Medicine has been around in one form or another for thousands of years. Medicine simply refers to a substance that has curative or preventative properties. Some cultures were more ahead of the curve than others, but nearly every culture possessed some form of conventional medicine.
Today, we live on the other side of the pharmaceutical revolution. We have medicines for nearly every illness one can imagine. There always seems to be a pill for that — whatever that happens to be.
But, one form of medicine has stood the test of time — herbal medicine. The concept is simple, herbal refers to botanicals. So, herbal medicine simply refers to plant-based substances with curative or preventative properties.
Herbal Medicine at a Glance
From a historical perspective, traditional medical practices centered on herbal medicines. It was the way of the world for centuries. Herbalism was practiced in every corner of the globe in one form or another.
Today, we think of these as “traditional medicine” or “folk medicine.” Regardless of the label it gets dealt, herbal medicine has plants and plant extracts at the center.
Herbal medicines are made from botanicals and plant-based products used to treat a wide range of diseases. Many are also used as a form of preventative medicine. These herbal medicines, herbal products, and herbal supplements are sometimes called phytomedicines.
Herbal Medicines vs. Prescription Drugs
Many over-the-counter and prescription drugs contain plant-based products. However, these only include plant parts in purified forms and are heavily regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
But the FDA considers herbal medicines and herbal remedies as foods, not drugs. Therefore, the testing, labeling, and regulations are completely different from prescription medications.
Herbal medicines can also be found in many forms, but the most common are capsule, powdered, liquid, creams, and more. Also, dried forms of herbs are often used in teas.
Now it’s time to examine some of the most popular herbal medicines and the proven benefits that go along with them.
Ashwagandha, The Go-To Herb for Stress
Ashwagandha, also known as Indian Ginseng, is considered an adaptogenic herb. In short, these herbs work to counteract the adverse effects of stress within the body.
From a physiological standpoint, these classes of herbs help to stabilize and balance the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA-axis). This feedback loop is sort of like the stress control center.
During critical times of stress, the HPA-axis is overtaxed. Adaptogenic herbs possess properties to help bring them back into homeostasis.
With its adaptogenic effects, ashwagandha benefits concerning stress include:
- Boosting mood and overall mental health
- Helping reduce anxiousness and stress
- Helping maintain healthy levels of cortisol
- Reducing irritability and fatigue
- Improving concentration and sharpening focus
Ginkgo Biloba and Cognitive Support
Another herb that catches a lot of buzz is Ginkgo biloba. Its main claim to fame is being the go-to herbal medicine to help promote and improve mental clarity. It derives from the maidenhair tree and is a staple in traditional Chinese medicine.
Today, it is one of the most popular herbal medicines around. Aside from its supplement forms, Ginkgo biloba is also popular in teas and leaf extracts.
Studies have shown that Ginkgo biloba’s cognitive support results from potent antioxidants, which help protect the brain from free radical damage, one of the side effects of oxidative stress.
While more research is certainly needed, other potential benefits include:
- May help reduce symptoms of anxiety
- Might help improve memory
- Helps improve blood circulation
Garlic, a Heart Healthy Herb
Garlic might do the trick if you’re trying to ward off vampires, but that isn’t where its benefits end. Garlic, and a whole host of other plants, are considered heart healthy herbs. Its uses stretch back to the Hippocrates era.
In addition to its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, garlic is routinely recommended for cardiovascular health. One heart disease risk factor it helps to protect against is hypertension.
Studies have shown the proven effects of garlic on lowering blood pressure naturally. In addition to its antihypertensive effects, garlic has also been shown to help improve cholesterol levels — LDL in particular.
Echinacea, Helps Treat Ailments
Originally from North America, Echinacea, or coneflower, is a popular herbal remedy used to help treat a variety of ailments. In Native American practices, echinacea helps treat wounds, burns, sore throat, toothaches, and upset stomachs.
In fact, most parts of the plant can be used medicinally, with the roots having the strongest effect.
Ginger, a Natural Anti-Inflammatory
Another familiar herb that is well known for its many health benefits is ginger. This versatile root has been used in traditional medicines for thousands of years.
For example, traditional Chinese medicine used ginger to treat digestive worms, treat gynecological issues, and more. Today, ginger is well recognized as an effective herbal medicine for inflammation relief. It does this through mediating prostaglandin pathways.
The many proven benefits of ginger seem endless. Garlic may help:
- Relieve issues with nausea
- Break up mucus and help loosen phlegm
- Improve circulation as a natural vasodilator
Turmeric, the Golden Spice
Closely related to ginger, turmeric needs very little introduction. This golden spice has been a staple in many culinary dishes around the world for centuries. But the proven health benefits are equally as impressive as its history.
Here are just a few of its many benefits:
- Turmeric has naturally soothing effects with anti-inflammatory properties from curcumin. Its most well known anti-inflammatory use is in the fight against joint inflammation.
- Turmeric is a potent antioxidant, which helps ward off and neutralize free radicals and the damaging effects of oxidative stress.
- As a natural anti-inflammatory herb, turmeric is also popular when it comes to skin health. For example, it is often used as a topical paste to help relieve the symptoms of skin conditions.
- It is also a powerful ally when it comes to heart health. Once again, the anti-inflammatory effects come in handy when it comes to blood vessels. Inflammation in the heart’s blood vessels promotes plaque, which is a risk factor for heart attacks.
Since we’re on the subject of spice, it is important to mention cinnamon. While this spice is more well-known as a flavor to be stirred in coffees and baked into desserts, it also carries some proven benefits. The most surprising is its potential effects on blood glucose (sugar) levels.
Similar to turmeric, cinnamon also has some powerful antioxidant properties. Many believe cinnamon helps to enhance the ability of insulin to metabolize glucose, which is why it’s been shown to help lower blood sugar.
The nice thing about cinnamon is the fact that it is easy to incorporate into our diets. It can be sprinkled on the morning oatmeal, added to warm winter coffees, and mixed with yogurt for extra spice.
The Bottom Line
Herbal medicines are nothing new. Their uses in history are well established — for a good reason.
While herbal medicines were a staple in traditional medicine, there has been a welcomed resurgence in recent years. Individuals looking for more natural alternatives to curative and preventative medicines should look no further than the botanicals.
- Historical Perspective of Traditional Indigenous Medical Practices: The Current Renaissance and Conservation of Herbal Resources | NIH
- Adaptogenic and Anxiolytic Effects of Ashwagandha Root Extract in Healthy Adults: A Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo-controlled Clinical Study | NIH
- Advances in the Studies of Ginkgo Biloba Leaves Extract on Aging-Related Diseases | NIH
- Effects of Allium sativum (garlic) on systolic and diastolic blood pressure in patients with essential hypertension | NIH
- Anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin, a major constituent of Curcuma longa: a review of preclinical and clinical research | NIH