Herbs that boost the Immune System

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Medicinal herbs are rich in antioxidants that maintain health and slow the aging process. They also can prevent or alleviate age-related problems, such as arthritis, high blood pressure and failing vision. We questioned world-renowned botanist James A. Duke, PhD, about which herbs are essential to healthy aging. Dr. Duke has a half-acre medicinal herb garden on his six-acre homestead in Fulton, Maryland.

While these herbs have few significant side effects and are far safer than most synthetic drugs, it is always wise to consult your doctor before treating a medical problem yourself.

Some herbs can interact with prescription and nonprescription drugs, magnifying or weakening their effects. In addition, some people may be allergic to herbs. Be alert to symptoms, such as a rash, when taking any herb.

With your doctor’s approval, you can take these herbs all at the same time, along with vitamins, if you wish. Here are eight potent herbs that Dr. Duke uses himself. Follow the dosages suggested on the labels.

Bilberry: Vision disorders

Bilberry is loaded with anthocyanins, chemicals that helps to keep capillary walls flexible and strong. It also is loaded with antioxidants that defend delicate tissue against free-radical damage.

In particular, bilberry protects the retina and its blood supply, stopping and improving vision complaints, like macular degeneration.

Bilberry can ward off further eye problems, like glaucoma, cataracts and poor night vision.

Celery seed: Gout and arthritis

I have a special fondness for this herb, which has protected me from agonizing attacks of gout for the last seven years. It reduces blood levels of uric acid as effectively as allopurinol, the drug commonly prescribed for gout.

Celery seed, available in capsule form, also contains 25 anti-inflammatory compounds that can reduce the pain and swelling of arthritis. It has chemicals that make blood vessels relax and open, helping to alleviate high blood pressure and angina (chest pain caused by deficient blood flow to the heart).

In folk medicine, celery seed is reputed to be a digestive aid. It is used to relieve gas as well as heartburn, though this has yet to be clinically proven.

Echinacea: Colds and flu

This popular herbal medicine is a powerful ally against colds and flu. The purple coneflower from which it comes has been used medicinally by Native Americans for centuries. At least three of the chemicals it contains caffeic acid, echinacoside and cichoric acidhave known antiviral properties. In addition, echinacea boosts the body’s own infection-fighting powers.

Take echinacea at the first sign of an upper respiratory infection or flu. I also take it when I know I’ll be in crowds or around other sources of infection.

This is not an herb for everyday use the immune system eventually could stop responding to it. I don’t take it for more than eight weeks in a row.

Garlic: Blood pressure and cholesterol

This pungent bulb was prescribed by Hippocrates, the fifth-century BC Greek physician, and cited as a cure-all in an ancient Sanskrit manuscript. Today, we attribute its medicinal powers to a high concentration of sulfur compounds.

Garlic lowers blood pressure and cholesterol. There also is evidence that it can reduce the risk of cancer, particularly in the gastrointestinal tract.

Garlic contains at least 25 germ-killing compounds and fights bacterial, viral and fungal infections.

Eat at least one raw clove or four cooked cloves daily or take garlic capsules.

Hawthorn: Potent heart drug

An extract made from this flowering shrub can be useful against irregular heart rhythm, angina and shortness of breath. Hawthorn contains seven compounds known to prevent dangerous clotting and three that lower blood pressure. One study at University of Madras in India suggests that hawthorn also may reduce cholesterol.

Milk thistle: Liver protection

The liver, the organ vital to detoxifying the blood, is under constant assault by pollution. Alcohol, also, is bad for the liver. Milk thistle, a relative of the artichoke, appears to protect the liver. It contains silymarin, which strengthens cell membranes and boosts the organ’s ability to repair itself. Milk thistle even has been used to treat hepatitis A and C.

I take milk thistle capsules when I’m traveling and will be exposed to smog. If I lived in a major city with pollution problems, I would take it every day.

I also take it before a celebration, when I may be drinking a bit more alcohol than usual. You can take silymarin capsules or eat milk thistle seeds, available in health-food stores, as you would sunflower seeds.

Saw palmetto: Prostate problems

At least half of men over age 50 have difficulty urinating because benign prostate enlargement chokes off the flow. An extract of saw palmetto, a tropical shrub, has been used for years to treat this problem. A review in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that saw palmetto facilitates urination in men with prostate problems about as well as medication. Natural chemicals in the herb appear to block a testosterone-type hormone that promotes prostate growth. Men without prostate problems may choose to take it as a preventive measure.

Saw palmetto also may slow down male pattern baldness.

Turmeric: Heart and arthritis

This spice, made from the root of the tropical plant Curcuma longa, is a common ingredient in mustard and Indian food it’s what makes curry bright yellow. Turmeric is packed with antioxidants and contains powerful anti-inflammatory compounds called COX-2 inhibitors the power behind arthritis drugs like Celebrex.

Some research suggests turmeric can stop inflammation about half as effectively as steroids such as cortisone but without the troubling side effects. This makes it a valuable ally against arthritis. In addition, turmeric protects the heart. It makes blood platelets less likely to clump and form dangerous clots. It also fights cholesterol buildup in the arteries.

Turmeric is available as an herbal preparation. You also can add turmeric to your diet when cooking. I like to use it to make a curried celery soup.

Which brands to buy

Herbal products are sold by many manufacturers, but there is no federal regulation to ensure quality control.

To be safe, select major brands, such as Nature’s Herbs, Nature’s Way and Solgar. These are available at most supermarkets, drugstores and health-food stores. Buy preparations that clearly indicate on the labels the exact amounts of active ingredients.

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