Herbs are hot and getting hotter. Years ago, anyone interested in using or “prescribing” plants for medicinal purposes had to rely on folklore and anecdotes. There was little proven, reliable research on herbs (and most of it was in German). But with public demand, studies have mounted and we now have proof (even among U.S. scientists!) that herbs are viable treatments for many ailments.
“Herbs won’t replace pharmaceuticals, but research shows that for many conditions, herbs work well and are less expensive than drugs,” says integrative physician Frank Lipman, M.D., founder of Eleven-Eleven Wellness Center in New York City. And unlike drugs, which just use the active ingredient, herbs usually don’t have side effects, Lipman adds. “The herbs are still in a whole, natural state and the other parts of the plant often mitigate the side effects,” he explains.
Here, then, are 22 herbs that have been proven to treat 25 common conditions. Stick to the dosages specified here, in the studies or on the label—and make sure to tell your doctor about any herbs you plan to take, especially if you are pregnant or nursing, have a chronic condition or take medication regularly; remember that even though herbs are natural, they can still be contraindicated.
1. Aloe vera for burns Aloe vera is the herb for minor (second-degree) burns, confirmed by a Surgery Today study. Apply 100 percent pure gel to burns several times a day—or, better yet, keep a potted plant on your windowsill and snip off a thick leaf, slit it open and apply the gel to the burn.
2. Black cohosh for menopause A study published in the journal Menopause found that black cohosh may prevent bone degradation and stimulate vaginal lubrication. Previous meta analyses have indicated that the herb, which is an option for women who can’t take estrogen, worked better than a tranquilizer or estrogen for hot flashes and other symptoms of menopause. “The vast majority of studies show benefit,” says Mark Blumenthal of the American Botanical Council in Austin, Texas.
3. Boswellia for arthritis and joint injuries In a study published in Arthritis Research and Therapy, researchers gave people with osteoarthritis of the knee an extract of boswellia (5-Loxin). After three months, the herb group showed significantly greater relief than a placebo group.
4. Chaste tree for PMS A study published in the British Medical Journal involving 178 women with PMS found that chaste tree berry significantly reduced symptoms including irritability, depression, headaches and breast tenderness when taken over three menstrual cycles, especially when combined with St. John’s wort. (Note: Chaste tree may decrease the effectiveness of birth control pills.)
5. Cranberry for urinary tract infections (UTIs) Cranberry prevents bacteria from sticking to the bladder long enough to cause an infection. A Phytomedicine study showed that women who had contracted six UTIs within the past year went for four months without developing an infection while taking a cranberry capsule daily.