For Delicious Living’s annual guide to health and wellness, we asked experts from around the United States to name the herb, supplement, or food they deem most significant to know about today. Here are their picks to promote lasting health.
3 Top Herbs
Expert: Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the Austin, Texas-based American Botanical Council, a nonprofit dedicated to educating people about the responsible use of herbal medicine
Favorite pick: American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
What it is: American ginseng, a low-growing herb that produces small berries, grows wild in the Great Lakes area, along the East Coast, down in the Southeast, and into the Plains. Historically, the Chinese used some 90 percent of both the cultivated and wild herb for traditional medicine; Americans utilized very little, except for the occasional tonic or as an ingredient in soft drinks. However, five clinical trials conducted in the last decade all demonstrate American ginseng’s real advantage: stabilizing blood sugar levels. That could be good news for the 18.2 million Americans diagnosed with diabetes. “Until recently, Asian ginseng generally got all the publicity, but these five studies really show documented proof of American ginseng’s benefits,” says Blumenthal.
How it works: One of the landmark studies done at the University of Toronto found that subjects—some with type 2 diabetes and some without—who took American ginseng before or with a meal experienced reductions in blood sugar levels (Archives of Internal Medicine, 2000, vol. 160, no. 7). American ginseng, it seems, may help control—or even prevent—type 2 diabetes.
How to take it: To reap benefits, Blumenthal suggests taking 2 to 3 grams of powdered root in capsules, three times a day, with meals.
Precautions: Very little data shows any adverse effects of this herb, says Blumenthal. However, because blood thinners have been found to affect those taking Asian ginseng, people taking such medications should exercise caution with the American version as well.
Expert: Michael Tierra, LAc, OMD, founder of the American Herbalists Guild and author of numerous books, including Treating Cancer with Herbs (Lotus, 2003) and The Natural Remedy Bible (Pocket, 2003)
Favorite pick: Albizia (Albizia julibrissin)
What it is: Albizia comes from the flowers and bark of the mimosa tree. This beautiful plant grows throughout the temperate zones of the Southern and Western United States but is native to China, Korea, and Japan. Commonly referred to as “the happiness herb” in Chinese medicine, albizia was originally prescribed for grief. Today, experts recommend this herb to help treat conditions from stress and anxiety to clinical depression. “Considering the proliferation of antidepressant drugs with their increasingly recognized adverse effects throughout the Western world, it’s wonderful that nature has an abundant, safer, and better alternative,” says Tierra. “In my opinion, albizia offers a more profound effect in treating depression and anxiety than the two most commonly promoted herbs, St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) and kava (Piper methysticum), and thus should be widely used.”
How it works: “Categorized in Chinese Herbal Medicine (Eastland, 1993) as a calming spirit herb, the bark is thought to ‘anchor’ the spirit, while the flowers lighten it,” says Tierra. “The flowers have also been used for the treatment of insomnia, amnesia, sore throat, and contusion … as well as depression, melancholy, and anxiety.” The herb probably works to treat depression because of its ability to enhance all aspects of neurotransmitter secretion and regulation in the brain, Tierra adds. This is similar to prescription drugs but without serious side effects.
How to take it: To treat depression, take 3 to 15 grams, which translates to 30 to 50 drops of a liquid extract, in a water decoction daily.
Precautions: Because of its blood-moving properties, albizia is contraindicated during pregnancy. Those taking sedatives should exercise caution because albizia may increase the effects of sedatives. If you take prescription antidepressants, discuss any changes in medications with your health care practitioner.
Expert: Aviva Romm, president of the American Herbalists Guild in Canton, Georgia, and author of many books, including The Natural Pregnancy Book (Ten Speed, 2003) and Naturally Healthy Babies and Children (Ten Speed, 2003)
Favorite pick: Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
What it is: A shrub with yellowish flowers and red berries, ashwagandha’s roots have been used in Ayurvedic medicine for more than 4,000 years to strengthen the body’s immune system, speed the healing process, and reduce stress. Its Sanskrit translation, “the smell of the sweat of a horse,” implies that this rejuvenating tonic instills the strength of a stallion. In India, the herb is often prescribed for weakness, exhaustion, fatigue, and memory loss. Herbalists consider ashwagandha adaptogenic because of its ability to help the body deal with stress.
How it works: “Americans are in a chronic state of being burned out,” says Romm. “Ashwagandha helps to cool down this overheated tendency.” After a long-term bout with illness or a period of extreme stress, adrenals become exhausted from producing excess amounts of cortisol, the stress hormone. Ashwagandha’s adaptogenic properties help restore and replenish adrenal health, bringing your body back into a state of balance.
How to take it: Romm suggests taking 3 to 6 grams daily, either in capsule form or as a bulk powder. In India, people mix the powder with warm milk along with some honey and cinnamon. If you prefer a tincture, look for a 1:2 weight-to-volume ratio and take 2 to 5 ml, twice daily. Although you may feel stress relief within just a few days, the most significant effects usually occur after weeks or months of use.
Precautions: In recommended doses, ashwagandha is generally safe for both adults and children, says Romm. Pregnant women may want to talk to their health care practitioner before taking ashwagandha. Significantly large doses can cause mucous membrane irritation as well as gastrointestinal upset. The herb may increase the effects of barbiturates.
3 Top Supplements
Expert: Donald Yance Jr., clinical master herbalist and certified nutritionist in Ashland, Oregon; consultant for the Mayo Clinic oncology department in Rochester, Minnesota; and author of Herbal Medicine, Healing and Cancer (McGraw-Hill, 1999)
Favorite pick: Essential fatty acids
What they are: Essential fatty acids (EFAs), namely omega-6s and omega-3s, are vital components to cell development and function but cannot be produced by the body—and are therefore considered “essential.” Unfortunately, the common American diet is rife with unhealthy refined omega-6 fatty acids, such as hydrogenated fats. Good omega-6 food sources include fresh nuts and seeds and avocados. Essential omega-3s are in salmon, mackerel, and sardines. Plant sources of omega-3s include flax, hemp, and pine seeds, though these need to undergo conversion into EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) before the body can use them. You can get EPA and DHA directly from a high-quality fish oil derived from fish living in clean waters free of heavy metals or contaminants and flushed of nitrogen.
How they work: Humans need EFAs for normal brain function, growth, and development; bone health; stimulation of skin and hair growth; regulation of metabolism; and maintenance of reproductive processes, Yance explains. “They play key roles in the structure of eye cells and brain cells,” he says. “They’re vital for each neuron’s membrane, which serves both as its outer protection and its means of accessing key nutrients. Their benefits to cardiovascular health, memory, and behavior are now widely studied and proven to be effective against related diseases.” EFAs also help heart health, depression, and autoimmune diseases.
How to take them: According to Yance, take 1.2 grams per day of pure fish oil concentrate. He recommends finding a supplement with a 3:2 ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s, and a 4:3:2 ratio of EPA to DHA to GLA (gamma-linolenic acid, not technically an essential fatty acid because your body can enzymatically convert omega-6s into GLA; however, factors such as a poor diet or obesity can inhibit its synthesis).
Precautions: In general, fish oil has no negative side effects or interactions. If you are taking a prescription blood thinner, however, consult your health care practitioner.
Expert: Tori Hudson, ND, medical director of A Woman’s Time clinic in Portland, Oregon; author of Women’s Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine (McGraw-Hill, 1999); and 1999 winner of the prestigious Naturopathic Physician of the Year award
Favorite pick: Boric acid suppositories
What they are: “Nothing impresses me more than the success rate of boric acid suppositories [capsules filled with boric acid powder] for the treatment of candida vulvovaginal infections,” says Hudson. She points to one study in which women with chronic resistant yeast infections, who had failed extensive and prolonged conventional therapy, were treated with 600 mg boric acid vaginal suppositories twice a day for two or four weeks (Journal of Reproductive Medicine, 1991, vol. 36, no. 8). “This regimen cured 98 percent of the women who had previously failed to respond to the most commonly used antifungal agents,” Hudson says. “Clinical effectiveness doesn’t really get any better than this. They work most of the time, they’re inexpensive, and they’re easy to use.”
How they work: Boric acid suppositories target the yeast infection by acidifying the vaginal pH levels. A normal pH for the vagina ranges between 3.8 and 4.2. When the pH level rises, yeast begins to overgrow. “So by restoring the normal pH, the ecology of the vagina is restored, and the acidic environment keeps the organisms in balance,” Hudson explains.
How to take them: For acute yeast infections, Hudson recommends inserting boric acid suppositories in both a.m. and p.m. for three to seven days, and up to 14 days for resistant cases. For prevention, insert one boric acid powder capsule at bedtime, during menstruation only, for four consecutive months. (During menstruation, pH becomes more alkaline, causing a propensity for the yeast to proliferate; the boric acid suppositories help maintain acidity and prevent yeast growth.) In addition to suppositories, Hudson also suggests avoiding sugars, refined carbohydrates, and alcohol, and eating 8 ounces of acidophilus yogurt daily.
Precautions: To avoid any discomfort or burning, apply vitamin C or calendula on the external genitalia to protect it from the boric acid. Avoid boric acid suppositories if pregnant because they may cause miscarriage.
Expert: Cynthia Bye, ND, naturopathic physician in Vancouver, Washington, and board member of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians
Favorite pick: Probiotics
What they are: Probiotics, such as the well-known Lactobacillus acidophilus, are live beneficial bacteria that colonize the intestinal tract, making it function in a healthier manner. Probiotics become crucial if you are taking antibiotics, which kill intestinal bacteria—even the “good” ones. The two predominant human strains are lactobacillus, for the small intestine, and bifidobacterium, for the large intestine.
How they work: Probiotics adhere to the soft lining of the intestinal tract, which results in improved digestion, regularity, and immune function. When your intestines are healthy, you enhance nutrient absorption. “Many of the strains produce lactose, an enzyme that can help to digest dairy products,” explains Bye. “Everyone can benefit from probiotics, given our high-sugar and high-fat American diets and the fact that we have chlorine in our drinking water, which is there to specifically kill bacteria and can also kill beneficial bacteria.”
How to take them: Bye suggests taking probiotics between meals when your stomach acid is low, because the acid produced when eating kills beneficial bacteria. If you are on antibiotics, take your probiotics two to three hours after each dose of antibiotics and then continue for two weeks after your last dose. Because doses are based on individual needs, see a naturopathic physician or holistic health care practitioner for specifics.
Precautions: Make sure your over-the-counter products have been refrigerated properly, if needed, and have not been in direct sunlight, which can harm the live bacteria.
3 top foods
Expert: Constance Grauds, RPh, president of the Association of Natural Medicine Pharmacists; adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing; director of the Center for Spirited Medicine in San Rafael, California; and coauthor of The Energy Prescription (Random House, 2005
Favorite pick: Quinoa
What it is: Although quinoa is relatively new to our grocery shelves, this crop is a staple of Andean people. Many people consider it a “supergrain,” but quinoa is really the seed of a leafy plant that’s a distant cousin of spinach. “The Incas of the South American Andes referred to quinoa as ‘the mother grain’ because of its importance to this ancient culture,” says Grauds. Because it thrives in arid climates and mountainous altitudes, the United States imports much of its supply from South America.
Why eat it: Quinoa contains more iron than other grains and is a more complete protein because it has the amino acid lysine. It also contains high levels of potassium, riboflavin, and B vitamins (namely B6, thiamin, and niacin) and is a good source of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese, and folate.
How to prepare it: Prepare quinoa similarly to rice. Simmer with water (two parts liquid to one part quinoa) on the stovetop for about 15 minutes, or until the quinoa is translucent and the germ has spiraled out from the grain. “It can be used to make everything from appetizers to desserts, as well as substituted for your favorite grains in any recipe,” says Grauds. When cooked, quinoa possesses a slightly nutty to neutral taste.
Additional info: Be sure to rinse quinoa thoroughly before cooking to remove any remaining saponin (its bitter, soapy coating). Look for quinoa in large supermarkets as well as in health food and specialty stores. Store in a tightly closed container in a cool, dry place.
Expert: Jane Guiltinan, ND, clinical professor and director of the Women’s Wellness Center at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington
Favorite pick: Wild chinook (king) salmon
What it is: The largest of the salmon species, chinook also possesses, ounce for ounce, a higher, more concentrated content of omega-3 fatty acids than other species, such as sockeye (coho).
Why eat it: Omega-3 fatty acids are considered “essential” because your body can’t produce them—thus, you must rely on outside sources to get your daily supply. Fatty fish in general (salmon, mackerel, sardines) are heralded for their high amounts of omega-3s, but chinook salmon beats all. Omega-3s provide the beneficial oil in cell membranes, says Guiltinan. Plus their anti-inflammatory properties reduce the risk of heart disease and lessen the symptoms of arthritis. To benefit from salmon, Guiltinan suggests eating a minimum of three 4-ounce servings per week.Guiltinan also stresses the importance of eating wild salmon rather than farm-raised. “Farm-raised salmon are fed antibiotics and hormones, and they possess a different fatty acid profile and don’t offer as many beneficial oils [as wild salmon],” says Guiltinan.
How to prepare it: Guiltinan suggests baking salmon for maximum health benefits. Although grilling the fish on an outdoor barbecue is delicious, when the oils from the fish cook directly over a flame, they transform into oxidized fats, which can be harmful. If you still prefer grilling, Guiltinan suggests wrapping the salmon in foil and cooking it slowly.
Additional info: Because omega-3s naturally thin the blood, those taking prescription blood thinners should be mindful of excessive intakes of salmon. If you can’t find wild salmon at your local natural grocery store, Guiltinan suggests ordering some from a reputable distributor who carefully flash-freezes the fish, an option she prefers to settling for farm-raised.
Expert: Rachel Brandeis, RD, dietitian in private practice in Atlanta and official spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association
Favorite pick: Flaxseeds
What it is: Flaxseeds are the hard, tiny seeds of the flax plant (Linum usitatissimum).
Why eat it: Flaxseeds are naturally rich in alpha-linolenic acids, which your body converts to omega-3 fatty acids. Essential omega-3s are necessary for cell membrane structure and thus contribute to beautiful skin, nails, and hair; assist brain and nervous system function; and may help prevent arthritis, heart disease, and hormone-related cancers. They also may reduce inflammation and ease depression. Traditionally, people know fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel as excellent sources of omega-3s; however, it can sometimes be difficult to eat enough fish, particularly if you’re not crazy about the taste.
How to prepare it: When most folks consider taking in flaxseeds, they think of the oil. “But that can get expensive,” says Brandeis, “especially considering the short shelf life of the supplement.” Check labels to determine the shelf life, which is typically six to eight weeks. As an alternative, try ground flax. Because your body is unable to break down the outer layer of the seed, you must first grind them using a mortar and pestle or a coffee or spice grinder in order to reap this food’s benefits. Then, add ground flax to just about anything: muffin or bread mix, yogurt, even meatloaf.
Additional info: Buy the seeds packaged or in bulk at your local natural products store, keep them in the fridge or freezer, and grind up only the amount you need because the exposure of the oil inside the seed contributes to a shortened shelf life.