The oldest and most widespread form of medicine is the use of herbs to treat pain, inflammation, cuts, disease, and the many other ills that can damage the human body. For many plants, every part is used; for others, an extract or tincture of specific portions is called for instead. Thousands of indigenous plants all over the world have been used by every human culture for tens of thousands of years; the earliest evidence for herbal medicine was found in a Neandertal grave site dating 60,000 years ago. And many of the pharmaceuticals we use today have been derived from plant products; for instance, aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid, found in willowbark and a few other painkilling plants.
Through thousands of years of trial and error, bodies of knowledge about what plants treat what ailments and how to prepare them have been collected and passed down, sometimes through family lines and sometimes from teacher to student. Until the Egyptians and Greeks started writing these treatments down, they were almost universally preserved through human memory and oral tradition.
Today, our modern world lives far from these herbal healers; instead of going to the local wise woman or wise man to treat your fever, we go to the doctor. Many medical professionals, from physicians to pharmacists, discount the efficacy of these treatments; one must, however, question why our ancestors used them to such great effect. The only problems with herbal medications that work are that it’s hard to get the dosage just right, and that some of them may interact with pharmaceutical medications you’re taking.
The ones I’m going to list here, however, are safe and will not interact with anything unless I say otherwise.
Aloe vera: Your Skin’s Friend
Aloe vera plants are easy to grow, hard to kill, and provide a variety of benefits to those who use them. For instance, aloe leaves split in half and placed on a cleaned cut or burn act as a painkiller, anti-inflammatory, and antibiotic bandage; in one study, burns that were treated in this way healed six days faster than burns simply cleaned and wrapped in gauze. The gel exposed when you split the aloe leaf can also be rubbed over a sunburn or irritated skin (for instance, an eczema breakout or an allergic rash) to soothe and cool the skin and help promote healing.
Though you may hear that aloe, taken internally, has a variety of positive effects, the only proven one is as a purgative (laxative and, in high doses, emetic). It also may have serious side effects. You should not use it internally until it has been better studied.
Foods That Are Medicines
Artichokes and similar plants reduce cholesterol levels. Garlic lowers cholesterol, reduces blood pressure and the chance of blood clots, and is an antibacterial. Honey has long been used as an antibiotic, externally, and to treat sore throat internally. Turmeric may be a powerful cancer treatment. Cranberries are very good for your kidneys and bladder, and may be good for warding off or even healing a urinary tract infection.
There are hundreds of other examples, from olive oil (acts as an anti-inflammatory and increases your good cholesterol) to the capsaicin in peppers which increases endorphins and decreases your chances of getting a blood clot. If you read up on the foods that are best for you, it’s possible to create a diet centered completely around foods that have positive medicinal effects.
St. John’s Wort
It’s not a miracle drug, though a lot of its users and proponents seem to think it is. But St. John’s wort has brought comfort and healing to a lot of people with its ability to alleviate mild to moderate depression with few side effects.
St. John’s wort is one of those herbal medicines you must disclose to your doctor. If you’re taking any other antidepressant medications, it can interact with your St. John’s wort and cause some very negative effects, including making your depression worse.
It’s also not going to make you feel better right away. It takes about two weeks to a month for your system to have enough St. John’s wort to improve your symptoms. This means that you should only take it for chronic depression, and only if you’re not taking another antidepressant. You should never take too much; it won’t make it act any faster, and can actually deepen your depression.
A lot of people take Kava along with St. John’s wort because Kava is a mild euphoric, but Kava should only be taken short-term; it has some very negative and even disfiguring side effects if you take it habitually.
Teas For Health
Black tea, green tea, peppermint tea, chamomile tea – there are hundreds of teas on the shelves of grocery stores and health food stores that claim positive effects on your health. The physical properties of teas are naturally calming and help clear your head; the warmth and steam are soothing in the winter.
But not all teas are as great as they claim. Recent studies indicate that green tea doesn’t have many of the properties it’s supposed to have, and chamomile, often cited for its ability to boost the immune system, has very limited effects. However, peppermint teas have been shown to improve mood, temporarily clear sinuses, and sooth the digestive tract.
The rule on teas is to drink them if you enjoy them. Some of them have the effects they claim, and others don’t. The problem with off-the-shelf teas, however, is that they are processed, dried, and often much too old. Teas prepared at a really good health food store on the spot have a better chance of being efficacious.
Herbs Are Safe – Right?
A long time ago, a Greek philosopher took a draft of an herbal drink. It killed him, as it was intended to. Hemlock in small doses acts as a sedative and antispasmodic (stops seizures); in just a slightly too high dose, though, it paralyzes the diaphragm, causing the person taking it to stop breathing.
You should never assume that an herb is safe. Most medicines are poisons, taken in overly high doses. That goes for every medicinal herb, even the foods. And if you take an herb with pharmaceuticals, they can interact badly, or the effects of both can add up to cause an overdose. Medicinal interactions of all kinds are between the sixth and fourth most common cause of death in America, and probably have a similar level in many other countries.
Medicinal herbs are real medicines, and effective treatments for illness. But they must be approached with respect. Tell your doctor about them, and if you start having bad side effects, stop taking them, just as you would with a pharmaceutical drug.