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Herbal Health: Caveats, Benefits, and Myths

The term ”herb” is a perfect example of a “loaded” term. In its purest sense, it refers to certain plants and plant parts. Within the category “herb” though, are also included spices and seasonings. Spices come from berries, seeds, bark and roots of plants. Seasonings are used for cooking purposes, originally used as preservatives and taste enhancers.

Almost all known herbs have at times been used for medicinal purposes. As a matter of fact, in traditional Chinese medicine and in other forms of ancient folk medicine, herbs have played an integral part in treating physical and mental diseases and ailments.

The problem with using herbs for medicinal purposes is that very little scientific evidence and documented scrutiny exists to back up the many claims (for or against) made about herbs. There is no question, however, that some herbs do have verifiable benefits for a number of known maladies. Explaining how or why the particular herb is helpful in treating disease is another matter.

For one thing, there may be different chemicals at work in each herb. While one of the chemicals may be beneficial in some way, another of the chemicals in the herb may be otherwise detrimental. Combining herbs can become dangerous, as is combining herbs with prescription or over-the-counter medicines.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that many so-called “prescription” and over-the-counter drugs are made from herbs or botanicals. There is also the fact that some herbal terms have been misused or abused. One such term is “natural.” While it may come with many positive associations, “natural” has several different definitions, depending upon who’s using it.

Because herbs can as easily be detrimental as they are beneficial (and in some cases, useless for the ailment that prompted their use), every person needs to do extensive research before consuming any herbs. Physicians should also be consulted. If one decides to use an herb, make sure that it is used according to the recommended dosage, making sure accurate records of how they are used and when are kept. Remember herbs should only be used under the direction/supervision of a licensed/trained herbalist or physician.

What Are Some Well-known Benefits of Medicinal Herbs?

Fortunately, some herbs have been studied enough to justify their being attributed with certain medicinal benefits. In almost all such cases, a specific chemical has been identified within the herb. Furthermore, a particular positive effect has been clearly documented.

A group of such positive-effect chemicals known as polyphenols, are found in several herbs. Polyphenols have also been identified in certain vegetables, fruits, certain teas and red wine. Polyphenols do many things, one of which is to protect aging arteries.  Studies have shown that polyphenols inhibit abnormal blood platelet aggregation, thereby potentially decreasing sudden heart attacks and strokes.  Likewise polyphenols fight inflammation.

Another positive type of chemicals that are known are antioxidants, which are now recognized as effective anti-carcinogenics. What herbs have this in it?  Antioxidants can be found in artichokes, russet potatoes, cranberries and pecans- just to name a few.

The herbs and spices with the best-established medicinally-helpful track records include: garlic, chili peppers, cinnamon, turmeric, oregano, thyme, basil and rosemary. Cinnamon, for example, is now viewed as a potential glucose-control and an anti-inflammatory agent. Garlic is beneficial against cardiopulmonary disease (as a blood thinner). Dihydrocapsisiate, a chemical in chili peppers, helps to burn up fat calories and capsacin, also found in chili peppers can help lower blood pressure.

As for herbs found dietary supplements, one needs to carefully read the instructions and list of ingredients that come with the product. What benefits that may be derived can depend on a number of things: the state of one’s health; whether there is anything in the product that may interfere with any medications taken; the dosage; the expiration date; and any known side-effect.

Myths to Be Aware of

Unfortunately, because herbs are so loosely regulated and monitored by the FDA, are often packaged in countries where products are not regulated/monitored closely (e.g., products from China, India, and Mexico) and have not been subjected to extensive scientific scrutiny, there are many myths abound about medicinally-used herbs. Here are just a few…

Myth: Large amounts of an herb must be used for long periods of time in order to benefit medicinally.

Reality: Even small amounts of certain herbs can be beneficial.

Myth: If an herb is on the shelves for sale locally, then it is safe for consumption.

Reality: Although nutritional supplements are monitored and regulated by the FDA, this is not equivalent to the close watch kept, say, on prescription drugs. Manufacturers can make claims they do not necessarily have to immediately submit scientific evidence for.

Myth: If an herb is labeled as “natural,” then it’s safe to use it.

Reality: Unfortunately, there is no standard definition for “natural.” Safety is, furthermore, a relative term.

Myth: All herbs are relatively safe.

Reality: Many herbs have been found to actually be toxic or harmful. Ephedra, for example, has been linked to heart attacks and strokes. Peppermint, used to aid digestion and considered a mild herb, in oil form can be toxic.

Myth: Herbs can be kept forever and in any environment.

Reality: Herbs do have expiration dates. Additionally, they need to be kept in dry, mild-temperature, away from direct sunlight environments.

Myth: Medicinal herbs are not as good as prescription medicines.

Reality: Some prescriptions are made from herbs. Also, herbs have been used successful for medicinal purposes for centuries all over the world. They are effective for medicinal purposes as long as they are used appropriately under the care of trained/qualified professionals.



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