Herbal medicine is a well-known treatment for its numerous therapeutic properties. These herbs have a wide range of usability including the cosmetics and food industry. Here we will make a list of the most prominent herbs and a guide of using those herbs. When we say herbal medicine we mean the use of medicinal herbs and their therapeutic properties and applications. The usage of plants for medicinal purposes is not a new thing. In fact, plants are the main source of medicinal substances. Those medicines then are used to support the well-being of our body and mind, for the overall health of humans and animals. We have all heard about Chinese medicine, Indian medicine, Greek, and Roman applications. A simple belief, tradition, or experience has turned into scientific research and here we are benefiting from them.

Herbs are being cultivated and used for different purposes, mainly therapeutic, nutritional, and cosmetic purposes. These plants are the perfect solution for many ailments and diseases if you want to avoid the side effects of modern medicines. When we use herbs for healing, we use what nature makes for us, to help us. A simple definition of medicinal herbs would be: "Plants that contain active ingredients capable of treating health issues and disorders in humans and animals." Each plant may contain a therapeutic ingredient capable of treating a specific health issue. But, these active ingredients of plants are complex and need proper research to know how to use them. Finding the most effective properties of active ingredients is very important, and some combinations of these ingredients can result in greater benefits.

Which are the most known active ingredients of herbs?

Herbal medicine

Below we will make a list of the most common active substances of herbs. The most prominent active ingredients of herbs are:

  • Alkaloids
  • Polyphenols
  • Flavonoids
  • Terpenes
  • Starches
  • Glycosides
  • Mucilages

Furthermore, we will explain each ingredients' benefits and functions.

What do alkaloids typically do?

Alkaloids serve and are effective for the treatment of various pathologies with its pharmacological properties. These active substances called alkaloids include substances such as nicotine, morphine, mescaline, and caffeine which are capable of acting on the neuromuscular system. In order to avoid dangerous effects, alkaloids should be used under medical supervision, especially when there is interaction with other drugs. When talking about the plants with the most alkaloids we will name the three most common:

  1. coffee
  2. tea
  3. tobacco

How do Polyphenols work?

Polyphenols are powerful natural antioxidants that help against cellular aging. Their main activity is in the treatment of injuries and wounds, thus promoting healing. Another recommendation of usage is for the treatment of hemorrhoids; contrasting diarrhea and inflammatory states. It is important to state that being natural antioxidants does not necessarily mean that you can use these substances without the advice of experts in the field or doctor. The effects of all the active substances of herbs must be properly weighted.

What are flavonoids and what is their function?

Flavonoids are very similar to polyphenols because both have antioxidant effects. These active substances produce glycosides which are responsible for the storage of sugars such as licorice, ginseng, etc. Other than antioxidant properties, flavonoids also have anti-inflammatory and antiallergic properties. Their main function is to protect plants.

What are the benefits of terpenes?

Terpenes are responsible for the scents and odors of plants. To give you an example just think of limonene or menthol. Also called terpenoids, terpenes have a wide range of usage, especially in cosmetics. You can find terpenes in herbs, fruits, and other plants.

What are the starches?

Starches are a derivative of the transformation of sugar and are known for the digestibility. Generally, we take starches alongside other active ingredients, especially as a base for dietetic products. Starches are an important part of the energy for humans. Common sources of starches are bread, rice, potatoes, cereals, and other grains.

What are glycosides?

Glycosides are chemical compounds which should be used under medical supervision, because of their ability on the human body. These compounds have anti-inflammatory, rheumatic, laxative, analgesic, antiseptic, and sweat-inducing functions among others. Any excessive dosage of glycosides can be dangerous and poisonous.

What is mucilage used for?

Mucilages are more than just active ingredients. In fact, when in contact with water they expand becoming sticky and gummy. The most known plant which is rich in mucilage is marshmallow. Mucilage helps in the treatment of throat, laryngitis, pharyngitis, etc. Mucilages are very effective in the treatment of irritations of the gastric and intestinal mucosa.

If we talk about the future of medicinal herbs, it is impossible not to mention cannabis as herbal medicine. Cannabis contains many active ingredients that have therapeutic properties, and one that is getting everyone’s attention is CBD. CBD products such as CBD oil are very beneficial for the well-being of our body and mind.

In conclusion, whatever health issues afflict us, nature has the power and is able to offer effective treatment for us. One of those treatments nature offers comes in the form of herbs. Medicinal herbs have natural benefits that help the natural balance of our organism. In addition to that, medicinal herbs prevent seasonal ailments such as cold or sore throat. In other words, medicinal herbs give significant help for the well-being of humans.

(Last Updated On: March 11, 2021)

Annalise O'Conner is a Registered Dietitian and Personalized Nutritionist. She is a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, teaching nutrition in the School of Public Health and APAN (Asian Pacific Islander American Network) Email: [email protected]