The Everything Guide to Herbal Remedies: An easy-to-use reference for natural health care


The Herbal Medicine Cabinet

Most of the time, you’re (thankfully) dealing with run-of-the-mill complaints and not dire emergencies or deadly diseases. But while problems like stomachaches and sunburns aren’t life threatening, they do require remedies, and most people would rather avoid a middle-of-the-night trek to the drugstore by having the right medicine on hand. Conventional medicines are the standard in most American medicine cabinets, but many carry unwanted, even dangerous, side effects. Herbs offer a better solution.

Building a Better Medicine Chest

There are more than eighty categories of nonprescription, over-the-counter (OTC) drugs available in the United States today, treating everything from acne to warts. If you’re like most people, you keep a supply of OTC remedies to treat the health concerns that you and your family face most often: headaches and head colds, diarrhea and indigestion, sleeplessness and sunburns.

But why stock your medicine cabinet (and body) full of synthetic medicines with unwanted side effects when there are herbal equivalents that can give you similar results with a more gentle approach? To build a better medicine chest, stock up on these herbal remedies.

Pain Relievers

OTC analgesics and anti-inflammatories certainly come in handy when you have a headache, sore muscles, or a hangover, but are they always the best choice? These herbs offer similar (if not better) pain relief than traditional OTC medications:

• Arnica (Arnica montana)

In a recent study, topical arnica outperformed both topical ibuprofen and oral acetaminophen in relieving joint pain and stiffness. Arnica has also been proven effective at treating sore muscles and bruises.

• Barberry (Berberis vulgaris)

Barberry works as both an internal and external painkiller. It’s also an effective topical antimicrobial.

• Cayenne (Capsicum annuum)

Applied to a sore spot, cayenne is a potent painkiller (its key constituent, capsaicin, is used in many OTC muscle and joint rubs and is approved by the FDA as a topical analgesic). Topical cayenne has also been shown to relieve and even prevent headaches.

• Clove (Syzygium aromaticum)

Clove oil works as a topical pain reliever and anesthetic (and also fights bad breath and cavities, thanks to its antibacterial components). It’s especially helpful after dental work, and research shows it fights pain as well as the OTC pharmaceutical benzocaine. Clove oil also soothes cold and canker sores and helps kill infectious microbes.

• Cramp bark (Viburnum opulus)

An aptly named plant, cramp bark is a classic herbal remedy for muscle cramps (it’s also a great headache remedy). Recent research shows it’s also effective against spasmodic back pain.

• Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens)

Devil’s claw has been used for generations in South Africa to treat pain and inflammation. Recent research has shown it’s particularly effective against back pain.

• Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)

Best known as a migraine remedy, feverfew is a staple of Western herbal medicine and a reliable remedy for all kinds of headaches (plus fevers and other kinds of inflammation).

Tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) is a close as you’ll get to a one-bottle medicine cabinet: It’s got analgesic, anesthetic, antiseptic, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, deodorant, decongestant, and expectorant abilities. Research shows that topical tea tree oil can replace your acne medication, athlete’s foot spray, mouthwash, deodorant, and cough medicine.

Better Cold and Flu Remedies

Instead of the conventional decongestants, antihistamines, and cough syrups, stock up on these botanicals:

• Andrographis (Andrographis paniculata)

This Ayurvedic herb can significantly improve cold and sore throat symptoms; it also seems to prevent colds.

• Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)

This herb is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as an immunity-boosting tonic (it supports overall immune function and helps the body deal with the stress that can lead to infections and disease). Research shows that taking astragalus can help you avoid catching a cold.

• Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea)

Echinacea has been studied extensively in recent years and proven to be an effective remedy for colds and other infections.

• Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)

Elderberry is a classic European remedy for the flu (it has both antiviral and immune-boosting effects). Research shows that taking an elderberry extract can significantly improve flu symptoms in two to four days.

• Isatis (Isatis tinctoria)

Constituents of this Chinese herb have antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, analgesic, and antipyretic (fever reducing) activity. Isatis can both prevent and treat colds and flu.

• Garlic (Allium sativum)

Garlic has antibacterial and antiviral properties and also seems to stimulate immunity, making it a good safety net against colds and flu. It’s even shown effectiveness against antibiotic-resistant strains of oral strep bacteria.

• Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Ginger is a classic remedy for colds and flu (research shows it inhibits the bacteria and viruses responsible for upper respiratory infections); it’s also an effective pain remedy. Ginger teas and syrups make a great stand-in for conventional cough and cold medicines.

• Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)

When it comes to fighting colds and flu, licorice qualifies as a one-herb wonder. It’s used to soothe sore throats, quiet coughs, loosen chest congestion, clear nasal passages, and relieve pain.

• Peppermint (Mentha x piperita)

Peppermint is the original source for menthol, which is used in many commercial chest rubs and other congestion-busting products. Inhaling the (diluted) essential oil or applying it to your skin can clear your head and chest.

• Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra)

Slippery elm is a classic Native American sore throat remedy, thanks to its soothing demulcent properties.

Can herbs help hangovers?

Research shows that taking extracts of red clover (Trifolium pratense) directly after drinking alcohol—or prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) a few hours before drinking—can reduce your chance of getting a hangover by 50 percent. Cheers!

Tummy Treatments

Unlike conventional diarrhea, nausea, and constipation remedies, which attack only the symptoms of a particular problem, many herbs used to treat gastrointestinal problems actually help promote optimal digestion. Here are a few to keep on hand:

• Artichoke (Cynara cardunculus, C. scolymus)

Artichoke is a classic (and proven) remedy for acid indigestion and heartburn, as well as the gastrointestinal pain, cramping, bloating, and flatulence of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

• Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

Fennel relaxes the smooth muscles in the GI tract and helps eliminate gas and its odor. Chewing fennel seeds is a great breath freshener, too.

• Flax (Linum usitatissimum)

Flaxseed is high in soluble and insoluble fiber (which fight constipation and speed elimination) and mucilage, which is soothing to irritated intestinal tissues. Both the seeds and oil are used to calm GI distress.

• Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Ginger is an effective and safe remedy for all kinds of nausea and vomiting, including motion sickness, morning sickness, postoperative nausea, migraine-related nausea, and nausea caused by chemotherapy.

• Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

Lavender can be used internally to relieve stomach upset and dyspepsia (acid indigestion). It contains camphor, which is a carminative (it relieves gas) and antispasmodic (it relieves spasms in the gastrointestinal tract).

• Peppermint (Mentha x piperita)

Peppermint is a traditional European remedy for stomach cramps, heartburn, and dyspepsia. A combination of peppermint and caraway (Carum carvi) has been shown to relieve the symptoms of chronic dyspepsia as well as prescription medicines.

• Pineapple (Ananas comosus)

Pineapples contain the enzyme bromelain, which has protein-digesting abilities and can help promote proper digestion and relieve heartburn.

• Psyllium (Plantago ovata)

Blond psyllium is used as bulk-forming agent to treat constipation (it’s the key ingredient in the OTC drug Metamucil); psyllium is also an effective diarrhea remedy. Research shows that psyllium is as effective as harsh commercial laxatives in treating constipation and also works as well as the antidiarrheal drug loperamide.

Many herbs used traditionally to spice up foods also posses stomach-soothing abilities. For example, both turmeric (Curcuma longa), the ingredient that gives curry its kick, and cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), an aromatic spice used throughout India and Southeast Asia, can settle an upset stomach, relieve acid indigestion, and help heal and prevent ulcers.

Preventing Sunburns

Everybody knows that sunburns are bad: They cause wrinkles and old-before-its-time skin as well as cancer. Many herbs offer natural sun protection, some when applied directly to the skin, others when consumed as a food or drink—and others in both ways.

• Coleus (Coleus forskohlii, Plectranthus barbatus)

Extracts of this Indian plant actually produce a “tan” without the accompanying skin damage. Coleus seems to stimulate production of melanin, the chemical that provides the skin’s natural sun protection (people who tan easily or who have naturally dark skin are less susceptible to burning and skin cancer).

• Grape (Vitis vinifera)

Grape skins are rich in antioxidants, nature’s way of protecting the fruits from sunburn, and can convey the same benefits to human skin (grape seeds also contain them). You can apply grape extracts to your skin or consume them orally via grapes or wine.

• Maca (Lepidium meyenii)

A native of the Peruvian Andes, maca developed a natural sunscreen to protect itself from all that high-altitude radiation. Research shows that topical maca extracts can also protect skin against UV damage.

• Sesame (Sesamum indicum)

Used topically, sesame oil delivers natural sun protection.

• Shea (Vitellaria paradoxa)

Also known as karite, shea nuts contain allantoin, a natural sunscreen (shea also contains skin-soothing moisturizers). Commercial products, usually sold as “shea butter,” can add an extra dose of sun protection to your regular skin care routine.

• Tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum)

Eating cooked tomatoes or tomato paste can make you less susceptible to sunburns and UV-related skin damage.

• Spinach (Spinacia oleracea)

Spinach contains beta-carotene, which has been shown to reduce sunburn in fair-skinned people (one study combining beta-carotene supplements with vitamin E found a significant reduction in burns). Tossing spinach with other beta-carotene sources like beets (Beta vulgaris), carrots (Daucus carota), and watercress (Nasturtium officinale) can create the healthiest salad under the sun.

• Tea (Camellia sinensis)

Green tea, which is rich in antioxidant polyphenols, can act as a natural sunscreen when applied to the skin (it’s used in several commercial products). Studies show that drinking tea can also prevent sun damage.

The oils from coconuts (Cocos nucifera), sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), and olives (Olea europaea) also contain natural sunscreens.

Your sunscreen is only as good as your application: The American Academy of Dermatology recommends about an ounce (what it takes to fill a shot glass) for the average adult, but studies show that most people use only about a quarter of that—and get about a quarter of the sun protection they think they’re getting.

Beating Sleeplessness

Insomnia, the Latin term for “no sleep,” is the inability to fall asleep—or stay asleep—and the problems related to it, such as waking up feeling tired. It’s the most common sleep complaint in America, affecting up to 40 percent of adults. A recent nationwide survey found that one in five Americans takes a prescription or OTC sleep aid at least once a week—and 63 percent of them experience side effects.

Insomnia can be triggered by several medications, including cold and allergy meds (antihistamines and decongestants), hypertension and heart disease drugs, birth control pills, thyroid medicines, and asthma medications. Caffeine is an obvious cause for insomnia, but it’s found in many places beyond your coffee cup, including some OTC pain relievers.

• Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

Lavender oil is used topically as a sedative and antianxiety agent. Research shows it can promote relaxation and induce sleep in people of all ages. In one study, people who used lavender in aromatherapy (they inhaled it or applied it to their skin) before going to bed reported feeling more refreshed in the morning.

• Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

Lemon balm is a mild sedative and stress reliever. Research shows it can quell anxiety and promote sleep.

• Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)

Passionflower is a mild sedative and sleep aid.

• Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

Valerian is a mild sedative and tranquilizer. Studies show that its chemical compounds can have a direct affect on gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a brain chemical that controls arousal and sleep. Taking valerian can shorten the time it takes you to fall asleep (sleep latency) and improve your sleep quality.

Soothing Skin Inflammation

Inflammatory skin problems often develop when the skin’s production of sebum (oil) or skin cells—or both—has gotten out of control. There isn’t any clear cause for these problems, although many seem to involve an allergic or abnormal immune response. But we do know that there are plenty of contributing factors, including stress, infection, and certain pharmaceuticals.

Three of the most common skin inflammations are rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis. Conventional medicine treats eczema and psoriasis with a slew of medications. They include oral antihistamines like OTC diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and prescription-only hydroxyzine (Vistaril), plus topical steroids like OTC hydrocortisone (Cortaid) and prescription triamcinolone (Kenalog) and betamethasone (Betatrex). Topical immunomodulating drugs like prescription-only tacrolimus (Protopic) and pimecrolimus (Elidel) are sometimes used for resistant cases of eczema.

Oral antihistamines often cause sedation. Topical and oral steroids can cause thinning of the skin and increased risk of infections. Tacrolimus and pimecrolimus have been associated with increased risk of cancer and immune system suppression. Herbal treatments, which can be used in conjunction with conventional treatments, include these:

• Aloe (Aloe vera)

Aloe vera is the herb of choice for inflammatory skin conditions and has proven antibacterial and antioxidant effects. In one study, aloe cream cleared psoriasis outbreaks in nearly everyone who used it.

• Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)

Research shows that topical applications can relieve the inflammation and itching of chronic dermatitis as well as hydrocortisone creams— and better than nonsteroidal drugs.

• Gotu kola (Centella asiatica)

Gotu kola is well known in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for its skinrepairing abilities. Research suggests that topical extracts can relieve symptoms of psoriasis.

• Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)

Licorice has soothing emollient and wound-healing effects and can help relieve the symptoms of inflammatory skin problems like dermatitis and rosacea. Studies on dermatitis patients show that topical licorice extracts relieve the itching, inflammation, and discomfort better than hydrocortisone.

• Saint John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum)

Saint John’s wort is a powerful weapon against many skin disorders, and studies show that topical applications reduce the severity of several inflammatory skin diseases.

Oral Care

Your mouth is more than a passageway for food, oxygen, and words: It’s also home to your teeth, gums, and other tissues, all necessary for normal eating, breathing, speaking, and smiling. Things that can go wrong in your mouth include tooth decay and cavities, gum disease, sores on the gums or other soft tissues (mucosa), and bad breath (halitosis).

Conventional dentistry recommends you fight cavities, gum disease, and halitosis with regular flossing and brushing with a toothpaste that contains fluoride, which is a mineral that prevents cavities by bonding to the tooth surface and attracting other minerals (a process called remineralization) and inhibiting the ability of bacteria to create acid.

Standard treatments for canker sores involve topical anesthetics like lidocaine or benzocaine or mouthwashes made with the antiallergy drug diphenhydramine, all of which can cause irritation. Halitosis sufferers sometimes use mouthwashes and rinses made with antiseptics like hydrogen peroxide, cetylpyridinium chloride, or alcohol, which kill bacteria but can also damage tissue and create even fouler breath; cetylpyridinium chloride and diphenhydramine can also stain the teeth.

Chewing on a sprig of fresh peppermint (Mentha x piperita), spearmint (Mentha spicata), or most any mint can clean your teeth and freshen your breath quicker than anything that comes in a tin—and doesn’t fill your mouth with sugar, which can make bad breath even worse. Chewing on parsley (Petroselinum crispum) has the same effect, minus the minty flavor.