Herbs for Health: The Best Medicinal Herbs

Herbs can heal in a variety of ways


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Ginger Tea

When Plants Become Pills

Herb capsules don’t grow on trees—they’re the result of a process that can produce up to 1,000 capsules a minute.

Supplement makers purchase raw herbs from suppliers around the world. They monitor suppliers closely, conducting inspections, checking soil and climate conditions, and watching the harvest. Some buy whole herbs and grind them into powders at their factories; others purchase herbs that are already ground. In ­either case, they’re shipped in sealed containers and quarantined at the factory until scientists analyze each shipment to ensure purity, potency, quality, and identification. Then they inspect the material by hand and track batches of herbs using a computer to follow the plant throughout manufacturing.

Ground herbs are funneled into empty capsules by a large machine that can process up to 1,000 capsules a minute. The machine fills and closes the capsules, which are inspected again before bottling. Then they’re packaged, shipped, and ready to go home with you.

Research Methods

In Herbs for Health, you’ll come across breaking news in herb research. Here are a few terms to help you put this research in context.

Clinical trials: Experiments performed on humans.

Control: A group of research subjects that undergoes the same experiment ­as the study group except for the procedure being tested.

Crossover: Subjects undergo one treatment then the other in random order.

Double blind: Neither the subject nor the researcher knows who receives the real treatment until the study is completed.

In vitro: The test is conducted in a test tube or another artificial environment.

In vivo: The test is conducted on living organisms such as rats. Animal tests usually precede tests in humans.

Maintenance dose: A dose that sustains a medicine’s desired effects. Compare with therapeutic dose.

Placebo: A dummy treatment taken by the control group. The experimental treatment must produce better results than the placebo to be considered effective.

Therapeutic dose: A quantity several times larger than the maintenance dose, generally used when a deficiency exists.

Ginger: A Chinese View

In Western herbalism, gingerroot (Zingiber officinalis) is commonly used to stimulate digestion and alleviate motion sickness and nausea, with little concern whether the herb form is dried or fresh.

Practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine, however, use fresh and dried gingerroot (actually a rhizome) for related but distinct ailments.

Fresh ginger, called sheng-jiang, is used to relieve cold symptoms such as coughing, chills, and sneezing; to treat chronic bronchial conditions; to encourage sweating; and to detoxify other herbs in formulas. Dried ginger, called gan-jiang, is used for a wider range of conditions, including gastrointestinal problems associated with “internal cold,” dyspepsia, colic, irritable bowel syndrome, anorexia, motion sickness, vomiting, menstrual problems, immune system stress, and food poisoning.

Source: Holmes, Peter. Jade Remedies: A Chinese Herbal Reference for the West. Boulder, Colo.: Snow Lotus Press, 1996.

Personal Healing

Herbalism involves more than substituting a plant for a drug. It also takes into account the patient’s physique, level of fitness, metabolism, lifestyle and work conditions.

This approach—called constitutional herbalism—blends Western herbalism with ancient Eastern philosophies such as Traditional ­Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, which focus on metabolism type.

In these systems, it’s understood that health arises when a person understands her or his nature and develops habits to support it. For instance, imagine a sales ­representative, constantly driving in heavy traffic and wooing customers. She reaches for coffee to keep going, then alcohol to calm down. Ayurvedic thought suggests that she has an easily aroused nervous system and needs foods and herbs that will foster calmness and steadiness.

Her ideal foods include grains, beans, vegetables, and fish, with few spicy or sweet foods. To help remove the waste products produced by stress, she can take herbs that calm and promote sleep, such as valerian, and herbs that support her adrenal glands, such as reishi mushroom.

Source: Hobbs, Christopher, and Kathi Keville. Women’s Herbs, Women’s Health. Loveland, Colo.: Botanica Press, 1998.

Keep It On the Outside

The following herbs are listed in the Botanical Safety Handbook for external use only, unless under the supervision of a qualified health-care provider. Do not use these herbs while nursing, and never apply them to broken or abraded skin.

Alkanet (Alkanna tinctoria): This member of the borage ­family contains toxic alkaloids. Historically it has been used externally to soothe and soften the skin.

Borage (Borago officinalis): The leaf and flowers contain toxic alkaloids. Borage’s emollient qualities make it useful for sore and inflamed skin.

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale): This species has a lower content of toxins than the other herbs listed here, but there are some reports of liver damage with chronic internal use. Comfrey compresses promote the healing of bruises, sprains, fractures, and broken bones; comfrey oil or ointment is used to treat acne, boils, and psoriasis.

Henna (Lawsonia inermis): Although this dye plant has been used for diarrhea and as a gargle for sore throats, it also has a strong effect on the female reproductive system, as evidenced by its use as an abortifacient in Africa.

Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum): Historically used to treat kidney and urinary problems, this plant contains toxic alkaloids.

Male fern (Dryopteris filix-mas): Canadian regulations forbid internal use. Traditionally used for treating tapeworms, this herb is highly toxic and can cause liver damage and blindness.

Russian comfrey (Symphytum asperum, ¥uplandicum): The more toxic of the comfreys, this herb contains liver-harming alkaloids.

Sources: American Herbal Products Association. Botanical Safety Handbook. Edited by Michael McGuffin, Christopher Hobbs, Roy Upton, and Alicia Goldberg. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 1997.

Chevallier, Andrew. The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. New York: DK Publishing, 1996.