Anyone who has taken prescription drugs is well aware that these medications can not only be costly, but they also can cause a variety of uncomfortable or even dangerous side effects, such as excessive bleeding, headache, nausea and dizziness.

Recently reported problem: A study of 150,000 older adults (who are among the heaviest users of prescription medications) found that 29% were taking at least one inappropriate drug-including medications that were ineffective or even dangerous.

Often-overlooked alternative to drugs: Herbal medicine. Herbs should not be substituted for all prescription medications, but the careful use of medicinal plants can improve overall health and reduce or eliminate the need for some medications-as well as the risks for drug-related side effects.*

Common conditions—and the best herbal treatments…

Chronic Bronchitis

More than 5% of Americans suffer from chronic bronchitis (a mucus-producing cough that occurs on most days of the month at least three months of the year).

Best herbal treatment: Horehound (leaves and flowering tops). It relaxes the bronchi (airways that connect the windpipe to the lungs) and makes it easier to expel mucus.

How to use: Add 1 milliliter (ml) to 2 ml of horehound tincture (concentrated liquid) to 1 ounce of hot or cold water. Drink this amount three times daily during bronchitis flare-ups.

Important: Most herbs are available in various forms, such as dry leaf, capsules and powders, but tinctures are convenient, among the quickest to be absorbed and have a long shelf life.

*See your doctor before using medicinal herbs-especially if you take any medications, have a chronic medical condition or are pregnant or nursing


When acid from the stomach backs up into the esophagus, the result is often heartburn (a burning pain behind the breastbone).

Best herbal treatment: Marshmallow root. It coats and soothes the esophageal lining.

How to use: Make an infusion by adding one heaping teaspoon of powdered marshmallow root to a cup of cold water and letting it sit at room temperature for 12 hours. Drink the entire mixture when heartburn occurs. If you get heartburn more than three times a week, drink one infusion in the morning and another at bedtime until the heartburn eases. If you make more than one cup in advance, you can refrigerate the unused portion for 24 hours.

Important: Do not use hot water. It will provide only about one-fourth of the soothing mucilage (lubricating substance) of a cold-water infusion.


High blood pressure (hypertension) is among the main causes of heart attack and stroke. Prescription medications usually are required for this condition, but herbal therapy can sometimes allow patients to take lower doses of blood pressure-lowering drugs.

Important: Check with your doctor before trying herbs for hypertension. Because the potential complications of hypertension are serious, everyone with this condition should be under a doctor's care.

Best herbal treatment: Hawthorn (berries). This herbal therapy dilates arteries (which allows more blood to circulate with less force)...and strengthens the cardiovascular system, in part by enhancing the activity of cells in the heart muscle. In Germany, hawthorn is widely recommended by doctors for cardiovascular disease.

How to use: Add 1 ml to 2 ml of hawthorn tincture to 1 ounce of hot or cold water. Drink this amount three times daily.

Alternative: Drink hot tea (two to three times daily) that combines hawthorn with linden flowers, an herb that has a mild antihypertensive effect. Such tea bags are available at most health food stores.


Stress, poor sleep habits and health problems that cause pain are common causes of insomnia (an inability to fall asleep or remain asleep).

Best herbal treatment: Passionflower (leaves or whole plant). Its depressant effect on the central nervous system helps promote restful sleep.

How to use: Add 1 ml to 4 ml of passionflower tincture to 1 ounce of cold water, or make an infusion by pouring one cup of boiling water over one teaspoon of dried passionflower and letting it sit for 15 minutes. Drink the entire tincture mixture or infusion at bedtime when you suffer from insomnia.

Caution: People who take drugs with sedative effects, such as certain antihistamines, antianxiety medications and insomnia supplements or drugs, should not use passionflower, which can increase these sedative effects.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhea are characteristic symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Best herbal treatment: Yarrow (leaves and other parts that grow above ground) for the diarrhea phase...mugwort (leaves) for constipation. These herbs also are effective for episodes of diarrhea and constipation that are not related to IBS.

Yarrow contains tannins, substances that reduce the amount of water released by the intestinal lining. Mugwort is a bitter herb that promotes the intestinal contractions needed for bowel movements.

How to use: Add 1 ml to 2 ml of yarrow or mugwort tincture to 1 ounce of hot or cold water. Drink this amount three times daily when you have diarrhea or constipation.


Age-related changes in the joints are the primary cause of osteoarthritis. Most patients can get temporary relief with pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil), but these drugs often cause side effects, such as gastrointestinal bleeding.

Best herbal treatment: Black mustard (for external use) and meadowsweet (for internal use). A poultice of black mustard causes mild, temporary inflammation that stimulates circulation--good for muscle and/or joint pain.

How to use: Make a black-mustard poultice by grinding the seeds in a coffee grinder and mixing one-half cup of the mustard powder with 1 cup of flour. Add enough hot water to make a paste. Spread the mixture on a piece of heavy brown paper, cotton or muslin that has been soaked in hot water, then cover it with a second piece of dry material. Lay the moist side of the poultice across the painful area, leaving it on for 15 to 30 minutes once daily.

Caution: Consult a doctor before using the poultice on a young child, or on anyone who is age 70 or older or seriously ill.

Meadowsweet is a pain reliever that contains aspirin-like chemicals called salicylates.

How to use: Add 1 ml to 2 ml of meadowsweet tincture to 1 ounce of hot or cold water. Drink this amount three times daily until symptoms subside.

Periodontal Disease

Bacterial buildup in the spaces between the teeth and gums leads to periodontal (gum) disease-the most common cause of tooth loss in older adults. Gum infection has been linked to an increased risk for heart attack and stroke. Regular dental care and cleanings (at least annually) are essential.

Best herbal treatment: Goldenseal and/or myrrh. Goldenseal acts as a topical antibiotic, Myrrh strengthens mucous membranes. Start treatment when you first notice gum tenderness and/or bleeding-the first signs of periodontal disease.

How to use: Mix equal amounts of goldenseal and myrrh tinctures. Use a very fine paintbrush to apply the mixture to the gum line. Leave it on as long as you can-the taste is unpleasant—then rinse your mouth with water and spit it out. Repeat two or three times daily.

Skin Dryness

Declines in the activity of oil-producing glands make skin dryness a common complaint after age 50.

Best herbal treatment: Gentian. It's a bitter herb that stimulates the oil-producing exocrine glands in the skin.

How to use: Add 1 ml to 2 ml of tincture to 1 ounce of hot or cold water. Drink this amount three times daily, until your skin's condition improves.

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