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Medicinal plants are a gift of nature. Plant organs or their derivatives have a healing power.

The power of medicinal plants

Many plants in the plant world have medicinal properties recognized by the scientific community. These elements of nature, the main tools of the herbalist, are a guarantee of success for your health .

Pleasures Health shares here the profile of 13 popular medicinal plants and four medicinal mushrooms. These health tips  will inform you about the functions of each plant and warnings to note at the time of their consumption. Namely that some plants can also have toxic effects on the body, depending on the dosage used and other factors. You will find a topic-oriented chapter near the end of the article. 


Also known as Echinacea angustifolia, E. pallida and E. purpurea, echinacea, which is a poultice on cuts and burns, can hasten healing. 

These three plants of North America were the most used among the Plains Indians. Today, it is used worldwide to resist colds and flu by stimulating the body’s natural defenses such as interferon and T and NK lymphocytes. As echinacea polysaccharides (carbohydrate molecules) help the tissues to rebuild, it speeds up the healing of wounds. 

◆ Discoveries. German research has revealed that these plants have anti-infectious properties. For example, 108 people with upper respiratory tract infections took either placebo or 4 ml of fresh juice extracted from E. purpurea leaves twice daily for eight weeks as a preventative measure. Those treated with echinacea experienced twice as many days without infection as the others and the symptoms of the infected persons were less severe and less persistent. 

Echinacea is especially effective against colds and flu, as proven by three placebo-controlled studies. In one of these, 199 volunteers who are known as tuberculosis or an autoimmune disorder, or if you take immunosuppressants, were asked. Echinacea has little effect on people with allergies whose immune systems work at full capacity most of the time. 

Herbal therapists and doctors use these medicinal herbs to stimulate the immune response said they were very vulnerable to colds to absorb, at the first sign of a cold and not knowing what they were taking, a daily dose of 240 mg of E extract . purpurea in two tablets for eight days, a placebo. According to doctors, echinacea acted in 68% of cases; placebo, in 40%. 

Echinacea would have other virtues. According to the journal Immunopharmacology , by measuring the cellular function of NK lymphocytes, extracts of E.purpurea have been shown tostimulate the immune response of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome and AIDS. But the safety of these extracts for AIDS patients is still under study. 

Dosage. Take 1 or 2 tbsp. of standardized extract of E. purpurea three times a day at the first sign of disease for eight to ten days. As a general immunostimulant, herbal therapists recommend following a cycle: take 300 mg daily for ten days, skip a week and repeat. Taken without periodic interruption, it is believed that Echinacea would be less effective.

Security. Do not take echinacea if you have a systemic disease such as tuberculosis or an autoimmune disorder, or if you are taking immunosuppressants. Echinacea has little effect on people with allergies whose immune systems work at full capacity most of the time. 

Astragalus root

Trench and dried, the root of astragalus helps fight the infection. It is served with other plants in medicinal soup. Long term prescribed in traditional Asian medicine to people prone to infections, astragalus enhances the effects of interferon, the body’s natural anti-virus. It is also believed to increase T cell activity. 

◆ Discoveries. The best evidence for its immunostimulatory effects comes from the University of Texas Medical Center in Houston. As a result of tube testing, polysaccharides (a sort of carbohydrate) of astragalus were found to restore the cancer cells’ immune cells.

◆ Dosage. Brew 3 tbsp. astragalus dried and frayed in 3 cups water or broth for 30 minutes; drink one cup, three times a day. Supplements: Follow the recommendations on the label. 

◆ Security. Astragalus is not recommended for people with autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis. It can hinder the action of immunosuppressive drugs. 


Berberis, also known as Berberis vulgaris (common berberis), and  B. aquifolium, also called Mahonia aquifolium (Holly leaf mahonia). Historically, Berberis (Thornweed and related species) has been used to treat skin disorders and cleanse the blood of toxins. It contains berberine, an antimicrobial that fights bacteria, yeasts, fungi and protozoa, especially those that cause cholera. 

◆ Discoveries. According to research, berberine would slow abnormal cell growth and reduce inflammation. When 443 people with psoriasis used a holly mahonia ointment for 12 weeks, the condition of 74% of them improved.

◆ Dosage. Inflammation or urinary, gastrointestinal, respiratory or pharyngeal infection: Infuse 10 minutes 2 to 4 g of dried root in 1 cup of water; drink it every day for five to seven days. Skin Disorders: Apply a cream or ointment three times daily to 10%. 100 of Berberis extract. 

◆ Security. Pregnant women: do not take orally; the plant can trigger contractions. 


Borage is also known as  Borago officinalis. According to recent research, borage seeds are a source of gamma linolenic acid (GLA), a  fatty acid that produces prostaglandin E1, a natural chemical element against inflammation. AGL delays tumor growth by inhibiting the growth of blood vessels. 

◆ Discoveries. A small UK study of women with breast cancer showed that a cocktail of GLA (also present in evening primrose oil) combined with an anticancer drug, tamoxifen, accelerated the effect of the medication. High doses of GLA can help treat rheumatoid arthritis, especially when combined with conventional therapy. 

◆ Dosage. Borage seed oil is sold in capsules. Respect the dosage. 

◆ Security. We only use the seeds; the leaves contain alkaloids that can damage the liver. 


Elderberry is also known as  Sambucus nigra. Edible, they are used to make jam and wine. Sare antioxidants give it its antiviral properties. In people with colds or flu, elderberry soothes sore throats and promotes fever – a sign of immune response. 

◆ Discoveries. In the test tube, a standardized extract of elderberry inhibited influenza viruses. When researchers gave 27 people with flu either an elderberry extract or a placebo, 93% of the first group took the best after two days compared to only 25% of those who took a placebo. 

◆ Dosage. Follow the dosage if you take it in syrup. Or brew 2 tbsp. dried flowers in 250 ml of water for 10 minutes; drink it several times a day. Dipped in hot water, the flowers are a cure for acne.

◆ Security. Leaf or elderberry products are for external use only. 


Ginseng is also known as  Panax ginseng. Ginseng is known to help the body adapt to all stresses. He also has the power to help him recover from the disease, increase his physical and mental energy and combat fatigue. Its main active ingredients, ginsenosides, would be able to move from a stimulating effect to a calming effect, according to the needs of the moment. A related species, American ginseng ( P. quinquefolius ) has a similar chemical structure, but has been the subject of less research.

◆ Discoveries. In 1996, a double-blind study (researchers and subjects did not know who was taking ginseng and placebo) on 501 volunteers, revealed a significant increase in quality of life (from negative factors affecting depression, self-esteem , energy, libido and sleep) in those who took 40 mg of ginseng extract and a multivitamin each day, compared to those who took only one multivitamin. At the University Hospital in Copenhagen, Denmark, animal experiments have revealed that ginseng induces white blood cells to better fight bacterial infections while reducing cell damage. According to other data, ginseng would act against cancer, especially that of the stomach. 

◆ Dosage. As a tonic, steep 1 tbsp. finely chopped root in 1 cup hot water 10 to 15 minutes. Or take twice daily capsules of 100 to 200 mg standardized extract containing 4 to 7% ginsenosides. Make cures for three months, with two weeks off.

◆ Security. Commission E, Germany, an authority on medicinal plants, reports no ill effects. 


Hydrastis, also known as Hydrastis canadensis, has a  long history of fighting colds and flu. The roots of hydrastis (a plant native to North America), widely sold in Canada, are used against colds, urinary tract infections, gum inflammation and wounds. 

◆ Discoveries. Hydrastis fights microbes, but the extent of its effects in internal medication is not clear. It is granted the virtue of curing warts of viral origin. In external application, it relieves hemorrhoids. 

◆ Dosage. Cold or flu: at the very beginning, 250 to 500 mg three times a day or 10 to 15 drops of tincture three or four times a day for five days. Warts: brush them with dye.

◆ Security. Avoid if you have heart disease or high blood pressure. 

The lemon balm

Melissa officinale is also known as  Melissa officinalis. Since ancient Rome, lemon balm – with its delicate lemon scent – is popular against insomnia, colds and circulatory disorders. Its chemical compounds have been shown to paralyze viruses, reduce inflammation and reduce gastrointestinal problems. 

◆ Discoveries. Research has found that melissa’s active compounds inhibit herpes simplex virus 1, or herpes labialis, and herpes simplex 2, or genital herpes. Studies have shown that topical application of lemon balm accelerates the healing of herpes lesions and prolongs periods of remission. 

◆ Dosage. Insomnia: pour 250 ml of warm water over 1 to 3 tbsp. melissa leaves. Brew for 10 minutes, pass and drink a cup three times a day. Herpes lesions: Apply a 70 to 1 (70: 1) standardized concentration of melissa cream four times a day until scarring. 

◆ Security. Lemon balm can cause intense fatigue, especially if it is associated with a sedative. Do not take it orally if you have thyroid problems. 


Liquorice is also known as  Glycyrrhiza glabra. Glycyrrhizin, an active ingredient in licorice, increases interferon levels, inhibits some viruses, reduces inflammation and acts as a cough suppressant.

◆ Discoveries. Glycyrrhizin would inhibit the formation of “giant cells,” sign in HIV-positive people that the infection turns into active AIDS. She can also stop the flu; mice injected with lethal doses of the influenza virus survived with glycyrrhizin. 

◆ Dosage. Simmer 2 tbsp. 1 teaspoon powdered root in 250 ml water, pass; take it three times a day. Use licorice root; liquorice candies sold in Canada often have no active ingredients.

◆ Security. In case of kidney or liver disease or hypertension, do not use licorice. 

The milk thistle

Milk thistle is also known as  Silybum marianum. The seeds of milk thistle have been used for centuries as a liver tonic. Their main active ingredient, silymarin, is said to successfully fight the effects of alcohol, heavy metals, drugs, solvents, pesticides and other toxins by stabilizing the outer membrane of liver cells. . In Europe, emergency physicians give a derivative of milk thistle to people who have accidentally eaten phalloid amanita, a deadly fungus. 

Milk thistle enhances liver function, reducing the risk of many diseases. 

◆ Discoveries. Clinical trials show that silymarin stimulates the immune response. It also protects the liver from the dangerous byproducts of detoxification by helping liver cells regenerate after being attacked. 

◆ Dosage. Protective dose for healthy persons: 200 mg per day of standardized extract containing 70 to 80% silymarin. 

◆ Security. Milk thistle can sometimes have a slightly laxative effect. 

St. John’s Wort

Le Millepertuis commun est aussi connu sous le nom de Hypericum perforatum. Utilisé comme plante médicinale depuis des millénaires, le millepertuis est aujourd’hui prescrit en Allemagne comme antidépresseur 20 fois plus souvent que le Prozac. Comme il a des effets antimicrobiens, les médecins conseillent d’en appliquer topiquement sur les plaies et meurtrissures superficielles. Ses vertus antiseptiques sont attribuées à deux de ses composantes : l’hypéricine et la pseudo-hypéricine. 

◆ Discoveries. Thanks to its well-known antidepressant properties in Canada, St. John’s wort is becoming more and more popular with doctors as an anti-depressant. The research is less conclusive about its antimicrobial effects; According to one report, first-, second-, and third-degree burns with St. John’s wort healed three times faster than similar burns treated conventionally – and left fewer scars. 

◆ Dosage. Three times a day, take 300 mg of a standardized extract containing 0.3% hypericin or 5% hyperforin.

◆ Security. St. John’s wort can interact with several drugs. Consult a doctor if necessary. It can also cause photosensitivity in people with fair skin; watch out for the sun and protect your eyes when you take it. 

The Yarrow

Yarrow, also known as Achillea millefolium, has  flowers and leaves that contain more than 100 biologically active compounds. Yarrow is traditionally used to stop bleeding and promote healing, but also to relieve colds and sore throats. 

◆ Discoveries. Two potent anti-inflammatory 
agents have been identified in yarrow and another chemical, achillin, which stops bleeding in animals. Finally, Japanese researchers isolated three antitumor substances; after animal testing, these substances could lead to new drugs for leukemia.

◆ Dosage. Infusion: brew 1 to 2 tbsp. dried yarrow in 250 ml of boiling water for 10 minutes; drink up to three cups a day. The infusion can be applied to cuts, scrapes, bruises, abrasions and rashes. 

◆ Security. Do not put on large wounds, deep or infected: extensive use can make the skin sensitive to the sun. People with allergies to ragweed can be allergic to yarrow. 

The Cat’s Claw

Cat’s Claw, also known as  Uncaria tomentosa and U. guianensis, is an inflammatory drug that may be useful for people with arthritis. 

According to Peruvian Indians, a hungry hunter met about 2,000 years ago with a jaguar that had scratched a climbing plant and drank the water before killing prey. The hunter decided to drink this water. The next day he woke up full of new strength and also killed a prey. 

Since then, the Indians have sought in this plant to revive their strength and vitality, cure inflammations and infections and cure the disease. These properties of the plant were not known until the late 1960s when a European teacher, Arturo Brell, and an American professor, Eugene Whitworth, studied samples of the cat’s claw and found several active components . But others have commercialized their discovery. Today, the plant is used as an immunostimulant. Despite its name, there are no cat’s claws in this product! 

◆ Discoveries. According to studies by Albany Medical College in New York on animals, the cat’s claw would prevent stomach problems associated with certain anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, that can open the way to infections. The same researchers exposed human cells to peroxynitrite, an oxidant that kills cells; those already exposed to the cat’s claw were not affected. 

◆ Dosage. Boil 2 tbsp. bark in one liter of water for 10 minutes; let infuse 5 minutes, pass and drink during the day. Or take a capsule of 20 to 60 mg of extract standardized to 4% alkaloids a day. 

◆ Security. Nothing to report. 

Herbalist preparations

The leaves and roots of medicinal plants can be presented in salads or vegetables; but when one seeks their curative effects, they are generally used in other forms. In addition to tablets and capsules, here are the usual preparations. 

Infusion: cover the leaves, flowers or stems, fresh or dried, with boiling water, a single plant or a mixture of plants and let them infuse for a maximum of 10 minutes in a covered pot. It is generally 30 g dried plants per liter of water. Decoction: put the plant in cold water, bring it to a boil and simmer for 10 to 20 minutes. The decoction is more concentrated than the infusion. 

To have a dye, soak the fresh or dried plants for several weeks to extract and concentrate the active ingredients. Soaking is usually done in alcohol (such as vodka) because it protects the active substances, but non-alcoholic dyes can be obtained with vinegar or glycerine. At equal volume, tinctures being more concentrated than infusions or decoctions, the doses are smaller. 

Medicinal plants often have bad taste, especially for children. To mask their flavor, tinctures, infusions and decoctions are sometimes mixed with fruit extracts, molasses, cane sugar or honey. (Warning: Never give honey to children under two years old: there is a risk of botulism.) Syrups relieve coughs and sore throats because they line the irritated mucous membranes. 

Ointment does not penetrate the tissues like a cream, but it protects them and brings the active ingredients of the plants to the painful or swollen areas. In a bain-marie, melt 60 g of beeswax, petroleum jelly or vegetable lanolin. When this base is liquid, add a few fresh, finely chopped herbs, an essential oil or a tincture. (You can put up to 60 g of fresh plants or 80 to 120 drops of oil or stain.) Simmer 20 minutes, pass, pour into a glass jar and let firm. 

After plants… medicinal mushrooms

Renowned in Asia as immunostimulants for centuries, some mushrooms are in the sights of researchers. Their strengths are known in theory, but preliminary studies suggest that some of them would have real medicinal benefits. 

CORDYCEPS (Cordyceps sinensis)
Extracted cordyceps appears to kill leukemia cells in the test tube. According to other research, cordyceps stimulates the immune cells of dialysis patients. Why does this mushroom and others have such antimicrobial properties? To survive in a dark and humid environment, they need chemical weapons to protect themselves against viruses and bacteria. 

MAITAKE (Grifola frondosa)
Japanese clinicians have been using maitake for a long time to boost immune function and fight certain cancers. Studies have looked at an antitumor component, fraction-D – also called grifolane, a polysaccharide beta-glucan or chain of sugar molecules. According to researchers, it would stabilize blood glucose levels, which would prevent or mitigate the effects of diabetes, hypertension and hypercholesterolemia included. 

REICHI (Ganoderma lucidum) According to laboratory studies and clinical studies, reichi contains a large number of complex phytochemical elements with anti-allergy, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial and antioxidant effects. Cancer patients say they suffer less and eat better after taking it. In addition, a protein isolated from the reich – Ling Zhi-8 – appears to reduce organ rejection, a possible indication of a direct action on the immune system. He would be so euphoric. 

CORIOLUS (Coriolus versicolor)
Research indicates that PSK, extracted from this fungus, contains natural anticancer substances. According to Japanese studies, it stimulates immunity in diseased mice. In one trial, half of the patients undergoing radiotherapy for lung, colon and breast cancers took PSK, the other half taking a placebo. Survival was 20% higher in the PSK group at approximately 3 g of extract per day, divided into five doses. 

The sometimes toxic effects of plants

Medicinal plants are a gift of nature. Plant organs or their derivatives have a healing power. But beware: they can also be toxic. 

The same ingredient can have the good effects expected of it, but also, under certain conditions, unsuspected effects that are not mentioned in the sensational reports that are published on the healing powers of a medicinal plant. It is not easy to distinguish between science and fiction because hyperbole still reigns in the media. It is unclear whether most of the research was done in specimens or animals, not humans. You have to look closely to see if the potential benefits apply to you. 

To enlighten your mind, this chapter offers easy-to-understand information about medicinal plants that have immunostimulatory power. Time has shown that they are usually safe – if you follow the instructions on the label and keep in mind the tips below. 

Get a diagnosis. Never use plants to treat symptoms without being certain of what causes them. Consult the doctor first if you have a chronic illness, or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Consult a pediatrician before giving it to a child, especially if they are under five years old. 

Be careful. Find out about the training of the herbal therapist you are looking at and the experience of your problems. Do not be fooled by anyone who wants to interrupt your medication or refuses to contact your doctor. 

Follow the label to the letter. The concentration varies from one manufacturer to another. Follow the dosage on the label, even if it differs from what you read elsewhere. 

Beware of doublets. Do not take herbs and remedies that have the same effect, for example, against depression: St. John’s Wort and Prozac. 

Consult the pharmacist. Some plants interact with drugs, especially with anticoagulants, sedatives and antidepressants. Pharmacists have computer programs that teach them about dangerous interactions. In Quebec, you can find medicinal plants in pharmacies, grocery stores and health food stores. 

Listen to your body. You may have an allergic reaction to medicinal plants. If you have unusual symptoms, stop taking them and see your doctor. If you have trouble breathing after taking it, call 911. 

Before consuming herbal supplements

Notice the organ of the plant printed on the packaging. Preferably choose standardized snippets. Standardization guarantees the same percentage of active ingredients in each dose. (The quantity and potency of the active compounds can vary from one plant to another in the same species, only standardization ensures that the quantity is correct.) Otherwise, choose a product labeled “whole plant”: it contains all the compounds of the plant in the amounts established by nature. 

Check the expiry date. Discard the product if this date is exceeded. To be sure that the plant is right for you, read warnings  and contraindications. Do not expect to find specific therapeutic benefits on the label. Since medicinal plants are classified as dietary supplements and not drugs, the law prohibits manufacturers from saying what problems their product can prevent or cure. 

Dr. Kanika Singla

Ph.D., IARI Postdoctoral Scholar, UC Berkeley


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