Top Five Most Powerful Healing Herbs

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Taking herbs for medicinal purposes is as old as humanity itself, with usage traditions that are often passed down through oral, rather than written histories. Thanks to modern clinical studies, these now have scientific validation.

Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM, and Ayurveda, India’s traditional health system, have been dated to at least 3,000 years ago. Thanks to oral and written histories, we have extensive information from these ancient traditions still with us today in herbal pharmacopoeias and treatises on specific herbs. As the population awakens to the perils of most pharmaceutical drugs, herbal alternatives are becoming sought-after, and so is information about what to take, and why you should take it. In Germany, around 30% of total pharmacy sales are for “nonprescription-bound medicines” like herbs and nutraceuticals. In the United States, herbal products are a $5.1 billion-dollar industry.

Since most of us don’t have access to an herbalist for guidance, what is a good way to begin exploring the subject of using medicinal herbs? You can begin here, with a look at five herbs that meet the criteria of having oral and written usage histories, as well as accessible clinical trial data that supports ancestral claims. These important herbs have been prized by many cultures throughout history, and modern science corroborates, at least in part, what traditional physicians and pharmacists have known for thousands of years: herbs and plants are truly Mother Nature’s medicine cabinet!  

Aloe Vera

Aloe Vera, often referred to as lily of the desert, is a succulent plant that ancient Egyptians believed was the “plant of immortality.” It is one of the oldest known plant medicines, with an extensive catalog of scientific proof to support its value. The U.S. National Library of Medicine’s medical database has nearly 3,000 published papers on aloe vera, giving further validation to its position as one of our most powerful healing herbs.

Aloe vera leaves contain over 200 biologically active compounds, or phytochemicals, the active compounds in plants that are extracted and studied for medicinal applications. Aloe leaves contain carbohydrates, amino acids, minerals, fatty acids, and enzymes, making it a plant food that can be used topically, as well as internally.

Historically, aloe vera was used to treat skin problems, a use for which we still employ aloe today. Common topical uses include treating cuts and wounds, burns and rashes, hemorrhoids and more. Harvesting the vital aloe vera gel from inside the leaves is simple, making these topical applications easy to self-administer. Leaves can be taken from the plant and sliced length-wise, exposing the cool, gelatinous inner flesh. This can be rubbed directly on the affected area, or scraped out of the leaves and pounded into a gel. Commercial preparations of aloe vera gel can be found in any drugstore, but take note that quality varies widely in commercially-prepared formulations. Since plant-based medicines contain bioactive ingredients that are susceptible to heat and breakdown, methods of preparation such as cold-pressed are desirable to preserve these vital compounds. Many health food stores carry medicinal-grade preparations, and since aloe plants are hardy and easy to grow, this is an exceptional DIY home remedy.

When scientists began studying the biological actions of aloe vera, they found ample evidence to support its place in our herbal-medicine cabinet. Aloe Vera has been proven to possess antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties, making it the perfect topical agent to prevent wounds from becoming infected, or from becoming gateways for invading pathogens. Aloe vera helps the immune system by cleansing the body of toxins, while also providing an antioxidant boost to healthy cells.

Another use for which aloe vera gel has been extensively studied is in the preservation of dental health. Its use in toothpaste and mouthwash formulations has shown enough promise to warrant further study, and research into aloe vera as a treatment for gingivitis has shown significant promise due to aloe vera’s powerful antioxidant properties. In March 2016, researchers conducted a first-of-its-kind study on aloe vera as a topical treatment for HSV-1, or oral herpes, a problem for which no other known topical is effective. Aloe vera’s proven antiviral properties had a significant inhibitory effect on virus growth, leading researchers to conclude that aloe vera could be a “useful topical treatment for oral HSV-1 infections without any significant toxicity.”

Another historic use for which aloe vera still enjoys modern acclaim, is its unique ability to soothe the digestive tract. Aloe was prized by ancient people as a treatment for common microbial infections caused by eating unclean food or drinking contaminated water. Taken internally, aloe vera’s anti-inflammatory properties work to cleanse tissues, heal gut lining, and restore the delicate mucous balance that is routinely degraded through poor diet. A 2017 study on aloe vera gel as a treatment for chronic ulcers yielded more promising results: aloe-treated mice exhibited “drastically fewer ulcer lesions than the untreated control mice did.”

Furthering the value of aloe vera as a digestive system miracle-worker, is the recent focus on aloe vera as a treatment for diabetes. With nearly 40% of the U.S. population diagnosed as diabetic or pre-diabetic, there could be no better time than now for a plant-based treatment with no known toxicities. While studies on this application are in the early stages, aloe vera has been clinically demonstrated to reduce concentrations of fasting blood glucose, reduce levels of triglycerides and LDL cholesterol, as well as increase HDL or “good” cholesterol.

Triphala

Triphala, or ‘three fruits,’ is an Ayurvedic herbal preparation that is a mixture of three unique herbs: amla/amalaki, behada/bibhitaki, and harada/haritaki. Ayurveda is one of the most influential sources of medical wisdom in the world today, and triphala is one of Ayurveda’s most valued herbs. According to Charaka Samhita, one of Ayurveda’s ancient foundational manuals, taking daily doses of triphala with honey and ghee (clarified butter) is believed to “make a person live for one hundred years devoid of old age and diseases.”

Triphala is known for its ability to heal and maintain a healthy digestive tract. It is considered to be one of the most complete and nourishing foods for humans because it possesses five of the six gunas, or tastes, recognized by Ayurveda. This makes it very balanced, thus imparting a balancing effect to the body. Triphala is considered a powerful detoxifier that improves elimination, removes blockages from the intestines, and flushes ama, or accumulated toxins, from the body. This functional detox provides other reputed benefits, such as clearing the lungs and skin, and brightening the eyes. These powerful digestive effects are due to the three fruits that give triphala its name, each attributing its own unique properties to the formulation. Amla supports cellular repair; behada repairs the mucus lining of the gut; harada strengthens the peristalsis function of the intestinal muscles. These actions are further supported by triphala’s anti-inflammatory properties, which ease inflammation in the GI tract.

With so many “diseases of nutrition” in the Western world, it’s little wonder that the medical establishment has studied triphala to see if the anecdotal benefits were demonstrable in a laboratory environment. Famed Ayurvedic physician and author Deepak Chopra, M.D., co-authored an analysis of existing clinical data on triphala. This review, published in August 2017, examined data on PubMed database on the pharmacological properties and clinical effects of triphala, and found that triphala was validated as possessing this extensive list of beneficial properties:

  • Antioxidant, free-radical scavenging
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Immune system modulation
  • Appetite stimulation
  • Gastric hyperacidity reduction
  • Dental caries prevention
  • Fever-reducing
  • Pain-relieving
  • Antibacterial
  • Wound-healing
  • Anticancer, chemoprotective
  • Adaptogen
  • Blood-sugar stabilizing
  • Enhances microbiome health

According to authors, “Triphala may also promote proper digestion and absorption of food, reduce serum cholesterol levels, improve circulation, relax bile ducts, prevent immunosenescence, maintain homeostasis of the endocrine system, and increase production of red blood cells and hemoglobin.” Ayurveda believes, and Western medicine has come to agree, that health begins in the gut. With all of these amazing benefits to the digestive system, triphala is a crown jewel in any medicine cabinet.  

Cannabis

Cannabis may be an unexpected addition to this list, but thanks to recent studies on its many medicinal properties, cannabis is poised to regain its place in our modern, herbal pharmacopoeia. In the United States, cannabis is the only herb on our list that has legal restrictions on its use, despite having been accepted into the United States Pharmacopeia in 1850. At that time, cannabis was acknowledged to be a treatment for a wide variety of ills, including:

  • Tetanus
  • Cholera
  • Dysentery
  • Drug and alcohol addiction
  • Anthrax
  • Leprosy
  • Incontinence
  • Gout
  • Convulsive disorders
  • Tonsillitis
  • Menstrual issues

And the indications for cannabis use keeps growing. A January 2017 study proclaimed, “Nearly 100 Conclusions on the Health Effects of Marijuana,” most of which involve the actions of the phytochemicals known as cannabinoids, found in cannabis but also occurring naturally in the body. Cannabinoids act on cannabinoid receptors in cells to alter chemical signals, such as pain and pleasure signals, that are sent to the brain. It is precisely this biocompatibility that makes cannabis a natural medicine for the human body. Both humans and animals have evolved an endogenous, or inherent cannabinoid system that is of critical importance to physical and mental functioning. Endocannabinoids and their receptors are found throughout the body (in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells) and are considered a bridge between body and mind.

At the time of this publishing, more than half of the United States have agreed on the medicinal merits of cannabis. While laws vary state-to-state, medical marijuana has generally been approved for use for the following conditions:

  • Cancer
  • Glaucoma
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Cachexia (wasting disease)
  • Severe or chronic pain
  • Seizures, epilepsy
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease

Several states have approved cannabis as a treatment for PTSD, for which it has shown promise. A review of published evidence found that “substantial numbers of military veterans with PTSD use cannabis...to control PTSD symptoms,” and that “cannabinoid use was associated with global improvements in PTSD symptoms or amelioration of specific PTSD symptoms such as insomnia and nightmares.” Other promising applications for cannabis include the discovery of anti-inflammatory benefits like those imparted by omega-3 fatty acids. Inflammation is indicated in most chronic health concerns, including arthritis, bronchitis, chronic pain and cancer. Cannabis is being tested as a cancer and chemotherapy treatment, thanks to its remarkable abilities to ease nausea, stimulate appetite, relieve pain, calm anxiety, and as a non-habit-forming sleep-aid. It has also demonstrated the ability to shrink tumors, an exciting development that has necessitated further research into the potential of this promising medicinal plant.

Turmeric

Turmeric, the golden yellow spice that is ubiquitous in the Far East, comes from the plant Curcuma longa, a member of the ginger family. Another favorite of Ayurveda, turmeric is prized by many ancient cultures for its rich color, which was first used as a dye, then later for its many medicinal properties. Historic uses for turmeric are vast, including use as a “destroyer of worms” and in the arresting of allergic symptoms. It was also valued for respiratory conditions such as asthma and rheumatism, and as an analgesic that eases pain and increases energy.

Ayurveda has long known about turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties, as evidenced by the many applications for turmeric in wound and skin poultices, and for inflammatory problems of the digestive tract. A paste made with turmeric and ghee (clarified butter) is recommended to ease sinus inflammation, stop nosebleeds, and “purify the brain.” Yogis were perhaps the first people to uncover turmeric’s ability to ease joint pain, thanks to many long hours spent in lotus position! Today, urban yogis, athletes, and arthritis sufferers the world-over use turmeric supplements to ease joint pain and improve mobility.

Recently, turmeric has shown promise as a natural aid in the fight against Alzheimer’s Disease, another inflammatory disease process. A new study on turmeric’s ability to fight brain inflammation in mice yielded positive results, concluding that aromatic-turmerone, one of the active phytochemicals in turmeric,” is effective in preventing brain damage caused by neuroinflammation, and may be useful in the treatment of neuronal inflammatory diseases” such as Alzheimer’s.

Turmeric spice is made by boiling the plant rhizome, drying it out, then pulverizing it into a fine powder. The unboiled rhizome can be found in many Asian markets, and used a fresh, rather than a dried spice. It can be added to smoothies as well as many delicious recipes. Alternatively, you can purchase one of the many supplements available, adding turmeric to your diet in capsule or tincture form. You will find many of the turmeric supplements under the name curcumin, one of the isolated active compounds in turmeric. It is recommended to source a supplement that contains 95% curcumin and includes a bioavailability enhancer, such as black pepper, to aid in absorption. If you use the fresh or powdered spice, add a pinch of freshly ground black pepper to the food or beverage.

Researchers are becoming as excited about turmeric as herbalists are! A September 2017 article reviewed the history, chemical properties, mechanisms, and health effects of turmeric, and found it to have “to have an important role in prevention and treatment of various illnesses ranging notably from cancer to autoimmune, neurological, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetic.”

Shilajit

Shilajit is the most miraculous herb you’ve probably never heard of! Harvested in the remote mountain regions of Central Asia, shilajit is an ancient mineral compound made from thousands of years of organic vegetation that has been churned into mineral-rich humus. Often referred to as “mountain sweat”, this sticky resin is deposited organic material, exuding through the cracks of the highest mountain peaks as they get warmed by the sun.

References to shilajit as a “conqueror of weakness” date back at least 2000 years. Ancient warriors such as Alexander the Great were rumored to have taken it in preparation for battle. It has a long Ayurvedic tradition, and was mentioned in oral traditions of many local cultures where shilajit was harvested. Historically, it was believed to help numerous conditions, due to its antioxidant and adaptogenic properties. Thanks to numerous scientific studies, the historic uses for shilajit now have clinical validation. These results include:

  • Resolve skin problems
  • Slows aging
  • Heal wounds and prevent infection
  • Speed bone growth
  • Improve strength and stamina
  • Enhance sexual health
  • Boost immunity

Shilajit compounds vary based on when, where, and how they are harvested. All shilajit supplements should contain high quantities of phytochemicals, fulvic acid, and naturally-occurring colloidal minerals. Shilajit is an adaptogen, meaning it helps the body strengthen and better assimilate nutrients. Shilajit increases the bioavailability of nutrients thanks to the action of the fulvic acid, which acts as a carrier that helps minerals penetrate cells.

In the quest for answers to modern health problems, scientists are starting to look closely at our inheritance from traditional medicine. Thanks to this new focus, shilajit has undergone numerous scientific studies in recent years. These studies mostly back-up herbalists’ claims about the amazing rejuvenative powers of this plant-based medicine. A 2012 study using shilajit to treat chronic fatigue showed that shilajit reduced down-time after exertion, reversed oxidative stress, and improved anxiety levels. Shilajit also invigorates the brain! A 1992 study found that shilajit was cognition-enhancing, and once again an anti-anxiety effect was observed via measurably-enhanced dopamine levels. Shilajit is being aggressively tested to stave-off the encroachment of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

The issue of quality is once again central to both clinical trial results, and personal satisfaction with natural supplements. Some supplies of shilajit have tested positive for heavy metal contamination, as have various herbal vitamin and mineral supplements. If you decide to try herbal medicine for yourself, seek out the assistance of a qualified herbalist if possible, and always familiarize yourself with the methods of preparation that suppliers use when bringing their herbs to market.

Mainstream science is finally catching up with what ancient herbalists have known for centuries: herbs and foods are the safest and best form of medicine for the human body. Let us follow the advice given by Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, and let food be thy medicine.


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Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of GreenMedInfo or its staff.
Sayer Ji
Founder of GreenMedInfo.com

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