A plant fix over a prescription drug? Some doctors swear by it, explains Bonnie Munday.
Rather than recommend a bottle of pills, she suggested I try something herbal, and have it daily: psyllium. It’s a powder made from the husks of the psyllium (Plantago ovata) plant that you can buy at the pharmacy, or health food store, without a prescription. You stir it into a glass of water and drink it. I followed my doctor’s advice to take a teaspoon twice daily and found that psyllium works for me.
At one time, plants were the only drugs we had. Then along came antibiotics and other manufactured drugs, which have saved countless lives and continue to do so. Yet today they’re not the only option; witness the thriving market in herbal remedies where Europe accounts for the world’s largest market share.
But beware: not all natural products are safe, says Dr Sarah Jarvis, a BBC medical columnist and general practitioner in London who sometimes recommends natural remedies. “Many plants are the basis for powerful manufactured medicines.”
Safety is one of the reasons why in 2014 the World Health Organization announced that it’s planning to integrate natural medicines into the medical mainstream before 2023. WHO aims to educate the public and promote the safe use of natural medicine by regulating products, practices, and practitioners.
Before taking any natural medicines, “it’s imperative that you speak to a doctor,” advises Dr Jarvis. Natural medicines can interact with other medications you might be taking, and how much you should have varies depending on the individual. Keeping in mind that advice, here are seven proven plant remedies that medical professionals I spoke with stand behind, along with the conditions they’re meant to treat.
This plant, sometimes called ispaghula, works by adding bulk to your stool to help move things along. Dr Danielle Martin, a family doctor in Toronto and a vice-president at Women’s College Hospital, says, “I often recommend this to my patients, and so do many gastroenterologists.” When you first start taking it, it may cause abdominal bloating and gas, and you must drink plenty of fluids while using it, as psyllium absorbs water.
Psyllium can also aid in weight loss since it makes you feel fuller. Plus, it can boost heart health: In 2000, an analysis of eight controlled studies, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that psyllium lowers cholesterol. Half of the 656 participants—men and women with high cholesterol—took psyllium while the other half had a placebo. After eight weeks, the psyllium group’s LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels were about seven per cent lower on average.
Black Cohosh: menopausal hot flushes
Dr Jarvis has a rule of thumb: “I only recommend complementary medicines that are proven to work, and I never recommend them for anything that’s potentially life-threatening.” Hot flushes associated with menopause is one condition that passes the test. “I’m happy to recommend black cohosh to patients who would prefer not to have hormone-replacement therapy,” she says.
The root of the Actaea racemosa isn’t guaranteed to work for everyone; some studies show it makes a difference, others show it makes no difference.
Even though HRT is more effective, Dr Jarvis says, black cohosh—as long as you buy a registered product—“offers a good chance you’ll get relief from hot flushes.”
When taken in the dose recommended by your doctor, side effects are rare, though it should be avoided by those with liver disorders. Dr. Jarvis adds there’s evidence that another plant remedy, red clover isoflavone, is also worth a try for hot-flush relief.
Catherine Mounier, 70, a theater critic in Lyon, France, suffered from insomnia for years. “I’d wake up frequently during the night, which meant I was exhausted every day.” She sought help from Dr Patrick Lemoine, a sleep expert and psychiatrist in Lyon. They first ruled out sleep apnea, and Dr Lemoine recommended she try a melatonin supplement instead of prescription sleep medication. “It worked; for the first time in my life I sleep deeply all night.”
Melatonin is a natural hormone produced in our brain by the pineal gland. Typically, the gland produces melatonin when the darkness of evening arrives, making you feel less alert and more sleepy. Melatonin levels stay elevated through the night, and with the morning light, they fall again. People who have insomnia appear to have lower melatonin levels so adding melatonin supplements could help decrease the time it takes to fall asleep, and increase sleep duration.
It comes in pill form, capsules and a sublingual (under the tongue) spray, which absorbs more quickly so is faster-acting. Speak to your doctor about how much you should take; while it might seem counterintuitive, small doses of melatonin (about 0.3 g) can sometimes be more effective than larger ones.
“I absolutely recommend this to women experiencing nausea during pregnancy,” says Dr Martin. “There’s good evidence backing it.”
Ginger root has been used since ancient times as a traditional remedy for gastrointestinal complaints, and indeed, various clinical studies have shown ginger (Zingiber officinale) to be an effective and safe treatment for nausea and vomiting due to pregnancy, chemotherapy and motion sickness. Indeed, a review (published in 2016 in the US-based journal Integrative Medicine Insights) of multiple studies conducted over the past 30 years on ginger’s effect on nausea concluded: “The best available evidence demonstrates that ginger is an effective and inexpensive treatment for nausea and vomiting, and is safe.” Studies suggest that a safe daily dose of ginger is 1000 mg, which equates to one teaspoon of grated ginger.
The active components are volatile oils and pungent phenol compounds, such as gingerols and shogaols. Some people grate fresh ginger root and pour hot water on it to make a tea; others buy it in capsule form at the store. Careful, though: too much can cause mild heartburn or diarrhea. Speak to your doctor about what form, and how much, to take.
St John’s Wort: depression
“It’s one option I recommend for patients suffering from depression if they don’t want to take prescribed medicine,” says Dr Jarvis. “St John’s wort is effective for some people. It’s a herbal medicine with similar properties to a manufactured tricyclic antidepressant pill called imipramine, offering a similar possibility of relief, and largely the same possible side effects and drug interactions.” Just like with other antidepressants, she says, if it doesn’t work for you, then you and your doctor move on to another option until you find the right fit.
An eight-week German study of 263 people with moderate depression, published in the British Medical Journal in 1999, showed that taking 350 mg of hypericum (St John’s wort) extract three times daily was just as effective as imipramine at relieving symptoms of moderate depression.
Check with your doctor before taking it. St John’s wort has some drug interactions to beware of—for example, never take it along with certain antidepressant medications as it could cause dangerous side effects; and taking it while on certain medications, including allergy drugs and blood thinners, could reduce their effectiveness. Possible side effects of St John’s wort include anxiety, headache, muscle cramps, sweating, weakness, dry mouth or skin irritation.
Melatonin isn’t the only natural remedy doctors recommend for insomnia; the mineral magnesium may also help. About six years ago, Cendrine Barruyer, 49, a freelance writer in Versailles, France, found herself waking up at 3 am almost every night—and remaining fully awake. At the time, she happened to be writing a story on magnesium supplements and one of her interview subjects was Paris-based Dr Kathy Bonan. Magnesium deficiency can cause insomnia, Dr Bonan told her. “She was describing to me how magnesium can help, and the symptoms were just like mine. So I told her my situation and she suggested magnesium. Less than two weeks later, I was sleeping like a baby.”
Magnesium supplements seem to work particularly well for insomniacs age 65 and up. Participants in a 2012 Iranian double-blind controlled trial of 46 people (results of which were published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Research in Medical Sciences) who took a 500 mg magnesium supplement daily versus a placebo got more, and better-quality, sleep.
Side effects of magnesium supplements can include diarrhea or nausea. Possible drug interactions include antibiotics and some medicines for osteoporosis. Speak to your doctor about whether magnesium could work for you, and how much is appropriate.
Fish oil: rheumatoid arthritis
“I sometimes recommend fish oils for rheumatoid arthritis patients,” says Dr Jarvis, although she doesn’t recommend it for relief of osteoarthritis symptoms, as the evidence isn’t as strong. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in the joints. Several studies suggest that the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil helps reduce symptoms of RA, including pain and morning stiffness.
One study from the Ninewells Hospital and Medical School in Dundee, Scotland, published in the journal Rheumatology in 2008, suggests that people with RA who take fish oil may be able to lower their dose of painkillers, namely non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
In the nine-month study, 97 patients were divided into groups either taking 10 g of fish oil daily or a placebo. Those in the fish oil group were able to substantially reduce their NSAID use by 39 per cent compared to only 10 percent in the placebo group.
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