Getting into alternative medicine can be daunting, especially with the enormous swathe of information — from the tried and true to the utterly disproven — available through a quick search online. I’ve been practicing herbalism for over a decade, buying and selling homemade remedies and scanning through endless studies, books, and articles. From the east to the west, natural remedies for everyday ailments (or just a boost for your healthy self) have been used for thousands of years. Today, we’ve conveniently tested many of these remedies via organized research studies and can explain exactly how they do what they do. So take a break from coffee, drop the bottle of ibuprofen, flush all alprazolam down the toilet, and let’s talk about feeling great without them.
Sleep and Relaxation Aids
We are all subject to enormous amounts of blue light through our work, hobbies, and recreation. Insomnia plagues 1 out of 4 workers in the United States, with younger generations disproportionately affected. Many I know have tried every trick in the book: from sleep hygiene, to exercise, fasting, relaxation apps, white noise, and more, to no avail. Issues with anxiety are also very common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 19.1% of adults in the U.S. have had symptoms of an anxiety disorder within the last year. If you simply cannot relax or sleep, try a tea or extract with any of the following herbs. As a disclaimer, none of these should be mixed with alcohol or prescription anxiety and sleep medications.
Boost your GABA with Kava, Lemon Balm, Valerian
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is well known today as a mood stabilizer and relaxation aid. It’s an amino acid that our bodies naturally produce, which functions by inhibiting neural pathways that create anxiety, stress, and fear. You or someone you know may have been prescribed gabapentin, a well-known pharmaceutical drug, and analogue of GABA, for pain, epilepsy, or anxiety. However, gabapentin can be fairly strong and comes with side effects.
Kava is a shrub from the islands of the South Pacific, which has been used for a long time to promote relaxation and help with pain. The root is harvested, dried, and made into a powder that can be mixed with hot water to drink. Kava works by stimulating GABAA receptors, increasing the rate of binding GABA. Numerous studies have proven its value in anti-anxiety, mood stabilization, and sleep quality. Despite being comparable to benzodiazepines in effects, kava is also proven to be non-addictive. Just don’t take kava all of the time — it can have negative effects on your liver. Try having one tablespoon in 8 ounces of hot water, only when you really need to. If you find yourself drinking kava every night, take a few days off, and try making some tea with milk thistle and a gentler option for GABA stimulation.
Lemon balm is a very tasty choice for the GABA-seeker and is excellent made into a tea. It works by way of rosmarinic acid, which increases GABA in the body by inhibiting the enzyme that converts it to L-glutamate. Lemon balm has also been extensively studied, and proven to relieve anxiety, improve sleep, and even decrease heart palpitations. Not only does it boast a pleasant, lemony taste along with these benefits, but it has also been proven to improve general cognitive ability. This makes it a great option for a soothing effect during the day, as well as at night. Lemon balm is best and most easily prepared by using one tablespoon to eight ounces of hot, but not boiling, water and steeping for about five minutes.
Valerian is a European herb with a long history of use. Today, we know that valerenic acid is the component that makes the root special. Valerenic acid works by increasing the production of GABA sent to GABAA receptors. While valerian has not had encouraging results within anxiety studies, it has been proven repeatedly to be an excellent sleep aid and treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder. Because of its strength, valerian root is best prepared as a tea at about one teaspoon to 8 ounces of hot (about 200°) water. The taste is, really, a bit awful, so try blending your teaspoon of valerian with one of the more pleasant-tasting flowers detailed below.
Honorable Aromatherapeutic Mentions
Lavender and chamomile flowers smell wonderful and can also increase GABA production. More gentle options for general relaxation, a strong tea brewed with one or both of these flowers will be a great break in any day. And of course, they are backed by research. Lavender has been studied with both animals and humans to aid in the reduction of anxiety and increased sleep. A flavonoid called apigenin, which is found in a number of foods and herbs, is found in the highest concentrations in chamomile. Apigenin increases the reception of GABA by activating benzodiazepine receptors but has absolutely no side effects, and no risk of sedation in moderate amounts. Add anywhere from a teaspoon to a tablespoon of these flowers to a cup of hot water, and let it steep for about 5 minutes.
The Common Cold & Friends
There are a lot of herbs that increase the productivity of your immune system. Of course, the most simple natural remedies are always a balanced diet, regular vitamin C, sleep, and exercise, but if you find yourself aching or sniffling there are plenty of options. Every time I feel the beginning of an illness, I make a brewed blend of echinacea, elderberry, orange peel, lemon balm (for my mood), chaga mushroom, and astragalus. Here we’ll go over some of these, and why you can rely on them to get you back up and about alongside rest and fluids.
Echinacea: Just Get the Right Kind
Echinacea is a flowering herb with almost a dozen variants. Angustifolia and purpura are used historically and contain valuable vitamin C and polysaccharides. For the immune system, people have been known to harvest everything from the root to the flower, which has led to discrepancies in studies. Luckily, researchers at the University of Maryland and the German government have both concluded that the above-ground portions of the herb are the most beneficial for fighting infections and charging your immune system’s efficiency. Traditionally, the root has been used most often. If you want to cover your bases, build a tincture over the course of a year, harvesting the leaf in spring, flower in the summer, and a bit of the root in the fall. Echinacea plants are pretty happy to grow anywhere and produce lovely purple flowers.
Chaga Mushroom Powerhouse
For centuries across the far east and northeastern Europe, chaga mushroom has been used as a general health aid. It functions by way of promoting cytokine formation, which stimulates white blood cells. This is how chaga can help to reduce inflammation and fight infections. Chaga is best taken as a tea, at a ratio of one tablespoon to eight ounces of boiling water, and steeped for ten minutes. The taste is very strong and earthy, so you may want to enjoy it with some raw honey or milk for some added benefit.
Astragalus For Sniffles
Astragalus has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. It’s a pretty, purple and white flowered plant, but its roots are the real star. Today, few research studies have been completed, but the ones that have are very encouraging. Astragalus was analyzed as part of a review (which included echinacea and ginseng) that concluded it can increase your white blood cell count and help with seasonal allergies and the common cold. A study in mice concluded that it is functionally very similar to chaga mushroom. It is best prepared as a tincture or tea. If brewing a tea, use one teaspoon of astragalus to eight ounces of boiled water, and steep it for ten to fifteen minutes.
Get Yourself Going
Most today are familiar with nootropics — drugs and supplements that aid in cognition — and natural remedies can once again deliver in this arena. Some of these plants, like ashwagandha, can also help those with a more active lifestyle get going. If you’re tired of crashing after having too much caffeine, try one or more of these traditional medicines as a hot tea in the morning and enjoy a subtler, longer benefit from your morning routine.
Ashwagandha Does It All
Ashwagandha is a traditional ayurvedic medicine derived from an evergreen shrub that produces small yellow flowers. The roots are dried, and finely chopped or ground to make into a tea or tincture. It is so incredibly useful that it’s impossible to narrow down to the use of a simple morning beverage: ashwagandha has been the star of a number of studies deeming it excellent for athletic performance, general cognition, increased testosterone, and the reduction of anxiety. Simply put, it’s both a fantastic way to start your day or to enjoy throughout it. I like to prepare a blend of ashwagandha with burdock, chicory, turmeric, cacao, cinnamon, and gotu kola as a hot morning cup, and drink it the same way I would coffee. As it is a root, ashwagandha is best with one teaspoon to 8 ounces of boiled water, and steeped for ten to fifteen minutes.
Gotu Kola Helps You Remember
Gotu kola is a popular plant both within Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine. A small herb within the parsley family, gotu kola is used to improve cognition and memory function. It has been reported to sincerely help those struggling with such things in the wake of a stroke, and to protect against memory loss in general. A long-respected key to longevity, gotu kola has also been reported to improve circulation, increase collagen in the skin, and detox the liver and kidneys. Gotu kola leaves can be taken fresh in cold smoothies, or dried for use in tea. If brewing tea with the delicate plant, heat your water to about 180 to 190° and steep it for around five minutes.
Our Native Ginseng
Panax ginseng, which grows wild in the Eastern Smokies, is a classic and well-known herb that is used as an all-around health tonic — and with good reason. A low-growing plant with small red berries, the roots of the ginseng plant have been harvested and dried for thousands of years. It’s been proven to increase energy and cognitive function. Because of its great benefit, ginseng is also fairly expensive, and many of the wild plants are picked utterly clean for a quick buck. If you are lucky enough to come across a bit on a hike, remember to take just a bit, and leave the rest to grow out. We’re all going to need it.
Research and Tradition
There are many great sources of medicinal benefits that we can grow in our gardens, with little to no side effects or risk of addiction. It’s important to note that due to the lack of ability to patent plant matter, research on many herbal remedies is limited and it can be hard to gather the information you want. Equally, there are cultures that have relied on these plants for hundreds to thousands of years, and it’s worth using your own judgment to analyze if that is working out well for them. Another thing to keep in mind is that as our bodies are all different, some chemical complexes work very well for some, and not as well for others. In my own experience, it’s worth giving different remedies a try with a little bit of a look into them beforehand, and seeing how they make you feel. None of them will break your bank, and you might find your new essentials in a few herbs you can grow at home.