Throughout history, people have experimented and invented–think of the wheel, the bow and arrow, the steam engine, the computer. This exploration has also included medicines–the mainstay of which has been herbs–and our ancestors tested the limits of what each plant could do. As a result, most herbs have multiple traditional uses, in part because their chemical complexity includes thousands of compounds.
While herbs today often become famous for a particular outstanding use, these celebrity herbs are worth trying for a variety of conditions. After all, why reinvent the wheel? The medicine hidden in your cupboard may pleasantly surprise you!
Polycystic ovaries and baldness
This popular Native American herb is now known almost exclusively for treating prostate disorders. In the past, nineteenth-century physicians used saw palmetto berries for a host of ailments, including anorexia, bronchitis, asthma, reduced libido, infertility, cystitis, and lung conditions. Modern uses include the following.
Male pattern baldness. The androgen-modulating action that contributes to saw palmetto’s benefit in prostate health also plays a major role in male pattern baldness. The drug Propecia works through the same mechanism. This means the herb may help stave off further hair loss, says herbalist David Winston in his book Saw Palmetto for Men & Women (Storey, 1999). Winston bases his opinion on the science and a few case histories.
PCOS. The same androgen-modulating effects suggest the use of saw palmetto for polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a condition associated with excess androgens. Naturopathic physicians now use the herb successfully for PCOS. It reduces androgenic side effects such as hair growth, weight gain, and acne; saw palmetto may even kickstart ovulation. Winston also likes saw palmetto for deep cystic acne, another condition sometimes associated with hormone imbalance.
Bladder complaints. Saw palmetto relaxes smooth muscle in the bladder neck and helps reduce prostate enlargement, both of which contribute to bladder-emptying problems in older men.
2. St. John’s wort
This herb has become the all-time phenomenon of the herbal medicine world, rising from obscurity to become a household name in a few short years. St. John’s wort is commonly used for mild to moderate depression and has remarkably few side effects, especially when compared to the drugs it replaces. Here are some of the herb’s alternate uses, old and new.
Stress and pain. Herbalists use St. John’s wort internally for its sedative effect and to reduce pain, making it useful in the treatment of neuralgia, anxiety, and menopausal symptoms such as mood changes, insomnia, hot flashes, and menopausal-associated depression. Science is beginning to catch up: A 1999 study indicates that this herb is effective for easing menopausal symptoms, especially psychological ones. It is also thought by herbalists to benefit mildly painful conditions including arthritis, sciatica, and muscle inflammation.
External injuries. This herb is widely known in Europe as an external remedy. St. John’s wort ointment or infused oil is one of the most popular European remedies; it’s used for wounds, bruises, varicose veins, and burns, especially sunburn.
Alcoholism. Animal research, although preliminary, suggests that St. John’s wort may help reduce a craving for alcohol–at least in rats specially bred to crave it. A 1999 study showed that the herb made these rats drink less booze. The researchers concluded that, “these promising findings suggest that St. John’s wort extract should be evaluated clinically as a potential therapeutic agent in the treatment of alcoholism.”
Winter blues. In addition to St. John’s wort’s recognized ability to treat mild to moderate depression, a single study published in 1999 indicates that the herb may also aid symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, a particular form of depression associated with decreased amounts of sunlight.
Muscle cramps and hot flashes. This newly popular South Pacific herb is used mainly for anxiety, but kava has been studied extensively for 130 years. Here are some of its many talents.
UTIs. The primary folk medicinal use of kava is for urogenital inflammation and cystitis. It is an excellent diuretic with additional antimicrobial properties that make it good medicine for urinary tract conditions.
Memory. In a small trial, kava improved memory and reaction time in a word recognition test.
Cramps. Kava is a powerful antispasmodic, suitable for relieving or easing an array of cramps and tension throughout the body.
Pain. As a pain reliever, kava is quite effective. Although no one knows the mechanism, it’s more potent than aspirin as an analgesic. When applied topically, kava is an excellent local anesthetic, comparable to procaine, and it effectively treats skin fungus.
Menopause. A placebo-controlled study from 1991 demonstrated substantial reductions in hot flashes, anxiety, and depression.
Stroke. Recent research shows that kava reduces blood clotting and protects against stroke.
Other benefits. According to herbalist Michael Tierra, clinicians are having good success using kava for a wide variety of conditions, including yeast infections, prostatitis, menstrual cramps, bedwetting, and water retention. Tierra says that kava is a digestive aid and appetizer. Other herbalists are using kava for irritable bladder, migraine, and cold and flu (used as a sweat-inducing tea).
Anti-aging and circulation. Ginkgo biloba is the most widely used herb in Europe, and it’s commonly prescribed by medical doctors. It has become famous for treating memory and cognitive disorders.
But ginkgo is useful for the whole body, not just the brain. It exerts a profound influence on tissue, stabilizing cell membranes and increasing the utilization of oxygen and glucose. Ginkgo also contains powerful antioxidants called proanthocyanidins. This combination of factors suggests it may help with diseases of aging, especially in the central nervous and cardiovascular systems.
Cellular health. Cell membranes are composed mainly of fatty acids (phospholipids) and are vulnerable to damage, primarily from free radicals, which cause lipid peroxidation. Ginkgo protects these membranes and enhances the general health of the cell, especially sensitive nerve cells.
Brain circulation. Ginkgo extract is the best treatment currently known for cerebrovascular insufficiency. Ginkgo has shown beneficial effects in treating the major symptoms of this condition, which include vertigo, headache, lack of vigor, and depression. Naturopathic physicians also recommend the herb for cochlear deafness, senile macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy. Other brain and nerve disorders that ginkgo benefits include migraines, neuropathy, neuralgia, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis.
Depression. Ginkgo is an antidepressant, especially for those with reduced brain circulation. Studies on both rodents and humans show ginkgo may compare to antidepressant drugs in some cases and that it eases anxiety.
Ringing ears. Tinnitus (ringing in the ears) is one of the most difficult conditions to treat. Ginkgo is widely reputed to benefit the condition, but the results of studies have been mixed. Some recent experiments show it helps the condition; in others, ginkgo was no better than a placebo.
Dizziness. According to a study conducted at the University of Sassari in Italy, inner ear dysfunction, including dizziness and vertigo, may be treated with ginkgo.
Circulation. The best-documented and most widely beneficial effect of ginkgo is increased circulation. A recent study in Germany shows that ginkgo ointment also aids circulation. Volunteers with hands and feet so cold that they turned blue applied ginkgo ointment to the affected areas. According to the researchers, skin temperature, blood flow, and capillary density all increased substantially. Dysfunctions of the microcapillaries were also reduced.
Ginkgo regulates the tone and elasticity of blood vessels and inhibits platelet stickiness, writes Donald Brown, N.D., in Herbal Prescriptions for Better Health (Prima, 1996). Ginkgo’s effects on the vascular system allow it to treat the circulatory symptoms of menopause and diabetes.
Leg cramps. Two placebo-controlled, double-blind German studies published in 1999 show that ginkgo also treats intermittent claudication, or lack of circulation to the extremities and cramping of the legs during exercise. Many clinical studies show that up to 160 mg of standardized ginkgo extract daily for three to six months is an effective treatment. Improvement is usually noticeable after four to six weeks.
Impotence. Impotence caused by impaired blood flow responded dramatically to ginkgo in one study. Patients took 60 mg per day of ginkgo extract for twelve to eighteen months. By six months into the study, 50 percent had their potency restored.
PMS. Scientific investigation shows that ginkgo eases some symptoms associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS), including abdominal pressure (bloating), breast pain, and mood problems.
Whole-body health. Until recently, many Americans relegated garlic to the spaghetti bowl. Now the herb is widely used for its beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system, especially for reducing cholesterol. Here’s what else it can do.
Digestive health. Garlic has been a very popular herb in Ayurveda, the healing system used in India for thousands of years. In this system, garlic enhances sluggish digestion, treats diarrhea caused by intestinal infection, and reduces malabsorption. It’s also used in Ayurveda for stomach ulcers, and recent test-tube evidence from the Netherlands shows that garlic may kill the bacterium associated with ulcers.
Libido. Ayurvedic practice uses garlic to increase libido, and I have seen it work with my own clients. Just make sure your sweetheart doesn’t mind the smell!
Diabetes. Ayurvedic practice uses garlic for diabetes. Early animal research may begin to explain why: In 1999, Indian researchers demonstrated that garlic given to diabetic mice caused a significant reduction in glucose levels. The longer the garlic was administered, the more substantial the effect. (Of course, don’t forego insulin or another medication for garlic.)
Infection. Modern naturopathic doctors use garlic for bronchitis, yeast infections, coughs, athlete’s foot, and acne. For a vaginal yeast infection, a peeled clove can be inserted as a vaginal suppository and retained overnight (be careful not to nick the garlic skin). For suppositories, you may also wrap a clove in cheesecloth. Modern research shows that garlic is more potent against yeast than the popular drug nystatin.
Cleansing. Garlic has long been considered a detoxifier. Now a 1999 study has shown that garlic juice prevents, at least in rats, the toxic effects of mercury on the fetus.
Cancer prevention. Two preliminary studies published in 1999 suggest that garlic may help prevent cancer. In the first study (short-term animal research), very large doses of garlic inhibited the growth of oral lesions in rats. As with most animal studies, the equivalent dosage for humans would be very high. The second study (in-vitro research) showed that garlic shortened the lives of human bladder tumor cells.
Arthritis. The herb also may benefit rheumatoid arthritis patients, according to a small, controlled Russian study published in 1999. Fifteen patients received the garlic, with 86.5 percent showing good response with no side effects. In comparison, fifteen patients taking a conventional antirheumatic therapy showed mixed results.
Healthy eyes. Garlic components have recently been shown to prevent cataracts in mice, a benefit consistent with its chemistry but relatively new to modern use.
By Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa
Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa has more than twenty-five years of experience with medicinal herbs and specializes in Ayurvedic, Chinese, and North American herbalism. He is a state certified dietician/nutritionist, a board member of the American Herbalists Guild, and the author of Herbal Defense (Warner, 1997).
The reference list for this article is extensive. If you would like a copy, please send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to “5 Herbs Reference List,” Herbs for Health, 201 E. Fourth St., Loveland, Colorado 80537-5655, or e-mail us at HerbsforHealth@HCPress.com.
For more information
Foster, Steven. 101 Medicinal Herbs: An Illustrated Guide. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1999.
Kilham, Chris. Kava: Medicine Hunting in Paradise. Rochester, Vermont. Park Street Press, 1996.
Snow, Joanne Marie. “Serenoa repens.” Protocol Journal of Botanical
Medicine Winter 1996:15 – 16.
Tierra, Michael. “Kava: Powerful Antistress Herb,” www.planetherbs.com, 1998.