Herbs: What we know

January 20, 1998|By Patricia Meisol

Herbs are labeled "dietary supplements" in the United States, where manufacturers are barred from making health claims because herbs have not been subjected to the rigorous clinical trials required for drugs. Research on herbs is plentiful in Europe and Asia, but quality varies, making claims hard to substantiate.

The Office of Dietary Supplements of the National Institutes of Health has begun compiling a list of claims and U.S. research in anticipation of more testing in the United States. The office expects to have information on some dietary supplements and will make it available on a new home page in late spring. The address will be http://dietary-supplements.info.gov.

Here are some of the most popular herbs used for medicinal purposes and what is known about them, according to the Herb Research Foundation, American Botanical Council, Prevention magazine, Whole Foods magazine, and the Herb Society of America's Encyclopedia of Herbs and their Uses.

ALOE

What: Southern Africa plant with thick, spiky leaves that contain a water-based gel. Uprooted plants could survive for up to two years without water or soil by drawing on nutrients in the gel.

Used for: Fresh gel is squeezed onto minor cuts and burns to speed healing. Also used externally as a hand lotion because it is an emollient. Used internally for constipation.

Dosage and cost: Use as needed. Plant can be grown on a windowsill for household use. 30 capsules (Nature's Bounty) $8.69.

Science: Numerous studies by individual companies and universities in Japan, Korea and the United States confirm its effectiveness in speeding healing from burns and as a skin softener.

Precautions: Not for serious burns or blisters.

ASTRAGALUS

What: Member of bean family, native to northern China.

Used for: Its roots are thought useful against burns and abscesses, and used for years by Chinese to fight colds.

Dosage and cost: Two capsules three times a day. 100 capsules (Nature's Way) $8.95.

Science: Numerous studies in Europe and China show it helps heal burns. Researchers at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston say it may also raise T-cell counts to boost immune systems in cancer patients. Has been used in China since 1975 to counteract effects of chemotherapy.

Precautions: None known.

CAT'S CLAW

What: Tropical flowering vine with claw-like structure on the stem found in Asia, Africa, South and Central America. A source of water.

Used for: Gall bladder and liver problems, diarrhea.

Dosage and cost: Two capsules twice a day. 100 capsules (Now Foods) $10.99.

Science: No published clinical trials on humans, according to American Botanical Council, but two studies going on in Peru. Believed to be an immune stimulant.

Precautions: No information about safety when consumed for long periods.

CAYENNE

What: The red-leaf pepper used in cooking.

Used for: Internally, to aid digestion; externally, to heal chronic pain such as arthritis.

Dosage and cost: One to three times a day. 100 capsules (Nature's Way) $7.50.

Science: Well-studied in Europe. Topical treatments for arthritis are widely prescribed by conventional U.S. doctors.

Precautions: None known.

DONG QUAI

What: Chinese plant.

Used for: Considered a "female ginseng." All-purpose herb taken for female hormonal problems - PMS and menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes.

Dosage and cost: Two capsules a day. 100 capsules (Now Foods) for $6.99.

Science: Little outside Chinese studies; used for thousands of years there.

Precautions: Not recommended for use during menstruation or pregnancy. Can cause gastric acid in some people.

ECHINACEA

What: Purple, honey-scented coneflower native to Eastern United States, and common in Victorian cutting gardens. Its flowers, stem and roots are used in various preparations. Before antibiotics, was common household weapon against infection in United States.

Used for: Often taken at first sign of cold to stimulate immune system. External preparations used to treat wounds, burns and eczema.

Science: Hundreds of studies over 50 years in Germany on preparations from flower tops show it increases immune-system activities. Dosage and cost: One to three times a day. 100 capsules (Nature's Way) $9.95.

Precautions: Generally safe, but because it bolsters immune system, cannot be taken by people with auto-immune system diseases such as lupus, in which immune system attacks the body. Views conflict on whether it's suitable for AIDS patients. Also, not recommended for more than six to eight weeks at a time.

GARLIC

What: Perennial bulb in the lily family native to Mediterranean region of Europe and Africa and used medicinally by Greeks and Egyptians.

Used for: Eaten raw to lower fever, reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, prevent infection and colds.

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