5 Cutting-Edge Superherbs

Science is just now discovering the potential of some of the world's oldest herbal remedies to fight aging, boost immunity, give you energy, even ease arthritis

Just when you think you know everything you need to know about herbs, take a trip to the health food store. You'll find the shelves packed with exotic herbal medicines that you've never even heard of, with names that you can't pronounce: ashwagandha, codonopsis, gotu kola, guggul, schisandra.

Are these herbs, traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine (the ancient medical system used in India) and in traditional Chinese medicine, important to us here in the West? Absolutely. These plants are a significant addition to your herbal medicine chest. Each satisfies the three criteria that I use to judge how medically useful an herb might be: They have a centuries-old history of effectiveness, solid scientific research confirms their traditional use, and respected herbal practitioners around the world recommend them to patients.

Let's take a look at these five exotic herbs to learn how they might help you.
Word to the Wise

As with any medication, herbal remedies can cause side effects and may interact with prescription or over-the-counter drugs. If you're already taking medication, talk to your health care practitioner before you take herbs. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should not take an herbal remedy without first consulting their health care practitioner.
The Energy Booster-Especially for Seniors Ashwagandha (Withania somniferum)

What Practitioners Recommend It For

Boosting energy, especially for seniors, reducing the effects of stress, reducing joint inflammation and relieving arthritis, improving sexual interest and performance

You wake up one morning and discover something terrible: You're no longer 25. You are, in fact, 50, 60, or 70. A day of gardening gives you sore knees. You run into an old friend, and you can't remember her name. Sex? You can't remember that either. Your get-up-and-go? Gone.

Enter ashwagandha. This Indian herb seems to make people stronger and more vital, especially those on the plus side of middle age. Here's why: As we age, we lose immune function. Our nervous system doesn't work as well as it used to either. So we're more vulnerable to infection and age-related diseases and disabilities, such as loss of sensation, hearing, and memory.

Ashwagandha has been shown to boost the body's immunity and resistance to disease, which, in effect, slows the aging process. It also seems to improve nervous system function; practitioners use it to treat patients who are physically or mentally stressed. (It seems to work by regulating the release of cortisol, a hormone that we produce when we're under stress.) Ashwagandha is also used to help age-related memory problems, and it has been shown to improve libido in men. For people who have creaky, cranky joints, ashwagandha contains a natural anti-inflammatory to help ease pain.
How to Use Ashwagandha

To help diminish some of the effects of aging, or for general strengthening purposes, take 250 milligrams (mg) of standardized ashwagandha extract in tablets morning and night.
Science says...
Ashwagandha

* Some compounds in ashwagandha have been found to increase the ability of mice and rats to learn and retain memories.
* Withaferin A, a compound in ashwagandha, has been shown to fight tumors, viruses, bacteria, and fungal infections. Withaferin A also has antiarthritic and anti-inflammatory activity.
* In a study of men who took ashwagandha, red blood cell counts improved, hemoglobin levels increased, and serum cholesterol levels decreased. Most interesting, 74.1% of the men reported improved sexual function.
* Ashwagandha compounds, called withanolides, have been found to increase the white blood cells' ability to kill bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

The Recuperator Codonopsis (Codonopsis pilosula)

What Practitioners Recommend It For

Treating weakness and fatigue after a serious illness such as influenza or pneumonia, or to speed convalescence. It's also useful for dealing with boils, abscesses, and bedsores that can occur during a prolonged recovery. Codonopsis should be used after the acute phase of an illness has passed and recovery is underway.

Ginseng is well known as an energy-boosting herb, but it's not right for everyone. Called "the poor man's ginseng," codonopsis is not only more common and cheaper than ginseng, it's also a better energy booster for younger people (under 45). As a matter of fact, in traditional Chinese medicine, ginseng is primarily recommended for people past middle age. The theory is that ginseng can overstimulate younger people, giving them headaches, nervousness, and insomnia. Codonopsis is an energy-boosting herb of choice for women; it doesn't disturb a woman's hormonal balance the way ginseng can. (Ginseng can sometimes cause menstrual irregularities or worsen menopausal symptoms.)
How to Use Codonopsis

This herb is no overnight sensation. You'll need to take it for several months before you feel more energetic. The average dose is 1/4 to 1 teaspoon of the tincture, three times a day. As a convalescent aid, use the same dosage for 1 month.
Science says...
Codonopsis

* Codonopsis has been shown to increase immune cell counts in rabbits.
* It has been shown to have an antifatigue effect in mice.
* In animal studies, codonopsis reduced ulcers caused by stress and acidic diets.
* Compounds in codonopsis called atractylenoids have been shown to act as general stimulants to the nervous system.

The Happy-Skin Herb Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica)

What Practitioners Recommend It For

To treat a variety of chronic and acute skin disorders; as a powerful addition to your first-aid kit A member of the carrot family, Umbelliferae, whose cousins include the healing herbs angelica, anise, caraway, and coriander, gotu kola is an aggressive weed universally used to treat skin conditions. It's found in Africa, Asia, and India. For thousands of years, wherever it grows, its prolific leaves and stems have been used to improve the skin.

It contains phytosterols, which resemble the steroids found in pharmaceutical preparations such as cortisone. These phytosterols are thought to be responsible for the herb's anti-inflammatory properties.

Clinically, gotu kola is used, both internally and applied topically, to improve chronic skin problems such as acne, acne rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis. An excellent first-aid herb, gotu kola can be taken on outdoor adventures to reduce the inflammation and discomfort of insect bites, poison ivy, and sunburn. It can also be used to speed recovery from slow-healing wounds and skin ulcers.

Gotu kola is effective for people whose skin is prone to scarring. For them, the recommendation is to spray the scar with a spray bottle (available at any pharmacy) filled with gotu kola tincture. Apply it regularly once the wound has properly healed.
How to Use Gotu Kola

Gotu kola tincture is used both internally and externally in a 1 : 2, 45% alcohol tincture. For internal usage, take 5 milliliters (ml) (about 1 teaspoon) two times a day, morning and evening, until your skin problem clears. The same tincture can be used on the skin by putting it into a spray bottle. For first-aid purposes or chronic skin disease, gotu kola tincture should be sprayed on the affected area three times a day.
Science says...
Gotu kola

* Gotu kola has been found useful in reducing scarring from burns.
* In human clinical trials, gotu kola has been found to stimulate wound healing.
* Gotu kola has been found effective for treating skin ulcers on the lower limbs.
* Gotu kola encourages skin to form granulation tissue-cells that fill in the gaps where the skin surface is broken.

The Arthritis Soother and Cholesterol Reducer Guggul (Commiphora mukul)

What Practitioners Recommend It For

Inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, high cholesterol levels, weight problems. Note: People with hyperthyroidism should avoid using guggul.

Guggul is actually the hardened sap, or resin, of an Indian desert-dwelling tree, and it's related to two other fragrant, healing resins that have significance this time of year: frankincense and myrrh. I believe that guggul is an ancient medicine with an amazing future.

Long before the immune system was discovered, Indian physicians used guggul to treat eczema, rheumatoid arthritis, and chronic skin ulcerations. In all three conditions, faulty immune function is at the root of the problem. Today, herbal practitioners are using the herb for many immune-related conditions.

Interestingly, guggul was also a traditional cure for obesity. According to Ayurvedic medical philosophy, if "slow metabolism" is the problem, guggul may help-with emphasis on the word "may." Don't expect guggul to melt off the pounds. As any responsible herbalist will tell you, when it comes to reducing body fat or cholesterol levels, one thing is clear: There is no substitute for reasonable eating and regular exercise. If you eat too much, guggul won't help you lose weight. However, when combined with a sensible diet and exercise program, guggul may help reduce body fat and cholesterol levels.

Guggul is thought to help balance the immune system and encourage the liver to specifically burn fat and cholesterol. One of its major components, guggulsterone, has been found to lower the bad cholesterol levels (LDL and VLDL) in various animals. It has also been proven to have significant anti-inflammatory and antiarthritic activity. The anti-inflammatory activity of guggul is due at least in part to the abundance of plant steroids it contains; the most active of these phytosteroids are the Z-guggulsterols.
How to Use Guggul

For inflammatory conditions, guggul is used internally and externally. Practitioners recommend 500 mg of guggul extract (standardized to guggul lipids) taken internally twice a day. To reduce cholesterol levels, take 500 mg of guggul extract twice a day.
Science says...
Guggul

* Guggul has been shown to reduce blood fat levels and cholesterol levels in animals and humans.
* Double-blind studies conducted in India showed that 80% of patients using the extract of guggul experienced a 30% reduction in blood cholesterol levels and blood fat levels.
* Guggul resin has been found to do several things that can affect weight loss. In animal studies, it activates the thyroid gland. This increased thyroid hormone production raises the body's metabolic rate, which means that you burn more calories.

The Liver-Friendly Energy booster Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)

What Practitioners Recommend It For

An energy tonic. For people on the go with high energy needs who want to maintain their mental and physical stamina.

One of the foundation herbs in traditional Chinese medicine, schisandra has been considered an energy tonic for hundreds of years. In traditional Chinese medicine, schisandra is used for chronic diarrhea, chronic cough, night sweats, impotence, and poor nerve function. Though these illnesses seem unrelated, the common thread is that they all indicate a loss of vitality, which schisandra is thought to restore.

In parts of Asia, viral hepatitis, or inflammation of the liver, is a widespread health problem. When chronic, hepatitis can cause all sorts of liver troubles, including poor bile production, cirrhosis, gallstones, and even cancer. In one study, 80% of the patients suffering from chronic hepatitis recovered when they used schisandra for 6 weeks; the herb has been shown to improve chemically induced and viral hepatitis.

Schisandra is an excellent energy tonic. By increasing liver function, it helps your body produce energy more efficiently. Clinically, the herb improves general health while it increases energy levels. Schisandra is recommended for people who require high levels of energy on a daily basis, such as working mothers, high-level business people, and athletes.
How to Use Schisandra

Take two 500-mg tablets in the morning and two in the evening. The plant takes several weeks to show its full effects, so it's important to be patient. Schisandra can be used long-term for energy purposes or as a liver tonic.
Science says...
Schisandra

* Schisandra increases circulation to the extremities and also improves heart function.
* Schisandra increases the liver's ability to store and release energy into blood circulation.
* It improves respiration by increasing the frequency and depth of breathing. It also acts as a cough suppressant and expectorant.
* It prevented damage to the liver when toxic chemicals were ingested by animals. Schisandra has been shown to contain a number of compounds that protect the liver.
* Schisandra improves absorption by the digestive system.
* It stimulates the brain and the spinal cord and quickens reflexes. One study showed that the symptoms of nervous exhaustion (headache, insomnia, dizziness, and palpitation) improved while schisandra was being used.
* Research has found that schisandra stimulates all the major body systems into action.

PHOTO (COLOR): Enjoy boundless energy and rev up your sex life with ashwagandha

PHOTO (COLOR): Play all day! Ashwagandha eases joint pain

PHOTO (COLOR): Codonopsis is a terrific energy-building tonic for women

PHOTO (COLOR): Herbalists call gotu kola the clear-skin herb

PHOTO (COLOR): Guggul may reduce body fat levels and boost metabolism

PHOTO (COLOR): Schisandra is the herb to choose for lots of energy

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by Douglas Schar, DipPhyt, MCPP

Douglass Schar, DipPOhyt, MCPP, is an herbalist specailizing in disease-preventing botanical medicines

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