Herbs for Health: The Science Behind Alternative Medicine

Although natural healing methods have been practiced for thousands of years, many people are still skeptical because they are not widely used in mainstream medicine. However, science has studied and validated many natural therapies, including herbs for health.

This is the first in a series of articles exploring the science behind complementary and alternative medicine. Some of the topics to be covered are acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, reiki and aromatherapy. Today’s topic is herbs.

Herbs are plants that may be used as food, medicine, or both. There are literally thousands of herbal plants used in various holistic and folk medicine traditions. Today we will look at a few of the more popular remedies and what science has discovered about them.

Acai

Herbs for Health

Acai is actually a fruit that is used in herbal medicine because of its powerful healing properties. It is rich in several vitamins and minerals, and high in natural antioxidants. It has been used for centuries by native healers in the Amazon to improve health and vitality.

In a study by the University of Florida, researcher Stephen Talcott discovered that extracts of this little berry destroyed up 86 percent of leukemia cells in laboratory tests. He was encouraged by the results and noted more studies were warranted.

For a boost to the immune system, try acai berries, fresh or frozen, where available.

Echinacea

Herbs for Health

Echinacea, also known as purple coneflower, is a popular cold and flu remedy. Unlike prescription antibiotics which attack bacteria directly, and may have unwanted side effects, echinacea’s effects are gentler as it strengthens the immune system and helps the body fight infection naturally.

In a study published in the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine from 2000, researchers found that drinking several cups of echinacea tea each day helped to reduce the severity of flu symptoms. Other studies have had similar results. It appears that echinacea can shorten the duration and reduce symptoms of colds, the flu and upper respiratory infections.

For best results, take echinacea at the earliest onset of symptoms, three to four cups per day, for the duration of the illness.

Garlic

Herbs for Health

Garlic is valued by both chefs and herbalists alike. It is a natural antibiotic whose use dates back to ancient times. During World Wars I and II, it was even known as Russian penicillin.

It is naturally antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal.

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, a number of scientific studies have been conducted on garlic. It has shown to be effective at lowering cholesterol, treating heart disease and high blood pressure, combating the common cold and even fighting cancer.

For those who cannot tolerate fresh garlic, it is also available in tablet and capsule forms. The typical dose is 2 to 4 grams per day of fresh garlic, or 600 to 1,200 mg per day of garlic extract.

Licorice

Herbs for Health

Licorice is a well-known flavoring for candy, but it also has medicinal qualities. It has long been used to treat ulcers and other gastrointestinal problems. Topically, it can be used to treat canker sores and eczema.

The University of Maryland also sites research which shows it may help lower blood sugar and be used to treat diabetes and obesity. One study showed that it actually helped to reduce body fat in participants.

The typical dose is 250 to 500 mg, three times per day. Licorice has been found to alter some hormone levels, so be sure and check with your doctor before trying this herb.

Sambucol

Herbs for Health

Sambucol is more commonly known as elderberry extract. It has been used for hundreds of years in the Middle East as a natural cold and flu remedy. It is rich in antioxidants and, much like acai and echinacea, can help boost the immune system. It is also naturally antiviral.

One Israeli study showed that it was even effective against the dreaded avian flu, by as much as 99 percent. The scientist who discovered its antiviral properties is Dr. Madeleine Mumcuoglu, a virologist. She and her colleagues patented the active ingredient in elderberries, which is now available over-the-counter as Sambucol.

Sambucol should be taken as directed by your health care provider.

St. John’s Wort

Herbs for Health

St. John’s wort is a popular herbal remedy for mild to moderate depression. It is naturally anti-inflammatory, and considered a natural nervine by herbalists.

This herb is somewhat controversial because of some reports that it is no more effective than a placebo. However, as the University of Maryland points out, there is ample evidence that it works as well as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, or SSRI’s, but without the typical negative side effects.

The recommended dose for St. John’s wort is 300 mg, three times per day, with meals.

Turmeric

Herbs for Health

Turmeric is a culinary spice that doubles as a medicinal herb. It is the spice that gives curry its golden color. It is also naturally anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.

Herbalists use turmeric to treat arthritis, sports injuries, ulcers, indigestion, heart disease and cancer. The most remarkable studies with turmeric have been done regarding cancer. Studies show that curcumin, the main chemical component of turmeric, may actually help prevent or treat several types of cancers.

The therapeutic dose is 400 to 600 mg, up to three times per day.

Hundreds of herbs for health have been studied scientifically in recent years. Don’t discount the powerful effects of healing herbs until you have really investigated their history and the existing evidence.

References

1. University of Florida: Brazillian Berry – http://news.ufl.edu/2006/01/12/berries/

2. University of Maryland Medical Center: Herbs – http://www.umm.edu/altmed/

3. Israel21: Study Shows Israeli elderberry extract effective against avian flu- http://www.israel21c.org/health/study-shows-israeli-elderberry-extract-effective-against-avian-flu