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Herbs: Nature's Multitaskers

Multitaskers: No, I'm not talking about ER nurses and doctors (and I used to be one of those, so I know), nor about computer geeks or people who work in busy, modern offices; nor about busy parents with professional responsibilities. No, I am talking here about herbs, which most of us take every day in our foods (and sometimes in our supplements), and don't even know it.

 

Herbs are multitaskers: they can do many different tasks over time, and often simultaneously and cooperatively with other herbs and nutrients. When most people hear the word supplement, they think of minerals or vitamins. While these are important, herbs or botanicals also help us use these minerals and vitamins, as well as our foods, in more efficient and supportive ways. 

High-quality herbs help the body address some of the underlying causes of chronic disease, such as chronic low-level inflammation, DNA mutations and damage caused by many environmental factors and deficiencies, the liver's incapacity to detoxify well, as well as how environmental toxins lead to internal hormonal imbalances.

There are different classes of herbs, including adaptogens, alternatives, blood movers, and others. Let's look at one class that many people are aware of: adaptogens.

Adaptogens

To live a long and healthy life, we must strengthen our body's capacity to withstand stress. A balanced lifestyle is fundamental, but to mitigate the demands of modern life, most of us need more help. That help is available through a unique class of botanical medicines called "adaptogens," aptly named because they help us adapt to stress. It's a good idea for all of us to take an adaptogen herbal combination to help support our neuroendocrine system to function optimally. Many people buy these as single herbs like ashwaganda or rhodeola, but I recommend taking them in combination for a more synergistic effect.

Because stress has always been an inescapable fact of life, our bodies evolved with built-in responses to help us survive. When we're confronted with a threatening situation, blood pressure and heart rate increase, glucose is dumped into the blood stream, and nonessential systems such as immune function and digestion are suppressed. When the crisis subsides, all systems are designed to return to normal.

The problem is that our bodies don't distinguish between a life-endangering situation and the annoying-but-not-life-threatening stressors of traffic, work deadlines, and financial difficulties. When stress is chronic or severe, we lose our ability to bounce back, which negatively affects health and quality of life.

Plants don't have the ability to avoid stressors in their environment. They can't move to escape a hard frost, an invasion by pests, or a fungal attack.  Instead, evolution has afforded them the ability to produce protective chemical compounds called secondary metabolites. These compounds help them successfully adapt to their changing environment by fortifying their natural stress resistance.

Herbs such as ginseng, ashwagandha, and schizandra have been valued since ancient times as longevity tonics. Today, we refer to these herbs as adaptogens. Research has shown us that the same compounds that help these unique plants thrive in their environment also help the human body adapt to the stresses of life. Adaptogenic herbs have the ability to optimize stress resistance, increase energy and vitality, and enhance the body's natural ability to maintain equilibrium.

Since it's impossible to avoid life stressors, it's important to do everything possible to alleviate the effects of runaway physiological responses. Whether you're looking to maintain or promote optimal health, adaptogens provide essential support.

Herbal adaptogens buffer the effects of stress by restoring homeostasis (balance), optimizing metabolism, and encouraging healthy immune response. All of these actions help to reestablish physiological balance, and allow health and vitality to flourish. Adaptogens are normalizing and nontoxic. 

Finding Your Way Through the Maze

However, it's important to have a reliable source for good, high-quality herbs, and opinions vary among the general public, as well as among practitioners, as to who makes the best brands. In general, you have to have a trusting relationship with your local practitioner, or find a good source at a local health food store, to weave your way effectively through this maze of quality and expense. Most ND's and integrative MD's go to conferences and try to learn what the best products are, and then make them available to patients in their offices, to save the patient the time of having to wade through all the research themselves.

It's unfortunate that many of these herbs are not included in Medicare or insurance plans, even though there is ample published documentation as their effectiveness. If herbs were prescribed more, many people would need less pharmaceuticals.  

On a radio show I did a few years ago (these shows are available on our website), I interviewed Dr. Bharat Aggarwal, a researcher at MD Anderson Hospital in Houston, about the use of herbs in cancer treatment. He has published many well-researched reports about turmeric and other spices and how they lower inflammation, which is a main driving force in cancer and many chronic illnesses of today. (You can find Dr. Aggarwaal's research online.)

The study of herbology can be complex, and is actually more of an art. As an integrative medical doctor, I realize that the more I study these herbs, and go along in life, the more I do not know. It's important to work with a trusted practitioner, and do your own research if you wish, to develop a well-rounded program of herbs and nutrients tailored to your individual condition. Herbs, our multitasking friends, can help us attain a higher level of health and well-being.

Robert Zieve M.D. M.D.(H)

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