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    What Is an Herb?

    Excerpted from
    Earl Mindell's New Herb Bible
    By Earl Mindell, R.Ph., Ph.D.

    The word herb has usually been used to refer to any plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory, or aromatic qualities. For the purposes of this book, herb means any plant or plant-derived substance that is primarily used for medicinal purposes.

    There are approximately 380,000 species of plants on earth that we have identified, and several hundred thousand that have yet to be discovered. Right now, many scientists are desperately trying to catalogue the plants in the Amazon rain forest in the belief that there are thousands of potential plant cures that are rapidly being destroyed by development. Of the number of known plants, about 260,000 are classified as higher plants, which means that they contain chlorophyll and perform a process called photosynthesis. In photosynthesis, plants utilize the energy provided by sunlight to manufacture carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water. All the members of the higher plant group have the potential to offer medical benefits. Only 10 percent, however, have actually been studied for this purpose.

    In this book, I usually refer to each herb by its two names: the familiar name by which it is commonly known and a Latin botanical name describing its genus and species. The genus or first name is the general grouping of plants by family. Although plants in a given genus are not identical, they have certain similar characteristics. The species is a more specific way of defining each plant's distinctive qualities. For example, onions, garlic, and chives are all members of the Allium genus. However, each of these herbs is classified as a different species.

    In rare cases, however, I do not include the botanical name for a particular herb. Some herbal products are not derived from the whole plant; rather they are biologically active extracts. A case in point is bromelain, an enzyme that is extracted from pineapple that is sold as bromelain, not pineapple. In other cases, an herbal supplement may contain a combination of herbs that are marketed under one name.

    How Do Herbs Work?

    The living cells of plants can be likened to miniature chemical factories. They take in the raw materials carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight, and convert them into useful nutrients. Oxygen is a by-product of this process. Herbs are a rich source of phytochemicals, compounds that are pharmacologically active, meaning that they exert a profound effect on certain animal tissues and organs. Therefore, they can be used as drugs in treating, curing, or preventing disease. A plant may consist of several components, including leaves, roots, fruit, flowers, bark, stems, or seeds. Any of these parts may contain the active ingredients that give the plant its medicinal properties.

    The herbal pharmacy is a rich one. There are herbs that target specific organ systems, and there are herbs that are used as general tonics to promote overall health. There are herbs that soothe pain and inflammation, and still other herbs that work to reduce muscle spasm. Some herbs have a stimulating effect; others have a relaxing effect. Some kill bacteria; others activate the body's own immune system so that it can ward off invading organisms.

    Many herbs contain antioxidants, important compounds that protect against potentially dangerous chemicals called free radicals. Free radicals are produced in our bodies as a natural byproduct of energy production. If not tightly controlled, free radicals can destroy healthy cells and tissues, and are believed to be a causal factor in many different diseases, ranging from Alzheimer's disease to cancer to heart disease. In fact, free radicals are a major culprit in the aging process itself! Our bodies produce antioxidants on their own, such as glutathione and Coenzyme Q 10. Vitamins C and E are well known antioxidant vitamins, but there are hundreds of other lesser-known but nevertheless important antioxidants found in herbs, as you will read in this book.

    Thousands of years ago, when people first began using herbs, they had no idea why they worked. All they knew was that a certain plant elicited a desired result. When our ancestors first used foxglove to treat heart failure, they didn't know that this fuchsia-flowered plant contained molecules called glycosides that stimulate heart cells. When mothers in the Middle Ages soothed a scraped knee with a comfrey leaf, they didn't know that the plant's astringent tannins formed a protective surface over the wound, thus promoting healing. When Chinese healers prescribed licorice for arthritis flare-ups, they didn't know that it contained saponins, anti-inflammatory compounds similar to natural steroid hormones. When the Ancient Egyptians fed garlic to their slaves to keep them healthy, they didn't know that it contained volatile oils that fight infection.

    Thanks to modern laboratory techniques, we now understand how many of these herbs function. We are able to break down each plant into its basic molecular structure and analyze its extracts. Although we know a great deal more than our ancestors did about how some herbs work, there are still many more that need to be researched. Due to the lack of scientific data for many herbs, we must still rely heavily on information transmitted through folklore, antique herbals, and word of mouth. Ironically, we are only just discovering the scientific basis for many herbs that have been used successfully for millennia.

    How to Buy Herbs

    In the past, if you wanted to use an herbal remedy, you had two choices: You could either grow your own or try to find it in the wild. And that was just the beginning of your labor. Once you found it, you had to pick it, dry it, grind it, boil it, or mix it in an alcohol solution to create a potent remedy. Needless to say, the process was extremely time consuming. In addition, due to differences in climate and growing conditions, you could never be absolutely sure that the plant you picked contained enough of the right active ingredients or that you had processed it in just the right way.

    Today, you don't have to be a gardener or a chemist to use herbs safely and effectively. Herbs are now packaged in easy-to-use forms that eliminate much of the work and the guesswork. Several companies that have been making and selling vitamins for years now have their own lines of herb products and offer a standardized, guaranteed-potency product. This means that herbs sold by these and other reputable companies contain uniform levels of the compound or compounds believed to be responsible for the plant's medicinal activity, and that the herb is grown under safe conditions. Typically, these products are certified by an outside laboratory. There have been numerous reports in the press of packaged herbal products containing little, if any, of the herb or its active ingredients. These products will not work and are a waste of money. Therefore, it is extremely important that you buy standardized herbal extracts from reputable companies.

    Look for products that have safety seals and are packaged in tamperproof bottles or boxes.

    Because of the concern over pesticides and processing techniques, many manufacturers offer organically grown, nonirradiated products. There are times in the Herb Bible when I will recommend fresh herbs, but only in cases where they are easily accessible. In most cases, however, I recommend using a commercial herbal preparation.

    Is it better to buy herbs in an herb shop than in a health food store? It all depends on what you're looking for. As a rule, herb shops carry a greater selection of dried herbs and teas, including many of the more exotic varieties. Although visiting an herb shop is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, a well-stocked health food store may actually offer a better selection of prepared herbal remedies. It is also very difficult for the average consumer to assess the quality of goods in an herbal shop. If you don't live near an herb store or a health food store, or don't have time to shop, it is possible to buy herbs through the mail or the Internet.

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