What Are Medicinal Herbs Really Good For?

Posted on 15 Oct 2009 22:18

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Catnip and Fennel are Two Examples of Medicinal Herbs with Very Specific Uses

I recently published some very informative articles on ergogenic dietary supplements by Melvin Williams. Or at least "supposedly" ergogenic dietary supplements. Obviously, while many supplements may have health benefits, some are more ergogenic than others.

As you may recall, an ergogenic is anything that can help us do work or increase our capacity to do work. In other words improve our performance.

Out of all the links to those artices that people can click on, such as vitamins, minerals, aminos, or metabolites (like creatine) it is no surprise to me whatsoever that HERBS is the most popular.

Herbs seem to promise so much, well, promise compared to the common and mundane nutritionals. Unfortunately, most of the herbals that athletes and strength trainees turn to as "adaptogens" are pretty much worthless.

You don't think I know what I'm talking about? Well, I haven't admitted this to many in my strength and bodybuilding circuits (I have admitted to being a reformed bodybuilder) but I used to be somewhat OBSESSED with herbs. As a matter of fact I studied them so extensively that I could recite the myriad uses of plants you've probably never heard of….down to it's effect on individual organs.

That doesn't mean that those effects are real.

The reason I became so obsessed with herbs is a familiar one. I was very sick and doctors were not able to do much to alleviate my suffering. I was desperate for something…anything to help. And since I find such things interesting anyway, I tried lots and lots of herbals. I still have bookshelves filled with herbal info.

I can't say if this is lucky or not, but the "placebo" affect is not something I'm prone to. Nothing I injest in the form of a dietary supplement results in me "feeling good" or having more energy. And nothing I injested when I was sick helped me feel better in any way. The truth is, feeling better even because of a placebo effect would have been fine with me!

One of the problems with studies on dietary ergogenic aids and performance is that subjects often report "feeling better" or having more energy in the absence of any measurable physiological changes. Now, if we feel better we will have a more positive and confident outlook. And so we will perform better. And since the point of the supplement was to perform better (let's assume…there are other reasons to supplement of course) then in a way the supplement fulfilled it's purpose.

Those who derive no benefit from such supplements will have a hard time convincing others who feel great every time they pop a pill. And there are some people who actually report feeling one hundred percent better from just having taken a multi-vitamin. They even report having a surge of energy. These are people who felt fine in the first place. Herbs have even more power in this regard.

However, a psychological effect that empties your wallet, only to disappear when you run out of money, may not be the way to go for those of us who appreciate the value of a dollar. There are better and more permanent ways to change your outlook for the better. Supplements are just a "crutch" in this regard. But that is not the subject of this post…which I am getting to.

My wife was just telling about a woman she works with that she said "is a lot like you". Meaning athletic, physical and concerned about health. Turns out that the co-worker in question was more obsessed about health than concerned about it. To which I replied, "is that how you think of me?". I'm not obsessed any longer. Let's just say I've matured and realized that NO obsession is a healthy one!

So, anyway, this co-worker of my wife was walking around with a little vial or glass container of something that she was swigging from a straw. Turns out it was ginseng. I scoffed. Pointless, I said.

You see, I learned a little secret about herbs. The ones that work do VERY SPECIFIC THINGS. Sure, herbalists mix specific herbs in concoctions so that the herbs complement each other 'synergistically' and sometimes these concoctions are called "general health tonics". But I'll leave that to the herbalists.

The fact is that it's the "home remedies" for everyday symptoms that really have value. You have to realize that the herbal marketing industry would much rather focus their marketing on "cure-alls" and miracles than practical things. Such as, for instance, a common household herb that dispels gas like a champ. Do you really think you will hear a lot about things you can buy from the spice shelf of your grocery market?

Who reading this has turned to ginger ale when they are nauseous? Ginger really does help nausea. Most herbs of this sort that are great with certain symptoms have what is called a 'therapeutic window'. That is very important to keep in mind. These herbs have a curious trick of doing nothing at too small a dose, working at a therapeutic dose and then, with a dose that is too high, CAUSING the very symptom that they alleviate at the right dose. This is true with ginger as well. No, MORE really is NOT better.

By the way, gastrointestinal problems is where a great many herbals really shine.

So, basically, avoid herbs that promise to do vague things such as "improve your health" or "increase your stamina" or anything that sounds nonspecific like that. Don't expect a cure to prevent a cold or to cure the flu. Look to herbs as a palliative measure for certain common symptoms and problems.

Some of the herbs that are useful in this regard may surprise you. For instance:


That's right. You are not imagining the word catnip just popped up in an article about herbs for humans. Also known as catmint and catswort, most cat owners are familiar with the feline's fondness for this plant. With just a sniff, cats can get a little euphoric, silly, frenzied, and maybe a little paranoid, you know, like when you've smoked a bit of…nevermind.

You know what catnip does for cats, right? Makes them high, more or less. They love the stuff. And it is actually healthful for them. For cats, catnip herb is a stimulant.

The molecule in catnip responsible for the effect on cats is called nepetalactone. Cats have a receptor for this chemical right in their nose. Nepetalactone is actually a pheromone. We humans don't, of course, have any receptors for it, and it has no known effect on us, but nevertheless, ingesting catnip does seem to have an effect on humans, however mild.

It has the opposite effect on humans. It acts as calmative or mild sedative. And it's been used for that for around 2000 years. NO, I'm not saying that long-term history of use proves anything…just giving you the facts.

The fact is, however, that catnip is a pretty good relaxant, sedative…whatever you want to call it. It's also just about the safest herb there is. It's even considered safe enough for children.

I cannot repeat this enough: No herb should be considered completely safe and the key word here in the first place is CONSIDERED. Reactions are always possible and unknown effects are always possible. Plants contain powerful chemical compounds. Different individual plants may well have different levels of these compounds. This is the reason for standardized herbal formulations. When using herbs in teas never take them like water. Limit the amount of any one herb you consume as a tea.

The calming action of it works on the gastrointestinal systems as well making it good for indigestion and nausea. Its properties are similar to that of valerian, which you may have heard of. But the problem with valerian is that it seldom works right away. You need to take it regularly for up to a week at least. Catnip works immediately (in my experience).

The best way to use catnip is as a tea. It doesn't taste bad and can be mixed with other herbs. Chamomile and lemon balm are good additions. That's right I said chamomile, tough guy. Didn't you say you had a stomach ache and needed to chill? Well, there you go. You can get a new tattoo later to make up for it.

Remember what I said about it being safe enough for children? When my son was a baby suffering from terrible colic..catnip was what I relied on. Actually, it was a tea of catnip and fennel. It worked so well that he would stop crying as soon as he saw the cup and the little dropper I used to give it to him.


For general stomach discomfort, indigestion or digestive disorders, colic, nervousness, sleeplessness you can use catnip tea or the catnip, chamomile and lemon balm combo I mentioned. A more serious mixture would be catnip and valerian.

I am NOT saying that this CURES any disease. I am not saying that it treats any disease. I am also not saying that it prevents any disease. It may relieve some symptoms and I have had good experience using catnip thusly. If you have a digestive disorder catnip will not fix it for you, nor will any other herb discussed on this page.

What not to use it for

When you have food poisoning or gastroenteritis (so-called "stomach flu") and are actively vomiting you should be concentrating on replacing fluids. It is unlikely that catnip and any other calming herbs combined with it will help with severe nausea associated with these conditions. I know of no way that it will hurt you but when all you can keep down is water…drink water! This too shall pass, and if it doesn't you shouldn't be drinking catnip tea you should be seeing a doctor. So use the herb for moderate to mild nausea, indigestion or a regular old stomach ache and it may help ease the symptoms.

Safety and Interactions

Catnip is a class 2b1 herb because it may have a mild uterine stimulant action..meaning no use during pregnancy (you'll find pregnancy to be a common restriction) Although valerian is a class one2 root it should NOT be considered safe for children. Chamomile is a class 2b so is not safe for pregnancy and lemon balm, although it is a class one has not been researched enough to be considered safe for children, during pregnancy, or during lactation.


Volatile oils: Nepetalactone Camphor, Epinepelactone, caryophyllene, thymol, carvacrol.

Also: Tannin and terpine.

The volotile oil, nepetalactone is thought to be responsible for catnips sedative action.

Other names

Cataria, catmint, catnep, cat's play, catwort, field balm, nip.

Parts used

Leaves only as a tea, or tincture. The best way to buy it is in the form of dried leaves to be used as a tea.


The effects of alcohol may be enhanced if use with catnip. Same with sedatives. Take too much and headache, nausea, vomiting, and appetie loss may occur. These side effects are possible for some with sensitivity. Always remember that no matter how safe I or anyone else says an herb is there is ALWAYS a chance of interactions with other drugs and allergic reactions. Use herbs at your own risk and do not take any of this as a substitute for medical or other professional advise.


Since I mentioned fennel I may as well extol its virtues as well. Both fennel leaves and seeds have some of the same properties but the seeds have the stronger action.

You may have some fennel seeds in your cupboard right now. If not you can get them at the grocery store. As I told you above I used fennel in combination with catnip as a very effective treatment for my son's colic.

In fact, fennel was used in a popular children's carminative in Europe alongside chamomile, caraway, coriander and bitter orange peel. A carminative is something that is used to either prevent intestinal gas or help dispel it.

For strength trainees consuming a high protein diet and especially one that relies on a lot of protein powders and sometimes does not include enough of the right type of dietary fibers, gas is a common complaint. Fennel dispels gas very well. It's my standby remedy for that (yes, I know it's hard to believe but every once in a while I suffer the mundane gastrointestinal problems of a mortal man).

To make a tea you can grind the seeds in a coffee maker. A spare coffee maker is very useful in the kitchen for grinding seeds. That way you can buy your cumin, coriander, fennel, etc. in whole seed form and grind it when you are using it. It will last much longer this way. If you can avoid it never buy pre-ground spices. The oils are exposed to the environment and so oxidation occurs much quicker (that means they go bad). You can get a decent coffee grinder for ten to twelve bucks.

But enough of the culinary advise. As I was saying, you can grind your fennel seeds in a coffee grinder then steep the ground seeds in hot water to make a tea. You can mix that with chamomile, etc. You can double up with some coriander, which is an herb that is rarely used outside of food (today in our country) but is very useful in this regard.

Fennel tea is very good for gas and indigestion but most of the other "benefits of fennel that you will find on the web are not substantiated in any way and drinking fennel tea chronically like it is some kind of miracle health tonic is not a good idea. It is a class one herb but it has not been studied enough to be considered safe for long-term use.

Safety and Interactions

Fennel affects the absorption, distribution, and elimination of Ciprofloxacin. Separate the dosing of the two by at least two hours. Although I gave fennel to my son as an infant it is generally considered not for infants and small children or for during pregnancy and lactation. As mentioned above this is simply because enough research has not been done to know for sure.

In any case, I would not consider fennel something to be used long-term AT ALL. It is not a health tonic. Use it now and again for when you need it, if it works for you.

Hypersensitivity reactions are possible including contact dermititis and the old standby's, nausea, vomiting, anorexia. Severe reactions such as seizure or pulmonary edema are also possible. If you experience any of these types of reactions to any herbs (contact dermititis can be an early warning) go to the emergency room where they may administer antihistamine. NO herb should be considered one hundred percent safe just because it is an herb and is 'natural' and whatever else unqulified idiots are always saying about them.

Other Names

Aneth fenouil, bitter fennel, carosella, fenchel, fenouil, fenouille, finnochio, Florence fennel, funcho, garden fennel, hinojo.


Volatile Oils: Anethole (phytoestrogen), dianethole, photoanethole, fenchone, estragole, limonene, camphene and Alpha-pinene.

Fixed Oils: Oleic acid, linoleic acid, petroselinic acid.

Flavanoid: Kaempferol

Give these remedies a try if you're into it. I'll be blogging about a bunch of others as time goes by. I only have so much time to devote to any one thing but I'll do my best to keep the remedies coming.

This page created 15 Oct 2009 22:18
Last updated 19 Mar 2018 03:06

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