When freeskiing national champion Cat Smiley paused for an off-mountain minute to consider the herbs she uses to energize her body for skiing every day, she quickly came up with eight of them. "I didn't realize how many herbs I was taking daily to help my ski performance," she says. And she's not alone.
Despite the reluctance of many Western physicians to acknowledge the benefits of herbs, they are gaining clout—and market share, to the tune of about $4 billion per year. But this steep growth in herbal options can be overwhelming for the natural newbie. And to further complicate matters, federal regulations on herbs are loose.
In 1994, the Food and Drug Administration threatened to reclassify herbs from "food" to "drug," which would have required an intense approval process for each product. Instead, it passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which attempts to balance the need for consumer access to information with the government's ability to protect the public from unsafe products and false or misleading product claims. While this kept the market open, it also created confusing information. The FDA requires an herb be approved as a drug to be allowed to tout medical or therapeutic use, but most herb companies can't spend the millions of dollars required to prove medicinal properties. Instead, they list vague—and often solely anecdotal—claims about how an herb can affect the body. The label must indicate that these claims are not approved by the FDA, but such statements are typically buried in fine print—or largely ignored by consumers.
Another problem is that there are no official standards for herb preparations, so products on shelves might contain contaminants or inaccurate ingredient levels.
So what do you do? Be informed. Take this tip from Groucho Marx, quoted in The Best Alternative Medicine by Dr. Kenneth Pelletier: "Be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brains fall out." In other words, don't believe everything you hear or read. Consult the experts—no, that doesn't mean the local grocery store or pharmacy clerk. Seek out an herbalist at a health food store, suggests Rowan Hamilton, a cross-country skier, medical herbalist and natural health sciences professor at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Wash. "Or talk to a naturopathic physician, and find out what your own body needs," he says. Hamilton also warns against choosing solely on price.
Herbs come in a variety of forms, including capsules or tablets, teas, tinctures, extracts, and topical ointments and oils. Capsules and tablets are convenient, without the often-bitter taste, but they sometimes contain binding ingredients that don't break down easily. Because teas and tinctures are in solution, it's easier for your body to absorb the active ingredient. But teas take longer to consume, and tinctures are often more expensive than capsules or tablets. Ointments are easy to use because they're topical. Oils are highly concentrated but can be diluted.
Dosages vary with the form and should be discussed with a professional. Although few long-term studies have been done on safety during pregnancy, experts recommend avoiding most herbs while pregnant. And before starting any herbal program, talk to your primary care physician, who can likely refer you to a reputable alternative medicine doctor and who, more importantly, should be informed of any herbs you take. To help you get started, here are five herbs that experts say can make you stronger on the slopes.
Upside Eases pain and may speed recovery of strains, sprains and bruises.Vacation warriors who drop in from New York or Chicago, hellbent on proving their mettle, often end up bruised and battered in the process. Deborah Wiancek, N.D., author of The Natural Healing Companion and a homeopathic physician in Vail, Colo., recommends arnica. "It can get them back out on the slopes quickly," she says. Take a hint from Smiley, who's on the slopesearly every day. She rubs on arnica oil immediately after any injuries to "help reduce swelling and pain." You can also get arnica in a cream or gel for general soreness, or pellets for inflammation and bruising. There's debate over whether arnica is effective as a preventive measure to minimize injury. Wiancek says it isn't.
Downside The tincture form of arnica can cause blistering, and overuse can actually increase pain, because it's such a powerful herb. In fact, straight arnica is so strong that its growers wear protective clothing when harvesting it in order to prevent stiffness and fatigue.Astragalus
Upside Boosts energy, stimulates the immune system."This is the energy herb," Hamilton says. "It is well-researched, well-understood." It is also one of the most widely used herbs in China. Recent studies in China and the U.S. confirm the immunity-boosting qualities of astragalus, and Hamilton favors it over the better-marketed echinacea for warding off colds and flus.
Downside Nothing has been reported yet.Bromelain
Upside Reduces inflammation.Wiancek recommends bromelain after surgery, for any swelling or for leg cramps you might get at night after skiing. You say you're well-stocked on ibuprofen? Well, bromelain has no reported side effects, whereas "ibuprofen and other anti-inflammatories can cause stomach pain," Wiancek says.
Downside Bromelain is generally side-effect-free, but it does act as a blood thinner and so should not be combined with any prescribed blood-thinning drugs. Also, some people might be allergic to it.Ginger
(and marsh mallow)
Upside Warms the body. You've got all the right layers keeping you nice and toasty, except for your fingers and toes, which are uncomfortably numb. Among ginger's many claims to alternative-remedy fame (Smiley uses ginger for endurance and cramps), this spice-rack herb can help keep your extremities warm. In his book, The Green Pharmacy, James Duke, a leading authority on healing herbs, explains, "Ginger lowers blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and both effects help normalize blood flow all over the body, including the fingers." Hamilton mixes it with marsh mallow—not the hot chocolate kind, the herb—and creates a tea that he packs when cross-country skiing. "Marsh mallow stops the drying effect of the air on the lungs' mucous membrane," he says.
Downside Ginger can cause heartburn, but marsh mallow has no known side effects.Ginseng
Upside Increases stamina. Smiley calls Asian ginseng a "wicked energy boost" that gives her "the same kind of smooth buzz as coffee." According to University of Illinois researchers, clinical studies have indeed shown that ginseng improves the use of oxygen by the exercising muscle, which means you can make that extra run.
Downside It can take up to one month of regular use to feel the effects. If you're already hyped up on caffeine, taking ginseng will likely make you extra-jittery, as it's also a stimulant. Health Hit
Herbs often have dozens, even hundreds, of active ingredients, compared to one or two in most pharmaceuticals. This blend helps prevent side effects.Read Up
For an even better understanding of herbs, educate yourself with these reliable resources.
The Best Alternative Medicine, by Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier, former director of the NIH-funded Complementary and Alternative Medicine Program. Evaluates all major forms of alternative medicine from a mainstream scientific perspective.
The Green Pharmacy, by James A. Duke, Ph.D. An encyclopedia of ailments and herbs that heal them, with caveats.
Herb Research Foundation, herbs.org. Offers science-based information on the health benefits and safety of herbal medicines, plus a research library with more than 300,000 scientific articles on thousands of herbs.
New Hope Natural Media, healthwell.com. A leading publisher of natural-products magazines. The website offers updated information on herbs, vitamins and supplements, homeopathy, and foods.erbs.
New Hope Natural Media, healthwell.com. A leading publisher of natural-products magazines. The website offers updated information on herbs, vitamins and supplements, homeopathy, and foods.