We are works in progress, constantly evolving and changing. Each of us begins life with a unique genetic blueprint. Genes, however, do not dictate destiny. The environment, both within and without, modifies genetic expression, turning on some and turning off others. Happily, we have control over many of those environmental variables. We can choose to shun cigarettes, excessive alcohol and junk food. We can choose to exercise each day, make time for friends and family, sleep eight hours a night, engage in productive and creative work, think positively and eat nourishing food.
Good nutrition means a plant-based, whole-foods diet—a diet rich in a variety of colorful (and hence nutrient-packed) fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts. The plant world also offers us many medicinal herbs. Each life stage presents unique challenges and needs, many of which gentle herbs can support. While some herbs remedy specific conditions, other herbs possess so many benefits we would do well to consume them throughout the life cycle.
Herbs for Life
If you want to live a long, vigorous life, herbalist Rosemary Gladstar would tell you to eat weeds. Gladstar, author of Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health (Storey Publishing, 2008), says, “it’s those ‘vulgar’ plants that grow everywhere, challenging us, that espouse true vitality and passion for life. These are the longevity herbs.”
Vitamin and mineral-rich dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and nettles (Urtica dioica) top the list. The fresh leaves (wear gloves when handling fresh stinging nettles) are delicious steamed, stir-fried or mixed into casseroles (the cooking process removes the sting). Gladstar also marinates the leaves in oil and vinegar. Boulder, Colorado, herbalist Brigitte Mars, author of The Desktop Guide to Herbal Medicine (Basic Health Publications, 2007) and other books, blends nettles, apple slices and water into a refreshing smoothie. You also can consume the dried leaves as a tea or a tincture.
Some plants, including dandelion and nettles, are rich in antioxidants, molecules that mop up the free radical damage associated with the wear-and-tear of life. Michael Castleman, author of the third edition of The New Healing Herbs (Rodale, 2010), notes that oxidative damage underlies the top three killers in the United States—heart disease, cancer and stroke—all diseases that begin early in life. You can protect yourself from such health problems by consuming antioxidant herbs like green and black tea (Camellia sinensis), turmeric (Curcuma longa, the chief spice in curry), bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), hawthorn berries (Crataegus spp.), garlic (Allium sativum) and cayenne (Capsicum annuum).
Linda B. White, M.D., teaches classes in herbal medicine at Metropolitan State College in Denver. She also co-authored The Herbal Drugstore (Rodale, 2000).