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15 Medicinal Plants the Potency of Which Is Backed By Science

 Medicinal herbs and plants are often associated with alternative medicine, but the reality is that many plant-based products are recognized and used in conventional medicine as well. In fact, many pills we associate with “chemicals”, such as aspirin, for example, are derived from herbs and plants. The 15 medicinal plants listed here all have a whole host of various science-backed health benefits.
herbal medicines with science backing herbal medicines
It also needs pointing out that, despite popular belief, natural medicines are by no means more gentle than conventional treatments, even if some may be less concentrated. Most of these powerful plants are just as potent and active as conventional medicine, which is why you should always be cautious and consult your doctor when mixing them with any medical treatments.
Another point to consider is the sourcing of plant-based medicines. Unfortunately, most herbal and plant-based medicines are regulated significantly less than conventional medical treatments, which means that it’s safest to opt for brands with a good reputation to avoid contaminated or inadequately-dosed products.
If you’re looking to incorporate herb and plant medicine in your daily regimen, these 15 herbs are an excellent and safe start.

1. Grape Seed Extract

herbal medicines with science backing Grapeseed Oil
Grape seed extract (GSE) is a supplement based on ground-up grape seeds. It is available in different forms, both as tablets and as a liquid. This extract is known for its outstanding antioxidant activity, which accounts for the beneficial health effects of GSE for several conditions, namely:
  • Poor blood circulation and swelling of the legs were shown to improve after a few weeks of taking GSE in studies featuring healthy adults and postmenopausal women with an increased risk of blood clotting.
  • Hypertension and high cholesterol: a review study suggests daily supplementation with GSE can lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, especially in those suffering from metabolic syndrome, but also in otherwise healthy adults.
  • Cancer studies featuring GSE are likewise ever-growing, though most are animal model studies. The extract may prove beneficial at preventing some forms of cancer and enhancing the effectiveness of chemotherapy.

There is no fixed recommended daily dose of GSE, but most studies list a dose between 100-300 milligrams. Patients taking blood thinners should not take grape seed extract without a doctor's supervision.

2. Echinacea

herbal medicines with science backing Echinacea
Echinacea is an herb native to North America, which is highly regarded for its antimicrobial benefits. The herb has been used to fight cold and flu symptoms for centuries, first introduced to European colonizers by Native American communities. Today, the herb is available in the form of supplements, powders, teas, and even juices.
Studies regarding the extent to which echinacea is capable of preventing a cold when taken during cold season or during the early onset of a cold are mixed, with most research suggesting that it can reduce one's likelihood of catching a cold or the flu by 10-58%. The herb can reportedly activate the immune system and may possibly have anti-inflammatory properties as well, hence the improvement in cold and flu symptoms. 

3. Flaxseeds

herbal medicines with science backing flaxseeds
Image Source: Marco Verch/ Flickr
Another ancient remedy that actually has quite a scientific backing are flaxseeds. These small, reddish-brown seeds have been used in food and medicine since 5,000 BC, and they are rich in phytoestrogens, soluble fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids.
The key health benefits of flaxseeds include:
  • Weight loss: flaxseeds were shown to promote weight loss and prevent obesity.
  • Constipation sufferers may benefit from taking flaxseeds to promote bowel movements, likely due to the high fiber count of the seeds.
  • Hypertension and high cholesterol: studies suggest that including flaxseeds in your diet can reduce blood pressure after 6 months of use and decrease levels of LDL (or "bad") cholesterol by 8-18% in both healthy adults and those suffering from high cholesterol. 
  • Colon cancer prevention may be another beneficial property of flaxseeds, with one animal study showing a marked reduction in tumor growth and recurrence of colon cancer in subjects who took flaxseeds.
Flaxseeds are widely available, and they are sold whole in grocery stores, or in the form of oil or supplements. Be careful with where you purchase the seeds, as raw and unripe flaxseeds are toxic. The best way to include flaxseeds in your diet is by simply sprinkling them on foods, such as salads, oatmeal, pasta, or any other meal.

4. Tea Tree Oil

herbal medicines with science backing tea tree
Tea tree oil is an essential oil derived from the leaves of the tea tree plant (Melaleuca alternifolia), which is native to Australia. This oil is sold in a concentrated form and should be used topically diluted within a base oil to treat minor cuts, insect bites, and acne - all warranted and scientifically-backed uses. Tea tree oil is also a common ingredient in acne treatments and cosmetic products.
As mentioned above, the oil has antibacterial properties, but the antifungal claims (the ability to treat dandruff and athlete's foot) don't have much scientific evidence to support them. Avoid using or keep tea tree oil away from kids under the age of 12 and pets, as it is toxic for them. Don't use tea tree oil around your mouth or ingest the oil - it is toxic even for adults when consumed internally.

5. Turmeric

herbal medicines with science backing turmeric
Turmeric, the golden spice we're all probably familiar with, is renowned for its anti-inflammatory properties. Turmeric is widely available everywhere these days, and you can buy it fresh, powdered, or in supplement form. Apart from the anecdotal evidence and traditional use of the spice in Ayurveda, there are several scientifically-supported benefits of turmeric:
  • Osteoarthritis pain reduction is one of the most well-founded benefits of turmeric, with turmeric supplementation being found to be as effective as ibuprofen at relieving joint pain.
  • Depression symptoms are likewise reduced in patients suffering from major depression who are already taking an antidepressant, so turmeric may enhance or supplement the potency of antidepressants.
  • Antioxidant-rich turmeric is recommended as an addition to food capable of fighting free radical damage
  • High blood lipid content reduction is also observed, especially in patients with metabolic syndrome.

When choosing a turmeric supplement or powder, be wary of the sourcing of the product.  Some suppliers are known for mixing turmeric with lead to add a vibrant color. Avoid using the spice without a doctor's permission if you're taking blood-thinning medications.

6. Lavender

herbal medicines with science backing lavender
If you're ever feeling stressed or restless, and who doesn't, consider making lavender essential oil a permanent feature in your bathroom cabinet. This concentrated essential oil derived from aromatic lavender flowers is a beautiful calming agent that was shown to decrease migraines, lower anxiety levels and prevent memory loss and concentration issues during stressful periods in life.
The oil is best used as aromatherapy, but relaxing lavender teas are likewise available in stores. Like tea tree oil, lavender essential oil should be diluted using a carrier oil and should not be consumed internally, as allergic reactions and toxicity are quite common.

7. Peppermint

herbal medicines with science backing peppermint
Peppermint is leafy plant from the mint family, and its leaves have been used as an herbal remedy for millennia. Dried peppermint leaves were even found in Egyptian pyramids - the first archeological evidence of the medicinal use of the plant. Today, we have scientific evidence of peppermint tea being effective at easing abdominal pain and bloating in patients suffering from chronic digestive issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Peppermint is also effective at relieving indigestion symptoms. Finally, there is also some evidence that applying peppermint oil on one's temples may reduce tension headaches as well as 1,000 mg of acetaminophen.

8. Chili Peppers

herbal medicines with science backing chili peppers
Chili peppers are also some of the most well-studied plant medicines. These red spicy peppers are native to Mexico, and they can be used to ease joint and muscle pain, heartburn, and may even help regulate blood pressure. All of this is thanks to the active spicy component in chilies - capsaicin, as well as other antioxidant components.
There are many existing varieties of chili peppers. Needless to say, chilies are available in many forms, both as food condiments, powdered spices, fresh, or dried whole. Some topical pain relieving creams and ointments, too, contain chili peppers.

9. Evening Primrose Oil

herbal medicines with science backing Evening primrose oil
Evening primrose oil is derived from the vibrant yellow flowers and other parts of the common evening primrose plant. Evening primrose has been used by Native Americans and Europeans to treat a variety of issues for centuries. Today, we know that the oil of the plant is effective at reducing the symptoms of eczema, dermatitis, PMS, rheumatoid arthritis pain, and even nerve damage due to diabetes.
Evening primrose oil is available in supplement form, but before you decide to start taking it, consult with your doctor. Primrose oil has many interactions with other medications, such as blood thinners and antipsychotic medications, just to name a few. It is also not recommended for people suffering from bleeding disorders and epilepsy, as it can cause seizures, bleeding, and other complications.

10. Caraway Seeds

herbal medicines with science backing Caraway Seeds
You have likely tried caraway seeds in foods, and they do add a pleasant anise flavor when added to stews, soups, and even bread. But did you know that these seeds also offer several health benefits? These seeds are beneficial for digestion, being capable of relieving cramps, bloating, gas and other digestive symptoms. 
Additional studies also show that these seeds also offer anti-inflammatory benefits and promote immune health. Adding caraway seeds into your diet is easy - simply add 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon of whole or powdered seeds into foods when you need it, and you're done. People with gallbladder issues should consult their physician before consuming caraway seeds.

11. Eucalyptus Oil

herbal medicines with science backing Eucalyptus
Here is another Australian plant with remarkable pain relief properties - eucalyptus oil. Apart from the known effect of clearing the air passageways when your nose is congested, eucalyptus oil actually also has pain-relieving properties when inhaled.
Do keep in mind, however, that this strong oil isn't suitable for small children and patients suffering from asthma and other breathing issues. Also make sure to keep the oil away from pets, as it is toxic when ingested.

12. Chamomile

herbal medicines with science backing chamomile
Chamomile isn't just a tea flavor. The flowers of the Roman chamomile plant have been dried and brewed to be used as a calming and antibacterial remedy for centuries. Chamomile is available in a variety of forms, including teas, capsules, and liquids today, and scientific evidence suggests that the herb is capable of reducing anxiety in people suffering from generalized anxiety disorder, so it's similar to lavender in terms of its soothing and calming properties.
13. Shiitake Mushrooms
herbal medicines with science backing shiitake
Who doesn't need an immunity and longevity boost these days? Well, it seems like adding some Japanese shiitake mushrooms into your soups or other dishes just may help you in that. These mushrooms are considered medicine in Asian countries where they originated, and there is some evidence suggesting that these delicious mushrooms can improve one's immune health after just 4 weeks of daily consumption.
There's also some additional research supporting the antioxidant and cancer-prevention effect of shiitake mushrooms. The recommended daily dose of the mushrooms varies across studies: 5-10 grams is the average daily intake.

14. Nettles

herbal medicines with science backing nettles
If you only see stinging nettle as a weed that causes a terrible skin rash, you might change your mind after reading this. In fact, tea made of stinging nettle is a traditional remedy for urinary issues, such as kidney stones, an enlarged prostate, and urinary tract infections, and there is some evidence to support those claims.
Stinging nettle may also be beneficial at relieving arthritis pain and inflammation, as suggested by the Arthritis Foundation. Finally, there is some research suggesting nettle tea is beneficial for lowering blood sugar, but more evidence is necessary to support that claim.
Note that stinging nettle tea isn't safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women and has quite a lot of drug interactions, so if you want to start drinking nettle tea regularly or taking a nettle supplement, talk to your doctor first.

15. Ginkgo 

herbal medicines with science backing gingko
Ginkgo biloba is one of the most ancient surviving tree species on the planet, with some fossils of the tree dating back 270 million years. Native to China, the tree is now widely available as a nutritional supplement that promises to keep your brain young and help you prevent dementia. But are any of those claims true?
There is some truth to those claims: scientific evidence shows that ginkgo supplementation can help slow down cognitive decline associated with dementia and Alzheimer's disease by increasing blood flow and oxygen supply to the brain. The herb may also be beneficial for memory, alertness, and may even help with vertigo.
The herbal medicine is made of the leaves of the ginkgo tree, and these leaves can be either sold dried to prepare tea, or offered in the form of drops, tablets, or capsules. Keep in mind that ginkgo may have adverse side effects and unexpected drug interactions, so make sure you notify your physician before deciding to take this supplement.
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