These safe, effective, dependable, time-tested herbs deserve to be a staple in your home-care kit. Used carefully, they offer some of nature’s best qualities for many minor afflictions and often at a fraction of the cost of stocking your medicine cabinet with synthetic antibiotics. Because some pharmaceutical antibiotics have adverse side effects, many consumers are happy to find herbal alternatives, a task that's even more economical if your garden hosts some of these herbal helpers. For any prolonged condition or serious ailment, keep in mind, a trip to see your health-care provider is a must. These are just some of the herbalists’ favorites.
Aloe (Aloe vera). This is the best herb for minor wounds, especially burns. Many studies show aloe stimulates the creation of new skin cells. Aloe has anti-inflammatory action that helps minimize wound swelling, and antimicrobial and immune-stimulating action that helps prevent wound infection. I keep a small potted aloe in my kitchen so its soothing gel is always handy where most household burns occur. Just snip off a thick, leathery leaf, slit it open and rub the cool inner leaf gel on the burn.
Note: Use aloe only on minor burns and wounds. More serious wounds require professional medical care.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita). This herb’s long history as a traditional tranquilizer is supported by recent research. Argentinean researchers have discovered that a compound in chamomile oil (apigenin) binds to the same cell receptors as the Valium family of tranquilizers and anti-anxiety drugs. This suggests similar effects. When Japanese researchers exposed animals under stress to chamomile vapors, the animals’ stress hormone levels fell significantly. Try chamomile tea when you feel anxious, or add a handful of chamomile flowers to a hot bath and inhale deeply. Chamomile is also a stomach soother. To brew chamomile tea, use 2 to 3 heaping teaspoons of flowers per cup of boiling water.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale). Fleshy and aromatic, ginger has been used in cooking and healing since the dawn of history. And many studies have shown that ginger prevents motion sickness. Ginger also safely prevents morning sickness of pregnancy — important because pregnant women often are cautioned against taking pharmaceutical anti-nausea drugs.
Ginger (and its close botanical relative, turmeric) also has anti-inflammatory action. Recently, Wisconsin researchers gave either a placebo or ginger (4 grams twice daily) to 261 elderly people with osteoarthritis of the knee. The ginger group reported significantly greater relief.
Use ginger liberally in cooking or buy capsules at health-food stores or supplement shops.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). Since ancient times, lavender has been used as a tranquilizer, sleep aid and digestive aid. Lavender also soothes an upset stomach.
Research suggests the herb also may aid in recovery from childbirth. After 635 new mothers had a vaginal delivery, British researchers gave them one of three bath oils: true lavender oil, synthetic oil or a placebo. After 10 days, those using true lavender oil reported the speediest recovery from perineal pain.
For lavender tea, use 1 to 3 teaspoons of flowers per cup of boiling water. For a relaxing bath, place a handful of lavender flowers in a cloth bag and run bath water over it. Or add strong lavender tea, tincture or oil to your bath.
Peppermint (Mentha xpiperita). After feasts, the ancient Greeks ate mint to settle their stomachs. That’s the origin of today’s after-dinner mints. Peppermint is rich in menthol and carvone, both of which soothe the digestive tract. In one study, German researchers gave either a placebo or an over-the-counter digestive aid containing peppermint oil (90 mg) and caraway oil (50 mg), also a stomach-soother, to 45 people with chronic indigestion. After four weeks, the placebo group reported no change in abdominal distress, but 95 percent of the herb group reported significant improvement, with 63 percent “free from pain.”
The menthol in peppermint also helps treat colds. It’s a mild anesthetic, so peppermint tea can help soothe a sore throat. And it’s a decongestant; inhaling peppermint tea vapors helps relieve nasal congestion.
For indigestion or colds, make a tea using 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried herb per cup of boiling water. Tea also may help relieve irritable bowel syndrome, though most studies have used peppermint oil capsules.
Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia). An Australian study shows that tea tree oil kills many bacteria and fungi that cause infection. When tested head-to-head against pharmaceutical antiseptics, tea tree oil is equally effective. It’s especially beneficial in treating fungal infections, such as dandruff, athlete’s foot and toenail infections that discolor and deform the nails. Buy 100 percent tea tree oil and apply it with a cotton ball or swab.
Note: Tea tree oil can irritate some people’s skin. If redness or itching develops, discontinue use.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa). If you suffer from arthritis, turmeric is your herb. Turmeric is the Indian herb that gives curry blends their yellow color. The yellow pigment in this herb, curcumin, is also a natural COX-2 inhibitor, the latest rage in arthritis medication — though curcumin is a safer option than pharmaceutical products. Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant that helps prevent cataracts, colon cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Naturopaths recommend buying curcumin tablets and taking 400 mg three times daily.
Michael Castleman is a frequent contributor to The Herb Companion’s sister publication, Herbs for Health , and is the author of 10 consumer health books including The New Healing Herbs (Rodale, 2001). Available on our Bookshelf.