SHAPE magazine spoke with Michael Balick, Ph.D., to learn about these exotic plants and there medical benefits.
Feeling under the weather? "Elderberry is my favorite 'flu season plant,'" says Michael Balick, Ph.D., an ethnobotanist and vice president and director of the Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden. "The herb contains anti-viral compounds, which research has shown can help the body fight off illness." Take elderberry extracts during flu season as a preventative measure or right when you feel the flu coming on to relieve symptoms.
"A soothing and calming herb, chamomile tea is a wonderful way to unwind at night," says Balick, who curates Wild Medicine, an exhibit about medicinal plants. "It helps you relax and can relieve tension in an upset stomach after a stressful day." The European plant also has beauty benefits: Remove chamomile tea bags after they've steeped in hot water, let them cool, and then lay them on red, puffy eyes to reduce inflammation.
Highly regarded by native cultures in the Pacific Islands, kava root contains kavalactones, compounds that may help reduce anxiety. "Kava is said to promote easy conversation and story telling, and to help resolve conflict, all of which helps hold Pacific Island communities together," Balick says. "The initial effects are similar to alcohol but without the negative side effects—people on kava are mellow and calm, not aggressive." In fact, one German study showed that kava reduced symptoms of anxiety as effectively as a pharmaceutical drug during the course of six weeks.
While islanders pound the root to make a water extract, you can find it in capsules, extracts, or tinctures.
Image Credit: the New York Botanical Garden
The calendula flower, a European plant also known as pot marigold, is used in topical treatments to calm skin irritations such as eczema. "Many cosmetic creams that promise to smooth, soothe, or soften skin contain calendula. It's also sold as an oil, which will be diluted by a 'carrier' oil such as olive, jojoba, or coconut oil," Balick says. You can even take the flowers, heat them in water, put them in a light cloth, and apply this to the skin for conditions ranging from insect bites to minor burns and cuts.
For many years, milk thistle was used in European hospitals to save the lives of victims of poisoning who had eaten the harmful variety of mushrooms. Today this member of the daisy family is primarily prescribed by herbalists for those with compromised livers due to alcohol or drug use. "A compound in the seeds, which you can find in capsule or extract form, strengthens and clears the liver," says Balick, who recommends taking it to protect your liver if you're using strong medications or to alleviate symptoms of a hangover.
This stunning flower from Central and South America, the source of delicious passion fruit, contains beta-carboline alkaloids—the same compounds found in psychoactive plants from the tropical rain forests of the Amazon such as Banisteriopsis caapi or yage. "Passion flower has just a small amount of these compounds, but that's enough to give it sedative powers so you can relax and fall asleep easily, and it may give you colorful, rich dreams if you drink it at night," Balick says. It can also help relieve anxiety and stress. Look for passion flower in the ingredients list on teas that promote sleepiness or relaxation.
According to Balick, cocoa is one of the best healing herbs. Loaded with antioxidants, it can contribute to cardiovascular health and improve mood by building up a molecule in the brain that promotes happiness, rather than allowing it to be degraded by other natural process of the brain. Balick recommends a small bar of dark chocolate that’s at least 85 percent cacao a day for a therapeutic dose—as good an excuse as any to eat dessert!
For almost three millennia, an extract from leaves of ginkgo trees has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to stimulate blood flow, improve memory, and boost libido. "While scientific evidence is unconfirmed and indeed controversial, some studies have shown that the herb can improve cognition and may be helpful in treating conditions such as dementia," Balick adds. Clinical trials have also examined ginkgo's ability to treat tinnitus (ringing in the ears), asthma, and leg pain, although results have been mixed.
Another sleep-inducing herb, ashwagandha, or Indian ginseng, is found throughout Africa, Asia, and southeastern Europe. "It's known as an 'adaptogen,' meaning it allows the body to fight stress, be more resilient, and adapt more easily to draining events we face throughout the day," Balick says. You can take the root in extract or capsule form when you find yourself in a stressful situation, he adds.
Tonics made from ashwagandha root are also used to combat pain and fatigue in the ancient Indian Ayurvedic healing tradition, while other potential uses for fighting inflammation and infection are still being tested in clinical trials.
This gorgeous orange fruit from Central America not only tastes delicious, it's also a powerful aid in digestion and healing. Papain, the main enzyme found in papaya, boosts the level of digestive enzymes in the gut to help break down foods more quickly and easily. "You can purchase it as a capsule or simply eat the fresh fruit more often," Balick says. In addition, papaya can be used to heal cuts, burns, or sores by simply rubbing it on the affected area.
The root of the maca plant has been used for centuries by indigenous Andean cultures in Peru and hit store shelves in the States about 10 years ago. Some research has affirmed traditional beliefs about the powers of maca, such as its ability to help boost energy, increase sexual stamina, and improve fertility. The powder can be blended into smoothies or simply stirred into water, and it's also available in capsules or tinctures.
Also hailing from the Andes, the camu camu berry is one of the highest sources of vitamin C in the plant kingdom, Balick says. It’s a bit of a cure-all as a folk remedy—it’s said to be anti-depressant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-viral, among other benefits—but no long-term studies have confirmed those uses. However, research has shown that camu camu has great antioxidant powers. Mix the powder into smoothies or water.