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

CHAPTER 7

Chronic Diseases and Conditions

Herbs have been used for centuries to treat all kinds of chronic disorders, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. And while conventional medicine has arguably made enormous strides against many chronic diseases, herbal medicine remains a valuable tool in both the prevention and treatment of many of these conditions.

The Problem of Chronic Disease

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), chronic diseases are the biggest causes of death and disability in this country. They account for 1.7 million deaths every year (that’s 70 percent of all deaths) and cause major disabilities and lifestyle limitations for another 25 million Americans (almost 10 percent of the population).

High-fat, calorie-dense foods and a sedentary existence are known causes of chronic disease. And as people in the developing world increasingly adopt this lifestyle, their rates of chronic disease are exploding. According to the World Health Organization, chronic disease, which now contributes to about 60 percent of deaths worldwide, will be responsible for nearly 75 percent by 2020.

Generally speaking, chronic diseases aren’t preventable by any vaccine, nor can they be cured by medicines. They also don’t just go away on their own. Most can be traced to either a genetic predisposition or a set of lifestyle factors—including the way you eat, exercise, and entertain yourself over the course of your life.

We know that many diseases and conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, alcoholism, and asthma, can run in families. Having a family member—especially a close relative—with a certain disease means you might have a higher chance of developing it than someone with no family history. But it doesn’t mean that you’ll definitely be affected. Genetics are only one part of the picture.

The biggest factor in most cases of chronic disease is health 'margin-top:24.0pt;margin-right:0cm;margin-bottom: 6.0pt;margin-left:0cm;line-height:normal'>How Herbs Can Help

Chronic diseases are often associated with misguided processes within the body—normal and necessary operations that have gone awry and are creating complications that can set the stage for illness. And many herbs possess the exact constituents that are missing in someone with these problems.

A common denominator in many chronic diseases is inflammation, which is the body’s natural reaction to an injury or invading pathogen and is a key component of the healing process. But prolonged or chronic inflammation leads to a cycle of destruction and healing that seems to perpetuate the development of disease by interfering with immune function.

For example, people with ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory condition of the colon, are at a greater-than-average risk for colon cancer. And having a chronic inflammatory lung condition like asthma seems to increase your risk of lung cancer, even if you’re not a smoker. Many herbs are natural anti-inflammatories, meaning they can help reduce the type of ongoing inflammation that’s been associated with so many chronic diseases.

When it comes to chronic disease, small changes bring big results. For example, people who moderately reduced their blood pressure saw a 21 percent reduction in heart disease, a 37 percent drop in stroke, and a 13 percent reduction in overall mortality. Lowering your cholesterol by 10 percent can decrease your risk of heart disease by almost 30 percent.

Many chronic diseases are also associated with oxidation, which is a chemical reaction that occurs naturally throughout your body and in the outside world (it’s what turns metal rusty and a slice of apple brown). Through oxidation, an oxidizing agent removes electrons from another substance; this reaction can produce molecules called free radicals, which can damage cells. In a healthy body, free radicals are kept in check by molecules called antioxidants. If there aren’t enough antioxidants around, the cells can sustain oxidative damage, also known as oxidative stress, which is known to play a role in many chronic diseases.

Many herbs are powerful antioxidants, meaning they can blunt the damaging and disease-producing effects of free radicals within the body. For example, research has shown that people who consume lots of antioxidant-rich plants have lower rates of cancer and heart disease.

Cardiovascular Disease

Cardiovascular disease, or CVD, is an umbrella term that includes disorders of the heart and/or arteries, such as coronary heart disease, stroke, angina (chest pain), myocardial infarction (heart attack), and heart failure.

The biggest risk factors for CVD are hypertension (high blood pressure), obesity, hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol and triglycerides), diabetes, cigarette smoking, and physical inactivity.

Lipids and Hyperlipidemia

Having elevated levels of certain lipids in your blood can spell disaster for your heart. The lipids that most concern doctors are cholesterol and triglycerides.

Many experts think that your exposure to stress—and the way you deal with it—can contribute to your susceptibility to cardiovascular disease. Stress can also exacerbate other behaviors that are associated with heart disease (for example, if you’re stressed out you might overeat or smoke more than you otherwise would).

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that your body manufactures (but also occurs in many foods). It’s made up of chemicals called lipoproteins, which include high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). HDL is “good” because it transports cholesterol out of your system. LDL is “bad” because it deposits the cholesterol on the arterial walls. Triglycerides are a different type of fat, also found in your blood and the foods you eat.

High Blood Pressure

Having hypertension increases the amount of work your heart must do, causing it to thicken and become stiff, which increases the chances of heart attack and congestive heart failure. High blood pressure also ups the risk of stroke.

Because hypertension often produces no symptoms, millions of people don’t know they have it. In the vast majority of cases, doctors can’t identify the cause (this is called primary hypertension). But about 5 to 10 percent of cases can be traced to an underlying condition, such as kidney disease, adrenal gland problems, or a congenital heart defect.

This type of high blood pressure, termed secondary hypertension, typically appears suddenly and causes bigger problems than primary hypertension. Secondary hypertension can also be caused by certain medications, including birth control pills, cold remedies, decongestants, and over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers.

Heart Helpers

Conventional medicine has an arsenal of drugs for treating and preventing CVD. Hyperlipidemia is generally treated with statin drugs, such as atorvastatin (Lipitor) and rosuvastatin (Crestor), which decrease production of cholesterol by the liver; other drugs inhibit the absorption of dietary cholesterol and include ezetimibe (Zetia). These medicines can cause abdominal, back, and joint pain, among other things.

Heart disease is treated with drugs like ARBs (angiotensin receptor blockers), ACE (angiotensin converting enzyme) inhibitors, calcium channel blockers, and beta blockers. Side effects can include cough, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and nausea.

Many edible plants and plant oils have proven heart-protecting benefits, so many doctors advise incorporating them into your diet. For example:

• Garlic (Allium sativum)

Eating lots of garlicky foods means less heart disease. Taking garlic powder keeps arteries flexible, helps lower blood pressure, and can prevent the damaging oxidation of cholesterol.

• Pomegranate (Punica granatum)

There’s good evidence that drinking pomegranate juice every day can lower your blood pressure and improve other symptoms of CVD, including atherosclerosis (thickening of the arteries).

• Psyllium (Plantago ovata, P. psyllium)

Adding a dose of these high-fiber seeds to your diet can significantly reduce your serum cholesterol levels.

• Soy (Glycine max)

People who replace other dietary protein (such as red meat) with soy can reduce their cholesterol by as much as 10 percent.

• Tea (Camellia sinensis)

Green tea can lower cholesterol and triglycerides, and research shows that consuming three or more cups a day significantly decreases the risk of cardiovascular and all-cause mortality.

• Rice bran (Oryza sativa)

Full-fat rice bran and rice bran oil can significantly reduce total cholesterol, LDL, and triglycerides and can increase HDL.

Smoking cigarettes puts you at two to four times the risk of developing coronary heart disease; if you’ve already got it, you’re twice as likely to suffer from sudden cardiac death. Nearly 21 percent of the adults in the United States—or 45.3 million people—are smokers.

Other herbs are used medicinally to treat heart disease. They include:

• Danshen (Salvia miltiorrhiza)

This annual sage plant is used in China to treat CVD. Research shows it acts as a natural ACE inhibitor and works to lower blood pressure, dilate arteries, and decrease blood clotting.

• Goji-berry (Lycium barbarum, L. chinense)

These bright-red berries contain a chemical called beta-sitosterol, which has been shown to stop the transport of cholesterol from your gastrointestinal tract to your bloodstream. Goji-berries are also rich in antioxidants.

• Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna, C. oxyacantha)

This herb is a proven heart-protector. It can increase exercise tolerance, reduce cholesterol, and relieve shortness of breath in heart patients

The Epidemic of Diabetes

Diabetes is a chronic, incurable disease involving elevated levels of blood sugar, or glucose. Rates of diabetes are skyrocketing. According to the CDC, about 24 million Americans now have diabetes, which is more than three million more than just two years ago; that’s nearly 8 percent of the population. What’s to blame: a high-calorie, high-fat diet and lack of physical exercise.

Diabetes is a disease involving insulin, which is a hormone produced in the pancreas that regulates glucose. Insulin helps move the sugar from your gastrointestinal tract (it comes from the carbohydrates you eat) to the cells throughout your body.

Doctors have identified a milder type of diabetes, known as prediabetes, which involves blood glucose levels that are higher than normal but not as high as a diabetic’s. Prediabetes is still serious, however. It significantly increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, as well as heart disease and stroke.

There are two main types of diabetes: type 1 (also known as insulin-dependent diabetes), which usually develops in childhood and involves an inability to produce insulin, and type 2 (or adult-onset diabetes), which develops in adulthood. Type 2 is significantly more common—it represents more than 90 percent of all cases of diabetes—and typically begins with insulin resistance, a disorder in which the cells stop using insulin properly and continually signal the pancreas to produce more. As the demand rises, the pancreas gradually loses its ability to meet it and full-blown diabetes sets in.

Diabetes is associated with insulin shortfalls, which can be the result of insufficient production, inefficient action, or both.

Without enough insulin, glucose stays in your blood, where it can create short-term problems like fatigue and thirst. Over time, excessive glucose can cause blindness, kidney damage, CVD, and circulatory problems that can lead to lower-limb amputations.

Treatment Options

Conventional medicine treats diabetes with insulin, which is given to some people with type 2 diabetes and everyone with type 1. Diabetics also get oral medications such as metformin (Glucophage, Riomet) and glipizide (Glucotrol), which are hypoglycemics (they lower blood glucose levels); other drugs increase insulin sensitivity and decrease carbohydrate absorption.

In recent years, scientists have tied excessive consumption of refined carbohydrates, such as sugar and white bread, with diabetes and insulin resistance. These foods are digested and converted to glucose quickly, which creates a big demand for insulin. Experts advise diabetics and non-diabetics alike to load their plates with unrefined carbohydrates, which don’t create blood sugar surges.

People who take insulin (sold under the brand names of Apidra, Humulin, Novolin, and others) can experience mild allergic reactions or low blood sugar, the symptoms of which can include sweating, anxiety, nausea, and rapid heartbeat. Side effects of hypoglycemic drugs can include diarrhea, nausea, stomach pain, and vomiting. Herbal therapies for diabetes, prediabetes, and insulin resistance include these:

• Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum, C. aromaticum)

Some studies show that this popular spice can lower blood glucose levels by increasing insulin receptor sensitivity.

• Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum)

The seeds of this plant are used as a diabetes remedy in India and other parts of the world. They seem to slow carbohydrate absorption and lower glucose levels.

• Ginseng (Panax ginseng, P. quinquefolius, Eleutherococcus senticosus)

All of the major varieties of ginseng—Asian, American, and Siberian (eleuthero)—have been shown to lower blood sugar levels.

• Gymnema (Gymnema sylvestre)

In Hindi, this Indian plant is known as gur-mar, or “sugar destroyer." Research shows that diabetics who take a gymnema extract can cut their insulin doses in half and can reduce or even discontinue taking conventional hypoglycemic drugs.

• Konjac (Amorphophallus konjac, A. rivieri)

This tuber, also known as devil’s tongue, contains a substance called glucomannan, which is a type of indigestible fiber that can regulate glucose levels in diabetics (it also seems to help reduce cholesterol).

• Milk thistle (Silybum marianum)

A key chemical constituent in milk thistle, silymarin, has been shown to decrease insulin resistance and stabilize blood sugar and lipid levels in diabetics.

• Psyllium (Plantago ovata, P. psyllium)

Psyllium can significantly lower glucose levels in people with diabetes (both type 1 and type 2).

• Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum, O. sanctum)

Preliminary research shows that extracts of this Ayurvedic herb can lower blood glucose levels in people with type 2 diabetes.

• Prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica)

Studies show that this cactus, also known as nopal, can significantly reduce blood sugar levels in some type 2 diabetics.

Liver Disease

The liver processes blood as it leaves the stomach and intestines, breaking down nutrients and drugs and filtering out toxins. Chronic liver disease affects one in ten Americans and kills 27,000 of them each year. Any disease of the liver can inhibit its ability to process and eliminate drugs—both pharmaceuticals and medicinal herbs—meaning they can accumulate and reach toxic levels. If you’ve got any liver issues, talk with your doctor about taking any medicine or supplement, and avoid alcohol (your liver won’t be able to process that drug properly, either).

Alcohol-induced Liver Disease

If you regularly drink more alcohol than your liver can handle, the alcohol overload can cause several diseases.

• Fatty liver disease affects almost all heavy drinkers and involves the accumulation of excess fat cells. Symptoms can include abdominal discomfort, although many people won’t see any signs at all. It will improve if you stop drinking.

• Alcoholic hepatitis affects up to 35 percent of heavy drinkers and creates nausea, abdominal pain, fever, and jaundice (a yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes). The damage can be reversed if you eliminate the alcohol but can lead to progressive and permanent liver damage if you don’t.

• Alcoholic cirrhosis affects about 20 percent of heavy drinkers, most often after ten or more years of serious imbibing. In cirrhosis, normal liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue. Symptoms are similar to those of alcoholic hepatitis (see above), but the damage is irreversible.

Infectious Hepatitis

This is caused by a virus—commonly known as hepatitis A, B, or C—and typically produces fever, headache, fever, and jaundice. Symptoms and treatments vary:

• Hepatitis A (HVA), which is generally transmitted through contaminated food or water, typically clears up after six months without causing permanent damage.

• Hepatitis B (HVB) can be acute (short-term, without any lasting problems) or chronic (ongoing and possibly leading to cirrhosis, cancer, or liver failure). It’s transmitted through bodily fluids and from mother to baby during childbirth.

• Hepatitis C (HVC) is transmitted via blood and often produces no symptoms (meaning it can go undetected for years). Hepatitis C damages the liver and can lead to potentially fatal liver diseases.

Hepatitis A is generally treated with a vaccine, which can help thwart the infection. Doctors typically let an acute hepatitis B infection run its course without any drug treatments; chronic HVB and HVC infections may be treated with antiviral drugs called interferons, which can cause muscle pain and other side effects.

The most common cause of acute liver failure in the United States is overdosing on acetaminophen (Tylenol). Taking more than the recommended doses or combining the drug with alcohol can create more toxic byproducts than your liver can handle. Excessive doses of other OTC and prescription drugs can also cause liver toxicity.

Herbal Liver Helpers

If you’ve got liver disease, you should definitely follow your doctor’s advice (and take the meds that are prescribed), but you can also use herbs to support your liver and its functioning. For example:

• Artichoke (Cynara cardunculus, C. scolymus)

Artichoke is a choleretic (it enhances the flow of bile) and rich source of antioxidants. It helps the liver process fats and cholesterol and protects it from oxidative damage.

• Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis)

Extracts of this mushroom can improve liver function in people with infectious hepatitis. It also improves triglyceride and blood sugar levels in diabetics, which could help prevent fatty liver disease.

• Milk thistle (Silybum marianum)

Milk thistle extracts support liver function and can improve the symptoms of alcoholic liver disease and infectious hepatitis. They also stimulate liver regeneration and the formation of new liver cells.

• Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)

Schisandra extracts can protect the liver and have been shown to improve liver function in patients with viral and drug-induced hepatitis.

Cancer

The 100-plus diseases known as cancer share a common cause: the growth and spread of abnormal cells, which are created when the cells’ genetic material is mutated though a process called carcinogenesis. This upsets the normal balance between the birth and death of cells—termed apoptosis—and creates a process of uncontrolled proliferation and tumor formation.

Causes of Cancer

Cancer can be traced to internal factors (genetics, immune conditions, or hormonal problems) and external factors (smoking or exposure to chemicals, radiation, or infectious agents). All of these things can act together or sequentially to create disease.

Who is at risk for cancer?

Cancer can strike anyone, but more than three-fourths of all cancers occur in people over fifty-five. When experts talk about risk, they’re most often talking about lifetime risk: the likelihood that you’ll develop cancer over the course of your lifetime. In the United States, men have a slightly less than 50-percent lifetime risk; for women, it’s roughly one in three.

Normally, the cells throughout your body behave in an orderly fashion, growing, dividing, and dying according to schedule (replicating more quickly when you’re young and slowing down to replace only worn-out or dying cells as you reach adulthood).

In most cases, if a cell’s DNA is damaged, the cell will repair the damage or die. But if the cell survives with a specific mutation, it becomes cancerous. Cancerous cells don’t die the way normal cells do; instead, they outlive normal cells and create millions of new cancer cells, which can create tumors and invade other areas of the body, a process called metastasis.

The Most Common Cancers

The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 1.4 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer—and 565,000 Americans died—in 2008. Cancer accounts for one in four deaths and claims more than 1,500 lives a day.

Nonmelanoma skin cancer is by far the most common type of cancer in the United States, with more than a million new diagnoses each year (about half of all cancer diagnoses combined). After skin cancer, the most commonly diagnosed cancers, in order of prevalence, are lung, prostate, and colorectal (in men), and breast, lung, and colorectal (in women).

Cancers of the breast and female reproductive system (including the cervix, uterus, and ovaries) kill about 69,000 women every year. Breast cancer accounts for more than one in four cancers diagnosed in American women.

Lung cancer is the biggest cancer killer in the United States, and the vast majority of cases can be traced to smoking. Tobacco use causes 90 percent of all lung cancer deaths and a significant proportion of deaths from other diseases. It kills 5.4 million people a year—and about half of the people who use it.

Treatment Options

Conventional medical treatment often involves surgical removal of the tumor and other affected tissues, radiation, and chemotherapy (treatment with drugs that kill cancer cells and stop tumor proliferation). In the case of hormone-dependent cancers (prostate cancer in men, breast and reproductive cancers in women), patients may be given hormonal therapies. The side effects of chemotherapy drugs include intense nausea and fatigue; hormonal therapies can increase the risk of other cancers and circulatory and liver problems.

Here are some herbal options, which in many cases can be used in conjunction with conventional treatments:

• Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)

This herb relieves chemotherapy-induced nausea; research shows it can also boost immunity and inhibit tumor growth.

• Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis)

Extracts of the cordyceps mushroom have been shown to reduce tumor size, boost immune response, and improve quality of life in cancer patients.

• Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis)

This oil can improve the response to the drug tamoxifen in women with breast cancer (it also inhibits the action of a common cancer gene, thus hindering the development of tumors).

• Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Ginger extracts can relieve the nausea caused by chemotherapy.

• Grape (Vitis vinifera)

Red grapes and grape products (wine and juice) contain a potent anticancer chemical called resveratrol. It’s also sold as supplements derived from the Japanese knotweed (Fallopiajaponica)plant. Resveratrol appears to inhibit the growth of cancer cells and to induce apoptosis, and has shown promise in preventing cancer, as well.

• Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)

Reishi mushrooms have been used to treat several types of cancer. Studies show that reishi extracts can stimulate immune function in advanced cancer patients and slow the spread of breast, prostate, and other cancer cells.

• Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens)

Preliminary research has shown that saw palmetto extracts may inhibit the spread of prostate cancer cells and speed their death.

• Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor, Coriolus versicolor)

Also known as coriolus, this mushroom can prolong cancer survival when taken during chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

• Tea (Camellia sinensis)

Green tea has been shown to help prevent numerous cancers and also prevent new blood vessel growth in cancers, inhibit tumor cell proliferation, and induce apoptosis in cancer cells.

“Mystery” Diseases

Humans are growing increasingly susceptible to several diseases that, although well known and well researched, remain mysterious. Researchers and doctors can identify the symptoms and even predict the people who are the greatest risk of developing them, yet are at a loss as to explain exactly what causes them—or why they’re becoming so widespread.

Autoimmune Disorders

Autoimmune disorders are characterized by an abnormal immune response—the body mistakes its own tissues as a threat and attacks them—and can affect any part of the body, including the heart, skin, and endocrine and digestive systems. Some of the most well known are lupus, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), celiac disease, and type 1 diabetes; other diseases that may be linked to autoimmunity include multiple sclerosis and psoriasis.

Autoimmune disorders are the third most common kind of disease in the United States, right behind cancer and heart disease.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Chronic fatigue syndrome, or CFS, was once dismissed as psychosomatic “yuppie flu.” CFS is now recognized as a serious health problem that affects more than a million Americans—and it is four times more common in women than men. Symptoms include overwhelming exhaustion, persistent muscle and joint pain, sleep disturbances, headaches, and impaired concentration and memory.

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a disorder characterized by widespread pain, abnormal pain processing (sensitivity to things other people wouldn’t find painful), fatigue, sleep disturbances, and psychological problems. It affects more than 5 million Americans, mostly women (the ratio of women to men is seven to one).

Fibromyalgia creates “tender points” in the patient’s body—on the neck, arms, shoulders, back, hips, and legs—that hurt at the slightest pressure. Like other autoimmune diseases, fibromyalgia is more common in people with rheumatoid arthritis and other immune-related problems or who have a close relative with them.

Conventional and Herbal Treatments

Conventional treatments for autoimmune disorders include pain medications and drugs that treat specific symptoms (i.e., swelling or skin rashes), such as corticosteroids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Conventional therapies for CFS include immunomodulating drugs, antivirals, antidepressants, and antianxiety medications. Fibromyalgia is generally treated with NSAIDs, opioids, antidepressants, and muscle relaxants.

Many natural remedies can be used in conjunction with these drugs, although people with autoimmune disorders should avoid taking herbs that stimulate immunity. Safe herbal therapies include:

• Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

This Indian herb is a rich source of antioxidants. Recent research shows it can help offset the oxidative stress that causes many CFS symptoms (and seems to play a role in fibromyalgia, as well).

• Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng)

This herb can fight fatigue and boost immunity. It is considered an adaptogen, meaning it can help offset the stress that might be behind fibromyalgia and CFS.

• Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)

Also considered adaptogenic, astragalus can calm an overactive immune system—just what you need in an autoimmune disorder. Recent research confirms its modulating effect on immune response in people with systemic lupus.

• Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)

Bilberry contains antioxidants, which are beneficial in the management of CFS.

• Cayenne (Capsicum annuum, C. frutescens)

Cayenne is a natural painkiller (and the key ingredient in many OTC arthritis rubs). Research shows it also has immunosuppressive activity and can inhibit inflammation that’s caused by an exaggerated immune response. Other studies show it can reduce tenderness and pain in patients with fibromyalgia.

• Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)

Feverfew seems to interact directly with white blood cells to slow the inflammatory process and reduce the severity and frequency of RA episodes.

• Flax (Linum usitatissimum)

Oral doses of flaxseed have been shown to improve kidney function in people with systemic lupus.

• Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Ginger extracts have been shown to decrease joint pain in people with RA.

• Grape (Vitis vinifera)

Grape seeds and skins contain polyphenols, which are potent anti-inflammatories and antioxidants that can prevent the development of type 1 diabetes and protect cartilage from the damage caused by RA.