We all know how the right herb can add new life to a recipe. And medical research indicates that some herbs may have the same effect on us.
The popular herbal potions of today promise better sleep, less fatigue, reduced anxiety, even help in the battle against depression. And the herbal answers to these ailments are nothing new.
History of Herbal Supplements
Herbal medicine is rooted in ancient traditions. Texts dating back to 2500 BC speak of the ability of herbal remedies to restore harmony to an imbalanced, unhealthy body.
Garlic and juniper have been common medicines for about 4,000 years. Research suggests that Egyptians in the era of Ramses III used poppy extracts to calm children.
It wasn’t until the 1700s that herbalists sought to identify the individual chemicals in the plants. Once separated from the plant itself, these compounds took on new properties. In the last 150 years, these compounds have been used to create pharmaceutical drugs.
Today, herbal supplements comprise an industry all their own. According to a recent poll, about 60 million adults take herbal supplements. Proponents say they can help with everything from chronic illnesses to more mundane complaints, such as insomnia,, headaches, fatigue, even the common cold.
The category “herb” includes any plant with culinary or medicinal value. That includes the botanicals we associate with contemporary pharmaceuticals, as well as the herbal supplements we purchase, and, of course, the herbs we use to enhance the flavor of our food, such as garlic and sage. Today, the practice of a western herbalist primarily draws on 150 to 200 plants.
Because herbs are promoted as all natural, alternative medicines, consumers tend to think of them more as vitamins than as actual drugs. But experts say these botanical remedies are just as, or more, potent, than their pharmaceutical counterparts, so it is important to exercise caution.
Herbal supplements do not have to meet the same federal regulations that other drugs do. That means potency, purity, and safety are not necessarily consistent from brand to brand. It is important to talk with your doctor before starting to take any supplement.
Maggie Greenwood Robinson, PhD., author of Kava: The Ultimate Guide to Nature’s Anti Stress Herb, recommends buying herbal supplements only from a well known and trusted manufacturer.
“Herbal products vary in potency due to a number of factors, one of which is the original plant itself,” she says. “It may have more or less of the active ingredients than other members of the crop. The extraction process varies, too, and may affect potency. A consumer interested in purchasing herbal supplements should do so on the basis of manufacturer reputation.”
According to the International Food Information Council, the FDA has listed the following herbal supplements as “risky”: Chaparral, comfrey, DHEA, dieter’s tea with senna, aloe, rhubarb root, buckthorn, cascara, caster oil, penny royal, and sassafras.
Greenwood Robinson says some of us should stay away from herbs altogether. “Anyone who is pregnant or nursing should avoid herbs. If there are herbs in the home, they should be kept out of the reach of children, just as you would keep medicines out of reach,” she says. And she does not recommend herbal remedies for children.
Mothers trying to conceive should avoid echinacea purpura, St. John’s wort, and gingko biloba. Recent research indicates a possible connection between these herbals and infertility.
Ask your doctor for information on dosages for herbal supplements, as well as possible interactions with other drugs. If the manufacturer is a trusted one, follow the recommended dosages on the label, and do not exceed them.
If the supplement you choose provides a dosage range on the label, always begin with the smallest dose, and stop taking the supplement immediately if you sense any sort of allergic reaction, which can range from hives to difficulty breathing.
Common Herbs and Their Uses
“For health and beauty,” Greenwood Robinson says, “the big news in herbal supplements is a category I call cellulite control supplements.”
Greenwood Robinson discusses the merits of this herb in her book, The Cellulite Breakthrough. Cellasene, Greenwood Robinson says, contains a mixture of herbs with multiple benefits, one of which is to improve “microcirculation” in the network of tiny vessels in the body. Poor microcirculation is thought to contribute to the development and progression of cellulite.
“Sipping a cup of Echinacea tea may put cold symptoms on the run, or even shorten the course of a cold,” Greenwood Robinson says. Research shows that the herb is effective in stimulating the immune system for its fight against viruses and bacteria.” Echinacea is potent, and many experts don’t recommend it for prolonged use (and some researchers caution against taking Echinacea for more than 10 days.)
Evening Primrose Oil (EPO)
Hailed as a beauty herb, this supplement claims to help you grow healthy skin, hair, and nails. Other studies show it can help alleviate premenstrual syndrome.
Long hailed as a natural antibiotic, garlic can stimulate the immune system, so it is a popular supplement among those wishing to ward of colds and bronchitis. Research suggests garlic may help prevent bacterial or fungal infections, including yeast infections.
Also known as HCA (hydroxycitric acid), this supplement is found predominately in a particular Southeast Asian fruit. The extract is similar to citric acid, and it is often used for dieting and appetite suppression.
Like garlic, ginger is a culinary herb as well as a medicinal herb, so it is considered extremely safe. Experts say this herb, grown primarily in India, China, and Mexico, may help everything from chemotherapy suffering to painful menstruation. But it ius best known as an aid for digestion. “It is a near cure for nausea and works quite fast,” Greenwood Robinson says. “It is also an excellent anti inflammatory herb that is effective in treating various types of headaches, as well as joint pain.”
This is one of the most prescribed herbals in Europe. Its popularity has surged in the United States, as well. Experts say it improves blood circulation throughout the body. This enhanced circulation in the brain aids concentration and memory.
Both varieties of ginseng (Panax and Siberian ginseng) have a solid reputation for energy enhancement. This herb can be taken on a daily basis, but be careful. Possible side effects include breast tenderness and high blood pressure.
HTP is a popular supplement in the United States for its ability to reduce anxiety, depression and insomnia. Some experts say this herb might help control obesity, too.
Kava Kava is also prescribed for everyday anxiety, as well as for painful menstrual cramps. Experts say it can help with insomnia, too.
St. John’s Wort
The flower of this plant blooms around St. John’s day, and when you squeeze the flowers, out comes a red pigment, which is associated with the blood of St. John the Baptist. In the United States, this herb is best known for its ability to improve mood and diminish anxiety, and it is often prescribed in Germany for anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders.
Reminder: This article is a compilation of recent research on herbal supplements. If you think herbals are right for you, discuss the matter with your physician.