How To Begin Using Herbal Supplements
Dr. Renata Trister DO
Starting your journey into herbal supplements can be challenging. Exciting headlines of the latest studies are everywhere, but often leave us baffled. There is an overwhelming amount of products, brands, and preparations. Which ones are safe? Who can you trust? Which should you buy and try?
To the herbal novice, starting to take herbal supplements can be a confusing and scary endeavor because there’s a lack of regulated, clear communication to consumers on ingredient quality, effectiveness, and proven health benefits. However, when taken properly, herbal supplements can support many conditions, such as stress reduction, weight management, immune system support and combating depression. The key is to keep it simple and stay safe.
Where To Start
Although it may be tempting to go after the “latest and greatest” herb or supplement, in my opinion, the herbs that deserve the most attention are a bit more conservative. The following is a list of herbs that not only have the largest amount of clinical data, but also have hundreds of years of use and are viewed as sacred by multiple generations of herbalists in many cultures.
Adaptogens are non-toxic plants that help the body resist various stressors – physical, chemical or biological. These herbs and roots have been used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic healing traditions. They help the body adapt to stress and to exert a normalizing effect upon bodily processes (adapt to internal/external stressors, fight fatigue, increase stamina but also mitigate anxiety and stress). Adaptogens benefit mental function, feelings of calmness and may help fight fatigue and enhance physical activity by lowering oxidative damage and increasing energy production in cells. Panax Ginseng, Rhodiola, Schisandra Berry, Eleuthero or Siberian Ginseng and Turmeric are the most revered herbal adaptogens. These herbs have a wide range of uses and come with very few downsides. They also can be used together or in various combinations for a synergistic effect.
Panax Ginseng (Panax ginseng) has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. Ginseng has beneficial antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Some test-tube studies have shown that ginseng extracts and ginsenoside compounds could inhibit inflammation and increase antioxidant capacity in cells. It can help reduce inflammatory markers and help protect against oxidative stress. Panax ginseng is an amazing adaptogen. It also seems to be beneficial in the control of blood glucose in people both with and without diabetes.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola Rosea) also is an adaptogen and acts in non-specific ways to increase resistance to stress, without disturbing normal biological functions. This herb grows at high altitudes in the arctic areas of Europe and Asia, and its root has been used in traditional medicine in Russia and the Scandinavian countries for centuries. Studies of Rhodiola rosea’s medicinal applications have appeared in the scientific literature of Sweden, Norway, France, Germany, the Soviet Union and Iceland. Rhodiola rosea is still widely used in Russia as a tonic and remedy for fatigue, poor attention span, and decreased memory; it is also believed to make workers more productive. In Sweden and other Scandinavian countries it is used to increase the capacity for mental work and to boost general strength and vitality.
Numerous studies of rhodiola in both human and animal models have indicated that it helps prevent fatigue, stress, and the damaging effects of oxygen deprivation. Evidence also suggests that it acts as an antioxidant, enhances immune system function, and can increase sexual energy.
Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) is widely used in traditional Chinese medicine. This berry growns East Asia, where it is called Wu Wei Zi, or “five flavor fruit,” because the berries possess all five basic flavors: salty, sweet, sour, pungent, and bitter. Schisandra has been used as a supportive treatment for coughs, indigestion, diarrhea, flu and premenstrual syndrome. It is traditionally used to support your body’s capacity to handle stress, sustain energy and concentration. It is also known to support healthy liver function, which can reduce the signs of stress and inflammation of the skin.
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) Eleuthero or Siberian ginseng, grows in mountain forests and is native to eastern Asia including China, Japan, and Russia. Traditional Chinese Medicine has used eleuthero for reducing lethargy, fatigue, as well as for increasing endurance and resilience to various stresses. A compound found in eleutherococcus called eleutheroside appears to reduce the severity and duration of herpes simplex 2 infections. It is also a great herb to take to reduce the duration of the common cold (especially when combined with an herb called andrographis).
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is actually a very common spice that spans centuries of use in many cultures. Botanically related to ginger turmeric has tremendous anti-inflammatory properties. One of the most comprehensive summaries of turmeric benefits was published by the respected James A. Duke, Phd.
Reviewing some 700 studies looking at turmeric’s health benefits, Duke concluded that turmeric appears to outperform many pharmaceuticals in its effects against several chronic, debilitating diseases, and does so with virtually no adverse side effects.
Here are some of the diseases that turmeric has been found to help prevent or alleviate:
Alzheimer’s disease: Over 50 studies on turmeric’s effects in addressing Alzheimer’s disease were analyzed. The reports indicate that extracts of turmeric contain a number of natural agents that block the formation of beta-amyloid, the substance responsible for the plaques that slowly obstruct cerebral function in Alzheimer’s disease.
Arthritis: Turmeric contains over two dozen anti-inflammatory compounds, including six different COX-2-inhibitors (the COX-2 enzyme promotes pain, swelling and inflammation; inhibitors selectively block that enzyme). Curcumin – the component in turmeric most often cited for its healthful effects – is a multifaceted anti-inflammatory agent. Turmeric can be used to alleviate occasional aches and pains as well as an herbal alternative to ibuprofen.
Always Be Safe
Botanicals are medicine. They can have powerful physiological effects. I strongly suggest you consult with your doctor before starting an herbal regimen. Experience and education are key.
Herbal supplements are regulated by the FDA. These regulations improved somewhat when the FDA introduced mandatory Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) in 2007. GMP is a set of requirements and expectations by which dietary supplements must be manufactured to guarantee ingredient identity, purity, and composition. GMPs aim to prevent misleading claims, the addition of too much or too little of a dietary ingredient, the possibility of contamination (by pesticides and heavy metals such as lead, bacteria, etc.), and the improper packaging and labeling of a product. Companies who adhere to this set of guidelines are starting to produce more effective and reliable herbal remedies. However, the active ingredient level of an herb is still a recommendation rather than a requirement. MediHerb upholds the highest quality of medicinal herbs, creating both single herbs and multi-herb blends giving consumers the ability to find mixes of herbs for specific needs. They adhere to standards that are above and beyond FDA/GMP’s requirements.