Herbal News from Richters

Featuring the best articles from 2003

1. Mandrake: Magic, Mystery, and Sex
2. Protecting Yourself from SARS and West Nile
3. Neem: Amazing Tree, Amazing Herb
4. Lemon Balm Helps Alzheimers Patients
5. Summer is Time for Harvesting and Drying Herbs
6. Oregano Oil for Colds and Flus
7. They Don’t Believe in Herbs, So Why Are They Selling Them?

1. Mandrake: Magic, Mystery and Sex

Ancient herb of sorcerers and witches makes a comeback as a sex booster

The Mediterranean can fairly be called a cradle of herbs because so many favourite herbs are from there; herbs such as thyme, oregano, rosemary, sage and hundreds more hail from the same sun-drenched countries that gave us Homer, Caesar and Jesus.

But the lands of olives and grapes are also home to a potent herb with a dark and secret history going back thousands of years.

Among the favourite magic herbs of sorcerers and witches was Mandragora officinarum, the European mandrake, a fascinating stemless plant with a subterranean mass of thick roots 3-4 feet deep. Often confused with American mandrake or mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) growing in cool forests from Canada to Texas, the European variety is completely different, sharing only the moniker and vaguely similar fleshy yellow-orange edible fruits. Its branched roots uncanningly resemble the human form with a head, arms and legs, adding to its mystique as a tool of magic for sorcerers and witches.

In ancient times the roots were used as an anesthetic and to treat melancholy, but their strong emetic and purgative properties make the roots quite poisonous to use. The fruits are much safer to use.

In the Jezreel Valley of Israel, a sweet alcoholic liqueur made with the fruits has been hailed a sensational new aphrodisiac that is doing wonders to increase sperm counts, cure impotence, and heighten female interest in sex. Stories abound of how mandrake has transformed the sex lives of Israelis. One young man was quoted as saying, "We just can’t stop making love. We’ve been doing it so much we can hardly stand."

A Christian Arab told a local pharmacist and merchant of mandrake liqueur, "You’d be surprised how good I am now" after complaining of impotence two months earlier. Another customer saw his sperm counts double after a few weeks of mandrake use.

Even the Bible gets into the act: in Genesis there is the passage, "And Jacob came out of the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said, Thou must come in unto me; for surely I have hired thee with my son’s mandrakes. And he lay with her that night." Shakespeare too alludes to mandrake’s sensual qualities when Cleopatra says, "Give me to drink mandragora/That I may sleep out this great gap of time my Antony is away."

To the pagans, mandrake has special powers to boost fertility, prosperity and to chase demons away. A whole mandrake root placed in the home will do the trick. And if those aren’t reasons enough for having some mandrake around, money placed next to the root is said to multiply.

[top]   (from the Spring 2003 issue)

2. Protecting Yourself from SARS and West Nile

While doctors search for cures, herbal boosts for the immune system make a lot of sense

Fears of new plagues are on everyone’s minds today. It is hard to ignore the fact that over 500 people have died from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS since January. Compared to the 1% death rate of the Spanish flu pandemic that killed 40 million people in 1918-1919, SARS is killing at a much higher rate, an alarming 5% to 20% of infected persons. Believed to be caused by a new type of coronavirus, it is spreading rapidly, now in 32 countries after first surfacing in southern China in January.

West Nile Disease is another viral disease that is spreading rapidly. Over 300 Americans have died from the West Nile virus since it first appeared in the New York City in 1999, almost all of those deaths occurring in past year. In Canada, 17 people died from the disease in 2002, and for many of the survivors, the West Nile virus causes lasting debilitating complications. Between 3% and 15% of victims die from the disease which is caused by a virus contracted from mosquitoes.

There is no cure for either disease. Antibiotics do not work against the viruses that cause these diseases. Public health authorities are trying to control the spread of both diseases by quarantining patients or spraying mosquitoes, but results are mixed. Every day there are more cases and more deaths reported.

How can you protect yourself and your family from these dangerous viruses? Apart from avoiding infection in the first place, the only rational thing you can do may be to stengthen your immune system to help fight off the diseases.

Herbs may help. There is no evidence yet that herbs fight these diseases, but there is plenty of evidence that herbs can boost the immune system. Herbs such as echinacea and astragalus (Chinese milkvetch) have long been used to fight off colds and flus and infections. Herbs are also known to fight viruses. A study published in 2002 showed that compounds in baikal scullcup are potent antivirals against the respiratory syncytial virus that causes respiratory infections in children.

At the University of Hong Kong School of Chinese Medicine, herbal formulas have been developed to prevent SARS. So far, none of the medical staff working at the school’s clinic and taking the formulas has contracted SARS. This doesn’t prove that the herbs are working, but in a city with one of the worst outbreaks of SARS, it certainly is worth noting.

For now, until we know more about SARS, consider taking immune-boosters such as echinacea and chinese milkvetch or astragalus. Richters offers seeds and plants so you can grow your own immune-boosting herbs. We also have high-potency echinacea and astragalus liquid extracts that are convenient to take. To order now, click on the links below now:

[top]   (from the Spring 2003 issue)

3. Neem: Amazing Herb, Amazing Grace

Majestic tree herb of India doubles as a graceful houseplant

The neem tree is truly one of the great gifts to man. It provides medicines, cosmetics, insecticides, and wood, and it is a beautiful shade tree that thrives in harsh climates. Neem oil made from the seeds is a very effective insecticide that many gardeners in Canada are already using even though the government hasn’t gotten around to approving it for horticultural use. In the U.S. and most other countries neem oil is approved not only for insecticidal use but also for use in anti-bacterial skin and hair lotions, tartar-fighting toothpaste, hand soaps and skin creams. In India, neem is one of the pillars of the 5000 year-old Ayurvedic medical system.

A couple of years ago we noticed that people are growing this amazing herb as a "tub plant" indoors or outdoors in the summer if for no other reason than to enjoy its graceful foliage. It was truly an "eureka" moment for us. Neem is in fact a terrific specimen plant for large pots and tubs. It is a tough customer, taking neglect and abuse in stride, providing welcome greenery whenever you need it. A bright window and a deep pot with rich, porous, well-drained soil, and occasional feeding with liquid fertilizer are about all it needs to flourish.

If you want to try your hand with seeds, neem is tricky to start from seeds because they are so short-lived, lasting a mere 30 days after harvest. But Richters has lots of beautiful young neem plants already started. And they’ll ship safely anywhere in North America. To order, click on the link below:

[top]   (from the Spring 2003 issue)

4. Lemon Balm Helps Alzheimers Patients

Researchers discover that lemon balm extract significantly improves cognition in patients

Lemon balm’s growing reputation as a medicinal herb has just taken a dramatic new turn. Long a favourite for brewing relaxing herbal teas, a new study published in Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry shows that lemon balm improves mental function and reduces agitation in patients suffering from mild to moderate Alzheimers disease.

In a randomized, placebo-controlled, trial researchers found that patients receiving an extract of lemon balm for 16 weeks scored significantly better in cognitive tests than patients who did not get the extract. Tests measured memory, orientation, judgement, problem solving, community affairs, home and hobbies, and personal care, among other cognitive functions. Agitation, a common problem for Alzheimers patients, did not occur as often in patients taking the extract, and there were no increase in side effects reported, compared to patients getting the placebo.

It is known that lemon balm affects the activity of neural receptors in central nervous system. A recent study showed that lemon balm improves cognitive performance and mood in healthy young volunteers. Lemon balm seems to do this by modulating the level of a key neural transmitter called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is what Alzheimers patients do not have enough of.

The lead investigator of the Alzheimers study, Dr S. Akhondzadeh of Tehran University Medical School, says that lemon balm "may well prove to be a novel natural treatment" for patients suffering from mild to moderate Alzheimers disease.

Lemon balm is a traditional remedy for nervous problems and "female complaints." It is useful for melancholy, insomnia, nervous tension, migraine, cramps, colic, dyspepsia, flatulence and some forms of asthma. Women use it during pregnancy and to promote the onset of menstruation.

Lemon balm also has potent antiviral properties useful for treating herpes and other diseases caused by viruses. A book devoted to lemon balm’s antiviral uses is available from Richters (see below).

At Richters, we have extolled the virtues of lemon balm for years. The tea made from the dried leaves is our favourite "anytime" tea. It both stimulates and calms: it stimulates the heart while it calms the nerves. It is a perfect antidote to the crazy, stressful lives we lead these days making us tired and irritable.

Easy-to-grow lemon balm should be in every garden. Just squeezing the fresh leaves bursting of lemon is bound to lift the spirits! A perennial, hardy to zone 5, it prefers sunny or partially sunny exposure and will grow in most garden soils, reaching upwards of two feet.

Both plants and seeds are available from Richters. It is safe to plant in outdoor gardens until the early fall. If you like to raise your own herbs from seeds, lemon balm is among the easist to grow from seeds, germinating in 10 days. Or, if you want to start taking lemon balm tea right away, Richters has high quality dried organic lemon balm leaves in stock.

Reference: Akhondzadeh et al, Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry 2003;74:863-866

Click here to order lemon balm plants, seeds or dried leaves

[top]   (from the Summer 2003 issue)

5. Summer is Time for Harvesting and Preserving Herbs

Capture the peak flavours and scents of your summer herbs

It’s the middle of the summer and your herb garden is lush with more fresh herbs than you can use. What to do? Freezing herbs or preserving them in olive oil are two good ways to preserve herbs for future use. But if you have a lot of herbs, drying is often the only practical way to preserve herbs.

Of course there is the highly photogenic – and aromatic – method of tying up your herbs into bunches and hanging them to dry. It doesn’t get any more romantic than this! But there are two drawbacks to drying by hanging.

One is your herbs will collect dust as they dry. And, two, they will litter the floor as they become brittle. Unless you live in a dirt floor homestead like the pioneers of yesteryear, having bits of basil, thyme and oregano herbs littering the floor daily is not an option.

A better tactic is to enclose the bunches in a paper bag. That keeps the dust out and the little bits of herbs in. Notice that it’s a paper bag, not a plastic bag. Paper lets the herbs breathe during the drying process and lets the moisture escape. A plastic bag would trap moisture and cause the herbs to rot.

The late Mrs. Richter, co-founder of Richters Herbs (along with her late husband Otto) developed a simple, but effective method for drying leafy herbs that produces a top quality product full of flavour and fragrance every time.

First she would strip leaves carefully from the stems. This is practical to do for all herbs except for the smallest ones such as thyme. Stripping the leaves from the stems cuts off the residual water supply stored in the stems. That means leaves will dry faster, often days sooner than when they are left on the stems.

Second, she used a sweater dryer to dry her herbs. These are cheap, easy to fold up and store when not in use, and perfectly designed for drying modest batches of herbs (see photo). Through the summer and fall months, Mrs. Richter would have two or three in constant use in her living room, rec room or wherever the herbs are protected from the sun and where there is some air movement. Sweater dryers are available from Sears, Walmart and specialty stores.

The leaves would be sprinkled over the dryer in a layer no more than two or three leaves thick; any more that that and rotting becomes a concern because moisture and heat cannot escape readily. Normal room temperature works just fine.

The beauty of this method is that most herbs will dry in days, not weeks – not enough time to collect dust, and hardly any litter fall to worry about. It is a good idea to turn the herbs once or twice while they dry to ensure that no "wet" spots develop.

When are herbs dry? If they crumble when crushed that is a pretty good sign. If instead they feel leathery then the chances are that they still have enough moisture in them to cause rotting in storage. If you are unsure your herbs are dry enough, you can finish them off in an oven set at the lowest heat setting, with the door left ajar, for no more than 5-10 minutes or until you start smelling a blast of fragrance coming from the oven. If your house smells nice of basil or thyme, Mrs. Richter used to say, then you’ve overdone it and you’ve probably caused all of the oils to volatilize into the air, leaving none to flavour the herbs.

Never, ever crush or pulverize the herbs until you are ready to use them in cooking. Always store herbs in as whole a condition as possible, and avoid handling the herbs too much. Crushing or overhandling herbs causes loss of volatile oils and loss of flavour.

If the herbs are properly dried then little can go wrong in storage. Store herbs in airtight containers, away from light (both natural and artificial) and heat. Well-dried herbs will keep their flavour for several years; but as rule of thumb, it is best to replace your herbs once a year.

[top]   (from the Summer 2003 issue)

6. Oregano Oil for Colds and Flus

Many believe it’s better than echinacea

It sounds like it belongs on a spice rack, not in the medicine cabinet, but an oil from a common culinary herb is challenging echinacea’s supremacy among herbal cold and flu remedies. Increasingly Canadians are reaching for oregano oil instead of echinacea to ward off cold and flu viruses.

At Noah’s health food store in Toronto, oregano oil is selling better than echinacea for the cold and flu season, according to Mercy Deleon who is in charge of the herbal department. Sales of oregano oil took off during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) last spring and it seems that people who tried it then are back for more to help control colds and flus this season.

In the U.S., oregano oil sales took a jump after 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent anthrax scare. Many believed that oregano oil’s ability to kill germs would protect them from anthrax. Studies have since shown that it doesn’t kill the anthrax bacterium, but it does slow its growth. The same research has shown that it kills staphylococcus, a bacterium that causes a type of pneumonia often associated with influenza. If staphylococcus gets in the blood stream it quickly becomes deadly.

Since 2000, over a dozen research reports have been published on oregano’s antibacterial properties. It has been shown to kill a variety of harmful bacteria, including Escherichia coli O157:H7, the bacterium that caused the Walkerton water disaster in May 2000 that made 600 people sick, killing 7, and left others permanantly injured.

Not only is oregano effective against bacteria, it also kills pathogenic fungi and even kills the water-borne mollusk that causes the debilitating tropical disease, schistosomiasis.

Oregano possesses a potent mixture of antimicrobial compounds. A current focus is on carvacrol, a thick oily substance that has strong antiseptic properties. But like most herbs, there are many other compounds in oregano that likely contribute to its medicinal effects.

Probably the most interesting development in recent years is an emerging picture that oregano possesses potent antioxidant properties. Antioxidants help to preserve the integrity of bodily structures, preventing the damaging effects of free radicals and other harmful chemicals. Vitamins C and E are antioxidants, and now research is showing that oregano is also.

A class of compounds called phenols are thought to be responsible for oregano’s antioxidant effects. The main phenol is rosmarinic acid, a phenol found in rosemary, sage and basil. It is especially high in rosemary, to the point that rosemary is being used as a natural food preservative in the food industry – but oregano has more. Oregano’s particular mix of phenols may be contributing to oregano’s growing popularity as a supplement for maintaining good health.

In Crete and other parts of Greece, oregano is a long-time folk remedy that is still in wide use. The intriguing thought is that oregano, like other herbs and spices, may have been added to food originally for medicinal reasons long before it become known as a culinary herb.

In the last decade, certain companies have been saying that only their brand of oregano oil is effective; we believe that this is pure marketing hype intended to justify high prices. There are many species and varieties of oregano. Research is showing that many of them have the same or similar properties. Some varieties are grown more for their looks than for their flavour and probably are not as effective medicinally. But high oil varieties such as Greek oregano and Richters special high-oil variety, Kalitera, no doubt possess the same medicinal properties that have been reported in the scientific literature.

Based in part on a Globe and Mail article by Anne McIlroy, Oct. 11, 2003.

Click here to order Richters oregano oil
Click here to read about Richters oregano plants and seeds

[top]   (from the Fall 2003 issue)

7. They Don’t Believe in Herbs, So Why Are They Selling Them?

Survey of pharmacists shows that few believe in the herbal products sold in their stores

The most important real estate in pharmacies are the shelves next to the dispensary where customers wait while their drug prescriptions are filled. Here is where customers kill time looking at products that they might not have planned to buy. But chances are, as marketing experts know well, they will pick something up during their minutes waiting and a dig a bit deeper in their pockets to pay for it.

In many pharmacies those shelves in front of the dispensary are not stocked with over-the-counter non-prescription drugs such as aspirin and acetaminophen but with natural health products, including a vast array of herbal pills and potions. In the past decade, pharmacies quietly have become the biggest distribution channel for herbal products in Canada and the United States, far exceeding the share of health food stores, the traditional source for consumers.

Despite racking up $5 billion of annual sales of natural health products in the U.S., most pharmacists do not believe in the herbal products they are selling, according to a survey of licensed pharmacists in Minnesota. Of 533 pharmacists surveyed, only 19% said that they believe natural health products are effective. What’s more, 44% of the pharmacists felt that their knowledge of herbs and other natural health products is inadequate. If Minnesota is representative of North America, millions of consumers are getting their herbal products from someone who doesn’t know enough about herbs or doesn’t believe that herbs work.

Why then do pharmacists sell herbal products if they don’t believe in them?

Probably because they make more money with herbs on the shelves instead of drugs. The value of herbal remedy sales have grown to more than 10% of prescription drug sales. According to recent Canadian industry reports, pharmacy owners and managers said that herbal remedies were one of the top three areas that they wanted to expand in their stores.

But were they also thinking of hiring someone with herbal expertise? Ninety-five percent said no. It seems that consumers don’t need or want help with herbs, or they don’t expect their pharmacist to be able to answer their questions. According to the Minnesota survey, pharmacists are asked for help on natural health products only once a day, on average.

Are consumers getting the information they need to use herbs effectively and safely when they buy at their local pharmacy? We wonder.

If you feel that you lack the information you need to use herbs wisely, here are some books available from Richters to help you sort out the truth from the chaff:

Click here to order     Click here to order

The Green Pharmacy Herbal Handbook, by Dr. James Duke. A must-have book for anyone using herbal remedies. In his trademark entertaining style, the author covers over 180 healing herbs and their uses. What is especially useful is that he rates the herbs for safety and effectiveness, and compares them to drug-based options. So often when you are faced with herbal and non-herbal choices it is difficult to decide, but this book makes that easy.

The Herbal Drugstore: The Best Natural Alternatives to Over the Counter and Prescription Medicines, by Dr. Linda White and Steven Foster. This book covers drugs and their side effects, and tells you what herbs and lifestyle styles can help you to avoid using drugs. You will find excellent advice on using herbs for over 100 ailments, including fibromyalgia, macular degeneration, obesity, depression, cold sores and much more.

References: 1) Eileen M. Welna, Ronald S. Hadsall, Jon C. Schommer. J Am Pharm Assoc 43(5):602-612, 2003; 2) 2000 Community Pharmacy Trends Report, Canadian Pharmacists Association, 2001; Trends 2002: The Pharmacy Report, Canadian Pharmacists Association, 2003.

[top]   (from the Fall 2003 issue)

The HerbzAlive newsletter is written and published by Richters staff. It is available free to customers of Richters.
Richters Herbs does not provide health care services to the public. The medicinal information provided here is for research and information purposes only. It is not meant to be used without qualified medical supervision. Herbs have powerful effects on the body and can cause serious harm or even death if used incorrectly. You should consult your health care provider before using herbs on yourself or on anyone else
©2003 Otto Richter and Sons Limited. All rights reserved.

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