12 Essential Herbs

Follow this expert advice to use herbs safely and effectively.

| April/May 2006

Do you use herbal medicine? Whether you’re aware of it, the answer is yes. “Ironically, even vocal critics use medicinal herbs all the time, usually without realizing it,” says Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council, a nonprofit herb education organization.

That’s because many foods have medicinal properties, from ginger, which helps soothe upset stomachs, to garlic, which can help control cholesterol and reduce the risk of some cancers. It’s also true that an estimated 25 percent of todays pharmaceutical drugs have plant origins. That includes aspirin, which originally came from white willow bark, and the cancer drug Taxol, which is derived from the Pacific yew tree.

Herbs are also the most popular form of alternative medicine in the United States, according to a recent Harvard study which found that 38 million Americans collectively spend $4.2 billion on herbal medicine every year. Understanding more about how medicinal herbs work can help people treat common ailments more effectively.

Herbs Hiding in Plain Sight

One reason we don’t recognize many herbal medicines is that they’re already so familiar to us. For example, coffee is an herbal medicine, a powerful stimulant thanks to the caffeine it contains. In addition to being America’s favorite pick-me-up, coffee also opens your bronchial passages, according to botanist James Duke, author of The Green Pharmacy. Coffee can help treat the chest congestion of the common cold and asthma, Duke says. Recent studies show that coffee also may help prevent gallstones and Parkinson’s disease, and that it boosts the pain-relieving power of ibuprofen.

Two other popular drinks, Coca-Cola and ginger ale, have medicinal uses both can calm upset stomachs. Coke, developed by Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton in 1886, contains an extract of the tropical cola nut, which was widely used in the 19th century to improve digestion, reduce fatigue, strengthen the heart and even treat alcoholism. As for ginger ale, recent studies show that ginger helps prevent the nausea and vomiting of motion sickness.

"Ginger is the herb for nausea," says Linda White, a physician and co-author of Kids, Herbs and Health. "I use it and give it to my kids."

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