Traditional cures from plants and herbs have been used by herbalists and apothecaries throughout the centuries. Herbs do more than simply adding flavour and colour to your favourite dishes, their healing and restorative powers are pretty impressive too...
According to the UK's leading organic herb grower Jekka McVicar the healing power of herbs is grossly underestimated: "We are what we eat. We don't doubt that fruits and vegetables, seeds and nuts contain a range of vitamins, minerals and cancer-fighting properties, yet the nutrient content and medicinal properties of herbs are often overlooked."
With that in mind, here's the lowdown on herbs and how they may help...
What is a herb?
According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary, ‘a herb is any plant where the leaves, seeds or flowers are used for medicine, flavour or scent.’ There are thousands we never see in supermarkets but could buy as plants in a garden centre or grow from seed to use at home.
To ease digestion
Often it is only when herbs are heated that their full aroma is released - that's what makes your mouth water. This aids the release of saliva, which prepares your stomach for food. It's the enzymes in saliva that trigger the digestive process, helping the body to break down fats and starches. If this doesn't happen before food reaches the stomach, then it isn't processed properly and digestive problems such as bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, wind and irritable bowel may result.
What to use: Thyme, rosemary, oregano, mint.
Many herbs contain flavonoids; nutrients widely available in fruits and vegetables and thought to help prevent cancer and reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes. According to Dr Winston Craig, Professor of Nutrition at Andrews University in the United States, flavonoids help vitamin C work more efficiently as an antioxidant, mopping up the free radicals that cause cancer.
What to use: Onions, rosemary, sage, thyme, chamomile, dandelion, ginkgo, green tea, milk thistle.
To help prevent tumours
Some herbs contain phytochemicals called terpenoids which are potent antioxidants, thought to inhibit the growth of tumours.
What to use: Caraway, spearmint, dill, coriander, lavender, rosemary, sage, thyme, lemongrass, chamomile, basil, rosemary, mint, cardamom, celery seed, fennel and peppermint.
There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that some herbs have antiseptic qualities.
Jekka McVicar says: "Before refrigerators were invented, large households stored cold meats in their cellars, covered in salt and wrapped in fresh sage leaves to preserve it. After shooting, fresh game was left to hang to tenderise along with bunches of fresh thyme, not only to add flavour, but also because thyme's antiseptic properties helped prevent stomach upsets when the game was eaten."
What to use: Thyme, sage, rosemary and bay leaves
To boost the immune system
Herbs high in flavonoids may also have mild anti-inflammatory properties. Garlic is known to be good for the immune system and may stimulate cells which attack invading organisms. Echinacea is the best-known herb thought to have immune boosting qualities. It stimulates the immune system promoting the activity of lymphocytes - types of cells which circulate in the body ready to eliminate foreign 'invaders' such as viruses.
What to use: Onions, rosemary, sage, thyme, chamomile, dandelion, ginkgo, green tea and milk thistle
Garlic, like onions, is not normally thought of as a herb but according to Jekka McVicar it is one. Research suggests garlic may protect against heart attacks and strokes because it helps lower bad cholesterol.
Substances called catechins have also been shown to have cholesterol-reducing properties.
What to use: garlic, green tea
Some herbs contain anthocyanins - the pigments responsible for the red, pink, purple, and blue shades of some fruit and flowers. Anthocyanins can also help reduce the formation of harmful cholesterol, so they may provide some protection
What to use: rosehip tea
Many herbs are reputed to have healing qualities. Jekka McVicar keeps a pot of aloe vera on her kitchen windowsill as she's prone to burning herself when cooking. She just breaks off a leaf and rubs the glutinous gel on the burn to help prevent blistering. Jekka suggests making your own teas with one teaspoon of dried or two teaspoons of fresh herbs per cup of freshly boiled water.
What to use: Chamomile for insomnia; dill or peppermint for indigestion; elderflower for relief from a cold; lemon balm for tension and headaches; rosemary to improve concentration and bad breath.
Some herbs should not be used if you are pregnant, trying to conceive or if you suffer from certain medical complaints. Excessive use of some herbs (such as rosemary, sage, sorrel and thyme) may be harmful to health. Consult a professional medical herbalist for more information. To find a qualified medical herbalist, call the National Institute of Medical Herbalists on 01392 426022.
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