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A Guide to 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.