What Is Herbal Medicine?
Herbal medicines are naturally occurring, plant-derived substances that are used to treat illnesses within local or regional healing practices. These products are complex mixtures of organic chemicals that may come from any raw or processed part of a plant.
Herbal medicine has its roots in every culture around the world. There are many different systems of traditional medicine, and the philosophy and practices of each are influenced by social conditions, environment and geographic location, but these systems all agree on a holistic approach to life. Well-known systems of herbal medicine like Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic Medicine believe in the central idea that there should be an emphasis on health rather than on disease. By using healing herbs, people can thrive and focus on their overall conditions, rather than on a particular ailment that typically arises from a lack of equilibrium of the mind, body and environment.
Although botanical medicine has been practiced for thousands of years, it continues to be of use in the modern, Western world. The World Health Organization recently estimated that 80 percent of people worldwide rely on herbal medicines for some part of their primary health care, and the worldwide annual market for these products is approaching $60 billion. People in the United States have become more interested in herbal medicine because of the rising cost of prescription medication and the returning interest in natural or organic remedies.
Top 10 Herbs Used in Herbal Medicine
1. Raw Garlic
Garlic contains vital nutrients, including flavonoids, oligosaccharides, selenium, allicin and high levels of sulfur. Consuming cooked or raw garlic, by adding it to food or taking a capsule, can help treat diabetes, fight inflammation, boost the immune system, regulate blood pressure, fight cardiovascular disease, relieve allergies, fight fungal and viral infections, and improve hair loss.
Studies show an inverse correlation between garlic consumption and progress of cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. Research published in the Journal of Nutrition shows that garlic reduces cholesterol, inhibits platelet clustering, reduces blood pressure and increases antioxidant status.
Ginger is the most widely used dietary condiment in the world today. The therapeutic benefits of ginger come from gingerols, the oily resin from the root that acts as a highly potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent. Gingerol, among other bioactive agents present in ginger, are able to relieve indigestion and nausea, boost immune and respiratory function, fight bacterial and fungal infections, treat stomach ulcers, reduce pain, improve diabetes, prevent malabsorption, and may even inhibit the growth of cancer cells.
According to a 2013 review of evidence published in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine, the anticancer potential of ginger is well-documented, and its functional ingredients like gingerols, gasohol and paradols are the valuable ingredients that can prevent various cancers. Researchers also found that ginger has anti-inflammatory and anti oxidative properties for controlling the aging process.
There are several ways to use ginger. It can be eaten raw, taken in powder or supplement form, consumed in liquid form by making a tea, or used topically in oil form.
Turmeric is a plant that has a very long history of medicinal use, dating back nearly 4,000 years. Modern medicine has begun to recognize its importance, as indicated by the over 3,000 publications dealing with turmeric. This powerful plant can be added to any recipe or taken as a supplement. There are a range of turmeric benefits, including its ability to slow and prevent blood clotting, fight depression, reduce inflammation, relieve arthritis pain, manage diabetes, treat gastrointestinal issues, regulate cholesterol, and fight cancer.
Several studies indicate that turmeric has potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti mutagenic, antimicrobial and anticancer properties. As an antioxidant, turmeric extracts can scavenge free radicals, increase antioxidant enzymes and inhibit lipid per-oxidation.
Ginseng is one of the most popular herbal medicines in the world, and it’s been used in Asia and North American for centuries. Native Americans used the root as a stimulant and headache remedy, as well as a treatment for infertility, fever and indigestion, for instance.
A study done at the Brain Performance and Nutrition Research Center in the U.K. was conducted to gather data about ginseng’s benefits and its ability to improve mood and mental function. It involved 30 volunteers who were given three rounds of treatments of ginseng and a placebo, and the results found that 200 milligrams of ginseng for eight days slowed the fall in mood but also slowed the participants’ response to mental arithmetic. The 400-milligram dose improved calmness and improved mental arithmetic for the duration of the eight-day treatment.
Ginseng is also used to reduce stress, help with weight loss, treat sexual dysfunction, improve lung function, lower blood sugar levels, boost the immune system and reduce inflammation. Ginseng is available in dried, powdered, tea, capsule and tablet forms.
5. Milk Thistle
Milk thistle extracts have been used as traditional herbal medicine remedies for almost 2,000 years. Milk thistle contains high levels of hydrophilic extracts from the seeds of the plant, which act as bioflavonoids that increase immunity and slow down oxidative stress. The herb is also used for its anti-inflammatory properties. It can aid digestive function, increase bile production, boost skin health, fight the appearance of aging, lower cholesterol levels and help detoxify the body.
A review of clinical trials evaluating the safety and efficacy of milk thistle found that the herb has protective effects in certain types of cancer, and data shows it can also be used for patients with liver diseases, hepatitis C, HIV, diabetes and hypercholesterolemia. Milk thistle extracts, which are commonly sold in capsules, are also known to be safe and well-tolerated.
For centuries, feverfew has been used for fevers, headaches, stomachaches, toothaches, insect bites, infertility, and problems with menstruation and labor during childbirth. Fever-few pain-easing effect is said to come from a biochemical called parthenogenesis, which combats the widening of blood vessels that occurs in migraines. The herb is also used to prevent dizziness, relieve allergies, reduce arthritis pain and prevent blood clots.
Several impressive human studies show the positive effects of using feverfew to prevent and treat migraines. A systematic review completed by the School of Postgraduate Medicine and Health Science in the U.K. compared the results of six studies. Researchers found that feverfew is indeed effective in the prevention of migraine headaches and does not pose any major safely concerns.
Fever-few is available in capsule form, as tablets and liquid extract. Supplements should be standardized to contain at least 0.2 percent parthenolide. The leaves of fever-few can be used to make tea, but they have a bitter taste and may be irritate the mouth.
7. St. John’s Wort
St. John’s wort has been used as a medicinal herb for its antidepressant and anti-inflammatory properties for over 2,000 years. It produces dozens of biologically active substances, but hypericin and hyperforin have the greatest medical activity. St. John’s wort uses come from its antidepressant activity, ability to relieve PMS symptoms, improve mood during menopause, fight inflammation, relieve skin irritations and improve symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder.
A study done at the Institute of Psychological Sciences in the United Kingdom included 36 women aged 18–45 who experienced regular menstrual cycles and were diagnosed with mild PMS. The women were randomly assigned to receive either St. John’s wort tablets at 900 milligrams a day or identical placebo tablets for two menstrual cycles; then the groups switched doses for the next two cycles. Symptoms were rated daily throughout the study, and the women reported on feelings of depression, aggression, hormone balance and hormonal stimulation. The trials showed that St. John’s wort was superior to a placebo in improving physical and behavioral symptoms of PMS.
8. Ginkgo Biloba
Ginkgo biloba, which is also known as maidenhair, is an ancient plant extract that has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to heal various health ailments for thousands of years. Current research shows that it’s linked to improvements in cognitive function. When researchers from Beijing University of Chinese Medicine reviewed evidence from 14 randomized controlled trials involving brain injury patients, it reported that ginkgo biloba extract had positive effects on patients’ neurological impairment and quality of life in nine of the trials.
Other ginkgo biloba benefits include its ability to improve concentration and memory, reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, fight anxiety and depression, help maintain vision and eye health, relieve ADHD symptoms, improve libido, and fight fibromyalgia.
Ginkgo biloba is available in capsule, tablet, liquid extract and dried leaf form. The standardized extract form contains 24 percent to 32 percent flavonoids and 6 percent to 12 percent terpenoids.
9. Saw Palmetto
Saw palmetto supplements are some of the most commonly consumed supplements by men with prostate cancer and benign prostatic hyperplasia. Saw palmetto has been shown to slow the production of the enzyme 5-alpha reductase, which converts the male hormone testosterone into dihydro testosterone (DHT), a sex steroid and androgen hormone. While DHT is important because it plays a role in male development, it also contributes to many common health issues in men, such as loss of libido, an enlarged prostate and hair loss.
A 2003 study published in American Family Physician demonstrates the effectiveness of saw palmetto in reducing symptoms associated with benign prostatic hyperplasia. Saw palmetto appeared to have efficacy similar to that of medications like finasteride, but it was better tolerated and less expensive.
Aside from its ability to relieve conditions triggered by DHT, saw palmetto is also known to fight inflammation, boost immune function, treat respiratory conditions and promote relaxation.
10. Aloe Vera
In traditional Indian medicine, aloe vera is used for constipation, skin diseases, worm infestation, infections and as a natural remedy for colic. In Chinese medicine, it’s often recommended in the treatment of fungal diseases, and in the Western world, it has found widespread use in the cosmetic, pharmaceutical and food industries. Aloe vera is considered to be the most biologically active of the aloe species; astonishingly, more than 75 potentially active components have been identified in the plant, including vitamins, minerals, saccharine, amino acids, anthraquinones, enzymes, lignin, saponins and salicylic acids. It provides 20 of the 22 human-required amino acids and all eight of the essential amino acids.
Studies have proved the antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antiviral and anti-fungal properties of aloe vera. The plant has also proved to be non-allergic and very good in building up the immune system. One study reported in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences found that 30 milliliters of aloe vera juice twice a day decreased the level of discomfort in 33 patients with irritable bowel syndrome. Flatulence also decreased for the participants, but stool consistence, urgency and frequency remained the same.
Other aloe vera benefits include its ability to soothe rashes and skin irritations; treat burns and cold sores; moisturize the skin, hair and scalp; provide antioxidants; and reduce inflammation. Aloe vera can be used topically or orally, and it’s available in most health food stores.