Herbs have been used for over 5,000 years. Today, more and more people are returning to the use of herbs for health reasons. Many believe that herbs are as effective, or more effective, than medicines. Herbs do offer many benefits when they are used appropriately. You may not know that some medicines are actually derived from plants, such as aspirin, metformin, digoxin, and others.
Herb safety. Even though many herbs have potent healing properties, they can also be quite dangerous. And just because something is “natural,” does not mean it is safe. For example, poison ivy is most certainly a “natural” substance, but we would never think to consume it in its “natural” form!
“More” may not be better—for many herbs, a very small amount is all that is needed to address a health concern. Many herbs are best when used for only a few days or weeks, and can become quite toxic if used for longer periods of time. Oftentimes, only one part of the plant is safe to use—the root, the leaves, or perhaps the bark—while the other parts of the plant are poisonous. Certain herbs should never be eaten, but may be used on the skin.
Herb regulation. Herbs that are sold over-the-counter are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the same way as medications. This means that supplement manufacturers can make claims about their products without the backing of quality research or FDA evaluation and testing.
In the United States, guidelines for manufacturing do exist, and reputable companies prepare their herbal products in a consistent manner; avoid pesticides, lead and other chemicals; provide recommended dosing information; and clearly state the amount of the product that is present in each tablet or capsule. The FDA does monitor the safety of supplements once they are on the market. An unsafe supplement may be required to have a safety warning, or may be removed from the market.
Herbal supplements prepared outside the United States may contain any number of contaminants that are harmful, including lead or animal waste. Always use caution when purchasing herbal supplements.
Preparation and handling. Preparation can also be very important. Herbs can be crushed and used in a compress, used to make teas, pressed to extract their oil, fermented into vinegars, crushed into powder and placed in capsule form, or dried and used in salves. These are only a few ways to use herbs.
Herbs should be prepared with care. Boiling water is good for teas, but water for infusions should never be boiled. Aluminum pots should be avoided. Once prepared, ceramic or glass cups or teapots should be used, not metal.
Storage of herbs is another consideration. The best way to use fresh herbs is to grow them yourself and pick a few leaves as you need them. If you buy them, look for organically grown herbs, and store them in a produce sack that allows the herbs to “breathe.” Dried herbs can be kept much longer, but store them in dark-colored bottles and keep them out of the light and heat.
Popular herbs. In 2007, the most commonly used herbs were Echinacea, ginseng, ginkgo biloba, green tea, saw palmetto, grapeseed extact, and milk thistle. Since then, the list has grown. Some commonly used herbs and conditions they have historically been used to treat are listed below, even though scientific evidence may not support these claims. Keep in mind that these herbs are used in various forms, some are taken in capsule form, and others are used topically in creams or oils.
CAUTION: This list does not imply that these herbs are safe or appropriate for you! Every herb has several side effects, sometimes very dangerous side effects. Many of these herbs interfere with prescription medications. If you are taking medications, certain herbal preparations and supplements might be off-limits for you.
Talk with your doctor or other professional before using herbs with which you are not familiar. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, always talk to your doctor before taking any herbal preparation.
- Ashwagandha (withania somnifera). Stress, insomnia, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, osteoarthritis, energy, stamina. Ayurvedic herb.
- Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus). Atherosclerosis, cataracts, type 2 diabetes, diarrhea, glaucoma, painful menses, stomach ulcers.
- Bitter melon (Momordica charantia). Pre-diabetes, metabolic syndrome, high triglycerides, cancer prevention.
- Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa). Arthritis pain, menopausal symptoms, migraines associated with menses.
- Cat’s claw (Uncaria). Allergies, inflammation, cancer prevention, immune support, arthritis of the knee.
- Chamomile (Matricaria recutita). Common cold, diarrhea, eczema, stomach upset, bladder irritation, hemorrhoids, sleep, vaginitis.
- Chasteberry (Vitex agnus-castus). Acne, amenorrhea, antifungal, PMS, irregular menses.
- Common cold, immune support, vaginal yeast infections.
- Evening primrose (Denothera biennis). Eczema, bronchitis, chronic fatigue syndrome, obesity.
- Feverfew (Tanacetum parthemium). Migraines, rheumatoid arthritis.
- Garlic (Allium sativum). High cholesterol, antifungal, blood thinner, cancer prevention.
- Ginger (Zingiber officinale). Nausea and vomiting in pregnancy, motion sickness, migraines, osteoarthritis.
- Gingko (Gingko biloba). Claudication from clogged arteries, dementia, allergies, antibacterial, antifungal.
- Ginseng (Panax). Antioxidant, glucose intolerance, immune support.
- Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis). Common cold, high cholesterol, immune support.
- Hawthorn (Crataegus). Congestive heart failure, anxiety, high blood pressure.
- Holy basil (ocimum sanctum, Tulsi). Inflammation, fever, pain, antimicrobial, antifungal, breathing, stress.
- Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum). Chronic venous insufficiency.
- Kava (Piper methysticum).
- Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra). Stomach upset, digestion, constipation.
- Milk thistle (Silybum marianum). Chronic hepatitis, cirrhosis, high cholesterol, stomach upset.
- Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). Enlarged prostate.
- John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum). Depressive disorder, anxiety, eczema.
- Trikatu (Piper nigrum, Piper longum, Zingiber officinale). Digestion, detoxification, flatulence, bloating, high LDL cholesterol, high triglycerides. Ayurvedic herb.
- Triphala (Emblica officinalis, Belleric myrobalan, Chebulic myrobalan). Digestion, detoxification, bloating, food sensitivities, fatigue after eating, and constipation. Ayurvedic herb.
- Turmeric (Curcuma longa). Blood clots, inflammation, indigestion, high cholesterol, arthritis, viruses.
- Valerian (Valeriana officinalis). Anxiety, insomnia.
The information in this article is not intended to be used as medical advice and is for information purposes only.
Sources and helpful resources:
Prescription for Nutritional Healing
German Commission E Monographs
Natural Standard Herb & Supplement Guide
© Trinity Integrative Family Medicine, S.C., 2011