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Herbal supplements seem to overflow the health aisles at your local grocery store. Because of this, it can be difficult to know which ones will benefit you most and which ones are just a waste of time for your health needs.
Not to mention that, often, the supps on the store shelves are not as tightly regulated as prescription medicines.
Although herbal supplements are required to follow good manufacturing practices and quality standards, they don’t require approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before placing their products on the market (1). Therefore, it can be hard to know if certain ones are safe.
But don’t let this disclaimer stop you from trying out some of these herbal products.
How to Choose an Herbal Supplement
There are certainly reputable brands out there that carry some very useful supplements for optimal health. You can use the information on websites such as U.S. News and World Report to help you verify herbal supplement brands you can trust (2).
Look for herbal brands that are NSF-certified to ensure that what is stated to be in the bottle is what’s really in the bottle (3). This certification also ensures that the product contains no undeclared ingredients or unacceptable levels of contaminants.
Now that you know a bit about how to choose a reputable brand, let’s look at ten of the most useful herbal supplements.
Most Beneficial Herbal Supplements
The ones in this list have evidence-based research to show that they are effective in promoting health. This way you can make sure you choose the ones that will be of most value for not just your money, but for your optimal health.
The echinacea plant, or coneflower, is a native North American plant whose roots and above-ground parts have been used in their fresh and dried form as a traditional medicine for many years (4).
This plant-based supplement can be found in the form of teas, expressed juice, extracts, capsules, and preparations.
Health benefits of Echinacea
Echinacea is most commonly known for its use in helping relieve symptoms of the common cold (5). Research shows that prophylactic treatment with this extract (2400 mg/day) over 4 months appeared to be beneficial for preventing or treating the common cold (6).
However, this herbal supplement is showing promise as a helpful treatment for many other aspects of health as well. It is thought that some of these health benefits may originate from the soil and organic matter in which it is grown (7). It’s in this cultivation that may alter the bacterial community in the plant and provide or enhance its benefits.
The coneflower content of certain types of animal feed was found to hold antioxidant properties that can reduce oxidative stress (8). Also, a shampoo containing Echinacea purpurea was found to reduce dryness and itching of the scalp after four weeks of use in adults suffering from such symptoms (9).
Research shows that benefits like this originate from the plant’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties as well as its role as an immune system stimulant (10,11). These properties may come from the phenolic compounds chicoric and caftaric acids, which can be extracted from the coneflower flowers and purple leaves, respectively (12).
Other benefits include respiratory health benefits as well as wound healing (13). One example of wound healing is in oral ulcers. One study showed that Echinacea tablets taken over six months helped reduce the intensity of pain as well as complete improvement and recurrence rate of common oral ulcers (14).
Another example of this is shown in a study of atopic eczema in which treatment of the condition with Echinacea extract helped restore the epidermal lipid barrier, reduce inflammation, and lessened overall symptoms of the skin condition (15).
How to take echinacea
Short-term oral use of Echinacea is considered probably safe in most healthy adults, but long-term effects are uncertain (4). The risk of interactions of echinacea with other medications is low, and the most common side effects are nausea or stomach pain.
Although, it is possible to be allergic to this herbal supplement. Therefore, if you develop a rash after taking the supplement, it is best to discontinue use. Otherwise, feel free to add it to your daily routine to start reaping all of Echinacea’s benefits.
Known for its pungent taste in many dishes, garlic is a delicious delicacy. But it’s good to know that this edible bulb plant also holds many health benefits (16). Also known by its Latin name Allium sativum, garlic is a plant in the lily family known for its heart health benefits as well as promoting healthy digestion and respiration (17).
Garlic can be consumed in its fresh form or dried as part of a supplement, with aged garlic extract (AGE) being a popular dietary supplement form of garlic.
Health benefits of garlic
Aged garlic extract in particular shows promise for not only lowering blood pressure, but also improving arterial stiffness, inflammation, and gut microbial profile (19).
Furthermore, studies also show that AGE may have anticancer properties that could help healthy individuals reduce their risk of certain cancers (20).
Another form of garlic, black garlic, has also shown promising health benefits. A study of patients with heart disease found that black garlic can improve their quality of life and left-ventricular ejection fraction, among other factors (21). It does this by increasing the antioxidant levels.
These antioxidant properties of garlic can improve inflammation in the body, which can reduce the risk of chronic disease. In fact, one study shows that garlic supplementation can lower levels of the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein in the body (22). These results were seen in studies where individuals consumed about 1200 milligrams or more a day of garlic and had a CRP level of 2 milligrams/liter or more.
By reducing inflammation in the body, research has found many related benefits of garlic. One study shows that daily AGE consumption over four months can reduce gingival inflammation bleeding, and in turn improve oral health (23).
Also, in a study of overweight and obese women with knee osteoarthritis, 12 weeks of garlic supplementation might reduce pain severity (24).
How to take garlic
Garlic is likely safe for most people in the amounts that may be normally eaten in food (16). However, there are some side effects such as bad breath, body odor, heartburn, and upset stomach.
You should also be careful not to consume garlic if you take a blood thinner since it could increase the risk of bleeding. And if you take certain medications, such as HIV medicines, it could reduce their effectiveness. Outside of these cautionary statements, garlic can provide a plethora of health benefits for most people.
This edible underground stem can be found in fresh or dried root form or in tablets, capsules, liquid extracts, and teas (25). It is well-known for relieving digestive ailments such as nausea and vomiting.
Research shows that it’s a safe and effective remedy to help those with post-operative nausea and vomiting, nausea in pregnant women, and nausea in those undergoing chemotherapy (26). A 2018 study confirms that ginger is a safe remedy for nausea and vomiting for pregnant women (27).
However, the nausea-relieving properties of this plant-based supplement are just the beginning of the health benefits ginger can provide.
Health benefits of ginger
First, research shows that ginger has anti-cancer properties that likely stem from the active compounds in ginger known as 6-gingerol and 6-shogaol (28). This anticancer activity is thought to stem from ginger’s ability to control cell growth regulatory proteins.
Other studies show that the active components of ginger, in the form of an extract or isolated compounds, exhibit antiproliferative, antitumor, and anti-inflammatory properties (29).
In regard to those anti-inflammatory properties, research shows that it may be due to more than just the active components 6-gingerol and 6-shogaol. In fact, these anti-inflammatory properties could also be due to the combined effects of both metabolites as well as the gingerols and ginger’s aromatic essential oils (30). Ginger’s ability to reduce inflammation may be linked to its ability to improve metabolic health markers.
Research also shows that oral administration of ginger powder supplements can improve markers of diabetes (31). Such markers include fasting blood sugar, hemoglobin A1C, apolipoprotein B, and apolipoprotein A-1, to name a few.
Furthermore, a 2018 study shows that ginger shows promise to support obesity management by increasing fat breakdown, suppressing fat formation, inhibition of intestinal fat absorption, and controlling appetite (32).
How to take ginger
Although ginger may produce side effects like abdominal discomfort, diarrhea, heartburn, and gas, it’s generally safe to consume for most people (25).
Those who take blood thinners should avoid ginger consumption since it can interact with such medications.
Also, those that have gallstone disease should not take ginger since it can increase the flow of bile.
And although research shows no harm in pregnant women when taking ginger, those women should still let their healthcare provider know before they start taking this supplement.
As one of the oldest living tree species in the world, ginkgo has been used in Chinese medicine for many years (33). Ginkgo can be taken as a supplement in the form of tablets, capsules, extracts, and teas.
Health benefits of ginkgo
It’s the extract from ginkgo leaves that is often used as an ailment for many different conditions like cognitive, vision, and heart health issues.
Regarding cognitive health, research shows that ginkgo biloba extract (GBE) can help those with mild cognitive impairment and dementia (34). Study results show that there is clear evidence that MBEs, combined with medication treatment, can help improve cognition, neuropsychiatric symptoms, and daily activities. Although, there is not enough evidence to show that ginkgo could prevent cognitive function issues.
However, research shows that a 240-milligram dose of GBE is safe and effective in the treatment of dementia (35). Also, studies show that GBEs have the most potentially beneficial effects at doses greater than 200 milligrams a day for at least five months (36).
Furthermore, a 2018 study shows that a certain form of GBE may lessen certain neurosensory symptoms in those with dementia. Study results show that EGb 761® may help reduce such symptoms as tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and dizziness in those with dementia (37).
In addition to such cognitive conditions, ginkgo may also help those with vascular cognitive impairment (VCI). A 2017 study shows that Ginkgo biloba may help slow down cognitive deterioration in those with VCI, but more studies need to be done to confirm this finding (38).
Finally, GBEs could help improve aerobic performance in physically active males. A 2017 study looked at the impact of Ginkgo biloba leaf extract on cognitive and physiological performance. Study results show that six weeks of GBE supplementation provided physically active young men marginal improvements in endurance performance markers like VO2 max and blood antioxidant capacity (39).
Also, the extract helped somewhat support better neuroprotection through increased production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) induced by exercise. This protein is responsible for promoting the survival of nerve cells, which helps protect brain health.
How to take ginkgo
Ginkgo is considered generally safe when taken by mouth in moderate amounts (33). Some side effects of ginkgo may include headache, upset stomach, or allergic skin reactions.
Since ginkgo may interact with some medications like blood thinners, it’s important to let your doctor know before starting this supplement.
It’s also important to note that you should never consume raw or roasted ginkgo seeds as they are considered poisonous and can produce serious side effects.
Also known as Silybum marianum, this flowering plant is the most commonly used herbal supplement for liver health issues (40). The main component of milk thistle seeds is called silymarin.
Milk thistle supplements can be found in capsules, powders, and extracts (40).
Health benefits of milk thistle
Milk thistle potentially holds antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. In an animal study, milk thistle supplementation was able to induce anti-inflammatory effects on cholestasis-induced hepatic injury (42).
Cholestasis occurs when the bile flow from the liver slows or stops, which causes uncomfortable itching. It can lead to liver cell death, cirrhosis, and liver failure.
Milk thistle could potentially reduce such symptoms by reducing oxidative stress markers.
Other research shows that Silybum may also have health benefits for those with metabolic diseases like diabetes as well as those with cancer.
One study shows that milk thistle supplementation helped control diabetes complications such as diabetic neuropathy and nephropathy as well as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (43).
Another study shows that milk thistle has the potential to lower lipid levels in the body, as well as exhibit antihypertensive, anti-obesity, and anti-diabetic properties (44).
Finally, research is in progress to see if milk thistle could help those with cancer relieve their chemotherapy side effects (45).
How to take milk thistle
Milk thistle supplements seem to be well-tolerated in most people in recommended doses (40). The only side effects that may occur occasionally include some gastrointestinal issues, low blood sugar in those with diabetes, and allergic reactions in those allergic to plants in the same family, such as ragweed, mums, marigold, and daisies.
Also, this herbal supplement may interact with lipid-lowering medicines, oral contraceptives, HIV and Hepatitis C drugs, as well as cancer chemotherapies (41). Therefore, if you fall into any of these groups, please be cautious in taking this supplement.
Otherwise, milk thistle could be a great addition to your supplement routine to enhance liver and metabolic health.
Panax ginseng, also known as Asian ginseng, has been used for thousands of years as a medicinal supplement (46). It has a reputation for helping restore energy and improve the overall well-being of the body and mind. The benefits of Panax ginseng are thought to stem from the chemical components in the plant known as ginsenosides.
Health benefits of ginseng
Research shows that the root of ginseng can help normalize body functions and strengthen the bodies of those that are affected by stress (47). For example, the main roles of Korean Red Ginseng are known to include immune-boosting, antioxidant, and memory enhancement.
Many in vitro studies show that the ginsenosides in ginseng can help reduce inflammation (48). Also, animal studies show that ginseng could help provide protective effects in those with colitis, alcohol-induced hepatitis, and impaired memory diseases.
These anti-inflammatory effects have also been seen in animal models of skin conditions like atopic dermatitis and respiratory conditions like asthma.
Furthermore, research shows that ginseng has a versatile role in improving mind and body health. One study shows that ginseng can be a promising treatment for fatigue (49).
Meanwhile, another study shows that ginseng can help lower lipid levels, improve blood circulation, and reduce oxidative stress that can lead to heart disease (50).
And although animal studies have been the primary source of data so far, ginseng also shows the potential to be an anti-obesity supplement in humans (51). To assist in such anti-obesity effects, a 2018 study shows that a two-week supplementation with high-dose Korean ginseng helped healthy and active individuals significantly improve perceived exercise-exertion, muscular pain/soreness, and neuromuscular fatigue (52).
Finally, research shows that ginseng could be a mind-body herbal supplement due to its promising positive impact on those with mental health conditions like anxiety and depression (53). Although further studies need to be done in regard to this potential health benefit of ginseng in this regard.
How to take ginseng
Short-term use of Panax ginseng in recommended amounts is thought to be safe for most people (46). Some side effects of the supplement may include headaches, digestive problems, and sleep issues.
It’s recommended, however, that children, pregnant women, and women who are breastfeeding should not take ginseng for safety reasons. Also, those who take blood thinners, as well as those with diabetes and or high blood pressure should take caution when consuming ginseng.
If your doctor gives you the ok, then you may benefit from adding ginseng to your daily healthy lifestyle regimen.
Also known as arctic root or Rhodiola Rosea, this herbal supplement is known for its ability to help manage many stress-related conditions like depression, anxiety, and headaches, as well as fatigue and anemia (54). This supplement is found in its root extract form in capsule or tablet form.
Health Benefits of Rhodiola
Research shows that Rhodiola Rosea extract (REE) may play an effective role in stress management. Study results show that is effective in treating stress symptoms as well as in preventing chronic stress and stress-related complications (55).
It does this by boosting energy metabolism and influencing the release of stress hormones. Another study on stress shows that treatment with Rhodiola Rosea helped improve burnout symptoms over 12 weeks of treatment (56).
Those with mental health conditions could also benefit from Rhodiola Rosea supplementation. A 2018 study shows that six weeks of Rhodiola supplementation combined with saffron may help manage mild to moderate depression as well as improve depressive and manage anxiety symptoms (57).
And if you experience fatigue, from stress or other reasons, then Rhodiola may help. A 2017 study shows that 2 X 200 milligrams daily dose of a dry extract of Rhodiola Rosea, called WS® 1375, may be effective in those suffering from prolonged or chronic fatigue (58).
How to Take Rhodiola
There is not much safety information available for this herbal supplement, but it could cause side effects like dizziness and dry mouth (54). It will be important to check for NSF certification of any Rhodiola products used and be sure to talk with your healthcare provider before starting this herbal supplement to assess for potential safety issues.
This fruit from a small palm tree native to the southeastern United States is best known for its health benefits when it comes to men’s health (59). The herbal supplement of saw palmetto, or Serenoa repens, is an extract of its fruit that is consumed as dried, ground, as whole berries, as a liquid extract, as a tea, or in tablets or capsules.
Health Benefits of Saw Palmetto
The saw palmetto fruit has been used by American Indians for food and as an ailment for urinary and reproductive issues for many years (60). The berries have also been used as an antiseptic and expectorant.
However, many of the studies have focused on urinary health benefits.
For example, one study found that 320 milligrams of saw palmetto daily for eight weeks helped improve symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) and sexual dysfunction (61). BPH is another name for prostate enlargement and it can lead to sexual dysfunction and symptoms like reduced kidney function, weak urine stream, and/or bladder stones.
A 2015 study found that 160 milligrams of saw palmetto a day for six weeks improved quality of life and international Prostate Symptoms Scores (IPSS) (62). Meanwhile, after 12 weeks of treatment, there was also a significant improvement in urinary flow rate and postvoid residual urine.
Also, there may be promise for this herbal supplement’s use in the treatment of polycystic ovary syndrome in women.
How to take Saw Palmetto
Saw palmetto is tolerated by most people with only mild side effects like digestive symptoms or headaches (59). Little is known about the safety of this herbal supplement in women and children since most studies focused on men, so these individuals should talk to a doctor before taking this supplement.
However, it is good to know that as of yet there have been no medication interactions with saw palmetto.
St. John’s Wort
Also known as Hypericum perforatum, this flowering plant has been used for thousands of years for ailments like insomnia, wound healing, and kidney and lung health issues (63). However, one primary use of St. John’s wort is to treat depression.
Health Benefits of St. John’s Wort
Research shows that St. John’s wort (SJW) is effective as compared to placebo in improving symptoms in those with mild to moderate depression (64).
Other studies have confirmed such findings and have suggested that SJW may provide similar results for those with mild to moderate depression as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) typically prescribed for such patients (65,66). This supplement was viewed as safer than SSRIs in this treatment modality (65).
However, it is unclear if such results would be seen in those with more severe forms of depression.
Recent studies also show that SJW may show promise for treating other conditions too. A 2018 study shows that SJW in small 250 milligrams doses daily could have a positive effect on short-term memory capacity (67).
Another 2018 study shows that SJW, in the form of an ointment, could help reduce pain in those recovering from an episiotomy (68).
How to Take St. John’s Wort
St. John’s wort has been found to interact with a variety of medications like antidepressants, birth control pills, and blood thinners, to name a few (63). Therefore, you must talk with your pharmacist or doctor before adding this supplement to your regimen.
And if you have depression, it is very important to talk to your doctor before making any changes to your medication regimen.
Last, but certainly not least is turmeric, the golden spice whose active ingredient curcumin displays many health benefits (69).
Curcumin is well-known for its use as an anti-inflammatory in many conditions like arthritis, digestive conditions, and respiratory health issues, among other things.
Of the total mass of turmeric, curcumin only makes up about 5-percent of turmeric, but has potent medicinal power (70).
Health Benefits of Curcumin
Research shows that the health benefits of curcumin stem from its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties (71).
These properties can make it an effective supplemental treatment for metabolic syndrome, arthritis, anxiety, and heart health related conditions like hyperlipidemia.
For example, a meta-analysis review of studies shows that about 1000 milligrams of curcumin daily can be an effective secondary treatment option for those with arthritis (72).
This is just a short list of the health potential of this herbal supplement. And to make it even more useful, curcumin is considered nontoxic and with few side effects (73).
How to Take Curcumin
Curcumin is considered generally safe when taken by mouth or applied to the skin (69).
However, large doses or long-term use may lead to gastrointestinal problems. But in moderation, curcumin, derived from the spice turmeric, can provide an all-around healthy addition to your daily routine.
Other Herbal Supplements to Consider
Besides the herbal supplements listed, there are others that may complement your healthy lifestyle.
Herbal supplements can be a great addition to any healthy lifestyle regimen. But just like with any health product, it’s important to do your research and make sure that the product is safe and the right fit for your health goals.
The aforementioned herbal supplements are considered generally safe for most healthy people.
Unless otherwise stated safe, it’s best for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding to avoid taking any dietary supplements not prescribed by a physician.
Since some herbal supplements may interact with some medications, it is best to check with a qualified healthcare provider before starting any new supplement regimen. Once you take these precautions, you can safely choose the herbal supplement that will best meet your dietary and overall health needs.
No matter what herbal supplement you choose to take, be sure to make it part of a holistic healthy lifestyle. To reap the most health benefits from your herbal supplement regimen, you should consume a healthy, balanced diet and engage in healthy lifestyle behaviors like regular exercise.
Other healthy lifestyle behaviors that should be a part of your healthy lifestyle include receiving adequate sleep, managing stress, and limiting consumption of or avoiding substances like alcohol and drugs, and not smoking any substance.
Herbal supplements, when consumed safely and as part of a healthy lifestyle can help your body be at its healthiest and feel its best.
They can help reduce inflammation in the body, promote improved mental and heart health, and lessen symptoms of digestive conditions, among other benefits.
May you find the herbal supplement that works best for you and helps you to meet your optimal health needs!
Keep Reading: 11 Natural Supplements for Women’s Health
ⓘ Any specific supplement products & brands featured on this website are not necessarily endorsed by Staci.
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About the Author
Staci Gulbin, MS, MEd, RD is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, health editor, and founder of LighttrackNutrition.com. Through her writing, she hopes to provide others with an unbiased and evidence-based view of health and wellness topics so they can make educated decisions when building their healthy lifestyle. Email Staci.