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

CHAPTER 2

Herbs and Their Actions

Herbs are, without question, the first drugs that humans have ever had. And over the centuries, our herbal pharmacy has expanded to include thousands of medicinal plants, each containing a blend of constituents that we’re only now beginning to understand. But the real appeal of herbal medicine, of course, is what it can do for you: what diseases it can cure, what complaints it can fix, and how it can make you feel better overall.

Types of Herbs

Herbal remedies are most easily understood when they’re grouped according to the jobs they do within the human body. There are hundreds of medicinal herbs out there, and herbalists break them down a few ways:

tonic is an herb that is used to address the health of an entire bodily system. Some tonics also work as adaptogens (see below). Tonics can be taken for an extended period of time, like a multivitamin, to keep things running smoothly. They’re nontoxic and considered completely safe when used correctly.

Specifics are used to treat a specific symptom—a stomachache, for example. They are taken for a short time only, until the problem is resolved (or until you decide to try a different remedy). Specifics are also generally safe, but they can cause problems if you take too much of them.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), tonics are considered “superior” medicines because they can be taken safely and without ill effects for long periods of time. Most other medicinal herbs are considered “ministerial,” or “common.” They’re stronger and work faster, but can be problematic if taken for too long.

Many herbs have more than one action, and some work as tonics in one system and as specifics in another.

Herbs are also classified according to their actions. For example, some trigger a response in the digestive system (they include carminatives and digestives), and others address the nervous system (sedatives and stimulants).

Tonics and Adaptogens

Tonics and adaptogens are a unique type of medicine. They produce what herbalists call a “nonspecific” response, meaning that depending on the organ or system that’s being treated, the herb might improve your physical endurance, reproductive and sexual functioning, or resistance to disease.

Tonic Herbs

Tonic herbs are defined as those that address the health of an entire bodily system and alleviate weakness.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), tonics are known as superior medicines—the best of the best—and are typically used to strengthen and fortify a system that needs “toning” or “tonifying” (it’s failing or just not performing optimally).

There are herbs that have general tonic abilities, meaning they’re used to increase your overall energy, or chi. Other TCM tonics address specific systems and functions, and some have more than one kind of tonic activity:

·        Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) is an immune tonic.

·        Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) is a kidney and adrenal tonic.

·        Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is an immune and chi tonic.

·        Goji-berry (Lycium barbarum, L. chinense) is an immune tonic and blood tonic.

·        Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) is a heart tonic.

Ayurvedic medicine recognizes a class of herbs known as rasayanas, or rejuvenating medicines, that are similar to tonics in that they support the overall functioning of the major systems of the body. The rasayanas include:

·        Amla (Emblica officinalis, Phyllanthus emblica)

·        Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum, O. sanctum)

·        Gotu kola (Centella asiatica)

·        Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

Western herbalism recognizes a group of herbs that work as nervines, or nerve tonics, helping to restore balance to the nervous system and emotions and treat problems in the digestive and cardiovascular systems that are caused by anxiety and stress. Nervines include:

·        Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)

·        Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)

·        Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna,

·        Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) C. oxyacantha)

·        Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)

·        Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

·        Saint John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum)

Adaptogens

An adaptogen is something that protects an organism from the ill effects of stress, which can be caused by both physical and psychological agents. In herbal medicine, an adaptogenic herb is one that helps the body deal with stresses—trauma, injury, emotional upset, physical exertion, and so on—without getting sick.

The Stress Response

Stress is defined as the disruption of the body’s innate balance, or homeostasis, through external agents, and the body’s response to it.

In most cases, the stress response is a good thing: It helped our ancestors outrun predators, fight for mates, and survive those cold nights in the cave. But sometimes, stress can be bad. Chronic stress has been linked to a host of diseases and conditions, including premenstrual syndrome (PMS), obesity, insomnia, diarrhea and constipation, anxiety and depression, and suppressed immunity—which can lead to everything from the common cold to cancer.

The Advantage of Adaptogens

Like tonics, adaptogenic plants offer what scientists call “nonspecific” resistance to stress and fatigue, eliminating or reducing the variations in homeostasis that stress produces. They take things a step further, however, by exerting a normalizing effect on an organ or system.

The term adaptogen was coined in Western medicine in the twentieth century, but in the ancient schools of TCM and Ayurveda, the concept has been around for centuries. TCM has chi tonics and Ayurvedic medicine has rasayanas, which have similar properties. Many tonics and rasayanas are also considered adaptogens.

Adaptogens help the body adapt by either increasing or decreasing a particular physiological function. Thus, if something—your adrenal response, for example—needs to be turned on, an adaptogen can do it. And if that system needs to be turned down, an adaptogen can do that, too.

Here are some of the best—the best-known and best-researched—herbal adaptogens:

·        Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

·        Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)

·        Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng)

·        Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)

·        Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis)

·        Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum, O. sanctum)

·        Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)

Analgesics: Natural Pain Relief

An analgesic is a painkiller (the word analgesia comes from the Greek words an, meaning “without,” and algia, or “pain”).

Herbal analgesics are considered superior to pharmaceutical painkillers such as ibuprofen because they don’t carry the same side effects. Herbal pain remedies often work as well as pharmaceuticals, and many are used topically (applied to the skin instead of being ingested), which makes their effects more targeted.

Perhaps the best-known analgesic in the world is morphine, which is derived from the sap of opium poppies (Papaver somniferum). First used by the ancient Sumerians, who called poppies “the joy plant,” opium was the gold standard in painkillers throughout the world for another 5,000 years.

Here are some of the more popular herbal painkillers:

·        Camphor (Cinnamomum camphora)

·        Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)

·        Cayenne (Capsicum annuum, C. frutescens)

·        Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)

·        Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens)

·        Willow (Salix alba)

Fighting Inflammation

An anti-inflammatory agent is anything that reduces inflammation—redness, tenderness, and swelling (or edema)—in the tissues. Anti-inflammatories are often effective analgesics as well, since inflammation frequently produces pain along with swelling.

Although it’s the source of many health problems, inflammation can actually be a good thing—it’s the body’s way of protecting itself from injury or infection. Problems start when inflammation gets out of hand or goes on for too long. Chronic inflammation can cause swelling and discomfort that never go away and can damage cartilage, bone, and other tissues.

The first choice in over-the-counter (OTC) pain medicines for most Americans is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, or NSAID. Most NSAIDs work by inhibiting enzymes (two types of cyclooxygenase enzymes, called COX-1and COX-2) that produce pain and inflammation.

Several herbs, including the African plant devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens), turmeric (Curcuma longa), and phyllanthus (Phyllanthus amarus), an Ayurvedic herb also known as bahupatra, have shown druglike COX-2-inhibiting activity in studies, meaning they could be used as alternative remedies in cases of severe pain as well as everyday aches.

NSAIDs are the most widely used type of pain relief in the United States, and include OTC remedies like ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve), and aspirin, and prescription COX-2 inhibitors like celecoxib (Celebrex). NSAIDs can cause a host of problems, including serious kidney, heart, and gastrointestinal problems like ulceration, bleeding, and perforation of the stomach.

In many cases, herbal anti-inflammatories provide the same kind of relief as pharmaceuticals—without the scary side effects. Here are some of the best-known herbal anti-inflammatories:

·        Cayenne (Capsicum annuum, C. frutescens)

·        Sage (Salvia officinalis, S. lavandulaefolia)

·        Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)

·        Tea (Camellia sinensis)

·        Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

·        Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Infection-Fighting Antimicrobials

Herbs with antimicrobial or antibiotic action destroy or inhibit the growth of disease-causing microorganisms like bacteria and viruses.

Herbal Antibiotics

Technically speaking, antibiotics are living cultures (like penicillin) or synthetic versions of live cultures that can kill or neutralize pathogens—in other words, they’re not herbs. But several herbs have demonstrated an antibiotic-like effect in the body, making them viable options in the fight against infections.

Extracts of the mangosteen tree (Garcinia mangostana), used traditionally in Thailand and Sri Lanka as a remedy for diarrhea and skin infections, have been shown to be lethal to several strains of bacteria that are resistant to certain pharmaceutical antibiotics. That’s big news today, as more and more disease-causing microbes are finding a way around antibiotic drugs.

Using herbs to fight microbial infections is a smart move. Research has shown that pharmaceutical germ-killers are overused and might contribute to the development and spread of drug-resistant microorganisms. What’s more, even the best prescription antibiotics won’t help a viral infection, as they’re effective against bacteria only.

Antibiotics also carry lots of potential side effects, like stomach upset, headaches, and sensitivity to sunlight.

Antivirals, Antifungals, and Antibacterials

Herbs can treat viral infections like colds and flu, as well as coughs, cold sores, and sore throats. Herbal antifungals can combat yeast infections and other infections caused by fungi, such as athlete’s foot. Antibacterial herbs are useful for treating bacterial skin infections and acne.

Many herbs can also combat infectious protozoa, single-celled organisms like Cryptosporidium or Giardia that can cause foodborne illness and diseases such as malaria. Here are some of the best-known antimicrobial herbs:

·        Barberry (Berberis vulgaris)

·        Grape (Vitis vinifera)

·        Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)

·        Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

·        Garlic (Allium sativum)

·        Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)

·        Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

·        Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

·        Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)

Herbal Antioxidants

Antioxidants have been the darling of the health media for several years now, and the studies demonstrating their disease-fighting powers continue to pile up. Research has also shown that plants—both edible fruits and vegetables and medicinal herbs—are the richest sources of antioxidant compounds.

An antioxidant is a molecule that can slow or prevent the oxidation of other molecules.

Many of the plants used as flavoring agents are also rich sources of antioxidants—even richer than the fruits and vegetables people have come to think of as disease-fighters. Case in point: Ounce for ounce, oregano (Origanum vulgare) delivers forty-two times more antioxidant activity than apples, twelve times more than oranges, and four times more than blueberries.

Oxidation is a natural chemical reaction that happens when one substance (known as an oxidizing agent) transfers electrons to another. It’s a real paradox: Oxygen is crucial for survival, but it’s a highly reactive element that can also cause problems.

Oxidation produces molecules called free radicals, which can damage cells through a process termed oxidative stress. And oxidative stress has been implicated in many diseases, including cancer and heart disease. Many plants—including medicinal herbs, culinary herbs, and plants eaten as food—are loaded with antioxidants. Some of the best-known plant-derived antioxidant compounds are:

·        Vitamin C (in cayenne, citrus fruits, and walnuts)

·        Polyphenols like resveratrol (in blueberries, grapes, and peanuts) and flavonoids (in citrus fruits, chocolate, and tea)

·        Vitamin E (in sunflower and flax oils)

·        Carotenoids (in carrots and spinach)

Flavonoids are a type of chemical compound called phenols, which are manufactured by plants as part of their self-defense system. Flavonoids are antioxidants that the plant synthesizes in response to oxidative stress—and they make excellent antioxidants for you, too.

Here are some of the more popular antioxidant herbs, many of which are eaten as foods or used as flavorings:

·        Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

·        Grapefruit (Citrus paradisi)

·        Garlic (Allium sativum)

·        Pomegranate (Punica granatum)

·        Grape (Vitis vinifera)

·        Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

Herbs to Aid Digestion

Herbalists have a remedy for practically any digestive woe you could have, from indigestion and nausea to diarrhea and gas.

Digestives

Herbal medicine offers several options for improving overall digestion. These herbs, generally known as digestives, stimulate the production of digestive fluids and encourage regular elimination. The best-known digestive herbs include these:

·        Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)

·        Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

·        Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum, C. aromaticum)

·        Peppermint (Mentha x piperita)

·        Pineapple (Ananas comosus)

Carminatives

Another group of herbs are classified as carminatives, meaning they work to dispel gas and relieve cramping. Carminatives have antispasmodic (anticramping) action on the muscles in the gastrointestinal tract. Here are some of the better-known carminatives:

·        Barberry (Berberis vulgaris)

·        Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

·        Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

·        Tea (Camellia sinensis)

·        Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)

Anti-diarrheals

Herbal remedies for diarrhea slow the transit of fluids through your GI tract to return your digestion to its normal pace. They include:

·        Barberry (Berberis vulgaris)

·        Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)

·        Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)

·        Psyllium (Plantago ovata, P. psyllium)

·        Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum)

·        Sangre de grado (Croton lechleri)

·        Juniper (Juniperus communis)

Antiemetics

A group of herbs known as antiemetics work to combat nausea and stop vomiting. Herbal remedies for nausea and vomiting include these:

·        American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)

·        Mate (Ilex paraguariensis)

·        Dill (Anethum graveolens)

·        Tea (Camellia sinensis)

·        Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Herbal demulcents soothe inflammation in the digestive tract:

·        Alfalfa (Medicago sativa)

·        Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)

·        Flax (Linum usitatissimum)

·        Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)

·        Gentian (Gentiana lutea)

Herbs can also stimulate regurgitation. Ipecac (Cephaelis ipecacuanha) has been used by generations of indigenous people in the Amazon to induce vomiting. It was adopted by seventeenth-century Europeans and used to make syrup of ipecac, an OTC emetic and once-popular remedy for accidental poisoning.

Laxatives and Diuretics

Several medicinal plants aid in the elimination of bodily waste. Herbal purgatives (or laxatives) have been used for centuries to relieve constipation and speed the transit of food through the digestive system; diuretics are used to relieve water retention and treat high blood pressure (hypertension) and urinary tract infections. Herbal laxatives include:

·        Aloe (Aloe vera)

·        Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum)

·        Flax (Linum usitatissimum)

·        Psyllium (Plantago ovata, P. psyllium)

Some popular herbal diuretics are:

·        Alfalfa (Medicago sativa)

·        Nettle (Urtica dioica)

·        Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

·        Tea (Camellia sinensis)

Natural Cough Relief

Many herbs can function as natural cough syrups, aiding in the elimination of mucus and phlegm from the airways.

As with many medications, herbal options trump the pharmaceuticals in this area, as well, because they lack most of the side effects (and safety concerns) associated with the drugs.

In most cases, the herbs used as expectorants are safe for anyone out of diapers—something that can’t be said for OTC expectorants, which the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t recommend for anyone under the age of eleven. The FDA recently announced that it’s looking into the matter after a spate of accidents involving kids and cough syrup.

Herbal Expectorants

Doctors recommend using an expectorant to help rid yourself of phlegm—you use it to help along a “productive” cough. Some herbal expectorants are:

·        Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

·        Peppermint (Mentha xpiperita)

·        Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)

·        Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Before scientists developed the drugs used in today’s cold and flu remedies, herbs like barberry (Berberis vulgaris), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis),eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) were the remedies of choice for fighting coughs and other cold and flu symptoms.

Cough Suppressants

Antitussives are agents that suppress the urge to cough, and they’re used when you’ve got a dry, painful cough that’s not producing any phlegm. Some herbal options include:

·        Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

·        Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)

·        Hops (Humulus lupulus)

·        Spearmint (Mentha spicata)

·        Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)

Sedatives and Stimulants

For centuries, herbalists have been using plants with sedating effects on the central nervous system to help treat insomnia and, in low doses, to relieve anxiety. At the same time, they’ve used an assortment of stimulating herbs, which boost mental and physical performance and fight fatigue.

Plants are almost always a better choice than any OTC or prescription drugs that work on the central nervous system—either sedatives or stimulants—because they generally don’t carry the same side effects, which include agitation or excessive sedation, diarrhea or constipation, dizziness, hallucinations, and dependency.

Herbal stimulants work on the central nervous system, subtly increasing metabolic processes to increase alertness and energy.

Herbal Sleep Aids

Plant-based sedatives can be tailored to your specific needs—the herbs used to treat insomnia and agitation vary widely in their sedating effect—and in most cases you can mix them with other remedies (or a glass of wine) without worrying about drug interaction. Here are some of the most popular herbal sedatives:

·        Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)

·        Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

·        Kava (Piper methysticum)

·        Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)

·        Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

·        Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

Herbs That Stimulate

Stimulant herbs can provide a gentle boost to your mental and physical energy levels. Here are some of the better-known herbal stimulants:

·        Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng)

·        Guarana (Paullinia cupana)

·        Cocoa (Theobroma cacao)

·        Mate (Ilex paraguariensis)

·        Coffee (Coffea arabica)

·        Tea (Camellia sinensis)

Mood Boosters

Many herbs have proven psychiatric effects, meaning they can relieve depression, anxiety, and other psychological disorders the same way that pharmaceuticals can. The big advantage of herbal antidepressants and anxiety remedies is the fact that they’re almost entirely free of side effects—something that no lab-created drug can promise.

Consider the most commonly prescribed antidepressants, like sertraline (Zoloft) and citalopram hydrobromide (Celexa), which are part of the class of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. The most common side effects of these medications are nausea, diarrhea, headaches, and sexual dysfunction.

And while quality research on herbal depression and anxiety remedies is still slim, several studies have shown that herbal remedies like Saint John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) can work as well as prescription medications in cases of mild to moderate depression.

Herbs can alter the levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which are central in depression and other mood disorders as well as addictions and other psychological problems. Here are some herbs with mood-lifting effects:

·        Boswellia (Boswellia serrata)

·        Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)

·        Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

·        Saint John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum)

·        Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)

These herbs have been used successfully to treat anxiety:

·        Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

·        Kava (Piper methysticum)

·        Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)

·        Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

·        Hops (Humulus lupulus)

·        Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

These herbs can be used to treat addictions and eating disorders:

·        Danshen (Salvia miltiorrhiza)

·        Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)

·        Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)

·        Saint John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum)

·        Kudzu (Pueraria lobata)