7 Doctor-Approved Natural Remedies
A plant fix over a prescription drug? Some experts swear by it.
When I went for my annual medical check-up a couple of years ago, I told my doctor I suffered frequent constipation, despite a healthy diet. “Is there something I can take?”
Rather than recommend a bottle of pills, she suggested I try something herbal, and have it daily: isabgul (also known as psyllium). It’s a powder made from the husks of the psyllium (Plantago ovata) plant that you can buy at local pharmacies or health food stores, without a prescription. You stir it into a glass of water and drink it. I followed my doctor’s advice to take a teaspoon twice daily and found that psyllium works for me.
At one time, plants were the only drugs we had. Then, along came antibiotics and other manufactured drugs, which have saved countless lives and continue to do so. However, today they’re not the only option; witness the thriving market in herbal remedies. A 2018 Reuters article cites a report by Market Research Future, which estimates that the global herbal market will reach USD 111 billion by the end of 2023.
But beware: not all natural products are safe, says Dr Sarah Jarvis, a BBC medical columnist and general practitioner in London who sometimes recommends natural remedies. “Many plants are the basis for powerful manufactured medicines.”
Natural medicines can interact with other medications, and how much you should take varies depending on the individual. According to Dr Isaac Mathai, an internationally renowned holistic health expert from Bengaluru, “It is important to check with a doctor on what kind of supplements are required. Only licensed medical practitioners can identify potential underlying problems in your body. This information is critical in determining the right supplement and dosage, so avoid self-diagnosing.”
Lovneet Batra, a Delhi-based nutritionist, also recommends careful checks while buying over-the-counter herbal capsules sold in pharmacies. “Ensure you consider more than the usual surface claims such as ‘immunity-boosting’ or ‘stress-reducing’ while buying. Check the list of herbs included in the pills carefully.” Keeping this advice in mind, here are seven proven plant remedies that medical professionals stand behind, along with the conditions they’re meant to treat.
Isabgul for constipation
Seeds from the psyllium plant, also called isabgul, work by adding bulk to your stool to move things along. Dr Danielle Martin, a family doctor in Toronto and a vice-president at Women’s College Hospital, Canada, says, “I often recommend this to my patients, and so do many gastroenterologists.” When you first start taking it, it may cause abdominal bloating and gas, and you must drink plenty of fluids while using it, as isabgul absorbs water.
Isabgul can also aid in weight loss, since it makes you feel fuller. Plus, it can boost heart health: In 2000, an analysis of eight controlled studies, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that isabgul lowers cholesterol. A little more than half of the 656 participants—men and women with high cholesterol—took isabgul while the other group had a placebo. After eight weeks, the isabgul group’s LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol levels were about seven per cent lower on average.
Black Cohosh for menopausal hot flushes
Jarvis has a rule of thumb: “I only recommend complementary medicines that are proven to work, and I never recommend them for anything that’s potentially life-threatening.” Hot flushes associated with menopause pass the test. “I’m happy to recommend black cohosh to patients who would prefer not to have hormone-replacement therapy (HRT),” she says.
The root of the Actaea racemosa plant isn’t guaranteed to work for everyone; some studies show it makes a difference, others show it does not. Even though HRT (under supervision)is more effective, Jarvis says, black cohosh “offers a good chance you’ll get relief from hot flushes”. When taken in the dose recommended by your doctor, side effects are rare, though people with liver disorders should avoid it.
Alternatives to black cohosh include red clover isoflavone (Jarvis says there’s evidence that this is worth a try for hot-flush relief) and evening primrose oil (EPO), which is Batra’s choice of a non-hormonal, natural remedy for this issue. EPO is extracted from the seeds of a small, yellow wildflower called evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) and is a rich source of vitamin E, linoleic acid and gamma-linolenic acid (both omega-6 fatty acids, which reduce inflammation and promote blood flow). Batra suggests taking no more than three to four grams of EPO once a day and warns of side effects such as headaches and digestion problems.
A 2016 study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) also indicates adverse effects, such as bleeding if taken with anti-clotting drugs; Medical News Today warns that people diagnosed with epilepsy or schizophrenia should avoid EPO as taking it with certain drugs could trigger seizures.
Ginger for nausea
“I absolutely recommend this to women experiencing nausea during pregnancy,” says Martin. “There’s good evidence backing it.” Ginger root has been used since ancient times as a traditional remedy for gastrointestinal complaints, and various clinical studies have shown ginger (Zingiber officinale) to be an effective and safe treatment for nausea and vomiting due to pregnancy, chemotherapy and motion sickness. Indeed, a review (published in 2016 in the US-based journal Integrative Medicine Insights) of multiple studies conducted over the past 30 years on ginger’s effect on nausea concluded: “The best available evidence demonstrates that ginger is an effective and inexpensive treatment for nausea and vomiting, and is safe.” Studies suggest that a safe daily dose of ginger is 1,000 milligrams, which equates to one teaspoon of grated ginger.
The active components are volatile oils and pungent phenol compounds, such as gingerols and shogaols. Some people grate fresh ginger root and pour hot water on it to make a tea; others buy it in capsule form at the store. Careful, though: too much can cause mild heartburn or diarrhoea. Ginger tea consumed before bedtime also helps combat sleeplessness by promoting melatonin production, according to Batra.
Ashwagandha for memory impairment, stress
A much-revered natural remedy and long-standing staple of Indian traditional medicine for thousands of years, ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an adaptogen (a natural substance that promotes the body’s ability to handle stress) that comes from the root of the plant. Also known as Indian ginseng or winter cherry, ashwagandha has anti-depressant, anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety properties that come from a host of bioactive compounds, including alkaloids and withanolides.
While known for a variety of health benefits, ashwagandha is particularly effective in reducing stress-induced depression, enhancing memory, sharpening focus, building concentration and balancing out mood swings, and it is recommended by Mathai for overall brain health. Batra suggests taking less than two grams of this herb once a day. Breastfeeding mothers should avoid taking ashwagandha, as should pregnant women, as the herb could threaten a pregnancy.
Fish oil for rheumatoid arthritis
“I sometimes recommend fish oils for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients,” says Jarvis, although she doesn’t re-commend it for relief of osteoarthritic symptoms, as the evidence isn’t as strong. RA is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in the joints. Several studies suggest that the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil help reduce symptoms of RA, including pain and morning stiffness.
One study from the Ninewells Hospital and Medical School in Dundee, Scotland, published in the journal Rheumatology in 2008, suggests that people with RA who take fish oil may be able to lower their dose of painkillers, namely non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). In the nine-month study, 97 patients were divided into groups either taking 10 grams of fish oil daily or a placebo. Those in the fish oil group were able to substantially reduce their NSAID use by 39 per cent compared to only 10 per cent in the placebo group.
Indian gooseberry for asthma
Today, respiratory problems such as wheezing, shortness of breath, chronic cough and cold, lung infections and asthma are increasingly common as pollution levels rise in most Indian cities. Consuming amla (Phyllanthus emblica), commonly called Indian gooseberry, may help combat inflammation caused by air toxins. According to a 2014 review article in the International Journal of Pharmaceutical and Chemical Sciences, amla is the richest natural source of vitamin C (containing almost 20 times the amount found in orange juice), which boosts the body’s immune system and fights inflammation in the body.
Amla is also full of antioxidants. As Dr Michael Greger, MD, the physician behind NutritionFacts.org writes in his book How Not To Die, “I eat it [amla] because it’s apparently the single most antioxidant-packed green-light food on Earth.” He goes on to describe how “fully half the antioxidant power” of his breakfast smoothie, comprising blueberries, mango, ground flaxseeds, mint leaves, white tea leaves—all antioxidant-rich foods—comes from adding a single teaspoon of powdered amla to the mix.
Aloe Vera for joint pain
A type of succulent found in all parts of India, the aloe vera plant (Aloe barbadensis miller) has been used for its medicinal qualities since ancient times and continues to be recommended for a variety of conditions by experts today.
According to the NCBI, the gel-like substance inside the leaves of the aloe vera plant is packed with a range of medicinal properties: antioxidants such as vitamins A (beta-carotene), B12, C and E, folic acid, minerals such as calcium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, sodium and zinc, as well as sugars and fatty acids with anti-allergenic, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and analgesic properties.
While its skin-healing ability is well known, aloe vera may also be effective for joint pain. “Though not a cure for these conditions, aloe vera gel, at a dosage of not more than one tablespoon (around 15 millilitres), diluted in water and consumed first thing in the morning once a day, could reduce joint pain caused by osteoarthritis, osteoporosis and gout,” according to Batra. However, pregnant women and people suffering from kidney problems or intestinal issues, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease should avoid this remedy.