Not long ago, American herbalists had to rely on folklore and anecdote. There was little clinical data on herbs and what did exist was mostly published in German. But researchers (and translators) have been busy of late, and we now have proof that herbs are viable treatments for many ailments.
"Herbs won't replace pharmaceuticals, but the research shows that--for many conditions--herbs work well, are cheaper than drugs. and cause fewer side effects," says Mary Hardy, M.D., medical director of the integrative medicine program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "Herbs aren't quite mainstream, but they're moving in that direction. Patients are interested in them and doctors are increasingly familiar with herb research.
"Twenty years ago, there was no integrative program at Cedars-Sinai" she adds. "Now there is. That says something."
Here, then, are 10 proven herbal treatments. Stick to the dose specified in the studies or on the product label. When making teas use 1 to 2 teaspoons of herb per cup of boiling water, steeped for 10 minutes. Tell your physician about any herbs you plan on using, especially if you're pregnant or nursing, have a chronic medical condition or take medication regularly.
(1) Aloe Vera for Burns
Sometimes studies tell us what we already know. Aloe vera is the herb for minor burns, a fact that was confirmed most recently in the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand. Keep a potted aloe on your kitchen sill; it requires no care beyond weekly watering. For minor burns, snip off a thick leaf and slit it open; scoop out the gel from the inner leaf and apply to the burn.
(2) Black Cohosh for Menopause
The Algonquin Indians used black cohosh to treat gynecological ills, and it was a key part of Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, sold in the 1870s to treat "female complaints and weaknesses." In a recent German study on menopausal hot flashes, subjects were given estrogen, a Valium-like tranquilizer or black cohosh (Remifemin, two tablets twice a day). The herb, which is an option for women who can't take estrogen, worked best. "The vast majority of studies show benefit," says Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council.
(3) Boswellia for Arthritis and Joint Injuries
Did the three wise men suffer aches and pains from their long camel ride? Luckily, they had frankincense, aka boswellia, a traditional Ayurvedic medicine for arthritis and joint injuries. In a study published in Alternative and Complementary Therapies, Egyptian researchers gave people with osteoarthritis of the knee boswellia and turmeric or a placebo. After three months, the herb group showed significantly greater relief from knee swelling.
(4) Chamomile for Digestive Problems
"Chamomile tea, perhaps the best-known herbal tisane, is widely employed as a digestive remedy throughout Europe, and its therapeutic use is well documented," says David Hoffman, author of Medical Herbalism. The herb relaxes spasms of the smooth muscles and counters inflammation in the gut lining; it also has antiseptic and vasodilatory effects. Allergic reactions are possible, especially if you're sensitive to ragweed.
(5) Chaste Tree for Premenstrual Syndrome
It won't preserve virginity, but chaste tree has hormonal effects that minimize monthly symptoms. When 1,634 German PMS sufferers took chaste tree, 93 percent reported benefit. In tests against two other popular treatments, vitamin B6 and Prozac, the herb worked as well as the drug and better than the vitamin. "Chaste tree is the best herb for PMS," says James A. Duke, Ph.D., author of The Green Pharmacy. "It's safe and the studies are convincing. "Just be patient: It can take three months to experience benefit. Some women report stomach distress, headache and increased menstrual flow.
(6) Coffee for Athletic Stamina
The caffeine in coffee or tea stimulates not only alertness (and jitters and insomnia), but also athletic performance. Korean researchers at the Institute for Elderly Health in Seoul asked athletes to ride stationary cycles until they felt exhausted--before and after drinking the equivalent of one tall Starbucks coffee. After their java break, they were able to ride significantly longer.
(7) Coffee for Pain Relief
Anacin and Excedrin claim that their "extra ingredient" provides greater pain relief. What is it? Caffeine. Many reports, including one in the Archives of Internal Medicine, have shown that adding about 65 milligrams of caffeine to aspirin, ibuprofen or acetaminophen increases pain relief by around 40 percent. Caffeine blocks pain perception, has pain-relieving action, and elevates mood, which also helps minimize pain. Next time you have a headache, wash down your favorite pain pill with coffee or tea for more relief.
(8) Coffee as a Decongestant in Colds, Flu and Asthma
Caffeine opens narrowed bronchial tubes, according to Joe and Teresa Graedon, authors of The People's Pharmacy. According to a report in the Annals of Epidemiology, the odds of experiencing current asthma symptoms were reduced 29 percent for subjects who drank coffee on a regular basis when compared with non-coffee drinkers.
(9) Cranberry for Urinary-Tract Infection
Cranberry prevents bacteria from sticking to the bladder wall long enough to cause an infection. Finnish researchers divided 150 recurrent UTI sufferers into three groups. One drank cranberry juice (50 milliliters a day). Another took Lactobacillus. The third took nothing. After six months, 36 percent of the no-treatment group and 39 percent of the Lactobacillus group reported at least one recurrence. Of the juice drinkers, only 16 percent had recurrences. Other options are dried cranberries (Craisins) and cranberry-extract capsules. "I recommend cranberry for UTI," Duke says. "But if you drink the juice, you have to drink a lot. It's usually easier to munch on the dried berries or take capsules."
(10) Echinacea for Colds and Flu
The root of this daisy-like flower revs up the immune system. According to an analysis by University of Wisconsin researchers, in eight of nine studies evaluating echinacea for upper-respiratory infections, the herb reduced symptoms and accelerated recovery compared with placebos. "As soon as I feel a cold coming on, I take it--and my cold is mild and brief," says Duke. Echinacea is available in teas and capsules, though most herbalists prefer tinctures. Liquid echinacea products may cause temporary, harmless numbing or tingling of the tongue; minor stomach upset is possible with tinctures.