Traditional use backed by research
Priyanka Gupta, ND
Healing plants have been used for centuries to treat a variety of health concerns. Recent studies have shown that their benefits aren't just old wives' tales.
Plants have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Traditional use has led to renewed interest in herbs and supplements—and modern research has backed up some of the traditional health claims. Many herbs and supplements found at your natural health store can help target our health problems.
This complex biological response is triggered by harmful stimuli such as pathogens (bacteria, viruses, or fungi), damaged cells, irritants, or injury. The underlying issue of many illnesses such as atherosclerosis and psoriasis, inflammation brings about redness, swelling, immense pain, and discomfort in the tissues affected.
A master supplement for inflammation, curcumin is a component of the yellow spice turmeric, a member of the ginger family that’s used in Indian cooking. With potent anti-inflammatory benefits, curcumin is a go-to supplement for many pain-related problems.
A 2008 study looked at the effectiveness of curcumin in comparison to ibuprofen on osteoarthritis. Researchers found that curcumin extract was not only just as effective as ibuprofen in controlling pain but was also considered safe for long-term treatment. A look at the literature reveals that 12 mg daily for up to three months proved to be safe and effective.
According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s 2008 figures, 1.3 million Canadians live with heart disease; an estimated 70,000 people have heart attacks each year. Some individuals may not know that they have the disease until it is too late. However, since heart disease is a preventable condition, herbs and supplements along with diet and lifestyle modifications can help.
Famously known for causing unpleasant breath when eaten in large amounts, the use of garlic can be traced back to 2700 BC in China and to ancient Egypt. Today, garlic can be found in nearly all ethnic cooking around the world. Aged garlic extract exhibits well-documented heart health properties.
The medicinal properties of garlic have been the focus of many research studies, specifically on cholesterol. A 2013 meta-analysis found that when garlic preparations were used for more than two months, they lowered total serum cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. An 8 percent reduction in total serum cholesterol results in a 38 percent reduction in the risk of heart disease at 50 years of age.
Aged garlic extract
Garlic extract has also been shown to reduce blood pressure in hypertensive patients. A 2013 study conducted by Australian researchers looked specifically at the dosage that would be effective in eliciting blood pressure-lowering effects. Patients receiving 960 mg (two capsules) of garlic extract daily over a 12-week period experienced the most significant blood pressure-lowering benefits.
Plant sterols or phytosterols are an interesting group of nutrients that naturally occur in plants and have well-documented heart health benefits. Since at the molecular level they resemble cholesterol, scientists theorize that phytosterols may competitively bind to cholesterol receptor sites, tricking the body to lower its own production of excess fat molecules.
Researchers in Spain conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 83 individuals with elevated LDL (bad) cholesterol. The researchers found that plant sterols helped to significantly lower LDL cholesterol compared to those given placebo. Triglycerides were found to be reduced by 14 percent in individuals who supplemented for 42 days with a yogurt drink containing 1,600 mg of plant sterols.
Nuts are one of the best sources of phytosterols. The average person consumes between 150 mg to 450 mg of phytosterols per day. Individuals who consume a predominantly plant-based diet, such as a vegan diet, may obtain upward of 700 mg of phytosterols per day.
Blood sugar control
Blood sugar control is becoming an increasingly interesting area of medical research, not only for individuals with diabetes but also for people who want to lose weight.
A spice that was imported to Egypt as early as 2000 BC, cinnamon, with its sweet but peppery taste, was one of the most sought-after spices around the world. One of cinnamon extract’s most impressive health benefits is its ability to control blood sugar.
Early research showed that taking 1 to 6 g of cinnamon extract a day reduced blood sugar levels with the added benefit of also reducing triglycerides, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and total cholesterol levels in people with type 2 diabetes.
In a small 2009 study, cinnamon delayed gastric emptying. Individuals ingested 300 g of rice pudding alone or 300 g of rice pudding with 6 g of cinnamon. The addition of cinnamon delayed gastric emptying, which in turn helped to lower blood sugar effectively.
Although cinnamon is not a substitute for regular exercise and healthy eating, little steps taken every day can have a major effect on lowering the incidence of diabetes.
There are different times in our life when we may need memory enhancement. Students, new parents suffering from sleep deprivation, and middle-aged and older people all may benefit from brain-boosting herbal extracts.
Perhaps not as well known as other supplements, Bacopa monnieri is a herb that is called Brahmi in Ayurvedic medicine. Traditionally used for improving cognitive function, new research is substantiating bacopa’s benefits for memory and possibly in the management of schizophrenia.
To test the effects of bacopa, researchers enrolled 60 healthy elderly patients in a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Patients were either given standardized bacopa extract or placebo. After 12 weeks of continued daily use, patients who received the standardized bacopa extract exhibited improved working memory, attention span, and cognitive processing.
One brief case study showed that 500 mg of bacopa per day in addition to standard treatment for schizophrenia led to improved outcomes for one individual. Further research is required in this area.
As a master antioxidant, coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) has gained attention in the medical community for its powerful cardiovascular benefits. Our cells naturally produce CoQ10 and utilize the nutrient for energy production. As we age, biosynthesis of CoQ10 starts to diminish, causing deficiency and lower energy production. Tissues that have a high demand for energy, such as heart muscle, depend on the availability of CoQ10.
CoQ10 has been at the centre of very interesting research on longevity. In a groundbreaking early study, long-term supplementation of CoQ10 in rats was shown to prevent DNA breakage. The study also found that CoQ10 significantly increased rats’ higher maximum lifespan by 24 percent compared to animals not given the nutrient. The researchers theorize that CoQ10 may be a good antiaging therapy for humans too.
CoQ10’s antiaging effects have been studied on human dermal and epidermal (skin) cells. It appears to protect the skin from stress-induced oxidative cell death and promotes growth of cell membrane components in these skin cells.
Much debate exists regarding the dosage and, more importantly, the form of CoQ10 supplements. Since CoQ10 is fat soluble, taking it with a meal containing a healthy fat enables its proper absorption. Oil suspensions and softgel capsules seem to be better absorbed than other forms.
Between 30 and 200 mg of CoQ10 can be taken daily. Consult your health care practitioner, as CoQ10 may interact with blood pressure, blood-thinning, and chemotherapy medications.
Mothers of young children, shift workers, and students all need help sleeping occasionally. Melatonin is a naturally occurring compound found in plants and animals. In humans, melatonin levels vary over each 24-hour period in response to light, which in turn controls our circadian rhythm. Darkness promotes the production of melatonin by the pineal gland, allowing sleep to naturally take place at nighttime.
Available as a supplement, melatonin has been at the centre of sleep research for many years. In 2007, Scottish researchers reported that melatonin was effective in improving sleep quality and morning alertness in patients with insomnia.
Although previous dosage recommendations for the supplement have been between 1 and 6 mg per day, a dosage as low as 0.3 mg per day should be enough to elicit proper sleep. This minimal dosage mimics the amount the body naturally produces and researchers say it offers the most benefit.
From occasional discomfort to clinically diagnosed irritable bowel syndrome, digestive problems may affect young and old at any time. Eating well isn’t always enough to combat digestive disorders, so supplementation may offer much needed relief.
Probiotics are a category of micro-organisms known as healthy bacteria that have a wide range of health benefits, particularly associated with digestive health. Naturally found in fermented products such as yogurt, probiotics colonize the walls of the colon and offer immune protection against ingested pathogens.
One of the most effective uses of probiotics is in treating antibiotic-associated diarrhea (AAD), which results from an imbalance in the microflora of the colon caused by antibiotic therapy. Decreased amounts of healthy bacteria result in reduced carbohydrate absorption, which in turn causes osmotic changes in the intestines. Restoring gut flora with probiotic supplementation has been shown to safely minimize the effects of AAD, even in children.
Studies also indicate that probiotics are useful for treating irritable bowel syndrome, Helicobacter pylori infections, and even colic in babies. The typical adult dosage ranges from 2 to 10 billion live organisms of Lactobacillus in divided doses throughout the day. Check with your health care practitioner for the best probiotic strain and dosage for you.
Omega-3 fatty acids have become one of the best known supplements in recent times. Often termed essential fatty acids, omega-3s are not naturally produced by the body and must be consumed in food sources or through supplementation. Although many sources of omega-3 exist, including flaxseed, hempseed, and sacha inchi oil, a popular source is fish oil.
A variety of health benefits are associated with omega-3 intake, including cardiovascular health and cognitive benefits. Omega-3 fatty acids may be one of the most important supplements that we may choose to take each day.
Much research has focused on omega-3 fats and their ability to protect against cellular aging by preserving telomere length. Scientists theorize that with increasing age, a cell’s telomere, which is its end portion of DNA, starts to shorten. Preserving the length of the telomere may result in the longer lifespan of the cell.
A study involving 608 outpatients with stable heart disease found that those participants who had the highest omega-3 levels showed less telomere shortening in comparison to those with the lowest intake of omega-3. This raises the possibility that omega-3 fatty acids may protect against cellular aging in patients with coronary heart disease.
Omega-3 has also been found to decrease cognitive decline in seniors. In a study conducted by Harvard Medical School, seniors who consumed fish such as tuna, at least once weekly, had a lower decline in verbal memory over a four-year period.
A daily intake of 3,000 mg, which is approximately three capsules of fish oil per day, is considered both safe and beneficial. Good food sources of omega-3 include cold-water fish such as salmon, herring, halibut, and sardines; omega-3 fortified eggs; walnuts; flax and hempseeds; and seaweeds and sea vegetables.
Many health concerns can be addressed successfully by using herbs and supplements such as garlic, cinnamon, and curcumin. Modern research is now confirming the wisdom of their traditional uses. Newer supplements such as CoQ10 and melatonin are quickly capturing the attention of the medical community to help treat many health issues safely and effectively.
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