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
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 immune
system and which herbs should be avoided at all costs.
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)
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
accompanies cancer and
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 common
cold. 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.)
Cayenne (Capsicum annuum)
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 mastectomy),
diabetic neuropathy, arthritis,
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.
Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea)
This popular herb has become synonymous with cold
prevention. Most of the research with echinacea
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 wounds
(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
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,
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 these conditions.
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 health advantage.
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
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 heartburn
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 farther.
Flax (Linum usitatissimum)
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
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.
Thistle (Silybum mariamum)
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 cirrhosis.
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.
Psyllium (Plantago psyllium)
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
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.
palmetto (Serenoa repens)
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
Kava Kava (Piper methysticum)
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 asthma
and rheumatism, as well as for weight
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 Wort<
/span> (Hypericum perforatum)
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
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 less-than-agreeable odor.
Yohimbe (Pausinystalia yohimbe)
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
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
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