A Guide to Common Medicinal Herbs and Their Uses
Herbs – also called as medicinal herbs, botanicals, or phytomedicines – have been applied as medicinal agents for centuries.
The leaves, stems, roots, bark, buds, flowers and seeds of some of these plants contain nature’s pharmacy of chemicals and compounds that can enhance your well-being and remedy a range of ailments. Many conventional drugs contain extracts from medicinal herbs, and scientists’ quest for new synthetic cures and therapies often begins in the realm of Mother Nature.
A word of caution: Just because medicinal herbs are natural doesn’t mean they can’t be toxic in high concentrations. Although plenty of anecdotal evidence exists, many medicinal herbs have not been subjected to scientific study. You should be aware that these substances are not regulated or subjected to strict control standards. You should consult a doctor, nutritionist or holistic practitioner before taking any herbal medicines.
Below is an outline of some of the medicinal herbs that may be effective for various health conditions.
Bilberry extract helps the retina adapt to light and dark, and so is often prescribed to treat night blindness and those with poor adaptation to bright light. This herb strengthens the capillaries in the eye and may play a role in preventing or treating eye diseases such as retinopathy, cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration. It may also help other circulatory ailments such as varicose veins and hemorrhoids – especially during pregnancy.
The active ingredient in cayenne is capsaicin, an oily, irritating chemical that is often used in police pepper sprays. When applied to the skin, capsaicin can be a potent painkiller because it hinders the transmission of pain impulses from special nerve endings to the brain.
Regular application of capsaicin cream or ointment can relieve pain from arthritis, shingles, diabetic nerve damage, and even surgical scars. It may also reduce the itching associated with psoriasis, and can improve the cold sensation in the extremities from Raynaud’s disease.
Cayenne, taken as a tea, tablet, capsule or fresh pepper form, can also help stimulate digestion. It increases blood circulation in the stomach and bowel and bolsters the secretion of digestive juices. It can help relieve gas and ulcers, and may also be used as a gargle to relieve a sore throat.
Chamomile contains substances that can promote relaxation, soothe the nerves and relieve stress. Its mildly sedative qualities may fend off insomnia and it also has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties which may remedy digestive problems, gas, menstrual cramps, and heartburn.
It is also used as a topical agent for the skin and mucous membranes, soothing rashes, eczema, burns, sunburns, and sores.
An eyewash of cooled chamomile tea may help redness and irritation of the eyes and used as a gargle may heal mouth sores and treat gingivitis.
It used to be thought that cranberries simply made the urine more acidic and therefore less hospitable to infection. Recent studies have found that the fructose and another special compound in cranberries make it difficult for harmful microorganisms to stick to the lining of the urinary tract, making it more challenging for E. coli and other bacteria to reproduce, and thereby reducing the chances of infection.
Cranberry is most effective as a preventative measure against urinary tract infections. Daily consumption of cranberry capsules or pure, undiluted juice can shorten the course, reduce the symptoms and lessen the reoccurrence of UTIs.
You may think of it as a pesky weed, but the dandelion is rich in medicinal properties. The root, leaves, and flower can be consumed as tea, juice or salad fixings. All are valued for their taste and healing properties.
Dandelion is often used in herbal remedies for liver and digestive issues. Active ingredients in the plant include the B vitamin choline; which increases levels of bile in the liver and gallbladder. This medicinal herb can also help the liver remove excess estrogen from the body and restore hormonal balance in women; which may be helpful in treating endometriosis.
Dandelion root can have a mild laxative effect and may provide relief from constipation. Some studies have shown that it can help the body absorb iron, so it may be useful for combating anemia.
Dong quai has been used by women to help regulate their menstrual cycle, alleviate cramps, reduce complaints of menopause and maintain reproductive health.
This herb contains natural chemicals called coumarins, which dilate blood vessels. This is thought to increase the blood flow to the uterus, reduce swelling and control muscle spasms. The herb also contains phytoestrogens, so it may combat symptoms of PMS, soothe menstrual cramps, reduce hot flashes and decrease vaginal dryness that often accompanies menopause.
Rich in vitamin B12, dong quai also lowers blood pressure, builds red blood cells and inhibits platelet clumping, thereby offering some protection against heart disease.
Feverfew, a plant related to daisies and sunflowers, has been hailed as nature’s answer to migraine sufferers.
This herb contains a chemical called parthenolide that helps prevent blood vessels from dilating and constricting. Feverfew may prevent migraine headaches from occurring, but once symptoms take hold the herb does not relieve them. It may, however, help quell symptoms of nausea that often go hand-in-hand with the severe headaches.
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Regular, long-term usage of feverfew containing a minimum of 0.4% parthenolide seems to be the preventative key. While it may not stop the headaches altogether, those who commit to daily usage tend to have less frequent and less intense migraines.
Feverfew’s anti-inflammatory properties have also been said to ease menstrual cramps and rheumatoid arthritis. It may also help treat indigestion, diarrhea, and the common cold.
Hawthorn may help dilate blood vessels, increase the heart’s energy and enhance its pumping action. The herb is rich in flavonoids – such as procyanidolic oligomers and glycosides such as vitexin, which have powerful cardiac effects.
Hawthorn has also been given heart-healthy credit for expanding arteries, improving blood flow, reducing blood pressure and blocking enzymes that weaken the heart muscle. Hawthorn is also an antioxidant that may protect against plaque buildup in the coronary arteries.
If you suffer from mild angina, hypertension, congestive heart failure or cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), ask your health practitioner about hawthorn supplements.
Horse chestnut can help strengthen vein walls by promoting elasticity, reducing inflammation and preventing swelling. This medicinal herb is regularly prescribed in Europe for the treatment of varicose veins, hemorrhoids, rheumatism, and neuralgia. Studies have shown that it’s as effective as compression therapy (such as wearing support stockings) for swollen legs (edema).
Creams and gels containing horse chestnut may be used topically to reduce the appearance of varicose veins, including hemorrhoids cosmetically. These topical creams may also relieve inflammation of the joints, tendons, and muscles.
When taken orally, horse chestnut can improve nocturnal leg cramping, itching, and swelling of the legs. Oral treatment is more effective than topical treatment. Look for products containing 50 milligrams of aescin – one of the main active ingredients in horse chestnut.
The licorice herb is a member of the pea family. Its roots contain many therapeutic substances including phytoestrogens, flavonoids, and glycyrrhizin.
The glycyrrhizin in licorice root stimulates the adrenal glands to produce certain hormones, increases interferon and reduces inflammation. Licorice may help to decrease the inflammation of the liver for those who have hepatitis. It’s often used to treat patients with chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and other disorders affected by cortisol imbalances.
Licorice is also effective in treating respiratory ailments by relieving sore throat, coughing, mucus buildup and fighting off viruses. Please note that the glycyrrhizin in licorice can raise blood pressure so avoid it if you have heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease, and hypertension or are pregnant. As always, talk with your doctor before taking this or any other herbal remedy.
There is another form of licorice that doesn’t contain glycyrrhizin and has a different medicinal effect on the body. Deglycyrrhizinated or DGL licorice is beneficial for the digestive tract. It improves the body’s production of substances that coat the stomach and esophagus, aiding conditions like heartburn, ulcers and inflammatory bowel disease. It works best when mixed with saliva, so take DGL licorice in chewable wafer form. This form can also help speed up the recovery of canker sores.
The estrogen-like properties of licorice may be beneficial for menstrual and menopausal complaints, and licorice is currently being investigated for its ability to prevent or combat certain cancers. Topical licorice can be soothing for skin irritations like eczema.
Contemporary studies have found that nettle can relieve inflamed joints, especially for those suffering from gout. The plant also has a diuretic effect, helping the body rid itself of excess fluids. This is beneficial for people with urinary tract infections and women with pre-menstrual bloating. Men with benign prostatic hyperplasia (enlarged prostate) may find that nettle helps slow prostate growth.
Perhaps nettle’s well-known benefit is as a hay fever remedy. Nettle contains quercetin, a flavonoid that can inhibit the release of histamine, so it can be effective for controlling nasal congestion and watery eyes associated with pollen and other allergies.
While many think peppermint is only a cure for bad breath, it has other medicinal uses.
Peppermint oil acts as an intestinal muscle relaxant, making it effective for treating digestive disorders – such as cramping, gas, heartburn, nausea, and indigestion. It has an antispasmodic effect that has proven useful for relieving symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, and some studies show it can help dissolve gallstones. The menthol in peppermint stimulates the flow of bile and digestive juices; which is why it is often an ingredient in over-the-counter antacids and digestive aids.
As a topical agent, peppermint can relieve muscle aches and pains. It seems to stimulate the nerves that perceive cold; while dulling those that perceive pain. Inhaling the menthol in peppermint oil can act as a decongestant and reduce inflammation of nasal passages, helping those suffering from colds breath easier.
Peppermint tea is often prescribed to soothe the bronchial constriction associated with asthma. Furthermore, some swear that rubbing peppermint oil on the temples can reduce the pain associated with headaches.
Rose hips are incredibly high in vitamin C – much more so than citrus fruits. They also contain vitamin E, vitamin K and the B vitamins riboflavin and folate, plus they are rich in bioflavonoids.
Rose hips can be helpful in treating conditions such as cold, flu, sore throat, inflammation, infection, fatigue and stress. Some note that rose hips is also effective for treating bladder disorders, diarrhea, skin problems, and kidney ailments.
St. John’s Wort
Today, St. John’s wort is most commonly used as a natural remedy for the demons of mild to moderate depression and anxiety.
Although it is still a bit of a mystery, scientists think St. John’s wort somehow increases serotonin levels in the brain and thereby affects one’s mood. St. John’s wort can also improve depression-related conditions like PMS (premenstrual syndrome), SAD (seasonal affective disorder) fibromyalgia, and excessive fatigue.
It seems St. John’s wort may have some antibacterial and anti-viral properties, as well. It has shown some success in treating influenza, herpes simplex, the Epstein-Barr virus. As a topical salve, this herb can soothe the burning and itching of hemorrhoids and promote the healing of minor wounds and burns.