For more than a million years we humans have lived with herbs. We’ve cooked with them, healed with them, scented our homesand sanctified our prayers with them. On a molecular level, our body recognizes a herb when we take it. Unlike taking a chemical or drug, our body responds to herbs as though they are old friends. When you get to know the nature of a specific plant it enhances your life immeasurably. You can come to know a herb the way a woman knows her lover. When the spirit of a plant meets the spirit of a human you can expect magic. Thanks both to traditional practices and recent scientific discoveries, we now know that certain plants can work wonders for the human body.
The classic definition of a herb is a non-woody plant which dies down to its roots each winter. This definition is far too limiting. It was probably made up by 19th Century European botanists who had never seen the rainforest in which, of course, there is no winter to die back in. Neither had they ever heard of woody trees and shrubs such as hawthorn, ginko and elder which are some of the best selling herbs on the market these days. I define a herb as a medicinal plant. It can come from any climate and be a leaf, a bark, a flower or a root. It can be home-grown or wild, a weed, a spice, a plant, which is used for its healing or culinary or beautifying properties. Here are a few simple herbs that can be fun and fruitful to explore:
The cool, slippery gel oozed out of a leaf of the aloe cactus has been used for almost 3000 years to treat burns and cuts and to undo the devastating effects of too much exposure to the sun. Recent studies show that phyto substances from the aloe actually penetrate damaged tissue encouraging healing and increasing blood flow while easing inflammation and pain.
The Ancient Chinese said so. They spent a fortune on this strange looking man-root. They still do. Thousands of years ago ginseng was taken in order to extend life, to sharpen sexual functioning, to bring clarity to the brain and energy to the body. Russian and German scientists have carried out lengthy studies into the effects of ginseng on humans and animals and concluded that it does indeed sharpen the brain and shorten reaction time. It also improves concentration and helps protect you from damage caused by exposure to long-term stress.
The ancient Greeks—including Pliny as far back as the first century AD—insisted that this smelly plant banishes worms and coughs. By now there have been more than 2,500 studies confirming its anti-microbial properties and its usefulness in warding off flu and colds not to mention its ability to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels which are too high, and to help clear yeast infections.
Its very name comes from the Latin conferta which means ‘grow together’. In 400BC the Greek physician Dioscorides praised comfrey for its ability to stop heavy bleeding and clear bronchial infections. Science confirms that comfrey is rich in the healing compound allantoin which enhances tissue growth and cell multiplication. That is why you so often find it added to ointments and face creams.
A core remedy in the Chinese pharmacopoeia for nausea and gentle cleansing, the deliciously hot ginger plant has been used for more than 1500 years by wise women healers in Europe for tummy upsets. Many scientific studies confirm that it helps travel sickness. Some even show it helps morning sickness in pregnancy—in part because it has the ability to calm excess acid in the stomach and improve digestion.
Eccentric English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper was always singing the praises of this cheerful daisy-like plant with its lacy leaves. It was, he claimed, ‘effectual for all pains in the head.’ Recent studies carried out in Britain and elsewhere confirm that he knew what he was talking about. Feverfew can reduce both the frequency and the intensity of migraine.
Once you discover the power of herbs it is easy to become so enthusiastic about them you go overboard trying to use them for everything. It is not wise to take lots of different plants all at the same time. Or you might start to think that since a small amount of something is good for you, taking twice or three times that amount will be even better. It isn’t. If you want safe and sane herbal help here are a few guidelines to follow:
Herbs occasionally interact with conventional drugs. Be sure to tell your doctor that you intend to try a herbal remedy.
If you want to use herbs to treat a serious medical condition, find yourself a good medical herbalist to work with. Don’t do it yourself.
Take no more than recommended dosages of a herb or combination. If you notice any adverse reaction, stop right away.
Use only the very best herbs whether they be fresh, dried, teas, tinctures, extracts, or capsules.
Give plants enough time to work. Many herbs, such as St John’s Wort and Wild Yam, are slow to build beneficial effects on the body. Look to six weeks for results.