Four Herbs Backed By Science and Wisdom

Dr. Tieraona Low Dog

The principles and foundations of herbal medicine are rooted in millennia of traditional use and knowledge. It would be foolish to believe that our ancestors, those who built the pyramids and mapped the constellations, were not also skilled in the healing arts. Today, scientists and researchers are confirming some of what our forebears knew about natural medicine: plants and fungi have a plethora of beneficial effects on our bodies and minds. In this blog, I’d like to share four of these natural medicines that can be used to treat a variety of ailments prevalent in our 21st-century lives.

— Tieraona Low Dog, M.D.

First, a plant so revered by the likes of Cleopatra and Alexander the Great that lands were invaded to secure a consistent supply. Second, a fungi referred to as the “mushroom of immortality” and coveted by royal and commoner alike for its ability to bring about health and longevity. Third, a plant valued by Vedic scholars for its ability to help them memorize lengthy texts. And fourth, a plant imbibed by Vikings to improve their physical strength and endurance. From cell cultures to human studies, science is now showing the ancients knew a thing or two.

Note: If you have a serious health problem, take prescription medications, are pregnant or breastfeeding, please talk to your healthcare partner or do your own research before introducing any new dietary supplements into your routine.

Aloe vera Gel (Aloe vera L.}

Aloe vera Gel (Aloe vera L.}, image of aloe vera cut open so you can see the gel

Traditional Knowledge and Use:

Aloe vera has over 5,000 years of documented use, with Chinese and Sumerian writings describing its medicinal benefits. Known as the “plant of patience” and “flower of the desert,” aloe was widely traded throughout the Mediterranean by the 4th century BCE. Cleopatra used it daily to soften and nourish her skin. It was so highly regarded for the healing of wounds that Aristotle persuaded Alexander the Great to invade Socotra (an island off modern-day Yemen) to secure aloe plantations in order to ensure his soldiers’ wellbeing during war. 

What the Science Says:

Research shows the topical application of aloe vera increases wound contraction and collagen synthesis, leading to faster healing and less scarring. Additionally, preclinical and randomized controlled trials show that oral ingestion of aloe vera gel compounds improves skin hydration, skin barrier function, and dermal collagen production, which may help reduce facial wrinkles. It also helps protect against UV damage. 

This remarkable plant isn’t only useful as topical medicine, though; it’s also very effective at healing the mucosa of the upper GI tract and promoting digestive health overall. A 4-week study in 79 patients with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) found that 10 ml of aloe vera gel syrup was similar in efficacy to omeprazole and ranitidine. Heartburn, food regurgitation, flatulence, belching, dysphagia, nausea, vomiting, and acid regurgitation were all improved by aloe vera consumption.

Research also shows that the inner gel from aloe vera acts as an antibacterial against strains of Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), which is known to be a major cause of gastric ulcer disease. 

My Thoughts: 

I have loved aloe vera since I was a little girl. My mother kept a “burn” plant in the kitchen and would routinely use it for minor cuts and burns. Living in the southwest much of my life, I have applied cool aloe vera gel to more than a few sunburns. I rely on it heavily for heartburn and inflammatory bowel disease and recommend it for the prevention of oral mucositis from chemotherapy and radiation.

When buying aloe vera for internal use, make sure to look for products that are free of anthraquinones or aloin, a potent laxative that can be harmful if taken over time. And while aloe vera is fabulous when applied topically, do not use it on deep surgical wounds, in which we want healing to happen from the bottom up.

Reishi Fruiting Body and Mycelium (Ganoderma lucidum (Leyss. ex Fr.) P. Karst.)

Reishi Fruiting Body and Mycelium (Ganoderma lucidum (Leyss. ex Fr.) P. Karst.), image of Reishi growing

Traditional Knowledge and Use: 

Reishi is the Japanese name for this magnificent mushroom that likes growing on dead or dying trees. It has a beautiful reddish-brown cap that can grow up to twelve inches across.  

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, reishi is known as ling zhi, which translates loosely as “mushroom of spiritual potency,” reflecting the belief that it can heal the body’s energetic or spiritual essence. Taoist monks used reishi to promote a centered calmness, improve meditative practices, and attain a healthy life. It was also referred to as the “mushroom of immortality” by Chinese royalty, who believed it symbolized health, success, and divine power. Today, reishi remains popular in Asia for supporting a healthy immune response and promoting general well-being.

What the Science Says: 

More than 300 published studies have examined the unique constituents of reishi and related species. Immune health has always been important, but the pandemic has heightened interest in substances that can actively modulate or support the immune response. One group of compounds getting a lot of attention are the beta-glucans, which are found in the cell walls of certain plants, yeast and fungi, including reishi. Beta-glucan has demonstrated remarkable immune-modulatory activity.  

Preclinical research suggests that reishi may have beneficial effects on metabolic disorders, heart disease, inflammation, wound healing, neurodegeneration, anxiety, depression, and cancer. When it comes to human studies, reishi has demonstrated benefits for mood, energy, and immunity. And, while reishi should not be used as a primary treatment for cancer, a review by the Cochrane Collaboration concluded that reishi “could be administered as an alternative adjunct to conventional treatment in consideration of its potential of enhancing tumor response and stimulating host immunity.” 

My Thoughts: 

I am absolutely fascinated by mushrooms. Many people think of them as plants, which they are not; they are fungi. They do not need sunlight to produce energy, and many mushrooms have medicinal or culinary uses. Though reishi is not likely to make you immortal, its tonifying effects can certainly benefit your overall health.

Bacopa Herb (Bacopa monnieri (L.) Pennell) 

Bacopa Herb (Bacopa monnieri (L.) Pennell), image of Bacopa flowers growing

Traditional Knowledge and Use: 

Bacopa has been prized in India for millennia as a medhya rasayana: an herb believed to sharpen the mind and intellect. It is said that ancient Vedic scholars consumed this herb to help them memorize lengthy texts. In Sanskrit, bacopa is called Brahmi, which translates to “that which expands consciousness.” (Note: Don’t mistake bacopa for gotu kola (Centella asiatica), another herb also called brahmi.)

What the Science Says: 

Today there is tremendous interest in nootropics, or substances that can enhance cognition. Given bacopa’s long history, researchers are actively investigating its role in learning, memory, and the aging brain. The antioxidant activity of bacopa may offer neuroprotection and positively impact the regulation of neurotransmitters (e.g., acetylcholine, serotonin, dopamine). Bacopa appears to have a modulating effect on brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is involved in the maintenance of physiological brain functions related to mood and concentration.  

Open and randomized controlled trials have examined the impact of bacopa on cognitive outcomes in both children and adults. A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials (518 participants) found that bacopa improved cognition and speed of attention. Another review found significant and consistent improvements in cognitive and memory performance in children with ADHD, as well as improvements to hyperactivity and attention-deficit. The authors have called for more research to see if these results can be replicated with larger numbers of participants.

Bacopa may also assist working memory in older adults. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that bacopa improved the power, speed, and continuity of attention, in addition to  quality and speed of memory. Given our aging population, looking for natural and safe ways to preserve cognition is certainly a worthy goal. 

My Thoughts: 

As the daughter of a parent with dementia, the mother of a child with ADHD, and my own personal history of epilepsy, I’m especially intrigued by plants that nourish the brain. Bacopa is near the top of my list when it comes to neuroprotection and support as it eases anxiety, promotes focus, and supports working memory. I often recommend bacopa with phosphatidylserine for kids and adults with ADHD.

Rhodiola root/rhizome (Rhodiola rosea L.)

Rhodiola root/rhizome (Rhodiola rosea L.), image of Rhodiola

Traditional Knowledge and Use: 

Rhodiola is a perennial in the Crassulaceae (stonecrop) family, native to the arctic and subarctic regions of China, Europe, and North America. The young leaves and shoots can be eaten raw (mildly bitter) or cooked like spinach, but in fact it’s the rhizome, or underground stem, that is used in herbalism. Rhodiola has been used for at least 3,000 years in northern Eurasia to increase energy, endurance, strength and mental focus. Even the Vikings knew about its powerful effects, using the rhizomes to enhance their physical strength and endurance

What the Science Says: 

Rhodiola rhizome and some of its key compounds (e.g., salidroside, rosin, rosavin and p-tyrosol) have been the subject of more than seventy mechanistic studies. This type of research is important for helping us understand the biological underpinnings for the effects people have witnessed for so many centuries. Studies have demonstrated that rhodiola has antioxidant, anti-stress, adaptogenic, and immunomodulatory activities. 

Researchers have attempted to answer this in numerous studies. One 2017 open-label multicenter, single-arm trial of 118 men and women (30-60 years old) with burnout symptoms (fatigue, emotional exhaustion, irritability, impaired sexual life, somatic symptoms, etc.) were given 400 mg per day of R. rosea extract (WS® 1375, Rosalin) for 12 weeks. A wide range of rating scales were assessed and evaluated: the majority showed clear improvement, with the three most dramatic improvements noted for “lack of joy,” “tension,” and “fatigue.” Many participants experienced improvement in their symptoms within the first week of taking the rhodiola extract, with continued improvement during the 12-week study. For many otherwise healthy individuals who are burdened with the negative effects of chronic stress, this study suggests that rhodiola could be a helpful addition to stress-management strategies. 

Rhodiola extracts have also been shown to have a beneficial effect on mood as shown in seven open-label studies totaling 714 individuals with stress-induced mild depression. Even though rhodiola is considered a more “stimulating” adaptogen, a small pilot study at UCLA found that 340 mg per day of rhodiola extract significantly decreased anxiety scores. 

My Thoughts: 

Rhodiola is a well-studied adaptogen: a plant that can help the body more efficiently respond to life’s daily stressors. Adaptogens are both fascinating and challenging when it comes to research. Clearly, given the enormous negative impact chronic stress has on health, looking for natural substances that can enhance our resilience to stress is a highly worthwhile endeavor. Some of the most common complaints of persistent stress are fatigue, low energy, poor concentration, irritability and tension. A note of caution, though: rhodiola can be stimulating for some (myself included), which is why I recommend taking the lowest amount recommended on a product for a few days to see how it impacts you.


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