This is part one of three I’ll be posting on herbs and their uses and health benefits.
If you have been drinking green tea for its anti-oxidant properties; taking Valerian root for its ability to relieve muscle tension; or know that sprinkling fresh oregano on foods does more than just make it taste good then you are experiencing the benefits of therapeutic plants known as herbs.
As more people turn to herbal preparations over pharmaceutical medications to help relieve their symptoms this is an area that science is now studing with greater urgency. The specific constituents of herbs, many of which have been used for thousands of years in other cultures, are now being reported on in main stream research such as PubMed. Researchers are working to discover exactly how these plants work their “magic” on humans so that we can harness their healing benefits for many of our most serious diseases like diabetes, cancer, COPD, Fibromyalgia, and cardiovascular disease.
The study and therapeutic use of herbs is very ancient and can be complex. Generally there are three tracks; Western/European herbs; Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayuvedic Medicine. While there are some specific herbs that are used in all three of these disciplines, there are herbs distinctly unique to each herbal culture.
As you might imagine the specific therapeutic herb used by each discipline is largely dependent upon the part of the world each was grown, discovered and studied. Until quite recently these three branches of herbal therapy operated pretty much independently from each other. What we are seeing now is a convergence of these three herbal disciplines.
In fact today’s formally educated herbalist is being taught about all three disciplines together in two of the best schools in the United States, the East West School of Herbology taught by Master Herbalist Michael Terra & David Winston’s Center for Herbal Studies. Even most accomplished Western Master Herbalists such as Miki Jones, ND recognize and regularly incorporate a number of TCM and Ayuvedic herbs in there formulations. Thus today’s newly educated herbalist is knowledgeable in the use of the very best and most studied herbal combinations and protocols from all three disciplines.
Natures little miracles – herbal adaptogens
One class of herbs that has gotten a great deal of attention and is being intensely studied is called an Adaptogen. Adaptogens are a type of herb (or herbal combination) that meets specific set of criteria. These herbs offer a range of health benefits and have been used effectively in both Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years.
According to Dr. David Winston who is considered an expert on Adaptogens and who has written what can only be described as a textbook on the subject * says an Adaptogen must meet three criteria:
- The substance is relatively non-toxic to the recipient.
- An adaptogen influences many organs or body systems (non-specific) and acts by increasing resistance of the organism to a broad spectrum of adverse biological, chemical, and physical factors.
- These substances help modulate system function and maintain homeostasis
While many herbs are being touted as adaptogen’s Winston insists the list of plants that actually meet this criteria are few.
How are adaptogens used to improve health?
One of the most impressive aspects of adaptogens that has recently been discovered it’s that they can quiet a stress-activated enzyme, known as JNK. JNK is responsible for increasing inflammatory and oxidative compounds and decreasing ATP (energy) generation. What this means is that taking a herbal adaptogen helps mediate this stress response. This is why so many “stress” formulations contain one or more adaptogens.
Adaptogens are frequently used for their strong anti-oxidant like actions. Unlike a specific phyto (plant) nutrient or vitamin herbal adaptogens are unique in the way they are able to protect the mitochondria from stress-induced damage because they actually stimulate the cell to produce proteins that help resist stress and enhance longevity. For this reason they are used in many anti-aging formulations. Another characteristic of adaptogens is that they help regulate the immune and nervous systems and have antidepressant and amphoteric effects on the body.
According to Dr. Winston there are currently just 13 known true adaptogens that meet this criterion. These are; American Ginseng root, Ashwagandha root, Asian Ginseng root, Cordyceps, Dang Shen root,, Eleuthero root, Holy Basil herb, Jiaogulan herb , Licorice rhizome, Reishi fungus, Rhaponticum root, Rhodiola root, Wu Wei Zi berries/seeds (Schisandra). Other herbalists also include Maca Root, and Astragalus on this list.
The part of the herb used, the way the herb is grown (such as wild crafted or organic), harvested and processed (standardized or not standardized) as well as the form and ultimately the combination of herbs all impact proper, safe, therapeutic use. Just as specific nutrients are used to help the management of chronic health conditions so too are herbs used in this manner by herbalists and many natural health care providers. Some herbs like Ashwagandha root are calming while others like Asian Ginseng root (Panax ginseng) are very stimulating. Each has unique properties that make it effective for specific circumstances.
Here are just a couple commonly used adaptogens and some of their healing properties;
Ashwagandha has traditionally been used for anxiety, bad dreams, mild OCD, insomnia, and nervous exhaustion. It acts as an antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory and is very useful for treating fibromyalgia (with Kava and Scullcap), restless leg syndrome, mild Tourette’s syndrome, and osteo-arthritis. Its immune amphoteric properties make it useful for hyper- and hypo-immune conditions. It is frequently used for autoimmune conditions affecting the muscles and joints such as rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, polymyositis, and polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR). It enhances male fertility (sperm count and sperm motility) and, due to its iron content, it benefits iron-deficient anemia (take it simmered in milk with molasses added). Ashwagandha also stimulates thyroid function. Studies in mice showed significant increases of serum T3 (18%) and T4 (111%) after 20 days of use (Panda, et al, 1998).
Holy Basil herb is a mildly stimulating adaptogen, antibacterial, anticholesteremic, antidepressant, antioxidant, antiviral, carminative, expectorant, immune amphoteric.
Tulsi, or Holy Basil, has a long tradition of use in Ayurvedic, Siddha, and the Unani-Tibb systems of medicine. It is considered a Rasayana or rejuvenative medicine and is traditionally used to improve memory, to treat coughs, colds, indigestion, asthma (with Black Pepper), and fatigue. More recent research has shown it reduces excess immune response in allergic asthma and allergies while enhancing normal immune function. In addition, in animal studies, it increases endurance, inhibits ulcer formation, and protects against gamma radiation. In a human trial, Tulsi showed benefits in NIDDM, reducing fasting blood glucose (17.6%) and postprandial blood glucose (7.3%) (Winston & Maimes, 2007). It is also used to help with stagnant depression (along with Lavender, Rosemary, and/or Damiana) and to help speed recovery from head trauma injuries and for poor concentration and mental fog.
Schizandra is a woody vine from China. The fruit that it produces is used for it’s cardio-protective properties. It also stimulates liver glycogen and protein synthesis and helps enhance glutathione production (the body’s most powerful detoxifying nutrient) in the liver. It also enhances bile production and improves liver regeneration and is cytotoxic to tumor cells. This means it is very liver protective as well as helpful for people with cancer because it enhances cell death. Additionally it’s been found to help improve impaired memory, builds the immune system and it it frequently used in Chronic Fatigue, stress and depression formulations.
These are but a few examples of how therapeutic herbs are used by today’s modern herbalist.
Wild Crafted, Standardized or Organically Grown?
The beauty of herbs is that one herb can be used to help with so many different conditions! But there are some distinctions in how these herbs are grown, and processed to keep in mind.
Wild crafted herbs are gathered from their natural habitat and not grown for mass production. The benefit of this is that the active compounds of the entire plant are kept intact which means the synergistic effects of each of the constituents are allowed to work their “magic” together as nature intended. Most Master Herbalists seem to prefer tinctures over capsules. I like the fact that dosing can be easily adjusted using tinctures and they are easy to take in a small amount of water. These “wild crafted” herbs are the ones used for centuries by our forefather and mothers to speed healing and recovery and keep us well. Reputable herb manufactures (such as those I work with) are very careful to be certain these herbs gathered are sustainable and not in jeopardy of extinction. Indeed, some irresponsible people have caused us to lose valuable pants. When a herb is deemed to scarce for gathering this way these companies turn to organically grown herbs.
Organically grown means simply that the plants are farmed organically, with out pesticides or chemicals. Because they are farmed and not gathered in the wild they will tend to have different levels of therapeutic constituents than the wild crafted herb. These are still preferred over standardized herbs by most Master Herbalists.
Standardized herbs mean that only specific active constituents are extracted from the plant(s) and combined to increase strength of the product. This is typically what you are getting when you buy most capsulized products. This was done by manufactures so that they could test products and make claims as required by the FDA with consistent results. Most likely this has been adopted too so that companies can market products with health claims and this is also what your reading about in PubMed Herbal – because it’s reproducible.
One final note is that there is an organization that deserves a shout out for helping to preserve endangered plants called United Plant Savers United Plant Savers.
Please visit their website to learn more about their important work.
*Source material :
Adaptogens: Herbs For Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief ©David Winston, RH (AHG), 2004; Revised 2011
Master Herbalist Course, and A practical Guide to Herbs, both by Marion Jones, N.D, M.H, D. Ir.
Coursework book form the 10th Annual Herbal Symposium 2011, A benefit conference for United Plant Savers