20 Popular Herbs For The Year 2000
by Deborahann Smith

Looking for more information about herbs before visiting your favorite store? Good idea! Here's the scoop on 20 of the most popular — plus tips on how to use them.

'Tis the growing season, the time when herbalists all over the world have traditionally begun to gather medicinal and tonic herbs. There are literally hundreds of these herbs, many of them rich in vitamins, minerals and other healing properties proven by scientific research to be good for your health.

herbs, herbal medicine, common herbsFortunately, you don't have to forage in the wilds to find them. Instead, it's as easy as going on an herbal safari through your natural products store. But where to begin? First, it's important to consult a health care practitioner before starting an herbal program — particularly if you're pregnant, taking prescription drugs or have symptoms that could indicate a serious condition. Second, James A. Duke, Ph.D., author of The Green Pharmacy (Rodale), recommends that you know what you're taking and why. "To benefit from using herbs, you need to have some basic background information," he says. "Herbs are medicines, just like pharmaceuticals. Put safety first." Third, it's a good idea to do some research of your own.

Here are 20 common herbs, in alphabetical order, to help you get started.

1. Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)
Actions: Bilberry is used to help prevent glaucoma, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration and to improve night vision. Strengthens blood vessels and improves circulation; helpful in treating varicose veins, hemorrhoids and nosebleeds.

Comments: Sometimes prescribed before surgery to reduce bleeding complications. May help control blood-sugar levels in diabetics.

2. Cascara sagrada (Rhamnus purshianus)
Actions: Frequently found in weight-loss products, cascara sagrada is a strong herbal laxative. According to James A. Duke, Ph.D., author of The Green Pharmacy (Rodale), it's important to use aged bark, as fresh bark can irritate the digestive tract. Duke cautions that cascara should be used only as a last resort for treating chronic constipation.

Comments: Contraindicated for long-term use by the American Herbal Products Association. Avoid in cases of diarrhea, colitis, Crohn's disease or vomiting. Avoid when pregnant or nursing.

3. Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
Actions: A natural relaxant, chamomile is used to relieve anxiety, insomnia, menstrual cramps and stomach upset. Applied topically, chamomile alleviates skin inflammations.

Comments: May trigger allergic reactions in those with ragweed allergies. Avoid if you're taking prescription anticoagulants, as chamomile contains natural blood-thinning compounds.

4. Chasteberry (Vitex agnus-castus)
Actions: Also known as vitex, chasteberry regulates female hormone levels and thus is helpful for menstrual irregularities, PMS, cyclic breast discomfort, menopausal symptoms and female infertility.

Comments: If you suspect you have a hormone imbalance, consult a health care practitioner to rule out any medical condition before taking chasteberry. May interfere with the effects of birth control pills or other prescription hormones.

5. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Actions: High in vitamins A, C, D and B-complex, as well as iron, magnesium, calcium and zinc. The leaves of this infamous weed have been traditionally used to treat water retention. Often used for constipation and to detoxify the liver.

Comments: Contraindicated by Germany's Commission E for those with gallbladder disease or gallstones.

6. Dong quai (Angelica sinensis)
Actions: Traditionally known as a "female tonic." Used to treat menstrual disorders.

Comments: Avoid in cases of heavy menstrual bleeding. May be more effective when combined with other herbs in a traditional Chinese formula.

7. Echinacea (Echinacea spp)
Actions: Popular in Europe and the United States for more than a century, echinacea (also known as purple coneflower) stimulates immunity and is effective in alleviating symptoms at the onset of a cold.

Comments: Germany's Commission E recommends that echinacea use shouldn't exceed eight weeks. Contraindicated in individuals with autoimmune disorders.

8. Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
Actions: Helpful for preventing migraine headaches. May alleviate migraine attacks when taken at the onset of symptoms.

Comments: Most effective when taken daily. Contraindicated during pregnancy, and shouldn't be combined with prescription anticoagulants.

9. Garlic (Allium sativum)
Actions: Garlic's role in heart attack and atherosclerosis prevention dates back to the first century A.D. Heralded today for lowering cholesterol, reducing blood pressure and thinning the blood. Contains antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial properties; may also be useful for treating colds and yeast infections.

Comments: May irritate digestive tract. Don't combine with blood-thinning medications. May cause excessive bleeding if combined with ginkgo or high-dose vitamin E.

10. Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
Actions: Used primarily to treat indigestion and nausea associated with motion sickness, morning sickness and postsurgical nausea.

Comments: For motion sickness prevention, begin taking ginger a day or two before travel. May cause bleeding problems when combined with blood-thinning prescription medications.

11. Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
Actions: Used to enhance memory and mental function, particularly in people who have dementia, Alzheimer's disease or age-related memory loss. May also improve leg circulation, depression, diabetes complications and PMS symptoms.

Comments: Don't combine with blood-thinning medications. May cause bleeding problems when combined with garlic, phosphatidylserine or high-dose vitamin E.

12. Ginseng (Panax ginseng)
Actions: Research indicates that regular use of ginseng can improve immunity, mental function, stamina, energy levels and resistance to stress. May also help balance blood sugar.

Comments: Ginseng may interfere with the effects of MAO inhibitor drugs, digitalis, drugs processed by enzyme "CYP 3A4," and warfarin.

13. Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)
Actions: High in antiseptic properties, goldenseal is used topically to treat poorly healing sores, fungal infections, gingivitis and inflamed mucous membranes. Its internal uses include alleviating minor digestive disorders and sore throats.

Comments: Best when taken for no longer than two weeks. This herb has been placed on the endangered species list.

14. Hawthorn (Crataegus)
Actions: Research shows that hawthorn can increase blood flow to the heart. Used to treat high blood pressure, benign heart palpitations and the early stages of congestive heart failure.

Comments: Consult your health care provider before combining with other heart medications, especially if you are taking lanoxin (Digoxin).

15. Kava (Piper methysticum)
Actions: Chemical compounds called kavalactones give this herb its muscle-relaxing and sedative properties. Useful for treating anxiety, insomnia and menstrual cramps.

Comments: Don't combine with antidepressants, tranquilizers, alcohol or anti-anxiety herbs such as St. John's wort.

16. Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
Actions: Used as an expectorant and a stomach ulcer treatment, licorice is also helpful for reducing symptoms of eczema, psoriasis and herpes.

Comments: Avoid taking licorice with digitalis, thiazide or loop diuretics, or corticosteroids. Long-term use may lead to water retention and high blood pressure.

17. Milk thistle (Silybum marianum)
Actions: Silymarin, the active ingredient in milk thistle, protects and regenerates the liver, the body's main organ of detoxification. Research has found it effective for treating hepatitis, alcoholic fatty liver and cirrhosis. Also helpful for increasing breast milk in nursing mothers.

Comments: May protect the liver from liver-toxic medications. May reduce the effectiveness of oral contraceptives.

18. Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens)
Actions: This is the quintessential men's herb, as studies show it can shrink an enlarged prostate gland and alleviate symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), including frequent urination.

Comments: Research shows saw palmetto is at least as effective as the prostate medication finasteride for reducing prostate symptoms, with fewer side effects.

19. St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum)
Actions: Heralded in clinical studies as an important herb for treating mild to moderate depression, its active ingredients work on the brain's neurotransmitter system to elevate mood. Also may alleviate insomnia, appetite disturbance, irritability, poor concentration and low energy.

Comments: Allow three to four weeks for full benefits. Don't combine with prescription drugs, especially antidepressants; or with anti-anxiety herbs such as kava and valerian. May increase sun sensitivity.

20. Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Actions: Dating back to the second century as a medicinal for insomnia, this sedative herb is used today to alleviate anxiety and aid sleep.

Comments: To avoid excessive central nervous system effects, avoid taking valerian in combination with insomnia or anxiety medications, or anti-anxiety herbs such as kava and St. John's wort.

Sources: Natural Health Bible (Prima), edited by Steven Bratman, M.D. and David Kroll, Ph.D.; The Green Pharmacy (Rodale), by James A. Duke, Ph.D.; and The Review of Natural Products (Facts and Comparisons), edited by Ara DerMarderosian, Ph D.

Delicious! senior editor Deborahann Smith is the author of several books, including Work with What You Have: Ways to Creative & Meaningful Livelihood (Shambhala)

Photo by Joe Hancock