Many people who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia turn to pharmaceutical pain-killers and anti-inflammatories for relief only to find that they must then deal with a range of side effects. Herbs, however alleviate many symptoms those drugs treat while avoiding the unpleasant side effects that often tag along with pharmaceuticals. In fact, proponents claim herbs even gradually heal the nervous system.
Although herbs do not provide the same kind of relief as powerful narcotics such as morphine, they do offer a safer approach for dealing with pain. Some herbs may even be more effective than prescription drugs. For instance, kava has been found to stop muscle spasms up to 10 times better than anticonvulsant drugs without dulling the mind. Turmeric, Chinese skullcap, African devil’s claw and South American pau d’arco can all reduce inflammation without unpleasant side effects. Herbs such as turmeric, ginger and meadowsweet have all been found to reduce muscle, arthritic and headache pain by inhibiting the prostaglandins that cause pain.
In the book Herbs for Chronic Fatigue, the use of a traditional Ayurvedic blend of turmeric, ashwaganda, boswella, and zinc was noted to give arthritics substantial pain relief within three months during one study. The author also notes that “boswella enhances the supply of blood and fluids to joints, helps restore their function, improves blood vessel integrity and circulation, and shrinks inflamed tissue.”
Kathi Keville, author of Herbs for Chronic Fatigue, believes that herbs enhance the entire immune system, teaching it how to operate better. She also believes that echinacea, ginseng, shiitake mushroom, garlic, and Chinese astragalus and ligustrum boost the immune system, as well as help control the production and activity of T-cells and natural killer cells. There is even some evidence that shiitake mushrooms, for example, fight several viral infections more effectively than the prescription drug amantadine hydrochloride (trade name Symmetrel) – an antiviral agent originally used against certain strains of the flu.
When it comes to fatigue, Keville believes CFS sufferers may find that ginseng increases energy levels and improve strength. Ginseng has been used for centuries by other cultures to improve. It may also increase the rate of respiration, the amount of oxygen inhaled, muscle strength and endurance, and cardiovascular health. In addition, studies have found that ginseng stimulates ATP (our muscle’s energy stores) better than 150 other herbs.
Researchers at the UIC College of Pharmacy and College of Nursing also reviewed the most commonly used herbal stimulants and sedatives, and recommend a course of action to the medical and research communities.
Experimental evidence also supports the efficacy of the herbal sedatives valerian and kava, which have received the most research attention. Both herbs in small studies decreased sleep onset time and promoted deeper sleep. The researchers note that German chamomile, lavender, hops, lemon balm, and passion flower are reputed to be mild sedatives but need much more experimental examination.
As more people look to herbal remedies to support the natural healing processes of the body, many will undoubtedly find themselves confused about which herbs to take and when and how to take them. Many others are worried about side effects. So just where does one go for advice?
Before taking any herbs, study their use. Read the labels in the same way that you would read labels in the pharmacy. Most importantly, inform your health care professional of which herbs you are taking. Do not try and self diagnose or self treat serious medical conditions.
“Health-care providers have largely ignored this phenomenon in the past, but it is now becoming necessary for providers to educate themselves and their patients in the wise and unwise use of these agents,” said Charlotte Gyllenhaal, UIC College of Pharmacy research assistant professor.