Note: This is part one, click here for part two!
Just think, it wasn't too long ago when herbs were simply a substance added to food to improve its flavor. Today about one-third of all Americans use herbal supplements to improve their health. In fact, the sales of herbal preparations nearly tripled between 1994 and 1998 increasing from 1.6 billion dollars to 4 billion dollars in sales. For quite some time herbs were considered an obsolete form of medicine and pushed aside in favor of chemically produced drugs. Most people don't realize that half of the drugs used today are artificial recreations of natural plant derived chemicals. For example, Aspirin is nothing more than the chemical imitation of salicin, a substance that comes from the bark of the white willow tree.
So why are herbs suddenly becoming so popular? It is because people are starting to learn that pharmaceutical drugs are not the wonders that they have been touted as. Many drugs are now becoming useless thanks to overuse and the constant adaptation of pathogens to these drugs. People are also becoming aware of the often dangerous and counteractive side-effects of many OTC (over-the-counter) and prescription remedies. Antacids, for example, are one the most widely used OTC drugs available even though they actually cause stomach irritation and eventually lead to worse indigestion.
Yes, it turns out that medicine is no longer about preventing problems or aiding in optimum health. It has become an industry built on money. Just turn on your television on watch the ads for drugs flash by like those for candy; nowadays there is no difference. We wait to get sick, we buy the drugs that are wrapped in the prettiest packaging, and we pop our pills according to the manufacturer's greed. At least, that is how it used to be.
I am noticing now a change among people, both common and nutrition enthusiast alike, from accepting sickness as inevitable and being more than happy to take an Aspirin a day to realizing that real medicine is in prevention. The reason herbs aren't pursued and well known like drugs is because they are not profitable; herbs, existing in nature as they do, cannot be patented. Why not take an herb to stay healthy than a drug (most likely with side-effects) when you are sick?
I want to add a quick warning before getting into more detail about herbs. This article is not intended as an aid for self-diagnosis. If you are on any sort of medication, do not quick taking it on account of what I have written. If you are going through any form of treatment or are experiencing any sort of health malady, check with a professional before making any drastic changes. I am not a doctor. I am writing this article as a source of information for those who are interested in getting to know more about herbs and how to incorporate their wondrous properties into daily life, be it general health or athletic improvement.
What Are Herbs?
An herb is defined as: 1. A plant whose stem does not produce woody, persistent tissue and generally dies back at the end of each growing season. 2. Any of various, often aromatic plants used especially in medicine or as seasoning. The use of the word herb for this article will pertain to any plant-derived substance that can be used as a beneficial aid. Considering there are approximately 380,000 known species of plants with several hundred thousand yet to be discovered, there is a large potential for useful herbs.
Currently there are 260,000 plants known as higher plants which are plants that contain chlorophyll and create energy through photosynthesis. Every plant from the higher plant group has potential to be medicinal. Sadly, only ten percent of these plants have been studied for medicinal value and at the rate of development that everyday destroys more of the Amazon, we may never see the value of some plants.
The active ingredients from an herbal supplement may come from one or many plant components including roots, leaves, bark, fruit, flowers, stems, and seeds. There are scores of herbs that exert pharmacological effects ranging from targeted therapy on a specific organ to uses as a general tonic with systemic influence. Existent also are some herbs, such as Ginseng, that are known as adaptogens. The term adaptogen refers to all natural plant substances that, even in large quantities, produce few to no adverse side effects. Like the name suggests, adaptogens have a tonic effect on the body and aid in the adaptation to many types of nonspecific stressors, increase the efficiency of the healing system, and help neutralize the effects of overtraining, promote wellness, and speed recovery.
Although herbs are all natural and the majority of them are safe, that doesn't mean one can use them indiscriminately. Remember that herbs can potentially be very strong medicine and like prescription drugs, they have the ability to be dangerous in excess and to react negatively when combined with other substances. One must also keep in mind personal allergies. I'm not saying you need to worry about seasoning that famous sauce with a fresh culinary herb like basil or thyme (only about 1 percent of plants are actually poisonous), just be very aware of what you are ingesting and how high the recommended dose is.
The process of making herbal preparations is quite time consuming. You can grow your own herbs or search for them in the wild. Once you get a hold of what you are looking for, much effort is to be exerted in making the needed remedy. Even then, you must be aware of the many variables that can change the composition of the herb itself such as climate and location. In short, effectively creating an herbal preparation requires much experience and know-how; one must be nothing short of a master.
Nowadays, we can purchase herbs that are pre-prepared in easy-to-use forms usually grown in controlled environments and/or standardized to a specific amount of the active herbal constituent/s. What this means is that a reputable company will usually offer a guaranteed potency level of their herbal supplement and ensure that all products are uniform in composition. This effectively takes this guess work out of using herbs. If an herbal supplement does not list a standardization level then don't bother buying it. Some un-standardized herbal supplements have been shown to contain absolutely zero active ingredients. To be even surer of the product in question, check for certification by an outside laboratory.
All prepared herbs, dry or otherwise prepared, should be obtained as fresh as possible. To be sure your herbs are still effective buy them from a store that has frequent turnover and check for expiration dates. As a rule, unopened containers of capsules and tablets are generally good for about two years. When it comes to dosages, everyone is different. To safely find how much of an herbal preparation you can handle, start with a low dose and gradually work your way to higher dosages while paying close attention to bodily changes. Remember that some herbs are quite safe when used for a short period of time but can become dangerous in instances of long-term use. Use herbal remedies (medicines) only as long as you need to.
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Ways Of Preparation
Capsules and Tablets:
This is definitely the most common form of herbal supplement accounting for nearly two-thirds of all herb sales. Usually the dried herb is put in a capsule or tablet with specific directions for use on the products label. Sometimes there will be an herbal extract in liquid form with a capsule. The usual dose is 2-3 tabs or caps, 2-3 time daily.
These are liquid herbal preparations usually made by soaking herbs in an alcohol and water mixture. If you need to avoid alcohol, there are alcohol-free extracts on the market. The extract will usually come in either a bottle with a dropper for measuring dosages or a number of vials that are each one serving. Keep in mind that homeopathic extracts are significantly stronger than conventional ones and should only be used with advice from a homeopathic practitioner.
Dried herbs are sometimes pulverized into a powder which is to be mixed with water swallowed. Often times these drinks have the bitter taste of the herb and can either be sweetened with honey or one can buy empty gelatin capsules and cap the powder by hand to forego the taste.
Usually these herbs will be sold in large, airtight, glass bottles in bulk. At home, these herbs should be stored the same way in a cool, dark area. With these bulk herbs one can either cap them in gelatin capsules and swallow as needed or brew a tea by submerging one tablespoon of the herb in hot water and straining it when the infusion is complete. Drink the tea hot or store leftovers in the fridge to be reheated later.
Some dried herbs may be sold in tea-bag form to be steeped just like any other tea. The difference between the medicinal tea found in health food stores and teas found in supermarkets is the potency; actual medicinal teas pack some real power and should only be used as directed.
A nutraceutical is a food that has been fortified with several ingredients like herbs, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Nutraceuticals take several forms from MRP's to juice or cereal. Usually herbal additives to these products are usually very diluted and ineffective or at least pose no threat of negative side-effects.
Combination Herbal Products:
Many herbs are known for their synergism with other herbs. Often times they will be combined in a single preparation in specific ratios to enhance effectiveness. A good example of this is the well known ECA stack which usually combines the herbs Ma Huang, Guarana, and White Willow Bark.
Creams and Ointments:
Many herbs have been shown to be quite beneficial when used externally. Herbal creams are usually used in reducing joint pain or alleviating skin problems or irritations. It has been my experience that these products work well and are usually free of adverse effects. Sometimes, however, these creams and ointments have potent ingredients and should be used with caution.
Personal Care Products:
This includes many things like soap, toothpaste, lotions, deodorants, perfumes, toothpicks and various other products. These are usually all-natural products with any number of herbs added for their beneficial properties as related to the product's purpose. I have found that these products are generally very effective and pose a good alternative to the common chemical laden personal care products that are sold; especially when you know just how bad those chemical additives are.
Some Popular Herbs
(Withania somnifera) is considered the Indian Ginseng and according to Ayurveda, it is an adaptogen that facilitates learning and memory. A study in India involving fifty people suffering from long term lethargy and fatigue were given an adaptogenic tonic containing eleven herbs including ashwagandha. The patients did not respond to vitamin and mineral supplements and didn't have any recognizable diseases. After taking the ashwagandha based tonic for one month, the patients reported a 45% improvement in mood. Blood-plasma-protein and hemoglobin levels also increased significantly which shows an overall improvement in health.
In the adaptogenic and anabolic effects of ashwagandha compared to ginseng were measured in a test involving groups rats and mice that were given an extract of ginseng, an extract of ashwagandha, or saline for seven days. On day eight the endurance of the animals was tested through swimming. The ginseng group swam for 62.55 minutes, the ashwagandha group swam for 82.14 minutes, and the saline group swam for 35.34 minutes. This suggests that ashwagandha may be a potent adaptogen than Ginseng and may increase an athlete's endurance.
(Uncaria tomentosa) grows in South America and is known for its immune enhancing abilities and anti-inflammatory properties. Cat's Claw is often used to treat a number of immune system related disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, herpes, and cancer. Cat's Claw will is also called una de gato and will be commonly found as a tincture or pill. For quality, look for supplements that are standardized to 15 percent polyphenols. Usually standardized Cat's Claw is used in dosages of 500 to 1,000 milligrams per day.
The immature fruit of the green orange, it has been used in TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) for over 1,000 years as an energizer with effects similar to that of ephedrine. Citrus aurantium is also used to improve digestion, circulation, and liver function by TCM practitioners. Athletes who are familiar with the ephedrine-containing herb ephedra, also known as Ma Huang, for its effects as a stimulant should get to know citrus aurantium. Citrus aurantium contains a substance called synephrine which is similar to ephedrine and many other thermogenics such as caffeine and guarana sans the side effects.
Synephrine does not act on the nervous system like ephedrine and has been shown to be non habit forming. Research shows that it has antidepressant capabilities, can increase the heart's cardiac output, and most importantly it has the ability to increase the activity of adenosine 3,5-cyclic monophosphate (AMP) which can be directly linked to an increase in metabolism thus fat burning. Look for products of standardized citrus aurantium that will provide 3-6 milligrams of synephrine per day.
A native North American herb, it was used by the American Indians for more purposes than any other herb and is today the most used herb for fighting infections, colds, flu, and a variety of other maladies. An estimated 350 scientific studies have investigated echinacea's pharmacology and clinical uses with modern research showing that echinacea has many immune-stimulating effects. According to studies out of Europe, echinacea increases the number and activity of circulating immune-system cells as well as enhancing the body's production of immuno-active compounds such as interferon.
There exist nine species of echinacea but only two of them-Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea augustifolia-have gone through extensive scientific study. Look for either of those species for maximum benefit. The recommended dosage of echinacea is 200 to 400 milligrams two to three times per day either alone or in combination with other immune-enhancing herbs.
(Ephedra sinica) has received a lot of publicity and been a popular scapegoat as of late. The herb is native to central Asia and is also known by its Chinese name Ma Huang. Most ephedra containing products are a mixture of the green stems of several different species. The North American species of ephedra (aka Mormon tea) has no active alkaloids so don't bother taking it for thermogenic or medicinal purposes.
In China, Ma Huang has been a popular treatment for over 5,000 years for bronchial asthma and related conditions. The value of the herb comes from the existence of several closely related alkaloids of which ephedrine is the most active. Ephedra works by being a vasoconstrictor, which is both a good and bad thing. The upside is it is a good nasal decongestant but the downside is that it causes a rise in blood pressure and heart rate. It is an effective bronchodilator but also stimulates the CNS (central nervous system) possibly resulting in nervousness and insomnia.
The risk of these side-effects is greatly increased when ephedra is combined with other stimulating substances such as caffeine but fat burning and energizing effects are also greatly increased.
Ephedra's ability to burn fat has been well studied and proven but many risks still exist; especially if you are a person who currently has health problems. The use of ephedra is definitely not a black and white issue. In 1995 the FDA made a number of recommendations towards ephedra such as dosage limitations and extensive warnings as well as prohibiting the sale of ephedra containing products to persons under 18.
In some sports federation's ephedra is now grounds for disqualification. Warning: ephedra has been shown to be addictive. My personal experience with ephedra is through the use of herbal ECA stacks such as Xenadrine, and Hydroxadrine. I have used more than the suggested serving before and only experienced side effects with Hydroxycut which caused me to suffer from nervousness.
(Ginkgo biloba) is an herbal antioxidant containing compounds that can absorb reactive free-radicals therefore preventing cell and DNA damage. Ginkgo also helps prevent the formation of new free-radicals by making blood vessels more flexible therefore improving circulation. It is because of this vasodilating effect that ginkgo is oft time associated with improved neurological function. Most herbalists do not recommend taking more than 60 to 240 milligrams of ginkgo standardized to 24% ginkgo flavones per day. Side effects occur with large dosages which can cause diarrhea, irritability, and restlessness.
An adaptogen, it is quite possibly the most popular herb in the United States right now. People love this herb because it is said to increase vitality and combat stress while many athletes use it to increase endurance and recovery with no negative side-effects. Within the root are the active compounds, called ginsenosides, which are known to enhance the immune system, reduce stress, relieve physical and mental fatigue, and normalize body systems. There a three species of ginseng them being Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius).
All forms are considered restorative adaptogens. According to TCM, Asian ginseng has warming properties and is used in revitalization, particularly after illness. On the flip side, American ginseng is said to cool and soother, quench, and reduce fever. Asian ginseng products are used throughout Germany as tonics to relieve fatigue, reduced alertness, and low work capacity. Siberian ginseng has been studied and used extensively in medicine since the 1960's showing positive effects on mental alertness, work productivity, and work quality.
One study conducted in Europe using Asian ginseng suggests that noticeable effects don't start appearing until after several weeks. There is evidence that ginseng may also lower levels of cortisol in the blood. A dose of 100 milligrams of standardized extract in capsule or liquid form two to four times daily is recommended. Long term use has been linked to gastrointestinal upset and over stimulation in some people. People with high blood pressure should avoid ginseng.
The unfermented leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant are brewed to create this tea that has been enjoyed for 1,000's of years by people throughout the East. Over the last few years, green tea has been the subject of hundreds of biomedical and epidemiological studies with groups such as the National Cancer Institute conducting intensive investigations into the possible anticancer, anticarcinogen, and antioxidant properties of green tea and its constituent polyphenol catechins.
Green tea also contains a compound similar to caffeine called theophylline which offers immune enhancing and health-tonic benefits as well as a particular antioxidant, called epigallocatechin gallate, which can shut down an enzyme that cancer cells need to grow and divide. To get the full benefit of the Camellia sinensis plant, pass up the black tea and oolong tea as they lose many of the beneficial catechins during fermentation. There is also a lot of evidence suggesting that green tea is helpful in losing weight.
Drink six to ten cups of green tea per day preferably with or immediately after meals since it has the added benefit of being an effective "mouth wash". Green Tea can be found in pill form with common dosages being 50 to 300 milligrams of standardized extract providing 50 to 80 percent polyphenols. Note: it is suggested that dairy products and other calcium containing foods interfere with the benefits of green tea. You may not want to consume the two at the same time. Learn more about Green Tea, click here!
(Paullinia cupana) is a climbing evergreen vine native to the Amazon. The seeds have about 7-percent caffeine-more than most other plants (much more than coffee beans)-and are used to naturally increase mental alertness and combat fatigue. The difference between the caffeine in coffee and that in guarana is the rate at which the caffeine is released. It is said that the caffeine in guarana is released slower providing more sustained stimulation. Guarana is also regularly used to treat paralysis, headaches, urinary tract irritation, and diarrhea. You will often see Guarana in sports-nutrition products for its energizing and fat burning abilities and is said to help athletes recover faster and perform better. It can be taken alone in dosages of 50 to 250 milligrams divided throughout the day but is best used stacked with other herbs like Ma Huang.
(Ilex paraguariensis) is also known as yerba mate, it is similar to guarana in that it is a stimulant herb usually used for its caffeine content. Naturally, the benefits don't stop there. Mate will help cleanse the blood, aid in weight loss by controlling appetite, fight aging, stimulate the production of cortisone, and tone the nervous system. It is also said to enhance the effects of other herbs.
Mate has potent antioxidant capabilities and contains vitamins C, A, and B-complex. In Argentina, mate is considered the national drink and touted for its energizing and tonic effects with the average Argentinian consuming about eleven pounds annually. You can drink it as a tea or take it in a pill at 3 grams per day of unstandardized powder.
Meadowsweet and Willow Bark:
(Filipendula ulmaria) (Salix) are the natural forms of the popular pain reliever aspirin. The key compound in these herbs is salicin which, while in the stomach, will convert to salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. Aspirin is known for its stomach irritating properties and while chemists try to synthesize a non-irritating form of aspirin, one already exists in meadowsweet and willow bark. Meadowsweet is particularly gentle and actually aids in digestion thanks to the presence of tannins.
The herbs act as a pain reliever by reducing the number of pain-producing prostaglandins in the body. Although prostaglandins perform many important functions, sometimes the body makes too many of them and researchers believe that high levels of these chemicals contribute to migraines and various types of arthritis. The best dosage for both herbs is either 1 to 2 dropperfuls of tincture or 2 cups of tea. Note: 1 cup of an herbal tea is usually 1 teaspoon of the dried herb.
(Silybum marianum) the flavonoid silymarian, an extract of milk thistle, has been proven by several hundred scientific and clinical studies to be ten to twenty times stronger than vitamin E (a very powerful antioxidant). In addition to these incredible antioxidant properties, silymarian stimulates the production of superoxide dismutase and glutathione peroxidase, two primary antioxidants created by the body.
This in itself is an awesome feat. Now add to that milk thistle's action on the liver: the enhancement of the metabolism of liver cells followed by the protection of these cells from toxic injury. Milk thistle is used as an effective treatment for various types of poisons affecting the liver and by people who have afflictions of the liver such as cirrhosis and hepatitis. It can also be used to fortify the liver against medications (ahem, or certain "supplements") that may be hard on it. When selecting a milk thistle supplement be sure that it is a standardized extract. Common dosages are 300 to 600 milligrams per day. You may use milk thistle indefinitely.
(Schisandraceae) is a hardy perennial vine native to east Siberia as well as northeastern China, Korea, and Japan. Some scientists classify schisandra as an adaptogen with evidence constantly growing as to its general health benefits. Both animal and human studies suggest that it acts as a stimulant which increases metabolism and work capacity in one dose, a tonic which increases metabolism and work capacity during and after the administration of multiple doses, and an adaptogen.
Traditionally, schisandra has been used in TCM nervous conditions, depression, headache, gastrointestinal disorders, circulatory problems, insomnia, weakness, chronic coughing, liver ailments, and many other problems. In the 1950's, scientists took interest in the herb when it showed to stimulate the central nervous system resulting in increased mental and physical capacity. There are no known side effects of schisandra use.
Also known as Puncture Vine, this Ayurvedic herb has been used for centuries as a general tonic and remedy for impotence. It is usually used as a libido enhancer (I can personally vouch its effectiveness as this) for men but recently has been getting attention for its ability to raise testosterone levels and possibly aid in muscle building. In one study, healthy men were given 750 milligrams of tribulus terrestris per day and had a 30-percent increase in testosterone levels after five days.
But does this actually translate to enhanced muscle building? Inconclusive research suggests not. Admittedly, there have been several studies and trials conducted with tribulus terrestris that show it does increase serum testosterone levels but it is unknown how exactly this happens-they assume it is through the increase of LH (luteinizing hormone) which may "turn on" endogenous testosterone production-or for how long the increase of testosterone levels is maintained. More importantly, these studies generally do not report anything concerning muscle mass. I think that tribulus terrestris might be able to enhance muscle growth but more directed studies need to be conducted.
Tribulus terrestris' ability to increase libido and ward off fatigue have been well documented however. Most of what we know about the herbs effectiveness though is based on the traditional uses used in Ayurveda. Usually it is suggested to take tribulus terrestris in doses of 250 to 700 milligrams per day but I suggest 1000 to 1500 milligrams per day in split doses. Be sure your tribulus terrestris is standardized to 40-percent furostanol saponins.
Well, writing this article took much longer than I had expected but there was just so much I wanted to cover; and there is much more. Although I focused on only a few herbs that doesn't mean there aren't many more out there that are extremely useful. Even the herbs in this article have more uses than I could get into? for now.
I intend to do more articles covering more herbs in summary and going in depth with the most popular herbs. I also intend to cover topics like preparing your own herbal remedies. There is a lot of power in the plants that grow all around us and if we know how to use them properly, we can benefit from there power.
Note: This is part one, click here for part two!
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