The Super Simple Guide to Healing Herbs

Cure digestive ailments, seasonal colds, and mild aches and pains with these herbal home remedies

IF YOU RUN TO THE DOCTOR or pop a pill for every stomach cramp, cough, or sniffle, you lose the ability to care for yourself," says Rosemary Gladstar, founder of Sage Mountain Herb Center in Barre, Vt., and author of Rosemary Gladstar's Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health (Storey Publishing, 2008). "We have a really good modern health care system but it's designed for what I call 'war fare' not self care," she adds. In other words, it's more effective for treating cancer than canker sores.

She follows this rule of thumb: If your grandmother could have used some poultice or kitchen cure to deal with the problem, you can, too. "We all have the ability to treat ourselves at home — if we know the remedies," she says.

In our two-part series on herbal cures, we asked Gladstar and four other herbalists (see "Our Herb Experts" on page 62) for their remedies for everyday ailments. In this issue, we focus on digestive problems like heartburn and constipation, seasonal concerns like colds and nasal congestion, and mild aches and pains from headaches, arthritis, or muscle soreness. In our October issue, we'll provide cures for hormonal ailments and emotional stress.

Try these herbs from our experts and take charge of your wellbeing.
digestive health • Problem: CONSTIPATION • Solution: TRIPHALA (Emblica officinalis, Terminalia chebula, and Terminalia belerica)

* Dose: Take two to four 500 mg tablets just before bedtime.
* Proof: Triphala ("three fruits" in Sanskrit), a bowel-regulating formula in Ayurvedic medicine, is a combination of the powdered fruits of amalaki, bibhitaki, and haritaki, all of which are rich sources of antioxidants with anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, anticancer, and immune-enhancing properties. "Triphala treats the entire digestive system, helping with constipation, hemorrhoids, diarrhea, indigestion, bloating, and liver detoxification," explains Ayurvedic herbalist Will Foster, L.Ac., who trained with traditional Ayurvedic healers in India. Because it operates as a bowel tonic (helping to maintain proper function) rather than a laxative, triphala is safe to take every day.
* Solution: MEADOWSWEET (Filipendula ulmaria)
* Dose: Pour two teaspoons of the dried herb in one cup of hot water; steep 20 minutes and drink once a day (the slightly sweet tea has a mild almond flavor).
* Proof: The Native American herb, high in salicylic acid, calms inflammation in the stomach, often working within a day or two, says Sheila Kingsbury, N.D., chair of the Botanical Medicine Department at Bastyr University. "For people on protein pump inhibitors who are desperate to get their heartburn under control without medication, I have them drink one cup of meadowsweet tea a day, and that's all they need," she says. "They're always shocked that it's so easy."
* Solution: WILD YAM ROOT (Dioscorea villosa)
* Dose: Add ¼ cup wild yam root (purchase it cut and sifted) to one pint of cool water in a saucepan; bring to a simmer, cover, and cook 15 minutes; remove from heat and steep an additional 15 minutes. Strain, cool, and pour into an ice cube tray. Freeze. Then place one ice cube in a mug, pour a cup of boiling water over it, and drink the diluted mixture while it's still warm. Take one cube, three times a day as needed.
* Proof: Wild yam root, well known as a hormone regulator because of its phytoestrogen properties, is most often used to treat symptoms of menopause. But it can also be used to balance the hormones that regulate the digestive process, says Margi Flint, author of The Practicing Herbalist (Earthsong Press, 2005). "The root is nutritious and anti-inflammatory," she says, adding that preparing the decoction is part of the process. "It means you're taking time to care for yourself."

Contraindication: Don't use this remedy if you are pregnant or taking birth control pills.
• Problem: INTESTINAL GAS • Solution: FENNEL (Foeniculum vulgare)

* Dose: Chew a pinch ¼ to ½ teaspoon) of whole fennel seeds after a meal.
* Proof: Fennel seeds contain phytonutrients that are thought to reduce spasms in small muscle fibers like those found in the intestines, helping to reduce gassiness. The aromatic quality of the seeds will also help freshen your breath, notes Flint. "Chew as few or as many as you need. Your body will let you know — with one last burst of gas — when to stop."

seasonal health • Problem: COMMON COLD • Solution: ECHINACEA (Echinacea angustifolia)

* Dose: One teaspoon of echinacea root glycerite liquid every two hours beginning at onset of symptoms; decrease the dose to once every three to four hours after symptoms ease.
* Proof: Studies about the effectiveness of echinacea for treating the common cold have been mixed. Ignore them all, advises Kingsbury, and look to traditional usage. "Native Americans used Echinacea angustifolia — not Echinacea purpurea — and they used only the root," she explains. "Clinically speaking, accessing the root is the best place to start. It can shorten the length of a cold significantly."
* Problem: SORE THROAT
* Solution: MARSHMALLOW (Althaea officinalis)
* Dose: Make a tea of one teaspoon of the dried herb infused in one cup of cold water, then simmer for at least 15 minutes. Sweeten to taste with honey and drink warm.
* Proof: "Marshmallow is mucilaginous, which means it's a bit slimy, so it will coat and soothe a scratchy throat," says Flint. "It's also an anti-inflammatory, so it will relieve any irritation." If you want a ready-made tea, look for one that combines marshmallow with licorice and slippery elm, two other demulcent herbs.


MARK BLUMENTHAL, executive director of the American Botanical Council and Natural Health's own herbal advisor

MARGI FLINT, author of The Practicing Herbalist (EarthSong Press, 2005)

WILL FOSTER, L.Ac., an Ayurvedic herbalist in Knoxville, Tenn.

ROSEMARY GLADSTAR, founder of Sage Mountain Herb Center in Barre, Vt., and author of Rosemary Gladstar's Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health (Storey Publishing, 2008)

SHEILA KINGSBURY, N.D., chair of the Botanical Medicine Department at Bastyr University
• Problem: COUGH • Solution: UMCKALAOBO (Pelargonium sidoides)

* Dose: Take as drops, syrup, chewable tablets, or spray. Follow package instructions.
* Proof: A South African herb meaning "heavy cough" in Zulu, umckalaobo is a powerhouse herb with antiviral and antibacterial properties, says Mark Blumenthal, Natural Health advisor and executive director of the American Botanical Council. "There are good clinical studies on the use of umckalaobo for treating bronchitis as well as tonsillitis," he says, adding that taking umckalaobo at the onset of symptoms will bring relief within a day or two.
* Solution: GOLDENROD (Solidago spp.)
* Dose: Place three drops of the extract under the tongue; repeat as necessary until nasal passages are clear.

Proof: Goldenrod is particularly effective for treating congestion caused by allergies. Surprised? That's because goldenrod gets a bad rap. "People blame goldenrod for their allergies because they look across the field and see the beautiful yellow flowers," says Flint. "But it's the blooming ragweed they can't see that causes all the trouble. In nature, the remedy often grows right next to the cause."
aches & pains • Problem: HEADACHES • Solution: LAVENDER (Lavandula angustifolia)

* Dose: Dab a few drops of essential oil on each temple and rub some around the hairline. Breathe deeply and relax; repeat as needed.
* Proof: "The scent triggers a calming response, releasing tension in the scalp muscles a bit, which eases the pain," explains Kingsbury. Gladstar recommends using lavender oil in a pain-relieving foot soak: Add a few drops to a hot footbath, and then put a cold lavender-infused pack on the forehead. "This draws heat away from the head, and is guaranteed to make you feel better," she says.

• Solution: ST. JOHN'S WORT (Hypericum perforatum)

* Dose: Make a liniment by mixing equal parts St. John's wort tincture and St. John's wort oil. (Most concoctions come in two-ounce bottles.) Mix vigorously before using, apply topically to affected area (avoiding the eyes), and massage into skin as needed.
* Proof: "Long before it was ever used for depression or anxiety, St. John's wort was used as a pain reliever and an anti-inflammatory for muscle pains, burns, and bruises," explains Gladstar, adding that blending the oil with the alcohol-based tincture helps draw the active constituents into the skin for faster healing.
* Problem: ARTHRITIS
* Solution: BOSWELLIA (Boswellia serrata)
* Dose: Take one 300 mg capsule three times a day, with food.
* Proof: Also known as Indian frankincense, this gummy resin has been clinically proven to have strong anti-inflammatory effects. "Boswellia is known to reduce congestion and heat (kapha and pitta elements in Ayurveda) in the joints," says Foster, adding that boswellia is also used to promote appetite and digestion.
* Problem: EARACHE
* Solution: GARLIC & MULLEIN OIL (Allium sativum L. and Verbascum densiflorum)
* Dose: Put three drops of oil in each affected ear, two to three times a day as needed. (The oils are sold in a premixed formula.)
* Proof: This combination of herbs is powerful — and has been found in medical studies to be potentially more effective than antibiotics in treating ear pain in children. "The garlic is anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory, so it will treat any infection," says Kingsbury. "The mullein is soothing, and helps draw out fluid to relieve pain and decrease pressure." Contraindication: Don't put these drops — or anything else — into your ear if you think the eardrum may be perforated.


Mountain Rose Herbs (

Frontier Natural Products Co-op (

Banyan Botanicals (Ayurvedic) (

Herb Pharm (

Gaia Herbs (

Local Harvest (

Echinacea root glycerite (

Umckalaobo drops, syrup, or chewable tablets (Umcka at

Marshmallow tea (Traditional Medicinal Throat Coat Tea at

"People blame goldenrod for their allergies because they look across the field and see the beautiful yellow flowers — but it's the blooming ragweed they can't see that's causing all their troubles. In nature, the remedy often grows right next to the cause."

"Long before St John's wort was used for depression or anxiety, the herb was taken as a pain reliever and an antiinflammatory for muscle aches, burns, and bruises."

LEARN MORE: For more information about herbal remedies, visit

PHOTO (COLOR): Triphala

PHOTO (COLOR): Meadowsweet

PHOTO (COLOR): Wild Yam Root


PHOTO (COLOR): Echinacea

PHOTO (COLOR): Marshmallow

PHOTO (COLOR): Umckalaobo

PHOTO (COLOR): Goldenrod

PHOTO (COLOR): Lavender

PHOTO (COLOR): St. John's Wort

PHOTO (COLOR): Boswellia

PHOTO (COLOR):Garlic & Mullein Oil


By Hillari Dowdle

Photography by Antonis Achilleos

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