A good-to-know guide
A berry that fights influenza; a root that relieves stress; a leaf that protects against cancer: the everyday power of plants can be downright remarkable. If the increasing sales of botanicals are any indication, people are eager to harness that power for their health, be it through capsules, snacks, or elixirs. Botanicals are any part of a plant that can be used medicinally and are attractive due to their tendency to be safe, have minimal side effects, function holistically, and even act preventively. It’s no wonder someone might choose cranberry for their urinary tract infection if it can help them avoid antibiotics.
Science continues to investigate medicinal plant uses, sometimes confirming anecdotal evidence, sometimes setting the record straight. Among other things, researchers are working to illuminate how plants may address our pandemic health challenges.
Botanicals as diverse as spirulina and licorice, as well as those from medicinal traditions around the world, are being studied for their virus-fighting abilities. Others are being pursued to ease insomnia and depression.
Adaptogens—botanicals that help the body adjust to stress and maintain balance—are of particular interest since our burden of stress has been mounting. Holistic nutritionist and health coach Sheena Huculak has seen the public increasingly seeking this class of remedy: “One that stands out the most for me is ashwagandha and other adaptogens like rhodiola, holy basil, and mushrooms.”
But the popularity of plant remedies sometimes has the science scrambling to keep pace with marketing. If consumers perceive acai as having health benefits, a chocolate-coated version of it becomes an easy sell even though the research is lacking and the product may be more sugar than anything else.
Similarly, anything with a little flaxseed added, from deep-fried snacks to sugary cereal, is banking on our popular understanding of flaxseed’s fibre and omega-3 content. Yet we can’t realistically expect to reap those health benefits if they’re defeated by the item’s processing or other ingredients.
The cacao we see in everything from granola bars to drink mixes is well proven to contain heart-healthy compounds, but again, we have to be discerning about the overall product.
And what does the science say about another rising star on health food store shelves: ashwagandha? There’s a growing body of evidence supporting its ability to help us cope with stress and even to improve cognitive function.
Huculak finds ashwagandha to be her most recommended botanical, especially when it comes to sleep concerns: “I like to start here with customers because when people are struggling with sleep, most often the culprit is anxiety and stress.”
Once you’ve gone beyond the marketing and landed on a botanical that has the weight of science behind it, its efficacy is still going to depend a great deal on the dose and consistency with which you take it.
Sprinklings of widely tolerated botanicals may be a fine thing, but for medicinal effect you will need a medicinal dose. So go ahead and enjoy the health properties of a turmeric latte, but don’t expect it to cure your arthritis; feel good about that sparkling adaptogenic drink, but don’t be surprised if it alone doesn’t bring tangible benefit.
How much of a botanical you take and for how long also become questions of safety; just as too little can be ineffectual, too much can be risky. The same goes for duration. The implications of taking echinacea beyond the short term aren’t well understood; taking a tonic herb for too short a time may fail to yield results.
Huculak cautions, “It is important to know there can be negative interactions between some natural health products and medications.” Botanicals can pose a risk in scenarios such as pregnancy or surgery, too, so it’s well worth running it past a health care professional and heeding the product label.
Another matter of safety is simply the quality of the product. Plant material is extremely complex and chemically diverse, making the task of identifying and standardizing particular botanical constituents very challenging. In the case of a blended supplement, interactions between the ingredients also need to be considered.
Just like food, the quality of what we ingest depends greatly on where and how the material was grown, which parts were harvested and at what stage, how they were handled and processed along the way, and how the finished product is stored.
Seeing this gap in the potential quality and safety of their offerings, many botanical supplement companies choose to have their products tested and certified by an independent lab and display that certification on their labels. But the natural health industry recognizes this is still an imperfect system, and there are initiatives underway to integrate better quality and safety controls into the market as a whole.
Nearly 26,000 plants have been documented globally to have therapeutic uses—a vast store of potential medicine. Our growing desire to treat health more holistically, combined with our ability to assess the evidence critically, bodes well for a future where botanicals are integral to our well-being—a practice about as old as humanity itself.
A little intel goes a long way in choosing the right botanical.
|Botanical||What the science is saying|
|turmeric/curcumin (using bio-optimized versions)||may be effective for osteoarthritis pain and physical function; shows promise for other inflammatory conditions, but evidence is still mixed|
|ashwagandha (root extract)||may help reduce stress and anxiety and improve sleep; shows promise in a variety of areas from increasing physical performance to decreasing perimenopausal symptoms|
|green tea (ECGC and green tea extract)||may have cancer preventive properties and be useful as an adjunct to treatment; promotes gut microbiome health (with cascading benefits to other conditions such as inflammatory diseases); may aid weight management in conjunction with exercise|
|black cumin (a.k.a. nigella)||antimicrobial (even with drug-resistant bacteria); good evidence in control of asthma and respiratory ailments; early studies show promise in a huge variety of other areas|
|medicinal mushrooms (reishi, chaga, turkey tail, etc.)||have shown evidence in cancer prevention and treatment|
The botanical supplement market is forecast to grow significantly over the next 10 years, meaning a lot of demand for plant material. Make consumer choices that are better for people and the planet by checking out the Sustainable Herbs Program at sustainableherbsprogram.org.
Of the consumers who increased their supplement use in 2020, nearly a quarter did so for mental health reasons.