A Guide to 12 Popular Herbal Supplements
There are a lot of herbal supplements out there. Some have anecdotal evidence behind them, some have research behind them, some have both, and some have neither. So: Which ones are worth trying? We asked experts with slightly different perspectives to weigh in on a dozen herbs we’re curious about.
Meet the Herbalists:
DR. SHARI AUTH, DACM, LAC, LMT
Shari Auth is a cofounder of WTHN, an acupuncture clinic in New York, and has more than two decades of experience as a holistic health practitioner. She is a licensed doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine, holds a master’s in herbology, and is a board-certified Chinese herbalist with extensive training in Vedic and Western herbs.
ROY UPTON, RH, DAYU
Roy Upton is the founder, executive director, and editor of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia. He is also a cofounder of the American Herbalists Guild and serves as an advisor on several botanical-expert committees. Upton has been a practicing herbalist since 1981 and is trained in Ayurvedic, traditional Chinese, and Western herbal medicine.
Meet the Scientist:
JAMES ADAMS, PHD
James Adams is an associate professor at the USC School of Pharmacy and holds a PhD in pharmacology and toxicology. He did his postdoctoral work at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and at the National Institutes of Health. He trained with a Chumash healer for fourteen years, and his current research focuses on California medicinal plants.
Meet the Plants:
1. Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
THE BASICS: This orange spice is similar to ginger and grows throughout Asia and Central America.
HOW IT’S USED: Turmeric can be used as both a culinary spice and a medicinal herb. Auth says it can help “keep your joints healthy, your digestion strong, and your skin glowing.” Upton incorporates turmeric into anti-inflammatory protocols.
WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: Turmeric is one of the most well-researched botanicals in the world. Its active component, curcumin, is well-known for its anti-inflammatory effects. But turmeric may not be absorbed well by the body, Adams explains, so look for turmeric preparations that contain black pepper, which allows for better absorption.
2. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
THE BASICS: A nightshade plant whose root and sometimes leaf are used to make an adaptogenic supplement.
HOW IT’S USED: Ashwagandha is commonly referred to as an adaptogen, meaning it can help the body cope with daily stress. Auth calls it “the perfect antidote for modern life.” People swear by it for help with everything from sleep to immunity. You can take it in tablet form or add one to two teaspoons of a powder to your smoothie.
WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: Several small studies have shown that ashwagandha can be beneficial for a wide range of purposes. The strongest research so far has focused on ashwagandha’s potential to help combat anxiety. There’s still a lot we don’t know about ashwagandha and why it could affect several seemingly different systems of the body. We do know that it has mild anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, but “because ashwagandha contains several pharmacologically active compounds, it is not possible to say which are responsible for the clinical effects found,” says Adams.
3. Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng)
THE BASICS: Asian ginseng (i.e., Chinese or Korean ginseng) is a perennial plant that grows in Eastern Asia.
HOW IT’S USED: In traditional Chinese medicine, Upton explains, Asian ginseng is used for “qi deficiency,” which roughly translates to tiredness or overall depletion. He typically reserves its use for older adults who don’t eat a proper diet or are overly stressed. Auth says it can help you optimize on multiple levels because it’s not only an adaptogen but also a nootropic (cognitive enhancer), an aphrodisiac, and a revered beauty herb.
WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: The majority of the research on ginseng has focused on psychomotor performance—movement, coordination, strength, speed. Adams points to clinical research showing that ginseng may have benefits for physical activity: One study found that a ginseng extract improved physical performance in a twelve-week exercise trial of sedentary people. Another study showed that a ginseng extract decreased muscle damage and blood cortisol levels after intense exercise. Not as well studied but promising is ginseng’s potential to promote a healthy immune response and regulate glucose metabolism; so far this has been demonstrated in a few small studies.
4. Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea)
THE BASICS: This herb is from the daisy family and grows throughout the US, Canada, and Europe.
HOW IT’S USED: Upton and Auth say that echinacea is overused today for the treatment of colds. They recommend combining echinacea with other herbs that are more immune-supportive over time, such as astragalus. Typically, echinacea is consumed as a capsule or a tea, but Upton recommends topical echinacea for soothing gum infections.
WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: The results of studies on the immune effects of echinacea have been mixed. A 2014 systematic review was inconclusive. Adams told us about the latest research, a large clinical trial in 2016that found echinacea was able to prevent and decrease the symptoms of the common cold. “Echinacea,” he explains, “contains alkamides and other compounds that stimulate the immune system.” Alkamides produce a tingling feeling in the mouth, which is a sign you’re consuming high-quality echinacea. Look for preparations that contain Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea angustifolia, which have the highest concentrations of alkamides.
5. Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)
THE BASICS: A daisylike flower that has been consumed for centuries as a tea.
HOW IT’S USED: People who like chamomile tend to say it’s calming. Upton recommends it as a mild tea, which he calls a digestive tonic. In her practice, Auth uses it to help soothe the nervous system and help people fall asleep. She finds it to be safe for babies and pregnant women and suggests making chamomile-tea ice cubes for teething children to suck on.
WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: Several clinical trials have shown that chamomile can decrease anxiety symptoms and help with sleep quality. It also has topical benefits. Adams points to evidence among migraine patients showing that rubbing chamomile oil on the temples and forehead reduced migraine pain and severity. “Chamomile contains chamazulene, which may be responsible for pain and anxiety relief,” says Adams. Chamazulene may work by reducing nitric oxide release and inflammation that might be contributing to migraine headaches.
6. Valerian Root (Valeriana officinalis)
THE BASICS: Known as “nature’s Valium,” valerian is a pink flowering plant that’s native to Europe and Asia.
HOW IT’S USED: Valerian tea doesn’t taste great, so Auth says to take it in tablet form or blend it with other relaxing herbs. She calls valerian a “hero herb.” In her practice, she uses valerian similarly to chamomile, to help her clients calm their nerves and fall asleep faster. Upton says that while it’s heavily relied upon as a sedative, valerian is often used inappropriately. People can have myriad reactions to it, like hyperactivity and rapid heartbeat, and may also feel a bit of a hangover the next day. Because of this, Upton favors other herbs that he finds to be more supportive of long-term relaxation, rather than any magic bullet sedative.
WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: The research definitely backs up valerian root’s sedative effects. A 2006 meta-analysis found that valerian root improved sleep quality in patients suffering from insomnia. Adams says that valerian may have specific benefits for women: It was found to decrease the frequency and severity of menopausal hot flashes among women who took a 530 milligram capsule twice a day for two months. In another study, a higher dose, of three 255 milligram capsules a day, was found to decrease pain during menstruation.
7. Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum)
THE BASICS: A well-known aromatic spice from the inner bark of Cinnamomum trees.
HOW IT’S USED: It’s a delicious addition to your banana bread recipe but also good for much more than that, says Auth. Cinnamon is an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory that can be added to your food and also taken in a capsule. Upton calls it his “go-to botanical for sugar regulation,” and he usually uses it in combination with other botanicals that are more supportive of overall glucose and cardiovascular health.
WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: Several clinical trials have confirmed the blood-sugar-regulating effects of cinnamon and shown that cinnamon may have benefits for people with type 2 diabetes, such as reducing cholesterol and blood sugar levels. But Adams believes that there is stronger evidence behind the use of cactus (various Opuntia species) as an herbal medicine for people with type 2 diabetes.
8. Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
THE BASICS: This dark-purple berry comes from elder trees and makes for a delicious syrup.
HOW IT’S USED: Upton likes elderberry for flu prevention and as a first-line flu treatment. “It’s safe for children but ideally is used for the elderly as a general cold preventative,” he says. Auth prefers astragalus and reishi for immune support because she feels more research is needed to support elderberry’s use.
WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: While there may not be a ton of robust research (yet, at least) on elderberry, Adams took us through a 2016 study that found that Australians who took elderberry before flying overseas had decreased cold severity and shorter colds. He explains that the flowers contain anthocyanins (a type of flavonoid that gives food its color), which have been shown to prevent the cold and flu virus from infecting cells in test tubes.
9. Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum)
THE BASICS: Also known as tulsi, this herb is considered sacred in India and is celebrated for its adaptogenic effects.
HOW IT’S USED: Auth considers holy basil—“the yoga of herbs”—safe and effective for stress and sleep. She likes to steep holy basil into a refreshing tea. Upton says it can help calm the nerves and is ideally taken as a daily anti-stress tonic.
WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: There have been a number of preclinical studies on holy basil for anxiety and stress relief and just a handful of clinical trials, which show promising results. Adams calls out a 2017 study at RMIT University in Melbourne showing that a leaf extract of holy basil increased cognitive ability in healthy people. It may also help modulate the immune system, as one clinical trial showed that holy basil increased white blood cell counts, specifically T helper cells and natural killer T cells.
10. Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
THE BASICS: A member of the mint family, lemon balm is native to Europe and Asia and makes a delicious tea.
HOW IT’S USED: Upton believes lemon balm is underused given how effective it is, in his experience, for helping reduce anxiety. He also uses it as part of a cardiovascular-health protocol and topically as part of a treatment for herpes. Lemon balm is one of Auth’s favorite herbs because it’s easy to grow and can be added to anything from a fresh tea to baked goods.
WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: Numerous preclinical studies support the antianxiety effects of lemon balm; however, there have been only a limited number of clinical trials, so more robust research is needed to determine the effects of lemon balm on anxiety in humans. In one study, a supplement containing lemon balm was shown to help insomniacs improve their sleep and decrease their anxiety and depression. Clinical trials also support its use for cardiovascular health, says Adams, highlighting two studies, one on type 2 diabeticsand one on patients with coronary heart disease.
11. Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)
THE BASICS: Known as golden root, this flower grows in Arctic regions of Europe, Asia, and North America.
HOW IT’S USED: Rhodiola is both an adaptogen and a nootropic, and Auth says it can “rev up your body while keeping your emotions cool and calm and your mind focused.” You can find it in tablet form or add two teaspoons of organic rhodiola to a smoothie.
WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: “Rhodiola has been shown to have potential antidepressant activity,” says Adams. In a 2019 review of rhodiola, researchers in China noted that it may have multiple benefits: improving physical endurance, chronic fatigue syndrome, cardiovascular disease, anxiety, mental fatigue, and cognitive ability.
12. Cordyceps (Ophiocordyceps sinesis)
THE BASICS: You might not like the sound of this, but technically, it’s not a real mushroom. Cordyceps is a parasitic fungus that grows on certain caterpillars in mountainous regions of China. Most supplements these days are grown in a lab.
HOW IT’S USED: Auth recommends cordyceps as a longevity supplement for increasing energy levels. She says it may also increase sex drive and enhance men’s sexual functioning. People take it in tablet form and add powdered cordyceps to smoothies. It’s also used for purely culinary purposes: You’ll see the orange mushroomy cordyceps on top of pasta dishes, for example.
WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: There is some preliminary evidence suggesting that cordyceps can support men’s sexual health. Adams points to other interesting research—which is in its infancy—that shows cordyceps may enhance immunity by stimulating natural killer cells(a type of white blood cell). He also explains that a 2014 review found cordyceps was beneficial for patients with chronic kidney disease. The effects of cordyceps are probably due to polysaccharides, a type of carbohydrate molecule it contains, says Adams.