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[Disclaimer: many herbs and foods are used for their medicinal benefits in addition to their nutrition. This article is based on research pulled from other sources; this is not medical advice.]
Antioxidants are the power behind superfoods, and there is quite a bit of power hiding inside some herbs and bee products. I call these “fringe” superfoods because their benefits are adaptogenic, meaning that they can be different for different people, based on your body’s needs and unique chemistry. As you read the possible benefits of some herbs, it sounds almost too good to be true – and it might be. Everyone’s body will process foods differently. With herbs (and bee products) there isn’t a lot of nutritional substance, mainly vitamins and antioxidants, so a body’s individual response is even less predictable. I’ve tried to focus on some universal “winners” in the herbal superfood world, but this is by no means conclusive! Here are a few super-herbs you may want to add to your diet.
You may have nettles growing in your yard right now. Also known as “stinging nettles” these plants are common weeds that are usually pulled and discarded. They get their name from the prickly surface of their leaves that may sting and irritate your skin. They sound like something you’d want to toss in the trash, but you may think twice before trashing those nettles ever again after learning how truly super they are!
Nutritionally: 100 grams of nettles (a little more than 1 cup) has almost 3 grams of protein, 7 grams of fiber, 48% DV (daily value) of Calcium, and are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Nettles are rich in antioxidants, making them a powerful ally in protecting your cells from damage. They have also revealed “superpowers” in fighting bacteria and viruses, alleviating ulcers, and reducing pain. Nettles are also used to help with seasonal allergies, coughs and colds, and prevention of asthma symptoms. Topically, nettles (crushed or in a tincture) have been used to relieve skin conditions, rashes, and joint pain.
How to Use: (Firstly, before you consume anything from the wild, make 100% sure it has been properly identified. If you are not 100% sure, don’t risk it!) If you have access to fresh nettles, pick the top 4” of leaves and only harvest before the plant flowers. As you collect and handle nettles, be sure to wear gloves. Nettle leaves have tiny “stingers” that may be unpleasant to the skin (and mouth). Crushing will neutralize the sting. Before eating nettles, try juicing, steaming, blanching, or cooking them. I’ve been told that nettles taste a bit like spinach – slightly woodsy and earthy. If you don’t want to eat them, hang nettles to dry in a cool, dry place and use the dried leaves for making tea or tinctures (liquid extracts of herbs)! No access to fresh nettles? You can buy nettle tea (check the herbal tea section) or a nettle tincture.
As I child, I’d spend summers at my grandmother’s place, a breezy little apartment on the beach of San Juan, Puerto Rico. She has a balcony filled with plants and several aloe plants. After a day on the beach, she’d slice open an aloe leaf and slather our skin with its gooey gel. Aloe is well known for treating skin irritations and burns. Are there more benefits to consider? What other tricks is aloe hiding in its slimy little leaves?
Aloe leaves have two main parts: the latex and the gel. The latex is the tougher, yellowish layer just under the surface of the leaf. The gel is the clear, gooey flesh of the leaf. The latex should not be consumed (unless you’re horribly constipated), but the gel is being evaluated for its immune boosting potential. The aloe gel contains a nice collection of minerals: Calcium, chromium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, phosphorus, sodium, and zinc. You can also find vitamins B1, B2, B6, C, E, and folic acid, and 16 of the essential amino acids. However, it seems as if the real “super” power of this food is difficult to pinpoint. Scientists believe that it is the combination of various chemicals in aloe, acting together that give aloe its soothing power.
Skin– Aloe can be safely applied topically to treat skin irritations, burns, and cuts. Research has shown aloe may also be helpful in soothing or preventing skin reactions from chemotherapy.
Digestive– The reviews are mixed on aloe’s usefulness as a food. Some studies show aloe gel to be soothing to the digestive tract, may help calm ulcerative colitis, and may balance blood-glucose levels. Some whole-aloe studies (including the latex) show the opposite. If you chose to consume aloe, it is advised that you do so gradually and in small doses, watching for any stomach discomfort. Some doctors are recommending aloe orally to soothe mouth ulcers caused by chemotherapy.
Immunity– one compound found in aloe, acemannan, may boost your body’s T-lymphocyte production, helping your body fight infections. Another compound, emodin, has been studied and shows active tumor-fighting abilities in animal studies.
How to Use
Honestly, I don’t feel 100% comfortable recommending aloe use internally. However, there are many studies and arguments in favor of it, so if it interests you, please do your research and decide what’s right for you. It can be eaten, and that’s way aloe is making my superfoods list.
I do feel 100% enthusiastic about aloe use on the skin! The best (and most affordable) way to use aloe vera is to keep a few plants around the house. You don’t need to remove an entire leaf for each application. Simply slice the leaf lengthwise, remove what you need, and the leaf will heal itself. If you do need to remove an entire leaf, choose leaves from the outside of the plant, as aloe grows new leaves from the inner part.
If you purchase aloe gel at the store, read the ingredients! The “100% aloe gel” is not 100% aloe gel; it is: Aloe Vera Gel, Triethanolamine, Tocopheryl Acetate, Carbomer 940, Tetrasodium EDTA, DMDM Hydantoin, Diazolidinyl Urea. DMDM Hydantoin is a formaldehyde-releasing chemical, and formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. If you’re looking to soothe your skin, skip the chemically-laden option.
Want a more natural aloe gel? Look for something like Earth’s Daughter Aloe Vera Gel, $18 on Amazon. This contains 99.75% pure organic aloe gel. If you don’t love it, they’ll even refund your money within 6 months.
With cold and flu season quickly approaching, this is one herb you’ll want to keep stocked in your pantry. Echinacea is a pretty purple flower, part of the daisy family. Medicinally, the echinacea flowers, leaves, and roots have been used for centuries to treat everything from illness to snakebites. With all of today’s modern medicines, does this plant still hold its own?
Since echinacea isn’t eaten in larger quantities (it’s normally extracted into a tincture or used as a tea) there isn’t much nutritional information to share. The superpower of this food lies in its phytochemicals and other constituents such as polysaccharides, glycoproteins, alkamides, volatile oils, and flavonoids. The plant part has a different composition that its roots. Both parts of the plant are beneficial, but scientists believe the plant portion contains more immune-boosting power.
Echinacea is best known as an effective immune system stimulant. It works by charging your body’s white blood cells (the infection fighters) into overdrive, which raises the interferon levels, triggering cells to protect themselves from invading bacteria and viruses. Studies show it is very effective in fighting colds, flu, bronchitis, and other infections.
How to Use
Echinacea supplements are readily available in any drugstore or grocery store, but don’t just pick up any ol’ bottle. A study tested eleven store-bought brands of echinacea supplements and found that only four contained what they promised, and some brands didn’t contain any echinacea at all! Herbs and supplements are not regulated by the FDA. For this reason, I feel it is crucial to find a source you can trust!
Some brands offer much more information than others. To make sure you’re getting what you pay for, look for a brand that shares its analytical product results, like Gaia’s Echinacea Supreme, $19 for 60 capsules at Amazon. You can learn about their source, growing practices, and see lab reports. For a lower-cost, powdered echinacea supplement, read the ingredients. Something like NOW Foods’ Echinacea supplement is a good option for less, $14 for 250 capsules at Amazon.
The best option? Grow your own echinacea! The plant is a biennial, growing every other year. Sow some seeds in a flower garden patch every year to develop a steady supply. You can harvest the leaves, buds, and flowers to dry for teas or make a tincture to store for cold/flu season. (I’ve recently learned how to make tinctures, and we’ll talk about them in an upcoming post!) Echinacea tea can be bitter, but the tincture is a more concentrated dose and can be taken straight or hidden in a beverage. Take echinacea about three times a day at the first sign of a cold or infection. You should not take echinacea for more than ten days at a time.
Considerations: Echinacea is a plant and part of the daisy (ragweed, chrysanthemum) family. If you have a ragweed allergy, you may have a reaction to echinacea. Echinacea may also react with some medications used to treat autoimmune diseases.
Honey, Bee Pollen, Royal Jelly, and Propolis (The Bee Group)
Busy bees pollinate our crops and provide some useful superfoods for us as well. The only bee product I’ve ever purchased is honey, but I see the “bee guys” at the farmers market selling bags of pollen granules. I’ve never stopped to ask about the bee products, but I’ve learned there are some pretty spectacular benefits hiding in the beehives.
I’ve grouped all the bee products together, because they share some similarities, but they also have their own, unique benefits.
Propolis is the hard, resin coating bees create to seal, protect, and sanitize their hives. Bees make propolis from various tree and plant saps, so its nutritional profile will vary. It is high in bioflavonoids.
Bee pollen is made by bees from the pollen stuck on them after a long day of pollinating. The bee mixes this pollen with a dab of nectar and bee spit and shoves the pollen into its built-in pollen bucket on its legs. Bee pollen is about 35% protein (that’s 7x more protein than beef), contains vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants; it is considered one of the most complete foods found in nature. The type of protein in bee pollen is easily used by the body, as its in the most basic amino acid form.
Royal Jelly is secreted by bees and is used to feed all the larvae in the hive. Royal Jelly is about 12% pure protein (amino acids) and is highly bioaccessible. It’s a fantastic, natural source of B-complex vitamins and is the best source in nature for pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) – an antioxidant shown to increase the lifespan of animals by 200% in lab tests, reduce stress, and help with fatigue.
Honey is nectar that the bees collect and regurgitate it over and over again. It is mainly used as a sweetener but also contains some minerals and antioxidants.
Bee Pollen: improves oxygen intake, enhances immune system, useful for post-workout recovery. Take it to help the body recover from anything, and use it preventively for seasonal allergies.
Royal Jelly: antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant activity, and antitumor activity and may help lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
Honey: antibacterial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral. Prevention of seasonal allergies.
How to Use
Unless you are keeping bees, you’ll have to buy your bee products from a local vendor or find supplements in the store.
Propolis, bee pollen, and royal jelly are available as individual supplements or sold in one, combined supplement. As always, ready your ingredients label and find a good source!
Bee Pollen granules can be eaten as is or mixed with a bit of honey to make it more enjoyable. It is recommended to eat bee pollen in the morning with food. To ease seasonal allergies, find locally-sourced bee pollen and take 6 weeks before allergy season and during.
Honey: purchase your honey RAW from a local vendor. The antioxidant properties of honey are weakened when heated or pasteurized. Consume your honey raw for the best benefits.
Considerations: If you have a bee allergy, please treat any bee products with equal concern.
The Maca plant grows as an herb, but the root holds the superfood potential. It has been used medicinally since the glory days of the Incan Empire to increase energy and supposedly increase fertility. Today, we know that the Maca root does contain some special components to nourish and restore our bodies.
Since Maca only grows in high altitude regions of Peru and Bolivia, we’re not likely to find fresh Maca around here. Typically, you’ll be consuming maca powder, a powder made from raw, dried maca roots. You will use about 1 teaspoon of maca powder per serving, but this nutritional info is given for 100 gram servings. Maca is high in protein (14 grams!), fiber (7 grams), contains a lot of vitamins (475% DV Vitamin C, 57% DV B6), but is packed full of minerals (calcium, copper, iron, and potassium). Additionally, maca root contains some special alkaloids, named Macainas.
Maca is a fantastic energy booster. It helps to naturally boost energy without the jitters and side effects of caffeine and other stimulants. The special Macainas found in maca root have been shown to support a healthy endocrine (hormone) system and support everything from weight regulation to fertility. Maca is considered an adaptogenic herb, or an herb that helps the body move towards homeostasis (the body’s “normal” healthy state). This means that it may provide different benefits to different people based on their body’s needs.
How to Use
Personally, I like the taste of maca powder, so I don’t mind adding a spoonful to foods I’m already eating like my morning yogurt or granola. It is great in smoothies, beverages, or even in recipes. Add a spoonful or two to your homemade muffins or protein bars for an energy boost. Add maca to your smoothie. It’s a handy little supplement to keep on hand for an extra nutrient (and energy) boost.
The land of herbs and supplements can be overwhelming and confusing. What works “magic” for one person may be completely useless to you. After learning about these fringe superfoods, there are a few I’ll definitely add into my daily routine, and a few I’ll skip for now.
Personally, I’ve had great results with maca for energy. With a busy family and work schedule, it’s a keeper in my life for now. Echinacea, on the other hand, I’ve never used. I’m curious about it, and I’ll keep some on hand incase a feel a cold coming on. The bee research was fascinating to me. I may I want to add some bee products into my life, but I’m not sure where I’m going to start. I’ll be chatting with the local “bee guys” at the farmer’s market next time I go.
Have you tried any of these herbal superfoods? Any great or awful experiences to share? Any other herbal superfoods you would add to the list? Share your thoughts below!
This is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.