Herbs for Health: Benefits of Chamomile

In the realm of “simples”, herbs that are used by themselves by ordinary people for the treatment of common ailments, few herbs have garnered such a reputation for success as chamomile. It has been used for centuries in gentle teas to encourage sleep and alleviate fevers, colds, and stomach ailments.

Chamomile Varieties

Two types of chamomile are familiar to herb gardeners. The upright-growing annual German (or Hungarian) chamomile (Matricaria recutita or, in some older publications, M. chamomilla or Chamomilla recutita) is native to Europe and western Asia. Major suppliers to the world market include Argentina, Egypt, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, Hungary, and Poland.

The lower-growing, spreading perennial Roman (or En­glish) chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile, sometimes identified as Anthemis nobilis) is the “cammomill” of Gerard and the “camomile” of Culpeper. It is native to western Europe northward to Northern Ireland. Commercial supplies come from England, France, Belgium, and Eastern Europe. Although the uses of German and Roman chamomile are similar, high-quality German chamomile is a third the cost of Roman cham­omile.

Current Uses

Extensive scientific research over the past twenty years has confirmed many of the traditional uses for chamomile and elucidated mechanisms for its activity. Chamomile was one of the first herbs for which the European Scientific Cooperative for Phytotherapy, a coalition of scientific organizations formed to develop “harmonized” herb regulations, produced comprehensive scientific reviews and suggested regulatory texts. Its flowers are an official drug (recognized by government authority) in the pharmacopoeias of twenty-six countries. Compresses, rinses, baths, or gargles are used to treat hem­orrhoids and inflammations and irritations of the skin, mouth, gums, and throat. Teas or tinctures are used to relieve gastrointestinal spasms and inflammation as well as peptic ulcers. A mild tea is also used as a gentle sleep aid, particularly for children.

Chamazulene, a constituent that comprises 5 percent of the essential oil, has been credited with relieving spasms, inflammation, pain, and allergy. (In rare cases, chamomile has also been found to induce allergic reactions in people who are allergic to other members of the daisy family, such as ragweed.)

However, scientists now believe that the anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, antimicrobial, and mild sedative effects of chamomile are primarily due to alpha-bisabolol, which comprises 13 percent of the essential oil. Studies have shown that alpha-bisabolol is antibacterial and antifungal and provides protection against peptic ulcers. It has also been shown to reduce fever and reduce the healing time of skin burns in laboratory animals.

As it has for many years, chamomile enjoys wide use, especially in Europe and the United States, as a refreshing beverage and as an ingredient in numerous cosmetics and external preparations. It does indeed seem capable of almost anything.

Further Reading

• Benner, M., and H. Lee. Journal of ­Allergy Clinical Immunology 1973, 52:307-308.
• Der Marderosian, A., and L. Liberti. Natural Product Medicine: A Scientific Guide to Foods, Drugs, Cosmetics. Philadelphia: George F. Stickley, 1988.
• European Scientific Cooperative for Phytotherapy. Proposal for a European Monograph on the Medicinal Use of Matricariae Flos (Chamomile Flowers). Brussels: ESCOP, 1990.
• Foster, S. Chamomile. Botanical Series, No. 307. Austin, Texas: American Botanical Council, 1991.
• ——. Herbal Renaissance. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 1993.
• Mann, C., and E. J. Staba. In Herbs, Spices, and Medicinal Plants: Recent Advances in Botany, Horticulture, and Pharmacology, edited by L. E. Craker and J. E. Simon, 1:235-280. Phoenix, Arizona: Oryx Press, 1986.
• Salamon, I. The Herb, Spice and Medicinal Plant Digest 1992, 10(1):1-4.
• Tyler, V. E. Herbs of Choice: The Therapeutic Use of Phytomedicinals. Binghamton, New York: Pharmaceutical Products Press, 1994.

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