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Herbs to the rescue: 10 plant remedies you can't do without.

If you're like most people, chances are your medicine cabinet is overflowing with a slew of manmade products, full of synthetic chemicals, petroleum, artificial colorings and animal by-products. From cortisone cream and mercurochrome to antihistamines and acetaminophen, many medicine cabinets resemble war arsenals To treat sprains, burns, cuts, bites and upset stomach, what other options do you have?

Plenty. As an alternative to pharmaceuticals, many consumers are enlisting the aid of a good defense - herbal remedies According to the World Health Organization, 80 percent of the world's people rely on plants for their medicines. And their use has skyrocketed in Europe and America in recent years, due primarily to concerns about booming health care costs and fears over the side effects of conventional medicines According to Health and Nutrition Breakthroughs, the overuse of antibiotics in Western medicine has also encouraged a revival of herbal remedies, as more and more bacterial strains become immune to antibiotic drugs.

If herbal medicine sounds intriguing, there are several things to consider before looting your local health food store. Herbal remedies come in many forms (tinctures, salves, ointments, capsules, tablets, extracts, dried, and essential oils, to name a few) and are produced two ways: cultivated (grown by farmers) and wildcrafted (naturally-occurring). With over 1,000 plant species threatened worldwide, many conservationists and health experts feel cultivation is the better option (see "Too Popular For Their Own Good," Currents, this issue).

According to the Herbal Research Foundation and the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies, while there are hundreds of herbal remedies for an array of maladies, the following should be the first additions to your herbal medicine cabinet:

ALOE VERA - Many people are already familiar with aloe vera's ability to soothe minor burns. It's also used for sunburns, scratches, abrasions and poison ivy, oak and sumac (applied topically). A member of the lily family, aloe vera's pointy leaves seep a sticky gel when cut, which is scooped out and applied directly to wounds and burns. An anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antifungal, aloe contains salicylates, which have pain-reducing properties similar to aspirin. When used for burns, aloe also helps prevent swelling, repair damaged cells, fight infection and prevent scarring, according to the American Botanical Council.

ARNICA - Best bought as an extract, cream or salve, arnica, also known as mountain daisy, is great for black eyes, bruises and sprains. "Arnica is currently available only in wildcrafted form," says Feather Jones, director of the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies, "but some of us are trying to change that by encouraging its cultivation." For best results, apply creams, salves or extract drops externally to wounded tissue. Arnica is not for internal consumption, and effective preparations should contain 15 percent arnica oil.

CAYENNE - Though it may sound masochistic, sprinkling powdered cayenne pepper on an open wound is a harmless and effective way to staunch the flow of blood, while speeding up the process of scabbing of the skin and reducing pain. Capsaicin, the ingredient in cayenne pepper that makes your eyes water and your mouth feel afire, also has the remarkable ability to suppress pain messages to the brain. Cayenne capsules (taken orally) are also effective in slowing down blood flow to injured areas - especially when compresses aren't working quickly enough, or when compression isn't possible (eye wounds for instance).

CHAMOMILE - Most popular as a tea (over one million cups are drunk each day worldwide), chamomile - a white daisy look-alike - is a mild, but popular remedy for intestinal gas, inflammation and upset stomach. Its mild, bitter action improves digestion and calms stomach spasms, and works great on "nervous indigestion brought on by stress," according to the American Botanical Council. It's also used as a sleeping relaxant, antibacterial and anti-allergen agent.

ECHINACEA - A member of the daisy family and native to North American woodlands and prairies, echinacea is the most popular herbal supplement on the market, and with good reason: Its anti-inflammatory and antibiotic properties serve as effective gauntlets for flu and cold viruses. Also known as purple coneflower, this perennial helps rid the body of infection by increasing phagocytosis (the engulfing of viruses, bacteria and other invaders by white blood cells). Used by Plains Indians to fight off wound infections, snake bites and sore throats, echinacea is recommended by herbal practitioners as a first line of defense before resorting to any conventional antibiotics. It also suppresses allergic reactions caused by insect bites and stings.

FEVERFEW - Feverfew has been used to treat headaches for well over 2,000 years. A pain reducer, this white-and-yellow member of the aster family has had great success in clinical trials concerning its effects on migraine headaches - a troubling condition that often doesn't respond to modern pharmaceuticals. Abnormal blood platelet formation has been implicated as the cause of migraines, resulting in constricted blood vessels. Feverfew has been shown to inhibit serotonin, the chemical ultimately responsible for such constrictions.

GARLIC - Heart disease fighter. Immune system booster. Antibacterial. Cholesterol inhibitor. Is there anything that garlic can't do? One of those plants that does triple-time as food, seasoning and medicine, garlic's clinical trials all point to its effectiveness in lowering "bad" (LDL) cholesterol levels and inhibiting atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). And The Journal of the National Cancer Institute reported in 1988 that consumption of garlic and other allium vegetables (onions, scallions and chives) was directly correlated to lower rates of stomach cancer.

GINGER - Another example of how plants serve as food, spice and medicine, ginger root alleviates nausea, diarrhea and soothes gastro-intestinal tracts. Studies also point to its effectiveness against the most common family of cold viruses. A study by pharmacologist Dr. Daniel Mowrey cites ginger as more effective than dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) for motion and sea sickness, and many pregnant women will attest to ginger's success in conquering morning sickness.

PEPPERMINT - Used to treat upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea, colds, headaches and cramps, this hearty hybrid of spearmint and water mint can be easily grown on any windowsill. Peppermint oil has significant antimicrobial effects, according to botanist Steven Foster, and relieves the itching of poison ivy, oak and sumac. It's also recommended for digestive gas, colic in children, and irritable bowel syndrome.

VALERIAN - Used as a sleep aid, valerian (of the same-named family) is popular among insomniacs because it's non-habit-forming. But because the plant smells like a bunch of sweaty gym shoes, many people prefer taking the odor-free capsules. (Herbalists recommend one teaspoon doses of the fresh extract.) Found in virtually every pharmacopoeia in the world, valerian's reputation in easing menstrual cramps, anxiety and nervous stomach also makes it a popular herb.

Sage Advice

Unlike many pharmaceuticals, which must be tested for safety by the Food and Drug Administration, herbal supplements and teas are not required to undergo rigorous approval. Nor are they allowed to claim specific medical 'benefits on their labels because of Food and Drug Administration labeling laws. Therefore, first-time herbalists should arm themselves with information, and not be afraid to question herbal attendants in stores.

And because plant-based medicines are exactly that - medicines - herbal practitioners suggest consulting your doctor if you are already taking prescription or other over-the-counter drugs. Allowing Mother Nature to soothe ailing bodies not only lessens a dependency on chemicals, it also nurtures an appreciation of our richly botanical world.

CONTACT: American Botanical Council (co-publishes the quarterly HerbalGram with the Herb Research Foundation), PO Box 201660, Austin, TX 78720/(512)331-8868; Herb Research Foundation (runs the Natural Healthcare Hotline: 303-449-2265), 1007 Pearl Street, Suite 200, Boulder, CO 80302/(303)449-2265; Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies, 2639 Spruce Street, Boulder, CO 80302/(303) 442-6861.

TRACEY C. REMBERT is managing editor of E.
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Title Annotation:Green Living
Author:Rembert, Tracey C.
Publication:E
Date:Jan 1, 1998
Words:1269
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