The science of herbology is as old as medicine itself and is the people’s healing system in nearly all cultures of the world. Plants and their specific parts—be it roots, leaves, flowers, or berries—have clear pharmacological activity in our bodies, ranging from very subtle to profound. The system of pharmaceutical medicine is based on the knowledge and effects of herbal medicine, where the active components discovered in the plants were concentrated or synthesized to make “patent medicines.”
I have turned more to herbal medicine in the last decade and now use both herbs and pharmaceuticals in my practice. Overall, herbal remedies, individual and blended, tend to be more subtle in their effects than most drugs and are best used for mild problems or prevention. For chronic problems, herbs can be used to strengthen or detoxify specific organs or the entire body, but often must be employed for weeks or months to have an effect. For more acute or serious problems, when rapid relief is necessary, Western medicines clearly are very useful.
This discussion of plants is not intended to be a treatise on herbology, though some of the plants discussed are effective and very popular in herbal literature. Described below are some of the common plants often used as nutritional supplements. Some popular herbs, such as peppermint (for nausea or headaches), chamomile (indigestion), raspberry (colds and uterine weakness), parsley (diuretic), and red clover (lung tonic and blood cleanser) will be left for herbal texts to explore.
|Aloe Vera||Ginkgo biloba|
|Wheatgrass and Barley Grass|
Those little green tablets come from the very green plants with the prolific and deep root system so loved by rabbits. Alfalfa is actually a legume plant and contains the eight essential amino acids. It is also high in chlorophyll, vitamins A, D, B6, and E, and some calcium and phosphorus. Alfalfa is one of the few foods with good levels of vitamin K, the blood-clotting vitamin.
People who use alfalfa take it mainly as a natural supportive supplement for its nutrient content, much as they might take brewer’s yeast or kelp. Alfalfa seeds are commonly sprouted, which are also highly nutritious. No grand claims are made for alfalfa, though recent research suggests that both the alfalfa plant and powdered alfalfa seed have a cholesterol-lowering and antiatherosclerotic effect. It is thought that the saponins contained in alfalfa help bind cholesterol and bile salts in the gut. High doses, 50 grams daily, of alfalfa were shown to reduce arterial plaques in monkeys. Some people are sensitive to alfalfa supplementation, and it has produced a lupuslike syndrome in monkeys. Overall, though, alfalfa is a safe and nutritious supplement.
The aloe “cactus,” actually a desert succulent, has been touted as one of the “miracle” plants. The gel of the plant’s leaves is used for treatment, both internally and externally. It contains some amino acids, vitamins, and minerals and a salicylate substance that may help reduce inflammation. Aloe vera has been used by many cultures for centuries as a healing plant. Though a number of studies have been performed worldwide, there is not much recent research evidence regarding its positive aspects, though a great deal of anecdotal evidence has come from the many users of aloe vera juice and gel.
The most common use of aloe vera is the application of its gel (the inside of the leaf) for burns. This is very soothing, and many people experience reduced inflammation and blistering and more rapid healing. Aloe concentrate or dried aloe gel powder is an intestinal purgative, that helps stimulate colon activity with less of the cramping that comes with many other herbal preparations. Aloe vera capsules are a useful remedy or preventive for constipation. The dried aloe gel is very bitter to the taste, so it must be either purified for oral use or dried and capped.
The use of aloe vera juice has been promoted with many claims of its miraculous effects. These include rapid healing of injuries, relief from arthritis, help in weight loss, alleviation of ulcers and gastrointestinal disease, and anticancer properties, to name a few. There is, however, no good research to substantiate these claims, but aloe vera juice seems to be completely nontoxic, and it is possible that there are some yet-undiscovered powerful healing agents within this plant (germanium is one possibility).
More recently, in 1984, a product trademarked Carrisyn was extracted from the leaf of the common plant, Aloe barbadensis. Carrington Laboratories has conducted research with carrisyn, a long-chain polysaccharide white powder, that appears to possess many of the healing properties attributed to aloe vera. Carrisyn has been shown to promote wound healing when applied topically, as well as aiding ulcer healing or providing tissue and ulcer protection in those sensitive to inflammation of the gastrointestinal mucosa. This aloe extract, in a 1 gram daily dosage, has also shown antiviral (and possibly anticancer) effects, helping clear the herpes and AIDS viruses, possibly by stimulating both interferon and macrophage and phagocytic white blood cell activity. Carrisyn is clearly nontoxic and very stable and may be available soon by prescription in tablets, capsules, gels, and injectables, pending FDA approval.
The common oral preparation of the aloe plant currently available is aloe vera juice, a partially refined and diluted extract of the active gel. This is sold in pints, quarts, and even gallons. Many people drink this solution beginning at 1 ounce twice daily and increasing to about 6 ounces per day. Many users describe positive health effects from drinking aloe vera juice regularly. I have taken this nutrient, and it seems at least to be very soothing and vitalizing if you can get past the taste (some preparations taste better than others).
If you like life a little spicy, try some cayenne pepper. Cayenne pepper can be taken in capsules or as powder in water or used in cooking. It is also called capsicum or African bird pepper. I think it is the cleanest of the red peppers and one of the true natural stimulants for both energy and metabolism. I personally think that cayenne pepper, when used regularly, has anticancer properties, which have not yet been studied other than epidemiologically in cayenne- and chili-using cultures. But some people do not like to get too hot!
Cayenne pepper, actually a small red berry from the Capsicum annum or frutescens plants, creates heat when taken into the body, but it is not irritating or burning. The active oil, capsaicin, is now being studied in the treatment of some medical disorders. Cayenne pepper has been used to treat digestive disorders involving gas, nausea, or indigestion. It seems to stimulate gastric secretions and peristaltic activity and is actually thought to be soothing to the mucosal linings even though it is heating. It has been used herbally in the treatment of ulcers and for other gastrointestinal disease and, at diluted levels, even for eye irritation, though I do not recommend this use. As a throat lozenge ingredient, cayenne can help reduce soreness or inflammation. There is also belief that cayenne reduces clotting mechanisms, which may help reduce risk in cardiovascular diseases; for this reason it should be avoided by people on anticoagulant drugs. Cayenne is also used topically to provide local relief from joint pain or stiffness or sore muscles. It seems to enhance circulation and is sometimes helpful in treating certain headaches. For a therapeutic use in people who have weak circulation, such as cold extremities, atherosclerosis, or heart problems, taking one to two capsules twice daily is suggested. And feel that heat!
Echinacea root, most often as the species Echinacea augustifolium (Kansas snakeroot), has been a popular medicine with American herbalists for more than a century. They use it in the treatment of various infections, fevers, snake and insect bites, and many skin problems, such as acne, boils, abscesses, and ulcers. More recently, echinacea has become very popular with the American public, mostly for infections and to purify the blood and lymph. For treating skin problems, most natural practitioners feel that blood purification is important. Michael Tierra, in his popular book The Way of Herbs (Unity Press, 1980), calls echinacea the “king of blood purifiers.” The availability of fine-quality tinctures and powdered root extracts has made the bitter echinacea more easily accessible.]
Recent experiments have shown that echinacea root can increase the white blood count and thus our ability to handle bacteria and viruses, stimulate the important T lymphocytes’ activity, and generally stimulate the lymphatic system to clear wastes. The immune-supporting aspects of this valuable herb makes it effective in the treatment of mild infections, such as vaginitis and prostatitis, poison oak and ivy, acne and boils, and respiratory infections. Although more research is needed to verify its effectiveness, many people describe a very good response to taking echinacea root products, either singularly or in combination with other purifying anti-infectious herbs and vitamins. Though echinacea use appears basically nontoxic, until more research can clarify its safety I do not advise extended use for more than three or four weeks due to possible effects such as liver irritation or changes in the normal intestinal flora.
Feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium and Tanacetrum parthenium) leaf has been more available recently as a supplement, and I have found it to be particularly effective in reducing the incidence and intensity of migraine headaches. Research tends to support this as well. Reports indicate that feverfew also has a moderate anti-inflammatory effect and inhibits platelet aggregation, suggesting possible use in circulatory disease and other pain problems.
At the first sign of a headache, one capsule is taken, and then another in 30 minutes. If this treatment is effective, another follow-up capsule should be taken in three or four hours. If the first two capsules do not work, a third might be attempted in an hour. If no therapeutic response is seen in two separate trials, feverfew herb will not likely be an effective migraine treatment. If it works, I then usually suggest one 500 mg. capsule once or twice daily for prevention. Though it appears fairly nontoxic, I suggest using it for only two to three weeks prophylactically and then stopping for a week. It can also be effective with no regular usage, taking it only when a headache begins.
Garlic, or Allium sativum, is one of the bigshots in herbal lore. It has been used effectively through the centuries for a variety of concerns and is probably one of the best known herbs/foods. Many people use garlic regularly in their diets, easily identified by the telltale odor. In recent years, odorless garlic extracts have been used to treat a wide range of conditions without creating the bad breath, though many naturalists and scientists believe that this is not as beneficial as the pure garlic.
Garlic has always been thought to be a natural and broad-spectrum antibiotic. It may also have some immune-stimulating properties. Garlic may help prevent and/or treat some bacterial or fungal conditions, including the candida/yeast problem. And it has been used by many, either eaten or worn around the neck, to protect them from flus and colds caused by viruses. Garlic has also been used to kill some types of intestinal worms and parasites.
Garlic seems to be an energy stimulant, helps circulation, and has been touted as reducing blood pressure in hypertensive people (this has not yet been shown conclusively in research). More recently, garlic has been found to lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels and raise HDL cholesterol, which helps protect against atherosclerosis and coronary-artery disease; garlic’s ability to reduce platelet aggregation may also contribute to this role. Recent evidence shows this to be true, but more research is needed to see how garlic may be used for cardiovascular disease and possibly protective against cancer development. Preliminary research also shows that oral garlic (and onion) can inhibit skin tumor incidence.
Other claims for garlic include its effectiveness in diabetes or hypoglycemia, arthritis, allergies, blood clotting problems, traveler’s diarrhea, poor circulation, and, of course, colds and flus. In higher amounts, garlic can be irritating to the gastrointestinal tract, and when applied to the skin as raw garlic, it can cause burns. Some women have used it intravaginally to treat infections; however, this is not recommended as it can cause more irritation if the shell coating of an individual clove is disrupted.
For internal use, fresh garlic is probably the best. The deodorized garlic used by researchers in Japan was prepared by an aging-fermentation process. This garlic seems to retain the natural effects, but not all deodorized garlic is prepared in this way, and it may or may not have the same benefits as fresh garlic.
Garlic oil capsules are commonly used as a therapeutic supplement. We can make our own garlic oil from chopped fresh garlic that is soaked a few days in olive oil. It can be used as an external or internal treatment, such as by applying it to the feet or chest during colds or taking it orally as a simple means of obtaining garlic. Garlic oil is good in salad dressings, too.
The ginger used medicinally is from the root of the ginger plant, Zingiber officinale. Many of its properties and uses are described in the herbal literature. Recently, ginger root has received some medical attention as being useful in treating nausea and motion sickness. Ginger capsules or a cup of ginger root tea seems to allay nausea. Ginger has also been helpful for the nausea of pregnancy.
Ginger root in general seems to be a digestive stimulant and is used to improve weak digestion. A warm cup of tea made by boiling a few slices of root in a cup or two of water can be drunk about 30 minutes before meals. Ginger is also a diaphoretic (it causes sweating), and it seems to help in circulation and in warming the body when we feel cold, as can happen in winter. There is some preliminary research evidence that ginger acts as an antioxidant and that it can help lower cholesterol and prevent cardiovascular disease. It also inhibits platelet aggregation, a factor contributing to atherosclerosis and clotting problems. Ginger is both an energy and circulatory stimulant. Ginger root tea is also used as a compress for sore muscles or congested areas of the body. This is a common macrobiotic therapy.
Ginger root can be used in cooking, too, or as a tea with other herbs. It is a very helpful and safe herb. For improving body heat, one or two capsules of ginger root powder can be taken once or twice a day for about a month. Cayenne pepper can also be used in this way.
One of the oldest living plant species is the ginkgo tree. Estimated at well over 100 million years old, the leaves from this tree have a bilobal, brainlike appearance, hence the name, Ginkgo biloba. Though fairly new to the Western culture, the leaves of the gingko tree have been used for centuries in the Orient for complaints associated with aging.
An extract of the Ginkgo biloba leaves has been tested and reported to be effective at reducing ischemic symptoms—vascular insufficiency associated with aging and atherosclerosis. Ginkgo biloba appears to increase cerebral blood flow and thus help oxygenation; it also may inhibit platelet aggregation. In a study of geriatric patients, ginkgo was shown to reduce symptoms of vertigo, memory loss, tinnitus, and headache. In another study of lower limb claudication symptoms, ginkgo helped reduce pain and improve walking tolerance over the placebo group. Thus, the use of Gingko biloba extracts, which have been marketed in Europe for years, appears to help in both cerebral and peripheral arterial insufficiency.
Ginkgo biloba is easily absorbed and has no known toxicity. Either extracts or capsules can be used. Therapeutic amounts range from 40–200 mg. taken three times daily.
More research is needed to test the therapeutic value of Gingko biloba. Its use in Alzheimer’s disease, other forms of dementia, neurological and cardiovascular diseases, as well as its potential antioxidant effects are some possible areas of investigation.
As with ginger, the root of the ginseng plant, usually Panax ginseng, is the active and commonly used part. It comes to us mainly from Asian cultures, where it is used extensively as a tonic, stimulant, and rejuvenator, especially for men. It is also used by women for fatigue and sexually related symptoms. It is often part of formulas used to balance the menstrual cycle, reduce premenstrual symptoms or hot flashes of menopause, or to improve the sex drive or enhance fertility. Probably the most common use of ginseng is to increase energy. Research is showing that it also reduces cholesterol and triglyceride levels, raises HDL, and stimulates the immune system. Its “rejuvenating” qualities may come from its stimulus to protein synthesis.
This herb is called the “man plant” because of the shape of the roots; its name panaxrefers to “all healing,” as in “panacea.” Other active ginsengs are Panax quinquefolius, or American ginseng, and Eleutherococcus senticosus, or Siberian ginseng. The ginsengs have a number of active ingredients, such as peptides, glycosides, and the more recently acknowledged trace mineral germanium (discussed shortly), which may turn out to be a very helpful and fascinating supplement. Yet we still do not know medically or pharmacologically what gives ginseng its powers.
Ginseng is used most commonly as a tonic and herb for longevity. It seems to contribute to general well-being and improved physical endurance. It is a stimulant but not an excitant like caffeine, and it is particularly useful for men with fatigue or sexual impotency. Ginseng root is drunk as a tea or is sometimes taken in capsules, though the brewed liquid seems to have a better effect. It is available in more forms nowadays, in liquid elixirs, as a paste or powder used to make teas, or as the whole root. These roots, which come mainly from Korea and China, can be very beautiful and expensive. The cost is often based on the age of the root, older ones being more expensive as their power seems to improve with age. On traveling through China, I was impressed by the many displays of ginseng roots throughout stores, airports, and many other places. There is a wild American ginseng that can also be used, and some of it is thought to be very helpful, though it probably has somewhat different effects from those produced by the Asian plants.
A daily dose of ginseng root is usually about 500 mg. Larger amounts can cause overstimulation, which may result in increased blood pressure, diarrhea, skin eruptions, or insomnia. It may interact with the sensitive hormonal system and may also have some estrogenic activity; thus, it may aggravate fibrocystic breast disease in women. Any substance that has potential power and benefit obviously can also be misused. It you wish to try ginseng root as a tonic or remedy, obtain guidance from your physician, acupuncturist, or someone with experience in its use. (See my book Staying Healthy with the Seasons for a special preparation of ginseng root.) If there are any cardiac problems, ginseng should be used very carefully, and it should not be used by pregnant women.
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) root has been a panacea and cure-all used by many herbalists and a very popular herb to the Native Americans. Its range of uses is probably as wide as that of any other herb. Goldenseal’s active alkaloids, hydrastine and berberine, appear to have many body actions, and this bitter, tonifying herb is used as an antibacterial and antiparasitic, especially for giardia and amoebic infections, as well as other infections with yeast, worms, or other germs. Many people take goldenseal capsules at the first sign of a flu or other infection and claim good results. This golden powder has been used as a douche, gargle, or as a bitter tonic taken orally to strengthen the mucous membranes of the gastrointestinal tract, sinuses, eyes, and rectum. Goldenseal is also an antiseptic and detoxifier, possibly because of its liver-stimulating effect. It has mild laxative and vasoconstrictive actions, making it useful in the treatment of hemorrhoids, both applied externally and taken internally. Goldenseal has been used for skin problems such as acne or eczema, as a uterine tonic, and to stimulate glandular activity and strengthen the nervous system. Goldenseal may be helpful for many problems of the stomach and gastrointestinal tract, such as nausea, indigestion, infection, and constipation or diarrhea; here it can also reduce bacterial or parasitic proliferation, increase gastrointestinal tone, and stimulate bile secretion and digestion.
For most of these situations, goldenseal can usually be taken as one large or two small capsules (or 10–20 drops of an extract) twice daily for about two to three weeks. I do not recommend long continuous intake of this powerful herb because of possible liver irritation.
Kelp seaweed is a common health food supplement. It is taken primarily for its iodine content by people who want to improve thyroid function, though there is no proof that kelp changes this function. The thyroid gland must, however, have sufficient iodine, and if we do not use iodized salt or eat a lot of fish and seaweed, kelp may be a helpful adjunct. It is also high in other vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, niacin, riboflavin, and choline. Algin, which is helpful at pulling out intestinal toxins and heavy metals, is also found in kelp. Several tablets per day will usually supply the needed iodine; kelp powder used on food is a good salt substitute but should not be overused.
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) likely has the most celebrated herbal past, extending thousands of years, beginning in the Orient and progressing around the world. It has many actions and clearly many uses. Also known as sweetwood or sweetroot, the “great detoxifier” and the “great peacemaker,” this root contains many steroidlike chemicals related to adrenal and ovarian secretions. Historically, it was used for colds and coughs, and it has become popular as a laxative and for use in children, who tolerate its sweet flavor more readily than bitter herbs, with problems such as fevers, colds, and constipation.
Licorice root has many apparent actions. It is an antitussive and expectorant, anti-inflammatory and antiarthritic, antitoxic (through liver support and protection) and antibiotic, possibly anticancer (recent research has shown licorice’s inhibitory effect in some tumor growth), and a laxative. It also acts as a demulcent and emollient, meaning it softens and soothes tissues and mucous membranes. Licorice further offers adrenal support with its mineralocorticoidlike substances and contains estrogenic chemicals such as beta-sitosterol and stigmasterol. Its adrenal stimulation allows it to be an antistress herb and to be helpful in inflammatory problems, such as arthritis, and in hypoglycemia, which is a problem related to weak adrenals. The estrogenic support allows its use in women as a sexual and uterine tonic and for problems of infertility.
Licorice root has been used as a stomach and intestinal remedy for problems such as indigestion, nausea, and constipation; for infections of the respiratory tract, including colds and flus, and for hoarseness, sore throat, and wheezing; in hepatitis, ulcers, and hemorrhoids; for skin problems; for muscle spasms and fevers associated with sweating; and for general weakness. Licorice has also been suggested for people with high blood pressure, yet there is concern here since excessive intake can elevate blood pressure.
It appears that the whole root or deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) is safe and has the positive attributes of licorice extract without side effects. DGL has been the subject of recent interest and research, and it apparently still helps in healing ulcers.
Usually, licorice root is used in herbal combinations and not by itself; it also balances the flavor of these formulas. In Chinese herbology, licorice is one of the most commonly used herbs, along with ginger. It is available in hard roots, soft ground roots, powdered in capsules, in elixirs, and as DGL. The dosage would be as recommended on the product or in an herbal text.
Wheatgrass and Barley Grass
These juice extracts of grain greens seem to offer an energy lift and act as a “purifier” and “rejuvenator,” probably because of their chlorophyll and nutrient content. That, at least, is what users state. But these grasses may also help protect against cancer, and chlorophyll, as an antioxidant, can have an antiaging function. Barley grass has recently been studied in Japan and been shown to protect human cells and animal DNA from damage by X-rays and some cancer-causing chemicals. Of course, this effect was seen when the grass juice was given prior to exposure. This preliminary evidence suggests some possibilities. Along with the other nutrients available in wheatgrass or barley grass, these juices may be very useful in healing and disease prevention. There is a lot of enthusiasm about them in certain areas of the health community.