What is an herb? An herb is the part of a plant that has medicinal applications. The field of herbal remedies and therapy has developed over centuries throughout many cultures.
Herbs and their medicinal uses are strongly represented in modern medicine. One-quarter of all prescription drugs are derived from herbs, trees or shrubs. Many of today’s pharmaceutical medications are based on herbal medicines borrowed from older cultures. Medicinal herbs are used heavily in Europe, Asia and Latin America, but in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has tried to restrict the use of herbal medicines because they compete with pharmaceutical and synthetic medicine sales.
Today, research findings are being used to validate and refine the use of herbal therapies. Herbs have often been shown to be effective by virtue of the natural chemicals within them. More research is being done to isolate the active ingredients in herbs to make their physiologic actions even more effective.
Herbs and herbal supplements that are administered orally act more slowly than isolated derivatives that are introduced directly into the blood stream; however, herbs taken orally on a consistent basis are, in most cases, well suited for treating chronic health issues. Herbs can be administered in teas, capsules or liquid tinctures, via oils within the herbs or the peel, or in ointments and salves.
The general categories of herbs and their functions are:
- Adaptogenic herbs help the body adapt to and resist stress by supporting glands (e.g., licorice)
- Alternative herbs help restore general function of the body (e.g., goldenseal)
- Anti-inflammatory herbs reduce the inflammatory response of the body (e.g., Echinacea)
- Antimicrobials help kill microbes and increase the body’s resistance to infection (e.g., garlic)
- Anti-spasmodic herbs ease cramping in muscles and can ease psychological tension (e.g., St. John’s Wort)
- Astringents link to the skin and mucous membranes to protect those tissues from inflammation and infection
- Bitter herbs have a bitter taste that triggers digestive juices, bile flow and gut repair
- Carminative herbs stimulate the gut to function better and to remove gas and pain in the gut
- Demulcents are used for sensitive GI systems, to soothe irritation in the gut/colon and to prevent diarrhea (e.g., ginger)
- Diuretics increase urine flow to assist in waste elimination
- Emmensgogue increases menstrual flow and helps normalize the female reproductive system
- Expectorant herbs help remove irritants and mucous in the lungs and respiratory passages
- Hepatics help liver function in digestion and detoxification
- Hypotensives lower elevated blood pressure (e.g., hawthorn)
Herbal remedies can play an important role in the treatment of many conditions, and may provide safer alternatives to many pharmaceutical treatments. Following is a quick reference list of common natural herbal products with a brief description of their traditional uses.
- Aloe Vera: Skin soothing and softening
- Cayenne: Stimulation of the circulatory and digestive systems; rheumatism
- Chamomile: Digestive aid, mild sedative, anti-inflammatory
- Chasteberry: Hormone imbalances, endometriosis
- Echinacea: Wound healing, anti-inflammatory for infections, chronic illness
- Ephedra or Ma Huang: Asthma, hay fever
- Feverfew: Migraine headaches
- Garlic: Antibiotic, anti-fungal, antiviral, detoxifier, immune system support
- Ginger: Anti-nausea, digestion stimulant
- Ginkgo: Increased peripheral circulation, hearing loss improvement, brain circulation for better cognition
- Ginseng: Stress relief, antioxidant, liver protector, benefits for the elderly
- Goldenseal: Immune response stimulation, antimicrobial, increased digestive juices, eczema
- Hawthorne: Heart tonic, lowered blood pressure, increased blood flow to the heart
- Hops: Calming, sleep-inducing, appetite stimulant
- Licorice: Anti-inflammatory, reduced viral growth, good for peptic ulcers
- Milk Thistle: Liver and gallbladder cleanser
- Nettle: Detoxification, arthritis, hay fever, childhood eczema, diuretic
- Passion Flower: Mild sedative
- Peppermint: Digestive disorders
- St. John’s Wort: Anti-inflammatory, increased wound healing, calming response to stress
- Saw Palmetto: Improvement of male reproductive system, enlarged prostate
- Senna: Laxative
- Siberian Ginseng: Decreased toxicity due to cancer drugs
- Valeria Root: Sleep aid, nervousness, daytime sedative
- Witch Hazel: Decreased bleeding, diarrhea, inflammation, swelling, varicose veins
Please note that the list above is for informational purposes only. If you suffer from any serious or persistent health problem, seeking medical attention is important.