Many of us have a few herbs in our garden – or wilting in a pot on the kitchen windowsill – that we use to add flavour to a sauce or roast dinner. But these inauspicious plants may have far more significant uses when it comes to pepping up our health.
It is estimated £126million is spent on herbal medicine in Britain each year, and a poll in 2008 revealed that 35 per cent of Britons have tried shop-bought natural remedies.
So could the answer to common illnesses be as simple as a trip to the supermarket? We spoke to Philip Weeks, an expert in natural medicine, about the everyday herbs with healing properties.
A powerful musclerelaxant-peppermint (mentha piperita) can help with stomach cramps and relieving the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. The oil can be used as a topical remedy for pain, while a study by the University of Heidelberg in Germany found that peppermint can also help treat cold sores. ‘Once somebody contracts the herpes simplex virus, it isn’t curable,’ says Philip.
‘But essential oils from various plants have shown huge potential as antivirals and one study showed that, in the test tube at least, peppermint stopped the reproduction of the virus. Drinking peppermint tea, made from fresh leaves, can speed up the healing of a cold sore, and crushing the leaves, then dabbing on the oil, can also help. Dilute it with olive oil and apply every few hours.’
From the Latin word rosmarinus (dew of the sea), rosemary has long been associated with its ability to aid memory. It is said that scholars in the past wore fresh rosemary sprigs in their hair to help recall their studies.
‘Rosemary has a stimulating quality with a particular action of increasing cerebral circulation,’ says Philip. ‘It also contains the potent antioxidant carnosic acid, which has protective effects on brain cells and can possibly help those with Alzheimer’s. Rosemary tea is ideal for helping to stimulate the brain, or even just the smell of rosemary can help with concentration.’
But that’s not all. A study carried out at the National Institute of Agronomic Research in Dijon demonstrated that it stimulates the production of Cytochrome P450, an enzyme that enables the liver to clean toxins out of the blood.
Origanum vulgare has long been recognised by herbalists as having antioxidant and disease-preventing properties. The leaves and flowering stems are antiseptic.
‘Oregano contains many medicinal compounds including the antibacterial carvacrol,’ says Philip. ‘A study of bacteria in a test tube showed that a relatively low level of oregano oil was as effective as antibiotics in killing the bacteria staphylococcus.’
In one U.S. study, oregano was found to have 42 times more antioxidant activity than apples, 30 times more than potatoes and 12 times more than oranges – making it one of the most powerful herbs at tackling chemical damage to the body.
Thymus vulgaris’s main constituent, thymol, can destroy bacteria and some fungal infections.
‘Thyme is hugely antibacterial and studies have demonstrated its effect on killing the bacteria helicobacter pylori, which cause stomach ulcers,’ says Philip.
‘An extract of thyme in honey has been used for centuries for bronchitis and chest infections and I use it regularly in my herbal clinic.’
This herb – salvia – has been used in natural toothpaste for many years for its antiseptic properties. It has also been included in skin creams to treat bites and shingles due to its anti-inflammatory benefits.
A study by the University of Exeter revealed that sage extract significantly reduced the frequency, duration or severity of hot flushes in menopausal women.
‘Many report a decrease in symptoms of hot flushes when taking sage tea,’ says Philip.