Herbs for Health and Aging

Improve your blood circulation, eyesight and heart and liver health with these herbs and supplements.

| September/October 1997

Most people are interested in stall­ing the aging process, or at least in growing old healthfully. To that end, we’ve been hearing about free radicals, reactive atoms that have been implicated in some sixty age-related conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, cataracts, and heart disease.

Normally, free radicals play an important role in good health. They kill bacteria, fight inflammation, and keep the smooth muscles well-toned to regulate the blood vessels and organs. But when too many free radicals form, they create a dangerous chain reaction that damages healthy cells, opening the door to illness.

The body keeps free radicals in check by producing antioxidants, substances that neutralize the roving atoms and keep them at bay. But it doesn’t produce enough antioxidants to fight off the huge amount of free radicals created in reaction to pollution and other environmental factors.

Scientists generally agree that taking antioxidant supplements may help the body defend itself. Vitamin E, vitamin C, and beta-carotene have been shown to neutralize free radicals by binding their lone electrons. Many herbs also contain antioxidants. The most potent herbal antioxidants are known as flavonoids, substances found in all plants, and some scientists suggest that flavonoids may be even more potent antioxidants than vitamin E.

Four herbal antioxidants have been so extensively researched that we have established a general “tissue-­specific” effect for them (see the chart in the images gallery). Beneficial effects of the flavonoids found in three herbs—ginkgo, bilberry, and milk thistle—are well-documented, and brief summaries of those antioxidants are offered here. Hawthorn is not as well-known to the general public, but research into its heart-benefiting antioxidants is pro­mising, and may soon bring this herb into the spotlight.

(Crataegus spp.)

From this small, shrublike tree with sharp thorns comes antioxidants that help keep the heart healthy.

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