Over the past century, Americans have embraced modern pharmaceutical science and the lifesaving medicines it has produced. In the process, we've relegated to folklore the cures our grandparents relied on. As it turns out, that trove is rich with effective remedies. In fact, even modern medicine relies on plants more than many of us realize, says Catherine Ulbricht, PharmD, senior attending pharmacist at Massachusetts General Hospital and chief editor of publications for the Natural Standard Research Collaboration, which evaluates scientific data on herbs.
"Practically all of the most widely used drugs have an herbal origin," Ulbricht says. "The number one OTC medication, aspirin, is a synthetic version of a compound found in the willow tree. Many statins are based on fungi; and Tamiflu originated from Chinese star anise."
Following, you'll find a host of age-old remedies whose remarkable effectiveness has been confirmed by new research. Because botanical medicines can interact with other drugs, tell your doctor when you're taking them. The exceptions are the common food items — onions, parsley, and cayenne — when consumed in natural form and conventional amounts.
A balm for the mind
Tradition says: Melissa officinalis, a lemon-scented member of the mint family, has long been used to banish anxiety, boost memory, and aid sleep and digestion. It is "good against the biting of venomous beasts, comforts the heart, and driveth away all melancholy and sadnesse," wrote Elizabethan-era herbalist John Gerard in 1597.
Research proves: Got a test, presentation, or other stress-filled occasion coming up? As in days of old, a tea made of lemon balm may help you sleep soundly the night before and keep you calm and focused at the moment of truth, says a 2003 article in Neuropsychopharmacology. Research suggests this plant is effective in extreme situations too. Four weeks of Melissa aromatherapy cut agitation in patients with severe dementia, reports a 2002 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, while 4 months of treatment with an alcohol tincture of the plant significantly reduced dementia and agitation in Alzheimer's patients, according to a 2003 article in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry.
Lemon balm appears to calm an overactive thyroid (Graves' disease), according to Eric Yarnell, ND, an assistant professor of botanical medicine at Bastyr University. It also fights viruses; recent studies indicate that lemon balm cream speeds healing of oral herpes lesions and reduces the frequency of outbreaks.
Get the benefit: For lemon balm's calming effects, try a daily tea made with one-half to one full dropper of tincture or 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried herb steeped in 1 cup of hot water for 5 to 10 minutes, says herbalist Linda Different Cloud, a PhD candidate in ethnobotany at Montana State University. Ask your doctor first if you take thyroid medication, as the botanical may change the amount you need. To use Melissa topically, follow the instructions on OTC creams, such as Cold Sore Relief or WiseWays Herbals Lemon Balm Cream, available online or at drugstores or health food stores.
A dose of prevention
Tradition says: Onions are considered cure-alls in many cultures. In Middle Eastern traditional medicine, they were prescribed for diabetes. During the early 20th century in the United States, William Boericke, MD, recommended onions for respiratory and digestive problems in his influential medical treatise, Homeopathic Materia Medica. Believing that onions would help improve athletic performance, ancient Greek Olympians scarfed them down, drank their juice, and rubbed them on their bodies before competitions.
Research proves: A stack of new studies has confirmed many old-time uses of onions. Their thiosulfinates (sulfur compounds responsible for their smell) reduce diabetes symptoms and protect against cardiovascular disease. Quercetin, a flavonoid found in onions, prevents the inflammation associated with allergies and also protects against stomach ulcers and colon, esophageal, and breast cancers.
And it looks like the ancient Olympians had it right: A 2009 study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that quercetin extract increased endurance — making onions a perfectly legal performance-enhancing substance.
Get the benefit: Onions may keep the doctor away even better than apples do. Your body absorbs quercetin from onions at least 3 times faster than it does from apples (or from tea, another top source), says a report for the Federation of European Biochemical Societies. To get the most thiosulfinates, choose red or yellow onions. "The more colorful, the better," says Michael Havey, PhD, a USDA geneticist and University of Wisconsin professor of horticulture.
Heat diminishes the thiosulfinates, so eat onions raw or lightly cooked, Havey adds. "Because of differences among types of onions and preparation methods, it's impossible to say how much to eat," he says. "Make them a regular part of a vegetable-and fruit-filled diet."
Tradition says: Columbus is credited with transporting cayenne peppers — also called chiles, after their Aztec name, chil — from the New World to the Old. Consumed in the Americas for some 7,000 years, the fiery-flavored pods reminded the explorer of black pepper, a highly prized — and pricey — spice in Europe at the time. The easy-to-grow chile quickly assumed a central role in traditional cookery and remedies worldwide; folk medicine practitioners used it for everything from pain relief to aphrodisiacs.
Research proves: Capsaicin, the ingredient that gives cayenne its heat, is best known today for pain relief — easing muscle aches, postoperative discomfort, and arthritis. Studies show that it tamps down chemical messengers that transmit pain messages in the brain.
The latest research indicates that the sizzling spice may also assist in weight control. A 2009 paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that capsaicin-related compounds helped people lose abdominal fat. Cayenne also appears to control blood sugar. Study participants who ate a lunch containing capsaicin had higher blood levels of a sugar-regulating hormone and less ghrelin, the "hunger hormone," than those who ate a bland meal, reported the European Journal of Nutrition last year.
Get the benefit: For pain relief, follow package instructions on OTC capsaicin ointments and creams, including Zostrix or Capzasin-HP Arthritis Pain Relief, available in drugstores or online. No dose has been established for weight control; however, cayenne peppers are on the FDA's Generally Recognized As Safe list, so you can add fresh chiles to taste in your favorite dishes (or, more conveniently, powdered cayenne, available in supermarkets). Chop finely, then cook them in soups and stews or add them uncooked to salad dressings.
Your skin's best friend
Tradition says: Plantain, or Plantago major, a low-growing, oval-leafed plant found all over the globe, is a traditional remedy for skin ailments. Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century Benedictine abbess, healer, composer, and eventually saint, suggested applying it to insect bites in her renowned medical treatise, Physica. Native Americans apply plantain poultices to insect stings, wounds, burns, and more, says Different Cloud, who lives on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North and South Dakota. (Note: Do not confuse this leafy plant with a very different, banana-like tropical fruit that happens to have the same name.)
Research proves: The plant's antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties help heal breaks in the skin, researchers have found. Its soothing effects work internally too: Psyllium, the seed of one type of plantain, is the source of the fiber in some laxatives.
Get the benefit: Plantain is difficult to identify, so you're best off buying it from an herbalist. Different Cloud recommends steeping 1/2 cup of dried plantain in 2 cups of hot water for 10 to 15 minutes. Dip a clean cloth or compress in the warm liquid and place on skin for up to 30 minutes, changing cloths and repeating as necessary. For poison ivy, try Tecnu Rash Relief spray, which contains skin-calming plantain and the traditional itch-relieving herb Grindelia, available at drugstores or online.
Urinary tract aid
Tradition says: Parsley root can be used for diseases of the urinary tract, wrote botanist and apothecary John Parkinson in a treatment recommendation he prepared for the Queen of England in 1629. Centuries later, Boericke's Homeopathic Materia Medica recommended parsley for urinary tract ailments, as did The Eclectic Materia Medica, Pharmacology and Therapeutics, a manual of the Eclectics, a group of U.S. physicians who practiced from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s and were famous for their use of North American botanicals.
Of course, after you've eaten all those onions, you'll also need this breath freshener of yore. "The strong smell of onions is quite taken away by the eating of parsley leaves," counseled Parkinson.
Research proves: According to Yarnell's 2002 World Journal of Urology review of several animal studies, parsley roots do increase urine output. The German Commission E, a regulatory body, has approved the plant for cystitis and other urinary tract disorders.
Get the benefit: If you have a urinary tract infection or a similar discomfort, try drinking three daily cups of tea, each made with 2 g of common parsley (you don't need just the roots), or taking 2 to 4 ml of tincture 3 times each day for the duration of the condition.
To benefit the urinary tract long-term, eat parsley leaves regularly, advises Yarnell. Munch on the sprig decorating your restaurant meal; at home, add chopped leaves to omelets, salads, and hot dishes. One more benefit of eating it: Parkinson's breath-freshening advice will work as well for you as it did for the Queen of England, thanks to parsley's odor-zapping chlorophyll.
A boost to the heart
Tradition says: From China to Europe to Native America, herbalists have used hawthorn's green leaves, white or pink flowers, and tart red fall berries to strengthen cardiovascular health. "It acts on the muscle of the heart," explained Boericke in the early 20th century; he suggested prescribing it when "heart muscles seem flabby, worn out." Scientists date the use of this shrub to at least the first century, when Dioscorides, a famed Roman physician, wrote of it in De Materia Medica, which became the most influential medical treatise of the next 16 centuries. In Europe and America, hawthorn jams and jellies are longtime favorites.
Research proves: Recent studies back up the old-time uses, indicating that antioxidant compounds in hawthorn relax arterial-wall muscles, increasing blood flow to the heart and preventing or reducing symptoms of coronary artery disease. Studies also show that the flavonoids may both prevent and treat additional cardiac ailments, including congestive heart failure. An analysis of existing studies done in 2008 by Cochrane Researchers found that hawthorn extract increases the heart's strength and exercise tolerance, diminishes its oxygen needs, and reduces cardiac patients' shortness of breath.
Get the benefit: If you have a cardiac condition, such as CAD, high blood pressure, or congestive heart failure, you should be under the care of a health care professional, who can advise you what form to take — tea, tincture, or capsule. Studies showing benefits for the heart used 60 mg doses 3 times a day.