In every issue of Herbs for Health, professionals from a variety of health-care fields answer your questions about using medicinal herbs. Medical doctor Robert Rountree and herbalist Rosemary Gladstar respond for this issue.
Q. Your article “Treat yourself” (November/December 1996) says “...herbal adaptogens such as oatseed...[are] believed to protect and rebuild the myelin sheath surrounding nerve cells.” Since I have multiple sclerosis, a disease in which portions of the myelin sheath are destroyed, I am interested in learning more. I started taking the oat seed extract, and I believe it has improved my energy, stamina, and disposition. Some doctors may say it’s all in my head. I say it’s the effect that counts.
Q. I have multiple sclerosis. My symptoms include pain, dizziness, and fatigue. Which herbs would be helpful and which would be harmful? I have heard echinacea is considered harmful because it makes the immune system stronger.
A. Despite years of intensive research, we still don’t know whether multiple sclerosis (MS) is an auto-immune disorder or a chronic viral infection. Although many herbalists discourage using echinacea, astragalus, and other immune boosters for MS, I have been unable to find any published laboratory or clinical studies that show they are harmful, especially for short-term use. If, in fact, it turns out that a virus is the culprit, these may turn out to be beneficial adjunctive therapy.
One of the most useful plants for MS is flaxseed (Linum usitatissimum). Flaxseed oil is a significant source of omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs). Also found in certain algae and cold-water fish, EFAs are essential components of nerve membranes and have anti-inflammatory properties. Other helpful herbs include Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) for stamina, licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) for adrenal support, and ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), which improves brain function and can alleviate dizziness.
Oat extract (Avena sativa) has a long history of use as a nervous system tonic and appears to have calming and sedative properties.
A. Conventional medicine has little to offer people with this baffling disease, which often leaves people with a sense of futility and hopelessness. But herbs and natural therapies can bring hope, empowerment, and relief from symptoms.
For dizziness and fatigue, I recommend ginkgo (three daily doses of either 1/2 teaspoon tincture or 2 capsules) and oatseed which I like to use to protect the myelin sheath and reduce inflammation of nerve endings. I’ve also successfully used St.-John’s-wort for nerve damage and suggest combining it in equal amounts with oatseed and ginkgo; take as a tea (3 cups daily), an extract/tincture (1/2 teaspoon three times daily), or in capsules (2 capsules three times daily). These herbs provide specific nutrients for the nervous system.
Though some say that echinacea has the potential to overstimulate the immune system and should not be used for auto-immune disorders, many people, including myself, think otherwise. I would suggest, however, using echinacea in small amounts, a few days on, a few days off.
Oils of evening primrose (Oenothea biennis), borage (Borago officinalis), and black currant seeds (Ribes nigrum) are rich in essential fatty acids that are also necessary to healthy nerve function. I recommend 500 mg three times daily.
Q. Most of my life I have suffered from allergies to dust mites and mold spores and have taken every manner of over-the-counter and prescription antihistamines and decongestants. The medication usually works for a while, but it either has side effects or my body becomes tolerant.
Several books list garlic, ginkgo, stinging nettle, chamomile, feverfew, horseradish, and vitamin C as good for my problem. How many of these herbs can I safely take? Also, what can I still take when (down the road) I become pregnant?
Garden Grove, California
A. Of the herbs you mentioned, a freeze-dried preparation of stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) provides the best short-term results for alleviating nasal congestion and sneezing. However, it is not recommended during pregnancy because there’s a lack of information about its safety.
For the long term, a comprehensive program aimed at normalizing immune function tends to be the most effective. Start with a multiple vitamin/mineral that contains an array of antioxidants (carotenes, tocopherols, zinc, selenium) and pantothenic acid. To this you can add a daily dose of 300 mg to 600 mg gamma linolenic acid (GLA) extracted from black currant or borage seed.
Finally, try taking concentrates of one or more bioflavonoids, which are plant pigments that prevent inflammation and allergies. One of the most potent is quercetin, which is found in many herbs, fruits, and vegetables, especially onion skin. The usual dosage is 1 g to 2 g daily.
A. Antihistamines and decongestants, while superior at quickly suppressing symptoms, do little to correct the underlying cause(s) that create the allergic reactions. In fact, they often aggravate the condition.
While herbs and natural remedies may not always work as quickly to alleviate the symptoms, they do far more to correct the underlying problem. I would suggest that you consult a competent holistic practitioner who will help you create a sound program based on your individual symptoms. For a list of herbal practitioners, contact the American Herbalists Guild, PO Box 70, Roosevelt, UT 84006, (435) 722-8434.
In my practice, I stress strengthening the kidneys, liver, and immune system and offer symptomatic herbs only for immediate relief. The herbs I use most often are not usually associated with allergies—Siberian ginseng, nettle, garlic, echinacea, burdock root, dandelion root, and wild yam. Used for several months along with a supportive diet, these herbs strengthen the major organ systems, increase our body’s defense mechanisms, and decrease allergic response.
For immediate relief, I use herbs such as ephedra, horseradish (my favorite remedy for allergy-related sinus congestion), feverfew, mullein, yarrow, and elder. Try herbal steams for head congestion, chamomile eye washes for itchy eyes, and garlic and horseradish in food to clear congestion.
Robert Rountree, M.D., is a physician at the Helios Health Center, co-author of Smart Medicine for a Healthier Child, and an advisory board member of the Herb Research Foundation.
Rosemary Gladstar, herbalist, is founder of The California School of Herbal Studies, cofounder of SAGE, and author of Herbal Healing for Women. She has more than 20 years of experience as an herbalist, teacher, and herbal events organizer.
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The information offered in “Q & A” is not intended to be a substitute for advice from your health-care provider.