Feel Great Fast

These 15 expert-recommended remedies will give you fast relief.

WHEN YOU NEED FAST relief, turn to herbs. That's right, herbs. Although it's true that some herbs—like St. John's wort for moderate depression—take a few weeks to work, others provide relief within 24 hours. And herbs are a better choice than conventional drugs because they tend to have few or no side effects. In this guide, prominent herbalists and naturopaths reveal which herbs they prescribe most for fast, effective relief of common ailments.

What's Going On: When you experience stress, your brain releases hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, and noradrenaline. These hormones trigger the symptoms we associate with anxiety: You feel hyperalert, your muscles tense, and your heart beats faster. This heightened state can protect you in a potentially dangerous situation (like crossing a busy street), but it's unhealthy to feel anxious when there's no immediate threat.

What to Take for Fast Relief: Kava-kava (Piper methysticum) is the best-proven and fastest-acting herb for easing anxiety, says Rob McCaleb; botanist and president of the Herb Research Foundation in Boulder, Colo., and author of The Encyclopedia of Popular Herbs (Prima, 2000). You may have seen kava-kava in the news earlier this year after a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory warned people with liver damage to consult their doctor before using kava-kava. The FDA warning was triggered by an analysis of 26 case reports that linked kava-kava to liver damage. But McCaleb stands behind kava-kava and says it's safe if used correctly, as it has been for centuries in the South Pacific. Most of the people with liver damage in the reports had preexisting liver problems or were taking medications that harm the liver, he says.

Researchers don't know exactly how kava-kava soothes anxiety, but it appears to relax tense muscles. Studies also suggest that it may work like pharmaceutical sedative drugs by interacting with GABA receptors that promote relaxation. A German study published in the journal Pharmacopsychiatry found that people with anxiety disorders who took kava-kava showed significantly less anxiety when given a standard anxiety test.

The Best Dose: Take 1 capsule standardized to 70 mg of kavalactones two to three times a day, or take up to ¼ teaspoon (1 dropperful) of standardized liquid extract two to three times a day. You'll feel less anxious within an hour of taking your first dose, but the effect will increase if you continue to take the herb every day for a week or two, McCaleb says. You'll know it's a good-quality liquid extract if it numbs your tongue, says Sharol Tilgner, N.D., a naturopath and founder of Wise Acres Herbal Education Center in Pleasant Hill, Ore. (If you try an herb and it doesn't seem to be of good quality, most natural food stores will allow you to return it with a receipt.)

Do not take kava-kava with alcoholic beverages, sedatives, or psychiatric drugs like barbiturates; it can magnify their effect. Do not take kava-kava if you have a preexisting liver condition like cirrhosis or hepatitis, or if you're pregnant.
Chest Congestion

What's Going On: When your immune system encounters a virus in your respiratory tract, your body produces mucus to stop the virus and sweep it out of your body. The sticky mucus buildup can cause wheezing and breathing difficulties, especially when you're lying in bed at night and the mucus can't drain.

What to Take for Fast Relief: The essential oils in thyme (Thymus vulgaris) help dilate your bronchial tubes and thin the mucus, making it easier for you to breathe, says Santa Cruz, Calif.-based acupuncturist and herbalist Christopher Hobbs, L.Ac., who is also co-author of A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs (Houghton Mifflin, 2002). Thyme also acts as a mild expectorant to help you cough up the mucus and move the virus out of your body. Thyme has not been well-researched, but Hobbs says it's a time-honored folk remedy.

The Best Dose: Thyme tea will begin to work immediately, Hobbs says; drink 3 cups a day until congestion subsides. To make the tea, pour 1 cup of boiling water over 1 teaspoon of dried thyme. Steep, covered, for 10 minutes and then strain. Sip slowly, inhaling the vapors. You can use the thyme in your kitchen cupboard, but make sure it has a strong scent, a sign that it is fresh and potent, says Steven Foster, a Fayetteville, Ark., herbalist and co-author with Hobbs of A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs. A more convenient but less effective option is to use a liquid extract. Take ½ teaspoon (2 dropperfuls) two to four times a day. Thyme tea and liquid extract are safe, but do not take them if you're pregnant.
Cold Sores

What's Going On: The herpes simplex virus lives dormant in most people. But certain stimuli—for example, sunlight, stress, and a compromised immune system—can reactivate the virus to cause sores on your lips. First your lips feel tight and tingly, and then painful, itchy blisters form.

What to Take for Fast Relief: European doctors have long used creams made of lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) to reduce herpes symptoms and speed healing. Studies suggest that compounds in the herb attach to the virus's receptor sites, inhibiting the virus's ability to spread. Researchers also believe antioxidants in lemon balm promote healing, especially when the herb is applied topically. Essential oils in lemon balm tea soothe your nervous system, which may indirectly help your cold sores improve (because stress triggers the appearance of the sores).

The Best Dose: Lemon balm cream is most effective when applied at the first tingle of a cold sore, but it also speeds healing once the blister has formed. You'll find the cream at most natural food stores. Choose a brand with a 200 to 1 concentration, and apply it to your cold sore five to 10 times a day. For best results, drink calming lemon balm tea, too. Combine 1 cup of water and 2 teaspoons of dried herb or 1 tea bag in a pot. Simmer for 10 minutes and then allow it to sit for 10 minutes more, keeping the pot covered to contain the beneficial plant chemicals. Strain and drink up to 3 cups a day. To ensure that the herb is fresh and potent, crush a few leaves and take a whiff; lemon balm should smell like lemons. This mild herb is safe, but if you're pregnant, talk to your doctor before using it.

What's Going On: When your immune system encounters a virus in your respiratory tract, your body produces mucus to trap the virus and then stimulates your cough reflex to help you expel it. Unfortunately, coughing often irritates the lining of your throat, and you may develop an unproductive hacking cough once the mucus is gone.

What to Take for Fast Relief: The Chinese have used loquat leaf (Eriobotrya japonica) to stop dry coughs for thousands of years, says Hobbs. Compounds in the leaf sedate your cough reflex. And when taken in the commonly available syrup form, loquat soothes irritation in your throat.

The Best Dose: Take 1 tablespoon of loquat syrup several times a day, as needed. This thick syrup will provide immediate relief. You can buy it in many natural food stores and Chinese grocery stores. It appears to be safe, but avoid loquat syrup if you are pregnant.

What's Going On: Allergies and colds can cause the membrane that lines your middle ear to become inflamed and overproduce mucus. When this happens, the mucus can get trapped in your middle ear chamber instead of draining down the back of your throat. As a result, your eardrum bulges, creating pain and pressure. Bacteria thrive in this moist environment and can develop into an infection.

What to Take for Fast Relief: Mullein flower oil (Verbascum thaspsus) can help relieve the pain and inflammation of an earache. This folk remedy has not been well studied, but it appears to work because it contains mucilage, sugar molecules that soothe inflamed membranes. Some companies mix mullein with garlic, St. John's wort, and other herbs to increase the pain relief potential, says Hobbs.

The Best Dose: Look for mullein oil at natural food stores. Lie on your side with the affected ear facing up. Squirt 2 or 3 drops of the herb oil into your ear canal and massage the outside of your ear with your fingers. The oil will relieve pain quickly, but the effect is only temporary. Repeat every few hours, as needed, for two to three days. Warm compresses applied to the infected ear also help. If the pain worsens, fluid comes out of your ear, or your vision becomes blurry, see your doctor. Don't use mullein oil if your eardrum is perforated. If you're pregnant, talk to your doctor before using it.

What's Going On: Stress, a poor diet, and a lack of exercise or sleep are common causes of fatigue, says Earl Mindell, Ph.D., R.D., a Beverly Hills, Calif., pharmacist and herbalist and author of Earl Mindell's New Herb Bible (Fireside, 2002). If you deprive your body of its basic needs, herbs alone won't solve the problem, our experts warn; you must address the cause of your exhaustion. But some plants can provide a temporary boost of energy to keep you going in the meantime.

What to Take for Fast Relief: American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium) can have an immediate energizing effect. Studies suggest that it helps by strengthening your adrenal glands (which produce and regulate stress hormones like cortisol) so you have more energy. But American ginseng makes some people feel hyper. If you find that you are one of them, several herbalists recommend a similar herb known as eleuthero (Eleutherococcus sentiosis), formerly called Siberian ginseng. This gentler herb won't work as fast as American ginseng; most people need to take it daily for about two weeks to feel a difference.

The Best Dose: Take 1 teaspoon (4 dropperfuls) of American ginseng liquid extract four times a day. Or take ¼ teaspoon (1 dropperful) of eleuthero liquid extract three times a day. Both types of liquid extract will taste sweet and a little bitter. Both herbs are safe, but because they can be stimulating, don't take them after dinner or you may not sleep well. Do not take American ginseng or eleuthero if you are pregnant.

What's Going On: Researchers aren't sure what causes indigestion, but stress, fatty or acidic foods, and food intolerances exacerbate its main symptoms, gas and bloating.

What to Take for Fast Relief: Herbalists generally use carminative herbs like peppermint (Mentha piperita) to treat indigestion. Carminatives contain volatile oils that break up gas and push it out of your digestive tract, relieving your pain and discomfort. Peppermint is a good choice because it's commonly available in teas. (Another fast-acting herb recommended in this guide for another ailment, ginger, also eases indigestion. Like peppermint, it helps your body expel gas, but it also stimulates your digestive juices. See “Nausea,” page 106, for details on how to take ginger.)

The Best Dose: For relief in minutes, add 1 to 2 drops of peppermint essential oil to 4 to 6 ounces of water. (If you're prone to indigestion, carry the essential oil with you, Hobbs recommends.) But use the oil judiciously; too much may upset your stomach. Peppermint tea also works quickly. Steep a peppermint tea bag or 1 teaspoon of dried herb, covered, in 1 cup of boiling water. Strain and drink up to 3 cups daily. Choose peppermint with a strong minty scent, a sign of freshness and potency. If you're pregnant, avoid peppermint essential oil. Drink peppermint tea instead.

What's Going On: Several factors can interrupt your sleep—an uncomfortable bed, a room that's too hot or cold, and inadequate exercise during the day—but stress is the biggest enemy of sleep. When your body encounters physical or emotional stress, it produces the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which can make you tense and anxious and prevent you from sleeping soundly.

What to Take for Fast Relief: Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) can override those hormones to help you sleep. Researchers don't know exactly how the herb works, but one study suggests that it relaxes you by interacting with the tranquilizing benzodiazepine receptors in your brain. (Valium works the same way, but it is much stronger and addictive and carries a host of side effects.) A large double-blind study conducted in Germany found that people with insomnia who took valerian before bed slept better than those who took a placebo.

The Best Dose: Take 1 teaspoon (4 dropperfuls) of liquid extract at dinner and another teaspoon at bedtime if needed. Purchase valerian extracted from fresh root and rhizome; it should smell sweet and aromatic and taste spicy. Do not mix valerian with alcohol or sedatives. Be aware that in some people, valerian acts as a stimulant. Avoid it if you're pregnant.
Itchy Eyes

What's Going On: If you have allergies, and allergens like pollen or animal dander enter your eyes, your body releases a substance called histamine. This causes the lining of your eyes to swell to defend against these allergens, but it also makes your eyes itch and burn.

What to Take for Fast Relief: Eyebright (Euphrasia stncta or E. officinalis) reduces inflammation quickly, says Alan Tillotson, Ph.D., a Wilmington, Del., herbalist and Ayurvedic practitioner and author of The One Earth Herbal Sourcebook (Kensington, 2001). This aptly named herb targets your eyes, and although scientists have not closely studied eyebright, it stars in most herbal hay fever formulas because it works so well.

The Best Dose: Take ¼ teaspoon (1 dropperful) of eyebright liquid extract orally when your eyes feel itchy. Repeat as needed; the effects wear off after a few hours. Tillotson advises that you choose a brand that specifies it was made with fresh eyebright, and avoid dried eyebright capsules because this form doesn't work well. Eyebright is safe, but do not use it if you are pregnant.
Low Mood

What's Going On: The causes of mild depression vary. You may be stressed or need more sleep, or you may have a mild imbalance of brain chemicals like serotonin. If you feel so down that it interferes with your daily activities, or if your depression persists for more than two weeks, seek the help of a health care practitioner.

What to Take for Fast Relief: To treat a low mood, consider cocoa (Theobroma cacao). You may not think of cocoa as an herb, but since ancient times, indigenous people in Latin America have cultivated cacao seeds, from which cocoa is made. Intrigued Spanish conquistadors brought the spice back to Europe in the 1500s, introducing it to the rest of the world. If you need a little boost, our experts recommend cocoa in the form of good-quality dark chocolate. Cocoa contains caffeine and theobromine, two plant chemicals that can perk up your central nervous system, as well as phenylethylamine, a compound that increases your production of the mood-elevating brain chemicals adrenaline and dopamine. And a report published in the journal Nature proposed that cocoa in chocolate form makes you feel good because it contains small amounts of anandamide, a substance that's similar to the mood-altering chemicals found in marijuana.

The Best Dose: Eat a few pieces (about an ounce) of high-quality dark chocolate. Mindell recommends choosing European chocolate rather than American, which usually contains more additives and sugar and is of lower quality, he says.
Menstrual Cramps

What's Going On: The blood vessels in your uterus constrict during the beginning of your period, helping your uterus shed its lining. If these blood vessels constrict excessively, oxygen to your uterine muscles is reduced, causing them to spasm and cramp.

What to Take for Fast Relief: Native Americans have long used cramp bark (Viburnum opulus), an aptly named antispasmodic herb, to relieve menstrual cramps. The herb is not well researched, but scientists believe that plant chemicals in cramp bark target your uterine muscles, calming the spasms that cause cramps, says Seattle-based naturopath and herbalist Eric Yarnell, N.D.

The Best Dose: Take ¼ to ½ teaspoon (1 to 2 dropperfuls) of the liquid extract up to five times a day as needed. An aromatic, aniselike aftertaste is a sign of a fresh, effective liquid extract. Cramp bark is safe, but don't use it if you're pregnant.

What's Going On: Queasiness can have many causes, but two of the most common triggers are motion sickness (when your brain receives contradictory signals about the direction your body is headed, throwing off your equilibrium) and pregnancy (when hormone levels fluctuate, especially in the first three months).
What to Take for Fast Relief:

Herbalists prescribe ginger (Zingiber officinale) for nausea more than any other herb, and for good reason, says herbalist McCaleb. It has a solid reputation for relieving most types of nausea quickly. Researchers believe that ginger works by soothing both your nervous system and digestive tract. Several clinical trials have shown that ginger relieves morning sickness and motion sickness as well as conventional drugs, but without side effects like drowsiness.

The Best Dose: Brew a ginger tea bag or simmer 1 tablespoon of fresh grated ginger in 1 cup of boiling water for 10 minutes. Strain and drink up to 3 cups a day. Or munch on crystallized ginger, available at most natural food stores, when you start to feel sick. In most cases, the herb will begin to work immediately. If you're traveling and anticipate motion sickness, take 400 to 500 mg of ginger capsules four times daily with food, beginning at least 30 minutes before you leave. Be aware that ginger can cause heartburn in some people. McCaleb says these doses are safe if you're pregnant. Ginger is also effective for indigestion at these doses.
Sinus Congestion

What's Going On: Sinus congestion begins when allergens, viruses, or bacteria enter your nose, triggering an immune response that makes your sinuses pump out sticky mucus and causes the lining of your sinuses to swell. This inflammation and overproduction of mucus can block your sinuses.

What to Take for Fast Relief: Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) can help, says herbalist Tillotson. Researchers believe this folk remedy works because it contains plant chemicals known as glycosides that increase circulation and expand your sinus cavities in minutes so the mucus can drain. Horseradish also appears to help by killing bacteria and viruses.

The Best Dose: Eat ¼ to ½ teaspoon of fresh grated horseradish, mixed with vinegar (which increases absorption) or sprinkled into foods like salads (which reduces the potential for stomach irritation). Take as needed up to four times a day. If horseradish is fresh and potent, it will be strong enough to make your eyes water. Don't exceed these doses; large amounts of horseradish can upset your stomach. Do not take horseradish if you are pregnant or have a gastric ulcer or kidney disorder.
Sore Throat

What's Going On: As you inhale and exhale, your throat tissue samples the air you breathe to detect viruses and bacteria. When an invader is spotted, your body produces antibodies to fight it, causing the inflammation and tenderness that signal a sore throat.

What to Take for Fast Relief: Several of the herbalists we consulted turn to echinacea (Echinacea spp) first; it's one of the few herbs that both relieves pain and fights the virus. Echinacea acts as an analgesic, numbing the area instantly. And many studies have confirmed that taking it for several days will also boost the power of your immune system—particularly your white blood cells—to fend off viral and bacterial infections.

The Best Dose: To soothe pain, echinacea must make direct contact with your throat. Mix ½ teaspoon (2 dropperfuls) of echinacea liquid extract with a small amount of water, gargle, and then swallow. Although echinacea works fast, the pain relief is temporary; repeat three times a day until your sore throat disappears completely. One sign of a good-quality product is that it will tingle on your tongue. Echinacea is safe for most people, but consult your health care practitioner before using the herb if you have an autoimmune disease like rheumatoid arthritis or if you're pregnant.
Tension Headache

What's Going On: Tension headaches occur when the muscles in your face, neck, or scalp tighten as a result of poor posture, stress, or fatigue.

What to Take for Fast Relief: To relieve headache pain, herbalists recommend white willow bark (Salix spp). This herb contains salicylic acid, the active component in aspirin. It brings down inflammation and numbs pain within an hour, McCaleb says. In fact, white willow may be a better choice than aspirin because it's milder, so it's less likely to trigger side effects like stomach irritation, he says.

The Best Dose: If you have a headache, take 1 teaspoon (4 dropperfuls) of liquid extract or 1 capsule standardized to 120 to 240 mg of salicin. White willow is safe to take up to four times a day, but see your health care practitioner if you have frequent headaches. White willow may cause stomach upset, and it should not be used in combination with blood thinners or alcohol. Do not use it if you have kidney, liver, or bleeding disorders, or if you are allergic to aspirin.


By Maria Noël Mandile

Maria Noël Mandile is a freelance writer in Derry, N.H. She carries ginger when traveling to quiet motion sickness.

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