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10 Best Healing Herbs
Science shows these herbal power-healers can help ease pain, prevent Alzheimer’s, and ward off cancer and heart disease
By Nancy Kalish
Your arsenal of home remedies is about to get a lot spicier with these best healing herbs. Though herbs have been used for hundreds of years to heal, scientists are finally starting to substantiate these plants’ abilities to alleviate arthritis pain, reduce high blood sugar and cholesterol, and help with many other conditions. They’re even discovering amazing new powers in the best healing herbs, such as the ability to kill cancer cells and help problem drinkers curb their alcohol intake.
“Herbs and other natural remedies can be as effective as traditional treatments, often without the same negative side effects,” says Roberta Lee, MD, medical director of the Continuum Center for Health and Healing at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.
Here are 10 superhealers you’ll want to add to the all-natural section of your medicine cabinet—and even to your favorite recipes! Folding one or two of them into your cooking every day can yield big benefits.
Turmeric: Ease arthritis
A heaping helping of curry could relieve your pain. That’s because turmeric, a spice used in curry, contains curcumin, a powerful anti-inflammatory that works similarly to Cox-2 inhibitors, drugs that reduce the Cox-2 enzyme that causes the pain and swelling of arthritis, says Lee.
It might also: Prevent colon cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. According to a small 2006 clinical trial conducted by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, curcumin can help shrink precancerous lesions known as colon polyps, when taken with a small amount of quercetin, a powerful antioxidant found in onions, apples, and cabbage. The average number of polyps dropped more than 60% and those that remained shrank by more than 50%. In a 2006 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, researchers at UCLA also found that curcumin helps clear the brain of the plaques that are characteristic of the disease.
Maximize the benefits: For general health, Lee recommends adding the spice to your cooking whenever possible. For a therapeutic dose, James A. Duke, PhD, author of The Green Pharmacy, suggests 400 mg of curcumin extract three times daily, right in line with what subjects in the colon polyp study took (480 mg of curcumin and 20 mg of quercetin, three times a day).
Cinnamon: Lower blood sugar
In a recent German study of type 2 diabetics, taking cinnamon extract daily successfully reduced blood sugar by about 10%.
It might also: Lower cholesterol. Cinnamon packs a one-two punch for people with type 2 diabetes by reducing related heart risks. In another study of diabetics, it slashed cholesterol by 13% and triglycerides by 23%.
Maximize the benefits: To tame blood sugar, study subjects took 1 g capsules of standardized cinnamon extract daily, while those in the cholesterol study took 1 to 6 g. But keep in mind that a large amount of the actual spice can be dangerous, so stick with a water-soluble extract. Terry Graedon, PhD, coauthor with her husband, Joe, of Best Choices from the People’s Pharmacy, recommends the brand Cinnulin PF (available in health food stores).
Rosemary: Avoid carcinogens
Frying, broiling, or grilling meats at high temperatures creates HCAs (heterocyclic amines), potent carcinogens implicated in several cancers. But HCA levels are significantly reduced when rosemary extract (a common powder) is mixed into beef before cooking, say Kansas State University researchers. “Rosemary contains carnosol and rosemarinic acid, two powerful antioxidants that destroy the HCAs,” explains lead researcher J. Scott Smith, PhD.
It might also: Stop tumors. Rosemary extract helps prevent carcinogens that enter the body from binding with DNA, the first step in tumor formation, according to several animal studies. When researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fed rosemary extract to rats exposed to dimethylbenzanthracene, a carcinogen that causes breast cancer, both DNA damage and tumors decreased. “Human research needs to be done,” says study author Keith W. Singletary, PhD. “But rosemary has shown a lot of cancer-protective potential.”
Maximize the benefits: To reduce HCAs, Smith recommends marinating foods in any supermarket spice mix that contains rosemary as well as one or more of the spices thyme, oregano, basil, garlic, onion, or parsley.
Ginger: Avert nausea
Ginger can prevent stomach upset from many sources, including pregnancy, motion sickness, and chemotherapy. “This is one of Mom’s remedies that really works,” says Suzanna M. Zick, ND, MPH, a research investigator at the University of Michigan. A powerful antioxidant, ginger works by blocking the effects of serotonin, a chemical produced by both the brain and stomach when you’re nauseated, and by stopping the production of free radicals, another cause of upset in your stomach. In one study of cruise ship passengers traveling on rough seas, 500 mg of ginger every 4 hours was as effective as Dramamine, the commonly used OTC motion-sickness medication. In another study, where subjects took 940 mg, it was even more effective than the drug.
It might also: Decrease your blood pressure, arthritis pain, and cancer risk. Ginger helps regulate blood flow, which may lower blood pressure, says Zick, and its anti-inflammatory properties might help ease arthritis. Ginger extract had a significant effect on reducing pain in all 124 patients with osteoarthritis of the knee, in a study conducted at the Miami Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the University of Miami. Those same anti-inflammatory powers help powdered ginger kill ovarian cancer cells as well as—or better than—traditional chemotherapy, at least in the test tube, found a 2006 study by the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Although further testing is needed, Zick and the study’s authors are excited about its prospects: “Our preliminary results indicate that ginger may have significant therapeutic benefit for ovarian cancerpatients.”
Maximize the benefits: For nausea, ginger is best taken before symptoms start, at least 30 minutes before departure, say the Graedons. They recommend capsules containing 500 to 1,000 mg of dried ginger every four hours, up to a maximum of 4g daily.
Holy Basil: Combat stress
Several animal studies back holy basil, a special variety of the plant you use in your pesto sauce, as effective at reducing stress by increasing adrenaline and noradrenaline and decreasing serotonin. This is no surprise to Pratima Nangia-Makker, PhD, a researcher at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, whose mother and grandmother relied on a tea made from the leaves of holy basil to relieve indigestion and headaches.
It might also: Inhibit breast cancer. First in test tubes and then in mice, a tea made of holy basil shrunk tumors, reduced their blood supply, and stopped their spread, found Nangia-Makker, who plans to study the effects in humans.
Maximize the benefits: For stress relief, try holy basil extract from New Chapter or Om Organics, widely available in health food stores. To aid in breast cancer treatment, Nangia-Makker advises drinking this tea daily: Pour 2 cups boiling water over 10 to 15 fresh holy basil leaves (other varieties of basil won’t work) and steep 5 minutes. Remove the leaves before consuming. If you are being treated for breast cancer, be sure to check with your doctor. You’re unlikely to find the plants at your local nursery, but you can order them and organic holy basil seeds from Horizon Herbs.
St. John’s Wort: Soothe your worries
You probably know that research has confirmed this herb’s power to relieve mild to moderate depression and anxiety as effectively as many drugs—without a lot of the side effects.
It might also: Help you snooze more soundly. St. John’s wort not only contains melatonin, the hormone that regulates our sleep-wake cycles, but it also increases the body’s own melatonin, improving sleep, says a report from the Surgeon General.
Maximize the benefits: For both mood and sleep problems, author Duke recommends a supplement containing at least 0.3% hypericin (the active phytochemical) per capsule or 300 mg of the extract to be taken three times daily. Warning: St. John’s wort has been shown to interact with several prescription medications, so be sure to check with your doctor before taking it.
Garlic: Lower cancer risk
High consumption of garlic lowered rates of ovarian, colorectal, and other cancers, says a 2006 research review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. A 2006 Japanese clinical trial also found that after a year of taking aged garlic extract supplements, people with a history of colon polyps saw a reduction in the size and number of the precancerous growths detected by their doctors.
It might also: Provide cardiovascular benefits. Garlic contains more than 70 active phytochemicals, including allicin, which many studies have shown decreases high blood pressure by as much as 30 points. Garlic may help prevent strokes as well by slowing arterial blockages, according to a yearlong clinical study at UCLA. In addition, patients’ levels of homocysteine, a chemical that leads to plaque buildup, dropped by 12%.
Maximize the benefits: Crushed fresh garlic offers the best cardiovascular and cancer-fighting benefits, says Duke. But you’ll need to down up to five cloves each day. Try Kyolic aged garlic extract capsules (1,000 mg), the product used in many of the studies.
3 new superhealers you should know about
1. Andrographis: Shorten Summer Colds Andrographis does a great job of relieving upper-respiratory infections, such as colds or sinusitis, says new research. A study in the journal Phytomedicine reported that the herb eased symptoms such as fatigue, sleeplessness, sore throat, and runny nose up to 90%.
Maximize the benefits: Lee and the Graedons recommend Kan Jang (available at ProActive BioProducts), an herbal extract produced by the Swedish Herbal Institute and used in several of the trials.
2. Sea Buckthorn: Reverse vaginal dryness Sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) is very effective for hydrating mucous membranes and alleviating vaginal dryness. It contains palmitoleic acid, a fatty acid found in human skin that helps moisturize and heal it.
Maximize the benefits: Lee suggests up to four capsules a day of Supercritical Omega 7, a sea buckthorn supplement by New Chapter. It’s available at health food stores.
3. Kudzu: Curb problem drinking A group of moderately heavy drinkers in their 20s voluntarily cut their beer consumption in half after taking capsules containing the Chinese herb (also called Pueraria lobata) for a week, according to a study published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Researchers say the kudzu more quickly allows alcohol to get to the part of the brain that tells you that you’ve had enough.
Maximize the benefits: Participants took capsules with 500 mg of kudzu extract three times daily.
Rules for the safest self-healing
Natural substances often work like drugs in the body, say Joe and Terry Graedon. They suggest following these precautions.
Rule: Don’t assume it’s safe. Herbs are not regulated by the FDA for safety or efficacy. So search the label for a seal of approval from the USP (United States Pharmacopeia) or CL (Consumer-Lab.com), which indicates it has been approved by certified academic laboratories. For a fee, you can research particular products at ConsumerLab.com.
Rule: Talk with your doctor. It’s best to tell him if you’re considering supplements. Some herbs can interact with certain meds, including those for high blood pressure, diabetes, and depression, as well as blood thinners and even OTC drugs.
Rule: Don’t overdo it. More isn’t necessarily better—and could be dangerous. Always follow dosing instructions.
Published November 2011, Prevention | Updated May 2013