In many ways, humans are lucky. We live longer, more richly complex lives than most animal species, and, if you exclude long-lived trees, than most plants, too. We have plenty of time to enjoy healing herbs, those green allies that sustain us through the many twists and turns of life’s passages.
After bone mass peaks during the third decade, we steadily lose ground. With the loss of estrogen at menopause (and in the absence of hormone replacement therapy), a woman’s bone loss accelerates. Weight-bearing and weight-lifting exercises slow bone loss—provided the availability of bone-essential nutrients.
Gladstar recommends boosting dietary intake of calcium-rich plants, such as seaweeds, dark-green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds. Duke adds that legumes are important. They contain the protein bones need and plant estrogens, which help make up for the body’s declining levels.
During this time of life, we start to make nervous jokes about incipient dementia. To preserve those brain cells, Duke recommends cinnamon and turmeric. These herbs, along with ginger and baical skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis), have been shown to protect nerve cells from beta-amyloid (a protein implicated in Alzheimer’s disease). Warming herbs (like cinnamon, turmeric and ginger) are a nice perk for elders who feel chilled.
Common garden sage (Salvia officinalis) has nerve-protectant properties and slows the enzyme that chews up acetylcholine, a nerve chemical in short supply in Alzheimer’s disease. Preliminary research shows sage extracts help improve memory performance in normal people and slow cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
McQuade Crawford says that, despite the fact that some studies yielded negative results, most of the research shows ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) standardized extracts help reduce symptoms of dementia. So far, the research on whether ginkgo can improve cognitive function in people without dementia or prevent conditions such as
Alzheimer’s disease is inconclusive.
Recent research also has shown that Asian ginseng extracts can protect nerve cells, prevent memory impairment in aging rats and, more importantly, improve cognitive function in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Ginseng offers another benefit for older people: It can lower blood glucose levels, which tend to creep up later in life, particularly when obesity is present. (Safety note: Diabetics should not combine ginseng with blood-sugar-lowering drugs without medical supervision.)
Visual decline is another concern later in life. Dark blue and red berries—bilberry, blueberry, black currant and hawthorn—are rich in antioxidant flavonoids, which protect the eyes and the blood vessels. Eat fresh seasonal blueberries. Bilberries are more conveniently taken as extracts. Mars notes that not only does bilberry protect the eyes and arteries, but it also strengthens veins and the urinary system. Another red berry, cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon), also can prevent urinary tract infection when taken as a juice or tablet.
Having moved into his seventh decade of life (and looking a good 10 years younger), Blumenthal has found a new favorite herb: saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). He takes extracts of this herb (with good results) for benign prostatic hyperplasia, a condition that occurs in more than half of men in their 60s and in 90 percent of men older than 80. Symptoms include difficult and more-frequent urination. Studies have shown benefits for saw palmetto, alone or combined with pygeum (Prunus africana), pumpkin seed and nettle root.
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).
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Herbs for Life: Essential Herbs for Every Age
• Herbs for Teens and Young Adults
• Herbs for the Mid-20s to Early 40s
• Herbs for the Mid-40s to Early 50s