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Herbal Wisdom: The Healing Power of Plants

by Ellen Lovinger Eller

Did you know that nearly 40 percent of all prescribed pharmaceutical medicines are derived from plants and fungi, or designed from naturally occurring chemical compounds. Alzheimer’s patients often receive galantamine, a drug derived from daffodil bulbs; people with high blood pressure might be given reserpine, made from the Indian snakeroot; and cancer patients may receive vincristine, which comes from the rosy periwinkle.

But since ancient times, healers have treated patients with brews, pastes and poultices made directly from parts of plants indigenous to their surroundings. Long before the Bayer Company developed aspirin to reduce fever and relieve pain, Egyptians were using myrtle leaves for that purpose, Native Americans used birch bark and Europeans relied on the leaves and bark of willow trees.

So it’s not surprising that many people think of herbal medicine as getting rid of the "middle man," and the pharmaceutical companies that transform or replicate plants’ medicinal properties for commercial consumption.

A Baker’s Dozen Remedies Commonly Used in the U.S.

The many different healing traditions that have always incorporated herbal remedies—Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, Tibetan medicine, Unani-tibb (an Arabian form of healing with Greek origins), Kampo (a Japanese adaptation of Chinese medicine) and African Ifa medicine, to name just a few—have given Western healers, and their patients, numerous options.

The remedies listed here are just a few of those commonly used in the U.S. to improve health and alleviate symptoms (Note that most have additional healing properties omitted for reasons of space.)

Arnica: A member of the aster family known for its effectiveness as an anti-inflammatory, anticoagulant and topical anti-irritant, and for its ability to stimulate circulation, kill bacteria and enhance immunity, arnica is also used to alleviate sprains, strains, sore muscles and fresh bruises.

Black Cohosh: Related to the buttercup, black cohosh offers analgesic (pain-relieving) help for migraines, joint inflammation and the early muscle aches, chills and fever brought on by the flu. In addition, women have found it to be highly effective in easing menstrual cramps and menopausal hot flashes.

Catnip: No, it’s not just for cats! Effective as a mild sedative and antispasmodic, an infusion of catnip in water is considered a suitable remedy for children who are suffering from fever or colic. It can also help adults experiencing restlessness or insomnia.

Chamomile: Prepared as a tea or as drops of liquid extract, the fresh or dried flowers of this aster relative are used to soothe spasms, pain, fever and inflammation and, often, to soothe the spirit as well. Chamomile solutions can also be used as an antiseptic and antifungal treatment.

Echinacea: Known to stimulate the immune system, echinacea has proven effective for combating upper-respiratory conditions such as colds and coughs, as well as sore throats and minor infections. It is often used externally to treat wounds, eczema and certain other skin conditions as well.

Ginkgo: In clinical trials, ginkgo biloba has been shown to increase blood flow to the brain, enhancing memory and mental performance, especially among the elderly and people suffering forms of dementia. It can improve conditions ranging from vertigo to diabetic skin lesions, and even help prevent altitude sickness.

Green Tea: Green tea is an excellent antioxidant that can lower LDL cholesterol and serum triglyceride levels while raising HDL cholesterol. At the same time, it can be taken to promote a sense of calm and well-being. Be sure to steep tea leaves in water that is hot but not boiling, and note that drinking too much green tea may keep you awake.

Horehound: Generations have relied on this bitter flowering herb to ease congestion, soothe bronchitis, moist asthma, coughs and fever. It works as an effective expectorant and stimulates digestion, too.

Lavender: As an essential oil, lavender is more than a soothing fragrance; it can help ease the pain of burns and other external wounds. A teaspoon or two of the dried flowers infused in water is a time-honored remedy for headache, muscle spasms, insomnia and stress. And as an added bonus, even as it calms and relaxes, lavender promotes mental alertness.

Peppermint: Cool, spicy flavor is just part of what peppermint has to offer. It is useful for easing spasmodic conditions of the respiratory, digestive and urinary tracts, for combating nausea, common cold symptoms and mental fatigue. Peppermint also takes the sting and itch out of insect bites.

St. John’s Wort: Known to be helpful to people who are overcome by depression and a sense of being isolated or disconnected from others, St. John’s wort is also very effective when used for nerve pain, shingles, toothaches… gastric inflammation and ulcers… burns, diaper rash and cradle cap.

Tea Tree: Some people use oral rinses of tea tree liquid extract to fight gingivitis, others gargle with the solution to soothe a sore throat. It serves as a handy antiseptic on cuts, burns, abrasions and boils, while salves and creams made with tea tree oil can heal or lessen skin itches when nothing else seems to help.

And Then There’s Ginseng (Asian and American species): In a class by itself for its remarkable versatility and potency, ginseng root has been prescribed by healers around the world for thousands of years to help their patients adapt to mental and emotional stress, fatigue, heat and cold. Ginseng both stimulates and relaxes the nervous system, encourages the secretion of hormones, improves stamina, lowers blood sugar and cholesterol and increases resistance to disease. It is used to treat weakness associated with old age or illness, lack of appetite, insomnia, stress and shock, and it can also boost individuals’ resistance to infection. In fact, it is widely held that, taken over an extended period, ginseng is therapeutic for the whole body—increasing mental and physical performance and overall wellness.

An Ounce of Caution:

What You Must Know About Herbal Medicine

Hundreds of herbal products and supplements are available, advertised to treat just about any symptom. They may be in tablet or capsule form, taken as powders, teas, extracts and fresh or dried plants.

The thing to remember is that herbal medicines are powerful. You have to know what to take, and how much—decisions that should not be made lightly.

Just because products are labeled "natural" does not mean they are beneficial for your body or user friendly. Some of them can cause health problems, some are not really effective, and some may interact negatively with other drugs you are taking.

What’s more, unlike prescription and over-the-counter medicines, herbal products and supplements don’t have to be tested by the Federal Food & Drug Administration to prove they work well and are safe before they’re sold. They may not be pure, containing ingredients that could make you sick, such as plant pollen or drugs that aren’t listed on the label, like steroids or estrogen. They may even have traces of such toxic substances as arsenic, mercury, lead and pesticides. That means your source for herbal medicines, and the manufacturer, must be totally reliable.

Pregnant and nursing women should be especially cautious about taking herbal products, and everyone needs to pay attention to the label: do not take more than the recommended dose.

Above all, consult your doctor or other trusted health-care professional experienced in herbal medicine for guidance before using any remedy.

To paraphrase an old adage, an ounce of caution is worth a pound of cure.

Ellen Lovinger Eller, of Shelburne Falls, MA, is a staff writer for Wisdom Magazine.

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