Aside from relatively harmless chemicals such as aspirin – which just happens to be based on a plant compound that’s been safely used medicinally for over two millennia – putting manufactured medication in your system is the equivalent of pouring gasoline with a higher than usual octane rating into an engine. You may or may not see more power, but more or less severe side effects can be expected in a motor not designed for it, even to the point of the pistons tearing themselves apart.
Herbal medicine, on the other hand, can be compared to fuel additives that reduce the buildup of harmful deposits or work in other, subtle ways. The benefits are not noticeable immediately, but unwanted effects are unlikely to be very severe. In short, the principle is not to improve one or two aspects of the vehicle’s performance, but to correct it in basic, understated ways.
According to Thomas Edison, back in the day, “The doctor of the future will give no medication, but will interest his patients in the care of the human frame, diet and in the cause and prevention of disease.” Sadly, this is not the way things have developed. The medical industry’s focus remains on (expensive and potentially harmful) reactive and palliative care, rather than taking the holistic route and emphasizing prevention as the first step to better health.
The Health Benefits of Herbs
Herbs are, simply put, part of nutrition. The body’s systems will tend towards a state of balance and optimal function as long as this is made possible, which among other things means the availability of essential chemicals in sufficient quantities. Herbs happen to be rich in a variety of vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients, so that they punch above their weight even though eaten in small quantities. In addition, aside from the lettered vitamins and better-known organic molecules, they also contain certain compounds that are believed to have actual curative properties.
While oregano and its friends are unlikely to ever replace synthesized pharmaceuticals for, say, emergency blood clotting prevention, botanical medicine certainly can form part of the arsenal of any health care professional, from M.D.s to chiropractors. In the final analysis, unless a life is immediately at stake, it’s better to prescribe a mild course of treatment that may not show significant or prompt effects, than it is to specify a strong one that can end up leaving the patient worse off in other ways.
Some of the better-known applications of plants and their extracts, both as interventions and over the long term are:
- Aloe gel for a variety of skin ailments,
- Garlic for better cardiovascular health,
- Chamomile for the gastric system and anxiety,
- Echinacea as an immune system booster,
- Ginger as an anti-nausea agent and mild analgesic,
- St John’s wort for a variety of mental health problems.
Herbs in Food
As far as the great majority of packaged and pre-prepared food goes, the flavor is boosted by mixing in extra salt, sugar and fat; and not even healthy varieties of those additives. In home cooking and good restaurants, by contrast, the essential ingredients are expected to speak for themselves, and one of the best ways of doing so lies in adding herbs.
Herbs have virtually no calories, are available in all the flavors of the tongue’s rainbow and brings out the essence of a dish without having to lay on the salt. They can safely and tastily be used in large amounts; for instance, a cup of fresh chopped parsley takes care of a person’s daily requirements of vitamins A, C and K, with quite a lot left over. They require minimal effort to grow in a small garden or on an apartment windowsill and even help to repel insects and other pests. Fresh herbs are best stored in the fridge with a dry paper towel under them, while keeping half a dozen dried varieties takes up only a minimal amount of shelf space.
Given how dense in nutrients both dried and fresh herbs are (as well as how cheap), it makes sense for them to have a place in every diet. Few sandwiches are not improved by a generous layer of fresh basil, while fresh chopped herbs can be stirred into everything from mashed potatoes to tossed salads to liven them up.
Green tea is now recognized as a “superfood” for its wide variety of health benefits, while millions drink chamomile every night as a sleeping aid. At a price tag of no more than a few cents per cup and no effects the morning after, this beats sleeping pills quite handily in all but the most serious cases of insomnia.
While some herbal teas are taken to alleviate a specific condition, a number of concoctions are drunk simply as tasty, low-calorie beverages. The same infusions provide both relaxing aromas and health benefits. Most supermarkets stock a wide variety in bag form, but it’s also possible to experiment at home with recipes such as crushed mint in lemonade (kind of a non-alcoholic mojito) to combat a summer headache while boosting your vitamin C, ginger and chamomile to improve digestion, or steeping some sage leaves to treat a sore throat.
Herbs in Supplements
One of the dirty little secrets of nutritional supplements is that much of the nutrients they contain cannot be possibly be absorbed by the body. For example, our tissues effectively cannot store vitamin C, so any supplement that claims to contain “1,000% RDA” of this is practicing misleading advertising and may even be causing harmful effects, including generating small amounts of the powerful oxidant hydrogen peroxide in the bloodstream.
Bearing in mind that the claims which manufacturers may put on supplement’s labels are poorly regulated, it is important to remember that there is a vast difference between quality brands and the cheap stuff. In particular, one principle to keep in mind is that an extracted or manufactured plant-based nutrient may be less effective than one refined from the whole plant. As one example, curcumin, extracted from turmeric, is beginning to be regarded as a wonder cure, but research remains to be done on the difference between the effects of pure curcumin and that of supplements containing a larger range of the more than 200 organic compounds the spice comprises.
Essential oils are another kind of concentrated herbal supplement, which is rubbed on the skin or inhaled to obtain the benefits. As far as conditions such as anxiety is concerned, even experiencing the smell may have a beneficial effect.
It should be understood clearly that botanical medicine is rarely sufficient as a form of emergency intervention in serious cases, and is best thought of as a complementary measure or preventative action. In addition, simply because something is marketed as a “natural remedy” does not mean that it is either effective or safe. Taking herbal supplements in large doses should be done under the care of a physician or nutritionist, especially in cases where other medication is being taken for the same condition (or an opposite condition, where paradoxical interactions may occur), patients are pregnant/breastfeeding women or small children, or extremely large doses are envisioned.