Herbs for Health: Supplement News for April 2001

New studies show the benefits of black cohosh, plantain and ginger.

| April/May 2001

  • Black Cohosh was traditionally used to allay symptoms of menopause.
    Photographs ©2001 by Steven Foster
  • Plantain may act as an immunostimulant.
    Photographs ©2001 by Steven Foster

Black cohosh—confirmation of traditional use

Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), formerly Cimicifuga racemosa, is a member of the buttercup family native to deciduous forests of eastern North America. Historically, there are six species of Cimicifuga recognized from North America and thirteen from East Asia. Many Asian species have been used similarly to black cohosh in the West. Use of the herb for gynecological conditions predates European settlement of the New World. In the nineteenth century, it emerged as an important treatment for various female-related conditions, championed by John King, an eclectic physician. Prior to these uses, and its modern use in phytomedicine to allay symptoms of menopause, black cohosh was primarily regarded as an anti-inflammatory and pain reliever for rheumatism, arthritis, and related inflammatory conditions. In Korea, an Asian species, C. dahurica, has been used as a folk medicine for treating fever, pain, and inflammation.

Last year, researchers at the School of Dentistry and Institute of Oral Biology at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, Korea, conducted a battery of laboratory tests to explore the plant’s analgesic (pain-relieving) and anti-inflammatory effects. The researchers tested several extract fractions. Starting with an alcoholic extract of the root, they created additional extracts in other solvents including water, ether, and butanol. The alcoholic and butanol-soluble extracts produced dramatic analgesic effects in a laboratory test system. Alcohol, water, and butanol extracts exerted strong anti-inflammatory activity in animal models. Scientists know that pain and inflammation are mediated by a number of irritant compounds at the site of inflammation including prostaglandins, histamine, and bradykinin, among others. The researchers found that several of the fractions had significant anti-bradykinin effects, antihistamine activity, and inhibited an enzyme associated with inducing inflam- mation by prostaglandins.

The authors concluded that methanol extracts of Asian relatives of black cohosh (and presumably black cohosh itself, based on its similar chemistry) could have an interesting future to treat pain and inflammation effectively without side effects. (1)

Plantain—the next immunostimulant?

Most of us know plantain (Plantago major) as a lawn weed. American Indian groups deemed this European native “white man’s foot” because wherever European populations settled, plantain became established. Not only common in North America, European species of plantain have also become well-established in South America and other continents where Europeans made new homes. Plantain has been used topically for centuries to treat insect bites and stings, inflammation, and promote wound healing. It’s used in the form of a tea for its expectorant activity. Scientific studies confirm bronchodilation action, and plantain preparations are widely used in Europe to treat bronchitis and bronchial spasms due to colds. The herb is approved in Germany for treatment of catarrh of the upper respiratory tract and inflamed mucous membranes of the mouth and throat. Scientists have identified at least five groups of compounds responsible for plantain’s wound-healing action. It is known to neutralize poisons internally and externally, and to rapidly relieve pain from stings, bites, and poison ivy.

Researchers at the Department of Biomedical and Thera- peutic Sciences at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Peoria, along with colleagues in Mexico, recently published results of a study explaining how previously reported immunostimulant activity works. The researchers found that a metha-nolic extract of the leaves of plantain enhances the production of nitric oxide and tumor- necrosis factor alpha by white blood cells. Both activities associated with increasing cellular immune response. The extract also increased the number of specialized white blood cells, which attack bacteria and viruses. This study helps to provide a clearer understanding of how plantain works to protect against disease, as well as its potential for treating infections. (2)

Ginger for motion sickness in children

We all have memories of Mom’s home remedy, something she gave us whenever we complained of a minor upset stomach. For my siblings and me that remedy was ginger ale. In recent years, ginger extracts have emerged as dietary supplements for the treatment of motion sickness, backed by at least six positive controlled clinical studies. Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is believed to reduce nausea by increasing digestive fluids and absorbing and neutralizing toxins and stomach acid. Ginger increases bile secretion as well as the action and tone of the bowels.

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