This week I wanted to highlight a few herbs that are great to have around. Some of them may be familiar, and some of them may not. Some of them can be consumed as a vegetable, and others are best taken as a supplement, extract, tea, or infusion.
I have divided them according to the benefits they provide, which include menstrual complaints, skin conditions, stress reduction, calm the nerves, relieve congestion, aid digestion, purify blood, and for general wellness. The nine herbs I have included here have various other benefits, which I have also listed, and may provide us with additional incentives to incorporate them into our lives.
1. For Menstrual Complaints: Agnus Castus
Chaste tree fruit or Vitex agnus-castus L. is originally from Albania and Morocco, but can also found in the Mediterranean and India. Clinical studies show it is effective in treating menstrual irregularities, premenstrual complaints, and breast pain (Wichtl, 2004). In addition, it has been used traditionally as an anti-inflammatory (Petersen, 2014b).
The herb is found as a dried fruit, or be consumed as a capsule, tablet, or extract. There are no serious side effects reported from the use of chaste tree fruit, although there are some minor complaints of headaches, itching, skin eruptions, and gastrointestinal discomfort. It is also not safe to use the herb during pregnancy or while nursing (Wichtl, 2004).
2. For Skin Conditions: American Elder
Sambucus canadensis or American Elder is a diaphoretic herb, which means it induces perspiration. It has been used to treat skin conditions such as abrasions, bruises, burns, chafing, psoriasis, sores, and swelling. It can treat colds and respiratory conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, fever, and sore throat. It has been used to treat cancer, epilepsy, gout, headaches, neuralgia, rheumatism, syphilis, and toothache (Petersen, 2014b).
The berries from the plant are a good source of Vitamin C, and can be used in cooking and baking, as they offer a good substitute for blackberries. The herb can be taken as an infusion or liquid extract. The flowers can be used for tea, and even to make perfumes (Petersen, 2014b).
3. For Stress Reduction: European Elder
European elder can be confused with American elder, but the scientific name for European elder is Sambucus nigra. It is an adaptogen, which means it can help reduce stress, and an immune tonic. The herb is effective in treating the flu, colds, nasal and respiratory infections, and clearing congestion. It has antiviral action and is believed to cure influenza. It has expectorant action and can relieve congestion from sinuses and the respiratory tract. As it clears mucus from the body, it also helps clear other system of the body. It can be used as a laxative and diuretic and helps induce perspiration (Petersen, 2014c).
It is generally considered to be a safe herb to consume, but should be avoided by pregnant and lactating women (Petersen, 2014c).
4. To Calm Nerves: Gotu Kola
Centella asiatica, commonly known as gotu kola, is a nervine herb, which means it helps calm nerves, and is also used to treat various conditions including varicose veins, fatigue, cold, flu, hepatitis, digestive concerns, shingles, cholera, epilepsy, asthma, and hypertension (Petersen, 2014b).
It was originally grown in India, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Australia, China, and Indonesia. It was first used over 2,000 years ago in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine (Petersen, 2014b). These days, gotu kola is an ingredient in beauty products such as skin creams, lotions, hair conditioners, and shampoos, as well as in herbal products such as tablets, capsules, ointments, powders, and infusions (Gohil, Patel, & Gajjar, 2010; Ulbricht, 2010).
Some people who have used gotu kola have experienced skin allergies and burning, or upset stomach, nausea, dizziness, and drowsiness (Gohil, Patel, & Gajjar, 2010). Gotu kola can cause photosensitivity, and direct sun exposure should be avoided when applied topically. It is contraindicated for those with diabetes, as it creates a rise in blood glucose, and for pregnant women, as it has abortifacient action (Petersen, 2014b).
5. & 6. For Congestion Relief: Mullein & Osha
Verbascum thapsus or mullein is known for its astringent, demulcent, and expectorant actions, which means it helps remove congestion (Petersen, 2014a). Astringents stop or reduce the discharge of mucus, demulcents soothe mucous membranes, and expectorants remove mucus. It can be a helpful expectorant when suffering from cold symptoms and coughs, and has even been used to treat catarrh (Wichtl, 2004).
Osha or Ligusticum porteri is another expectorant herb. Native Americans and Hispanics used it as a tonic, to treat colds, flu, and respiratory conditions (Petersen, 2014b).
It has antimicrobial and antiviral properties, and is believed to inhibit the influenza A virus. It is used to treat sore throats, bronchitis, cough, cold, flu, pneumonia, indigestion, and viral infections; prevent skin wounds from getting infected; stimulate circulation; and stimulate the kidneys and uterus. It is also known to cause emmenagogue and abortifacent activities, and should not be used by pregnant or lactating women (Petersen, 2014b).
7. To Aid Digestion: Blessed Thistle
Blessed thistle Cnicus benedictus is an herb native to the Mediterranean and Asia (American Botanical Council (ABC), 2000), but has been naturalized in the United States and Europe. It is considered a stomachic herb and can stimulate appetite and help with digestion. It also functions as an antidiarrheal and diuretic (Petersen, 2014c).
Historically, it was used as a general tonic and a cure-all. It was cultivated in monastery gardens in the 16th centruy, and was used in Ayurvedic and naturopathic medicine. It was used to treat the plague, and it was this use that granted it the name of “benedictus” (ABC, 2000; Petersen, 2014c). Romans consumed blessed thistle as a food, and the Scottish ate it with breakfast and used it as a feed for cattle. Blessed thistle was one of the most common herbs in Europe in the Middle Ages, and Shakespeare stated “get you some of this distilled Carduus Benedictus and lay it to your heart; it is the only thing for a qualm” (Hanrahan, 2009).
Today it is used to aid digestion and to treat anorexia, dyspepsia, diarrhea, flatulence, indigestion, and loss of appetite. It can also be used as a poultice to aid in wound healing, or consumed as an herb to stimulate menstruation, stimulate lactation, treat painful menstruation, and act as an abortifacient. Thus, pregnant women should not use it (ABC, 2000; Petersen, 2014c).
8. To Purify Blood: Spikenard
Aralia racemosa or American spikenard is grown in North America, and was used by Native Americans for pulmonary diseases, digestion, gynecological problems, venereal diseases, rheumatic conditions, and to purify blood (Petersen, 2014a; Tierra, 1988).
Modern herbalists use spikenard as an alterative or blood purifier. In addition, it is used as an expectorant; to treat cold, cough, asthma, and arthritis; renew tissue; and to treat skin diseases and rheumatic conditions (Petersen, 2014a). The root has analgesic effects (Kaur & Kaur, 2011), and the Missouri Botanical Garden (n.d.) indicated its roots were used in root beer.
9. For General Support: Yarrow
Yarrow or Achillea millefolium is grown in North and South America, Europe, New Zealand, Australia, and Northern Asia. It is taken as a decoction, extract, infusion, juice, tea, vegetable, essential oil, powder, compress, and tincture (Globinmed, n.d.; Petersen, 2014a).
Yarrow is a versatile herb with internal and external uses. It can be used as an antiseptic to fight bacteria, as a decongestant to improve cough and sinus infections, as an astringent to treat allergies, as a diaphoretic to induce sweating, as an external infusion to treat skin conditions, as an anti-inflammatory to treat arthritis, as an expectorant, and to help digestion. The herb has been used to treat toothache, plaque, gingivitis, bronchitis, colds, fevers, wounds and cuts, nosebleeds, and as a heart and circulatory tonic, only to name a few (Herbwisdom, n.d.; Petersen, 2014a; Therapeutic Research Faculty, 2009; Ulbricht, 2010).
Before starting any herbal protocol the best approach is to consult a healthcare practitioner to determine if incorporating the protocol is recommended, given your health conditions and lifestyle. Also, do not use herbs on children, pregnant women, or lactating/nursing women, unless it clearly states it is safe to consume for them. Many herbs have not been tested on children and women who are pregnant or nursing, and because their effect is unknown it is best to be cautious.
American Botanical Council. (2000). Blessed thistle herb. Herbal Medicine. Retrieved from http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbstream/achs/HerbalMedicine/index.html#param.wapp?sw_page=@@@@@@expEView%3Fufgp%3DBlessedThistleherb.html
Globinmed. (n.d.). Achillea millefolium. Medicinal Herbs and Plant Database. Retrieved on October 31, 2017 from http://www.globinmed.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=83037:achillea-millefolium&Itemid=145
Gohil, K. J., Patel, J. A., Gajjar, A. K. (2010). Pharmacological review on Centella asiatica: a potential cure-all. Indian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, 72(5), 546-556. doi:10.4103/0250-474X.78519
Hanrahan, C. (2009). The Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, (3rd Ed). Detroit, MI: Gale Cengage Learning.
Herbwisdom. (n.d.). Yarrow (achillea millefolium). Yarrow Benefits & Information. Retrieved on October 31, 2017 from http://www.herbwisdom.com/herb-yarrow.html
Kaur, M. & Kaur, H. (2011). Analgesic activity of roots of Aralia racemosa. Research Journal of Pharmacy and Technology, 4, 12, 1896-1897. doi:0974-360X
Missouri Botanical Garden. (n.d.). Aralia racemosa. Gardens & Gardening. Retrieved on October 31, 2017 from http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=v270
Petersen, D. (2014a). Herb 502 Advanced Herbal Materia Medica I. Portland, OR: American College of Healthcare Sciences.
Petersen, D. (2014b). Herb 503 Advanced Herbal Materia Medica II. Portland, OR: American College of Healthcare Sciences.
Petersen, D. (2014c). Herb 504 Advanced Herbal Materia Medica III. Portland, OR: American College of Healthcare Sciences.
Therapeutic Research Faculty. (2009). Yarrow. WebMD. Retrieved on October 31, 2017 from http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-151-Achillea%20millefolium%20(YARROW).aspx?activeIngredientId=151&activeIngredientName=Achillea%20millefolium%20(YARROW)
Tierra, M. (1998). Planetary Herbology. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press.
Ulbricht, C. E. (2010). Natural Standard: Herb & Supplement Guide- An Evidence-Based Reference. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Mosby.
Wichtl, M. (Ed.). (2004). Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals: A Handbook for the Practice on a Scientific Basis, 3rd ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.