20 must-have herbs for your medicine cabinet: you can count on these herbs to treat your health problems—without the side effects of drugs

20 must-have herbs for your medicine cabinet: you can count on these herbs to treat your health problems—without the side effects of drugs – Consumer guide: how to be an educated consumer

Maria Noel Mandile

LUCKY FOR US, WE LIVE AT A time when researchers gather new information about herbs almost daily. And they’re confirming that sometimes herbs just work better than prescription and over-the-counter medicines. For example, deglycyrrhizinated licorice heals ulcers without the risk of severe bleeding that accompanies prescription ulcer medicines. And St. John’s wort lifts mild and moderate depression without squashing your libido or making you sleepy the way prescription antidepressants do. Here we reveal the 20 herbs that experts say you can count on to safely treat common chronic ailments.

Acid Reflux

The Best Herb: If you suffer from acid reflux, deglycyrrhizinated licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), or DGL, could make meals more pleasant. DGL coats your esophagus, protecting it from irritating stomach acid, and reduces painful inflammation in your esophagus, says Rob McCaleb, president of the Herb Research Foundation in Boulder, Colo. Researchers haven’t yet studied DGL’s effect on acid reflux, but previous studies have confirmed that the herb eases inflammation, pain, and other disorders of the gastrointestinal system.

The Best Dose: Chew two 250 mg wafers 20 minutes before you eat a large, spicy, or acidic meal, and take up to six wafers a day. DGL must make direct contact with your esophagus to help, so chewable DGL wafers provide the best relief. Do not substitute any form of regular licorice for DGL because regular licorice can increase your blood pressure. And do not use DGL if you are pregnant or nursing.


The Best Herb: Relief can be yours within a few hours when you take kava kava (Piper methysticum), which appears to calm your nervous system by binding to the brain receptors that promote relaxation. This year scientists reviewed n well-designed human studies on the herb and concluded that kava kava effectively and safely quelled anxiety. You may have seen news stories warning against kava kava because it may cause liver damage, but McCaleb says these findings have not been substantiated in adults with healthy livers. “The major anti-anxiety herb is still kava,” he says.

The Best Dose: There are two ways to take kava kava. Take 400 to 500 mg of powdered kava kava capsules up to six times a day until your anxiety subsides. Or stir 1 teaspoon of powdered kava kava (sold in some natural food stores) into 1 cup of hot water. Let it steep for five minutes, strain it, and drink up to six cups a day until your anxiety subsides. If you don’t like the taste, stir in a teaspoon of honey. You should begin to notice an improvement a few hours after the first dose, but the best results occur after a month or more of regular use. Do not use kava kava with alcohol, if you are a heavy drinker, or if you have existing liver problems like hepatitis. Do not use kava kava while pregnant or nursing.


The Best Herb: “I’ve used boswellia (Boswellia serrata) with my arthritis patients for the last 10 years with dramatic results,” says Chris D. Meletis, N.D., dean of naturopathic medicine at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Ore. The herb relieves symptoms of both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Meletis adds that people who don’t respond well to other natural treatments like glucosamine often improve with boswellia.

Both kinds of arthritis involve inflammation, and boswellia appears to inhibit the chemicals that trigger inflammation. Research on its use for osteoarthritis is preliminary, but herbalists we consulted say it works for their patients. As for rheumatoid arthritis, more than xo placebo-controlled German studies show that boswellia significantly reduces pain, swelling, and morning stiffness. Researchers concluded that the herb works as well as conventional therapies like aspirin and has fewer side effects.

The Best Dose: Take 400 mg of boswellia, standardized to approximately 65 percent boswellic acids, three times a day. You’ll need to take it daily for at least a week to experience relief. The herb is safe to use indefinitely, but it causes mild stomach upset in some people. It hasn’t been tested for safety in pregnant and nursing women, so consult your practitioner before taking it.


The best Herb: The Middle Eastern herb khella (Ammi visnaga) helps halt asthma attacks before they start, says David Winston, a Broadway, N.J.-based herbalist and director of the Herbal Therapeutics Research Library, who has used the herb successfully with asthmatic patients. Scientists don’t completely understand how khella works, but they do know that it dilates your bronchial passages, relaxing the same smooth muscles that spasm during asthma attacks, which allows you to breathe easier.

The Best Dose: Because of the serious nature of asthma, use this herb under the supervision of a health care professional, says Christopher Hobbs, L.Ac., a Davis, Calif.-based herbalist and acupuncturist. Take 1/4 teaspoon of khella liquid extract twice a day. You should begin to notice improvements in two to four days, and they’ll gradually increase over time. If your asthma is triggered by allergies, take khella daily during your allergy season. But if you suffer from year-round asthma, take khella continuously. Do not use khella to stop an asthma attack once it starts; stick with conventional drugs for that. Do not use khella if you are pregnant or nursing. The herb may make you more sensitive to sunlight, so wear sunblock whenever you go outside for longer than 15 minutes.

Congestive Heart Failure

The Best Herb: If you suffer from congestive heart failure and live in Germany, your doctor is likely to treat you with hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) a respected heart treatment in that country. The herb improves your heart’s ability to pump blood, improves blood flow, tones and relaxes your blood vessels, and has an excellent safety record, says Adriane FughBerman, M.D., a Washington, D.C.-based alternative medicine researcher and assistant clinical professor at George Washington University School of Medicine. A 2001 German study of 88 patients with congestive heart failure found that after three months of taking hawthorn, the patients could exercise longer, were less likely to feel fatigued, and had a better quality of life.

The Best Dose: Because of the serious nature of congestive heart failure and because hawthorn may enhance the effect of some heart medications, work with your doctor if you want to start taking it. You can use it in one of two ways: Try 1/2 teaspoon of hawthorn solid extract two or three times a day. (You’ll find this paste in some natural food stores and on websites.) Or try 120 to 240 mg in capsule form three times a day. The herb requires four to eight weeks to take effect and you’ll need to take it indefinitely.


The Best Herb: St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) remains the undisputed champion for mild to moderate depression, says James A. Duke, Ph.D., a Fulton, Md.-based herbalist and retired USDA botanist. (But it does not treat severe depression, he adds.) More than 30 double-blind studies have been done on this roadside flower, and researchers have concluded it’s just as effective as its pharmaceutical counterparts Zoloft and Prozac, but has half the side effects. Despite all this research, experts still don’t know exactly how St. John’s wort works. It may lower stress hormones in your body or mimic the action of feel-good neurotransmitters in your brain.

The Best Dose: You can use St. John’s wort one of two ways: Take 300 mg of St. John’s wort, standardized to 0.3 percent hypericin, three to four times daily with meals, recommends Paul Saunders, N.D., Ph.D., naturopath and professor at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto. Or take 30 drops of a standardized liquid extract in a few ounces of water four times a day. Be patient. The herb takes four to six weeks to improve your mood. If you don’t notice a difference after eight weeks, consult a health care professional to try another treatment. And talk to a health care practitioner before you combine this herb with drugs; St. John’s wort may decrease the effect of several pharmaceutical drugs, including birth control pills and HIV and heart medications. Seek the advice of a doctor or therapist if your depression is severe or you feel suicidal. St. John’s wort has not been tested for safety in pregnant and nursing women, so consult your practitioner before taking it.


The Best Herb: Gymnema (Gymnema sylvestre) may reduce your diabetes symptoms by stimulating your pancreas to pump out more insulin. Meletis relies on the herb to help treat type z diabetes in his patients. Gymnema has been used for centuries by Ayurvedic medical practitioners in India, but research is still preliminary. A pair of small studies published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in 1990 found that the herb reduced blood sugar so much that some patients discontinued conventional diabetes drugs. Lab tests suggest that gymnema may help control type 1 diabetes as well, but more research is needed, Winston says.

The Best Dose: Diabetes is a serious condition, so always work with your health care professional even if you’re not on diabetes medications. Take 400 mg three times a day with meals. It takes three to four weeks to notice benefits, and you’ll experience the improvements only as long as you take the herb. Gymnema has few side effects, but consult your health care professional before taking it if you are pregnant or nursing.

Enlarged Prostate

The Best Herb: Most men age 50 and older need to know about saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). This herb reduces the symptoms of enlarged prostate, a common problem of aging. A recent review of more than 20 controlled human trials concluded that saw palmetto reduced the symptoms of enlarged prostate, including nighttime bathroom trips, as effectively as pre scription medication but with fewer side effects. Scientists originally thought saw palmetto worked like drugs for enlarged prostate. But recent research disproves this, McCaleb says, and the exact mechanism of the herb is still a mystery.

The Best Dose: Take 320 to 640 mg of saw palmetto daily, Saunders recommends. You’ll absorb the herb better if you take it with a meal that contains a little fat. You’ll start to notice a difference in a month to six weeks, with progressive improvements for six months that then hold steady for as long as you take the herb. Saw palmetto may artificially reduce prostate specific antigen (PSA) scores (which are thought to indicate your prostate cancer risk), so make sure to tell your doctor that you’re taking it.


The Best Herb: You can’t beat Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) as a fatigue-buster. It safely and effectively strengthens your adrenal glands so that your body responds better to stress (something we could all use), Meletis says. This well-researched herb may also regulate your sleep cycle so that you feel more rested, and studies show that it can even improve the energy levels of shift workers.

The Best Dose: Take 400 mg in capsule form or 15 to 20 drops of liquid extract. Choose the nonstandardized form, and take one dose with breakfast and a second dose with lunch, Meletis recommends. Avoid taking the herb later in the day because it may make it harder to fall asleep at night. You should feel less tired within a few hours of your first dose. Don’t use Siberian ginseng if you’re pregnant or nursing, have heart disease or high blood pressure, or you take blood thinners like warfarin.

Hay Fever

The Best Herb: If you suffer from hay fever, the herb eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis) is a “phenomenal” solution, Winston says. Eyebright appears to make your immune system less reactive to airborne allergens. Although Winston and other practitioners know eyebright works, scientists have not subjected the herb to human trials. But they do know that the herb contains anti-inflammatory and astringent compounds, which reduce swelling and itching and dry up a runny nose.

The Best Dose: Take 1/4 teaspoon of eyebright liquid extract four times a day as needed. You should notice some improvement within z4 hours, although severe congestion may take longer to improve. The herb appears to be safe, but don’t use it without the help of a health care professional if you’re pregnant or nursing.


The Best Herb: The herpes virus can be virulent, but you’ll be surprised to learn that a garden herb can beat the symptoms into submission. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) can treat and prevent cold sores and genital herpes, both of which are caused by the herpes virus. Compounds in lemon balm appear to bind to the virus’ receptor sites, preventing it from spreading. And the herb reduces symptoms like itching, burning, swelling, and tingling, and speeds healing, according to several double-blind, placebo-controlled human studies in Europe. Regular use of lemon balm cream may prevent future outbreaks.

The Best Dose: Apply a thick coat of lemon balm cream with a concentration of 70 to 1 to the affected area at least four times a day. (The concentration will be listed on the label.) You should begin to feel relief immediately. The herb has few to no side effects and can be used topically even if you are pregnant. Herpes is highly contagious and lemon balm does not prevent it from spreading to another person.

High Blood Pressure

The Best Herb: The herb dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) may quell high blood pressure. It works like prescription diuretics by decreasing your blood volume, which decreases your blood pressure, Meletis explains. Although researchers haven’t studied the effect of this herb on people with high blood pressure, herbalists say they’ve seen it work in their patients.

The Best Dose: Take 400 to 800 mg of dandelion leaf (not root) capsules, divided into two doses with meals. You should experience the diuretic effect within a few hours (meaning you’ll urinate more), and the blood pressure benefits should last for as long as you take the herb. Do not take dandelion if you have gallstones or a bile duct obstruction; it can exacerbate your problem. Consult your doctor before taking dandelion if you’re pregnant or nursing. Diuretics can alter the effect of some prescription medicines, so talk to your doctor before using them.

High Cholesterol

The Best Herb: No one knows exactly how the Indian herb guggul (Commiphora mukul) works, but it may bind to cholesterol in your gut so that you eliminate it before it enters your bloodstream, Winston says. Researchers have studied guggul for 30 years and one 1994 study stands out. Published in Cardiovascular Drugs and Therapy, it found that guggul reduced serum cholesterol by about 18 per, cent, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol by 13 percent, and triglycerides by 12 percent.

The Best Dose: If you have high cholesterol, be sure to use guggul with the guidance of a health care practitioner. Take 250 to 500 mg three times daily with meals. Consult your practitioner before taking guggul if you’re pregnant or nursing. In rare cases, some people may experience mild gastrointestinal distress, nausea, or a skin rash; reduce your dose if these occur.


The Best Herb: Your dreams of a blissful sleep can come true if you take valerian (Valeriana officinalis). The herb contains valproic acid, a substance that helps people relax and fall sleep, Saunders says. In a 2000 double-blind study, German scientists gave 75 insomniacs either valerian or a prescription insomnia drug 30 minutes before bedtime. Valerian worked just as well as the drug and had fewer side effects. Another study found that valerian helps people who can’t sleep due to stress.

The Best Dose: Take 1/2 teaspoon of valerian liquid extract in a few ounces of water at dinnertime and again at bedtime, Saunders recommends. Put the bottle next to your bed; if you wake up in the night, take IA teaspoon more. Scan labels to find a liquid extract made with the fresh root and rhizome rather than pills or liquid extracts made from dried valerian, Hobbs says. Don’t use valerian if you’ve had more than a glass or two of wine with dinner; alcohol will magnify the herb’s effect. Be aware that some people may be stimulated rather than calmed by this herb; stop taking valerian if it makes you feel jittery. Consult your health care practitioner before taking valerian if you are pregnant or nursing.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

The Best Herb: Just a tiny amount of peppermint oil (Mentha piperita) can curtail the frustrating symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The oil relaxes the smooth muscle in your colon, stopping the cramps and spasms that afflict IBS sufferers. It may also relieve constipation, a common IBS symptom, by strengthening the muscle contractions that move waste through your intestines, Saunders says. A recent review of natural therapies for gastrointestinal problems found that peppermint capsules effectively decreased pain for kids with IBS.

The Best Dose: Take an enteric-coated capsule containing o.2 ml of peppermint oil at dinner and another capsule at bedtime, Saunders recommends. The enteric coating helps the capsule stay intact until it reaches your intestines, where it relieves IBS symptoms. The menthol in peppermint oil may cause heartburn in some people (if this happens, try taking it before you eat dinner, Saunders says). Do not take it while pregnant or nursing without the advice of a health care practitioner.

Memory loss

The Best Herb: If your memory is fading, promising research suggests that the Indian herb bacopa (Bacopa monnieri) can sharpen it. A double-blind, placebo-controlled study published last summer found that adults who took bacopa daily had better short-term memories than those who took a placebo. Animal studies indicate that the herb works by activating the memory section of the brain, allowing it to perform better.

The Best Dose: Bacopa can be difficult to find; look for either powder or capsules in natural food stores or on the Internet. If you use the powder, mix 1/4 to 1 teaspoon in 1 cup of water and drink 3 cups a day. If you find capsules, take 60 mg three times a day. You should notice an improvement in two to four weeks, but you must use bacopa daily to get results. The benefits will last only as long as you take the herb. Bacopa has no known side effects, but consult your health care practitioner before taking it if you are pregnant or nursing.


The Best Herb: If you suffer from migraines, you must try feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium). A review of six double-blind, placebo-controlled human studies conducted on feverfew concluded that it prevents migraines in most people and has few side effects. The herb appears to work by inhibiting the release of serotonin, a brain chemical that may trigger migraines, and by relaxing constricted blood vessels in your head.

The Best Dose: Take 125 mg of feverfew standardized to 0.2 to 0.7 percent parthenolides twice a day with food, Saunders recommends. It may take up to four weeks of daily use to notice results, and you must take it indefinitely. Feverfew will not stop a migraine in progress. In rare cases it can cause mild stomach upset. There are no known drug interactions, but talk to your doctor if you’re already taking conventional migraine drugs. Do not take feverfew without first consulting a health care practitioner if you are pregnant or nursing.

Nighttime Vision Loss

The Best Herb: If your vision fails after dark, the European herb bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) can make a noticeable short-term improvement in your sight, Winston says. During World War II, British Air Force pilots ate jars of bilberry jam before flying night missions to improve their night vision. Purple pigments in the berries, called anthocyanins, regenerate an essential protein in your eyes known as “visual purple.” This protein is broken down in sunlight, which can dim your vision. The berries also protect your eyes against free radical damage caused by age and sunlight; studies in the 1980s found that bilberry extract stopped the progression of cataracts and diabetes-related eye damage.

The Best Dose: Take 120 to 240 mg of bilberry extract capsules twice daily, or eat 1/4 to 1/2 cup of blueberries daily (blueberries, a cousin of bilberries, work the same way, Winston says). Consult your health care professional before taking the capsules if you are pregnant or nursing.


The Best Herb: A proven soother of gastrointestinal ailments, deglycyrrhizinated licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) or DGL helps gastric ulcers the same way it eases acid reflux, by coating the irritated tissues and reducing inflammation. DGL also increases levels of prostaglandins, fatty acids that help protect and heal ulcers. Several controlled studies have found that DGL treats ulcers as effectively as conventional ulcer drugs but with fewer side effects. Conventional drugs actually suppress your body’s production of prostaglandins, increasing your risk of future ulcers and severe bleeding.

The Best Dose: Chew two to four 250 mg tablets of DGL twice daily with meals. DGL is safe for long-term use and you must take it daily to get results. If you have a Helicobacter pylori infection, which is thought to cause many ulcers, be aware that DGL doesn’t kill bacteria. If you know you have H. pylori, use the herb goldenseal with DGL. Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) is rich in an antibiotic compound called berberine. Take up to four 500 mg capsules of goldenseal a day with meals. 10ng-term use of this herb may disrupt the good bacteria in your intestines, so don’t take it for more than a week without consulting a health care practitioner. Avoid both DGL and goldenseal if you’re pregnant or nursing.

Varicose veins

The Best Herb: Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) can minimize unsightly varicose veins and prevent future ones. Aescin and other compounds in the herb shore up weak capillaries and veins, reducing existing varicose veins and relieving the pain and swelling that accompany them. Horse chestnut effectively reduced leg pain from chronic venous insufficiency (a condition related to varicose veins) more than four times as effectively as a placebo, according to 13 studies involving more than 11,000 people. Be aware that the herb will only treat mild to moderate varicose veins; if yours are severe, the herb will not reverse them.

The Best Dose: To treat existing varicose veins, take 300 mg of horse chestnut capsules twice a day. To prevent varicose veins, take IO to 2,0 drops of horse chestnut liquid extract three times a day, Winston says. You’ll need to take it for four to eight weeks to notice a difference. You may experience mild side effects like stomach upset, headache, and nausea; reduce your dose if this occurs. Horse chestnut thins your blood, so don’t mix it with blood thinners like warfarin or aspirin or take it before surgery. Consult your health care practitioner before taking it if you’re pregnant or nursing.

Getting Started

Where to Find These Herbs

To purchase the herbs featured in this guide, consider the following sources.

Stop in Your Favorite Shop. You’ll find many of these herbs in a natural food store or supplement store and even in many drugstores. If you don’t see what you need on the shelf, ask a sales clerk or store manager. If the store doesn’t stock an herb, the manager can usually special order it for you.

Surf for Supplements. Websites often offer a wider selection of herbs than stores because they have unlimited shelf space. Favor sites that offer detailed information about the herbs (for example, the Latin name and the strength of each herb); these are more likely to sell high-quality products. Try www .amarketnaturalfoods.com, www.frontierherb.com (a source of bulk herbs), www.herbaladvisor.com, and www.iherb.com.

Consider This

The Most Helpful Herb Books

Try these user-friendly herb references to learn more about the herbs you’d like to use.

Complete Guide to Safe Herbs (Dorling Kindersley, 2002), written by naturopath Chris Meletis, N.D., and the editors of Natural Health, describes herb-drug combinations you must avoid as well as herbs that work well together to solve health complaints.

The Green Pharmacy Herbal Handbook (Rodale, 2000) by botanist James A. Duke, Ph.D., gives how-to information on more than 180 herbs. The herbs are listed alphabetically, but the index allows you to search for solutions by ailment. A simple rating system shows you how safe and how thoroughly researched each herb is.

The New Healing Herbs (Bantam, 2002) by health journalist Michael Castleman contains a chart of the best herbs for 100 health problems. This paperback offers comprehensive, easy-to-read information about each herb, including doses.

Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal (Storey Books, 2001) by herbalist Rosemary Gladstar isn’t a technical book; you won’t find information about the latest clinical research. What you will get is friendly advice divided into sections that address the main health concerns of women, men, children, and elders. You’ll also learn how to use herbs in beauty treatments and cooking.

Consider This

When Good Herbs Get Bad Press

You’ve seen the headlines: St. John’s wort and echinacea don’t work. Kava kava is toxic to your liver. If these herbs are in your medicine cabinet, it’s easy to become concerned and discouraged. Our experts offer this advice about how to read between the lines of these news stories.

Consider the Big Picture. “One study doesn’t prove anything,” points out Davis, Calif.-based herbalist and acupuncturist Christopher Hobbs, L.Ac. If previous studies consistently showed different results, a single study means little. It’s usually unnecessary to change your habits until the results can be verified by later studies.

Check a Trusted Source for Comments, Organizations like the American Botanical Council (ABC) often respond to new research about herbs. These groups point out details that might flaw a study, like that researchers used too weak a dose or treated patients for too short a time. When you see news of a study, get the ABC’s take by calling 512-926-4900 or visiting www.herbalgram.com. And talk to your doctor about herb headlines. She may not follow herb news closely, but it’s worth asking.

Don’t Ignore Headlines. Skepticism about herb headlines is healthy, but don’t tune them out. Negative studies are as important as positive ones because they help us gain a new understanding of herbs. “They raise questions,” Meletis says. “Maybe we need to be more specific about dosing, or maybe certain populations aren’t intended to have an herb.”

Maria Noel Mandile is a freelance writer who lives in Derry, N.H.

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