SCIENCE & NATURE INTERSECT: The Top 5 Herbs That Really Work
by Courtney Wilson

Like the best kinds of friends, herbs are always there for you, especially when you’re not feeling well.  And, like the best kinds of friends, herbs are strong, punctual, and empowering.  One of the most empowering and attractive things about herbs is that you don’t need access to a doctor to use them.  The World Health Organization reports that up to 80% of the population of some countries use herbal medicine as their primary type of medical care.  For some, this is due to infrastructural factors such as the lack of roads, doctors, or the medicine itself.  For others, this is due to social factors such as the lack of an adequate health care system or economically prohibitive pharmaceutical drugs, as well as perspectives that prioritize health, spirituality, and the environment.  

Here in the United States, herbal medicine has traditionally played a strong role in medicine.  At the turn of the century, 59% of the medicinal compounds listed in the US Pharmacopeia were plant based.  Today, 1/3 to 1/2 of the pharmaceuticals used in the US were originally (or are still) derived from plants.  Some of the most common plant based pharmaceutical drugs include quinine, an anti-malarial; morphine, an analgesic; and taxol, an anti-cancer medicine.  One in five adults in the US reports having used herbal medicine in the past year.  And with a growing increase in the use of herbal medicine in the past 30 years, it’s obvious that a natural approach to health is not going out of style anytime soon.

Whether you love herbs for being an empowering way to take care of your health in a country with a broken health care system, for their simplicity in an over processed world, or because they are just so effective, these top five herbs should always have a place in your herbal medicine cabinet.

1. Peppermint

Scientific name: Mentha piperita

Family: Lamiaceae

Why we love it and how it works

  • Because it is extremely accessible and effective
  • Because it is beneficial for a wide range of digestive ailments
  • For its cooling properties
  • Because it is so robust, anyone can easily grow it

Peppermint is one of the most common, go-to herbs in the tea aisle at the grocery store.  Also popular in the garden, peppermint is part of the botanical family that provides us with most of our culinary herbs: thyme, sage, rosemary, basil, and oregano.  Understandably, this well-loved herb is a mainstay in products as widely divergent as ice cream and toothpaste.  

The main therapeutic aspect of peppermint is that it is high in volatile oils, menthol being the leading lady of these powerful actors.  These volatile oils are responsible for triggering the cells in the body that perceive cold, which is what causes the cooling effect when peppermint is used topically on the skin.  The cooling effect is put to use to soothe sore muscles in topical muscle rubs, as menthol is also a local anesthetic.  The anesthetic properties arise from the oil-soluble, nonpolar molecules of the menthol, which can penetrate deep into the tissues of the skin to the nerves and muscles, impeding stimulation in the cells, and blocking the perception of pain.

Internally, peppermint’s strongest quality is as an antispasmodic.  Digestive ailments such as gas, diarrhea, or bloating can simply be relieved with peppermint.  It is for this reason that people who suffer from IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) often use mint tea as a simple treatment for their symptoms.  However, those who suffer from constipation may not benefit, because some types of constipation are caused by intestines that are not responsive, so further relaxing them may not help.  Also, those who are bothered by acid reflux should use caution when using peppermint as it is more likely to allow acids from the stomach to leak into the throat—ouch!  

Ethnobotany

Although it is incredibly pervasive in today’s consumer market, peppermint is a relatively new herb, as an accidental hybrid of the wild water mint and the cultivated spearmint.  It was first found in England in the 17th century, where it quickly gained a medicinal reputation for calming digestive upsets. 

Fun facts: 

Mint will stroke your ego as a gardener, because it’s almost impossible to kill.  Each node (the place where the leaves sprout from the stem) has the potential to root, so when you cut it and place it in a glass of water, it will start to send out roots in a few days.  Just make sure to plant it in a container—unless you want to become a mint farmer!

Recipes: 

Mint chocolate chip tea 

Ingredients

½ C peppermint

¼ C cocoa nibs

¼ C rooibos

Directions: Mix all ingredients; add a heaping tablespoon to a tea strainer, and steep, in almost-boiled water for 3-4 minutes.  The volatile oils won’t escape into the air if covered while steeping. 

Constituents

Peppermint performs 737 distinct activities.  Each activity may be performed by dozens of different compounds.  The activities that have the highest numbers of constituents in peppermint (19 or more compounds found for each activity) include the following: nematicide (kills nematodes), aldose-reductase inhibitor (substance that prevent eye and nerve damage in diabetics), allergenic (stimulates immune system), anti-inflammatory, fungicide, antispasmodic, and insectifuge (insect repellant).    

2. Gotu Kola

Scientific name: Hydrocotyle asiatica

Family: Umbeliferae

Why we love it and how it works 

  • Because it helps synthesize collagen
  • Because it is beneficial for circulatory disorders including varicose veins
  • Because of its blood vessel strengthening properties
  • Because it’s easy to sneak into teas with a mild flavor

Gotu kola is a low-growing member of the carrot family, which is not only a useful herb that is used as a longevity and tissue-strengthening agent, but it’s also enjoyed in a variety of traditional Sri Lankan, Indonesian, and Vietnamese recipes from curries and salads to cold beverages.  Other names for it include Indian pennywort and water penny.

This small plant’s fan shaped leaves are best known in the tropical swamps of Asia as a memory-enhancing herbal medicine.  However, current scientific research points towards gotu kola’s ability to strengthen blood vessels and regenerate tissues.  Gotu kola extracts stimulate the body’s collagen-creating fibroblast cells to divide more rapidly.   Our body’s natural enzymes break down tissues regularly.  But for people with conditions that cause these enzymes to be abnormally high (like diabetes or varicose veins), gotu kola can help reduce this process, normalizing enzyme levels.  Various published studies have demonstrated that standardized gotu kola extracts containing triterpenes can produce improvements for those with venous hypertension, blood vessel pathology in diabetic patients, atherosclerotic plaques, and have shown that it can also assist in healing wounds.  

Ethnobotany

Gotu kola has historically been used in the Ayurvedic tradition to improve memory and longevity. 

Fun facts

Indian elephants are known to snack on gotu kola leaves.  The connection between the healthy memory and longevity of the elephant and its propensity for this plant may have been what caused early herbalists to use the stem and leaves to achieve similar results in our human bodies.

Recipes

Unfortunately, gotu kola is difficult to find fresh in the Willamette Valley, so recipes for sambola (a fresh salad) or pennywort drink (a sweet, blended gotu kola drink) would be fun for those closer to its native habitat to try out.  Fortunately, this herb is available as a dried tea, and it is easy to sneak into herbal tea mixes because of its mild flavor. 

I like to drink this tea for gentle blood vessel support when I need to sit at my desk all day.  The tannic quality of blackberry leaves provides an astringent quality that also helps tone blood vessels, and peppermint makes the tea refreshing and delicious.

Sitting pretty tea

1 part gotu kola

½ part blackberry leaves

½ part peppermint

Constituents

Gotu kola performs 587 distinct activities.  Each activity may be performed by dozens of different compounds.  The activities that have the highest numbers of constituents in gotu kola (12 or more compounds found for each activity) include the following: cancer preventative, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antispasmodic, hypocholesterolemic (reduces blood cholesterol levels), insectifuge, antiulcer, and antitumor.

3. Lemon Balm

Scientific name: Melissa officinalis

Family: Lamiaceae

Why we love it and how it works

  • Because it is wonderfully fragrant
  • Because it functions as an antidepressant
  • Because of its anti-anxiety properties
  • Because it prevents and heals herpes outbreaks

Lemon balm is a gentle, pleasant herb that functions to prevent depression, anxiety, herpes, memory loss, and has a lovely fragrance.  In fact, as a testament to its ability to improve mood, when introducing this plant to someone, notice how quickly its smell brings a smile to their face.  Lemon balm grows wild (and prolifically) in the Willamette Valley, even poking up through the cracks in the sidewalk. 

Constituents in lemon balm adhere to the brain’s acetylcholine receptors, which are important for nerve cell signaling.  Alzheimer’s patients lose nerve cell signal function over time, due to the loss of acetylcholine action in certain parts of the brain.  Lemon balm’s activity with acetylcholine receptors could slow the progression of Alzheimer’s.  The anti-depressive activities of lemon balm are also connected to the reception and use of acetylcholine, which is known as the ‘rest and digest’ neurotransmitter.  When inhaled (as in aromatherapy), plant fragrances in lemon balm known as terpenes are rapidly absorbed, enhancing certain neurotransmitters in the brain.  Because the neurotransmitter affected by lemon balm is responsible for ‘resting and digesting,’ depression caused by anxiety is especially suited to treatment by the use of lemon balm. 

Lemon balm is very effective against herpes outbreaks when used in an aqueous solution (otherwise known as tea).  Its antiviral properties arise from tannins and polyphenols.  These polyphenols are thought to work against herpes by either inserting itself inside the infected cell, preventing the virus from entering, or by shielding the cell receptor to the virus, or even by coating the herpes virus itself.  Whichever mechanism is responsible for the effectiveness of lemon balm against herpes, the method for treatment is quite simple.  A strong tea of lemon balm is dabbed topically with a cotton ball on the sores, significantly reducing the duration and severity of the outbreak.  As a preventative measure, drinking the tea may even protect against the initial infection in the first place.

Ethnobotany

Lemon balm has been hailed for thousand of years by Greek physicians for poisonings, wounds, and mad dog bites.  The eleventh century Arabian physician Avicenna recommended its use for melancholy.  In the early 1900s, lemon balm was used in the new world for treating menstrual problems, indigestion, fevers, and sores.

Fun fact

The 1696 London Dispensary officially reported lemon balm’s uses to “renew youth, strengthen the brain, relieve languishing nature, and prevent baldness” (Phaneuf 2005).

Recipes

Happy Herpicide Tea—adapted from Dr. Duke’s recipe

4 C water, boiled

¼ C Lemon balm leaves

2T Oregano

2T Self-heal

1T Hyssop

1 T Rosemary

1T Sage

1T Thyme

Licorice root—to taste

Boil the water in a saucepan, add the herbs, and steep for 20 minutes.  Strain and drink.  During a herpes outbreak, use this tea internally as well as topically on the sores.

Constituents

Lemon balm performs 368 distinct activities.  Each activity may be performed by dozens of different compounds.  The activities that have the highest numbers of constituents in lemon balm (12 or more compounds found for each activity) include: antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, fungicide, cancer preventative, antioxidant, sedative, antiviral, allergenic, antitumor, antispasmodic, and aldose-reductase inhibitor (substances that prevent eye and nerve damage in diabetics).

4. Oregon Grape

Scientific name: Mahonia aquifolium

Family: Berberidaceae

Why we love it and how it works

  • Because it is the Northwest’s natural antibiotic
  • Because it acts as a liver-stimulating digestive bitter
  • Because the berries are deliciously tart
  • Because the roots are excitingly bitter

Oregon grape is a fantastic addition to the herbal medicine cabinet.  As a local perennial that spreads through rhizomes, I consider this to be a wonderful, sustainable alternative to the slow growing and declining east coast herb goldenseal, populations of which are known to be declining.  Oregon grape is especially sustainable when personally and responsibly wild-crafted at a small scale.

The bright yellow root bark of this prickly northwest native is especially concentrated with medicinal alkaloids including berberine, the compound that shares its name with the plant itself.  These alkaloids are known to be the primary substances responsible for its therapeutic actions.  The two most common uses for Oregon grape are as an antibiotic and as a bitter tonic to improve digestive function.  Berberine reduces the ability of bacteria to adhere to cell walls, which makes Oregon grape especially effective against infections of the urinary tract, intestines, and throat.  

Fun facts

Harvest the roots in the fall, when the plant’s energy is concentrated in the roots instead of on producing flowers or berries.  Try to dig the rhizomes that connect two plants instead of killing any single plant.  Then, chop the roots, or scrape the root bark for the most potent medicinal material.     

Recipes

            Oregon crush

            One handful each:

                        Oregon grape berries

                        Huckleberries

                        Salal berries

                        Green spruce tips

                        Sweetener of your choice, if desired

Crush all the berries and simmer with the spruce tips until the juices blend and the water is infused with the flavors.  Add sweetener if desired.  Strain, chill, and serve over ice.  This wild, tart beverage is especially refreshing on the late summer day that you pick the berries straight from the woods.   

Constituents

Oregon grape performs 185 distinct activities.  Each activity may be performed by dozens of different compounds.  The activities that have the highest numbers of constituents in Oregon grape (5 or more compounds found for each activity) include: pesticide, hypotensive (promotes low blood pressure), antibacterial, antimalarial, central nervous system depressant, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, calcium antagonist (blocks calcium ions, treating a variety of conditions), sedative, and choleretic (stimulates bile by the liver). 

5. Turmeric

Scientific name: Curcuma longa

Family: Zingiberaceae

Why we love it

  • Because of its anti-inflammatory characteristics
  • Because of its anti-cancer properties
  • Because its beautiful yellow color is related to its efficacy as a digestive aid
  • Because it is a central ingredient in curry, a medicinal food

Turmeric is most famous for its culinary use in Indian food such as curries, and when tasted alone, it has a warm, bitter, almost numbing taste.  The root itself looks similar to ginger, and grows in a similar, tropical, understory environment.  The bright yellow color indicates the presence of its primary medicinal constituent, curcumin.  

But curcumins won’t just stain your fingers, cheeses, and American mustard yellow; they also act as a calcium regulator in our cells.  These oily, colorful molecules stick to the calcium pumps in cells, altering the levels of calcium within.  It is the regulation of calcium that is responsible for a suite of therapeutic actions in the body.  Because calcium is such an important player in regulating cell function, several calcium-dependent maladies respond well to treatment with turmeric.  We experience the benefits of curcumins for digestive problems because muscles need calcium to contract.  With a lower level of calcium, intestinal muscles won’t contract as much, thus reducing cramping. 

Curcumins also produce anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects for several reasons.  The first reason is because as an antioxidant, it prevents free radicals from causing cancer in the first place.  In scavenging free radicals, it also prevents them from damaging tissues and causing further inflammation which causes pain of all types.  Additionally, curcumin limits the body’s ability to manufacture enzymes and inflammatory agents that cause and exacerbate a range of medical issues, from arthritis to digestive problems.

Fun facts

Because of its shade-loving nature, turmeric can be grown on sustainable tropical farms that blend agriculture with forestry (called agroforestry).  Turmeric thrives in the layers of shade provided by taller fruit, nut, or timber trees.  This agroforestry system helps small farmers in developing tropical countries produce an environmentally friendly and economically stable source of income.

Recipes

Golden Milk 

This drink is a thick, lovely beverage that’s perfect before bed.

Adapted from the recipe by medicinal foods enthusiast Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa

Turmeric paste

  • 1/4 cup of turmeric powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon of ground pepper
  • 1/2 cup of water

Milk mixture

  • 1 cup of milk (or milk substitute)
  • 1 teaspoon almond oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon or more of turmeric paste
  • honey to taste

To make the turmeric paste, combine all ingredients in a saucepan and heat just until ingredients combine into a paste.  Add this paste to the milk ingredients and simmer until well blended, just before it boils.  Add honey to taste. 

Constituents

Turmeric performs 658 distinct activities.  Each activity may be performed by dozens of different compounds.  The activities that have the highest numbers of constituents in turmeric (10 or more compounds found for each activity) include: antibacterial, antispasmodic, insectifuge, fungicide, cancer preventative, antiseptic, antitumor, antialzheimeran, antimutagenic, and analgesic.

Courtney Wilson is a graduate of the Elderberry School of Botanical Medicine and has studied and worked in rare plant restoration and ecology in Oregon and northern California.

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