What is Herbal Medicine?
The World Health Organization described traditional medicine as “the knowledge, skills and practices based on the theories, beliefs and experiences indigenous to different cultures, used in the maintenance of health and in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness”.
Herbal medicines contain active ingredients specifically made from plant parts such as leaves, roots or flowers. These different parts of plants are used for the treatment of disease and to enhance general health and wellness. Some herbs contain powerful ingredients and need to be taken with the same level of caution as modern medicines. Herbal medicine origins can be traced back to ancient cultures. In fact, many modern medicines are based on man-made versions of naturally occurring compounds found in plants. One good example is the heart medicine digitalis which was derived from the foxglove plant.
Who should avoid herbal medicines?
Seek advice from your doctor or pharmacist before giving it a try especially if you belong in one of these categories:
- people on other medicines
- people with serious health conditions such as kidney or liver disease
- people who are scheduled for surgery
- pregnant or breastfeeding women
- children (herbal medicines should be kept away from children)
What to look for when buying a herbal medicine
If you are trying herbal medicine for the first time, look out for products approved by the Traditional and Complementary Medicine Council (TCM Council) and Drug Control Authority (DCA) with registration numbers given by the Ministry of Health on the packaging. This means that the medicine complies with quality standards relating to safety and manufacturing, and it provides information about how and when to use it.
In Malaysia, traditional medicine is prohibited from containing any caffeine, nicotinamide, paracetamol and poison within the meaning of the Poisons Act 1952 [Act 366]. All products including OTCs (over the counters) can only be sold by a person or business which holds the appropriate license issued under the CDCR 1984. On top of that, only products registered with the DCA may be advertised and this includes any traditional, herbal, complementary or alternative products. All products, including OTCs in Malaysia must be registered. Before registration, each product must undergo either a full or abridged evaluation. Those not listed in the Drug Registration Guidance Document (“DRGD”) for abridged evaluation will receive a full evaluation.
Ginseng refers to 11 different varieties of a short, slow-growing plant with fleshy roots known for its ability to restore and enhance well-being. The herb has a light-coloured, forked-shaped root, a relatively long stalk and green leaves in an oval shape.
Although more research is needed to confirm its benefit as a supplement, people have traditionally taken ginseng to help with a range of medical conditions. Researchers believe that ginsenosides, chemical components found in ginseng, are responsible for the clinical effects of the herb.
Health benefits of ginseng
Increased energy and sharper cognitive function
Ginseng may help stimulate physical and mental activity in people who feel weak and tired. Korean red ginseng in particular has shown promising results in the elevation of cognitive function in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
Ginseng may reduce inflammation. According to a 2020 study, ginsenosides may target pathways in the immune system that could reduce inflammation.
Treatment of erectile dysfunction
There are still not enough clinical trials to demonstrate its ongoing clinical benefit but a study of 119 men with mild-to-moderate erectile dysfunction found that ginseng berry extract improved overall sexual function.
Research on the effects of ginseng on mice suggests a possible link between ginseng and the treatment and prevention of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus.
Lowering blood sugar
Ginseng may help control blood sugar and treat diabetes. Ginsenosides may affect insulin production in the pancreas and improve insulin resistance using other mechanisms.
Turmeric & Curcumin
Curcumin is the primary active component of turmeric. It gives the spice its characteristic yellow colour. In fact, curcumin can be credited as the compound responsible for most of turmeric’s potential health benefits. Unfortunately, turmeric (and curcumin on its own) is not easily absorbed into the bloodstream. In order to get the full health benefit of turmeric and curcumin, supplements work best.
Health benefits of turmeric & curcumin
In the right dose, curcumin may be more effective as an anti-inflammatory agent than medications such as Advil (ibuprofen) and aspirin. According to a past study. curcumin may help treat conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, pancreatitis, and arthritis.
Heart disease prevention
A past study shows that curcumin may improve endothelial function or the health of the thin membrane that covers the inside of the heart and blood vessels. This membrane also plays a key role in regulating blood pressure.
Prevent (and possibly help treat) cancer
As inflammation is linked to tumour growth, anti-inflammatory compounds such as curcumin may play a role in treating and preventing a variety of cancer types, including colorectal, pancreatic, prostate, breast, and gastric cancers.
Delay or reverse Alzheimer’s disease
Turmeric may even protect your brain against common degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s by increasing levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein found in the brain and spinal cord. BDNF plays a key role in keeping nerve cells (neurons) healthy, as well as regulating communication between nerve cells, which is critical for learning and memory.
Thanks to turmeric’s ability to boost levels of BDNF, the spice shows promise as an effective antidepressant
Rheumatoid arthritis treatment
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) causes a painful swelling of the joints that can cause the bones to erode over time and ultimately lead to deformities and physical disabilities. Based on a study conducted, curcumin helps improve joint tenderness and swelling in RA patients.
With the ability to fight inflammation, protect body against free radicals and potentially delay brain degeneration and other age-related diseases, turmeric and curcumin may be effective anti-aging supplements.
Black Seed (Habbatus Sauda)
Black seed is a type of plant also known as habbatus sauda and nigella sativa among its other names. The plant originates from Southeastern Asia and was also used in ancient Egypt, Greece, Middle East and Africa. People have used the seed to make medicine for over 2000 years.
Historically, black seed has been used to treat headaches, toothache, nasal congestion, and intestinal worms. It has also been used for “pink eye” (conjunctivitis), pockets of infection (abscesses, and parasites.
Health benefits of Black Seed (Habbatus Sauda)
Research suggests that taking black seed extract by mouth improves coughing, wheezing, and lung function in people with asthma. However, black seed may not be as effective as the drugs theophylline or salbutamol.
Hay fever (allergic rhinitis)
Early research suggests that taking a specific product containing black seed oil, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and biotin (Immerfit by Phyt-Immun) by mouth daily might improve allergy symptoms in people with hay fever.
Itchy and inflamed skin (eczema)
Early research suggests that taking a specific product containing black seed oil, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and biotin (Immerfit by Phyt-Immun) by mouth daily might improve symptoms in people with itchy and inflamed skin. However, applying 15 percent black seed oil ointment to the skin for four weeks does not appear to improve itching or disease severity in similar patients.
Evidence regarding the effectiveness of black seed for high cholesterol is conflicting. Some early research suggests that taking whole crushed black seed one gram twice daily before meals for four weeks reduces cholesterol, “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and blood fats called triglycerides in people with high cholesterol. However, other research shows that taking powdered black seed one gram twice daily for six weeks does not improve cholesterol.
Early research suggests that taking black seed extract twice daily for eight weeks might slightly improve blood pressure in some people.
Early research suggests that taking a specific black seed oil product twice daily for six weeks might reduce total cholesterol, “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and blood sugar levels in people with metabolic syndrome.
Sore throat and swollen tonsils (tonsillopharyngitis)
Early research suggests that taking a combination of chanca piedra and black seed by mouth for seven days relieves pain in people with sore throat and swollen tonsils.
Black seed is also believed to beneficial for digestive problems including intestinal gas and diarrhea, bronchitis, flu, menstrual disorders, achy joints (rheumatism) and headache among others
Sumac refers to any flowering plant that belongs to the Rhus genus or the Anacardiaceae family, which often consist of small shrubs and sumac trees that produce bright red fruits known as drupes. These plants are grown around the world but are especially common in East Asia, Africa and North America. Sumac has a unique taste typically described as tangy and slightly fruity, a bit like lemon. But in addition to bringing a distinct taste to dishes, it also boasts a long list of impressive benefits.
Health benefits of sumac
Regulates blood sugar
Some research shows that sumac may help maintain normal blood sugar levels. Plus, it may also help prevent insulin resistance. According to a study published in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, sumac spice may be effective at lowering insulin levels to prevent insulin resistance and stabilize blood sugar.
Although research is currently mostly limited to animal models, studies suggest that sumac benefits heart health by lowering cholesterol and helps to reduce the risk of heart disease.
Sumac is a concentrated source of antioxidants, which can help neutralize free radicals and keep your body healthy.
Reduce bone loss
A 2015 animal study published in the Journal of Applied Oral Science showed that administering sumac extract to rats altered the balance of several specific proteins involved in bone metabolism, resulting in decreased bone loss.
Relieves muscle pain
Ione study showed that sumac juice, derived from the same plant as sumac spice, was able to help reduce muscle pain during aerobic exercise in healthy adults. Due to its rich antioxidant content, it may also aid in reducing inflammation to provide even more pain relief.
Luo han guo or monk fruit
Monk fruit is also known as lo han guo in Mandarin. Luo han guo, literally translated, means “arhat fruit” in English. Thanks to its amazing health benefits, this Chinese herb has long been hailed as “the immortals’ fruit”. Hence, at the end of spring and the beginning of summer, the average family in China loves to use it to make tea for the treatment of coughs caused by a lung infection or by a cold due to seasonal weather variations. This fruit is high in nutritional value too and can be consumed in a few simple ways. Besides making tea with boiling water, you can also use it to stew soup and make congee. Either way, it can go a long way in achieving good health and keeping your body strong.
Health benefits of luo han guo or monk fruit
Sweeteners for diabetics
This fruit itself can help to treat diabetics. It can also help decrease lipids, lose weight, and assist the treatment of HLP (hyperlipidaemia). The monk fruit is rich in vitamin C, which makes it a wonder herb with anti-ageing, anti-cancer, and skin-care properties
Used in treatment for various diseases
Apart from being one of the healthy and safe sugar substitutes, clinically it is widely used for the treatments of whooping cough, constipation, acute bronchitis, acute tonsillitis, sore throats, cute gastritis among others.
Each part emphasis on different medicinal uses
Its mashed root is able to cure stubborn psoriasis, carbuncles and boils. For external use, the fruit hair can be used for wounds while the fruit tea can be a cool refreshing drink that can prevent respiratory infections. It is believed to have the ability to prolong life too if drunk on a daily basis.
Tulsi or holy basil is a widely known herb in the family Lamiaceae. It is native to India and vastly cultivated throughout Southeast Asia. Tulsi is referred to as the ‘Queen of Herbs’ as it is very effective in protecting our body from various infections and diseases of the heart, liver, skin, kidney among others.
Tulsi has a special place in Ayurveda as well as the home of Hindus in India. It is considered sacred by Hindus and worshipped by them. Three main types of Tulsi are seen growing in India are Ram Tulsi, Krishna Tulsi and the most common wild Vana Tulsi.
Tulsi leaves are rich in vitamins A, C, and K and minerals like calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and potassium. It also has a good amount of protein and fibre.
Health benefits of tulsi
Natural immunity booster
Tulsi is rich in Vitamin C and zinc. It can act as a natural immunity booster and keeps infections at bay. It has immense anti-bacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties which protect us from a variety of infections. Tulsi leaves extract increases the T helper cells and natural killer cells activity, boosting the immune system
Reduces cold and respiratory disorders
Camphene, cineole, and eugenol present in tulsi help to reduce cold and congestion in the chest. Juice of Tulsi leaves mixed with honey and ginger is effective in bronchitis, asthma, influenza, cough, and cold.
Reduces stress and blood pressure
Tulsi contains compounds Ocimumosides A and B. These compounds reduce stress and balance the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine in the brain. The anti-inflammatory properties of tulsi reduce inflammation and blood pressure.
Phytochemicals present in tulsi have strong antioxidant properties. Thus, they help in protecting us from skin, liver, oral, and lung cancers.
Good for heart health
Tulsi has a profound effect on the treatment and prevention of cardiovascular diseases by means of lowering blood lipid content, suppressing ischemia and stroke, reducing hypertension, and also due to its higher antioxidant properties.
Useful in gastrointestinal disorders
Tulsi leaves help to cure indigestion and loss of appetite. They are also used for the treatment of flatulence and bloating.
Good for skin and hair
Tulsi helps clear out the skin of blemishes and acne. It is rich in antioxidants, and that helps it to prevent premature ageing. Tulsi also strengthens our hair roots, thus preventing hair loss. The antifungal properties of tulsi prevent the development of fungus and dandruff.
Green chiretta (Hempedu bumi)
A tropical and subtropical herb known for its bitter taste, green chiretta or andographis paniculata, is found in Asia, Australia, India, Laos, and Northeastern India. It is widely used as a medicinal plant. To attain maximum effect, leaves should be harvested when the inflorescence axis starts to grow. For the roots, harvesting should be made when the leaves start getting discolouration or wilting. The leaves are edible, occasionally mixed with vegetables. Green chireta is attractive to bees, butterflies and/or birds. Its leaf extract is reported as an effective pest control against various crop pests.
Health benefits of green chiretta (hempedu bumi)
General health benefits
The roots and leaves are primarily used to reduce fever, tone the stomach, increase appetite, and generally improve one’s health condition. It also has a significant anti-inflammatory effect and it inhibits oedema.
Powdered leaves are found to have the capacity to aid in common colds by shortening their duration. It can also be used as a treatment for fever and a sore throat.
Treatment for various disease
Decoction of the leaves or roots can be used as a treatment for stomach pain, dysentery, typhus, cholera, influenza, and bronchitis. Infusion can be used for treating female disorders, dyspepsia, hypertension, gonorrhoea, jaundice, rheumatism, amenorrhoea, and torpid liver. When used as a poultice, it cures swollen legs or feet, vitiligo and piles.
Treatment for poison
Further, the plant is used locally as a remedy for snake bites and for insect bites as well. It can also be a remedy for diabetes when used together with Orthosiphon aristatus.
Risk of Traditional / Herbal Medicine
Although herbal medicine is used mostly for treating mild to moderate illnesses and most of us are aware of its limits, the combination of self-medication, non-expert consultation and missing risk awareness of herbal medicine is potentially harmful. This is particularly relevant for elderly users as, even though they appear to be more aware of health-related issues, they generally use more medicine compared to younger ones. If you are currently taking or planning to take any herbal medicines, be aware of the following:
- They may cause problems if you’re taking other medicines. They could result in reduced or enhanced effects of the medicine, including potential side effects.
- You may experience a bad reaction or side effects after taking herbal medicine.
- Not all herbal medicines are regulated. Always refer to the labels and look for DCA and Ministry of Health registration number
- Evidence for the effectiveness of herbal medicines is generally very limited. Although some people find them helpful, in many cases their use tends to be based on traditional use rather than scientific research.
- Certain groups of people should be particularly wary of taking herbal medicines.
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