In every issue of Herbs for Health, professionals from a variety of health-care fields answer your questions about using medicinal herbs. Herbalist Chanchal Cabrera and medical doctor D. Paul Barney responded for this issue.
I am forty-eight years old and have some bone degeneration in my spinal column. I am wondering what herbs can offset this? I have a pretty good diet, exercise regularly, and take a calcium supplement.
I would like to comment that the only real threat herbalists and natural healers pose to the medical profession is that of economics. It is that simple. Why spend thousands of dollars on a specialist when you can go to your garden or the nearest herb shop and get the same or better results for almost nothing? You guys are on the right track—keep up the good work.
The best way to deal with bone degeneration is through prevention. The bone matrix is laid down during the first two decades of life, so moderately vigorous exercise in the childhood and teen years is very important. Thereafter, keeping bones adequately mineralized and exercising to maintain bone density is important. Weight-bearing exercise such as brisk walking with light ankle and wrist weights, weight lifting, rowing, and cross-country skiing is best because, as muscles contract and pull on the bones to which they attach, the bones get a message that they need to retain calcium to stay strong to resist the pull. Eat high-calcium foods such as dark green vegetables, almonds, sesame seeds, whole grains, and hard tofu. Seaweeds are also an excellent source of calcium. If you take a supplement, be sure that it is the citrate form for easy absorption.
Herbs which may help boost calcium levels include horsetail (Equisetum arvense), red raspberry (Rubus idaeus), comfrey (Symphytum officinale)—use with caution and avoid altogether if you have liver disease—and oats (Avena sativa).
Bone degeneration can follow an injury that may have occurred years before or be the result of genetics. Maintaining an active lifestyle is very important, as inactivity leads to increased levels of bone reabsorption. Consuming adequate levels of calcium and trace minerals is also crucial. As women age, a lack of estrogen appears to be involved in bone loss, so taking phytoestrogens such as black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), red clover (Trifolium pratense), and tofu can help.
Horsetail has historically been used in conditions of tissue repair including bone. Other helpful herbs include bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosus), kelp, elecampane (Inula helenium), and fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum).
—D. Paul Barney
Chanchal Cabrera, an herbalist and clinical aromatherapist, has been a member of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists since 1987. She is associate editor of Medical Herbalism newsletter and is a member of the advisory board in botanical medicine for Bastyr University in Seattle.
D. Paul Barney is a family practice and emergency-room physician in Layton, Utah. He also is an adjunct professor at Weber State University and author of Clinical Applications of Herbal Medicine (Woodland Publishing, 1996).
The information offered in “Q & A” is not intended to be a substitute for advice from your health-care provider.
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