

If you had to choose one single herb, which supports good health in general, which one would you go for? What do you think is the most general-purpose herb?

I would probably say sage or elderflower, as those are the ones to support the immune system. Or even horsetail or agrimonia, as those are anti-inflammatory. If you choose one of those in terms of prevention, it will do you good.

Our interview is interrupted by a customer. A man, approximately middle-aged, walking in confidently and asking for herbs from a list on his phone. Another customer, an older lady, is joining the queue whilst Renata is pulling all the herbs from the shelves. Renata also knows her next customer has a list, as she already started pulling out the herbs for her. The lady puts her little list back to her wallet, which judging by the look of it, has been pulled out from there many times before. Apparently, the lady has been using her special herbal blend from around 70 years ago, and claimed she has never been ill since. She has recently turned 92.

I’m also noticing a bottle of apple schnapps with Gentiana. Renata says it serves both pleasure and health, as it’s very bitter and therefore stimulates gastric juices and helps digestion.

Looking at changing seasons and seasonal diseases, which herbs and herbal remedies would you connect with particular times of the year?

With spring coming up, I would focus on supporting our liver after the winter. We do a herbal blend focused purely on liver support as well as a blend to support the combination of liver, pancreas, and spleen. In the summer, I would focus on supporting the lymphatic system, then the large intestine and intestines in general in the autumn, and supporting kidneys during the winter. We actually thought about it and therefore developed herbal blends based on the seasons, which are made to support those organs. However, it’s not one size fits all so we need to embrace our individuality and listen to our body’s needs, but this is a general way how to support or wellbeing throughout the year.

Do you feel like people are coming back to traditional versions of medicine and using herbs more in their diet? What is the average age of your customers?

We are definitely spotting an increase in interest in herbs since three years ago. The customers are coming back, only it sometimes takes a little bit longer because using herbs does not bring an immediate result. The average age of our customers is about 40 years. We also do other teas and fruit teas, but the majority of our customers come here for the herbs.

If you say the word “traditional“, which product or herb would you connect to it?

Here in the Czech Republic, I would say again Sage, Horsetail, and St John’s wort. These are the three major herbs used in traditional medicine with cleansing and calming effect and as a digestion aid. Those are also the ones that were traditionally taken in the form of infusion. Then there are herbs that are more potent in their tincture forms, such as Nasturtium or Milk Thistle. But if you’re taking herbs to aid digestion, I would recommend tea over a tincture due to its alcohol content. However, herbs related to mental health are better as a tincture version. Then there are other ways how to use herbs, such as herbal baths, as the skin absorbs a whole lot. Then there are herbal balms, which are used mainly to improve musculoskeletal and skin issues such as bruises and small traumas, for which is a balm the perfect way.

To close our wonderful talk today, are there any rituals you would recommend to support general health?

I personally focus on breathing and diaphragmatic breathing. It helps to bring oxygen to your brain and to bring you in a state of general relaxation, as well as supporting heart function. Diaphragmatic (also known as abdominal) breathing also helps slow your heart beat through expanding blood vessels, not mentioning meditation but only diaphragmatic breathing. I also think it is beneficial to begin the day with a short exercise such as Five Tibetan rites, as it helps your circulation. I also have my little daily tea-ritual, when I go for the first herb that comes to my mind if I’m not suffering from a certain problem that needs attention.

So do you use your intuition in everyday life?

Of course I do, that’s how the body communicates its needs. This also works very well in children; for example, if I give a child a herbal tea and they refuse it, it means that their body doesn‘t need it anymore. Adults then know when a certain tea starts tasting sweet or differently than it used to, it means you should not be taking it anymore.

If you’re planning a trip to Prague, make sure you pay a visit to this little shop as it has a lot to offer, even if you’re just after a little present such as Cumin Brandy, Sea Buckthorn sweets or traditional Mulled wine spices.