A Guide to Botanicals for Seniors
Botanicals may be used to help treat everything from allergies to cancer.
Herbs are hot right now. From astragalus to yohimbe, we're bombarded with
information about the herb of the moment, promising health, beauty, and
youth. But can they really make a difference? Are they helpful or could
they be harmful? Sometimes it's hard to separate the hype from the hope.
In this article we will give you the lowdown on some of the most popular
herbs and a few other widely used botanicals, sometimes called traditional
medicines or phyto-medicines, to help you make an informed decision.
Immunological Botanicals for Seniors
There are many immunological botanicals and herbs for
seniors on the market today, but knowing which ones are safe and effective
is the key to reaping the numerous benefits these powerful, natural
substances have to offer. Below you will find information about which herbs
can help bolster your
and which herbs should be avoided at all costs.
Used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese and East Indian
medicine, this member of the legume family is purported to stimulate immune
function. Laboratory studies suggest that natural compounds, including
flavonoids, found in the herb stimulate the production of several cells
critical to optimal immune function and offset the drop in immunity that
and cancer treatments.
Astragalus has been found to improve the function of T lymphocytes in
cancer patients, stimulate the production of interferon, and reduce the
duration of the
. Overdosing may, however, actually depress immune function. Many Chinese
medical practitioners and animal researchers use Astragalus along with
other herbs in chemotherapy and radiation therapy regimens to help reduce
side effects, promote immune function, and increase survival time.
But none of this has been proved beyond a doubt in humans. You'll find
Astragalus in capsules or tinctures, either alone or in combination with
other herbs. Though it hasn't been scientifically tested, the typical dose
used in Chinese medicine is four grams a day. (These supplements have not
been studied for age-related dosages.)
This fiery hot pepper does more
than spice up food. Used as medicine by South and Central American Indians
9,000 years ago, this hot pepper supplement is being rediscovered for its
ability to relieve pain. Used topically, it has been found effective in
relieving pain caused by shingles,
phantom pain (from amputation and
), diabetic neuropathy,
, and cluster headaches.
Capsaicin, the substance that gives cayenne its bite, works against pain by
depleting levels of a compound in the body that regulates transmission of
pain signals to the brain. The Food and Drug Administration has approved
the sale of a cream containing 0.75 percent capsaicin, though some contain
less. But, as with most herbal treatments, don't expect immediate relief.
It may take four or five applications a day for four weeks or more before
you notice a difference.
Don't apply cayenne or capsaicin cream to broken or irritated skin, and be
sure to wash your hands well after each use. And don't touch your eyes
after you use it or you'll really feel the burn. According to the American
Botanical Council, 30 to 120 milligrams of cayenne in capsule form can be
used to treat high blood pressure.
This popular herb has become synonymous with cold prevention. Most of the
has been done in Europe and suggests that it can indeed help fight a cold
-- if taken at the first hint of sniffles. In Germany, it's an officially
approved treatment for colds, the flu, and other upper respiratory
infections, and the Commission E recommends a dose of 8 to 9 milliliters of
echinacea juice a day.
But despite the fact that it is probably the most studied immune-boosting
herb, not all the research on echinacea has backed its effectiveness as a
cold-fighter. Echinacea contains antioxidant phyto-chemicals that some
researchers say can protect the skin from the damaging rays of the sun when
used as a skin ointment.
It's generally not recommended to take echinacea on a regular basis to
prevent disease, and the herb seems to have little or no effect on the
immune response in healthy people. Its effectiveness appears to be limited
to people whose immune systems are working at suboptimal levels. For
instance, if you have a respiratory infection but are otherwise healthy,
you might benefit from taking echinacea.
Though it hasn't been proved, some experts worry that if you take echinacea
any longer than a few weeks, it could actually have the opposite effect and
damage the immune system's disease-fighting powers. That's why it may not
be wise to take echinacea if you have an auto-immune disorder such as lupus
or multiple sclerosis.
However, those with a normal immune system can safely use echinacea for up
to 12 weeks. No serious side effects have been reported. An alcohol extract
of echinacea, used topically, may also help mend hard-to-heal cuts and
(Asian: Panax); (American: Panax quinquefolius)
These two true ginsengs should not be confused with Siberian ginseng
(Eleutherococcus senticosus), which is believed to have its own health
benefits. It comes from a related, but different, plant. It is often sold
as an inexpensive alternative to true ginseng. This ancient herbal is one
of the most popular and most expensive herbs in the world.
While studies with animals and in the laboratory suggest that it can
benefit the immune system, research in humans is limited, and the findings
have been inconsistent. It's difficult to pinpoint ginseng's positive
effects because it is not considered a remedy for a specific condition;
rather, it's classified as a tonic to build resistance to disease or as an
adaptogen, a term used by herbalists for a botanical that helps your body
adapt to stress, both physical and mental -- something that's hard to
measure in a scientific way.
Ginseng has been widely used in Japan, China, and Korea to treat fatigue,
as a tonic to build up resistance to disease, and for recovery following an
illness. It's also claimed to be an aphrodisiac, but this hasn't been
proved. Research from Korea suggests that, if taken long-term, ginseng may
protect against cancer of the ovaries, larynx, esophagus, pancreas, and
If you decide to take it, be aware that you're spending a lot of money --
it can cost $20 or more an ounce -- on something with no clinically proven
benefits. And at least one study found that as much as 85 percent of
ginseng products on the market actually contain no detectable ginseng. If
you want to steer clear of alcohol, you should know that some ginseng
products contain up to 34 percent alcohol, a fact you won't see advertised
on most labels.
Most of the alcohol-containing varieties come in small, individual vials
containing only about one-third ounce each. Though reactions to ginseng are
rare, they can include insomnia, diarrhea, and skin irritations. Ginseng
can also act as a mild stimulant, and you should probably avoid it if you
take any medication that has a stimulant effect or if you have
This widely popular herb is on the brink of extinction. Though it's
promoted, most often along with echinacea, for the relief of colds and flu,
herbal experts say using the dwindling supply of goldenseal for that
purpose is wasteful, since there's little evidence that it works. However,
goldenseal may have the ability to help fight bacterial infections.
Its infection-fighting phyto-chemicals have been identified as berberine
and hydrastine, which are effective against bugs such as E. coli, Candida,
Giardia, Shigella, and Staphylococcus that invade the intestinal tract. It
has a history of use as a treatment for canker sores when used three or
four times a day as a mouthwash made from tea.
You can find it as a dried root, a tincture, or a liquid extract. However,
herbal experts have little proof of goldenseal's effectiveness for any of
The most widely consumed beverage in the world next to water, green and
black tea ("real" tea, which is different from herbal teas) have been
linked to good health for nearly 5,000 years. Now research has caught up
with tradition. Several studies indicate that tea drinkers may have a
Researchers believe that tea's disease-preventing prowess comes from two
types of flavonoid phyto-chemicals -- catechins and flavonols. Though green
tea (unoxidized), the favorite of Asian tea drinkers, gets most of the
attention, black tea (oxidized), the American favorite, contains the same
amount of phyto-chemicals; not all of them are the same as those found in
green tea, however. (About 20 percent of tea produced worldwide is green, 2
percent is oolong [partially oxidized], and the rest is black.)
Tea's phyto-chemicals, some of which are also found in fruits and
vegetables, have an amazing ability to prevent free-radical damage to
cells. Population studies suggest that this ability may translate into a
lower risk of skin, stomach, pancreatic, and esophageal cancer and possibly
a lower risk of coronary heart disease and stroke for regular tea drinkers.
Animal studies have found clear evidence that consumption of either black
or green tea triggers cell death in malignant tumors. And new research
suggests that tea may not only be important in cancer prevention, it may
help in cancer therapy, too. In fact, some experts believe that tea is one
of the few agents that can inhibit cancer formation and development at
every stage. You get the same health benefits, whether you drink
caffeinated or decaffeinated tea.
If you're not a tea lover, there are several supplements on the market that
provide as much of these phyto-chemicals as several cups of tea. But before
you reach for tea in a pill, bear in mind that there could be other
health-promoting compounds that haven't even been identified yet, and you
might not be getting them when you take the extract form. You would
probably be better off just upping your intake of fruits and vegetables as
a way to get more of these healthful phyto-chemicals.
Gastrointestinal Botanicals for Seniors
Whether you are suffering from
or just a simple upset stomach, the following herbs may
give you the relief you seek.
(Matricaria chamomilla or Matricaria recutita)
Just the name brings to mind soothing images. Chamomile tea has long been
used to promote relaxation, to aid sleep, and to
settle an upset stomach. In Germany, chamomile is considered a cure-all and
is used to treat mild skin irritation and intestinal cramps and to soothe
In Europe it is added to mouthwashes to treat mouth and throat irritations,
to inhalants to treat respiratory infections, and to ointments to treat
hemorrhoids and skin conditions. In Germany alone there are more than 90
licensed preparations of chamomile. German chamomile contains several
compounds that are known to soothe the digestive tract and help fight minor
infections, but there are few human studies that have carefully evaluated
However, German chamomile has been well-studied in animals and has been
proved effective. And it has a good safety record, especially considering
its widespread use. Chamomile is currently being studied for its
antioxidant properties, and it contains the photo-chemical coumarin, which
is believed to have antispasmodic and antiseptic properties.
It is most often used as a freshly prepared tea, drunk three to four times
a day to relieve gastrointestinal upset. However, if you're allergic to
ragweed, you could have an allergic reaction to chamomile as well, so be
cautious. Herbal experts warn that because chamomile is not cheap, many
foreign manufacturers of chamomile oil have, in the past, resorted to
adding synthetic, blue-colored compounds to make the valuable herb go
This blue-flowered plant produces dark, flat seeds that are slightly larger
than sesame seeds. Flax was grown as a crop as far back as 3,000 b.c., and
in 650 b.c. Hippocrates used flax seed for the relief of intestinal
discomfort. It was considered so important for the health of his subjects
that in the eighth century, King Charlemagne passed laws and regulations
governing its consumption.
Flaxseeds are rich in protein, dietary fiber, and healthy omega-3 fats. In
fact, flax seed oil is one of the richest known sources of the omega-3 fat
alpha-linolenic acid, an essential fatty acid that makes up 55 percent of
the oil flaxseed contains. Alpha-linolenic acid provides flax with its
anti-inflammatory effect and its ability to boost the immune system, and it
may play a role in the treatment of autoimmune diseases.
Omega-3s are believed to help fight arthritis, heart disease, and possibly
stroke. Flax seeds are also rich in soluble fiber (the kind that lowers
cholesterol), and they help regulate blood sugar and promote regularity.
Flax is also one of the best sources of lignans, a naturally occurring
plant compound that has hormone like effects in the body.
Both the omega-3 fats and the lignans in flax seed may help prevent or
reduce the risk of some kinds of cancer, such as cancer of the breast,
prostate, colon, and uterus. To get the full benefit of flax seeds, grind
them in a coffee grinder before adding them to bread or to pancake or
Flax oil -- which contains the omega-3s but not the lignans, which are
processed out -- can be taken as a supplement or used in salads, but it is
not suited for use in sautéing or frying. Keep both whole flax seeds and
flax oil refrigerated for no more than one year, since their high
polyunsaturated fat content makes them vulnerable to rancidity. You can
also find a few varieties of breads and cereals that contain flax seed.
The uses of this herb have expanded beyond the kitchen spice rack to the
medicine cabinet. It has a long tradition as a digestive aid, perhaps
because it increases the secretion of digestive juices in the stomach, and
its use has been documented in ancient Greek, Roman, and Arabic medical
literature. Now there is considerable evidence for ginger's effectiveness
as an anti-nausea treatment.
In fact, ginger has been found to be even more effective for the treatment
of nausea from motion sickness than dimenhydrinate, the most commonly used
over-the-counter medication for the condition. Ginger has even been tested
at sea and found to work well against sea sickness. In addition to motion
sickness, it may also be helpful in treating nausea due to other causes.
For instance, ginger has been found effective in reducing the nausea many
people experience following surgery. And because ginger acts locally on the
digestive system, it has advantages over dimenhydrinate, which acts on the
central nervous system to suppress nausea. However, ginger use may not be
recommended for people undergoing chemotherapy if their platelet counts
have dropped too low.
That's because ginger also has blood-thinning properties, and the two
combined could, theoretically, increase the risk for internal bleeding. On
its own, ginger appears to be quite safe and has no serious side effects.
The usual dose is 150 milligrams (mg) to 1 gram of powdered root in capsule
form several times a day.
Another tastier way to get ginger is through candied or crystallized
ginger, usually available at gourmet or Asian markets. A one-inch square is
equivalent to about one 500-mg capsule. You can also make ginger infusions,
or tea, from grated or sliced ginger root; it is difficult, however, to
know exactly what dose of ginger you are getting.
In animal studies, silymarin -- the active ingredient in milk thistle --
protects liver cells against a variety of liver toxins, including drugs,
viruses, and radiation. In fact, in Europe an extract prepared from milk
thistle fruit is used to fight liver disease caused by alcoholism, toxic
chemicals, and poisonous mushrooms.
Silymarin also acts as an antioxidant, scavenging free radicals, blocking
toxin entry into cells, inhibiting inflammation, and stimulating liver
regeneration. The German Commission E endorses the use of milk thistle as a
supportive treatment for chronic inflammatory liver conditions and
No adverse effects have been reported. However, if you have diabetes, talk
with your doctor about carefully monitoring your blood glucose while you're
taking it. The typical dose is a 140-milligram capsule, standardized to 70
percent silymarin, two to three times a day.
Known for its soluble-fiber content, it's actually the dried husk of
psyllium seeds (also known as plantago seeds) that you'll find in products
that contain psyllium. Psyllium based supplements not only is psyllium
proven to lower blood cholesterol, it also serves as an effective laxative
and is readily available as an over-the-counter drug. Psyllium is also
found in some breakfast cereals. It may be your best bet for a supplemental
source of soluble fiber.
The Food and Drug Administration recently approved the use of a health
claim on psyllium containing cereals, stating that "The soluble fiber from
psyllium seed husk in this product, as part of a diet low in saturated fat
and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease."
Each product must contain at least 1.7 grams of soluble fiber from psyllium
per serving. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids when you eat psyllium
cereals, or it could possibly cause a gastrointestinal blockage.
The fruit of the saw palmetto plant could spell relief for many men
suffering from benign prostatic hyperplasia, or BPH, a slow, progressive
enlargement of the prostate gland. It was actually a commonly used drug in
the United States during the first half of the twentieth century, but faded
out of sight after World War II.
Most clinical trials clearly show the ability of saw palmetto extract to
improve the signs and symptoms of BPH. In fact, in Europe it is considered
the first line of treatment for the condition. It has even been compared
with a prescription drug commonly used to treat BPH and was found to be
just as effective, but with fewer side effects.
Saw palmetto acts as an anti-inflammatory as well as an anti-androgenic
therapy -- it inhibits the action of male hormones such as testosterone. It
does not, however, reduce the size of the prostate or improve sexual
function. The usual dose is 160 milligrams twice a day of an extract
standardized to contain 85 to 95 percent fatty acids and sterols.
Because the active ingredients are fat soluble, a tea prepared from the
herb has little therapeutic value. Several clinical trials using saw
palmetto in combination with other herbs, such as nettle root and pumpkin
seed extract, were also positive. Saw palmetto causes few side effects.
The German Commission E lists stomach upset as the only side effect. It
offers an alternative for the treatment of mild to moderate BPH when
conventional treatments are not an option.
Mental Botanicals for Seniors
An herb so nice, they named it twice. At least that's what some people say.
This herb, which has origins in the islands of the South Pacific, has long
been thought to have a beneficial effect on health. The Hawaiians used it
to soothe nerves, aid sleep, counteract
fatigue, and treat
and rheumatism, as well as for
European research shows it can reduce anxiety without drowsiness and
enhance the quality of sleep without side effects. One German study found
that after only one week of treatment with a standardized kava extract,
patients experienced a significant reduction in anxiety symptoms compared
to those getting a placebo, or dummy pill. Phyto-chemicals called
kavalactones have been identified as the ingredient most likely to produce
In Germany, kava is sold as an over-the-counter remedy for anxiety and
stress. It is also promoted as a pain reliever, but there is little
research to back up that claim. You'll find it in health food stores in
tablet or capsule form, as a tincture, or as a dried herb. Whichever you
choose, look for a product that is standardized to 70 percent kavalactone
A typical dose is 100 milligrams, three times a day. Don't take kava if
you're also taking drugs such as alcohol, barbiturates, or benzodiazepines,
all of which affect the central nervous system, or if you have been
diagnosed with depression, schizophrenia, or Parkinson disease, as kava can
exacerbate the problem.
St. John’s Wart
This herb has been used as a nerve tonic since Greek and Roman times. Today
it is often referred to as "nature's Prozac" and is widely used as an
antidepressant in Europe. In fact, in Germany, St. John's Wort is the most
commonly used antidepressant. Several studies, which included almost 1,800
people, found St. John's Wort to be much more effective than a placebo, or
dummy pill, in treating mild to moderate depression.
The herb was also found to be just as effective as some commonly prescribed
antidepressant medications. St. John's Wort appears to be effective in
treating depression in 50 to 80 percent of those who take it. Experts
aren't sure exactly how it works, but doses of 300 milligrams of an extract
standardized to 0.3 percent hypericin, the active ingredient, taken three
times a day, appear to be effective.
Though hypericin is thought to be the active ingredient, even that hasn't
been firmly established. There are other constituents, such as hyperforin,
that may be just as important. If you do take St. John's Wort, stick to the
0.3 percent standardized dose, since that has been studied the most. But
most experts caution about self-prescribing for depression.
If you suffer from depression, it's best to seek the advice of a qualified
health professional and discuss St. John's Wort as a part of your
treatment. Some research also suggests that St. John's Wort may be
effective against infections and acts as an anti-inflammatory. Research is
also being done on its potential to fight viruses, such as HIV. The herb
appears to be safe, though a few people have reported fatigue, itching, and
weight gain as side effects.
And, in large doses, St. John's Wort can cause sensitivity to the sun.
Because of its antidepressant effects, it should not be combined with
narcotics, amphetamines, over-the-counter cold and flu medications, or
alcohol. And, just so you're forewarned, St. John's Wort has an awful
aroma; it's been compared to the smell of sweaty socks.
Probably the most effective of the herbs classified as anti-anxiety and
sleep aids, valerian has been used for more than 1,000 years. German
officials have approved valerian for use as a mild sedative and sleep aid,
based on the positive results of several European clinical trials.
Two well-controlled studies found that 400 to 450 milligrams before bedtime
can significantly improve sleep quality and length of sleep and shorten the
length of time it takes to fall asleep, with no hung over feeling in the
morning. It is also effective for anxiety as a tea prepared from 1 teaspoon
of the dried herb and drunk several times a day.
Valerian appears to be quite safe even in large doses, but it should not be
taken with other sedatives, before driving, or in any situation in which
your full concentration is needed. It appears to be quite safe, but it can
cause mild stomach upset in some people. Like St. John's Wort, it has a
Touted as the herbal Viagra, yohimbe
comes from the bark of the West African tree of the same name. It has been
used in Europe for most of this century to stimulate sexual appetite and
enhance sexual performance. Yohimbe contains several compounds that may
increase blood flow to the genitals, and as a result, it may help men
achieve an erection.
These compounds may also affect the central nervous system directly.
Research suggests that yohimbe is helpful for erectile dysfunction in about
one-third of men who use it. In fact, its active compounds are sold as
prescription drugs in the United States for the treatment of erectile
dysfunction. While yohimbe herbal preparations are readily available over
the counter, they may not be purified for safety and standardized for
Unfortunately, because of several potential side effects, the herb is not
recommended for those who would most likely want to try it -- older men and
those with cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and prostate
Additional caveats include not mixing it with antidepressants or foods that
contain tyramine, a compound that could clash with the active compounds in
yohimbe. Among the most common tyramine containing foods are aged cheeses,
red wine, and liver. Unless you're in excellent health, yohimbe may not be
the safest choice.
Yohimbe has been known to cause changes in blood pressure, rapid heart
rate, tremors, anxiety and panic attacks, nausea, and vomiting. Better to
check with your doctor about getting the prescription drug form of the
active compounds in yohimbe and have your doctor follow up for any side
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