When it comes to understanding and researching medicinal herbs, the US is behind many other parts of the world. Even though American scientists have now stepped up their research on natural medicines, the funding for such studies still pales in comparison with that devoted to pharmaceutical drugs.
Meanwhile, it's widely known that people in India, China and Japan have centuries-old histories of using compounds found in nature for their medicine.
What you may not realize: Europeans also are far ahead of Americans in their study of the safety and effectiveness of herbal medicines. This is especially true in Germany, where a scientific committee, known as Commission E, has been established by law to study the safety and efficacy of herbal medicines.
So which favorite European natural remedies are worth trying?
The following five herbs are available at most US health-food stores but are not well known to most Americans...*
*Before trying these herbs, consult a physician who is knowledgeable about botanical medicine. To find such a doctor, consult the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, 866-538-2267, www.naturopathic.org, or the American Holistic Medical Association, 216-292-6644, www.holisticmedicine.org.
Bilberry To Improve Circulation
This antioxidant-rich fruit is tasty in jams and pies—and useful as a natural remedy.
Best for: Europeans use bilberry to aid circulation and improve the function of blood vessels benefits attributed to the herb's plant-based compounds known as anthocyanosides. In particular, bilberry is widely used in Europe for chronic venous insufficiency, a condition in which leg veins that transport blood to the heart are damaged due to such risk factors as prolonged standing and/or being overweight.
Bilberry also is popular in Europe among people with diabetic retinopathy, a leading cause of blindness in those with diabetes, to help strengthen the tiny capillaries in the eyes.
Typical dose: If you have a circulatory problem, such as varicose veins, atherosclerosis or venous insufficiency, take an 80 milligrams (mg) capsule, once or twice a day. For diabetic retinopathy, take 160 mg, twice a day.
Caution: Be sure to speak to your doctor before trying bilberry if you use blood-thinning drugs (this herb may increase bleeding risk) or take diabetes medication (bilberry may lower blood sugar).
Gentian To Aid Digestion
Gentian, an extremely bitter-tasting herb, is found in some alcoholic aperitifs such as Campari from Italy-which are sipped before eating to whet the appetite.
In Europe, gentian is also used to aid digestion and promote the absorption of nutrients from food.
Best for: Enhancing the body's intake of nutrients, as well as preventing or soothing digestive complaints, such as heartburn and intestinal gas. Europeans also use gentian to help treat anemia because it promotes the absorption of iron and other nutrients.
Typical dose: Put 10 to 20 drops of Angostura Bitters (an extract of gentian that is available in liquor and grocery stores) in one ounce of warm water. Drink this mixture 15 to 30 minutes before your meals to enhance the digestive process.
The extract is 44.7% alcohol by volume. If you wish to avoid alcohol, add one teaspoon of dried gentian to one cup of boiling water. Cover and let steep for 20 minutes. Drink one cup just before each meal.
Caution: Avoid this remedy if you have a peptic or duodenal ulcer-it can irritate the gastrointestinal lining.
Rhodiola To Boost Your Energy Levels
Popular in Russia and Eastern Europe, Rhodiola rosea (also called golden root) is considered an adaptogenic herb, meaning that it helps increase the body's ability to handle physical and mental stressors.
This yellow-flowered plant grows in cold climates, and the herb has been used by athletes to increase their stamina. Nonathletes may use the herb as an energy booster for stress-related fatigue.
Best for: People who are run down, sleeping poorly and/or feeling mentally foggy. Rhodiola can be used as part of an overall wellness plan to get back on a regular schedule, but it's not a substitute for getting enough rest.
Typical dose: Depending on your level of fatigue, take 200 mg to 500 mg of rhodiola a day in capsule form. The herb tends to work best if you take it a half hour before breakfast, when the remedy can stimulate the body's natural hormonal cycles that keep you alert.
Caution: Rhodiola may lower blood pressure. Avoid it if you have diabetes or hypoglycemia. Rhodiola may also increase heart rate.
Rosemary For Headache
This fragrant leaf from an evergreen shrub is better known to Americans as a cooking spice than a healing herb. However, rosemary is widely used in Europe in both tincture form and tea.
Best for: Treating headache and indigestion.
Typical dose: To ease headache pain or indigestion, drink 40 to 80 drops of the tincture in one ounce of water, a couple of times a day. Or use about one-half to one teaspoon of rosemary leaves in a cup of tea and drink up to three times daily.
Caution: People with high blood pressure, ulcers, Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis should not take rosemary. The herb also should be avoided by people who take blood thinners, ACE inhibitors, diuretics and/or diabetes medications-rosemary may interact with these drugs.
Willow Bark For Pain
Willow bark has been used since the Middle Ages in Europe to relieve pain and inflammation. Acetylsalicylic acid, most commonly known as aspirin, is similar to salicin, a chemical found in willow bark. Studies have shown that willow bark reduces low-back pain as well as osteoarthritis pain.
Willow bark is approved by Germany's Commission E as a treatment for headache and conditions affecting the muscles and joints. Some evidence suggests that willow bark is less likely than nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, including aspirin, to cause gastrointestinal side effects. However, people who are prone to stomach upset still may want to avoid the herb.
Typical dose: For pain relief, take 60 mg to 240 mg of salicin daily in divided doses if desired-pain relief lasts two to four hours) or drink up to three cups of tea daily-add one-half to one teaspoon of dried willow bark to a cup of hot water, and steep for 10 to 15 minutes. You may need to use willow bark for up to a week for significant relief.
Caution: Be sure to speak to your doctor before trying willow bark-particularly if you have any chronic condition such as diabetes or take medication such as blood-thinning drugs.
Constipation? Try Rye Bread
When 51 constipated adults added rye bread to their diets for three weeks, they had better bowel function than those who added non-whole-grain wheat bread or took laxatives. Rye eaters had 23% shorter total intestinal transit times (how long it takes food to travel through the digestive tract) and 1.4 more weekly defecations. Rich in dietary fiber, magnesium and vitamin B-1, rye bread also lowers cholesterol and helps prevent diabetes and heart disease.
To ease constipation: Eat two slices of rye bread daily.
Cinnamon Keeps You Focused
It speeds the rate at which the brain processes visual cues. Try chewing cinnamon-flavored gum before doing something that will require quick responses, such as playing tennis. To make cinnamon a regular part of your diet, sprinkle one teaspoon of it on oatmeal or cereal at breakfast.