Most of us know the importance of getting our fair share of greens — after all, they’re chock full of nutrients and, therefore, should make up the most significant portion of foods on our plate per meal. When most of us think of greens, we think of veggies — broccoli, kale, cauliflower, peppers, etc.
However, there’s another type of “green,” that also aids in our health and has been used for medicinal purposes since the dawn of time. These are herbs, which come from the part of the plant that is the leaf and often carry more therapeutic benefits than the vegetables themselves, notes naturopathic doctor and clinical nutritionist David Friedman, N.D., D.C. “Many herbs contain over 50 times more antioxidants than an apple, as well as anti-inflammatory properties that allow them to inhibit cellular damage from environmental toxins and carcinogenic compounds,” he says.
When you consume herbs, you benefit from the whole plant, explains Toronto-based naturopathic practitioner Rachel Corradetti-Sargeant. “This is important because, unlike a supplement or a medicine that utilizes the active ingredient in a certain herb, consuming it straight from the source ensures you’re not missing out on the synergistic effects of all of the elements of the plant working together to enhance health,” she explains. “When we leave the plant in its whole form, we are also typically getting a low dose of the active ingredients meaning the therapeutic window is wider, and there is less likelihood for human harm.”
Another benefit of consuming herbs, which is more for enjoyment than anything else, is that it puts us back in touch with the actual tastes of nature. “The abuse we have done to foods through packaging and preservative chemicals have caused us to lose our ability to taste what food truly is meant to be,” Corradetti-Sargeant says. “We think the cloying saccharine of artificial sweeteners is normal and can no longer even taste the sweetness in green beans or peas.” Using herbs in cooking will help amplify the taste of our foods which can enhance our experience consuming meals.
Ready to sneak more healthy herbs into your diet? Here are the best herbs for good health, according to experts.
You’ve probably heard about this yellow herb that’s also popularly used as a spice. For centuries, turmeric has been used in ancient Indian medicine (Ayurvedic) to remedy many health conditions, including digestion issues, arthritis, painful menstruation, blood disorders, and even skin diseases, notes Tricia Pingel, N.M.D., an Arizona-based naturopathic physician. “The active compound in turmeric is curcumin, which contains both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties,” she says. You can find this spice in most grocery stores and add it to anything from curries and rice to desserts and even drinks.
You’ve probably used a bath product or two that contains lavender, and that’s because this herb has unique relaxing properties. However, for a gentle and soft-looking herb, Katy Firisin, a naturopathic doctor at Coastal Natural Medicine in Southport, Connecticut, points out that lavender does far more than ease your stress — it is a powerhouse of medicine. “Its smell can induce relaxation and sleep, so simply having the plant or dried herb in a small sachet on your pillow helps you drift off for the night,” she says. “It also has antimicrobial effects, making it useful in wound healing and treating and preventing infections.”
This herb native to India and northern Africa is known best for balancing and regulating hormones. It explains Toronto-based naturopathic doctor Olivia Rose, N.D., particularly when it comes to cortisol, AKA the stress hormone. “Ashwagandha can also improve your energy, enhance thyroid function and strengthen your immune system, which can weaken significantly during stressful moments or periods in life,” she says. Dr. Rose likes to recommend this herb to women undergoing fertility treatments to relieve the stress that often accompanies such an experience.
This antiviral and anti-microbial herb has been used for centuries, if not longer. “Echinacea root has been shown in studies to increase your white blood cell count, which can help your body fight illnesses such as the cold or flu,” says Dr. Rose. She often recommends taking an extract of Echinacea at the first sign of sickness, such as the dreaded sore throat, to help reduce the duration of illness. “Echinacea can be consumed in a variety of ways — liquid extract or tincture is great when dealing with a sore throat because it can also be used as a gargle, but it can also be consumed in capsule form or as a tea.”
Dr. Rose likes to recommend this herb to women who have infertility or are dealing with painful menstrual symptoms, such as intense cramps, heavy bleeding, acne or changes in the mood, all thanks to its hormone-regulating properties. “Chaste tree works on the pituitary gland to decrease prolactin, which aids in breast milk production, and to increase progesterone, which helps the body prepare for conception and pregnancy,” she says. She recommends that women with irregular menstrual cycles or a history of recurring miscarriage consume this herb in a capsule form.
You probably know this herb well and tend to reach for it during the winter months, but you should be indulging in it year-round. “Peppermint herb is a carminative, so it soothes digestion and is useful in easing nausea and vomiting, as well as reducing IBS symptoms,” says Dr. Pingel. One study published in Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics found peppermint oil to help reduce abdominal pain in children with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
Dr. Pingel recommends adding peppermint leaves to water, salads, roasted veggies, and salad dressings. “You can also simply chew on a few leaves after eating to ease indigestion or steep a nice hot cup of tea with the leaves,” she adds.
Basil is a delicious herb that you’ve probably eaten countless times, especially when you’ve enjoyed Italian or Thai cuisines. “Basil has been used in over 300 different Ayurvedic herbal treatments for thousands of years, including tinctures, teas, ointments and tonics, and it boasts benefits including immune-enhancing, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties,” says Dr. Friedman. He recommends adding basil to everything, from salads, pizza, and pesto sauce to fish and casseroles.
If you’re experiencing the dreaded brain fog that everyone seems to be talking about nowadays, rosemary might be the best herb for you. Research, including one study published in the journal Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology has shown that sniffing rosemary can help improve memory. What’s more: Dr. Friedman points out that rosemary is rich in carnosol, which prevents the formation of a cancer-causing compound HCAs (heterocyclic aromatic amines), which forms during the grilling process of meat. You can use rosemary as a spice on any food you eat, from meat to vegetables, or even use rosemary oil in a diffuser to help with mental alertness.
Here’s another herb with some pretty exciting benefits, especially when it comes to cognition. “The Genus Salvia, also known as sage, has been traditionally used therapeutically for digestive and circulation issues, bronchitis, coughs, asthma, memory problems, angina, mouth and throat inflammation, depression, and excessive sweating,” says Dr. Pingel. “Sage pairs beautifully with vegetables, especially with roasted butternut squash!”
In addition to being a popular culinary spice, thyme has impressive germ-killing abilities. “The active ingredient in thyme, called thymol, is used in Listerine mouthwash, kinds of toothpaste, Vicks VapoRub, and soaps because of its antibacterial and antifungal properties,” says Dr. Friedman. However, the most traditional medical use of thyme, he notes, is as a respiratory agent. Whether you’re plagued with the flu, bronchitis, seasonal allergies, or bad bouts of asthma, thyme can help relieve your symptoms, especially phlegm and mucus buildup, he notes. Like rosemary, the best way to enjoy thyme is by using it as a spice on any food you eat.
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