It’s been a while since I’ve actually done a “helpful, educational” post, so I figure hey–it’s time. 😉
Before I get started, I have to issue my usual disclaimers. Things like “even though I’m a doctor, I’m unfortunately not yours, so this isn’t intended to be medical advice” and “this is for ‘entertainment/FYI purposes’ only” and “consult with your regular healthcare provider before trying any of this stuff” and so on. You probably know the drill. 🙂
I’ve been involved with herbal remedies–both in an experiential and an educational sense, for 15 years. I have some good formal training in herbalism, and I’ve also got plenty of experience using myself as my own guinea pig (although Do Not Try This At Home 😉 ).
If I had to build an herbal “go-to kit” of the botanical basics, I would include the herbs in this post (and this may not be an extensive list–if I think of something I can’t resist including, I’ll either update this post, or I’ll write a Part 2, or something).
I thought about categorizing these according to their actions, but so many herbs have so many actions and uses that that approach would be cumbersome. So, I’ll be boring-but-simple and simply list them in alphabetical order.
(For anyone who is skeptical, that’s no problem. Really, I get it–I understand. Just realize that these herbs have been around–and in use–for centuries, often millennia. They evolved or were created (whichever your Belief Flavor) for a reason, and I believe that everything happens for a reason. I don’t think nature makes a whole lot of mistakes. Everything has a use (although I’m still trying to figure out the uses of wasps and mosquitoes, but I think I’m starting to digress again…). If you’re curious about the scientific validity of various herbs and their uses, just run them through PubMed.gov and see what the research says. Many of these have indeed been researched, and at least one of them that I know of has its own journal. These aren’t fly-by-night granola rags, either – they’re honest-to-god(dess) medical journals, complete with evidence review boards (ERBs) and everything. 🙂 (No snark intended.) )
OK, onto the list… (the link attached to each herb points to the PubMed.gov search on this herb so that the reader can view the most up-to-date information and the annoyance of “dead links” can be minimized/avoided):
Andrographis – this an herb used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), with, in my experience, primarily like an herbal antibiotic. Personally, I took this for severe tooth pain–severe enough that I was scarfing 18-25 over-the-counter NSAID (aspirin, ibuprofen, etc) pills per day. The first day I started the Andrographis, I was down to only 4 NSAID pills, and by the second day on Andrographis, I was down to zero NSAIDs–none at all. (Yes, I eventually did have to have the dental work done–there was no getting around that. But…instead of five tooth root abscesses that my dentist saw on my dental x-rays in December 2012, I was down to three by the summer of 2016, and I only took the Andrographis from December 2014 to July 2015!)
Ashwagandha – this herb is used in Ayurvedic Medicine (the ancient/traditional medicine system of India, which also has its own dedicated journals, and so does TCM). It’s a tonic of sorts that helps boost the immune system (so people with autoimmune conditions of any kind should use a lot of caution, as it may stimulate the “wrong” part of the immune system and cause a flare-up–although for others, it’ll be therapeutic–it all depends). It’s best known for its regenerative and restorative properties, giving vitality and energy. It can help combat stress and fatigue, and provide energy and stamina.
Astragalus – this is another TCM herb that is known mostly for its immune-boosting properties. I often took this when people around me were sick, especially when I was under stress at the time (stress does indeed suppress the immune system, which is why the direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical ads for corticosteroids on US television tell people to “tell their doctor” and not to use the drug if they have infections and whatnot). I can say that it did live up to its word, boosting my immune system enough to prevent me from getting sick when, by all rights, I probably “should” have. It’s actually said to be an immune system builder, not just an immune system stimulator (like echinacea); the logic is that if you don’t have much of an immune system to stimulate (such as when you’ve been under chronic stress or you’re short on immune system-related nutrients, etc), then echinacea won’t do you nearly as much good. In that case, Astragalus might be a better bet. (The same caution applies here for autoimmune conditions; it can make or break you, either causing flare-ups or having a therapeutic effect.)
Bayberry – this herb is my secret weapon when I’ve actually caught a head cold. You’ve probably been in a situation where the congestion gets so severe that you can’t sleep or even lay down much–and that congestion gets incredibly stubborn, so much so that you can’t even blow it out. It just won’t budge. Bayberry to the rescue! I would pick some up at my local health food store; it came in tincture form (tinctures are liquid-based extracts of the herb, usually involving an ethanol alcohol base, although there are some alcohol-free varieties out there, which use more of a vegetable glycerine base). And I would add a couple dropperfuls to my tea or a thin soup or whatever. I found it to be more effective when I took it separately from meals.
A couple of important points: first, it’s not a decongestant, per se. It won’t dry you out. What it will do is break up the congestion so that you can blow it out. I would only drag it out when I had super-stubborn, immobile congestion. Point #2 is, it’s an emetic; i.e., it will make you nauseated, especially if you take too much at one time. It’s mildly toxic (and I mean mildly, but then again, even some of the benefits of freaking broccoli are mildly toxic, so I wouldn’t panic about toxicity).
Burdock root – after hearing that this herb is regarded as a blood cleanser of sorts, I thought, “oh hell yeah!” because a little voice inside me whispered, “you’re toxic and in need of a cleanout”. Don’t laugh or scoff; it was totally true. (I had a crappy diet and too long a history of using harsh prescription drugs and I had also indulged in my share of alcohol in the past). When using this herb, suddenly the long-term acne I was dealing with began to subside. I started to feel better overall. It’s used mostly as a detoxifying herb, and it lives up to its reputation.
Chamomile – by now, “chamomile tea” is sort of cliche; it seems as though everybody’s drinking it. And for good reason. I’ve used this personally as a decent sleep aid, and it works. It’s no Ambien, Benadryl, or Vicodin, but it has a decent calming effect.
Curcumin – one of the most researched herbs to date, it’s essentially being lauded as a miracle go-to-herb for practically every ailment (well, almost every ailment). Originally hailing from Ayurvedic medicine, it’s the medicinal component (aka “phytochemical”) from turmeric, a culinary spice (but it’s not spicy/hot). Curcumin is especially amazing for inflammation–joint pain, certain types of “brain fog”, and others.
EGCG (a major medicinal component of green tea) – a fantastic TCM remedy being researched six ways from Sunday, as a potential treatment for everything from high cholesterol to disorders involving inflammation and free radicals (which is practically every chronic, degenerative disease you can imagine).
Eleuthero (aka Siberian ginseng) – this herb has been used widely in China and Russia for centuries. Its activity profile is pretty broad, including immune system support, mental and physical energy, and so on. Personally, I would often take two capsules before leaving for a 10-hour shift as a cocktail waitress, and I noticed that it worked better than caffeine. Its effects were a bit more subtle (but then again, I was taking only 2 capsules of the mass-produced health food store-grade), but what I experienced was a physical, mental, and emotional uplifting, without the jitteriness, anxiety, or shakiness (or eventual crash) of caffeine. The uplifting effect of the Eleuthero was more gradual (as opposed to a spike) and much more wholesome. (Note: this type of ginseng, despite its name, is different from Panax, Korean, Red, or American ginseng.) Ginseng is so cool that it has its own medical journal, the Journal of Ginseng Research.
Ginger – this has been widely-used and well-touted as a remedy for multiple maladies, including nausea, upper respiratory infections, inflammation, and histamine excess (such as allergies). I have personally used it for stomach upset and colds/flus, with huge success. It worked really quickly for me when I sipped ginger tea for nausea, within about a half-hour (not bad, considering I was taking slow, sporadic, and tiny sips), and it feels soooo good to drink warm ginger tea when you have a head cold; I felt a lot better while drinking it.
Hawthorn – another TCM herb, this one is used for all kinds of things, and it shows a lot of promise. It’s been used for digestive issues, and the TCM concepts of dampness and stagnation. It’s currently being researched as a natural treatment for diabetes (Type 2), cardiovascular issues, blood vessel (and thus brain) health, lipid profiles, and support of Nrf2 (which is a powerful antioxidant system that combats free radicals). Personally, when I take it, the effects are subtle, but over the first few days, I gradually begin to notice that I feel lighter, and the grunting-while-moving phenomenon I was experiencing disappeared.
Worry not, those of my pretties who found this useful, there will be a Part 2. 🙂