Times are tough. So we scrimp where we can and keep a sharp eye out for new ways to save. But there is one area where spending a little now can actually save a lot later—your health.
According to the Milken Institute, an independent economic think tank in Santa Monica, California, more than half of all Americans suffer from one or more chronic diseases—and, as a result, it’s costing all of us more than $1 trillion each year. That’s the big picture.
On a more personal level, fighting cancer, heart disease, diabetes or mental illness can cost you thousands of dollars yearly in medication, doctor visits and treatment. Wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to prevent these health problems in the first place?
The following herbs are powerful promoters of good health and can tackle many everyday maladies in both good times and bad. Think of them as Mother Nature’s medicine chest!
From preventing the common cold to keeping cancer at bay, maintaining a healthy immune system is critical. But a poor diet, lack of sleep and stress can undermine your immunity, leaving you vulnerable to both short- and long-term illness.
While many herbs help enhance immunity, the following three are immune-boosting superstars:
1. Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus): This traditional Chinese herb has gained a reputation as an antiviral and potent immune booster because it increases the activity of natural killer cells and macrophages (large white blood cells that gobble up viruses).
In one study, researchers found that astragalus helped promote and maintain respiratory health—an important consideration for fending off colds and the flu. But astragalus’ protective powers may go far beyond the common cold. A 2006 meta-analysis of 34 randomized trials of 2,815 patients with non-small-cell lung cancer compared the use of astragalus treatment combined with chemotherapy to treatment with chemotherapy alone and found that astragalus reduced the risk of death in cancer patients after a 12-month follow up. For general immune strengthening, take 100 to 150 mg of a standardized astragalus supplement daily.
2. Echinacea (Echinacea spp.): This popular herb is used for both the common cold and for upper respiratory tract infections. Echinacea supports the immune system by activating white blood cells—immune cells that defend the body from infectious disease. A review at the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy found that echinacea decreased the odds of developing the common cold by 58 percent. And if you are unlucky enough to catch one, echinacea can shorten your suffering by 1.4 days. But the trick to echinacea’s effectiveness is to take 300 mg of supplemental echinacea every two hours at the first sign of the sniffles, then three times a day for a total of seven to 10 days. For best results, look for a standardized product that contains 4 to 5 percent echinacoside.
3. Green tea (Camellia sinensis): Another way to mount a good offense against illness is with green tea. Along with being a potent antioxidant, green tea stems the growth of viruses by inhibiting their absorption by the body. This tasty brew also attacks the membrane of viral cells, which effectively prevents the creation of new cells that spread the virus. During one recent clinical trial at the University of Florida, Gainesville, healthy adults who were given a green tea supplement were more than 32 percent less likely to come down with a cold or the flu than those taking a placebo.
This tasty beverage also has been shown to guard against a wide variety of cancers, including breast, lung, stomach, pancreatic, prostate and skin cancer. The key to green tea’s anticancer capability comes from a polyphenol called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). Drink several cups of green tea daily or take a green tea supplement that provides a concentrated source of polyphenols.
Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer in the United States—it kills more people each year than cancer, diabetes or accidents. Fortunately, many of these risk factors can be prevented or controlled by combining a healthy diet and exercise with heart-helping herbs.
4. Garlic (Allium sativum): This pungent herb lowers blood pressure and improves the elasticity of blood vessel walls. Garlic also reduces cholesterol and acts as a natural blood thinner. It’s so effective that one trial showed that people taking 600 mg of garlic daily slashed their risk of dying from heart disease over a 10-year period. The same study found that taking 300 mg of supplemental garlic daily prevented the development of atherosclerosis.
5. Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.): If you could rely on just one herb for heart disease, this would be it. Hawthorn contains large amounts of flavonoids that stabilize capillaries and strengthen weak blood vessels. Researchers at the University of Chicago note that antioxidant-rich hawthorn significantly reduces blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol levels. Clinical trials also have confirmed that hawthorn extract helps people with early-stage congestive heart failure (CHF). In one study, patients with CHF taking hawthorn extract for eight weeks showed improved quality of life, including a greater ability to exercise without shortness of breath and exhaustion. The recommended dose is 100 mg taken in two or three divided doses daily.
Heartburn, indigestion and nausea definitely can cramp your style. But two herbs can provide fast relief.
6. Ginger (Zingiber officinale): It doesn’t matter whether you suffer from motion sickness or morning sickness—ginger offers a safe way to soothe nausea. Researchers at the University of Southern California also discovered that this aromatic herb helps avert postoperative nausea and vomiting. While ginger is available in capsule form, the best way to ease nausea is with a cup of ginger tea.
7. Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra): Long before Tums burst onto the scene, herbalists relied on plants to treat indigestion. The most effective and well-known herb was licorice. But not any licorice will do. Licorice contains a chemical called glycyrrhiza that can raise blood pressure. Fortunately, this dangerous compound can be removed and the resulting deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) tablets are safe and effective. Popping a couple of DGL tablets before meals not only helps prevent heartburn, it’s reputed to soothe and heal the esophageal tissue by decreasing inflammation and ulceration. And unlike other forms of licorice, DGL is safe for people with high blood pressure. Most herbalists recommend chewing the equivalent of 760 mg (2 tablets) three times a day with meals.
Pain, whether it’s from a pulled muscle or arthritis, not only makes you miserable, but limits what you can do. The next time you are hurting, try one of these topical remedies:
8. Cayenne (Capsicum annuum): Pain is caused by Substance P, a neurotransmitter that tells the brain when we are injured and triggers inflammation. Cayenne’s primary anti-inflammatory component, capsaicin, reduces levels of Substance P. A growing number of studies show that, used repeatedly, a capsaicin cream can soothe low-back pain and even tackle the pain of peripheral neuropathy. Look for a topical cream containing .075 percent capsaicin. Just take care since cayenne can burn sensitive skin. Test it on a small area first and don’t apply near the eyes or on broken skin.
9. Arnica (Arnica montana): Athletes have long relied on arnica to reduce the pain, swelling and bruising that accompany sprains and strains. But this homeopathic remedy can be a powerful weapon against osteoarthritis. A comparison of ibuprofen and a topical arnica gel found that the arnica was just as effective for pain and hand function in people with osteoarthritis of the hands. But arnica’s benefit doesn’t just apply to arthritis. A group of researchers from the Queen Victoria Hospital in Sussex, England, found that topically applied arnica is a first-line defense against the pain of carpel tunnel syndrome.
Allergic rhinitis—the medical name for hay fever—affects more than 50 million Americans every year, making it the sixth leading cause of chronic disease in the United States. But, while these drugs temporarily relieve your symptoms, prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) allergy medications can cause adverse reactions, including drowsiness, headache and sore throat. Fortunately, natural remedies can nip seasonal allergies in the bud without the side effects of conventional allergy drugs.
10. Butterbur (Petasites hybridus): If you suffer from chronic hay fever, you might try butterbur instead of your prescription allergy medication. Research has found that this natural antihistamine is just as effective as cetirizine (Zyrtec). Butterbur may help even if you only suffer from occasional allergies. A clinical trial of 186 allergy sufferers reported that butterbur worked well on people with intermittent allergies. For best results, take 50 to 100 mg twice a day with meals.
11. Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica): This prickly plant offers relief from itchy, watery eyes, sneezing and respiratory symptoms—often within 15 minutes. The key is the herb’s anti-inflammatory effect. In one open trial of 69 patients with seasonal allergies, 58 percent reported that taking 600 mg of freeze-dried nettle leaf daily relieved their symptoms. Almost half of the participants said it was more effective than over-the-counter allergy drugs. And unlike OTC allergy medicines, taking stinging nettle won’t make you drowsy.
In an analysis of nearly 300 studies, researchers at the University of Kentucky confirmed that stress alters immunity, and that seniors and sick people are much more vulnerable to the adverse impact of chronic stress. Here are two of the most effective herbs to soothe stress:
12. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius): This adaptogen can help your body resist the negative effects of stress by suppressing stress hormones like cortisol. When compared to ginkgo—which can help with acute stress—ginseng was found to be a better option for long-term stress. How effective is it? A Chinese study recently showed that the herb worked as well as the anti-anxiety drug diazepam (Valium). Look for a standardized ginseng supplement that provides 4 to 7 percent total ginsenosides. The typical dose to relieve stress is 100 to 200 mg a day.
13. Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea): Russian research indicates that rhodiola reduces stress and fatigue; improves memory; enhances concentration and physical fitness; and increases overall well-being. Better yet, rhodiola stimulates the immune system, enabling the body’s own defenses to ward off the effects of stress. In one double-blind pilot study, students were given rhodiola or a placebo just before taking exams. After 20 days, the rhodiola group showed improvement in their physical fitness, coordination and mental sharpness. The recommended daily dose is 100 mg of a rhodiola supplement standardized to contain 3 percent rosavin.
Is the economy keeping you up at night? Are you feeling anxious or depressed? Two herbs might help lift you out of your doldrums and help you get a good night’s sleep.
14. St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum): Unlike prescription antidepressant drugs, St. John’s wort can gently and safely alleviate mild to moderate depression. In a new meta-analysis comparing the herb with prescription selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, researchers found that both were equally effective for mild to moderate depression. The big difference was safety: St. John’s wort had far fewer side effects. But be aware that St. John’s wort can make you more sensitive to sunlight. If you use this herb, make sure to slather on sunscreen before going outdoors. Also, St. John’s wort reduces the effectiveness of birth control pills and some other drugs. Consult your health-care provider if you take prescription medications and want to try St. John’s wort. The standard recommendation for mild to moderate depression is 500 to 1,000 mg of St. John’s wort extract daily.
15. Valerian (Valeriana officinalis): Valerian can help send you to dreamland because of its calming and sedative action. In one Norwegian study, 405 volunteers with insomnia took either valerian or a placebo for two weeks. By the end of the study, the valerian group reported longer sleep duration and less waking during the night than those taking the placebo. Another small crossover study showed that the participants experienced deep sleep faster after taking the herb. Unlike prescription sleep aids, taking 300 to 500 mg of valerian 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime isn’t addictive and won’t leave you feeling groggy the next morning.
A variety of mushrooms—some culinary, some not—have powerful immune-boosting properties. Medicinal mushrooms are packed with nutrients like calcium, selenium, iron, vitamins C and D, and the B vitamins. Extracts are either water-based or alcohol-based and can contain one or more types of mushroom. Look for a standardized extract to make sure you’re getting maximum immune-boosting power. They are also a wonderful source of ergothioneine, an antioxidant thought to protect against cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Cordyceps: This non-edible mushroom is often used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to support male reproductive health. According to a study in the journal Life Sciences, cordyceps may indeed boost male sexuality by stimulating testosterone production. These mushrooms also are potent cancer fighters because of their ability to scavenge free radicals.
Maitake: Research shows that maitake increases natural killer (NK) cell function. Studies also suggest that these mushrooms reduce the symptoms of type 2 diabetes. Maitake also might lower systolic blood pressure.
Reishi: One study in the International Journal of Oncology found that reishi can halt the proliferation of prostate cancer cells by causing them to commit suicide. Another recent study shows they help prevent breast cancer. And reishi is a great tonic to boost overall immunity.
Shiitake: These tasty morsels contain lentinan, an active compound that stimulates the immune system. Lentinan boosts intestinal immunity and fights infection throughout the body.
Kim Erickson is a freelance writer and the founder of Kim Erickson’s Everyday Organics.
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