By Charlotte Traas, New Chapter® Director of Education and Board-Certified Master Herbalist
Since our beginnings back in 1982, New Chapter® has been all about herbal, holistic health. We love how modern science and herbal tradition agree that botanicals can support true wellness. But we also know the plethora of herbal supplements can be overwhelming. Which herbs could you be taking, and when, and why? We’re here to help! Today, we’ll explore 9 popular herbs and how each can help open a new chapter in wellness.
What is an Herbal Supplement?
Using herbs for wellness has taken on new life through trends and social media posts. The truth is, humans have been documenting their reliance on plants for many centuries, including in Mesopotamian clay tablets dating back to 2600 BCE and in the classic Shennong Ben Cao Jing, an ancient text on herbs that lays the foundation for Traditional Chinese Medicine. We’ve used herbs as supplements all this time–meaning we consume certain plants and fungi for therapeutic benefits. They’re called “supplements” because the herbs are considered an addition (supplement) to regular nutrition from food and drink.
The art of supplementation continues to evolve. Dosages, delivery systems, and extraction methods have been formalized through scientific research. But the fundamental relationships between living things on the planet remain the same. At our best, humans exist symbiotically with other living beings. While how we take herbs may have changed, we know, as our forebears knew, that these plants have special properties that could be our key to thriving.
Benefits of Herbal Supplements
Herbs are as unique as people. Each individual plant has its own identity, strengths, and weaknesses. These may help or hinder the plant as it grows and reproduces in its own particular climate and conditions. How can you navigate this world of botanicals, with over 390,000 kinds of plants estimated to exist? How can science explore the properties of each one?
Traditional texts and careful research help lead the way to the herbs that best support our systems and provide key benefits. Let’s explore some of these plants that are helpful in multiple situations that you might face.
The word “holistic” is often thrown around to describe plant-based approaches. Herbs described as “holistic” do share some specific properties though. Holistic herbs are super-versatile, supporting many aspects and areas of whole-body health or energies (as practiced in Ayurveda). For example, Ginger has the ability to support inflammation balance and digestive health. Turmeric has the reputation of supporting inflammation and brain health. These are MVPs of the herb world that have multiple specialties—and they are in both our 10-herb blend Zyflamend™!
Herbs for Sleep
Our search for elusive sleep sometimes has us turning to plants to help relax after periods of stress. Valerian, Chamomile, Lemon Balm, and many other herbs are known for their ability to dial down stimulation or soften our focus in order to help our bodies rest. These herbs work by interacting with our neurotransmitters (how our brain communicates) to help the nervous system relax. Then, restful sleep can come naturally.
Herbs for Energy
With 62% of Americans drinking coffee daily and averaging three cups per day, is it surprising that we have consistently relied on botanicals to support our energy levels? Some plants contain a naturally occurring amount of caffeine, which may give us temporary pep in our step. Other plants are capable of cultivating energy in a different way. From Maca’s reported ability to support endurance and stamina in athletes to Eleuthero’s (Siberian ginseng) endurance capabilities, herbs have the ability to work on different energy pathways in the body. They can help us adapt to situations of stress (exercise is physical stress) as well as support recovery, and without a caffeine crash.
Herbs for Stress
While meditation, yoga, and other stress-busting practices are great ways to cultivate calm, it’s also super-convenient to add stress relief in a capsule to your daily routine. Most stress-supportive herbs are known as adaptogens. They help the body adapt to stress and support calm or focus through times of duress. From trendy Ashwagandha to traditional darlings Holy Basil, Reishi, and Rhodiola, each herb has unique phytochemical make-ups that support stress in different ways.
Herbs for Immunity
Your immune system is always working to protect your body from challenges. For example, while sunshine provides Vitamin D and is essential to life, we also know the sun’s UV rays can damage our skin. Pollution, certain foods, and various lifestyle choices can also lean hard on our immune systems. While modern-day problems may seem more complex than in centuries past, plants were part of the earliest “medicine chests” for immune support. From the ancient Greek Hippocrates using Black Elderberry to Chinese royalty’s usage of the Cordyceps sinensis fungus found on the heads of caterpillars, botanicals and fungi have been staples of immune support for millennia. Scientific research shows Holy Basil supports certain key immune markers, but this is really just the latest in thousands of years of use tying back to the roots of Ayurveda (an ancient healing tradition of India).
Adaptogenic Herbs vs Nootropic Herbs
While adaptogenic herbs like Rhodiola and Holy Basil may help your body adjust to stressors, nootropics tackle the body’s ability to support memory and overall cognitive function. As discussed earlier when talking about holistic herbs, herbs are versatile, and an adaptogen can be a nootropic, as with Rhodiola. Rhodiola not only supports stress but was shown to support cognitive ability in overnight doctors after a long shift.
Top Herbal Supplements
While it is hard to pick favorites out of these amazing botanicals (as an herbalist, it’s the equivalent of picking favorites among your children), let’s cover 9 favorite herbs to see what jewels they really are! We’ll check out their key constituents and their abilities to support multiple areas of health.
The current heavy-weight champion of the herb world, Ashwagandha is an Ayurvedic darling that has sky-rocketed in popularity lately. Why? People are discovering what Ayurvedic practitioners have known for centuries, that Ashwagandha can help support how your body handles stress, both physical and mental.* It can also help balance mood.* Its versatility is truly driving its popularity, since those areas of support tend to be needed most right now.
Black Seed, also known as Nigella sativa, has been growing in popularity as well. Believed to be Nefertiti’s beauty secret and found in Tutankhamen’s tomb, Black Seed has been traditionally used for everything from skin health to mood support. Exciting research has shown that pairing this botanical with Turmeric could be supportive for metabolic health, including supporting healthy weight, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels.*
Black Elderberry is known for antioxidative powers associated with its anthocyanin content. Elderberry can support healthy immune function.* You can choose to take it every day, or start taking it at the first sign of an immune challenge. You can also take Elderberry seasonally, like adding it to your regimen during the autumn and winter months.
Eleuthero is a particular favorite with athletes for its ability to support energy, endurance, and stamina. Preclinical evidence shows that Eleuthero may help to reduce lactic acid in the body and slow muscle fatigue, helping to support exercise routines and overall body fatigue.*
Tulsi, or Holy Basil, is one of my favorite herbs because it’s like the “Swiss Army knife” of herbs. From supporting the body during immune challenges and helping to relieve stress, to promoting cognitive function and attention span, this herb has many benefits.* Personally, I love taking Holy Basil after a difficult day (or sometimes in the middle of one) to help my body recenter and rebalance.
Lemon Balm, also known as Melissa officinalis, is another calming herb that likely works on GABA pathways, much like Passionflower (below). A member of the mint family, this herb is an alternative to Holy Basil for helping you to relax at the end of a long day.*
Passionflower’s name may be sexy, but this calming herb is all about sleepy time and relaxation.* This herb works on GABA pathways. GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid) is the most abundant inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, helping to promote relaxation and dial down over-excitement. Passionflower is known for supporting calm feelings* and helping you to take it down a notch at the end of a busy day.
Rhodiola is often an unsung hero, as many people are unaware of its adaptogenic properties and the research supporting its use for memory and cognitive support.* What I love about Rhodiola is that while many adaptogens chill you out, Rhodiola works on different pathways and can support endurance during times of stress.* This is helpful for situations where you don’t necessarily want to wind down.
Cherries, Elderberries, and many other dark-colored botanicals are known for their anthocyanin and bioflavonoid content. Anthocyanins are rich pigments that provide antioxidant benefits, while bioflavonoids are tied to research to help support the body during inflammation. Tart Cherry (also called Sour Cherry) is unique as it contains a small amount of melatonin, the naturally occurring hormone within us that helps us drift off to sleep.* With computers, blue light, and screens so prevalent, including Tart Cherry in your sleep routine can support an easier time getting to bed.
The Bottom Line
Every body is different, and how you react to herbs may vary. Finding the right herbs for your daily routine may take a little trial and error, but it can be so worth it! With so much emerging research on the diverse benefits of herbs and mushrooms, it’s good to know that science is helping us find the right fit for each of us. New Chapter has many excellent quality herbals to choose from, and they are all inspired by tradition and grounded in the latest science. We invite you to try these remarkable botanicals in your own wellness routine, and find the best herbs for you!