22 healing herbs
Ancient healing, modern medicine
Herbal medicine is the most ancient form of healthcare in the world. The use of plants or plant parts to treat illness and restore health is a part of human history around the globe. Herbal medicine in its modern manifestations, though, is more than just the medicinal use of plants. It encompasses a philosophy that focuses on treating the individual as a whole, rather than just their symptoms, by stimulating the body’s natural healing powers.
The World Health Organization estimates that, today, more than 75 per cent of the world’s population uses herbal medicine as primary healthcare. Even beyond this, almost a quarter of all modern prescription drugs, including aspirin, are derived from plant sources.
Yet, while modern medicine seeks to analyse plants to find their “active” constituents, in the Western world there is a swing back to the herbal medicines that have shaped our medical past. So how can you harness the healing power of herbs in your life? Here’s our quick guide to 22 herbs that can do good things for you and those you love.
The healing properties of herbs can be used in a variety of ways. The following table highlights the ways in which you can make use of herbal medicines.
|A cloth soaked in a water-based herbal preparation, then applied to an affected area of the skin
|Bark, twigs or roots of a plant boiled in water
|Dried or powdered herbs placed into tablets or capsules
|Leaves or flowers of a plant soaked in boiled water to make a herbal tea
|A hot or cold oil infused with a herb for a period of time
|A herb soaked in alcohol and water for a period of time, then placed on a wound or infected area of the skin
|A combination of herbs, oils, fats and water
|A mixture of fresh, dried or powdered herbs applied directly to wounds or problem areas
One of Cleopatra’s secret beauty ingredients, the clear gel inside aloe leaves can promote new skin growth, soften skin and heal minor cuts and burns, including sunburn, while preventing infection. Used for more than 2500 years as a gel straight from the leaves of the plant, aloe vera is now used commercially as an ingredient in sunburn lotions, moisturisers, antiseptics and shampoos. It’s also taken in a drink, usually mixed with water, citric acid, fruit juices and preservatives, to soothe the digestive system, protect against ulcers and ease constipation and arthritis.
A proven remedy for reducing swelling and relieving the pain of bruises and sprains, arnica may not be used for internal use in Australia. Used externally, it can be applied in tincture, ointment, infusion, compress, poultice, oil or tea form. During the 16th century, a North American tribe called the Cataulsa used arnica in tea form as a remedy for back pain. To relieve bruising, arnica cream is a must in your medicine cabinet.
A traditional Native American remedy used extensively to treat women’s conditions, this herb contains phytoestrogen-like chemicals that can ease menopausal symptoms, premenstrual anxiety, mood swings and menstrual pain. Black cohosh is currently most popular for managing symptoms of menopause. It’s also used to ease arthritic and rheumatic pain from inflammation. The fresh or dried roots of this plant can be taken as a decoction, tablet, tincture or tea.
The leaves and berries of this plant have been known to successfully treat many ailments. Traditionally, a tea made with blueberry leaves was considered useful in treating diarrhoea, diabetes, urinary tract infections and poor appetite, and was a prized commodity among the indigenous people of North America. Prepared by combining one cup of boiling water and 5-10 grams of dried leaves, a cup of blueberry tea can be taken 3-6 times a day, depending on the ailment, and blueberry can also be prepared in tincture form.
This plant’s leaves and flowers contain natural antifungal agents, making it a first-aid treatment for wounds, burns, bruises and sprains. It’s so effective that, during the American civil war, doctors on the battlefield used it to treat open wounds. An anti-inflammatory, stimulant and diuretic, calendula aids many ailments. Applied externally to the skin in ointment form, it can help heal nappy rash, varicose veins, cuts and grazes, chilblains, fungal infections and insect stings. Taken as a tincture or infusion, it can aid period pain, digestive irritation and infection.
Worshipped by the ancient Egyptians, chamomile has been used for centuries to treat gastrointestinal complaints. Commonly served as a tea after meals to relieve indigestion, the plant’s fresh or dried flowers are also used on the skin, mouth and gums to ease bacterial infections. Inhaling chamomile’s scent can reduce inflammation or irritation of the respiratory system, while bathing in it soothes anal and genital swelling, and rubbing it into sore muscles combats inflammation and relieves pain. Prepared as an infusion, ointment or oil, chamomile can ease irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), eczema, teething problems in babies, bronchitis and asthma.
Dandelion has been used to remedy liver, gallbladder and kidney problems since the Middle Ages. It has also been considered a blood purifier and used to treat eczema and cancer. The entire plant can be used: the leaves as a diuretic and the roots as a choleretic acting on the gallbladder and liver. It helps to eliminate gall and kidney stones and replace lost potassium. Dandelion can be taken in tea form (dried leaves) or as a coffee substitute by drying, roasting and grinding its roots. The fresh sap of the plant can be applied to warts daily, for several weeks, to remove them.
Many studies indicate that, in the right dosage and using the appropriate parts of the herb, echinacea will reduce the incidence of colds and flu by stimulating the immune system. At least three distinct species of echinacea are used in modern herbal medicine, and different parts of the plant are used, depending on the species. As well as fighting colds, echinacea can be applied as a poultice to wounds and burns to ward off infection and stimulate healing. The antibacterial and antiviral properties of the plant’s roots, stem, flowers and seeds can also assist in remedying chronic fatigue, allergies, herpes and acne. Echinacea can be used as a cream, in tablet form or gargled as a decoction.
A folk remedy for fevers, anaemia, spasms and dyspepsia, the leaves and aerial parts of this plant are used today to reduce the severity and frequency of headaches, particularly migraine. A pain-relieving anti-rheumatic, this feathery-leafed plant can be taken in tablet or tincture form, or by chewing on fresh leaves or making them into a tea. One leaf a day can be chewed, but as the taste can be quite bitter, many prefer to take feverfew in tablet form to relieve period pain and the pain of joint inflammation as well as fever, migraine and childbirth.
Since biblical times, garlic has been used to treat respiratory problems, poor digestion and low energy. Pyramid builders and Roman soldiers were fed daily rations of garlic and, today, studies show it helps protect the stomach, reduce the risk of heart disease and, due to the anti-clotting agent it contains, reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. Garlic also lowers bad (LDL) cholesterol levels. The bulbs of this herb are also used to treat sinusitis, chest infections, acne and digestive infections. Garlic can be eaten raw or cooked or taken in tablet form.
Studies show that the high levels of ginger oil contained in the plant’s bulbs can ease nausea, boost the immune system’s ability to fight infection, relieve headaches and help prevent blood clots that trigger heart attacks and strokes. Ginger is an anti-inflammatory, circulation stimulant and digestive tonic. Ginger aids travel sickness, morning sickness, indigestion, arthritis, and high blood pressure. It is typically prepared in oil, tincture, infusion or tablet form, but simply sucking on fresh ginger root can be a great nausea remedy.
The oldest surviving tree species on Earth, gingko is a relic of the dinosaur age. It can increase blood flow to the brain, speeding recovery from stroke and improving memory, and boost blood flow to the heart and penis, possibly relieving impotence in some men. Containing antioxidants, anti-allergic and anti-inflammatory agents as well as circulation stimulants, the leaves of the ginkgo plant are used to counteract ageing, poor circulation and dementia. It’s taken in tablet, tincture or infusion form. Ginkgo nuts are eaten as a delicacy but do not have medicinal benefits, though there is a traditional belief that they can relieve hangover.
Evidence suggests ginseng may help the body resist stress-induced illness through its adaptogenic action. This means that by a variety of mechanisms it acts to help the body adapt to stress and restore health. Those mechanisms include stimulating the immune system, reducing cholesterol levels, protecting the liver from toxic substances, increasing stamina and improving nutrient absorption in the intestine. In the days of the Soviet Union, ginseng was used by Russian cosmonauts and soldiers to reduce stress and improve performance. Ginseng can treat nervous exhaustion, depression, poor memory, chronic fatigue and jet lag. It’s most effective when taken in decoction, tablet or tincture form in the early part of the day.
Since the late 19th century, herbalists have been using the flowers and bright red berries of the hawthorn plant in the form of tablets, decoction and liquid tincture to treat a variety of health ailments. An impressive herb, hawthorn assists in maintaining a healthy heart and can increase blood flow. It works by dilating the blood vessels, especially those nearest the heart. An antioxidant and relaxant that improves circulation, this herb is used by professionals to ease angina and coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, poor memory, nervous tension and insomnia.
Hops has been used in beer making for more than 10,000 years and has also been noted in the records of Jews’ captivity in Babylon before 200AD. A distant relative of nettle and cannabis, this herbal relaxant is typically effective in treating cases of insomnia, moodiness, restlessness and anxiety, and can be ingested as a tea or sewn into a small cushion and placed under a pillow at night to help induce sleep.
Used for mummification and perfume by the Egyptians, and for bathing, cooking and scenting the air by the Romans, this pleasant herb also acts as an insect repellent. A common folk remedy that has been recognised for 2500 years, lavender is often used as an essential oil and is also commonly sewn into pillows. Known for their sedative powers, lavender flowers can be used to soothe mood disturbances such as a nervous stomach, flatulence, restlessness and insomnia, and can also act as a germ fighter.
Meadowsweet is one of the three most sacred plants used by Celtic Druids and the flower that regularly adorned the apartment of Queen Elizabeth I. This herb is one of the best digestive remedies available. An effective treatment for nausea, hyperacidity, heartburn and peptic ulceration, it contains salicin, which, once in the stomach, converts into salicylic acid, the main ingredient in aspirin. Meadowsweet is less irritating to the stomach than aspirin and is best taken as a tea three times a day.
Taking its name from the Hebrew murr or maror, meaning “bitter”, this perfumed herb was, in biblical times, used on corpses to disguise the stench during burial preparations. Also noted in the Bible as one of the gifts made to baby Jesus, myrrh is today used as a topical treatment for skin infections, mouth inflammation, tooth decay and gum disease, and is an ingredient in some perfumes and toothpastes. Achieving its antimicrobial action by stimulating production of white blood cells as well as having a direct antimicrobial effect, myrrh can also help with boils, glandular fever and bronchitis.
In ancient times, the Incas used this herb to brew a tonic tea. Today, the aerial parts and flowers of passionflower can be effective in the treatment of anxiety, stress, insomnia, cramps, toothache, menstrual pain and headache. Typically used to calm nerves and ease restlessness, passionflower is generally prepared in the form of a tablet, tincture or infusion, and acts as a tranquilliser, sedative and antispasmodic. A cup of passionflower tea before going to bed at night can work as an anti-insomniac.
The berries of this plant are used to aid urinary tract problems associated with an enlarged prostate. Saw palmetto has two actions in this regard. It helps to strengthen the neck of the bladder and blocks the production of hormones that encourage prostate growth. This is why saw palmetto is so effective for older men who are experiencing urinary difficulty as a result of a benignly enlarged prostate. It increases urine flow and reduces the need for evening urination. It can be taken in tablet, infusion or decoction form.
Dating back to the 2nd century AD, this herb’s leaves and berries were used by Native Americans as a weight-loss aid and to treat infections in any part of the body. Used today predominantly to treat bladder infections, this herb contains a powerful antiseptic that’s activated in the urinary tract. Once there, it kills bacteria, removes infectious materials, reduces inflammation and potentially strengthens the urinary tract lining. It can be taken in infusion, powder or tincture form. To create a moderate infusion, pour half a litre of boiling water over 28g of the finely cut or coarsely powdered herb and let it steep for 20 minutes. Alternatively, soak the leaves in cold water for 6-12 hours. You should ingest these infusions for 3-4 days.
Studies show this herb has similar tranquillising and sedative properties to valium, but without side-effects such as dizziness and blurred vision. Recommended by the Greek physician, Dioscorides, valerian has been a common medicinal treatment for centuries and became an accepted sedative for treating nervous disorders associated with a restless digestive tract by the 18th century. The roots and bulb can be taken in tablet, decoction, tincture or tea form and can relieve urinary tract disorders, high blood pressure, digestive problems, liver ailments, stress, neuralgia and cramps. The tea can smell like old socks but is an excellent promoter of a good night’s sleep.