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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Herbs, But Perhaps Didn’t Think to Ask…Herbal Benefits and Caveats By Ruth Sackman and Consuelo Reyes

Nearly every week, it seems, we hear or read about some new “miracle” herb that is the answer to our modem ills. Consequently, companies, recognizing the financial advantages, are aggressive in promoting this new market niche, sometimes beyond reality. It is, therefore, in your interest to become as knowledgeable as possible about these gifts of nature in order to reap the greatest benefit and guarantee no harm.

Some herbs are merely refreshing and savory while others are actually medicine, natural medicine without the complications which can manifest from chemicals, nevertheless, medicinal in quality. Therefore, they need to be used judiciously. Medicinal herbs should be taken until they accomplish their purpose and then it would be wise to discontinue their use.

The following excerpt from the Introduction to The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Herbs by Joseph Kadans, N.D., Ph.D., (published in 1970, now out-of-print), is an excellent introduction to the subject:

Herbs and spices. A dictionary defines an herb as a seed plant which does not develop woody persistent tissue, as that of a shrub or a tree, but is more or less soft or succulent. A spice is any of the various vegetable productions which are fragrant or aromatic and pungent to the taste. Thus, herbs may be spices as well as herbs.

Most herbs and spices are dried or cured under the sun of the countries in which they grow and are cultivated. For example, the ginger root is dug from the earth and then is cleaned before it is dried and exported. Sometimes it is also peeled and sometimes some ginger root is boiled in sugar and preserved before it reaches the consumer. Cloves are flower buds while peppercorns are dried berries. The nutmeg is the dried seed of the kernel of the fruit of a tropical tree.

Herbs as medicines. The very first and only true medicines ever used were those derived from the vegetable kingdom. Any vegetables appearing on the table are considered as foods, while any bitter tasting vegetable or growth is considered as a medicine. It is almost forgotten that in the olden days bitters were common to the table. They were made from herbs that had ample supplies of potash present and were very good tonics because they contained potassium, a mineral that is the building cement of muscle and nerve tissue. Animals, such as horses, often know what foods are good for them. Horses will often eat fence rails because the wood is filled to a degree with potash, containing potassium.

Herbs as healing agents. Herbs act as astringents, alkalinizers, acidifiers, tonics, diuretics, diaphoretics [sweat inducing], laxatives and serve other purposes.

There is a class of herbs known as nervines, which are nerve foods. These herbs are mineral foods furnishing potash, magnesium and phosphorus. The nerves themselves are made up of potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, and sodium in a major degree, although there are other elements. Lecithin is also a major organic element and therefore the presence of lecithin in the food is essential for the nerves to be regulated and relaxed.

Grains have an embryo in their centers and it is in the embryo that lecithin, Vitamin E and phosphorus are found. This is why whole grain cereals are so much better for us. Even better yet is the sprout, for when the seed starts to open and come to life, then the activity of life is increased and the values are more easily assimilated into the body. Lecithin is in the oil of the grain and is more or less destroyed by heating, due to the oxidation of the phosphorus. Therefore, the raw sprouts are excellent foods.

Nervines. There are two classes of nerve foods. There are the excitors and the relaxors or depressors. The excitors are the highly acid factors and low in mineral content. The depressors are the elements that conserve or restrict the flow of energy and are more alkaline. Bromine is one of the depressors. Other depressors are any inorganic substances high in carbon and low in hydrogen. Alcohol slowly starves the tissues and more especially the nerves. Alcohol relaxes the nerves, for the minerals are taken from the nerves by the alcoholic action and may also cause the tissues to become subject to malnutrition and slow starvation.

Organic foods and nerves. Organic foods such as celery, cucumbers, garlic, honey, molasses, red pepper, ginger, and cloves have a direct effect on the nerves and tend to assist in maintaining a reserve of energy. Therefore they are sources of nerve regeneration as well as providing minerals. Iodine compounds in foods, especially in ocean foods, have a direct action through the thyroid gland, to stimulate the cells and tissues and excite the nerves to contraction. This contraction is brought about by the action of iodine itself. Ocean plants furnish iodine in the best form. Health food stores have dulse and kelp, and these are best in all respects for slow assimilation, along with other minerals that are common to the ocean plants that furnish potassium with iodine. Ocean plants or herbs are a fine source of minerals for health.

Here are a few comments and caveats regarding some of today’s high profile botanicals. Though often highly promoted in literature and other media, they are often misunderstood and misused:


“Immune enhancing” is a big buzzword in the marketplace today and echinacea, also known as purple cone flower, is much touted for its effectiveness in this regard. Actually, according to traditional herbal practice, echinacea is recommended for its antiseptic qualities destroying bacteria and as a blood cleanser or detoxifier which, of course, could have the ultimate effect of unburdening, ergo revitalizing, a tired immune system.

The root and leaves of echinacea are used for their medicinal qualities, including treating blood impurity diseases such as boils, gangrenous conditions, bites and stings of insects or snakes, pus formations, sores, infections, wounds, sore throat (used as gargle), tonsillitis, typhoid fever, abscesses, glandular inflammations, cerebro-spinal meningitis, diphtheria, tetanus, septemcemia (infection of blood), uremia (condition of blood containing urea, ordinarily excreted as urine through the kidneys) and ulcers. It is reported to have given relief in cases of dyspepsia (difficult and painful digestion) and relieves ulcer pain of the gastrointestinal tract. This herb has also been reported to have analgesic (pain-ending) powers, including relief of hemorrhoids. (reference: Encyclopedia of Medicinal Herbs by Joseph Kadans, N.D., Ph.D.)

But there may be another side to echinacea. In laboratory studies on Infertility and Herbal Medicine at Loma Linda University School of Medicine: “Echinacea along with gingko and St. John’s Wort was found to impair human sperm’s ability to penetrate hamster eggs. In the absence of these herbs, the sperm penetrated 63 to 88 percent of the eggs. This dropped to 13 percent in eggs incubated with echinacea and to 0 percent in those exposed to gingko and St. John’s Wort. The moral is not to panic and avoid the use of these herbs because of these possible effects, but rather that herbs must be used judiciously for the treatment of a specific problem and then discontinued. Unlike synthetic drugs, these side effects usually disappear when discontinued.


Senna has been used for over eleven centuries as an herbal laxative and remains popular today. The most effective parts of the plant for habitual constipation are the fruits or pods brown elliptical legumes thought to resemble the human stool!

Because it is milder than chemical commercial laxatives, senna is a better choice to relieve occasional constipation. However, it works by irritating the intestinal lining to stimulate peristalsis which might lead to poor muscle tone and dependence over prolonged use. This is in contrast to a more whole-body approach, such as enemas to clean the bowel and improve muscle tone. Therefore, it might be helpful to have some senna on hand for occasional use.

Saw Palmetto

Saw palmetto is much in the news these days as an effective, non-toxic treatment for prostate problems. But it is actually valuable for a much wider range of conditions.

Traditionally, the berries of saw palmetto, fresh or dried, have been recommended. It seems that the plant has a marked effect upon glandular tissues. Therefore, it is not surprising that it is effective for prostate problems since the prostate is a gland. Not surprisingly it has also been used for improving and increasing the function and size of the mammary glands in women.

Jethro Kloss in his classic herbal guide Back to Eden recommends saw palmetto as very useful in asthma and all kinds of throat troubles, especially when there is excessive mucous discharge from the head and nose, colds, bronchitis, whooping cough, sore throat, etc.

It’s important to note that though no toxic effects have been attributed to saw palmetto, when it has served it’s purpose, it is wise to discontinue it’s use.


Nutmeg is a culinary spice used in sweet and savory dishes in many cultures. According to Lesley Bremness in The Eyewitness Handbook of Herbs (see book review p. 13), “nutmeg increases the intoxicating and soporific effect of alcoholic drinks and is claimed to be an aphrodisiac. It is prescribed for flatulence and nausea.” She notes, however, that large doses of nutmeg are toxic, because of the presence of myristicin, an hallucinogen.

So, unless you’re interested in a psychedelic experience, a few dashes of nutmeg should suffice!

St. John’s Wort

St. John’s Wort is much touted these days as a substitute for Prozac, Paxil, Zantac, etc., for anxiety or depression. Studies have shown this nervine to be as effective as these pharmaceutical drugs in treatment of mild depression without the side effects. However, it’s important to inject some balance into the euphoria. Most proponents of alternative medicine particularly studies done in Germany tend to celebrate only the marvelous advantages of St. John’s Wort over commercial products, with no mention of any downside. On the other hand, a conventionally-oriented institution such as John’s Hopkins University quotes a litany of studies indicating possible adverse effects and would prefer that patients stick with the patented drugs. Loma Linda (see “echinacea” above), notes a link between St. John’s and lowered fertility.

Common sense is in order. It would certainly seem to be prudent to try St. John’s Wort before resorting to powerful pharmaceuticals with well documented side effects. But always err on the side of caution. Use St. John’s Wort according to traditional recommendations to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety and then discontinue. Prolonged use can lead to imbalances, though, as we’ve said, the beauty of herbal medicine is that negative effects will usually dissipate when intake is curtailed, unlike synthetics which can cause lasting harm, even after you’ve stopped taking them.

A final caveat: when possible, try to use herbs grown in the U.S. In many cases herbs from foreign soil may be contaminated by pesticides which are restricted in this country. Though pesticides are, of course, prevalent in the American food supply, they are more regulated than in many other countries to which U. .S. manufacturers often sell their U.S. banned herbs.

In sum, herbals as medicine are a wonderful bounty bestowed upon mankind by nature. In most cases they are a much wiser choice than synthetic chemical medicines. But use them with full knowledge. Just because something is “natural” does not imply an unqualified green light. Certain caveats do apply.

The Physicians Desk Reference (PDR), the chief reference for doctors, is now publishing a PDR for Herbal Medicine.