Herbalism has often seen the scorn of the American people, its stigma raising images of superstition, witch doctors, hippies, smoke and mirrors. This overall sense of unreliability and guesswork with botanical medicine probably arose in response to increased pharmaceutical use and advertising. However, many people don’t realize that herbs are the original sources for at least 25% of all pharmaceuticals (1). Examples are painkillers morphine (from poppy seeds), aspirin (from the bark of willow trees) and quinine. Drugs tend to use isolated compounds in the hopes of working quickly, by targeting or masking specific symptoms. Herbs, on the other hand, usually incorporate the whole plant, allowing all of the important interlocking compounds to work together to address conditions naturally and gradually, as well as strengthening the whole body over time.
Love Your Liver
Cirrhosis is a chronic disease caused by liver cell damage and proliferation of fibrous tissue, usually induced by excessive alcohol use, although non-alcoholic forms do develop. Eventually, cirrhosis affects virtually every physiologic process, including digestive, endocrine and circulatory systems, as well as metabolic processes. A recent study using an herbal supplement for liver detoxification showed a reduction in the symptoms associated with liver damage including tiredness, nausea, fatigue, abdominal pain, cramps and digestive problems. The study was conducted on patients suffering from early alcoholic cirrhosis and concluded that the branded supplement “directly or indirectly influences the cellular and body metabolism and plays a favorable and protective role in maintaining liver integrity and restoring its function” (2). The supplement combined herbs common in the Ayurvedic herbal system, including caper bush, chicory, black nightshade, arjuna, kasamarda, yarrow and tamarisk.
Milk thistle also has been widely known to support liver function. Combining milk thistle with skullcap and Chinese skullcap can also help detoxify the liver, especially from alcohol use (3). In addition to alcohol recovery, milk thistle can be beneficial for those with hepatitis C, and help detoxification from various poisons such as mushrooms, drugs and other chemicals (3). Patients on medications should use caution, however, as milk thistle may encourage the liver to metabolize drugs faster than usual.
Herbs for Immunity
Echinacea has often been a traditional choice for staving off common colds and other wintery conditions. Recent research provides biological evidence that the herb, which has been viewed with skepticism by conventional eyes, contains immune-enhancing properties. A 2007 study using gene expression analysis notes how “echinacea extracts tended to neutralize the effects of the rhinovirus,” suggesting that “echinacea can bring about important biological responses in cells by virtue of interactions between components of the extract and a small number of intracellular factors involved in multiple signaling pathways” (4). Echinacea has been found to be very gentle, even in children, and can be an effective and natural way for kids, and even college students, to prevent illness when returning to school in the fall.
Garlic, perhaps best known for its cardiovascular benefits, is often overlooked in regards to its immunostimulant properties. Besides its obvious flavorful benefits, garlic is a highly nutritious herb containing fiber, calcium, folic acid, iodine, zinc, iron, magnesium, niacin, vitamin C and so on. Garlic also benefits lactic organisms, helping to absorb more minerals into the body (5), thereby giving the immune system some extra support.
Pau d’arco is a tree from which a traditional tea is brewed using its inner bark. Originating from areas in tropical Central and South America, pau d’arco has been studied for its antitumor, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and immunostimulant activities. Chemicals known as quinones have been identified as the active constituents of pau d’arco (foster herbs), and others have been identified as a types of benzoic acid and as verataldehyde, but more research still needs to be conducted to explore all of the benefits of this traditional remedy.
Many herbal treatments for chronic digestion problems can be more effective when used in combination with an overall review and adjustment of diet and nutrition patterns to address any sensitivities that might be at the root of the problem. Ginger, also known as Sunthi in Ayurvedic treatments, is believed to relieve nausea by increasing digestive fluids, as well as absorbing and neutralizing toxins and stomach acid. Ginger can be ingested through foods and beverages such as ginger ale or ginger candies, but is also available in capsules and tablets if the flavor of simply eating the fresh root is too strong for some. Other Ayurvedic treatments for digestive support and detoxification include haritaki, bael and amalaki.
Peppermint leaf and peppermint essential oil are known to for their antispasmodic properties, and for helping cramps, diarrhea, nausea and irritable bowel syndrome. True peppermint herb contains flavonoids, phytol, tocopherols and carotenoids. Many herbs of the mint family are high in vitamins and minerals such as calcium, vitamin A, vitamin C, niacin, potassium, magnesium and riboflavin, including spearmint and thyme (often used to relieve problems with gas) (5).
Licorice root has been known to provide relief from ulcers and indigestion. It is traditionally used in tea and extract forms, but long-term use can lead to fluid retention and elevated blood pressure in some individuals, due to the high amount of glycyrrhizin contained within it. Aloe vera gel or juice can also be used to calm ulcer pain and relieve heartburn. A study testing the efficacy of an herbal preparation containing licorice root, lemon balm, caraway and peppermint leaves, among others, found that “in patients with functional dyspepsia, the herbal preparation improved dyspeptic symptoms significantly better than placebo,” yielding 43.3% of patients with “complete relief of symptoms” after eight weeks (6).
Use Your Uro-logic
Prostate Health. Saw palmetto has been used to treat benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH), a noncancerous enlargement of the prostate gland affecting about 10% of men by age 40 and 50% of men my age 50 (1).
Enlargement of the prostate can narrow the urethral passageway, impairing the flow of urine and causing a host of problems including pain, bladder infections, involuntary urination and bleeding. Conventional treatments range from very expensive drugs with side effects such as impotence or masking signs of prostate cancer to extremely invasive surgery in which excess tissue is cut away. Saw palmetto is an inexpensive and effective way to reduce the formation of dihydrotestosterone, a major cause of BPH, as well as blocking it from binding to other cells. About 90% of men respond to saw palmetto to some extent, after about four to six weeks of use (1). Saw palmetto is often used with other herbs such as nettles and pygeum.
Urinary Tract Health. Herbal medicines can block bacteria from adhering to certain cells, offering a natural preventative approach to infection. Cranberry is the best studied of these medicines and has been shown to be useful both in prevention and treatment of urinary tract infection in some patients. There is growing interest in using cranberry’s close relatives—blueberry, bilberry and huckleberry—to block bacteria from adhesion as well. A study, published in the journal Colloids and Surfaces: B, showed that a variety of E. coli bacteria responsible for many urinary tract infections, responded to cranberry exposure by not being able attach their fimbriae (hair-like projections) to cell walls. The study stated, “Our results show that, at least for urinary tract infections, cranberry juice targets the right bacteria—those that cause disease—but has no effect on non-pathogenic organisms, suggesting that cranberry juice will not disrupt bacteria that are part of the normal flora in the gut.” When placed back in a normal growth medium, the bacteria regained their ability to adhere to urinary tract cells, suggesting “that to realize the antibacterial benefits of cranberry, one must consume cranberry juice regularly—perhaps daily” (7).
Bearberry has been shown to have strong urinary-antiseptic qualities and has proven helpful with nephritis (inflammation of the kidney), chronic cystitis (repeated or constant urinary infections) and urethritis. Bearberry contains arbutin, a compound responsible for its antibiotic properties, which reaches its height about three to four hours after ingestion. However, large or frequent doses of bearberry or bearberry tea can irritate the stomach. In general, it should be avoided by those with delicate stomachs and by children (5). Other helpful remedies include:
* Green tea also has promise as an anti-adhesion agent, particularly against Streptococcus mutans (8).
* Other herbs with anti-adhesion effects are Asian ginseng, certain varieties of wormwood, hops, wild ginger and bladderwrack. (8)
* Kava is sometimes combined with pumpkin seed, for its diuretic effect, in the treatment of irritable bladder syndrome (9).
Phytology for Females
PMS. Black cohosh has been noted for its effects of relieving premenstrual symptoms as well as relieving painful menstruation (9). Combining black cohosh with blue cohosh is said to offer more effective relief from amenorrhea and dysmenorrhea (3). Evening primrose oil has also been shown to reduce breast pain and tenderness, irritability and mood swings associated with PMS. Vitex, or chaste tree, has been used for thousands of years to help women who experience dull, achy, menstrual pain, flank pain and tenderness (3). The effects cannot be attributed to one single component, but it is believed that flavonoids are the essential factors for relief.
Pregnancy. Of course during pregnancy, childbirth and nursing, extreme caution should be taken when considering herbal medicines. Angelica, black cohosh, blue cohosh, motherwort, rosemary and yarrow are known to stimulate uterine contractions (10), and although these can be used as aids during childbirth, it is important to know the effects and risks of taking these herbs during pregnancy and labor. It is best to have a qualified doctor, herbalist or midwife as a guide through the process. Fennel should also be avoided because of its estrogen-like properties, as well as saw palmetto, for its hormonal properties. Many herbs in their natural state are more potent as essential oils, and therefore should be used with caution.
Despite the risks, some believe that black cohosh, in combination with blue cohosh and partridge berry herb, taken daily leading up to childbirth can help facilitate a healthier, less painful labor experience (3). Herbal medicine can also be extremely helpful for mothers-to-be who suffer from certain ailments during pregnancy and do not wish to ingest harmful pharmaceuticals. Peppermint leaf and ginger root can be gentle ways to help relieve nausea, morning sickness and vomiting (11). Red raspberry leaf, which is high in iron, can help tone the uterus, increase milk production, decrease nausea and ease labor pains and complications (11).
Menopause. As ovarian function declines during menopause, estrogen production also lessens, causing luteinizing-hormone to increase, often resulting in hot flashes. Black cohosh has been recommended to relieve menopausal symptoms to reduce this. It is thought that an isoflavone in the root binds to estrogen receptors, producing estrogenic activity, thereby reducing hot flashes (9).
Choosing Herbal Supplements
Herbs can be purchased as teas, tinctures, tablets, capsules and raw herbs. Traditional herbalists recommend taking liquid forms as they are most readily absorbed, however other forms can be more convenient. Tablets are powdered herbs compressed into a solid pill, but can take such a long time to break down, that occasionally they may even pass through the body undigested. Capsules are also made of powdered dried herb, and can come in variety of sizes and strengths, so reading labels is a very important step to ensure proper dosing. Whole herbs can be found in specialty shops and can be used to make decoctions or infusions (infusions are simply a weaker decoction or tea). Also, tinctures can be made by soaking the herb in alcohol, or glycerin to avoid the alcohol taste.
Caution should be used with essential oils as many of them can highly toxic at certain doses. Also beware of synthetic versions, for example, peppermint oil and thuja oil. When in doubt, consult a doctor or an herbal specialist. WF
1. H. Cass, User’s Guide to Herbal Remedies (Basic Health Publications, North Bergen, NJ, 2004).
2. S. Agal, et al., “Evaluation of Efficacy and Safety in Alcoholic Liver Cirrhosis.” Himalaya Update, 15 (6), (2007).
3. T. Garran, Western Herbs According To Chinese Medicine (Healing Arts Press, Rochester, VT, 2008).
4. M. Altamirano-Dimas, et al., “Modulation of Immune Response Gene Expression by Echinacea Extracts: Results of a Gene Array Analysis,” Can. J. Physiol. Pharmacol. 85 (11), 1091–1098 (2007).
5. S. Foster, Herbal Renaissance (Gibbs Smith Publisher, Salt Lake City, UT, 1997).
6. A. Madisch, et al., “Treatment of Functional Dyspepsia with an Herbal Preparation,” Digestion, 69 (1), 45–52 (2004).
7. Worcester Polytechnic Institute Press Release, July 2008.
8. E. Yarnell, et al., “Antiadhesion Herbs,” Alt. Comp. Ther. 14 (3), 139–144 (2008).
9. S. Foster, Herbs for Your Health (Interweave Press, Inc., Loveland, CO, 1996).
10. C. Puotinen, Natural Relief from Aches and Pains (Keats Publishing, Los Angeles, CA, 2001).
11. American Pregnancy Association, www.americanpregnancy.org, accessed September 3, 2008.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, October 2008