Herbs were our first wonder drugs, and they remain powerful medicine to this day. Learn more about these health-promoting plants.
Have you ever chewed on a piece of ginger to curb your nausea? Or sprinkled ground cinnamon in your oatmeal to help lower blood sugar? If the answer is yes, you are taking part in a tradition that stretches deep into our past.
One of China’s first books on healing was the Pen Ts’ao, written around 4,500 years ago, detailing the therapeutic properties of 365 medicinal plants. Many of the healing herbs outlined in the book are still in use today, including ephedra, yellow gentian, ginseng, and, yes, ginger and cinnamon.
For all of human history, people have explored their natural environments and found plants whose component parts — leaves, flowers, bark, stems, roots, seeds — bolstered health and even cured ailments.
Herbal remedies developed in an intensely regional fashion, as shamans and healers responded to the local climate and the array of plants growing there. People and their plants basically coevolved, and given that history, some herbalists still favor a localized approach to healing with plants.
“The plants that are in our backyards are being exposed to the same conditions we are — the same temperature, the same pollutants, the same insects,” says Maine herbalist Mischa Schuler, MS. “The plant’s own immune system is producing constituents that support our immune system, too.”
Herbal traditions remain strong. An estimated 90 percent of Africans, 40 percent of Chinese, and 70 percent of the population in India rely on herbal remedies.
In Germany, 70 percent of doctors prescribe plant-based medicines. There, “herbal medicines are completely accepted as drugs,” says Joerg Gruenwald, PhD, founder of Analyze & Realize AG, a German firm specializing in natural ingredients.
“These treatments are part of the normal training of physicians and in pharmacology, too.”
As people migrated, herbal traditions spread. Many of the herbs that were once highly specific to a region and a population are now available to the rest of the world as teas, extracts, and supplements — and even as growing plants — offering us new opportunities for herbal treatment. Now, even in the United States, 38 percent of adults use some form of botanical medicine.
These migrations of people and their herbal traditions offer new challenges for conventional medicine. Realizing that certain patients are self-treating with herbal remedies, some integrative-medicinecaregivers and researchers in the United States have made an effort to both understand and introduce these remedies to conventional practitioners.
Back in 1993, physiologist and women’s health expert Fredi Kronenberg, PhD, was founding director of the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine at Columbia University. She initiated a “Botanical Medicine in Modern Clinical Practice” course, which over 10 years educated some 2,500 physicians about herbal medicine. She also worked with ethnobotanists at the New York Botanical Garden to create a manual for physicians on herbal medicine that identified the 74 most common herbs used by the local Hispanic population.
“We hope that physicians will be able to have a dialogue with their patients instead of just dismissing their herbal traditions,” Kronenberg says. “The idea is to build knowledge and trust, and thus improve clinical outcomes.”
Many people use botanical remedies because they’re worried about the side effects of conventional drugs or simply because these drugs haven’t helped them. Researchers are playing catch-up in regard to these practices, testing the efficacy of various herbal treatments. Sometimes they confirm the value of traditional remedies; occasionally they disprove them. Often, they discover entirely new applications.
“Look at ginkgo, which is one of the most popular herbs in the world,” says Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council. “Fifty or so years ago, the German company Schwabe started doing research on concentrated ginkgo, which they were standardizing into a phytomedicine. They found benefits for PAOD [peripheral arterial occlusive disease, in which the blood vessels of the legs and feet narrow and harden], and that use was never part of the historical record.”
Although people taking such standardized phytomedicines get herbal remedies in a highly concentrated form, they are different from conventional medicines in several ways.
“These herbal products are not made from synthetic compounds that came out of a lab and have a list of adverse side effects as long as your arm,” Blumenthal explains. Rather, they are made from relatively common plants.
Herbal medicines also differ from conventional pharmaceuticals in that their molecular structures and biochemical actions tend to be more complex.
“Drugs have one specific mechanism that works on one pathway, but plants have synergies along many different parts of the body,” says Jay Udani, MD, CEO of Medicus Research and director of integrative medicine at California’s Northridge Hospital. “It’s not easy to determine which part of the herb makes the remedy work, and often it’s the combination of different compounds in the plant that work together to cause the effect.”
For consumers, it can be dizzying to face the array of herbal pills and extracts on store shelves. When in doubt, it’s best to seek the advice of a naturopath or herbalist — someone familiar with the research who can recommend brands and formulations appropriate for your condition.
For those interested in exploring the healing properties of whole herbs, herbal teas and simple remedies like those described in the sidebar below can be a great place to start.
Yet, a deeper investigation of herbal medicines can quickly become dauntingly complex.
Mary Hardy, MD, was trained in internal medicine, but she had to reach outside academic circles to educate herself in botanicals. Later, as associate director of the UCLA Botanical Research Center, she helped inform the medical mainstream about the power of herbal remedies.
Hardy encourages her patients and medical colleagues to consider herbal remedies as a first line of defense. “Before you reach for an over-the-counter drug, think about a substitute. If I have nausea, I’ll try ginger first. If I have a headache, I’ll try a peppermint extract for aromatherapy. I use the most effective, least toxic therapy, and I get good results.”
Herbal medicine can be as simple as a cup of chamomile tea — the flowers plucked from your own yard, perhaps — or as sophisticated as concentrated herbal preparations taken with guidance from a specialist. In either case, you’ll join millions of people from around the world who are benefiting from nature’s abundant pharmacy.
9 Natural Healing Herbs
Astragalus is being investigated in the treatment of atherosclerosis, hyperthyroidism, hypertension, insomnia, type 2 diabetes, genital herpes, and AIDS. It’s also used to increase the efficacy of cancer chemotherapy and reduce its side effects. (For more on adaptogenic herbs, see "Ancient Healers: Adaptogens".)
A blueberry has most of its antioxidant-rich blue color in the skin, but its lesser-known relative bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is dark all the way through and bursting with health benefits.
Bilberries contain anthocyanosides, antioxidants that are believed to strengthen the walls of our blood vessels, improve circulation, protect against blood clots, and thwart damage from free radicals.
Bilberries have been valued in European medicine for centuries, especially to promote night vision; experts suspect that the anthocyanidins may have boosted the production of rhodopsin, a pigment that helps the eye adapt to light changes. Commercial extracts are widely available.
Maine herbalist Mischa Schuler, MS, suggests making a salve by removing the flower heads and steeping them in olive, almond, or coconut oil for two weeks, then adding beeswax to thicken. “It stimulates the upper layer of the skin,” she says. “It’s my favorite herb for surface wounds, sunburn, and chapped lips.” Lycopene-rich calendula petals can also be tossed into salads or dried for teas that soothe indigestion and sore throats.
A member of the mint family, Melissa officinalis has many common names, including heart’s delight and honey plant. The genus name Melissa means “bee,” and research has shown that “the plant contains several compounds found in the worker honeybee’s Nasonov gland, which helps bees communicate about food sources and hive location,” according to the Herb Society of America.
Lemon balm used topically can reduce the symptoms of the herpes simplex virus, and it is also being investigated as a salve for anxiety, dyspepsia, and irritable bowel syndrome. Schuler uses it as a tonic for seasonal affective disorder: “It helps with dysthymia, which is low-grade depression.” He counsels people to steep three or four stems of the herb in a cup of hot water and drink it as an infusion.
According to the Herb Society of America, dill seeds have been called “meetinghouse seeds because they were chewed during long church services to keep members awake or kids quiet. The seeds were also chewed to freshen the breath and quiet noisy stomachs.” Modern studies show that dill can also decrease cholesterol. Growing this herb in your garden has the additional benefit of attracting butterflies.
Tanacetum parthenium has a confounding history. The NYU Langone Medical Center suggests that the name is a corruption of an older name, featherfoil, and that the herb lost popularity with herbalists because it did not dispel fevers. The herb returned to vogue in the 1970s, when the wife of a British medical officer tried a local folk remedy — chewing feverfew leaves — for her terrible migraine headaches.
The success of this remedy attracted researchers, who subjected the herb to clinical trials and found that chewing fresh feverfew leaves during a migraine did in fact help people feel better. They also found that taking dried-leaf capsules every day can reduce the overall susceptibility to headaches.
Over the centuries, people utilized garlic to prevent infection and treat many conditions, including respiratory problems, leprosy, type 2 diabetes, and warts.
Scientific research has confirmed the herb’s usefulness, finding that garlic lowers blood pressure and can protect against heart attack and stroke. Research also suggests that regular intake of cooked or raw garlic may also reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.
Garlic is one of Mark Blumenthal’s favorite herbs. “Is garlic a food? A vegetable? A spice? A medicine? Probably all of the above,” he says.
Graceful-looking Ginkgo biloba, with its fan-shaped leaves, is the oldest surviving tree species. It was wiped out during the Ice Age in Europe, but went on to thrive — and become revered for its medicinal benefits — in Asia. Ginkgo is now one of the top-selling herbal supplements in the United States. These supplements are made from the leaves of the tree, which contain antioxidants that are thought to protect nerves, heart muscle, blood vessels, and retinas from damage.
Ginkgo has been shown to improve memory for people with dementia, temper the side effects from medications used to treat schizophrenia, and reduce anxiety. Because ginkgo dilates blood vessels, it improves circulation and has been shown to increase the distance that people with PAOD (peripheral arterial occlusive disease) can walk pain-free.
The daisylike German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and English chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) have been used medicinally for thousands of years for digestive disorders, skin irritations, anxiety, and as a sleep aid.
While not all these uses have been tested by science, one study did show that chamomile is helpful for mild to moderate anxiety. “It’s a really great plant to have in the garden,” says Schuler. “It just loves to seed everywhere. If you have one chamomile plant, you’ll have thousands.”