Herbalism may be hip among millennials but it was called to task long before conventional medicine was even conceived of. Prior to 500 B.C., plants—and solely plants at that—were relied upon for nearly every ailment under the sun, whether it was a rash, a sore throat or insomnia. Over time, herbal remedies may have been pushed into the background, but the resurgence of interest in plants’ potential benefits, coupled with emerging science, underscores what we’ve long intuited: Our ancestors had it right when they looked to Mother Earth for healing resources.
But where to start in the world of herbs can be dizzying for some, especially since the shelves of health food stores are frequently jam-packed with options. While it’s strongly advised to seek out the guidance of your primary care doctor or naturopathic physician, here are five herbs you may want to consider—and how they can naturally encourage health.
1. Panax Ginseng
Regular exercise, sound sleep, deep breathing—all can be hugely beneficial when life gets overwhelming. Turning to coffee to help you deal, however, can work against your best intentions, often creating even more anxiety when what you really need is immune strength and wholesome energy.
Enter Panax ginseng. Also known as Asian or Korean ginseng, it’s been used for over 2,000 years in traditional Chinese medicine, primarily as a tonic for fatigue and weakness. Understandably so: The herb is rich in ginsenosides—compounds that may thwart inflammation, promote vivacity, bolster immune health and support memory. Findings also suggest that Panax ginseng may help support healthy blood sugar levels.†
Get it: …in a Panax gingeng herbal supplement. Doses vary—typically between 200 to 400 mg daily—but check with your doctor first, as different conditions require different amounts. It's also available as a tea.
2. Ginkgo Biloba
One of my go-to antioxidants, this herb supoprts healthy blood flow throughout the body and supports the health of blood vessel walls, making it an excellent choice for anyone interested in heart health. Ginkgo biloba also increases circulation to the brain and can help enhance memory in the elderly. Additionally, the herb—which is used to “move” heart Qi and blood in traditional Chinese medicine—may thin your blood and lift your spirits.†
The ancient herb—also known as “maidenhair”—isn’t just potentially effective when it comes to cardiac health and the impacts of aging, either: According to the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, women who took 40 mg of ginkgo biloba daily experienced less severe PMS symptoms such as bloating and mood swings.†
Get it: Ginkgo biloba is available in a number of forms, including capsules, tablets and liquid extracts. Doses vary between 40 and 360 mg daily. (Again, check with your doctor.) You can also whip this herb into a tea by letting 1 ounce of dried ginkgo biloba leaves seep in 2 cups of hot water for 10 minutes (or, use gingko biloba tea bags).
Anxiety manifests in more ways than we can count—but synthetic remedies may cause even more problems for those prone to panic.
The beauty of chamomile—one of the most revered herbs around the globe—is that it organically supports calm, naturally. A study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, and funded by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, reveals that chamomile holds the potential to minimize symptoms associated with anxiety. The tea-drinker favorite has also been shown to organically support digestion, improve skin and, thanks to its potent levels of flavonoids, support heart health.†
Get it: Given its range of possible benefits, it ought to arrive as no surprise that chamomile is widely available in an equally wide range of forms. For the most powerful dose, look for extracts and dry powders of chamomile flowers (not their stems or roots). For tea, search for organic chamomile leaves to seep. For topical use, invest in a chamomile essential oil to use in a bath or mix in with your favorite, chemical-free lotion. (Bonus points: Chamomile can also reduce the sight of red, puffy eyes. Let tea bags cool and lay on closed eyelids. The impact is immediate—and impressive.)
Lavender’s lovely color and heavenly scent are enormously appealing, to be sure, but that’s just scratching the surface of this herb’s potential.
Acting as both a stimulant and a sedative, it may restore vitality as well as it may assuage your angst—or, to phrase it differently, it can give your mood a boost just as effectively as it can lead to a solid night’s sleep. Grown in the mountains of Africa and the Mediterranean, preliminary research further suggests that lavender may have neuroprotective benefits. And if you’ve noticed extra strands in your hairbrush, you may want to give a scalp massage with lavender oil a go: Research demonstrates that lavender oil can encourage hair growth when used for seven months or more.
Get it: One of the most delightful ways to enjoy the benefits of lavender is through aromatherapy: Add dried lavender or its essential oil to your bath, or use an essential oil diffuser to diffuse your room. You can also make tea from the dried herb by seeping a teaspoon of lavender in one cup of boiling water for ten minutes; strain and savor.
5. Milk Thistle
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Named for the white veins on its large, spiky leaves, this herb not only protects the liver from the damaging effects of toxins but also increases your liver’s ability to break toxins down. This is due to one of its active ingredients, a flavonoid known as “silymarin,” that’s “believed to have antioxidant properties,” the Mayo Clinic reports. What’s more, this member of the daisy family—which was once used to treat poison victims in Europe—helps compromised liver tissue regenerate, acts as an antioxidant, and prevents the depletion of glutathione—fundamental amino acids that have protective impacts and may bolster the immune system. And because of its antioxidant properties, milk thistle may quench harmful free radicals, thereby slowing the effects of aging.
Get it: Milk thistle is available as a capsule, extract, and tea. Should you go with a supplement, search for a high-quality product that contains between 50-150 mg of pure milk thistle per capsule (and review the proper dosing with your doctor, as it will depend on your needs). An extract, such as Vitacost's Synergy Milk Thistle Liquid Extract, is perfect for those who want to avoid taking pills; this particular product comes with a dropper to easily add the herb to your food or drinks. You can also grow your own milk thistle: Each plant head contains around 190 seeds that can be crushed, along with its leaves, for homemade tea. And if growing your own herbs isn’t a dive into plant medicine, what is?
†These statements have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.