Alan Frischer, MD, MPH
How many of us remember our grandmothers using their own garden to treat what ailed us? Herbs and flowers are the earliest drugs, and have been a part of healing for thousands of years. Some have withstood the test of time, and are clinically and scientifically supported.
What is the difference between prescription medicines and herbal supplements? Products that are used to treat diseases or to maintain health that are made from plants are referred to as herbal products, botanical products, or phytomedicines. Many prescription drugs and over-the-counter medicines may also be made from plant products, but contain only purified ingredients and are regulated by the FDA. The FDA does not regulate herbal supplements.
Let’s look at those old remedies that have some modern science behind them:
Chili peppers are originally from Mexico, and are recognized for treating muscle and joint pain and for boosting the immune system. They are high in antioxidants, which help repair damaged tissue. Capsaicin is their active ingredient, and can be found in many over-the-counter pain patches.
When patients come in with arthritic pain, and want to avoid a prescription medication, I find myself recommending turmeric. It’s bright orange and easy to spot on the spice shelf. In India, it has been used for 4,000 years as an anti-inflammatory, and can be taken orally or applied directly to the skin.
Flaxseed has been used as a traditional food and remedy in Mediterranean cultures for thousands of years. Flaxseed contains alpha-linolenic acid, one of the essential omega-3 fatty acids. Flaxseed is a great source of healthy fat, antioxidants, and fiber. It has been approved by the FDA in prescription form for lowering triglyceride levels. Studies are underway to investigate how it might benefit heart health.
About one million cups of Chamomile tea are consumed every day around the world. A relative of the daisy, chamomile is rich in terpenoids and flavonoids, which possess anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It has been used for thousands of years, and has been shown to treat anxiety and insomnia. Unproven uses include using it as a mouth rinse for oral pain, taking it orally for diarrhea, and applying it topically for skin irritation.
The name of St. John’s Wort came about because it flowers in late June, around the feast of St. John. It has been used since the time of the ancient Greeks. It contains two active ingredients, hypericin and hyperforin, which act as antidepressants and to reduce anxiety. Hyperforin is also an anti-bacterial agent.
Ginger has long been used as a remedy for nausea from motion sickness and pregnancy. It contains gingerols, which help to prevent vomiting. If you are unsure about that, just check with our Air Force, Marines, and Navy, and with NATO, who all recommend it routinely for this purpose. Ginger has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties as well.
Sage is a member of the mint family, and is rich in essential oils and flavonal glycosides. It acts as an anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial agent, and can reduce sugar levels. It is a popular treatment for stomach pains and sore throats.
Caraway seeds contain essential oils and flavonoids that aid digestion, work as an antispasmodic, reduce gas, and reduce abdominal cramps and bloating. (Did you know that 28% of all caraway seeds come from Finland?)
Dried peppermint leaves have been found in ancient Egyptian pyramids. They are rich in essential oils, including menthol and menthone, and help with indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome, cramps, and headaches.
Black cohosh was used by Native Americans and is considered helpful for symptoms of menopause, painful menstruation, uterine spasms, and vaginitis.
Gingko biloba is one of the oldest tree species and one of the oldest homeopathic herbs used in Chinese medicine. Studies show that gingko can slow cognitive decline in patients with mild to moderate dementia.
Lavender is an aromatic purple flower that was brought to France by the Romans 2,000 years ago. Its anti-anxiety effects have been studied for use by dental, insomnia, and post-operative patients.
I would be negligent if I didn’t mention the herb CBD, and I have very recently written about it in some detail. Needless to say, this product of the hemp plant has a huge and rapidly growing market for many ailments. It has FDA approval for childhood epilepsy, and a number of promising (but unproven) other uses, so let’s all stay tuned.
I urge you to consider herbs to be drugs, like prescription medications. However, the FDA and other governing agencies treat herbal supplements as foods, and they are not subject to the same close scrutiny as are prescription medications. Please realize that herbs may have unexpected interactions with your current medications, as well as side effects. Taking an herbal remedy may delay a proper diagnosis. Please consult with your physician when considering their use.