Plant Basics

Today, we live in a time when manufactured medicines and prescriptions prevail, but do they have to be the only approach to healing?

Even with all of these engineered options at our fingertips, many people find themselves turning back to the medicinal plants that started it all: Herbal remedies that have the ability to heal and boost physical and mental well-being.

In fact, at the beginning of the 21st century, 11 percentTrusted Source of the 252 drugs considered “basic and essential” by the World Health Organization were “exclusively of flowering plant origin.” Drugs like codeine, quinine, and morphine all contain plant-derived ingredients.

While these manufactured drugs have certainly become paramount in our lives, it can be comforting to know that the power of nature is on our side, and these herbal choices are available to complement our health practices.

But the extent of the power they hold is also still being explored. These alternatives aren’t cure-alls, and they aren’t perfect. Many carry the same risks and side effects as manufactured medicines. Many of them are sold with unfounded promises.

However, many herbs and teas offer harmless subtle ways to improve your health. Pay attention to what the evidence says about each herb’s effectiveness as well as potential interactions or safety issues. Avoid using herbs for infants and children and for those who are pregnant and breastfeeding. Most herbs haven’t been tested for safety for those who are vulnerable, and trying herbs isn’t worth the risk.

With this cautionary tale in mind, choosing the right plant can seem difficult to someone who simply wants to feel better without taking medication. That’s why, with the help of specialist Debra Rose Wilson, we’re looking at the most effective and therapeutic plants — which have strong scientific evidence to support their safe use.

Making decisions about herbs along with more traditional medicinal approaches is something you and your healthcare practitioner can address together. At times, Wilson notes, ingesting the plants can have even less risk than taking concentrated, manufactured supplements, as there’s more risk of contamination of the product with the manufacture processes. It’s a wonderful way to experience their effects and the satisfaction of growing them yourself. Herbs can also be a way to add a needed nutrient.

However, both plants and supplements, which aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration for safety or quality, can have questionable dosage and might have a risk of contamination. Keep this in mind before choosing supplements from the shelf.

If you’d like to add some medicinal plants to your wellness regimen, Wilson sifted through the latest studies and provides her own ratings system for our list.

These plants have the most numerous high-quality studies and are the safer choices among herbal remedies. She’s marked “0” as unsafe with no research, and “5” as completely safe with ample research. Many of these plants are somewhere between 3 and 4, according to Wilson.

We hope this guide will act as a starting point to those who wish to integrate herbal remedies into their lives and arrive armed with knowledge. As always, speak with your doctor before starting any new health treatment.

Gingko

Rating

Safety: 3/5

Evidence: 3.5/5

As one of the oldest tree species, gingko is also one of the oldest homeopathic plants and a key herb in Chinese medicine. The leaves are used to create capsules, tablets, and extracts, and when dried, can be consumed as a tea.

It’s perhaps best-known for its ability to boost brain health. Studies say that gingko can treat patients with mild to moderate dementiaTrusted Source, and can slow cognition decline in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Recent research is looking into a component that can help diabetes, and there continue to be more studies, including an animal study that says it might influence bone healing.

INTERESTING FACT

The gingko tree is considered a living fossil, with fossils dating from 270 million years ago. These trees can live up to 3,000 years.

Gingko could be beneficial for:

  • dementia
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • eye health
  • inflammation
  • diabetes
  • bone healing
  • anxiety
  • depression

Things to consider

  • Long-term use may increase chance of thyroid and liver cancer, which has been seen in rats.
  • It’s known to be hard on the liver, so liver enzymes may need to be monitored.
  • It can interact with blood thinners.
  • Gingko seeds are poisonous if ingested.
  • Side effects can include headache, upset stomach, dizziness, and allergic reaction.
  • Gingko use needs to be discussed with your doctor because of numerous drug interactions.

Turmeric

Rating

Safety: used as an herb: 5/5; used as a supplement: 4/5

Evidence: 3/5

With its brilliant orange hue, it’s impossible to miss a bottle of turmeric sitting on a spice shelf. Originating in India, turmeric is believed to have anticancer properties and can prevent DNA mutations.

As an anti-inflammatory, it can be taken as a supplement and it’s been used topically for people with arthritis who wish to relieve discomfort. It’s used worldwide as a cooking ingredient, which makes it a delicious, antioxidant-richTrusted Source addition to many dishes.

According to recent research, turmeric is also showing promise as a treatment for a variety of dermatologic diseases and joint arthritisTrusted Source.

INTERESTING FACT

Turmeric has been used as a medicinal herb for 4,000 years. It’s a tentpole of an Indian alternative medicine practice called Ayurveda.

Turmeric could be beneficial for:

  • pain caused by inflammatory diseases, like arthritis
  • preventing cancer
  • stopping DNA mutations
  • several skin diseases

Things to consider

  • When used as a supplement, people tend to take too much, so it can be difficult to trust the dosage and quality. Safety increases when ingested as an herb in cooking or tea.
  • Long-term use can potentially cause stomach problems.
  • Turmeric has low bioavailability. Consuming with pepper can help your body absorb more of its benefits.

Evening primrose oil

Rating

Safety: topically: 4.5/5; orally: 3/5

Evidence: 3/5

The vibrant yellow evening primrose flower produces an oil that’s thought to alleviate the symptoms of PMS and skin conditions like eczema.

Studies that are available on this oil tend to be all over the map, but there are studies that are stronger than others. For example, some studies have found that evening primrose oil has anti-inflammatory properties. It’s been known to help with conditions such as atopic dermatitis and diabetic neuropathyTrusted Source. It can also help with other health concerns, such as breast pain.

Recent research points to improving the quality of life for patients with multiple sclerosisTrusted Source, changing hormones and insulin sensitivity in those dealing with polycystic ovary syndrome, and using it topically to improve mild dermatitis.

According to these studies, evening primrose oil might just be the Swiss Army knife of the medicinal plant world. The caveat is that it can interact with several medications. More research is coming, and the applications are promising.