Rodale's 21st-Century Herbal: A Practical Guide for Healthy Living Using Nature's Most Powerful Plants

CHAPTER 5

HERBAL HEALTH and HEALING

As early as 2500 BCE, physicians in Sumer (modern-day Iraq) recorded their use of herbal medicines and preparations on clay tablets using one of the earliest known forms of writing—cuneiform. Plants—including thyme, mustard, and willow—were prescribed for a wide range of conditions, administered as poultices or internal therapies.

Today, plants continue to play a vital role in everyday health care around the world. Several billion people use herbs for conditions ranging from bites, stings, and skin irritations to life-threatening illnesses such as malaria. Some 30 to 40 percent of people in the United States use herbal remedies in some form, either directly or processed into supplements, tinctures, extracts, or creams. And interest in herbs as preventive medicines, self-care for minor health conditions, and low-cost, nontoxic alternatives to standard treatments for common health problems continues to grow. Plants also play a critical role in the mainstream pharmaceutical industry. An estimated 25 percent of our prescription pharmaceuticals derive their molecules directly from plants, and many more drugs are based on compounds inspired by or derived from nature.

HERBS AS MEDICINE

Traditional healers use herbal medicines in myriad ways as part of an overall system or approach to wellness. Often, they rely on combinations of herbs called formulas, which they can tailor to the specific needs of a patient. Traditional health-care systems that rely on whole plant medicines—herbal remedies in their most natural forms—include traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Ayurvedic medicine, Tibetan medicine, and the traditional medicines of Africa, South and Central America, the Pacific Islands, and Australia. Some of these healing systems have existed for millennia. Whole plant medicines are also used in Western herbalism, a system of herbal therapeutics that evolved in Europe and North America.

HERBS IN MODERN HEALTH CARE

Herbal medicine is finding its way into modern Western health care through the fields of integrative medicine (IM) and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Both IM and CAM combine mainstream medical practices with “complementary” approaches—including herbal remedies, when appropriate—that have some evidence of effectiveness. In some nations, such as China, traditional herbal medicine exists side by side with Western medicine, and many physicians are trained to use both traditional Chinese and conventional (allopathic or “mainstream”) medical treatments. In the United States and Canada, most conventional physicians receive little, if any, training in the use of herbal medicines, and some are skeptical about their use. But this is beginning to change, as more than 50 academic institutions and affiliated centers now offer formal IM training programs.

In many European nations, health agencies have approved hundreds of herbs as official medicines. Conventional physicians there often receive training about botanicals in medical school, and they prescribe certain herbal medicines as low-cost, nontoxic alternatives to standard pharmaceutical treatments for common ailments. Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), for instance, is now a preferred treatment in Europe for benign prostatic hyperplasia (enlarged prostate), a common health problem for men over the age of 50. European physicians also commonly prescribe black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) for symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes.

Through global commerce, practitioners and consumers of conventional (Western) health care now have access to herbs from around the world. In Europe, physicians prescribe the Polynesian herb kava (Piper methysticum) for anxiety. Germany has approved the use of the Indian herb turmeric (Curcuma longa) for the treatment of indigestion. And physicians in the United States are recommending the Chinese medicinal herbs astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) and shiitake mushroom (Lentinus edodes) for patients undergoing chemotherapy.

People all over the world also use herbs to treat themselves for minor illnesses and injuries—a practice often called folk medicine (the everyday medicine of the people). Herbal medicines are affordable; people who live in rural areas can even gather their own wild herbs locally and prepare the remedies at home. Pacific Islanders, for instance, use freshly squeezed juice from the root of a banana plant to help stop bleeding from a cut. Even city dwellers use herbs this way. If you’ve ever used aloe vera from a potted houseplant to soothe a burned finger or calmed an upset stomach by drinking ginger ale or chamomile tea, you’ve practiced herbal folk medicine.

Holistic healers use methods, such as massage therapy with herbal oils, that promote the wellness of the whole person.

Understanding Holistic Medicine

Holistic medicine is another term for an integrative approach to healing: The health-care professional treats the entire person—body, mind, and spirit—not just the symptoms of his or her disease. According to this definition, most (if not all) systems of traditional medicine are holistic, or “whole body” healing systems. Traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, and Western herbalism all fall under the umbrella of holistic therapies.

All whole body systems of healing encompass diet, lifestyle, emotional well-being, spiritual considerations, and physical activity, in addition to the use of herbs or other medicines. Holistic healers believe that health and disease are products of a complex interplay among mind, body, and spirit. Each patient is considered a unique individual with specific issues and health-care needs. In holistic healing, the patient is a partner in the treatment process, not a passive bystander. A holistic herbalist expects patients to play an active role by making lifestyle choices that foster health.

Holistic healers seek to stimulate the body’s own self-healing mechanism, or “vital force.” When presented with an illness by a patient or client, holistic herbalists often recommend tonic herbs that nourish specific body systems and gently correct long-standing imbalances that they believe are the root cause of a disorder or disease. Holistic healers recommend plant remedies not because they provide rapid relief of symptoms, but because these nourishing tonics support your body’s own efforts to heal itself. In contrast, conventional (Western) medicine adheres to what’s known as the biomedical model, which asserts that all diseases have physical causes and should be treated accordingly with specific pharmaceuticals or surgical procedures.

Another hallmark of holistic herbal medicine is its focus on practices and behaviors intended to support health and prevent disease, rather than simply treating disease when it occurs. A holistic herbalist might advise a patient about the ways lifestyle can affect overall health—he or she would discuss not only herbs, but also dietary modifications, bodywork (such as massage or chiropractic), psychological counseling (to manage emotional issues and stress), and exercise (yoga, dance, tai chi, walking, or some other appropriate physical activity). Even conventional medicine can be part of holistic treatment, as long as the treatment considers the whole person: body, mind, and spirit.

TIERAONA LOW DOG, MD

Helping to Chart the Course of Modern Health Care

Tieraona Low Dog, MD, has been described as a “modern Eclectic physician.” Eclectic medicine, which began in the United States in the early 1800s and was popular through the mid-1900s, focuses on the individual needs of the patient, using all therapies available—including, but not limited to, herbs.

Dr. Low Dog is trained as an herbalist, massage therapist, midwife, and medical doctor. An integrative physician with her own practice for many years, she now holds a faculty position at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. Having lived and worked with many traditional cultures, she describes her practice as “a compilation of the wisdom and magic of many healers.”

Dr. Low Dog’s own journey as a healer began during her childhood. She was influenced by her family’s belief that the body has “an amazing capacity for self-healing if we give it what it needs and don’t get in the way too much.” Early in life, Dr. Low Dog recognized the importance of a strong bond with nature, and she grew up spending long periods studying medicinal plants in the desert of the Southwest, as well as working with her grandmothers, who were very knowledgeable about healing and herbs.

Dr. Low Dog is a visionary who has labored tirelessly and effectively to improve health care in this country and internationally, and she has been recognized for her important contributions with dozens of awards and honors. She describes her role in life—a healer—as “the bridge between the woman growing peppermint in her garden and the researcher isolating menthol and everything in between.” See this page for 25 of her favorite healing herbs.

Whole Plant Herbal Remedies and Phytomedicines

In the past, people used herbs only in their most naturally occurring form—as fresh or dried plants. They might have consumed the herb whole or made it into any of a variety of whole plant remedies—teas, tinctures (healing substances in an alcoholic solution), poultices, and many other traditional applications. Herbs are still used this way in traditional healing systems such as TCM and Ayurveda, as well as in folk medicine.

Holistic herbalists maintain that it’s impossible to understand the uses of plant parts separated from the whole and that plants are most beneficial when taken in their whole, natural form. In fact, this is part of the meaning of the word “holistic” in the context of herbalism. On the other hand, whole plants contain many hundreds of different chemical compounds, as explained in Chapter 3, and some of these can work in opposition to, in support of, or through synergy with each other. Plants grown in different places or under different conditions can contain varying concentrations of key chemical compounds. This means that it can be difficult, at times, to make absolute generalizations about how a mixture made from a whole herb will act in your body.

To solve this problem, some researchers use a concept known as “reductionism,” which views a plant as a collection of individual compounds, one or some of which might be responsible for its overall effect. By isolating and concentrating the specific plant chemical they believe is responsible for the plant’s medicinal effects (the so-called “active ingredient”), researchers can create a kind of phytomedicine. This highly processed herbal medicine, also called a standardized extract, contains a specified amount of one or two chemicals called “marker compounds.” Having a product that contains verifiable quantities of the desired plant chemicals also makes it easier to ensure that future research on that species, for example studies with lab animals or humans, can be undertaken with herbal extracts that are consistent in their composition. The ability to replicate a scientific experiment and obtain identical results is an essential part of scientific methodology.

But isolating and increasing percentages of specific compounds can also have unintended consequences. The focus on one specific ingredient ignores many other chemical constituents that contribute to the whole plant’s activity, and in some cases, these compounds temper or balance the very potent effects of the remedy. In rare cases, when the standardized compound is increased to a very high percentage of the product’s content—approaching the concentration of a pharmaceutical medicine—isolated constituents can be more likely to cause side effects that do not occur when the whole plant is used.

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) was the original source for one of the world’s most important and widely used drugs: aspirin.

Modern Research on Herbs for Healing

Many people mistakenly believe that little or no scientific evidence exists to support the health benefits and safety of herbs. The truth is, thousands of scientific studies have been conducted on hundreds of herbs—from basic laboratory studies in test tubes (known as in vitro studies, these are experiments with a portion of an organism isolated from its natural biological surroundings, such as cancer cells studied in a cell culture dish) to long-term clinical studies with humans.

The gold standard of medical research is the double-blind test—meaning that neither the study participants nor the researchers know which group is getting which substance, a practice intended to eliminate bias. Double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical studies are considered the most reliable for testing the medicinal uses of herbs. These studies compare the effects of herbal medicine on two groups of human volunteers—one group takes the herb while the other takes a placebo (an inactive substance that resembles the test medicine). Studies in Europe (especially Germany) and Asia have begun to validate important traditional uses of some herbs and their clinical potential.

But more research is needed. Although many herbs have a long history of use, only a small fraction of them has been thoroughly evaluated for safety and effectiveness. Just as prescription pharmaceuticals can cause unexpected adverse effects among certain individuals, herbal remedies can also affect people in different ways. Whether your health-care professional is treating you with an herb or a pharmaceutical drug, be sure to work closely with him or her to understand the medicine’s properties and possible side effects.

THE IMPORTANCE of HERBAL MEDICINE

“Integrative medicine just makes sense—each patient is a whole human being, a person with a rich story, a history and set of beliefs and a culture that must be considered in the co-creation [by physician and patient] of a treatment plan.”

As an herbalist and physician, I have long valued the role plants play in maintaining our health. Herbal medicine is ancient, and it gave birth to the modern sciences of botany, pharmacy, perfumery, and chemistry. Some of our most useful and beneficial medicines originate from plants, including aspirin (salicylic acid derivatives from willow bark and meadowsweet), quinine (from cinchona bark), digoxin (from foxglove), and morphine (from opium poppy). Just 100 years ago, the United States Pharmacopeia was filled with plant-based drugs, but today, few physicians are well versed in botany and few botanists deeply understand medicine.

This is unfortunate because there are times when an herbal remedy could offer a safer alternative. Take chamomile: The flowers have been used for centuries as a gentle calm-ative for young and old alike. It is non-habit-forming and well tolerated. A study sponsored by the University of Michigan found that chamomile extract had roughly the same efficacy as many prescription sleeping medications when given to adults with insomnia. Peppermint oil has been shown to be as effective as pharmaceutical drugs for relieving irritable bowel syndrome, but without the ofttimes dangerous side effects. Clinical studies have shown that ginger relieves morning sickness, sage can relieve a sore throat, and hibiscus tea gently lowers blood pressure. I believe it’s better to use mild remedies for minor health problems and save the more potent, and risky, prescription medications for more serious conditions.

Sometimes an herb can fill a niche for which there is no pharmaceutical equivalent. Milk thistle is a classic example. Numerous scientific studies show that the extract can prevent liver damage caused by environmental toxins, alcohol, and medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol). A Columbia University study of children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) found that milk thistle could reverse the liver toxicity that resulted from chemotherapy, allowing children to receive their treatments on time. Milk thistle protects the liver without interfering with the effectiveness of medications—and nothing currently in our modern pharmacy can match it. Some herbal remedies (such as the antidepressant St. John’s wort), however, can interact with medications. So if you’re taking a prescription medication, talk to your pharmacist and/or health-care provider before you take any herbal remedy or dietary supplement.

Consumers want to know about alternatives to conventional approaches; health-care practitioners and pharmacists should be able to answer their questions and provide appropriate guidance. Centuries of use and human clinical studies confirm that herbal remedies can be safe, effective, and economical options for many common conditions. For me, herbal medicines unquestionably play a unique and important role in modern health care.

Tieraona Low Dog, MD

HEALING THERAPIES

Plant remedies play an important role in traditional healing systems. Here are several major traditional healing systems and some of their most important herbs.

WESTERN HERBALISM

Western herbalism (the use of herbs by North American and European herbal healers) has roots not only in the works of the classical Greek and Arab physicians, but also in the folk-healing systems of Europe and North America. European settlers brought their favorite medicinal plants with them to the New World on the North American continent. But they also eagerly learned the uses of North American plants from Native American healers. European physicians readily adopted native North American plants, including echinacea (Echinacea spp.), saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), and black cohosh (Actaea racemosa). (See Chapter 1 for more about Western herbalism in Europe and the Americas.)

TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is an ancient healing system that originated in China but is used today to treat millions of people all around the world. TCM applies treatments including acupuncture and herbs according to a highly developed, holistic philosophy of health and disease. Treatment is based on balancing and regulating the flow of qi (pronounced “chee”)—the body’s life energy or vital force. Japan, Korea, and Vietnam have all developed traditional medicine systems of their own, based on concepts and practices begun in China at least 3,000 years ago.

Principles of TCM

The principles of traditional Chinese medicine are deeply rooted in the Chinese philosophy and way of seeing the universe. Some Westerners have difficulty fully understanding the concepts of TCM, which do not conform to conventional (Western) ideas about science and medicine. Traditional Chinese healers believe that human beings are subject to the same laws that govern nature and that disease results from imbalances or lack of harmony in forces that influence the workings of the body.

THE FIVE ELEMENTS of TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE and THEIR ASSOCIATIONS

The Five Elements represent fundamental relationships among the forces and cycles of nature and their effects upon the human body. Each element is associated with specific organs and emotions.

ELEMENT

SEASON

TASTE

EMOTION

BODY PARTS

Wood

Spring

Sour

Anger

Liver, tendons gallbladder, eyes

Fire

Summer

Bitter

Joy

Heart, tongue, small blood intestine, vessels

Earth

Indian summer

Sweet

Worry

Spleen, mouth, stomach, muscles

Metal

Fall

Pungent

Grief

Lungs, nose, skin large intestine

Water

Winter

Salty

Fear

Kidneys, bones bladder, ears

The Practice of TCM

A TCM practitioner’s first step is to pinpoint imbalances that have resulted in a person’s physical problems. In TCM, all disease is viewed as the result of energetic imbalances (excess or deficiency) caused by a person’s way of life and relationship with the universe. The six external causes of disease are wind, cold, heat, dampness, dryness, and summer heat. The seven internal causes, or emotions, that contribute to physical manifestations of disharmony are joy, anger, sadness, pensiveness, grief, fear, and fright. So, for example, a TCM practitioner might conclude that a patient’s disease is caused by excessive “wind” in the body, too much “heat” in a specific organ, or by “qi deficiency” or “deficient spleen yang.”

A traditional Chinese physician uses a unique array of diagnostic techniques. In addition to carefully questioning a patient about his health, lifestyle, and behavior, the doctor examines his tongue for signs of illness, observes all aspects of his appearance, palpates his abdomen, and analyzes his pulse. Chinese pulse diagnosis is a highly refined art that takes many years to master.

Acupuncture and herbs, often used in combination, are the two most important components of TCM practice. Other treatments include nutritional therapies, restorative physical exercises such as qigong or tai chi, meditation, and massage.

Acupuncture, which originated in China at least 2,000 years ago, remains one of the most commonly used medical procedures in the world. Acupuncture involves the insertion of tiny needles in specific places along the body’s meridians—pathways that serve as channels for the flow of qi. There are 12 major meridians and more than 1,000 acupuncture points along the meridians.

Through the precise placement of needles on these points, the skilled acupuncturist manipulates the flow of qi to reduce excess, counteract deficiency, or otherwise correct underlying energetic imbalances to treat disease. Modern clinical studies conducted in China and in the West indicate that acupuncture can be an effective treatment or supportive therapy for health problems including addictions, asthma, carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia, headache, low-back pain, menstrual cramps, osteoarthritis pain, postoperative dental pain, postoperative and chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting, and stroke rehabilitation.

IMPORTANT HERBS in TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE

These are only a few examples of the many thousands of different herbs that are important in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). As in many traditional medical systems, combinations of herbs are also an integral part of the pharmacopoeia.

ASTRAGALUS (Astragalus membranaceus)

Astragalus root, called huang qi in Chinese, is an important qi tonic that is considered slightly warming and sweet. It is used to treat conditions characterized by deficient qi. These include frequent colds, general weakness and fatigue, weak digestion and lack of appetite, and chronic weakness of the lungs with shortness of breath. For use as a daily tonic, pieces of astragalus root can be cooked into soups or other foods. Healers often prescribe a combination of astragalus and ginseng roots (called bu zhong yi qi tang) for debility This formula contains dong quai, and fatigue.

DONG QUAI (Angelica sinensis)

Practitioners of TCM consider dong quai root (also called dang gui, or Chinese angelica) warm, sweet, acrid, and bitter. It is the most important “blood tonic” in traditional Chinese medicine, and healers use it to invigorate blood and relieve blood stagnation. Dong quai is often called the female ginseng because in TCM, women’s health relates closely to blood. Practitioners prescribe it widely in combination with other herbs to treat women’s health conditions, such as irregular menstruation, menopausal symptoms, and postpartum debility (weakness after giving birth). Four Things Soup, a classical Chinese formula, is a women’s tonic widely prescribed throughout China. Chinese peony (Paeonia lactiflora), rehmannia (Rehmannia glutinosa), and ligusticum (Ligusticum sinense) in equal parts, prepared by simmering the herbs.

GINSENG (Panax ginseng)

TCM classifies ginseng root, known as ren shen in Chinese, as a “superior” herb, or one of the most useful and safest remedies available. An important qi tonic, it is considered warming, sweet, and slightly bitter. Traditional healers use ginseng to treat extreme fatigue, debility caused by illness or old age, and heart and blood pressure problems. They generally prescribe it only for people over the age of 45 or 50 and treat young people with it only if they have severe qi deficiency.

Chinese Herbal Formulary

TCM classifies herbs according to four energies (cold, cool, warm, and hot) and five flavors (spicy, sweet, sour, bitter, and salty). Healers might prescribe cooling herbs to relieve conditions caused by excess heat in the body, for example, or sweet herbs to tonify qi and nourish the blood. TCM practitioners rarely use herbs singly; instead, they compound herbs into formulas. A single herb can have many different effects, so practitioners carefully choose and combine them with other herbs in a prescription designed to address myriad health issues at the same time.

TCM practitioners can choose from nearly 6,000 herbs to create an herbal formula that could contain 20 or more herbs. The traditional Chinese pharmacopoeia lists hundreds of different formulas for specific patterns of disharmony. The practitioner adjusts these formulas, which usually contain at least 10 different herbs, to suit the unique characteristics and needs of the patient.

Chinese practitioners often prescribe a formula as a decoction (a tea made by simmering dried herbs) to be brewed and consumed several times a day. Patients can also take an herbal formula as a powder, pill, or alcohol-based tincture, or they can add the roots, leaves, or other parts of the plant to a soup, porridge, or other food. Some classic Chinese formulas are mass-produced as ready-to-use “patent remedies” made according to a specific formula. These are usually sold in pill form.

An external herbal treatment called moxibustion is often used in combination with acupuncture. To perform moxibustion, the practitioner applies heat to acupuncture points by burning moxa (a dried herb, usually Artemesia vulgaris, or mugwort) near or on the skin. The heat is believed to penetrate into the meridians to influence qi and blood flow. Moxa is available in a variety of forms—including loose powder, cones, and sticks—for different applications. Moxa cones can be burned directly on the skin, but moxa is often applied indirectly, such as by wrapping a ball of the herb around the end of an acupuncture needle before lighting it.

DR. TIERAONA LOW DOG’S FAVORITE HEALING HERBS and THEIR USES

Tieraona Low Dog, MD, frequently prescribes these 25 herbs for common health conditions. All are effective, have few safety concerns, and have a long history of traditional use. The dose recommendations are for adults. Read more about these herbs in Part II, beginning on this page. (For more about making healing herbal teas, see “Herbal Infusions and Decoctions.”)

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

USES: Rejuvenating tonic, anti-inflammatory, reduces anxiety, boosts immune health.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Tea: Simmer 1 tsp dried and sliced root in 1 cup water or milk for 10 minutes. Strain. Drink one or two times per day. Standardized extract (2-5% withanolides): Take 500 mg two or three times per day.

CONCERNS: Can cause mild sedation; potential to stimulate thyroid hormones.

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa)

USES: Relieves menstrual cramps and arthritic pain; commonly used to ease menopausal symptoms.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Tincture: Take 1–2 ml three times per day. Standardized extract: Take 20–80 mg two times per day.

CONCERNS: Very rare case reports of liver damage (likely due to misidentified herb); purchase only from reputable supplier.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis)

USES: Flowers have long been used to relieve inflammation in the mouth, throat, and stomach; popular as a topical cream or ointment to relieve rashes and irritation and to help heal wounds.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Tea: Pour 1 cup boiling water over 2 tsp petals. Steep for 10 minutes. Strain. Use as needed as a mouthwash, gargle, or tea. Ointment: Apply to skin two or three times per day as needed.

CONCERNS: None known.

Catnip (Nepeta cataria)

USES: Soothes an upset stomach; reduces anxiety and tension.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Tea: Pour 1 cup boiling water over 4 or 5 fresh or 1 tsp dried leaves. Steep for 5 minutes. Strain and sweeten, if desired. Drink one or two times per day.

CONCERNS: None known.

Chasteberry (Vitex agnus-castus)

USES: Premiere herb for relieving PMS symptoms.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Capsules: Take 250–500 mg dried fruit once per day. Tincture: Take 2–3 ml each morning.

CONCERNS: None known.

Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon)

USES: Well-established treatment for reducing the risk of bladder infection; could also be beneficial for chronic prostatitis.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Juice: Drink ½ to ¾ cup twice per day. Capsules: Take 300–500 mg concentrated juice extract two times per day.

CONCERNS: None known.

Echinacea (Echinacea spp.)

USES: Antiviral and immune-enhancing properties; popular for relieving colds and upper respiratory infections (approved in Europe for these uses).

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Tea: Simmer 1 tsp dried and sliced root in 1 cup water for 10minutes. Strain. Drink 1–3 cups per day. Tincture: Take 5 ml three to six times per day at onset of cold symptoms.

CONCERNS: Rare allergic reactions.

Elderberry (Sambucus nigra, S. canadensis)

USES: Flowers valued as a remedy for colds and fever for centuries; fruit extracts have been shown to have significant antiviral activity, especially against the flu.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Tea: Pour 1 cup boiling water over 1–2 tsp flowers. Steep for 10 minutes. Sweeten if desired and drink hot two or three times per day. Berry extracts: Use as directed.

CONCERNS: None known.

Garlic (Allium sativum)

USES: Potent antimicrobial; often used to combat colds, ease sinus congestion, and stave off traveler's diarrhea. Studies show that regular use can help gently lower blood pressure.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Eat: Eat 1–2 cloves fresh daily. Capsules: Take 4–8 mg allicin per day; enteric-coated products may be superior if specifically treating diarrhea.

CONCERNS: May interact with warfarin.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

USES: Premiere remedy for easing nausea, vomiting, and upset stomach; fresh teas relieve cold and flu symptoms.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Tea: Steep ¼–½ tsp dried ginger or simmer 1 tsp fresh ginger root in 1 cup hot water for 10 minutes. Strain and sweeten, if desired. Drink 1–2 cups per day. Capsules: Take 250–500 mg two times per day.

CONCERNS: Very safe in small amounts; heartburn and stomach upset can occur with high doses. Pregnant women should not take more than 1,500 mg per day of dried ginger.

Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius; P. ginseng)

USES: Helps relieve and prevent mental and physical fatigue; shown to reduce the frequency and severity of colds; possibly beneficial for erectile dysfunction.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Tea: Simmer 1 tsp dried and sliced root in 1 cup water for 10 minutes. Strain. Drink 1–2 cups per day. Standardized extract (4–7% ginsenosides): 100–400 mg per day.

CONCERNS: Purchase from a reputable manufacturer, as ginseng has often been adulterated in the past.

Hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa)

USES: Lowers blood pressure and has mild diuretic activity; traditionally used to ease sore throats and colds.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Tea: Pour 1 cup boiling water over 1–2 tsp dried flowers. Steep for 10 minutes. Strain and sweeten, if desired. Drink 2 cups per day. Capsules: Take 1,000 mg two times per day.

CONCERNS: Talk to your health-care provider if you have high blood pressure.

Hops (Humulus lupulus)

USES: Excellent sleeping aid; smaller, daytime doses used to ease tension, restlessness, and anxiety; might help reduce hot flashes during menopause.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Capsules: Take 200–300 mg one to three times per day. Tincture: Take 2–4 ml before bed.

CONCERNS: Can cause sedation.

Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)

USES: Seed extracts shown to be highly effective for treatment of varicose veins and chronic venous insufficiency (blood pools in lower leg veins after standing or sitting); topical gels can reduce swelling and tenderness due to injury.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Seed extract (containing 100–150 mg aescin/escin): Take 600 mg per day in divided doses.

CONCERNS: Unprocessed horse chestnut seeds can be toxic; use only appropriately prepared seed extracts.

Kava (Piper methysticum)

USES: Clinical trials have shown kava to be highly effective for relieving anxiety. Also has significant muscle relaxing effects.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Tea: Simmer 1 tsp dried and sliced root in 1 cup water for 10 minutes. Strain. Drink 1–2 cups per day. Extract of root: Take 100–200 mg two or three times per day. (Do not exceed 210 mg per day of kavalactones.)

CONCERNS: Rare cases of liver toxicity; do not use if you have liver disease, frequently drink alcohol, or are taking acetaminophen or prescription medications.

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)

USES: Gentle calmative; eases tension, digestive upset, and colic; topical creams used for fever blisters.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Tea: Pour 1 cup boiling water over 5 or 6 fresh or 1 tsp dried leaves. Steep for 5 minutes. Strain and sweeten, if desired. Drink several times per day.

CONCERNS: None; suitable for all ages.

Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)

USES: Excellent anti-inflammatory; soothes mucous membranes; useful for sore throats and coughs; protects and heals gastrointestinal tract.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Tea: Simmer 1 tsp dried and sliced root in 1 cup water for 10 minutes. Strain. Drink two or three times per day for up to 7 days. Capsules: Take up to 3,000 mg per day for 7 days. Do not exceed 500 mg per day if taking for longer than 7 days.

CONCERNS: Do not use high doses for longer than 1 week as it elevates blood pressure and causes potassium loss. (DGL, a special preparation commonly used for heartburn, is safe for prolonged use.)

Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)

USES: Root and leaf are rich in mucilage, a substance that coats the lining of the mouth and throat, as well as the tissue that lines the gastrointestinal tract. Used for sore throat, heartburn, and minor GI inflammation.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Tea: Pour 1 cup hot water over 1 tsp dried and sliced root or 2 tsp leaf. Steep for 2 hours. Strain and drink as desired.

CONCERNS: Take other drugs 1 hour prior to or several hours after consuming marshmallow, as it could slow absorption of oral medications.

Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum)

USES: Protects the liver from damage caused by environmental toxins, medications, and alcohol. Recent studies suggest it protects the kidneys similarly.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Extract (guaranteed minimum of 70% silymarin): Take 400–700 mg per day in divided doses.

CONCERNS: None known.

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

USES: Leaves commonly used to relieve coughs, sore throats, and chest congestion; steeped in oil, the flowers relieve earache.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Tea: Pour 1 cup boiling water over 1–2 tsp leaves. Steep for 10 minutes. Strain, sweeten, and drink as desired. Ear oil: Use as directed.

CONCERNS: None known.

Nettle (Urtica dioica)

USES: Fresh, freeze-dried leaves relieved seasonal allergy symptoms in one human trial. Impressive research supports use of the root for easing symptoms of enlarged prostate. Tea widely recommended for its nutritive value.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Tea: Pour 1 cup boiling water over 2 tsp leaves. Steep for 10 minutes. Strain. Sweeten if desired. Drink 1–3 cups per day. Freeze-dried nettle capsules: Take 300–500 mg two times per day. Nettle root: Take 250–400 mg two or three times per day.

CONCERNS: Wear gloves when handling fresh nettles to avoid stinging and irritation (sting is lost with cooking or drying); very safe herb.

Sage (Salvia officinalis)

USES: Excellent for sore throats, coughs, and colds; recognized in Germany as a treatment for excessive sweating; studies show it can help reduce menopausal hot flashes and night sweats.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Tea: Pour 1 cup boiling water over 1 tsp leaves. Steep for 10 minutes. Strain. Drink, or use as a sore throat gargle. Capsules: Take 500 mg dried leaf two times per day.

CONCERNS: Do not use therapeutic doses during pregnancy; do not use sage essential oil internally.

Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra)

USES: FDA-approved as a safe, nonprescription remedy for minor throat irritation; also very useful for relieving coughs and occasional heartburn.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Lozenges: Take as directed. Tea: Pour 1 cup boiling water over 1–2 tsp powdered bark. Steep for 5 minutes. Drink two or three times per day.

CONCERNS: Take other drugs 1 hour before or several hours after consuming, as it could slow absorption of oral medications.

St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)

USES: More than 40 studies have confirmed its effectiveness for relieving mild to moderate depression; may also relieve PMS symptoms and menopausal hot flashes, especially when combined with black cohosh.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Standardized extract (standardized to 0.3% hypericin and/or 3–5% hyperforin): Take 300–600 mg three times per day.

CONCERNS: Talk to your physician or pharmacist before using if you are taking prescription medications; the chance for herb-drug interaction is high.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

USES: Highly regarded for relieving coughs, colds, and congestion; rich in volatile oils that have significant antimicrobial and antispasmodic activity.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSES: Tea: Pour 1 cup boiling water over 1 Tbsp fresh or 1 tsp dried leaves. Steep for 10 minutes. Strain and sweeten, if desired. Drink 1⁄3 cup three times per day.

CONCERNS: None known.

AYURVEDA

One of the ancient healing systems of India, Ayurveda combines diet, herbs, physical activity, and spiritual practice to preserve health and promote longevity. The practice of Ayurvedic medicine goes back at least 5,000 years. Today, this holistic system is becoming increasingly popular outside India among people attracted to its emphasis on balancing body, mind, and spirit for optimal health and well-being.

The word Ayurveda comes from the Sanskrit words ayur (meaning “life” or “longevity”) and veda (meaning “knowledge” or “wisdom”). The practice of Ayurveda is based upon several ancient works, including the Atharva Veda, the fourth in the series of Hindu books of knowledge called Vedas. Atharva Veda contains ancient wisdom about healing and sickness. Other major foundational works that have guided the practice of Ayurveda are Sushruta Samhita (with information on surgery, more than 700 medicinal plants, and more than 100 formulas from mineral and animal sources) and Charaka Samhita(which includes information on medicines, foods, and internal medicine, written in a poetic style to facilitate memorization). Modern Ayurvedic healers continue to follow the traditional philosophies and techniques of Charaka Samhita.

The “Science of Life”

Ayurveda, often called “the science of life,” treats the whole person—body, mind, and spirit—to ensure optimal health. It addresses all aspects of everyday life to achieve and maintain good health (swasthavritta) through daily and seasonal lifestyle regimens. These regimens, which incorporate diet, herbs, exercise, hygiene, and spiritual and mental health, are designed to balance vital forces to maintain physical well-being as well as a harmonious relationship between the body and the mind.

Ayurveda believes the body has a vital energy, called prana, which activates the body and mind. This is similar to the concept of qi in traditional Chinese medicine; other healing systems have related concepts of vital energy. Breath is the bodily manifestation of prana. Seven energy centers called chakras keep prana flowing smoothly through the body. According to Ayurveda, the human body and the whole universe are composed of five basic substances that occur in various combinations and proportions. These five great elements (panchamahabhutas) are space (akasha), air (vayu), fire (agni), water (jala), and earth (prithvi). The five elements symbolize the physical sub- stances that give the human body form. Each is associated with different physical properties, actions, and sensory functions.

One of the many important herbs in Ayurveda, gotu kola (Centella asiatica) is used to revitalize the nervous and immune systems. It is believed to improve memory and concentration and to promote longevity.

The Three Doshas

Ayurveda recognizes three primary life forces or energies, called doshas: vata, pitta, and kapha. Each dosha is composed of a combination of two of the five great elements. These constantly fluctuating energies are essential components of the body and are responsible for a person’s health. Each person displays a unique combination of doshas that determines their main physical strengths and weaknesses, personality, and intellectual function. One or two doshas tend to dominate for each individual; a person might be primarily vata, for example, or a combination of vata-pitta. This proportion of doshas determines a person’s basic nature from birth (called prakriti) and affects the way prana flows through the body. To achieve optimal health, a person must harmonize the doshas with his or her basic nature.

Ayurvedic practitioners believe that the levels of the doshas in individuals fluctuate daily according to numerous influences, including foods eaten, time of day, season, stress level, and emotions. Each dosha has a “seat” in the body that helps keep imbalances in check. Chronic imbalances in the doshas, however, disrupt the flow of prana and can result in disease. For optimal health, a person must take responsibility for managing imbalances and fluctuations by “pacifying” excesses in the doshas with foods, herbs, exercise, and various stress-reducing techniques.

THE THREE DOSHAS of AYURVEDA

According to Ayurveda, each person displays a unique combination of life energies, called doshas. To be healthy, a person must manage the daily fluctuation of his or her doshas by using the appropriate foods, herbs, and forms of exercise.

VATA

Element: Air/space

Body type: Thin build; narrow shoulders; may be very tall or short

Personality: Creative, enthusiastic, vivacious, imaginative, anxious; may make quick, nervous movements; tendency to waste

Basic body function: Movement

Seat: Colon

Season: Fall/early winter

Time of day: Dawn

Tastes/foods that aggravate: Pungent, bitter, astringent; raw foods

Tastes/foods that pacify: Sweet, sour, salty; moist, warming foods; cooked root vegetables

PITTA

Element: Fire/water

Body type: Well-proportioned, muscular; fair or ruddy coloring; average height

Personality: Sharp-witted, intense, driven, confident, quick to anger, impatient, ambitious; can be aggressive and competitive

Basic body function: Metabolism

Seat: Small intestine

Season: Summer

Time of day: Midday

Tastes/foods that aggravate: Sour, salty, pungent; red meat

Tastes/foods that pacify: Sweet, astringent, bitter; cooling foods, such as salads; mushrooms, fish, chicken, and tofu

KAPHA

Element: Water/earth

Body type: Thickset, strong; graceful, slow-moving; may be prone to weight gain

Personality: Stable, patient, tranquil, affectionate, complacent; can be possessive

Basic body function: Structure

Seat: Lungs

Season: Middle of winter

Time of day: Evening

Tastes/foods that aggravate: Sweet, sour, salty; dairy products

Tastes/foods that pacify: Pungent, bitter, astringent; hot and spicy foods; leafy vegetables, legumes, apples, and pears

Diet, Herbs, and Lifestyle

Before prescribing treatment, the Ayurvedic practitioner determines a patient’s tridosha (doshic constitution) and diagnoses any imbalances. Diagnosis begins with a detailed history that takes into account lifestyle factors as well as physical symptoms. As in traditional Chinese medicine, the Ayurvedic practitioner examines the patient’s pulse and tongue, and also could look at the eyes, listen to the organs, and palpate the abdomen to pinpoint doshic imbalances.

The Ayurvedic practitioner then considers all physical and lifestyle factors to custom-design an individualized formula—called a rasayana—to balance the patient’s doshas for optimal health and well-being. The practitioner might instruct the patient to change various lifestyle practices—for example, how much sleep to get or how and when to eat. A practitioner also might recommend yoga, meditation, massage, or breathing exercises to help reduce the effects of stress and further pacify the doshas.

Herbal rasayanas incorporate herb, food, and mineral mixtures. As in TCM, Ayurveda uses herbs and foods according to what is known as a system of “energetics”—properties of foods and healing substances. This system takes into account flavor and energy (heating and cooling properties). Ayurveda classifies foods according to six primary tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent. Each of these tastes has specific effects on the doshas. Ayurvedic remedies can contain as many as 20 different herbs, foods, and minerals.

An Ayurvedic herbal preparation could be a fresh juice, crushed pulp or paste, decoction (made by boiling herbs in liquid), hot infusion (made by steeping herbs in hot liquid), or cold infusion (made by steeping herbs in cold liquid). People also take herbs in powders, milk decoctions, and medicated wines, jellies, jams, ghee (clarified butter), and confections. Medicated oils, usually made by heating herbs in sesame oil, are used in massage or as ointments, douches, or internal remedies.

Many Ayurvedic practitioners also advise patients to undergo purification practices such as panchakarma (five actions). This is a rigorous multistep detoxification process that aims to help your body eliminate impurities (ama) to further balance the doshas. It includes specialized treatments such as oil therapy, sweating, purging, enemas, bloodletting, and nasal drops.

EXAMPLES of IMPORTANT HERBS in AYURVEDA

Depending on your doshic constitution, an Ayurvedic practitioner might prescribe one or more of these important herbs to help you maintain good health. They are just a few of the many herbs and herb combinations used in Ayurveda.

ASHWAGANDHA

(Withania somnifera)

Ayurveda uses ashwagandha to treat debility and weakness in the elderly, people with chronic illnesses, and those exhausted by overwork or lack of sleep, much the way traditional Chinese medicine uses ginseng. Considered the best rejuvenating herb for the vata constitution, ashwagandha often is prepared as a milk decoction with sweetener and rice. Ashwagandha is bitter and astringent, calming and clarifying to the mind, and it promotes restful sleep.

INDIAN FRANKINCENSE

(Boswellia serrata)

Indian frankincense is a tree resin that hardens into a gum. The gum was traditionally used to treat arthritis, digestive disorders, pulmonary conditions, and ringworm. Recent studies have shown that Indian frankincense limits the production of leukotrienes, which cause inflammation.

GINGER

(Zingiber officinale)

Pungent, sweet, warming ginger pacifies kapha and vata, increases pitta, and has been called “the universal medicine” (vishwabhesaj) by Ayurvedic practitioners. Dried ginger is considered hotter and better for relieving kapha, while fresh ginger is a more effective diaphoretic (fever reducer) and better for relieving vata. Ayurvedic practitioners use ginger extensively to treat digestive and respiratory conditions, including colds and flu. It is also valued for relieving menstrual and abdominal cramps, for treating arthritis, and as a heart tonic.

GOTU KOLA

(Centella asiatica)

Ayurvedic practitioners consider gotu kola to be one of the most important rejuvenating herbs. They use it to revitalize the brain, nervous system, and immune system and to strengthen the adrenal glands. In Ayurveda, gotu kola clarifies the mind, improves memory, and promotes longevity. Himalayan yogis consume the herb as food or brew it into a tea to enhance their meditation practice. Bitter and cooling, gotu kola is a rejuvenating tonic for pitta people, but it also reduces excessive kapha and calms vata.

AROMATHERAPY

The use of highly concentrated aromatic essential oils for healing is often called aromatherapy. While the term aromatherapy is relatively new, the use of fragrant plant oils as medicines, perfumes, and cosmetics is ancient. People in the Middle East devised distillation methods to extract essential oils from plants as early as 1000 BCE. By the Middle Ages, many people throughout Europe used essential oils as perfumes and medicines.

Plants produce essential oils, also called volatile oils, in specialized oil glands located within or on their leaves, flowers, roots, fruit, seeds, or other parts. Long important in commercial perfumery, these oils are still used to create exquisite and expensive perfumes, but they have many other uses, too. Commercial food and beverage makers use essential oils as flavorings. Other industries incorporate essential oils with antiseptic properties into products designed to kill germs. Essential oil of thyme, for example, is a main ingredient in some mouthwashes. Pure plant essential oils are popular in the manufacture of natural cosmetics because they have properties, including anti-inflammatory and antiseptic abilities, that help soothe and rejuvenate your skin.

Scientific research has shown that aromas can have a profound effect on human emotions, and plant essential oils (aromatherapy) are often used to improve mood or state of mind. Some plant oils, such as peppermint, have uplifting and invigorating effects, helping to refresh and clear the mind. Others, like lavender, are calming and can help induce relaxation or even sleep. A growing body of research supports the clinical use of aromatherapy to treat certain conditions, such as anxiety. One small clinical study, for example, showed that massage with lavender essential oil reduced patient anxiety in a hospital intensive care unit. Other clinical studies have confirmed the traditional use of lavender essential oil to treat insomnia. Hundreds of laboratory studies have documented the antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties of other essential oils.

How Aromatherapy Works

Essential oils are composed of molecules of aromatic compounds. One essential oil might contain hundreds of these aromatic compounds, which contribute to the oil’s unique aroma and physiological actions. Chemists call these “volatile compounds” because their molecules easily evaporate, or volatilize, into the air. This is contrasted with fixed oils, such as cooking oils, which do not evaporate as quickly.

Essential oils can enter your body via absorption through your skin. In addition, the aromatic molecules floating around in the air enter your nose and are picked up by olfactory receptors. These transport information to the olfactory bulb located at the top of the nasal passage at the base of your brain. From there, scent information is passed on to the limbic system, a primitive part of your brain responsible for very basic body functions. The limbic system communicates with the hypothalamus and pituitary, master glands that affect and regulate fundamental body processes including the secretion of hormones and the regulation of moods, digestion, appetite, sexual arousal, and heartbeat. Aromas also stimulate the parts of your brain that control memory.

Important Cautions

Essential oils are extremely concentrated and must be treated with respect. A good rule of thumb is that more is not better! Never use undiluted essential oils directly on your skin—always use them in a diluted form (in a carrier oil, cream, or water), or vaporize them and gently inhale them. Never take essential oils internally, and keep them away from your eyes. Be sure to use only high-grade, pure plant essential oils (not synthetic fragrance oils), and become educated on the use of essential oils by reading a reputable book devoted to the subject or consulting a trained aromatherapy professional. (see “Resources”.)

Essential oils are estimated to be about 50 times stronger than the whole herbs from which they are extracted, but the concentration depends on the species from which they are derived. Also, be aware that some herbs that are perfectly safe to eat or to drink as a tea contain very strong, potentially toxic essential oils that must be used with caution. Examples include cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum verum), clove (Syzygium aromaticum), oregano (Origanum vulgare), savory (Satureja spp.), and thyme (Thymus vulgaris). Other essential oils, such as tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), are so toxic that they should not be used at all in aromatherapy. Essential oils made from flowers (such as rose or orange blossom) generally are the mildest essential oils.

Using Essential Oils

Two of the most popular ways to use essential oils are by inhaling them (smelling them) and by applying them to the skin (in a massage oil or facial oil). To obtain the benefits of aromatherapy, essential oils can also be added to bathwater, skin creams, and lotions; used to scent bedding, clothing, and laundry; and incorporated into homemade air-fresheners. A diffuser (a device specially designed to disperse essential oils into the air) can be used to fill an entire room with fragrance.

Inhaling essential oils: Add a few drops of essential oil to a piece of cloth or a cotton ball. To make a steam inhalation, add three to five drops of essential oil to a pot of steaming water. Steam provides a vehicle not only for inhaling essential oils, but also for carrying the essential oils to your skin. Position your face about 12 inches over the steaming water, drape a towel over your head, and breathe the steam for a moment or two. Remove the towel and take a few breaths of fresh air. Repeat the process for a maximum of 5 to 10 minutes.

Applying essential oils to your skin: To protect your skin from irritation, always dilute essential oils in a carrier oil (a vegetable or nut oil) such as sweet almond, grapeseed, sunflower, olive, jojoba, apricot kernel, kukui nut, or hazelnut oil.

Aromatic waters are another easy and pleasant way to use essential oils on your skin. To make aromatic water, add 10 drops of essential oil to 1 ounce of water in a spray bottle. To use, thoroughly shake the mixture, then mist your body and face, being sure to close your eyes before you spray.

ESSENTIAL OILS and THEIR PROPERTIES

Essential oils are highly concentrated sources of plant compounds. Many of them have healing properties, but they should never be taken internally.

HERB

PROPERTY

Carrot seed (Daucus carota)

Stimulates and regenerates skin cells; good for dry and mature skin

Chamomile, German (Matricaria recutita)

Anti-inflammatory; soothes sensitive skin and sore muscles; relaxing, uplifting aroma; might help ease insomnia

Clary sage (Salvia sclarea)

Eases muscle tension and menstrual cramps; helpful for oily skin; relaxing, euphoric aroma

Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus)

Antibacterial, decongestant; clears sinuses and bronchial tubes; stimulating aroma

Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)

Anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal; stimulates and regenerates skin cells; helpful for mature skin; relaxing aroma

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

Anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal; general first aid; stimulates and regenerates skin cells; helpful for sensitive and mature skin; calming and relaxing, might help ease insomnia

Lemon (limon)

Antibacterial, antifungal; helpful for oily skin; uplifting aroma; might help ease stress and insomnia

Peppermint (Mentha × piperita)

Antibacterial; uplifting, stimulating aroma

Rose (Rosa × centifolia or R. × damascena)

Antiseptic, anti-inflammatory; stimulates and regenerates skin cells; helpful for mature skin

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Soothes muscle aches; stimulates circulation; helpful for mature skin; stimulating aroma

Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)

Antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory

How Essential Oils Are Produced

All plant aromas can be attributed to the presence of essential oils, which perform vital functions in the life cycles of plants. Some aromas produced by essential oils serve to attract pollinators. Some aromas repel pests or discourage grazing animals from eating the plant. Others protect plants against infection by bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

For commercial use, huge amounts of plant material are needed to produce small quantities of essential oils, which explains why some essential oils are so costly to buy. For example, 3 to 6 pounds of eucalyptus leaves are used to make 1 ounce of its essential oil. Ten to 20 pounds of lavender flowers are used to make 1 ounce of its essential oil. Production of 1 ounce of jasmine oil requires 160 to 280 pounds of flowers. And 2,000 rose petals are needed to make a single drop of rose oil.

Several different techniques can be used to extract essential oil, depending on the plant.

Steam distillation: Approximately 80 percent of plant essential oils are obtained by steam distillation—a process that uses steam, heat, and condensation to separate a plant’s essential oils from its solid and water components. This technology uses no solvents, so the product is very pure. Essential oils produced this way include lavender, rose-mary, peppermint, and eucalyptus.

Solvent extraction: For very delicate plants easily damaged by heat, other extraction techniques are available. Solvent extraction uses liquid solvents to dissolve and extract essential oils from the plant; the solvent is then evaporated under pressure. The initial product, called a concrete, is a sticky substance that contains plant waxes and pigments in addition to essential oils. The concrete can be sold as is or further refined to create a product called an absolute. This process is expensive, so it’s generally used only to extract desirable and costly fragrances (like jasmine) that can’t be produced through distillation. Solvent-extracted concretes and absolutes can contain traces of the solvents used to make them, so they aren’t appropriate for therapeutic use but are fine to use as perfumes.

Supercritical carbon dioxide (CO2) extraction: This newer technology uses carbon dioxide gas under low heat conditions to extract essential oils. Because less heat is used, the aroma of the essential oil is very close to that of the original plant. The final product is also free of solvent residues and is considered very pure. But the equipment needed for CO2 extraction is expensive, as are the oils produced.

Two types of essential oils are produced through CO2 extraction, using slightly different technologies. One, called a selective extract, is a liquid composed mainly of volatile compounds. Oils produced this way include frankincense and myrrh. The other type, called a total extract, contains volatile components as well as fats, waxes, and pigments with medicinal properties. This technology is used to produce essential oil extracts of carrot seed, calendula, chamomile, and vanilla. It’s also used to manufacture high-quality herbal extracts.

Cold expression: The essential oils of citrus fruits such as lemons, grapefruits, oranges, and limes are found in special oil glands in the rinds of these fruits. These oils are often extracted through a process called cold expression, which involves crushing the rinds to press out the oil, much like the way olive oil is produced. Citrus oils can also be produced through distillation.

Enfleurage: The oldest method for producing essential oils, rarely used today, is called enfleurage. The procedure involves placing fragrant blossoms on solid sheets of animal or vegetable fat and allowing the scent of the flowers to permeate the oil. When the fragrances in the blossoms are exhausted—having been absorbed by the fat—they are removed and replaced with fresh flowers. This process is repeated until the fat is saturated with volatile oils. A solvent can be used to extract the oils from the fat, or the fat can be used as is, in the form of an enfleurage pomade. Before the advent of solvent extraction, enfleurage was the only method available for extracting essential oils from delicate flowers such as rose, jasmine, and tuberose. This is a very old system of extraction that traces its origins to ancient Egypt, where fragrant flowers were extracted in animal fat and used to perfume the body.

Hydrosols: Hydrosols—true “flower waters”—are by-products of the steam distillation of essential oils. A hydrosol is the water component left behind when a plant’s essential oil is separated out in the distillation process. Hydrosols contain water-soluble compounds that make them fragrant and soothing to the skin.

Two of the best-known and most popular hydrosols are orange flower water and rose water. Both have traditionally been used in cosmetics and for culinary flavorings. Hydrosols also make refreshing, aromatic body mists and skin toners, and these are sold in spray bottles. Some commercially available hydrosols include lavender, geranium, chamomile, rose, neroli (or orange blossom), and rosemary. When purchasing a hydrosol, look carefully at the label to be sure it is a true hydrosol and not aromatic water, which is a blend of water and essential oils.

DILUTIONS for COMMON USES of ESSENTIAL OILS

Essential oils are extremely concentrated. You can benefit from just a few drops diluted in water or a carrier oil, lotion, or cream. Good carrier oils include sweet almond, grapeseed, and olive oils.

USE

DILUTION

Aromatic water (body mist)

10 drops per 1 oz water

Bathwater

3–6 drops per tub

Body or facial oil

6–8 drops per 1 oz carrier oil

Footbath

5 drops per basin of water

Massage oil

6–8 drops per 1 oz carrier oil

Room spray

15–20 drops per 1 oz water

Skin cream or lotion

6–8 drops per 1 oz lotion or cream

Steam inhalation

3–5 drops per 1 quart steaming water

Intensely fragrant ylang-ylang blossoms are frequently used to scent perfumes, soaps, and candles. The aroma of this herb’s oil can vary from floral to fruity.

How to Make Natural Perfumes

Using essential oils to create original fragrance blends for homemade cosmetics, air fresheners, or perfumes is fun and easy. And by making your own formulas you can avoid the harmful chemical compounds, such as phthalates, commonly used in commercial perfumes and beauty-care products. (Recent research has linked phthalates to serious health conditions.)

Start by choosing one essential oil to serve as the backbone of the fragrance, and then add small amounts of other oils, sniffing to judge the effect after each addition. You could use a fixative, such as glycerin, to help slow the evaporation rate of the essential oils. But before you add a fixative to any fragrance, test it on a small area of your skin, as it could cause an allergic reaction. Pay attention to the intensity of each oil, and use extremely strong-smelling oils sparingly so their presence does not overwhelm the others. A good rule of thumb is to use only one drop of very strong-smelling oil—such as jasmine, patchouli, rosemary, or ylang-ylang—for every 5 to 10 drops of milder-smelling oil, such as citrus or lavender.

Make small batches of fragrance until the process becomes comfortable. Take notes so that you can duplicate your favorites later. To make a perfume, add about 12 drops of a blend to 1 ounce of a carrier oil. (Jojoba oil makes a good perfume base.)

HOMEOPATHY

The medicinal practice of homeopathy is very different from herbal medicine. It is often included in discussions of herbs, however, because many homeopathic remedies contain tiny dilutions of plant substances.

Homeopathic remedies are preparations of highly diluted plants, or other natural substances, administered to stimulate your body’s own healing responses. In contrast, herbal medicine uses relatively larger doses of plants to achieve therapeutic effects. The homeopathic system was developed in the early 19th century by the German physician and chemist Samuel Hahnemann (1755–1843). Discouraged by the practice of conventional medicine—which at the time relied in large part on the prescription of highly toxic drugs, purging, and bloodletting—Hahnemann embarked on a series of experiments with plant medicines that led to the development of the first homeopathic remedies.

Medical providers are learning to incorporate herbal treatments, including homeopathic remedies, into their practices. Many are advising the use of herbal extracts that have been clinically proven to be safe, such as saw palmetto.

In the first of these experiments, which came to be known as “provings,” Hahnemann dosed himself with cinchona bark, a plant medicine used to treat malaria. Hahnemann was surprised to find that after taking cinchona bark, he developed symptoms similar to those of malaria. He eventually developed the Law of Similars, a guiding principle of homeopathy (see below). In his lifetime, Hahnemann proved the effectiveness of about 100 remedies; currently, more than 3,000 remedies are available.

Homeopathy is most widely practiced in Europe and North America, with approximately 5 million people in the United States reporting having used a homeopathic product in 2006. In Europe, the practice is supported by legislation passed in 1997 by the European parliament. Both conventional physicians and professional homeopaths (those trained primarily in homeopathy) are legally permitted to practice in most European countries. In the United States, homeopathy is often practiced along with a licensed medical discipline, such as conventional medicine, naturopathy, chiropractic, or veterinary medicine. Homeopathy is a regular part of training for naturopathic doctors; other health practitioners receive training through diploma and certificate programs. Since 1938, homeopathic remedies have been regulated as over-the-counter (nonprescription) drugs in the United States, unlike herbs, which are currently regulated as dietary supplements.

Numerous modern studies have investigated the clinical use of homeopathy, and positive results have been demonstrated in some studies on influenza, allergies, allergic asthma, acute childhood diarrhea, vertigo, and osteoarthritis pain. However, many clinical studies have had conflicting or negative results, and some research on homeopathy has been criticized as not being sufficiently rigorous. Although many theories have been proposed, researchers have not yet been able to find any conclusive scientific explanation for how homeopathic remedies work. This is a subject of ongoing controversy and debate in the scientific community. Skeptics claim the benefits of homeopathy can be attributed to the placebo effect—an improvement due only to the expectations of the patient. At a minimum, this shows the importance of the mind-body connection.

Other researchers believe homeopathy’s effects can be explained by quantum physics, an area of science that is still evolving. Whatever might be the most accurate explanation, millions of people around the world rely on homeopathy to treat a variety of conditions.

FLOWER REMEDIES

Flower remedies are a type of homeopathic remedy intended to work not on physical problems, but rather on psychological and emotional disturbances. (Flower remedies are called flower essences in the United States to comply with regulatory requirements.)

The Bach Flower Remedies constitute the original flower remedy system, introduced in the early 20th century by the English physician, pathologist, and immunologist Edward Bach (1886–1936). Bach’s system of 38 flower remedies is still widely used. Practitioners of the Bach system can be found all over the world, especially in the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States. Numerous other flower remedy systems have been developed in more recent years, using flowers that are indigenous to different regions of the world.

To make a flower remedy, an “essence” of a plant is first prepared, either by floating blossoms in pure water in a clear glass bowl set in the sun for several hours or by boiling the plant material. The essence is then preserved in brandy to create a stock from which individual medicines are made. An individual medicine consists of 2 drops of the stock medicine mixed with 1 ounce (30 ml) of pure water in a dropper bottle. According to Dr. Bach, a patient should take 4 drops of a remedy four times a day.

Principles of Homeopathy

Homeopaths believe that every person has a “vital force” or self-healing ability that can be called upon to treat or prevent disease. Homeopathic medicine aims to stimulate your body’s own self-healing response through the use of carefully chosen homeopathic remedies.

Homeopaths base diagnosis and treatment upon an in-depth case history that provides a complete picture of an individual’s current and past physical symptoms, as well as many other factors, including outlook on life, emotional temperament, food preferences, and reactions to stress. Treatment is based upon the Law of Similars, or “like cures like.” (The word homeopathy comes from the Greek words homeo,meaning “similar,” and pathos, which means “disease” or “suffering.”)

A simple explanation of this principle is that a substance that causes a certain symptom when given in a large dose can be used in minute amounts to treat that same symptom. For example, the pungent compounds in onions cause watery eyes and nose, throat irritation, coughing, and sneezing. Therefore, in homeopathy, a diluted preparation of onion is used to treat colds or allergies that cause similar symptoms.

Practitioners of homeopathy believe that self-treatment with homeopathic remedies is appropriate for minor acute problems and injuries, but that a qualified homeopath should be consulted for more serious problems.

Homeopathic Remedies

Homeopathic remedies are preparations made from highly diluted natural substances. These natural substances can come from plants, minerals, or animals. Even bacteria and very poisonous substances, such as arsenic and cadmium, can be used. In most highly diluted remedies, however, not even a molecule of the original substance can be detected in the finished product. For this reason, homeopathic remedies are generally considered safe and nontoxic.

A homeopathic remedy is created through a multistep process. First, the plant, mineral, or animal material being used to make the remedy is extracted in alcohol to create what is called a “mother tincture.” Next, 1 drop of this mother tincture is added to 99 drops of an alcohol-water solution and then “succussed” (shaken vigorously). This process of dilution and succussion is repeated until the desired dilution has been attained.

Homeopathic remedies are sold in liquid, tablet, pellet, powder, and ointment forms. The strength of the remedy, known in homeopathy as potency, is indicated on the label on a scale from highest potency (3c or 3x) to lowest potency (30c or 30x). The higher the number, the lower the potency. Potency is usually determined by the amount of times the solution is shaken and diluted during preparation. The lower the potency (in other words, the more dilute the remedy), the more effective the remedy is believed to be.

USING HERBS AS MEDICINE

The most basic way to obtain the health benefits of a beneficial herb internally is to put the appropriate plant part (leaf, flower, root, etc.) in your mouth and chew it. But this is rarely the most convenient or pleasant way to take an herbal remedy. In most cases, the desirable compounds first must be extracted or converted into a form that’s easy to take. Some herbal preparations—those that contain alcohol, for example—also help preserve the herbs.

Extracting medicinal compounds from a plant generally requires a solvent—a substance capable of separating out the desired constituents and leaving the rest behind. Boiling water functions as the solvent for herbal infusions and decoctions (teas). But not all plant compounds are soluble in water—some require alcohol or even oil for effective extraction. Other solvents include vegetable glycerin and vinegar.

HERBAL PREPARATIONS

Medicinal herbal preparations run the gamut from do-it-yourself “kitchen medicines” made from fresh, whole plants to high-tech standardized extracts produced in modern, high-quality manufacturing facilities. Today, many people enjoy the convenience and uniformity of commercially prepared herbal remedies, although it’s easy to prepare your own simple remedies, too.

Commercially available herbal preparations include tablets, capsules, cough syrups, ointments, creams, suppositories, and lotions. Tablets are made by eliminating the water from a plant or extract, powdering it, and pressing it into the form of a tablet, sometimes along with fillers or excipients (inert substances that help hold shape). Hard-shelled capsules are two-part shells (made of gelatin, starch, or cellulose) filled with powdered herb. Soft-shelled capsules are often made of a single piece designed to hold oil-based extracts or pure oils.

PLANT FOODS as MEDICINES

Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), such as cancer, asthma, diabetes, and heart disease, are some of the world’s leading causes of mortality and affect most regions around the globe. They are known as “lifestyle” diseases because poor diet, physical inactivity, and other lifestyle choices are major contributors to their development. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that by 2020, NCDs will contribute to 7 out of every 10 deaths in developing countries, killing 52 million people annually worldwide by 2030.

Researchers at the Institute of Economic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden have discovered that a potential solution to this epidemic might be found in the traditional uses of plant medicines.

Ina Vandebroek, PhD, and her colleagues are conducting studies about the ethnomedical traditions of Latino and Caribbean immigrant communities in New York City. Since 2005, her research has focused on understanding the cultural practices of immigrants from the Dominican Republic who self-medicate with plants they purchase from specialized stores called botánicas. The study, initially funded by the National Institutes of Health/ National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NIH/ NCCAM), found that plant foods, such as lime, bitter orange, garlic, onion, shallot, watercress, and radish, become more important as medicines for Dominicans after immigration to New York City. The popularity and use of these medicinal foods can contribute to addressing the NCDs epidemic, although much more laboratory and clinical research into these foods’ potential preventive and therapeutic activities for specific conditions is needed. We have a lot to learn from the communities who come to this country, bringing many of their plant foods and medicines with them, along with their healing knowledge and practices.—M. J. B.

Standardized Extracts

Standardized extracts must contain a specified amount of one or more chemical constituents, often called marker compounds. (For more about this, see “Whole Plant Herbal Remedies and Phytomedicines” on this page.) Chemists test for marker compounds using sophisticated laboratory technologies, such as high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC). With HPLC, a solvent-containing extract is pumped over a solid material that separates compounds by physical and/or chemical properties. This provides a chemical profile that shows exactly what compounds an extract contains and in what proportions.

Standardized extracts are usually sold as capsules or tablets, labeled with the percentage of marker compounds they contain. Milk thistle (Silybum marianum), for example, is usually standardized to contain 70 to 80 percent silymarin. Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) is standardized to 85 to 95 percent fatty acids and sterols. Some standardized extracts are also concentrated to increase the levels of certain constituents. For example, standardized Ginkgo biloba extract is a 50:1 concentrated extract standardized to contain 24 percent ginkgo flavone glycosides and 6 percent terpene lactones.

Standardized extracts offer several advantages. They allow herbal product manufacturers to ensure that the extract contains the same quantity of marker compounds each and every time they make it. (In nature, the amount of chemicals produced by a given plant can vary according to weather, altitude, soil composition, and other factors.) And doctors and clinical researchers appreciate standardized extracts because they can administer the same dosage to a patient time and time again, ensuring consistent results.

But standardized extracts have drawbacks, too. As mentioned earlier, the beneficial effects of many herbs appear to be due to many constituents working together. Because of this, identifying the active ingredients, or marker compounds, for a standardized extract can be challenging. Another disadvantage is that they’re usually more expensive than simpler, traditional herbal preparations, and they can’t be made at home. Some herbalists and consumers are uncomfortable using standardized extracts because they seem more like high-tech pharmaceuticals than natural plant remedies.

Herbal Infusions and Decoctions

Herbal infusions and decoctions, commonly called “herb teas,” are two of the simplest and most effective ways to take herbs that have water-soluble constituents, and you can easily prepare them yourself. Herbal infusions can also be added to baths or used in compresses, douches, enemas, gargles, and mouthwashes.

Infusion is a gentler extraction method than decoction. It’s best for delicate leaves and flowers that could be destroyed by too much heat, such as mints (Mentha spp.), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), bee balm (Monarda spp.), and chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile). Decoction is used to extract water-soluble compounds from harder plant materials such as roots, like astragalus and ginger, seeds, and bark. Roots with a particularly high content of volatile oils, such as valerian, should not be decocted, however, but instead ground into a fine powder and steeped as an infusion to prevent the loss of volatile oils.

To make an infusion: Pour boiling water over dried or fresh leaves or flowers, and cover the container tightly to prevent the escape of volatile oils. Steep for 10 to 15 minutes, strain, and drink. The exact proportion of plant material to water will vary with the herb used, but a general rule of thumb is to use 1 cup of water to 1 teaspoon of dried herb. Fresh herbs have a high water content, so you’ll need to use about three times as much fresh herb for a similar concentration.

To make a decoction: Place herbs (roots, bark, or seeds) and water in a pot. Cover, bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for about 20 minutes. Strain and drink. General proportions for decoctions are 1 cup of water to 1 ounce of dried herb.

Tinctures

Tincturing is a method for extracting and preserving the medicinal constituents of herbs in a solution of alcohol and water. Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), echinacea (Echinacea spp.), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa), nettle (Urtica dioica), and valerian (Valeriana officinalis) are frequently prepared this way. Properly made and stored, tinctures can last for 5 years or more. While many high-quality commercially prepared tinctures are available, you can make them at home, too. For the home medicine-maker, vodka is an excellent solvent for most herbs because it has a mild flavor and contains enough alcohol to serve as a good preservative. To reduce the chance of spoilage, use 100 proof (50 percent) vodka.

To make a tincture: Finely chop the fresh or dried herb. Fill a 1-quart glass jar about two-thirds full with the herb. (If you’re using roots, fill the jar only one-third full.) Add the vodka to within ½ inch of the jar rim, completely covering the herb. Stir gently to release any air bubbles. Cap the jar tightly. About twice a week, shake the jar to help extract the medicinal compounds; also check the liquid level and top off with more vodka if necessary. Allow the mixture to extract for 6 weeks. Drain the resulting mixture through a coffee filter or a strainer lined with muslin or cheesecloth, pressing as much liquid as possible out of the herb. Label and store the tincture in a dark-colored glass bottle, out of the reach of children and pets.

An infusion of chamomile flowers tames tension and aids digestion.

Herb-Infused Oils

Infused oils—vegetable oils in which dried herbs have been steeped (or macerated)—have therapeutic benefits when applied directly to your skin. Infused oils can also be used as bases for healing salves, ointments, and other preparations.

Organic olive oil is an excellent base for therapeutic infused oils; grapeseed, sweet almond, and other oils can also be used. Olive oil infused with the flowers of St. John’s wort makes an effective massage oil for treating sciatic nerve pain. Mullein flower oil is useful for treating skin conditions, earaches, and joint pain. Arnica, calendula, chamomile, chickweed, comfrey, and many other herbs can also be infused in oil for external use.

To make a therapeutic herb-infused oil: Fill a jar about three-quarters full with dried herbs (fresh herbs are more likely to cause spoilage), and then pour the olive oil over the herbs to fill the jar. Be sure the herbs are completely submerged in the oil, because any plant material exposed to air can generate spoilage. Cap the jar. Allow the herb to soak (macerate) in the oil in a warm, sunny location for 4 to 6 weeks, and then strain carefully through cheesecloth or muslin, pressing out as much oil as possible from the herb. Pour the oil into clean, dry, amber bottles. Label and store them in a cool, dark location for up to 1 year.

Salves

Oils infused with herbs can be used—alone or in combination—to make healing salves. Try any of those listed in “Healing Herbs Used Externally.”

To make a healing salve: Gently heat ½ cup of herb-infused oil in a double boiler. Add ½ ounce of grated beeswax to the oil. Stir, and remove from the heat when the mixture is blended and the wax has melted. Add the contents of two vitamin E capsules (as a preservative). Cool for 2 to 3 minutes, then pour into a small, wide-mouth jar. The salve will become semifirm as it cools. When it has cooled completely, cap the jar, label, and then store it in a cool, dry location. Apply the salve externally, directly to your skin, to treat skin irritation and muscle or joint pain.

Liniments

Liniments are similar to herb-infused oils but use rubbing alcohol as a base rather than oil. Eucalyptus and peppermint are often included for their cooling effect. The liquid or spray is rubbed into your skin to soothe muscle aches, sprains, joint pain, and bruises.

To make a liniment: Fill a jar about two-thirds full with dried herbs, such as peppermint, rosemary, and lavender. Cover the herbs with rubbing alcohol, then seal the jar tightly. Macerate (soak) the herbs in the alcohol for 4 to 6 weeks, shaking the jar every few days. Strain the liquid into glass bottles with mister tops. Label and store in a cool, dry place.

The ingredients for a healing salve include herb-infused oil, beeswax, and vitamin E.

Compresses

A compress can be applied externally to treat pain and inflammation, strains, sprains, chest congestion, or sunburn. In Thailand, hot herbal compresses have been used for thousands of years. Ginger, turmeric, and lemongrass are commonly used. The herbs are wrapped in muslin and then steamed to moisten and heat them. The hot compresses are then pressed onto the skin or applied in circular motions to treat muscle pain and cramping, arthritis, tendonitis, stress, and anxiety, and to increase the flow of energy.

To prepare a compress: First make a strong infusion or decoction. Dip a cloth into the liquid, then apply it to the affected area for up to 1 hour. Reapply several times a day, as needed.

Poultices

A poultice is a paste prepared from moistened herbs. It can be applied, cold or hot, directly to the skin to treat inflammation, bruises, or chest congestion, or to draw out toxins. (The technical name for a hot poultice is a fomentation.) Herbs traditionally used in poultices include St. John’s wort (for inflammation and muscle or nerve pain), yarrow (for skin irritations and bruising), plantain (for cuts, burns, eczema, poison ivy, and insect bites and stings), and mullein (for sore throat, chest congestion, hemorrhoids, and skin irritations including sunburn). Mullein poultices are usually prepared with a hot liquid, such as cider vinegar, sometimes diluted with water.

To prepare a poultice: Use a mortar and pestle or a blender to crush the herbs. Slowly add enough distilled water to make a thick, spreadable—but not watery—paste. Clean the affected area with hydrogen peroxide, than apply the paste. Loosely cover it with a bandage or gauze and tape. Reapply the poultice as needed when it has dried.

USING HERBS SAFELY

Herbs are best used in moderation to gently support and maintain health while protecting the body against disease. Used sensibly, most, but not all, herbs have an excellent safety record based on centuries of human use as medicines and foods. However, always use these powerful plants under the supervision of a qualified health-care practitioner—self-medication carries risks.

To put the issue of safety in relative terms, consider that every ingested substance carries some degree of risk. As with any substance, including foods, it’s possible for one person to have an allergic or otherwise unusual reaction to an herb that most people can use without problems. This is a common phenomenon in medicine as well as in the culinary arts. Documented herb allergies are uncommon, but not unknown. For example, people who are allergic to ragweed and other plants in the family Asteraceae are cautioned to avoid chamomile, but only a relatively few cases of chamomile allergy have actually been reported.

The vast majority of herbs are safe and nontoxic when used as directed by a knowledgeable health-care professional—but note that this does not include a helpful clerk in a health food store or content on a Web site. Most professionals who work with herbs have undertaken many years of formal training to learn all there is to know about the plants they use and their effects—both beneficial and potentially harmful—on people, as well as the interactions of herbal remedies with other medications a person could be taking. That professional will advise you when to begin taking an herb and when to suspend use, if need be.

Certain individuals, including pregnant women, children, people with serious health conditions (such as high blood pressure, chronic illnesses, liver problems, or kidney disease), and those taking pharmaceutical drugs should always consult a physician before using herbs.

Many of the problems reported with herbs in recent years can be attributed to what amounts to “herb abuse”—such as taking large doses of ephedra (Ephedra sinica) for weight loss or energy enhancement. Using herbs in high doses to enhance weight loss or sports performance is not a wise use of plant remedies, nor is it in keeping with traditional herb applications.

With some herbal remedies, such as stimulant laxatives, the same chemical compounds that offer medicinal effects in small doses can cause harmful side effects in larger doses or with chronic use. Use stimulant laxatives in moderation. Occasional short-term use is fine, but long-term use can cause your bowels to lose their ability to function without help. Chronic use can also lead to dangerous fluid depletion, electrolyte imbalances, and other problems. Herbal stimulant laxatives include cascara sagrada (Rhamnus purshiana), senna (Senna alexandrina), purging buckthorn (R. cathartica), alder buckthorn (R. frangula), Chinese rhubarb (Rheum officinaleR. palmatum), and the dried latex from the leaves (not the gel) of the aloe plant (Aloe vera).

Some herbs are toxic if used in large doses, and certain herbs are so potent that they simply shouldn’t be used as remedies under any circumstances. So become as educated as possible about an herb before you take it. If in doubt about the safety of any herb or herbal remedy, be sure to consult a qualified herbalist, reputable herbal guidebook, or your local poison control center, which can provide information about the toxicity of plants ingested by people.

From the earliest days of human civilization, settlement, and agriculture—and certainly for many millennia before the advent of recorded history—plants have been essential to humans. From what undoubtedly were our first food sources—wild grasses, leaves, fleshy roots, and fruits—to the herbs that healed us and soothed our souls, plants have influenced our development as a species.

Modernization has taken many of us far from the gardens, fields, forests, and wilderness areas where so many healing plants can be found. Today, through movements such as integrative medicine and a rebirth of interest in traditional practices, many people are taking more responsibility for their health and wellness. Herbs and botanical remedies are an essential part of the path to a higher quality of life.

HEALING HERBS USED EXTERNALLY

These are just a few of the many healing herbs that can be applied topically in oils, salves, liniments, and creams. (Note: Oils, salves, and other external herbal preparations should not be applied to broken skin or open wounds unless your practitioner has advised otherwise.)

Arnica flowers: muscle and joint pain

Calendula flowers: rashes, insect bites, minor burns

Chamomile flowers: itching, eczema, inflammation

Chickweed leaves: eczema, psoriasis, dryness, itching

Comfrey leaves: minor cuts, scrapes, insect stings, muscle and joint pain

Eucalyptus leaves: insect bites, stings, wounds, and blisters; analgesic and anti-inflammatory for muscles and joints

Jewelweed leaves and stems: rash, minor cuts, poison ivy, nettle stings

Lavender flowers: itching, insect bites, minor burns, muscle aches

Mullein flowers and leaves: skin irritation, joint pain, hemorrhoids, earache, sore throat, chest congestion

Oregano leaves: insect bites, athlete’s foot

Plantain leaves: insect bites and stings, pain, poison ivy, itching, rashes, sores

Rosemary leaves and flowers: muscle and nerve pain, such as sciatica

St. John’s wort flowers: burns, insect bites, nerve pain

Thyme leaves: minor cuts and scrapes, muscle pain

Yarrow flowers: bruises, cuts, eczema, rashes, sprains, wounds, and areas with swelling and bleeding