Herbs to the Rescue

10 Plant Remedies You Can’t Do Without

Chances are your medicine cabinet is overflowing with a slew of manmade products containing synthetic chemicals, petroleum, artificial colorings and animal by-products. From cortisone cream and mercurochrome to antihistamines and acetaminophen, many medicine cabinets resemble a wartime arsenal. To treat sprains, burns, cuts, bites and upset stomach, what other options do you have?

Plenty. Tired of the immune-stressing offense of pharmaceuticals, many consumers are countering this unnatural barrage with a good defense-herbal remedies. According to the World Health Organization, 80 percent of the world’s people rely on plants for medicine. And their use has skyrocketed in Europe and America in recent years, due mainly to a fear of Western medicine’s side effects and its booming health care-associated costs. According to Health And Nutrition Breakthroughs, the overuse of antibiotics in Western medicine has encouraged the revival of herbal remedies, as more and more bacterial strains become immune to antibiotic drugs.

If herbal medicine sounds intriguing, there are several things to remember when looting your local health food store. Herbal remedies come in many forms (tinctures, salves, ointments, capsules, tablets, extracts, dried, and essential oils, to name a few) and are grown two ways: cultivated (grown by farmers) and wildcrafted (naturally-occurring). With over 1,000 plant species threatened worldwide, many conservationists and health experts feel cultivation is the better option, for it allows for standardization of the potent ingredients in each herb, as well as eliminating the danger of harvesting the wrong species and over-harvesting of wild populations.

According to the Herbal Research Foundation and the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies, while there are hundreds of herbal remedies for an array of maladies, the following should be the first additions to your herbal medicine cabinet.

Blackshear Illustration


Many people are already familiar with aloe vera’s ability to soothe minor burns. It’s also used for sunburns, scratches, abrasions and poison ivy, oak and sumac (applied topically). A member of the lily family, aloe vera’s pointy leaves seep a sticky gel when cut, which is scooped out and applied directly to wounds and burns. An anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antifungal, aloe contains salicylates, which have pain-reducing properties similar to aspirin. When used for burns, aloe also helps prevent swelling, repair damaged cells, fight infection and prevent scarring, according to the American Botanical Council.


Best bought as an extract, cream or salve, arnica, also known as mountain daisy, is great for black eyes, bruises and sprains. “Arnica is currently available only in wildcrafted form,” says Feather Jones, director of the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies, “but some of us are trying to change that by encouraging its cultivation.” For best results, apply creams, salves or extract drops externally to wounded tissue. Arnica is not for internal consumption, and effective preparations should contain 15 percent arnica oil.


Though it may sound masochistic, sprinkling powdered cayenne pepper on an open wound is a harmless and effective way to staunch the flow of blood, while speeding up the process of scabbing of the skin and reducing pain. Capsaicin, the ingredient in cayenne pepper which makes your eyes water and your mouth feel afire, also has the remarkable ability to suppress pain messages to the brain. Cayenne capsules (taken orally) are also effective in slowing down blood flow to injured areas—especially when compresses aren’t working quickly enough, or when compression isn’t possible (eye wounds for instance).


Most popular as a tea (over one million cups are drunk each day worldwide), chamomile—a white daisy look-alike-is a mild, but popular remedy for intestinal gas, inflammation and upset stomach. Its mild, bitter action improves digestion and calms stomach spasms, and works great on “nervous indigestion brought on by stress,” according to the American Botanical Council. It’s also used as a sleeping relaxant, antibacterial and anti-allergen agent.


A member of the daisy family and native to North American woodlands and prairies, echinacea is the most popular herbal supplement on the market, and with good reason: Its anti-inflammatory and antibiotic properties serve as effective gauntlets for flu and cold viruses. Also known as purple coneflower, this perennial helps rid the body of infection by increasing phagocytosis (the engulfing of viruses, bacteria and other invaders by white blood cells). Used by Plains Indians to fight off wound infections, snake bites and sore throats, echinacea is recommended by herbal practitioners as a first line of defense before resorting to any conventional antibiotics. It also suppresses allergic reactions caused by insect bites and stings.


Feverfew has been used to treat headaches for well over 2,000 years. A pain reducer, this white and yellow member of the aster family has had great success in clinical trials concerning its effects on migraine headaches-a troubling condition that often doesn’t respond to modern pharmaceuticals. Abnormal blood platelet formation has been implicated as the cause of migraines, resulting in constricted blood vessels. Feverfew has been shown to inhibit serotonin, the chemical ultimately responsible for such constrictions.


Heart disease fighter. Immune system booster. Antibacterial. Cholesterol fighter. Is there anything that garlic can’t do? One of those plants that does triple-time as food, seasoning and medicine, garlic’s clinical trials all point to its effectiveness in lowering “bad” (LDL) cholesterol levels and inhibiting atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). And The Journal of the National Cancer Institute reported in 1988 that consumption of garlic and other allium vegetables (onions, scallions and chives) was directly correlated to lower rates of stomach cancer. Another recent study in Cancer Research suggests that garlic inhibits tumor formation. Because heart disease and cancer are the two biggest killers in the U.S., herbal practitioners can’t recommend this plant-food wonder enough.


Another example of how plants serve as food, spice and medicine, ginger root alleviates nausea, diarrhea and soothes gastro-intestinal tracts. Studies also point to its effectiveness against the most common family of cold viruses. A study by pharmacologist Dr. Daniel Mowrey cites ginger as more effective than dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) for motion and sea sickness, and many pregnant women will attest to ginger’s success in conquering morning sickness.


Used to treat upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea, colds, headache and cramps, this hearty hybrid of spearmint and water mint can be easily grown on any windowsill. Peppermint oil has significant antimicrobial effects, according to botanist Steven Foster, and relieves the itching of poison ivy, oak and sumac. It’s also recommended for digestive gas, colic in children, and irritable bowel syndrome



Used as a sleep aid, valerian (of the same-named family) is popular among insomniacs because it is not habit-forming. But because the plant smells like a bunch of sweaty gym shoes, many people prefer taking the odor-free capsules (herbalists recommend one teaspoon doses of the fresh extract). Found in virtually every pharmacopoeia in the world, valerian’s reputation in easing menstrual cramps, anxiety and nervous stomach also makes it a popular herb.

Sage Advice

Mindy Green, director of educational services for the Herb Research Foundation, recommends buying herbs as tinctures (liquid drops), for maximum potency. “Tinctures have a long shelf-life, and are great for emergencies because they’re already prepared,” she explains. “They also preserve an herb’s flavor, which triggers the digestive juices, while capsules have been known to pass through the digestive system undissolved.”

Unlike many pharmaceuticals, which must be tested for safety by the Food and Drug Administration, herbal supplements and teas are not required to undergo rigorous approval. Nor are they allowed to claim specific medical benefits on their labels because of FDA labeling laws. Therefore, first-time herbalists should arm themselves with information, and not be afraid to question herbal attendants in stores.

And because plant-based medicines are exactly that-medicines-herbal practitioners suggest consulting your doctor if you are already taking prescription or other over-the-counter drugs. Allowing Mother Nature to soothe ailing bodies not only alleviates a dependency on chemicals for our health, it also nurtures an appreciation of our richly botanical world.

Tracey C. Rembert is managing editor of E.