The Many Health Benefits of Herbs and Botanicals

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According to the National Health Statistics Report, shoppers are turning to alternative medicine, not only as a complement to conventional care, but also as a sole means to help relieve pain from conditions that are impairing their health (1). Of the most commonly used are the roots, stems, flowers and leaves of herbs, which have been used for thousands of years. But with so many choices, how will shoppers know how to make sense of it all? Here, we explore up and coming herbs and their many health benefits.
 
Black Cohosh
First used for medical purposes by Native American Indians for colds, coughs and kidney disorders, the root of the black cohosh plant, Actaea racemosa, is most commonly used today to help treat acne, menstrual cramps and by some midwives to induce labor in pregnant women. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology guidelines on the use of botanicals for the management of menopausal symptoms even suggest using black cohosh for up to six months in regards to symptoms such as hot flashes and mood swings.

While researchers have not precisely determined how black cohosh works, some believe the herb interacts with neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine, and inhibits inflammation while others believe it to contain plant-based estrogens, or phytoestrogens (2, 3). Commonly, the dried root of black cohosh is used for a tea, but the herb is also available in capsules, tablets, liquid tinctures and extracts that can be mixed in water.

Milk Thistle
Milk Thistle, a member of the asteraceae family that also includes daisies and sunflowers, is native to the Mediterranean region and is used for the support of liver, kidney and gal bladder problems. The active component in milk thistle is silymarin, which is actually a group of compounds (silibinin, silidianin and silicristan), that work together to provide health benefits such as being a anti-fibrotic that prevents tissue scarring and also works to block toxins by inhibiting the binding of toxins to liver cell membranes receptors (4). Milk thistle is available in dried herb capsules, liquid extracts and tinctures, however in some studies, like one published in the World Journal of Gastrocenterol in 2011, a new form of milk thistle called silymarin-phosphatidylcholine complex was shown to absorb more easily.

Feverfew
Once used to treat fevers, Feverfew, a short perennial that gives off a strong and bitter odor, is now used to help with migraine headaches. Although research has been very mixed on how or if feverfew actually helps, a recent study published in Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, in 2011, showed taking a combination of feverfew and ginger in patients who experienced 2-6 migraine attacks a month, was effective in alleviating headaches and even helped those who suffered from oral numbness and nausea as an adverse reaction. The American Academy of Neurology also released a guideline in regards to treatments that can help prevent migraine, in 2012, suggesting feverfew as a treatment for migraine prevention. Feverfew is commonly sold fresh, freeze-fried or dried, but is also available in capsule, tablet and liquid extract form.

Ginkgo
One of the oldest living tree species, Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is used in support of memory loss and also in improving blood circulation. Out of the 40 components found in ginkgo, flavonoids (plant-based antioxidants that fight off free radicals) and terpenoids (antioxidants such as ginkgolides, which improve blood flow by dilating blood vessels and reduce stickiness of platelets) are believed to be the main source of help (5). Because ginkgo is helpful with the improvement of memory, researchers are currently trying to find a link that might suggest ginkgo as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. The dried leafs of the ginkgo tree can be used for a tea, however the most popular forms are capsules, tablets and liquid extracts.

Echinacea
During the 18th and 19th century, echinacea was a popular herb used to treat malaria, syphilis and scarlet fever. Today the prickly, scaled herb with a conical seed head is used to ease fevers, sore throats, the common cold and the flu. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, echinacea, which should be taken 3 times a day but for no more than 10 days, contains several chemicals, such as polysaccharides, glycoproteins, alkamides, volatile oils, and flavonoids, which play a role in the herb’s beneficial effects. Echinacea products are available as ointments, extracts, tablets, and capsules, but may vary regarding effectiveness due to the herb having three different species used for various purposes. WF

References
1. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, National Institutes of Health, “The Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the United States,” https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/nhsr.htm, Accessed January 9, 2017.
2. Healthy Lifestyle Brands, Dr. Weil, “Black Cohosh,” http://www.drweil.
com/vitamins-supplements-herbs/herbs/black-cohosh/, Accessed January 9, 2017.
3. University of Maryland Medical Center, “Black cohosh,” http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/black-cohosh, Accessed January 9, 2017.
4.  Dr. Joseph Mercola, “Magnificent Milk Thistle,” http://articles.mercola.
com/sites/articles/archive/2015/09/14/milk-thistle-benefits.aspx#, Accessed January 9, 2017.
5. University of Maryland Medical Center, “Ginkgo biloba,” http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/ginkgo-biloba, Accessed January 9, 2017.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine February 2017