Supplement Basics: Herbs

What are herbs?

  • The term "herb" generally describes any plant (or part of a plant) that is used for medicinal or culinary purposes.
  • Herbs have been used for healing purposes by every society from time immemorial.
  • Many herbs, based on their use in traditional or folk medicine, have subsequently been scrutinized in modern, scientific studies.
  • Herbal remedies come in many different forms, including the whole herb (dried or fresh), teas, tinctures, fluid and solid extracts, capsules, tablets, topical preparations, syrups, and lozenges.
  • In some cases, the reason the herb is being used will dictate what form of the herb is appropriate (for example an herbal cream for a skin-related concern).
  • In general, however, the form of herbal remedy is a matter of personal preference.

What herbs are used to promote health?

Examples of medicinal herbs and their uses:

  • Echinacea for immune enhancement and treatment of the common cold and flu.
  • Garlic to lower cholesterol levels.
  • Ginkgo to improve memory in early-stage Alzheimer's disease.
  • St. John's wort as an antidepressant.
  • Saw palmetto for symptom relief of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH).
  • Valerian to relieve insomnia.

Are herbs safe to use?

  • One of the advantages of herbal medicine is that it's generally very safe.
  • Some herbs have toxic properties even in small amounts (such as hemlock) and are not used medicinally.
  • Other herbs are safe within a certain range of use but could cause adverse effects if used in too great a quantity (such as ephedra).
  • Some herbs are safely used by most people, but should not be used by certain individuals (for example, some herbs are not appropriate for pregnant women).
  • Refer to the individual herb articles in the Herbal Remedies section of Healthnotes for specific safety and drug interaction information.

Echinacea: The infection-fighting herb

  • Echinacea is an herb native to North America that was used traditionally by Native Americans. Its common name is purple coneflower.
  • The primary effects of echinacea are on the immune system. Echinacea increases the production and activity of certain white blood cells that help fight infection.
  • Echinacea has a good safety record. However, those who are allergic to flowers of the daisy family should not take echinacea.
  • Anyone with an autoimmune illness, tuberculosis, multiple sclerosis, or HIV should not take this herb.

Banishing colds and the flu

  • Echinacea is best known for treating colds and flu.
  • Echinacea has been shown to shorten the duration of the common cold, as well as to help relieve flu-like symptoms more quickly.
  • Echinacea appears to be most effective when used at the onset of colds and flu.
  • At the onset of a cold or flu, 3–4 ml of echinacea tincture (a liquid preparation, or 300 mg of powdered echinacea in tablet or capsule form) can be taken every two hours for the first day of illness, then three to four times per day for the next ten to fourteen days.

Other health benefits of echinacea

  • Echinacea might also be useful for bronchitis, because of its effectiveness as an immune booster and in resolving respiratory infections.
  • Echinacea has also been shown to aid in the treatment of gingivitis (usually in combination with other herbs).
  • The use of echinacea as an immune enhancer has been shown to reduce the recurrence of yeast infections in women who have frequent yeast infections.

St. John's wort: Herb for alleviating depression

  • St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) has a history of use in ancient Greece, as well as throughout Europe. Folk use was primarily for wounds and burns as a topical preparation.
  • Modern use of St. John's wort has focused on its antidepressant properties.
  • The standard recommendation for mild to moderate depression is 500-1,050 mg of St. John's wort extract per day.

More about St. John's wort

  • St. John's wort has not been proven to be an effective treatment for severe depression.
  • Although rare, St. John's wort could increase the skin's sensitivity to sunlight (leading to rashes or burns following sun exposure in fair-skinned individuals).
  • St. John's wort should not be taken with antidepressant medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (e.g., Prozac, Xanax).

Antidepressant properties are key

  • St. John's wort can be used to relieve the symptoms of mild to moderate depression.
  • People taking St. John's wort have shown improvement in mood and an increased ability to carry out their daily activities. Symptoms such as sadness, hopelessness, feelings of worthlessness, exhaustion, and poor sleep have also decreased.
  • When compared with prescription antidepressants, such as imipramine (Tofranil), amitriptyline (Elavil), and maprotiline (Ludiomil), St. John's wort provides similar antidepressant benefits but with fewer side effects. St. John's wort has also compared favorably with fluoxetine (Prozac).
  • St. John's wort extract is generally standardized for hypericin concentration (0.3% hypericin). However, other compounds in St. John's wort, such as hyperforin, might be responsible for the antidepressant actions of this herb.

Other health benefits of St. John's wort

  • St. John's wort may benefit other mood-related disorders, such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), anxiety, and bipolar disorder.

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Information expires June 2015.