Herbal Apothecary

Safe, effective and dependable, these herbs deserve to be staples in your herbal apothecary.

| September/October 2003

  • Christopher Hobbs

  • Photo courtesy of Herb Pharm

  • Christopher Hobbs

Hearing the news these days, you might think the globe is littered with corpses of ephedra users. The megadoses taken by some individuals for the herb’s stimulant effect may indeed cause potentially fatal heart problems. However, let’s not forget that for centuries ephedra, also known as ma huang, has been used in China to treat bronchial asthma and related conditions — long before the herb and its alkaloids (ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, etc.) were added to energy supplements, diet products and over-the-counter cold remedies in the West.

I’m convinced the current demonization of ephedra is largely an overreaction. Viagra is associated with the deaths of more than 500 users, more than five times the number believed to have died as a result of using ephedra, but no public health officials are clamoring for a Viagra ban.

Still, the headlines about ephedra have made many herb users nervous and have focused new attention on herbal safety. No substance with pharmacological effects on the body is utterly, totally safe. Yet, assuming these substances are not used carelessly — as ephedra has been — many medicinal herbs have stood the test of time for safety and effectiveness. Here’s a roundup of some herbalists’ favorites.

Aloe (Aloe vera). Aloe 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.

Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa). This herb was a key ingredient in one of the 19th century’s most popular patent medicines, Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, introduced in 1876 to treat “female weakness” — that is, menstrual and menopausal complaints. Ol’ Lydia was right. Black cohosh contains compounds that mimic the effects of the female sex hormone estrogen. Based on decades of clinical experience, Germany’s Commission E, the expert panel that judges the safety and effectiveness of herbal medicines, endorses black cohosh for premenstrual syndrome (PMS), menstrual cramps and menopausal complaints.

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