Over-the-Counter Drugs - Herbal medicine

Many of today's drugs are derived from plants. Medicinal herbs are parts of plants that are used to treat illnesses and improve health. They have become ingredients in cosmetics, foods, teas, detergents, and even veterinary remedies. There is some controversy over the benefits of herbal medicines, and their effectiveness and safety have not been proven.

Herbal remedies are available in teas, syrups, decoctions (tough plant material that is boiled), tinctures (herbs steeped in alcohol and water), tonic wines, capsules, compresses, oils, ointments, creams, lotions, inhalants, and

An Echinacea flower. (Photograph by Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications. Reproduced by permission.)
An Echinacea flower. (Photograph by
Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications
. Reproduced by permission.)

eyewashes. In general, herbal medicine is untested and unregulated. It can also have harmful interactions with similar synthetic (human-made) drugs. Always check with a physician before taking any herbal medicine.

Echinacea (Purple Coneflower)

Echinacea (pronounced ek-i-NAY-sha), known commonly as purple coneflower because of its color and shape, can be found growing on road banks, prairies, fields and dry, open woods of North America. Native Americans and early settlers used it to treat fevers, wounds, toothaches, sore throats, mumps, smallpox, measles and snakebites, which is why it is also called snakeroot. Echinacea boosts the body's immune system to help it fight off disease and has antibacterial properties as well. Early herbalists used the root of Echinacea to cleanse and heal wounds and also to treat skin disorders like boils and abscesses.

Studies have shown that Echinacea stimulates production of white blood cells, which fight infection, and increases the level of T-cells and other components of the immune system. Echinacea also improves the migration of white blood cells to attack foreign organisms and toxins. Furthermore, it inhibits an enzyme that destroys the natural barrier between healthy tissue and harmful organisms. Echinacea has mild antibiotic properties that are effective in treating staph and strep infections. In animal experiments, it has proven to be effective in inhibiting the growth of tumors.

Today's herbalists use this plant to treat viral, bacterial, and fungal infections such as colds, flu, and kidney infections. Echinacea helps the body defend itself against flu and may help reduce the runny nose and sore throat that accompany the flu. It can be helpful in treating tonsillitis, inflamed gums, and some forms of arthritis. Some herbalists recommend Echinacea for the treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome, indigestion, gastroenteritis, and for weight loss. It is applied externally to treat skin conditions such as burns, insect bites, ulcers, psoriasis, acne, and eczema, and there is even some evidence that it is helpful in treating allergies.

Echinacea is usually available as a tablet or tea. People who suffer from multiple sclerosis, AIDS, tuberculosis, or who are pregnant or nursing should not use Echinacea because it could trigger overactive autoimmune responses (the production of antibodies that attack the body's own cells and tissues). There are no other known side effects.


Aromatherapy is the use of fragrant, concentrated oils from parts of plants—such as their flowers, fruit, stalks, roots, and bark—for the purpose of improving a person's physical and emotional well-being. It is believed that aromatherapy has been used to increase well-being for thousands of years. The Egyptians were probably the first to use essential oils. These oils occur naturally in plants and are extracted from the flowers and leaves. They are believed to improve healing ability and have a beneficial effect on the human mind. Research has shown that they are effective in treating anxiety and depression by stimulating nerves that are linked to the parts of the brain that control emotions.

Essential oils should never be used internally. They are commonly used for massage, added to hot bath water, or used in a vaporizer.

Ephedra (Ma Huang)

Ephedra (also known by its Chinese name Ma Huang) has been cultivated in China over the last 5,000 years. The dried young stems of the herb ephedra are used to treat sinusitis, colds, asthma, hay fever, and other allergies. It appears to have antibacterial properties and is the source of the synthetic (human-made) drug ephedrine, which is often used in decongestants. However, in traditional Chinese medicine the entire plant is used, not just the isolated compound of ephedrine. The Chinese have used ephedra at the first sign of a cold or flu and to treat arthritis and fluid retention.

Ephedra indirectly stimulates the central nervous system. It is effective for treating asthma because it relaxes the airways. It also raises blood pressure, so people with hypertension (elevated blood pressure) or coronary thrombosis (a blockage in a vein or artery of the heart) should not use ephedra. People who are currently taking certain types of antidepressants or have glaucoma should not use ephedra either. Other possible side effects include

Aromatherapy is believed to benefit both the mind and body. Here, the smell from a flower stimulates the olfactory bulb and neurons (the parts of the nose and brain associated with the sense of smell). The desired emotional response (such as relaxation) is activated from the limbic system, the part of the brain thought to control emotional and behavioral patterns. (Electronic Illustrators Group. Reproduced by permission of Gale Group.)
Aromatherapy is believed to benefit both the mind and body. Here, the smell from a flower stimulates the olfactory bulb and neurons (the parts of the nose and brain associated with the sense of smell). The desired emotional response (such as relaxation) is activated from the limbic system, the part of the brain thought to control emotional and behavioral patterns. (
Electronic Illustrators Group
. Reproduced by permission of
Gale Group

headaches, irritability, restlessness, nausea, sleeplessness, and vomiting. Only adults and children over six years of age should use ephedra, and it is intended for short-term use only, because people can become dependent on it. Because of the possible side effects, ephedra is restricted in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. (Ephedra has not applied for FDA approval in the United States so its use is still unrestricted in most states.)


Feverfew is also known as featherfew or bachelor's buttons. It was first brought to the United States as an ornamental (decorative) plant. Clinical trials have shown that it is effective in the treatment of migraine headaches and reduces the frequency and severity of other headaches. Feverfew limits the release of the chemicals serotonin and prostaglandin in the body, which are believed to be the sources of migraine headaches. It also slows the production of histamine, so the inflammation that constricts the blood vessels in the head is reduced.

Feverfew is also known for offering relief from depression, nausea, and the pain of arthritis. Tea made from the herb is used to stimulate appetite and improve digestion and kidney function. It has been proven to lower blood pressure and cause less stomach irritation than aspirin or other pain relievers. It is believed to be helpful in treating dizziness, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, asthma, and coughs.

Chewing fresh leaves of feverfew may cause mouth ulcers or loss of taste in the mouth, and pregnant women or people who are using anticlotting drugs should not take this herb.


Although most people think of garlic as a seasoning, it is also known as nature's most versatile plant because of its medicinal uses. A member of the onion family, garlic is used to treat a wide range of health problems. It has been used for thousands of years to treat wounds, infections, tumors, and intestinal parasites. Today, clinical trials have shown that garlic lowers cholesterol and blood pressure, kills bacteria like antibiotics, and is an effective blood thinner, which reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes. The National Cancer Institute is studying garlic as a treatment for stomach, skin, and colon cancer. Garlic is even used externally to treat corns, warts, calluses, muscle pain, and arthritis.

Garlic contains a chemical called amino acid allicin that is released when the bulb is crushed. This chemical gives garlic its strong odor and is responsible for garlic's antibacterial properties. Garlic also contains compounds of sulfur, vitamin A, and vitamin C, which combine to make it a strong antioxidant. Antioxidants protect the body at a cellular level from damage and disease.

This herb also stimulates the body's natural defenses. Garlic increases the activity of white blood cells and other components of the immune system. In fact, garlic is reported to be more effective than penicillin in the treatment of typhus disease. Garlic also helps the body fight off strep, staph bacteria, and the organisms responsible for cholera and dysentery. Many people use garlic to help prevent colds, flu, and other infectious diseases. Studies have shown that garlic stimulates the liver's production of detoxifying enzymes that the body uses to protect itself from carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) and other toxins.

Garlic may even have anti-cancer properties. It may prevent cells from turning cancerous by helping the body remove toxic substances. Many people believe garlic boosts immunity. The National Cancer Institute reported in 1992 that people who ate large amounts of garlic and onions seemed to have lower chances of getting stomach cancer.

Research has shown that garlic reduces "bad" cholesterol, or LDL, levels while raising the level of HDLs, or "good" cholesterol. Garlic is beneficial in any and all forms—raw, dried, oil, or in prepared pill form—but must be used for at least two or three months before its good effect on cholesterol becomes evident, and it may even raise cholesterol a bit at first, but it has none of the side effects of other cholesterol-lowering drugs. Garlic is also used as a blood thinner and to reduce blood clots and improve circulation. It lowers blood pressure by slowing the body's production of hormones that raise blood pressure. There have been clinical trials that show garlic can be used to effectively manage mild hypertension.

Garlic is even used to treat diabetes, urinary infections, acne, asthma, sinusitis, arthritis, ulcers, and respiratory infections like bronchitis, although its effectiveness has not been proven. It is used as a dietary supplement to maintain good circulation, reduce fat levels in blood, help resist infection, and balance out blood sugar and pressure. In large quantities, however, garlic can cause upset stomach.

Ginkgo Biloba

Ginkgo is indigenous (native) to China, Japan, and Korea. It is the oldest living tree species, and geologists (scientists who study the origin and structure of the earth) believe it has been around for 150 to 200 million years. Studies have shown that ginkgo helps prevent many health problems throughout the entire body.

Gingko increases blood flow through the network of blood vessels that carry blood and oxygen to the body's organs, including the brain. It boosts oxygen levels in the brain, which improves short- and long-term memory and increases reaction time. It is sometimes used to treat people with Alzheimer's disease and other problems with memory, absentmindedness, confusion, depression, headache, and difficulty with concentration. It is also used to treat tinnitus, dizziness and anxiety. Some people take ginkgo to combat mental fatigue and lack of energy.

The increased blood flow to other organs can improve circulation in the hands and feet, reduce swelling, and treat hemorrhoids, varicose veins, and chronic arterial blockage. It can help with complications from strokes and skull injuries. Gingko may be able to relax constricted blood vessels and reduce the amount of cholesterol that turns into plaque, which hardens the arteries. Furthermore, studies have proven that ginkgo helps improve eyesight by increasing the blood flow to the retinas, which slows their deterioration and increases vision. It also improves hearing in elderly patients. It is being tested as a potential treatment for asthma, toxic shock syndrome, and to help prevent transplanted organs from being rejected.

Ginseng (Panax)

This sweet-smelling herb is native to China, Russia, North Korea, Japan and some areas of North America. The name panax comes from the Greek word panacea, which means, "all healing." Ginseng has been used in various forms for more than seven thousand years, and it has known widespread use since the eighteenth century. Wild ginseng is rare, so the plants are cultivated (grown with the help of man). Ginseng roots are called Jin-chen, which means "like a man" because they are shaped like the human body. These roots can live for over 100 years.

Ginkgo in its natural form and in over-the-counter capsule form. (Photograph by Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications. Reproduced by permission.)
Ginkgo in its natural form and in over-the-counter capsule form. (Photograph by
Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications
. Reproduced by permission.)

Vitamins A, B6, and the mineral zinc are all found in ginseng. It also contains steroid-like ingredients that help balance and counter the effects of stress. Studies from China show that these ingredients increase production of proteins and activity of the brain's neurotransmitters. These actions help with memory and concentration, which can be impaired by inadequate amounts of blood supplied to the brain. Studies from Russia and London indicate that ginseng improves concentration and endurance.

Ginseng is often used as a tonic for people who are weakened by disease, old age, or stress. It is believed to help invigorate those who feel fatigued and are having difficulty working and concentrating. Siberian ginseng has been used since the 1930s to combat stress. It increases energy, stamina, and helps the body defend itself against infections and environmental toxins. Ginseng has both a soothing and stimulating effect on the central nervous system. Many people use this herb to improve mental performance, learning, memory, and sensory awareness. Too much ginseng, however, can cause sleeplessness.

Ginseng should not be used by people who have acute inflammatory disease or bronchitis, since the herb can actually make these problems worse. Pregnant women should not take ginseng.

St. John's Wort

St. John's Wort comes from a bushy perennial plant with yellow flowers that is native to Europe and the United States. Some people believe its name comes from early Christians who named it after St. John the Baptist and collected it on June 25, St. John's Day. Others believe its name comes from the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, who used it to heal wounds during the Crusades (military campaigns undertaken by European Christians in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries). St. John's Wort has been used for centuries as a nerve tonic and has a wide range of other medicinal uses. Red extracts from the herb's blossoms are used externally as an anti-inflammatory to treat burns, wounds, and joint problems. It soothes burns by lowering the temperature of the skin. St. John's Wort is being tested to determine how effective it is in the treatment of immune deficiency problems. This herb has antiviral and antibacterial properties and is even being studied as a possible treatment for AIDS.

Today, St. John's Wort is commonly used as a mild antidepressant. Studies have shown that it can be effective in treatment of people suffering from mild to moderate depression. Reports show there was some improvement in the sadness, helplessness, hopelessness, anxiety, headaches, and exhaustion experienced by people with mild depression when taking St. John's Wort, and without any reported side effects.

The active ingredient in St. John's Wort is hypericin, which increases the theta waves in the brain. These waves usually occur while a person is asleep and are associated with meditation, pleasure, and increased creative ability. The herb also contains monoamine oxidase, which affects the brain's sera-tonin. Both of these chemicals act similarly to the synthetic chemicals in prescription drugs used to treat depression. St. John's Wort should never be taken with other antidepressants, and it is not effective in treating severe depression. It is best to discuss symptoms with a doctor to determine if, and at what level, one is experiencing depression.

St. John's Wort is also used to repair nerve damage and reduce pain and inflammation, such as menstrual cramps and arthritis. It also affects the secretion of bile to soothe the digestive system. In folk medicine, the blossoms of St. John's Wort are used to treat ulcers, gastritis, diarrhea, and nausea. The oil of the plant is sometimes applied to sprains, bruises, and varicose veins to relieve inflammation and promote healing.

This drug should not be used by women who are pregnant or nursing, or by people who are taking antidepressants such as Prozac. Long-term use (more than four to six weeks) of St. John's Wort may cause photosensitivity, which is an increased sensitivity to sunlight. It may also cause constipation, and fair-skinned people may be more susceptible to sunburns.

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