Q&A: Preventive Health with Herbs

I’m looking for some guidance. My father died of an aneurysm of the heart and my mother was diabetic. What kind of herbs will help to prevent these conditions in my life?
–J. P., Brussels, Belgium

Keville responds: I admire people who look to preventive medicine. My first thought is dietary, to keep your heart strong and your blood sugar well regulated. To ward off both conditions, avoid eating too much fat, and flavor your food with heart-healthy garlic. For diabetes, keep your blood sugar stable. Medical doctors tend to say unstable blood sugar doesn’t promote the development of diabetes, but I’m in the camp with holistic practitioners, who say erratic blood sugar can promote either type of diabetes. One way to keep blood sugar stable is by avoiding sugars of any kind and also refined carbohydrates, which quickly break down into sugar in the body. Many foods, such as green beans and onions, are blood sugar regulators and can be part of your diet. Try sweetening your food with stevia (Stevia rebaudiana). Full-strength stevia carries a bitter taste, but you can usually replace at least half of another sweetener with stevia. It is sold in health-food stores and comes in several powdered and liquid forms, so follow the directions on the container for the correct replacement proportions. The trace mineral chromium is another blood sugar regulator.

A good herb for the heart and circulation is eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), which also helps maintain blood sugar levels. Various studies have shown that hawthorn flowers and berries (Crataegus spp.), ginkgo leaf (Ginkgo biloba) and reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) increase the flow of blood to the heart, lessen its demand for oxygen and increase the breath. Assuming you aren’t on any standard medications, you can take a formula like this in any form you wish as a heart tonic. A typical plan would be to take this combination twice daily for 10 consecutive days every month. My nonherbal suggestion is to get plenty of aerobic exercise to build your heart and regulate your blood sugar. Doctors and natural practitioners alike agree that it’s best for everyone to maintain a healthy weight, but especially when there is diabetes or heart disease in your family.

Khalsa responds: Heart disease and diabetes are closely related, so some basic health-building tips are in order. The best way to end up healthy is to stay healthy. That means to start now. The main thing people in cultures with traditional healing systems do differently is the daily, lifelong use of slow-acting, stamina-enhancing tonic medicines. If you want to keep your blood sugar stable for life, that’s the way to go. Examples of these tonics include American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and ashwaganda (Withania somnifera).

Many mild, safe herbs benefit blood sugar and aid diabetes prevention. The bulbs of onion and garlic balance blood sugar and help by regulating blood pressure, cholesterol and clot formation. Use these liberally.

Green tea (Camellia sinensis) contains the powerful antioxidants catechin and epicatechin that have been shown to aid in diabetes. This tea, typically served in Asian restaurants, can be consumed daily as a beverage, or is available in a decaffeinated extract as a dietary supplement. Bitter herbs, long a favorite of European herbalists, are widely respected around the world for blood sugar control. Examples of bitters are dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), gentian (Gentiana lutea) and turmeric.

Because diet is the factor over which we have the most control, food can be of great benefit for preventing blood sugar problems later in life. The blueberry family (blueberry, huckleberry, bilberry and cranberry) looks very good in this regard. Okra is an Ayurvedic remedy for balancing blood sugar. Many American patients who try this food have success with the juice of okra pods added to their diet. Okra is delicious as a steamed vegetable also. Dandelion greens have been quite successful for many diabetics. Fresh dandelion greens are tasty in a salad. Other foods and spices helpful for balancing blood sugar include cinnamon, nutmeg, bay leaf, cashew, celery, cayenne, ginger, coriander seed, lettuce, cabbage, turnip, papaya, Jerusalem artichoke, millet, oats, barley and buckwheat.

Recent scientific reports have praised daily, modest quantities of nuts for heart health. Almonds and walnuts are good choices.

To keep the heart healthy, I like the famed Ayurvedic heart herb arjuna (Terminalia arjuna) — drink it regularly as a tea. Ayurvedic physicians use this medicine in a wide variety of cardiovascular conditions — it is a cardiac “tonic.” Arjuna includes various polyphenols, which probably account for much of its activity. Arjuna seems to primarily improve cardiac muscle function and pumping activity of the heart. Or, use hawthorn berry, which has similar properties.

Lastly, drinking a daily cup or two of linden flower (Tilia ¥europaea) tea is a delicious and safe way to help keep your blood pressure even. To make linden flower tea, steep 1 tablespoon of the dried herb in 1 cup of boiling water for 20 to 30 minutes. Strain and drink. According to herbalist and Herbs for Health editorial adviser Christopher Hobbs, commercial extracts of linden are available but aren’t as effective as the tea.

Kathi Keville is director of the American Herb Association (www.ahaherb.com) and author of 11 herb and aromatherapy books including Herbs for Health and Healing (Rodale, 1996). She teaches seminars throughout the United States.

Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa has more than 25 years of experience with medicinal herbs. A licensed dietitian/nutritionist, massage therapist and board member of the American Herbalists Guild, he specializes in Ayurvedic, Chinese and North American healing traditions.

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