Herbal Medicine

Herbal Medicine: The Healing Power of Herbs
Diego Andres Villamarin

Plants have been used as medicines for thousands of years. Many medications prescribed today were first discovered in plants; the heart medication “Digoxin” comes from the foxglove plant [1,2]. This article discusses herbal medicine; however, it is extremely important to speak with your doctor before using herbs (including supplements) since they might not be safe for everyone and might interfere with other prescribed medications.

First, let’s distinguish between dried herbs and fresh herbs. Dried herbs have about four times the flavor of fresh herbs. However, fresh herbs have higher antioxidant levels [3]. Antioxidants protect our cells and so are good to have in our diet [4]. Simmering or stewing foods with fresh herbs increase its antioxidant levels [5]. But frying and grilling them will decrease its antioxidant levels.

Here are common uses, benefits, side effects, and preparations of some herbs [5,6,7,8]:

● Cinnamon
o Uses: Flavors yogurt, desserts, stews, meat rubs
o Benefits: Lowers cholesterol and triglyceride levels (heart-healthy) and lowers blood sugar levels (helpful for Type 2 Diabetes)
o Side Effect: Excessive amounts can lower blood sugar too much and lead to liver toxicity. Daily limit is usually 2-3 teaspoons (depending on weight) [9]
o Supplement: Cinnamon capsules (at pharmacies)

● Ginger
o Uses: Seasoning for stir-fries; spice for smoothies/tea
o Benefits: Alleviates upset stomach, diarrhea, and nausea. Eases motion sickness. Has strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
o Side Effects: Excessive amounts (more than 5 grams/day) can increase risk of bloating, gas, heartburn, or nausea [10].
o Supplement: Ginger root in capsules (at pharmacies)

● Cayenne
o Uses: Adds spice to chili, soup, stew, meat rubs
o Benefits: Can alleviate arthritis pain and diabetes-related nerve pain. Helps reduce the growth of peptic ulcers. Has heart-healthy anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. [11,12,13].
o Side Effects: Avoid contact with eyes, nose, or ears (can cause pain/burning).
o Supplement: Capsaicin hot patches for topical use and capsaicin tablets (at pharmacies)

● Chamomile
o Uses: Brewed to make tea, used as a compress, used in aromatherapy as essential oil
o Benefit: Teas promote relaxation; compresses facilitate wound healing for open wounds and reduce inflammation/swelling in skin and eye infections (damp tea bags can be used as compresses); aromatherapy helps with anxiety
o Side Effect: Fresh plant can cause dermatitis
o Supplement: Chamomile essential oil and tea (at grocery stores)

● Aloe vera
o Uses: Gel from the leaves is used topically for burns and eczema; gel chunks are included in smoothies/juices as a sweetener [14]
o Benefit: Low calorie and sugar levels. If eaten, it can help with digestive issues such as gastritis and constipation. Contains vitamin C, calcium, and magnesium.
o Side Effect: May lower your potassium levels when eaten.
o Supplement: Aloe vera gels and juices (found at grocery stores and pharmacies)

For more information:

Illustrations by Carlos Alberto Villamarin and Chastidy Lynn Vásconez.

1. https://www.fs.usda.gov/wildflowers/ethnobotany/medicinal/index.shtml
2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470568/
3. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/herbs
4. https://medlineplus.gov/antioxidants.html
5. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/5-spices-with-healthy-benefits
6. Book: Chevallier, Andrew. “Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine Andrew Chevallier.” (2022).
7. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=1&contentid=1169
8. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/drugs/15829-herbal-supplements
9. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/side-effects-of-cinnamon
10. https://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/ginger-uses-and-risks
11. https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/mayoclinicminutecapsaicinsconnectiontohearthealth/
12. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=19&contentid=Cayenne
13. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/cayenne-pepper-benefits/
14. [https://health.clevelandclinic.org/benefits-of-aloe-vera-drink/]

Diego Andres Villamarin is from Arequipa, Peru. He graduated from Bowdoin College in 2020 with a degree in Biology with Honors. He is currently a medical school student at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry where he is an active member of the “LatinX Health Pathway” and serves on the executive board of the Latino Medical Students Association (LMSA). He is interested in the intersections between traditional and complementary or alternative medicine. He wants to pursue a career in oncology.

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