A Guide to Botanicals for Seniors

By: Liz Ward
Botanicals may be used to help treat everything from allergies to cancer. See more pictures of healthy aging.
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Herbs are hot right now. From astragalus to yohimbe, we're bombarded with information about the herb of the moment, promising health, beauty, and youth. But can they really make a difference? Are they helpful or could they be harmful? Sometimes it's hard to separate the hype from the hope.

In this article we will give you the lowdown on some of the most popular herbs and a few other widely used botanicals, sometimes called traditional medicines or phytomedicines, to help you make an informed decision.


On the next page, find out about the different types of immunological botanicals for seniors.

Immunological Botanicals for Seniors

There are many immunological botanicals and herbs for seniors on the market today, but knowing which ones are safe and effective is the key to reaping the numerous benefits these powerful, natural substances have to offer. Below you will find information about which herbs can help bolster your immune system and which herbs should be avoided at all costs.

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)


Used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese and East Indian medicine, this member of the legume family is purported to stimulate immune function. Laboratory studies suggest that natural compounds, including flavonoids, found in the herb stimulate the production of several cells critical to optimal immune function and offset the drop in immunity that accompanies cancer and cancer treatments.

Astragalus has been found to improve the function of T lymphocytes in cancer patients, stimulate the production of interferon, and reduce the duration of the common cold. Overdosing may, however, actually depress immune function. Many Chinese medical practitioners and animal researchers use Astragalus along with other herbs in chemotherapy and radiation therapy regimens to help reduce side effects, promote immune function, and increase survival time.

But none of this has been proved beyond a doubt in humans. You'll find Astragalus in capsules or tinctures, either alone or in combination with other herbs. Though it hasn't been scientifically tested, the typical dose used in Chinese medicine is four grams a day. (These supplements have not been studied for age-related dosages.)

Cayenne (Capsicum annuum)

This fiery hot pepper does more than spice up food. Used as medicine by South and Central American Indians 9,000 years ago, this hot pepper supplement is being rediscovered for its ability to relieve pain. Used topically, it has been found effective in relieving pain caused by shingles, phantom pain (from amputation and mastectomy), diabetic neuropathy, arthritis, and cluster headaches.

Capsaicin, the substance that gives cayenne its bite, works against pain by depleting levels of a compound in the body that regulates transmission of pain signals to the brain. The Food and Drug Administration has approved the sale of a cream containing 0.75 percent capsaicin, though some contain less. But, as with most herbal treatments, don't expect immediate relief. It may take four or five applications a day for four weeks or more before you notice a difference.

Don't apply cayenne or capsaicin cream to broken or irritated skin, and be sure to wash your hands well after each use. And don't touch your eyes after you use it or you'll really feel the burn. According to the American Botanical Council, 30 to 120 milligrams of cayenne in capsule form can be used to treat high blood pressure.

Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea)

This popular herb has become synonymous with cold prevention. Most of the research with echinacea has been done in Europe and suggests that it can indeed help fight a cold -- if taken at the first hint of sniffles. In Germany, it's an officially approved treatment for colds, the flu, and other upper respiratory infections, and the Commission E recommends a dose of 8 to 9 milliliters of echinacea juice a day.

But despite the fact that it is probably the most studied immune-boosting herb, not all the research on echinacea has backed its effectiveness as a cold-fighter. Echinacea contains antioxidant phytochemicals that some researchers say can protect the skin from the damaging rays of the sun when used as a skin ointment.

It's generally not recommended to take echinacea on a regular basis to prevent disease, and the herb seems to have little or no effect on the immune response in healthy people. Its effectiveness appears to be limited to people whose immune systems are working at suboptimal levels. For instance, if you have a respiratory infection but are otherwise healthy, you might benefit from taking echinacea.

Though it hasn't been proved, some experts worry that if you take echinacea any longer than a few weeks, it could actually have the opposite effect and damage the immune system's disease-fighting powers. That's why it may not be wise to take echinacea if you have an automimmune disorder such as lupus or multiple sclerosis.

However, those with a normal immune system can safely use echinacea for up to 12 weeks. No serious side effects have been reported. An alcohol extract of echinacea, used topically, may also help mend hard-to-heal cuts and wounds

Ginseng (Asian:Panax Ginseng C.A. Meyer); (American:Panax quinquefolius)

These two true ginsengs should not be confused with Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), which is believed to have its own health benefits. It comes from a related, but different, plant. It is often sold as an inexpensive alternative to true ginseng. This ancient herbal is one of the most popular and most expensive herbs in the world.

While studies with animals and in the laboratory suggest that it can benefit the immune system, research in humans is limited, and the findings have been inconsistent. It's difficult to pinpoint ginseng's positive effects because it is not considered a remedy for a specific condition; rather, it's classified as a tonic to build resistance to disease or as an adaptogen, a term used by herbalists for a botanical that helps your body adapt to stress, both physical and mental -- something that's hard to measure in a scientific way.

Ginseng has been widely used in Japan, China, and Korea to treat fatigue, as a tonic to build up resistance to disease, and for recovery following an illness. It's also claimed to be an aphrodisiac, but this hasn't been proved. Research from Korea suggests that, if taken long-term, ginseng may protect against cancer of the ovaries, larynx, esophagus, pancreas, and stomach.

If you decide to take it, be aware that you're spending a lot of money -- it can cost $20 or more an ounce -- on something with no clinically proven benefits. And at least one study found that as much as 85 percent of ginseng products on the market actually contain no detectable ginseng. If you want to steer clear of alcohol, you should know that some ginseng products contain up to 34 percent alcohol, a fact you won't see advertised on most labels.

Most of the alcohol-containing varieties come in small, individual vials containing only about one-third ounce each. Though reactions to ginseng are rare, they can include insomnia, diarrhea, and skin irritations. Ginseng can also act as a mild stimulant, and you should probably avoid it if you take any medication that has a stimulant effect or if you have cardiovascular disease.

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)

This widely popular herb is on the brink of extinction. Though it's promoted, most often along with echinacea, for the relief of colds and flu, herbal experts say using the dwindling supply of goldenseal for that purpose is wasteful, since there's little evidence that it works. However, goldenseal may have the ability to help fight bacterial infections.

Its infection-fighting phytochemicals have been identified as berberine and hydrastine, which are effective against bugs such as E. coli, Candida, Giardia, Shigella, and Staphylococcus that invade the intestinal tract. It has a history of use as a treatment for canker sores when used three or four times a day as a mouthwash made from tea.

You can find it as a dried root, a tincture, or a liquid extract. However, herbal experts have little proof of goldenseal's effectiveness for any of these conditions.

Tea (Camellia sinensis)

The most widely consumed beverage in the world next to water, green and black tea ("real" tea, which is different from herbal teas) have been linked to good health for nearly 5,000 years. Now research has caught up with tradition. Several studies indicate that tea drinkers may have a health advantage.

Researchers believe that tea's disease-preventing prowess comes from two types of flavonoid phytochemicals -- catechins and flavonols. Though green tea (unoxidized), the favorite of Asian tea drinkers, gets most of the attention, black tea (oxidized), the American favorite, contains the same amount of phytochemicals; not all of them are the same as those found in green tea, however. (About 20 percent of tea produced worldwide is green, 2 percent is oolong [partially oxidized], and the rest is black.)

Tea's phytochemicals, some of which are also found in fruits and vegetables, have an amazing ability to prevent free-radical damage to cells. Population studies suggest that this ability may translate into a lower risk of skin, stomach, pancreatic, and esophageal cancer and possibly a lower risk of coronary heart disease and stroke for regular tea drinkers.

Animal studies have found clear evidence that consumption of either black or green tea triggers cell death in malignant tumors. And new research suggests that tea may not only be important in cancer prevention, it may help in cancer therapy, too. In fact, some experts believe that tea is one of the few agents that can inhibit cancer formation and development at every stage. You get the same health benefits, whether you drink caffeinated or decaffeinated tea.

If you're not a tea lover, there are several supplements on the market that provide as much of these phytochemicals as several cups of tea. But before you reach for tea in a pill, bear in mind that there could be other health-promoting compounds that haven't even been identified yet, and you might not be getting them when you take the extract form. You would probably be better off just upping your intake of fruits and vegetables as a way to get more of these healthful phytochemicals.

In the next section read about everything from German Chamomile to Saw Palmetto and other herbs to treat gastrointestinal problems.


Gastrointestinal Botanicals for Seniors

Whether you are suffering from heartburn or just a simple upset stomach, the following herbs may give you the relief you seek.

German Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla or Matricaria recutita)

German Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla or Matricaria recutita)


Just the name brings to mind soothing images. Chamomile tea has long been used to promote relaxation, to aid sleep, and to settle an upset stomach. In Germany, chamomile is considered a cure-all and is used to treat mild skin irritation and intestinal cramps and to soothe frazzled nerves.

In Europe it is added to mouthwashes to treat mouth and throat irritations, to inhalants to treat respiratory infections, and to ointments to treat hemorrhoids and skin conditions. In Germany alone there are more than 90 licensed preparations of chamomile. German chamomile contains several compounds that are known to soothe the digestive tract and help fight minor infections, but there are few human studies that have carefully evaluated its effectiveness.

However, German chamomile has been well-studied in animals and has been proved effective. And it has a good safety record, especially considering its widespread use. Chamomile is currently being studied for its antioxidant properties, and it contains the phytochemical coumarin, which is believed to have antispasmodic and antiseptic properties.

It is most often used as a freshly prepared tea, drunk three to four times a day to relieve gastrointestinal upset. However, if you're allergic to ragweed, you could have an allergic reaction to chamomile as well, so be cautious. Herbal experts warn that because chamomile is not cheap, many foreign manufacturers of chamomile oil have, in the past, resorted to adding synthetic, blue-colored compounds to make the valuable herb go farther.

Flax (Linum usitatissimum)

This blue-flowered plant produces dark, flat seeds that are slightly larger than sesame seeds. Flax was grown as a crop as far back as 3,000 b.c., and in 650 b.c. Hippocrates used flaxseed for the relief of intestinal discomfort. It was considered so important for the health of his subjects that in the eighth century, King Charlemagne passed laws and regulations governing its consumption.

Flaxseeds are rich in protein, dietary fiber, and healthy omega-3 fats. In fact, flaxseed oil is one of the richest known sources of the omega-3 fat alpha-linolenic acid, an essential fatty acid that makes up 55 percent of the oil flaxseed contains. Alpha-linolenic acid provides flax with its anti-inflammatory effect and its ability to boost the immune system, and it may play a role in the treatment of autoimmune diseases.

Omega-3s are believed to help fight arthritis, heart disease, and possibly stroke. Flaxseeds are also rich in soluble fiber (the kind that lowers cholesterol), and they help regulate blood sugar and promote regularity. Flax is also one of the best sources of lignans, a naturally occurring plant compound that has hormonelike effects in the body.

Both the omega-3 fats and the lignans in flaxseed may help prevent or reduce the risk of some kinds of cancer, such as cancer of the breast, prostate, colon, and uterus. To get the full benefit of flaxseeds, grind them in a coffee grinder before adding them to bread or to pancake or muffin batters.

Flax oil -- which contains the omega-3s but not the lignans, which are processed out -- can be taken as a supplement or used in salads, but it is not suited for use in sauteing or frying. Keep both whole flaxseeds and flax oil refrigerated for no more than one year, since their high polyunsaturated fat content makes them vulnerable to rancidity. You can also find a few varieties of breads and cereals that contain flaxseed.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

The uses of this herb have expanded beyond the kitchen spice rack to the medicine cabinet. It has a long tradition as a digestive aid, perhaps because it increases the secretion of digestive juices in the stomach, and its use has been documented in ancient Greek, Roman, and Arabic medical literature. Now there is considerable evidence for ginger's effectiveness as an antinausea treatment.

In fact, ginger has been found to be even more effective for the treatment of nausea from motion sickness than dimenhydrinate, the most commonly used over-the-counter medication for the condition. Ginger has even been tested at sea and found to work well against sea sickness. In addition to motion sickness, it may also be helpful in treating nausea due to other causes.

For instance, ginger has been found effective in reducing the nausea many people experience following surgery. And because ginger acts locally on the digestive system, it has advantages over dimenhydrinate, which acts on the central nervous system to suppress nausea. However, ginger use may not be recommended for people undergoing chemotherapy if their platelet counts have dropped too low.

That's because ginger also has blood-thinning properties, and the two combined could, theoretically, increase the risk for internal bleeding. On its own, ginger appears to be quite safe and has no serious side effects. The usual dose is 150 milligrams (mg) to 1 gram of powdered root in capsule form several times a day.

Another tastier way to get ginger is through candied or crystallized ginger, usually available at gourmet or Asian markets. A one-inch square is equivalent to about one 500-mg capsule. You can also make ginger infusions, or tea, from grated or sliced ginger root; it is difficult, however, to know exactly what dose of ginger you are getting.

Milk Thistle (Silybum mariamum)

Milk Thistle (Silybum mariamum)

In animal studies, silymarin -- the active ingredient in milk thistle -- protects liver cells against a variety of liver toxins, including drugs, viruses, and radiation. In fact, in Europe an extract prepared from milk thistle fruit is used to fight liver disease caused by alcoholism, toxic chemicals, and poisonous mushrooms.

Silymarin also acts as an antioxidant, scavenging free radicals, blocking toxin entry into cells, inhibiting inflammation, and stimulating liver regeneration. The German Commission E endorses the use of milk thistle as a supportive treatment for chronic inflammatory liver conditions and cirrhosis.

No adverse effects have been reported. However, if you have diabetes, talk with your doctor about carefully monitoring your blood glucose while you're taking it. The typical dose is a 140-milligram capsule, standardized to 70 percent silymarin, two to three times a day.

Psyllium (Plantago psyllium)

Known for its soluble-fiber content, it's actually the dried husk of psyllium seeds (also known as plantago seeds) that you'll find in products that contain psyllium. Psyllium-based supplements may be your best bet for a supplemental source of soluble fiber.

Not only is psyllium proven to lower blood cholesterol, it also serves as an effective laxative and is readily available as an over-the-counter drug. Psyllium is also found in some breakfast cereals. The Food and Drug Administration recently approved the use of a health claim on psyllium-containing cereals, stating that "The soluble fiber from psyllium seed husk in this product, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease."

Each product must contain at least 1.7 grams of soluble fiber from psyllium per serving. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids when you eat psyllium cereals, or it could possibly cause a gastrointestinal blockage.

Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens)

The fruit of the saw palmetto plant could spell relief for many men suffering from benign prostatic hyperplasia, or BPH, a slow, progressive enlargement of the prostate gland. It was actually a commonly used drug in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century, but faded out of sight after World War II.

Most clinical trials clearly show the ability of saw palmetto extract to improve the signs and symptoms of BPH. In fact, in Europe it is considered the first line of treatment for the condition. It has even been compared with a prescription drug commonly used to treat BPH and was found to be just as effective, but with fewer side effects.

Saw palmetto acts as an anti-inflammatory as well as an anti-androgenic therapy -- it inhibits the action of male hormones such as testosterone. It does not, however, reduce the size of the prostate or improve sexual function. The usual dose is 160 milligrams twice a day of an extract standardized to contain 85 to 95 percent fatty acids and sterols.

Because the active ingredients are fat soluble, a tea prepared from the herb has little therapeutic value. Several clinical trials using saw palmetto in combination with other herbs, such as nettle root and pumpkin seed extract, were also positive. Saw palmetto causes few side effects.

The German Commission E lists stomach upset as the only side effect. It offers an alternative for the treatment of mild to moderate BPH when conventional treatments are not an option.

Continue to the next, and final page of this article to learn about several mental botanicals for seniors, along with pros and cons for each.


Mental Botanicals for Seniors

Lately, many people have turned to herbal medicines as an alternative to prescription drugs like Zoloft and Prozac. Read on to learn about about botanicals that can affect your mood.

Kava Kava (Piper methysticum)

An herb so nice, they named it twice. At least that's what some people say. This herb, which has origins in the islands of the South Pacific, has long been thought to have a beneficial effect on health. The Hawaiians used it to soothe nerves, aid sleep, counteract fatigue, and treat asthma and rheumatism, as well as for weight loss.


European research shows it can reduce anxiety without drowsiness and enhance the quality of sleep without side effects. One German study found that after only one week of treatment with a standardized kava extract, patients experienced a significant reduction in anxiety symptoms compared to those getting a placebo, or dummy pill. Phytochemicals called kavalactones have been identified as the ingredient most likely to produce these effects.

In Germany, kava is sold as an over-the-counter remedy for anxiety and stress. It is also promoted as a pain reliever, but there is little research to back up that claim. You'll find it in health food stores in tablet or capsule form, as a tincture, or as a dried herb. Whichever you choose, look for a product that is standardized to 70 percent kavalactone content.

A typical dose is 100 milligrams, three times a day. Don't take kava if you're also taking drugs such as alcohol, barbiturates, or benzodiazepines, all of which affect the central nervous system, or if you have been diagnosed with depression, schizophrenia, or Parkinson disease, as kava can exacerbate the problem.

St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum)

St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum)

This herb has been used as a nerve tonic since Greek and Roman times. Today it is often referred to as "nature's Prozac" and is widely used as an antidepressant in Europe. In fact, in Germany, St. John's Wort is the most commonly used antidepressant. Several studies, which included almost 1,800 people, found St. John's Wort to be much more effective than a placebo, or dummy pill, in treating mild to moderate depression.

The herb was also found to be just as effective as some commonly prescribed antidepressant medications. St. John's Wort appears to be effective in treating depression in 50 to 80 percent of those who take it. Experts aren't sure exactly how it works, but doses of 300 milligrams of an extract standardized to 0.3 percent hypericin, the active ingredient, taken three times a day, appear to be effective.

Though hypericin is thought to be the active ingredient, even that hasn't been firmly established. There are other constituents, such as hyperforin, that may be just as important. If you do take St. John's Wort, stick to the 0.3 percent standardized dose, since that has been studied the most. But most experts caution about self-prescribing for depression.

If you suffer from depression, it's best to seek the advice of a qualified health professional and discuss St. John's Wort as a part of your treatment. Some research also suggests that St. John's Wort may be effective against infections and acts as an anti-inflammatory. Research is also being done on its potential to fight viruses, such as HIV. The herb appears to be safe, though a few people have reported fatigue, itching, and weight gain as side effects.

And, in large doses, St. John's Wort can cause sensitivity to the sun. Because of its antidepressant effects, it should not be combined with narcotics, amphetamines, over-the-counter cold and flu medications, or alcohol. And, just so you're forewarned, St. John's Wort has an awful aroma; it's been compared to the smell of sweaty socks

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

Probably the most effective of the herbs classified as anti-anxiety and sleep aids, valerian has been used for more than 1,000 years. German officials have approved valerian for use as a mild sedative and sleep aid, based on the positive results of several European clinical trials.

Two well-controlled studies found that 400 to 450 milligrams before bedtime can significantly improve sleep quality and length of sleep and shorten the length of time it takes to fall asleep, with no hungover feeling in the morning. It is also effective for anxiety as a tea prepared from 1 teaspoon of the dried herb and drunk several times a day.

Valerian appears to be quite safe even in large doses, but it should not be taken with other sedatives, before driving, or in any situation in which your full concentration is needed. It appears to be quite safe, but it can cause mild stomach upset in some people. Like St. John's Wort, it has a less-than-agreeable odor.

Yohimbe (Pausinystalia yohimbe)

Touted as the herbal Viagra, yohimbe comes from the bark of the West African tree of the same name. It has been used in Europe for most of this century to stimulate sexual appetite and enhance sexual performance. Yohimbe contains several compounds that may increase blood flow to the genitals, and as a result, it may help men achieve an erection.

These compounds may also affect the central nervous system directly. Research suggests that yohimbe is helpful for erectile dysfunction in about one-third of men who use it. In fact, its active compounds are sold as prescription drugs in the United States for the treatment of erectile dysfunction. While yohimbe herbal preparations are readily available over the counter, they may not be purified for safety and standardized for effectiveness.

Unfortunately, because of several potential side effects, the herb is not recommended for those who would most likely want to try it -- older men and those with cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and prostate conditions.

Additional caveats include not mixing it with antidepressants or foods that contain tyramine, a compound that could clash with the active compounds in yohimbe. Among the most common tyramine-containing foods are aged cheeses, red wine, and liver. Unless you're in excellent health, yohimbe may not be the safest choice.

Yohimbe has been known to cause changes in blood pressure, rapid heart rate, tremors, anxiety and panic attacks, nausea, and vomiting. Better to check with your doctor about getting the prescription drug form of the active compounds in yohimbe and have your doctor follow up for any side effects.

To learn more about senior health, check out the helpful links on the next page.


Elizabeth Ward, M.S., R.D., is a nutrition consultant and writer. She is the author or coauthor of five books, including Super Nutrition After 50 and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Feeding Your Baby and Toddler. Ward is the nutrition editor of Muscle & Fitness Hers, a contributing editor for Environmental Nutrition, and a contributing writer for WebMD.com.

Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., F.A.C.N., C.N.S. is a professor of nutrition science and policy and is the director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory in the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. In addition to publishing more than 180 research articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals, he has served on the Surgeon General's Workshop on Health Promotion and Aging, the Sports Medicine Committee of the U.S. Olympic Committee, the Board of the American Aging Association, the WHO/FAO Consultation on Preparation and Use of Food-Based Dietary Guidelines, the Food Advisory Committee of the FDA, and the WHO Expert Consultation on the Development of Nutrition Guidelines for the Elderly. He serves on the editorial board of several scientific journals, including the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, the Journal of Nutrition for the Elderly, the Journal of Medicinal Food, and Antioxidants & Redox Signaling.


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