Show 1378: Rediscovering the power of medicinal herbs

This week, two guests describe their work with the healing power of medicinal herbs. They draw on family histories of herbalism along with their own studies of how to use botanical medicines.

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The power of medicinal herbs:

For centuries, until almost the middle of the 20th century, people depended mainly on plants for their medicines. The advent of synthetic drugs created and distributed by pharmaceutical companies helped put botanical medicines out of favor. Although medical and pharmacy schools no longer teach their students how to use plants for healing, plants have not lost their power. What do you need to know about them?

Prevention of colds and respiratory infections:

If you have the flu, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication to help speed healing. If your stuffy nose, sore throat, and cough are caused by one of the hundreds of rhinoviruses, coronaviruses, or enteroviruses that cause the common cold, your doctor doesn’t have much to offer. There are some prescription medications that can address individual symptoms, such as benzonate or guaifenesin for cough. At the pharmacy, you can buy over-the-counter cold remedies with multiple symptoms. But none of them will really help you get better faster.

Herbal medicines can help:

A plant that helps speed recovery from respiratory infections is Andrographis paniculata. Most Americans are unfamiliar with this herbal medicine, but research has shown it has antiviral and immunomodulatory activity (pharmaceuticals, 24 August 2023). Herbalists also recommend it for digestive disorders, calling it the king of bitters.

This name may offer a clue as to why Andrographis is not well known in the US. Americans tend to be reluctant to eat or drink things that taste bitter. Mimi Hernandez often combines Andrographis with a much more pleasant and familiar herb, black elder. It has also been used to help recovery from respiratory tract infections, although more and better clinical trials are needed (BMC Medicine and Complementary TherapiesApril 7, 2021).

Is goldenrod just a nuisance?

Many people blame their fall allergy symptoms on goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). According to Mimi Hernandez, this is probably inaccurate. Allergies are most often reactions to other, possibly discrete, plants blooming at the same time. Goldenrod can be used topically to treat skin problems. It is reputed to act as an anti-inflammatory or diuretic when swallowed in a tincture or tea.

Other herbal medicines to fight blood pressure and blood sugar:

A couple of plants available in the US are more widely used and respected in Mexico and other countries. One of these is hibiscus, a beautiful red flower that makes a spicy tasting tea. In Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, this is called Jamaican water. A few controlled trials have shown this Hibiscus sabdariffa lowers blood pressure in people with mild hypertension (Journal of Advanced Pharmaceutical Research and TechnologyJuly-Sept. 2019).

The prickly pear cactus, known as nopales, is used in Mexico to help people with blood sugar control. This might sound like an old wives’ tale, but animal research confirms that the polysaccharide compounds in large flat cactus leaves can lower blood glucose, cholesterol, and triglycerides (Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 10 August 2023). Mimi Hernandez is enthusiastic about these two medicinal herbs. He has been working diligently to recover the wisdom of our ancestors regarding the power of healing plants.

Herbs in the practice of medicine:

Dr. Tieraona Low Dog was already a great herbalist before she went to medical school. Her innate curiosity helped her translate the rigor she learned for medical research into the scientific study of botanical medicines. Dr. Low Dog is one of the most knowledgeable experts we’ve ever interviewed about the scientific backing of herbal medicine, where it’s at. He is also quick to tell us when this support is lacking.

We asked her about a favorite herb, and she chose a common backyard plant that’s easy to grow and easy to use: thyme. One of the components of thyme, thymol, helps calm coughs, probably through its action on TRP channels (Respiratory ResearchFebruary 8, 2023).

When Herbs Can Be Best:

We asked Dr. Low Dog if there are times when herbs may be a more appropriate treatment than prescription drugs. There are certainly conditions for which lifestyle approaches are preferred, including but not limited to botanical medicines. Occasional difficulty sleeping is among these. Dr. Low Dog often recommends Ashwagandha for those who are tired but connected.

Coughs from colds are another. After all, over-the-counter cough or cold remedies don’t work very well. Instead, he likes to suggest Andrographis or thyme tea and thyme syrup. Ginger tea can be especially helpful for people with chronic hives, a condition that is difficult to treat with conventional medications. When herbal medicines are used correctly, they can be gentler than prescription products.

This week’s guests:

Mimi Hernandez:

Mimi Prunella Hernandez, MS, RH (AHG), is an internationally recognized clinical herbalist and ethnobotanist with a Master of Science in Herbal Medicine. She is a registered herbalist with the American Herbalists Guild and has served as the Guild’s Executive Director for over ten years. An award-winning student of the revered ethnobotanist James Duke, she has been practicing and teaching herbalism for more than two decades. Hernandez lives in the foothills near Asheville, North Carolina, where she manages and advocates for native medicinal plants at the PonderLand Sanctuary.
She is the author ofNational Geographic Herbal: 100 herbs from the world’s healing traditions
Her website is

Mimi Hernandez, MS, RH, author of the National Geographic Guide to Medicinal Herbs

Dr. Tieraona Low Dog:

Tieraona Low Dog, MD, is a founding member of the American Board of Physician Specialties, the American Board of Integrative Medicine, and the Academy of Women’s Health. She was elected Chair of the US Pharmacopoeia Dietary/Botanical Supplements Expert Committee and was appointed to the Scientific Advisory Board of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. His books include:Women’s Health in Complementary and Integrative Medicine;Life is your best medicineiFortify Your Life: Your Guide to Vitamins, Minerals and More. His website is

Dr.  Tieraona Low Dog describes natural ways to treat heartburn

Dr. Tieraona Low Dog describes natural ways to treat heartburn

Listen to the podcast:

The podcast of this show will be available on Monday, March 18, 2024, following its broadcast on March 16. You can stream the show from this site and download it for free.

Download the mp3.

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