More than 5,000 years ago, Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia carved the names of commonly used healing herbs onto clay tablets. These tablets provide the first known record of various herbs and their specific healing properties. You might say it was the birth of herbal medicine and herbalism.
In 1500 B.C., the Egyptians continued the tradition by publishing a manuscript called Ebers Papyrus that described 850 different medicinal plants. The document included many healing herbs we use today, like aloe vera, dill, garlic, and mint.
Hippocrates, who lived from 460 to 375 B.C., cataloged herbal remedies used by the Greeks and Romans. In the Middle Ages, European Benedictine monks began to grow and study medicinal plants. From the 1500s onward, herbalism took off. Book after book on the health benefits of healing herbs have found an audience, and interest in the field has never waned.
What Are Healing Herbs?
Healing herbs are plants that people use to maintain good health or help with various conditions. The advantage of healing herbs is that they're often available in a minimally processed form that's free of added chemicals. Poultices, teas, and homemade salves are just a few ways to use healing herbs. For example, you can boil rosebuds and chamomile flowers to create a healing steam for easier breathing, or make a compress from fresh muddled mint to soothe tired eyes. To use the plant and its components (stem, leaves, flowers, or bark) in their most natural form, make a warm cup of healing tea — or take ground up herbs in a capsule for ease of use.
Learn as much as you can about the herbs you're interested in before taking them. Research their benefits and potential interactions with other herbs or medications you take. Check with your healthcare provider, particularly if you are dealing with any specific health conditions.
The 16 Best Healing Herbs
There are many different healing herbs, and they all provide different benefits. This list includes some of the most well-known and time-honored healing herbs.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), also called rennet, Indian ginseng, and winter cherry, has a long history in Ayurvedic medicine. It's readily available in supplement form, and studies suggest it offers many benefits to both men and women. Ashwagandha supports fertility, memory, and a happy mood. It promotes normal blood sugar and cholesterol, and it helps ease systemic redness and swelling.[1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7] One of the most common uses for ashwagandha is to help ease symptoms of menopause. In a study of 51 women, not only was ashwagandha reported to ease mental stress, but it was also found to lessen hot flashes.
2. Black Cohosh
Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) is another popular healing herb that women use to ease menopause symptoms. It won't stop the process of menopause, which is a normal and natural part of aging, but women who take black cohosh may find relief from hot flashes, night sweats, vertigo, and irritability.
Some studies found that black cohosh helped menopause symptoms, while others reported that it did not affect them. Comparisons between studies are challenging because they all used different serving sizes of black cohosh. Regardless, research indicates that the herb is generally safe to use. It's most commonly available in a liquid extract or capsule, but you can also find black cohosh as an ingredient in teas that are marketed to women.
Chasteberry (Vitex agnus-castus), sometimes called chaste tree berry, is another healing herb for women. Try chasteberry to relieve premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms. You can make a tea from dried chasteberries, or take an extract or capsule.
Over 50 percent of women who take chasteberry extract for three menstrual cycles have fewer PMS symptoms.
More than 50 percent of women who took chasteberry extract for three menstrual cycles reported fewer PMS symptoms, including breast discomfort. Traditionally, nursing mothers have used chasteberry to promote normal breastmilk production, but the research has yet to fully confirm that benefit.
Echinacea, also known as purple coneflower, has a long history in herbalism. Native Americans used it for everything from snakebites to colic, and it won modern fame as a natural remedy for seasonal colds. Many people grow echinacea for its glorious purple blooms. The dried flowerhead and buds can be used for tea or made into extracts.
Echinacea is full of antioxidants which protect your cells against damage from free radicals. On top of its well-known role as an immune system booster, studies suggest echinacea may also ease swelling, encourage healthy cell growth, promote normal blood oxygen levels, boost oral health, keep skin looking young, and even improve mood.[11, 12]
If you think dandelion is just a common weed, think again. Traditionally, people used it for liver and digestion issues. Dandelion boosts urine production, thus promoting normal urinary tract health. Steep dried dandelion leaves to make a liver cleansing tea. You can also add dandelion leaves to salads for a delicious flavor boost. Because dandelion contains high levels of vitamin A, some people make a homemade dandelion salve to nourish and moisturize their skin and soothe sore muscles.
People use nearly every part of the neem tree in herbal remedies, including its seeds, flowers, bark, and leaves. Research shows it helps swelling, infections, dental issues, and fever. Neem's fatty acids, vitamins, and antioxidants make it a powerful solution for skin conditions when it's made into a salve, oil, or lotion. A review of studies found that neem also boosts the immune system, eases systemic redness and swelling, resists harmful organisms, promotes normal blood sugar, and encourages healthy cell proliferation.
7. Aloe Vera
Aloe vera gel, which contains at least 75 nutrients, is best known for its role in soothing sunburns, but that's not its only healing property. Putting the gel on your skin helps wounds heal more quickly, lessens scarring, and reduces redness and swelling. Consuming aloe vera boosts the immune system, fights harmful organisms, and relieves occasional constipation.
Avoid whole-leaf aloe or aloe products that have high levels of aloin, which is harsh on the digestive system. Global Healing's Aloe Vera by Global Healing is certified organic and contains the most bio-available, 200x potency aloe vera. Unlike other aloe supplements, it's aloin-free and can provide gentle relief without acting like a harsh laxative.
Traditional Chinese Medicine has used ginseng root for centuries. There are a few types of ginseng, including Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng), American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium), and Tienchi ginseng (Panax notoginseng), and they each offer unique benefits.
Korean and Tienchi ginseng are adaptogens that help the body adapt to stress. Korean ginseng helps energy levels, sexual function, and brain health.[16, 17, 18] Tienchi ginseng stimulates blood flow, provides energy, and improves physical endurance. American ginseng promotes normal blood sugar levels. The best ginseng supplements combine the different types of ginseng.
Sometimes called "the world's oldest medicine," peppermint and its main component, menthol, are found in chewing gum, toothpaste, soap, herbal tea, and various foods. Historically, people used peppermint to ease a sour stomach and the accompanying gas. Modern studies indicate it may normalize digestive symptoms from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). But, the humble peppermint leaf has many other uses, such as supporting respiratory health, boosting liver function, and relaxing tension headaches.[21, 22]
Feeling a little moody lately? Grab some passionflower (Passiflora incarnata). It's known as a natural folk remedy for anxiety. There are studies showing that passionflower may help encourage restful sleep, sharp focus, and calm nerves.
Insomnia, anxiety, nerves, and ADHD all bring down your mood. Passionflower may help lift it back up.
Research suggests that passionflower can help promote a happy, balanced mood without negative side effects, such as impairing work performance. You may find passionflower in liquid or capsule formulations. Although it can be taken by itself, it's often combined with valerian and hops for added stress reduction.
11. Milk Thistle
For hundreds of years, people have used milk thistle (Silybum marianum) tea to support gallbladder, liver, and prostate health. The herb has anti-inflammatory properties and its protective nutrients help keep toxic substances and organisms from causing harm.[24, 25] Typically found in capsules and liquid supplements, studies have found that milk thistle may prevent iron overload in the body. And it may help with weight loss, too.
12. St. John's Wort
St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) has a unique, and sometimes supernatural, history. Throughout time, people have used this herb to ease depression and create positive moods; because of that, it was once used in wreaths to deter evil spirits.
As a dietary supplement, St. John's Wort is a helpful remedy for premenstrual syndrome (PMS) as well as menopause symptoms. Because of its potency, St. John's Wort may interact with some medications. Check with your healthcare provider before trying it.
Native Americans traditionally light a sage bundle to cleanse and ward off bad energy. Similarly, if something is wrong inside your body, sage (Salvia officinalis) might help.
Sage contains antioxidants, and studies show it may protect against age-related dementia and depression, normalize cholesterol and blood sugar, reduce swelling, and help fight against other chronic illnesses. To get the most out of sage, add it to your food or make a tea.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) offers a great solution for nausea — whether from pregnancy-related morning sickness, flu, or motion sickness. You can find ginger in chewable candies, lozenges, and capsules but your best option is to use the root fresh and raw.
Ginger is a strong anti-inflammatory agent that can soothe muscle discomfort.[29, 30] Studies also suggest ginger can normalize blood sugar and improve health outcomes in people with type 2 diabetes. For women, ginger eases the discomfort of menstrual cramping about as much as ibuprofen. And if you can get ginger gum, the herb helps protect against gingivitis and periodontitis.
If you've ever wondered why curry is so yellow, it's thanks to turmeric (Curcuma longa) — a common Indian spice and healing herb that's been used for centuries. A relative of ginger, turmeric comes from dried and ground root tubers. Curcumin is the active ingredient in turmeric. It's a strong antioxidant that boosts brain and heart health, improves immunity, and reduces systemic redness and swelling.
Sweetly floral lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is booming in popularity lately. It's used in everything from baked goods to beverages. Anyone taking a whiff of a delicately scented lavender sachet knows the herb can relax you almost instantly.
People traditionally used lavender to ease anxiety and promote restful sleep, but it has other uses, as well. After a daily scalp massage with lavender oil, people with alopecia saw less hair fall out and even had some grow back. Not only is lavender resistant to fungus, but it can also improve circulation and encourage normal blood pressure. Inhaling lavender helps alleviate discomfort and reduces stress — all while smelling delightful.
Points to Remember
Using garden plants and healing herbs for therapeutic purposes has a long and storied history. The practice was first recorded when ancient Sumerians chiseled their remedies on clay tablets. Now, as modern herbalists and individuals use what nature provides to soothe health concerns, the tradition continues.
Popular and effective herbs include peppermint, ginseng, turmeric, lavender, milk thistle, and aloe vera, to name a few. Every type of healing herb has different uses and preparations, from teas to extracts to salves, and can promote good health in a seemingly endless number of ways.
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†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.