This comprehensive guide to herbal supplements summarizes the healthiest choices for a wide variety of ages and ailments.
A well-rounded diet that includes leafy greens, whole grains and organic protein should provide your body with most of the nutrients it needs to survive and thrive. Supplements do what their name implies; they supplement and complement daily meals to help provide optimal nutrition and vitality during all stages of life. Supplements also offer the opportunity to consume uncommon herbs and spices that have healthful benefits, but that we may not stumble across in our day-to-day lives, such as ashwagandha and eleuthero. They also allow consumers to ingest larger doses of common culinary ingredients, including garlic and turmeric, than what we would typically encounter in a traditional meal.
The following guide offers a comprehensive list of recommended supplements for common health complaints, such as stress, indigestion and inflammation, as well as those best-suited for women, men, children and seniors. All of the following supplements benefit the body in specific ways, and all contribute to general health and longevity.
As with any new addition to a health-care routine, always consult a doctor before taking a regular supplement, especially if you have existing health conditions, are nursing or pregnant. Don’t mix herbal supplements with prescription pharmaceuticals without the advice of a medical professional. These supplements offer safe and natural benefits to our well-being, but only when used correctly.
A few health conditions are experienced by nearly everyone at one time or another: inflammation, digestive discomfort and stress. Due to this, some herbal supplements can be safely added to a regular wellness routine to boost general health, longevity and comfort.
Inflammation is an essential component in the body’s ability to stay healthy; the inflammatory response begins the process of healing after an injury. However, our bodies can get stuck in unnecessary and unhealthy inflammatory responses, and this chronic inflammation stresses and injures cells. As a result, inflammation can trigger anything from joint pain and skin problems to heart disease and perhaps even cancer.
Boswellia (Boswellia serrata). Sometimes called Indian frankincense, this Ayurvedic herb contains boswellic acids, which have been found to inhibit the synthesis of pro-inflammatory enzymes in vitro. This trait makes boswellia useful in treating such disorders as arthritis, tendinitis and Crohn’s disease.
Cayenne (Capsicum annuum). The active ingredient in cayenne peppers is capsaicin, which has been shown to inhibit the inflammatory process, thus reducing pain and inflammation in such conditions as arthritis and diabetic neuropathy.
Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens). Many studies indicate that devil’s claw extracts possess anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effects against acute and subacute inflammation. Devil’s claw is widely used to ease muscular tension, inflammation, joint and lower back pain and the pain caused by rheumatoid and osteoarthritis.
Garlic (Allium sativum). Contains a wealth of healthful compounds, and some of them help inhibit inflammatory messenger molecules. This can benefit the respiratory system in the case of asthma; help ease symptoms of arthritis; and improve blood vessel flexibility, which in turn decreases the likelihood of damage due to chronic inflammation.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale). Gingerol, ginger’s active constituent, helps suppress pro-inflammatory compounds, thereby making the root particularly effective at treating the pain and swelling of arthritis. By preventing blood clots and lowering cholesterol, ginger may also help reduce the chance of heart disease — another inflammatory condition.
Digestion is exceedingly important in the way our bodies function. The elimination system carries away waste from cells, giving organs the right environment in which to function. In many wellness theories, good digestion is the key to overall well-being.
Deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL). DGL is licorice that contains the plant’s soothing compounds without the potentially negative side effects associated with its naturally occurring glycyrrhizic acid. DGL can be effective in treating ulcers; it promotes healing and guards against ulcer recurrence by increasing the body’s production of mucin. Mucin protects gut linings from acidic digestive juices.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). Fennel is an anti-inflammatory herb that helps soothe the digestive tract and relieve stomach bloating. It’s a carminative, which means it helps dispel gas; an antispasmodic, which assuages painful cramping; a bitter, which prompts our bodies to release digestive enzymes; and an anti-nausea aid.
Peppermint (Mentha x piperita). As an effective antispasmodic, peppermint can be used to treat distress in the upper gastrointestinal tract and to promote gastric secretions. As a relaxant for the muscles of the intestinal wall, peppermint makes a safe and effective treatment against irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Peppermint also possesses gas-relieving and anti-nausea effects.
Slippery elm bark (Ulmus rubra). By producing mucilage — a healing slime that soothes the gut wall — slippery elm (and similar demulcent herbs, such as marshmallow) provides relief for intestinal inflammation and minor mucous-membrane irritations. It’s also useful against acid reflux, as it helps absorb stomach acid. Slippery elm trees are susceptible to Dutch elm disease, so protect the longevity of this revered plant medicine by avoiding wild-harvested slippery elm products and instead opting for supplements that use sustainably grown slippery elm bark.
Triphala. This Ayurvedic herbal blend has long-term digestive benefits. Its main functions are to tone the intestinal wall and promote evacuation. Triphala is made up of three fruits that work together as a mild laxative, bowel tonic and detoxifier to repair the intestinal tract.
Stress is common, and the body’s reaction to stress is completely normal, readying you to fight or flee. The problem with stress occurs when it’s chronic, as your system never recovers from this surge of energy and strength. A class of herbs known as “adaptogens” can help your body adapt to stressors more easily. Adaptogens are a safe way to restore balance, rebuild vitality and even promote longevity.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera). This Ayurvedic herb enhances general health and well-being by increasing energy, calming the mind and encouraging restful sleep so the body can overcome mental and physical stress. It has also been proven to ease fatigue caused by nervous tension.
Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus). Another Ayurvedic herb, eleuthero protects the body from both internal and external stressors. By increasing physical and mental energy, it provides a sense of all-around well-being. In clinical studies, eleuthero has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels as well as strengthen adrenal glands, which in turn help regulate the body’s response to stress.
Ginseng. In Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American ginseng (P. quinquefolius), compounds called ginsenosides may be the key to the herbs’ ability to increase endurance, relieve fatigue and bolster immunity, as well as reduce levels of stress hormones both immediately and long-term. American ginseng has been overharvested, so we recommend purchasing organically grown (rather than wild-harvested) ginseng root from a reliable source (see “Trusted Supplement Companies” at end of article).
Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca). The only non-adaptogen on this list, motherwort is a supportive nervine in the mint family that helps ease the tension and anxiety that often accompany stressful situations. Motherwort is a sedative, hypotensive and antispasmodic.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea). Rhodiola helps improve mental acuity and appears to treat symptoms of fatigue in those working under stressful situations. It helps increase resistance to physical and psychological stress, which, in turn, aids in reducing stress-related anxiety.
Not every herb is equally effective across all ages and genders. With the help of a doctor or herbalist, choose supplements that actively benefit you and your life stage to reap the most health rewards.
Many herbs have long histories of use for regulating women’s hormones, promoting fertility and easing the symptoms of both menstruation and menopause. Pregnant or nursing women should always check with their doctors before adding new herbs to their health-care routines.
Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa). Black cohosh is the top herb prescribed to manage symptoms of menopause. With a mild mood-lifting effect, this herb eases hot flashes, fatigue and irritability. It can also be used to treat PMS and painful menstruation. Because of its popularity, black cohosh is at risk of being overharvested. Be sure to source black cohosh supplements from companies that use organically grown ingredients.
Raspberry leaf (Rubus idaeus). An astringent, raspberry leaf is known to alleviate bleeding from heavy menstruation, as well as hemorrhaging during labor and postpartum. It’s a uterine tonic, toning the muscles of the pelvic floor and providing relief from various uterine disorders.
Red clover (Trifolium pratense). This herb is a concentrated source of phytoestrogens — substances that look and act like estrogen in the body. When estrogen levels are low, as during menopause, red clover can help with hot flashes, night sweats and vaginal dryness.
Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus). An Ayurvedic herb commonly used by Indian women, shatavari is well-known for helping to balance hormones. It can support fertility, soothe damaged vaginal tissue, balance energy levels and promote a healthy sex drive.
Vitex (Vitex agnus-castus). Also know as chaste tree berry, this is one of the best herbs to support the menstrual cycle and balance hormones. It likely works by regulating the pituitary gland, which tells other glands how much of each hormone to make.
Overall, there is less holistic health research about men than about women. Despite this, the following herbal supplements are acknowledged to help with men’s heart health, ease the symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia and promote a healthy sex drive.
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.). Although a good herb for any heart, hawthorn is recommended for men to support healthy cardiovascular function. Prescribed for angina pectoris, mild arrhythmia, heart disease, heart attacks and heart failure, hawthorn increases the blood supply to the heart, strengthening its contractions.
Maca (Lepidium meyenii). Maca is most known in the United States as the herb for sexual enhancement and increased fertility. However, maca is not a sexual stimulant; it restores stamina and vigor, nourishing a body’s overall health and vitality, which in turn improves sexual function.
Pumpkin seed oil. The health benefits of pumpkin seeds can be found in pumpkin seed oil supplements. The phytosterol compounds help lower LDL cholesterol, and pumpkin seeds help ease difficult urination due to prostate enlargement. Perhaps most importantly, the oil keeps testosterone from inflicting damage on prostate cells and helps reduce prostate cancer development.
Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). Benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) affects roughly 50 percent of men older than 50, and saw palmetto is an effective treatment against it. Its androgen-modulating action optimizes the metabolism of male hormones, promotes healthy prostate function and may play a role against male-pattern baldness.
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). The steroid stigmast-4-en-3-one, which is present in stinging nettle, is known to inhibit an enzyme associated with BPH, which can in turn suppress prostate inflammation. The herb also provides symptomatic relief of the urinary difficulties associated with BPH.
Though we need to be extra-careful when it comes to the substances that children ingest, some herbs are proven to be both safe and beneficial to them. If the children in your life aren’t comfortable with capsules, then some of these supplements can be added to foods, baths or warm drinks. Always consult a pediatrician or other trusted medical professional before introducing a new herb to a child.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita). Chamomile is a calming herb for all, and it’s gentle enough to soothe children, relax their nerves and aid in peaceful sleep. Topically, it’s an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic herb. It can also be used to ease digestive problems and upset stomachs, especially those caused by emotional distress.
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum spp.). Simple cinnamon is so delicious that you’ll have no problem getting most children to taste it. Use it to ease cramping, diarrhea, vomiting or an upset stomach. It’s also a great warming spice that can relieve the chill of a cold day and provide comfort during an illness.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). A safe antiviral and nervine, lemon balm can soothe overtired children or a child suffering from the uncomfortable aches and pains of a viral illness. It’s a mild sedative, perfect for a high-strung and stimulated child after a long, exhausting day.
Marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis). When a child is dealing with an illness that leaves their throat dry and scratchy, marshmallow is just the herb to help. Marshmallow root has mucilaginous properties, meaning it creates a soothing and protective layer over mucous membranes of the upper respiratory system, as well as the digestive and urinary tracts.
As we age, new and worrisome health changes become more pressing, be they physical, psychological or hormonal. Our immune systems also become less efficient. Help treat some of the ailments that accompany aging with the following herbs.
Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus). Bilberry is best known medicinally for preventing damage to retinas, strengthening capillaries and connective tissue and protecting against age-related degenerative eye disease. High in antioxidants, bilberry helps stop damage from free radicals. Its flavonoids may improve circulation, which could also help treat varicose veins.
Garlic. An antiviral, antibacterial and antioxidant, garlic can improve blood circulation, increase energy levels, lower high blood pressure, reduce cholesterol levels and prevent blood clotting. As it’s digested, the allicin in garlic produces sulfenic acid, a compound highly effective at killing free radicals.
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba). This herb improves circulation and oxygen metabolism in the brain by increasing the elasticity of blood vessels. This effect also protects brain cells; repairs nerve tissue damage in the brain; and boosts short-term memory, attention span and even mood.
Milk thistle (Silybum marianum). Milk thistle is the go-to herb for aging livers. We encounter countless environmental toxins throughout our days, and it puts stress on the liver to constantly filter those toxins out. The component of milk thistle called silymarin prevents damage and encourages the growth of new liver cells.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa). Like milk thistle, turmeric offers liver support. Among its other many benefits, the curcumin in turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties that treat symptoms of arthritis, improve brain health and may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Turmeric may also help us look younger by tightening skin and reducing inflammation. Look for turmeric supplements that include black pepper extract or piperine.
Not everyone will experience the same conditions and illnesses in their lifetimes, but everyone can benefit from knowing basic herbal treatments. Like pharmaceuticals, herbal supplements can target specific ailments.
If anxiety plays a persistent role in your daily life, see a health practitioner — meditation or psychotherapy may be the best route for relief, possibly in conjunction with herbal supplements. While pharmaceuticals have their place in treating anxiety, they should not be combined with sedative herbs unless under the supervision of a trained medical professional.
Chamomile. This simple herb has a history of helping people relax. Mild forms of chamomile, as in tea, are well-known sleep aids. Chamomile is a calming nervine, anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic. The herb also has anticoagulant properties, so be cautious about introducing chamomile into your wellness routine if you take any type of blood thinner.
Kava Kava (Piper methysticum). Known for its ability to promote relaxation without affecting mental sharpness, kava kava relaxes muscles, decreases pain and produces a heightened sense of tranquility.
Lemon balm. Lemon balm's primary use is to relieve nervous stomachs experiencing gas or bloating, and nervous skin in the form of cold sores. However, in adults as in children, this herb gently sedates, promotes mental clarity and eases both headaches and cramps.
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora). The sedative skullcap is effective at improving mood and cooling down anxious emotions without reducing mental alertness. It’s also a nervine, so the herb works in the nervous and circulatory systems to bring down body heat caused by overwhelming emotion.
Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis). Also a sedative and a nervine, valerian root is a grounding herb that brings down fear, worry and performance anxiety. It is a safe treatment for insomnia, and it also soothes emotional stress, relaxes tight muscles and relieves mild pain.
The health of the mind is a top concern for many, especially as we age and develop an increased risk for dementia and cognitive disorders. Here are some herbs that are proven to improve memory, protect against neurodegenerative disorders and boost overall brain function.
Ashwagandha. Ashwagandha is known for keeping minds sharp and promoting longevity. It’s been found to inhibit the formation of beta-amyloid plaques, which accumulate in the brains of those with neurodegenerative diseases. Because of this, it may aid in the treatment of cognitive disorders and dementia.
Ginkgo. Studies have shown that ginkgo improves blood circulation by opening up blood vessels. It has a long history of being used for memory issues and — although not all studies agree — it may help treat dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease).
Gotu kola (Centella asiatica). Gotu kola is considered a rejuvenating tonic in Ayurvedic medicine, especially for nerve and brain cells. History shows it being used to combat fatigue and senility, as well as for its ability to boost memory and brain function.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). This common herb is useful in increasing blood flow to the brain, aiding concentration and protecting us from the neurodegenerative effects of aging. Rosemary has been proven to slow the degradation of acetylcholine — the neurotransmitter whose loss is associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Sage (Salvia officinalis). Sage shares many properties with rosemary, the most important being that it, too, prevents the breakdown of acetylcholine and thus shares common compounds with drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s. Sage also increases memory and cognitive function.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States, but heart problems aren’t inevitable. In addition to a well-balanced diet and regular exercise, these supplements could make a difference in keeping this vital organ steady and safe.
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus). Historically used to treat viruses of the heart that cause irregular heartbeats, astragalus has antiviral properties. It can be used to help treat heart problems, such as arrhythmia or viral myocarditis, and it may act as an antioxidant to help treat cardiovascular disease.
Arjuna (Terminalia arjuna). This Ayurvedic herb is believed by many to be a panacea for the heart. Able to reduce high cholesterol, lower blood pressure, aid against angina pectoris, benefit cardiomyopathy and act effectively against congestive heart failure, arjuna improves cardio muscle function and the pumping activity of the heart.
Hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa). A lovely and safe plant often used in teas, hibiscus has powerful heart benefits. It reduces bad cholesterol, lowers blood sugar and may rival common hypertension medication. It also opens the arteries and slows the release of hormones that are thought to constrict blood vessels.
Motherwort. Rather than acting directly against cardiac diseases, motherwort is used to calm the heart, easing palpitations and reducing harmful stress. It’s been approved for nervous cardiac disorders and to treat mild cases of high blood pressure caused by stress.
Turmeric. Turmeric's heart benefits include lowering bad cholesterol and triglycerides; inhibiting platelets that can cause blood clots; and discouraging oxidation of LDL cholesterol — as this reaction makes cholesterol more harmful to arteries. It may also prove helpful in preventing the buildup of atherosclerosis — fatty deposits that can clog arteries.
There’s still much to discover about causes, treatments and prevention when it comes to cancer. In studies, however, the following herbal supplements are showing promise fighting back against cancer cells. If you have or suspect you might have cancer, then these herbs should not be used as a replacement for the advice and care of a medical professional.
Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale). Researchers have only begun to investigate the anticancer effects of plants such as dandelion; however, during in-vitro studies, dandelion root has been shown to kill chemo-resistant melanoma cells.
Garlic. If garlic does contain cancer-fighting properties, they likely stem from the herb’s antibacterial properties, which may block the formation of cancer cells and enhance the reparation of DNA. Studies have shown that eating garlic may reduce the risk of developing stomach, colon, intestinal, breast and prostate cancer.
Green tea (Camellia sinensis). A powerful antioxidant in green tea, epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) might help kill cancer cells — benign and malignant alike — by killing their mitochondria. Population studies link higher tea consumption with a reduced risk of gastrointestinal, pancreatic, bladder, prostate, ovarian, uterine and breast cancer.
Milk thistle. As the silymarin flavonoid in milk thistle protects and heals the liver, it also promotes the repair of DNA, blocks angiogenesis — the creation of blood vessels that can feed cancer — and suppresses the development of secondary malignant growths away from the primary cancer site.
Turmeric. Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant curcumin, the main substance in turmeric, has a variety of anticancer abilities. It protects against DNA mutations, repairs damaged DNA, inhibits tumors in all stages, discourages angiogenesis and kills cancer cells. Curcumin may counteract the resistance that cancer cells sometimes develop toward chemotherapy, as well.
Although a healthy, varied, plant-based diet will provide most of the nutrients we need, a few vitamins and minerals are likely to be lacking. If you think you’re deficient or at risk for deficiency, ask a medical professional to help you determine whether you need supplementation and how much to take. Otherwise, try to incorporate these food and lifestyle changes into your routine to increase your vitamin intake.
Vitamin D. This important vitamin is difficult to get from food. We ultimately need to spend time in the sun for our skin to soak it up. Our bodies need vitamin D to improve muscle function and protect lung function.
Vitamin B12. A B12 deficiency isn’t always noticeable until it’s severe. This important vitamin is necessary for clear thinking and reasoning, DNA synthesis and the formation of red blood cells. We don’t need much B12, which is best found in animal-based foods, including meat, eggs and dairy. Vegans may want to consider taking a B12 supplement while also seeking out plant-based milks, soy products and breakfast cereals that have been fortified with B12.
Calcium. Dairy products, leafy greens, sardines and canned salmon with bones are all reliable sources of calcium, which contributes to the mineral content of bones and teeth. Calcium also helps improve muscle, nerve and blood-vessel function.
Magnesium. Whole grains, nuts, seeds and leafy greens are among the best dietary sources of magnesium, which is required for normal blood sugar as well as heart, muscle and nerve function.
Iron. Iron is crucial for energy levels, mental health, hemoglobin production and healthy enzymes. Find it in meat, legumes, almonds, apricots and more. Vitamin C increases iron absorption.
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