What’s In An Herb?


(Caution:  Do not use any herb medicinally without professional advice from a naturopathic doctor who is trained in the science of herbal medicine!!!  Know that some herbs are quite toxic and can cause substantial harm, even death.)

Herbs have been used for thousands of years by animals and man alike.  The use of an herb as medicine is ancient and is part of natural medicine (alternative medicine, naturopathy).

We use herbs in many ways.

  • to beautify our homes, gardens, and public spaces
  • to freshen the air
  • to spice up our foods
  • to add nutrition to our meals
  • as animal feed
  • to promote health
  • as first aid with cuts, scrapes, and bruises
  • for arts and crafts
  • and many other uses

However, we tend to look at an herb in a singular way.

We look at an herb either as medicine, or a spice, or a food, when in fact, it often serves many different functions at once.  Herbs even beautify our environments as flowers, such as lavender, echinacea, rosemary, passionflower, skullcap, and borage, to name a few,

Let’s look at a few herbs and how they are being used.

ALFALFA has been priced as animal feed for thousands of years.  It is also valued as a nutritional supplement because it’s packed with minerals and vitamins, proteins, as well as chlorophyll.  Alfalfa is a great general tonic and thus valuable  in cases of degenerative disease.  It also helps to improve the quality of breast milk, as well as stimulate lactation.

DANDELION, so common, and not very welcome, on our lawns, has many desirable qualities.  Boiling the flowers yields a yellow dye, and boiling the roots results in a magenta dye.  Dandelion is highly nutritive.  Its leaves are often added to salads and soups.

Further, its many medicinal actions help alleviate high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, improve digestion, support liver function, and alleviate mild edema.  Because of its high potassium content, it is valued as a mild diuretic since it doesn’t deplete the body’s potassium stores, as most prescription diuretics will.

OATmeal is a very popular, nutritious, and easy to digest, breakfast food.  Its high fiber content supports normal bowel function, reducing constipation and bloating.  Oat is also valued for its calming effect on the nerves, soothing of the skin, and restorative action on the brain (nervous tissue).

ELDERBERRY wood has been used to make musical instruments, shoemakers’ pegs, butchers’ skewers, as well as needles for weaving nets.

Most of us are familiar with it as a cold remedy in form of elderberry syrup or tea to reduce coughs and help expel phlegm from the airways.  Further, it helps to alleviate rheumatism and neuralgia.

Elderberry also enjoys popularity in jellies and wine.  The compound aribino in elderberry has been shown in studies to help the liver recover from damage due to toxins.

DILL is most commonly known to us as a culinary herb that has a pungent, sharp, and slightly sweet aroma.  However, it is also valued for its ability to soothe the digestive tract, reducing flatulence, as well as an aide for colicky infants.

In more general medicinal terms, this herb reduces intestinal spasms, flatulence, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.  Fennel also contains antimicrobial properties, which may explain in part its function as a digestive aide.

Many spices were originally used to cover up the bad odor and taste of spoiled meat.  Most likely, the spices’ antimicrobial compounds killed off many of the microbes of spoiled meat, allowing humans to enjoy it without too many ill effects.

IRIS (BLUE FLAG) is a most enjoyable sight in many gardens.  This herb’s main actions are on the liver and spleen by helping to reduce congestion in these organs due to sluggish lymph and venous blood flow.  Thus, it helps to improve bile flow, reduce constipation, as well as nausea and headaches due to impaired digestion, and decrease systemic inflammation.

Externally, it finds use in poultices and ointments to alleviate skin conditions, speed up wound healing, and reduce ulcers.

LAVENDER is widely enjoyed for its beautiful color, as well as its lovely refreshing and yet soothing scent.  We use it in aromatherapy, bath water, sachets, perfumes, and even in some sweets.  Lavender is also prominently featured in the movie “The Color Purple”  with Oprah Winfrey playing a main character.  Of course, we see it in many gardens as well.

Lavender also has formidable medicinal actions.  Thus, it reduces smooth muscle spasm, soothes the mind, helps one deal with stress, and alleviates headaches.  Further, it’s a great digestive aide, reducing bloating and stomach discomfort.

FOXGLOVE is a tall majestic looking plant and quite popular.

Foxglove is an example of an herb that is quite toxic, yet has tremendous medicinal value.  In fact, the digitalis drug is derived from this herb.  Digitalis is a well-known prescription medicine for congestive heart failure.  While foxglove’s cardioglycosides strengthen and regulate the heartbeat, CHEWING ONE OF THE LEAVES MAY LEAD TO PARALYSIS OR SUDDEN HEART FAILURE.

NOTE:  Herbs need to be used with care and professional advice, especially if used as medicine.  Although herbs are a natural substance, and many medical drugs are derived from them, they are not to be taken lightly.  Some herbs are extremely poisonous and may, in rare cases, cause death.