On a Thursday evening at the Pacific Avenue headshop Go Ask Alice, I slip past the festival attire (the man burns in 31 days!) to a wall filled with dozens of herbs, blends and tinctures. I’m a repeat customer, having purchased a menagerie of botanical remedies over the last year, from the Mexican dream herb calea to mugwort to Reishi mushroom powder.
Today, I’m here for kratom, a somewhat controversial herb that is legal in all but four U.S. states, and stocked in great abundance and variety at Go Ask Alice—though customers are informed that it is not intended for human consumption. It’s one of the most popular herbs sold, says Ariel Ma’ayan, a licensed herbalist and acupuncturist who is behind the counter. Ma’ayan hands me a small complimentary cup of damiana tea, which is unfailingly brewing here—hailed for its calming, euphoric, health-enhancing and aphrodisiac qualities—and the herb that kicked off my swan dive into experimental herbal medicine at Go Ask Alice. He places a 30-gram pouch of chartreuse powder ($25), a strain of kratom called Red Mayan, on the counter.
“A lot of people have reported that it’s helped them with opioid withdrawal,” says Ma’ayan. “I’ve seen that extensively, and it’s one of the really cool parts of the job, when former junkies come in here for kratom and use it to get clean.”
Stimulating in small doses and sedative in larger ones, kratom—grown in Southeast Asia, where it’s illegal—activates the opioid receptors, which gives it its marked pain-relieving effects. In a country where a growing prescription opioid epidemic now kills more people each year than firearms and car accidents, a number that has quadrupled since 1999 according to the CDC, kratom seems like it could be a promising alternative to, say, methadone. But it’s caught in a gray area of legality because it was introduced to the market after 1994, when the FDA grandfathered all existing “natural remedies” into the dietary supplement category, allowing them to be sold untested—as long as their distributors don’t claim that they cure or treat medical disorders.
What’s more, today it costs about $730 million to approve a medical drug in the U.S. This goes a long way toward explaining why plant-based medicines, which can’t be patented in and of themselves, are not regulated in the same way that drugs are.
“Nobody’s going to do that for chamomile or echinacea or hawthorn,” says Roy Upton, a local herbalist and co-founder of the American Herbalists Guild. “That’s why we don’t have herbal medicine in this country. Because healthcare is a business, it is not a right, whereas in other countries it is a right.” Upton points out that plant-based medicine is practiced in 80 percent of the world; in Germany, for instance, the licensing examination for every doctor includes herbal medicine. But the U.S. began moving away from herbs long ago, as soon as drug companies learned to isolate active plant chemicals and synthesize them in the lab.
“In 2010, pharmaceutical medications overcame cigarettes as the number one cause of death in the United States,” says Upton. “But they don’t know what to do about it because they’re stuck in their paradigm of disease care.”
As of 2012, 59 percent of Americans were taking prescription drugs, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The U.S. is missing out on a world of safe, effective plant-based medicine, says Upton, whose goal for the last 25 years has been to change that. He is the founder, executive director and editor at the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP), an organization that formed in 1995 to promote the responsible use of herbs. They’ve been slowly and meticulously cataloging the world’s medicinal herbs into a comprehensive collection of monographs—much like an encyclopedia, but written by leading researchers from multiple schools of medicine.
“So basically, our job is to bring all of this information together under one roof so that people don’t have to guess any more about what the herb does—its dosage, should I be worried about how it’s going to interact with my conventional meds, is there a long-term toxicity, what is it really good for versus what all the companies market it for. And mostly to allay fears; physicians’ fear of using them, regulators’ fears of having to regulate them,” says Upton.
When it comes to using herbs to optimize health, it’s best to use them on a semi-regular basis, rather than the reactive approach that is more common in American health care.
“Natural health care requires self learning,” Upton says. “The best way to incorporate herbs into your life is to learn which ones are specific to you, under what conditions, at what times.”
I have barely cracked the surface of the vast world of plant medicine, and the list of herbs that follows is meant only as a sampling of some of the most profound herbs on the market today, many of which I’ve tested on my own biochemistry. I recommend doing your own research and experimentation, since it may be a long time before herbal prescriptions from Western doctors are a reality.
One of the oldest mushrooms known to be used medicinally, the rust-colored powder form of the reishi mushroom can be mixed with honey and eaten as a paste. The package I purchased from Go Ask Alice recommended eating it along with vitamin C on an empty stomach in the morning, or mixed with hot water to make a tea. It tastes, well, like gritty soil, and it has a bitter aftertaste, but its benefits have been well-documented since ancient times—its use first recorded (and embraced to this day) in Chinese medicine.
“Natural health care requires self learning. The best way to incorporate herbs into your life is to learn which ones are specific to you, under what conditions, at what times.” — Roy Upton, Herbalist and Co-Founder of the American Herbalists Guild
“Reishi has strong anti-stress activity, and it’s one of the ones you really feel,” says Upton, who recommends taking reishi for at least a month to see what it can really do for you. “It helps you sleep better, helps you be more grounded and focused, and helps with energy, resilience and endurance.” Reishi is also a strong immune system tonic with anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. Most notably, studies have found that patients using reishi in conjunction with chemotherapy have responded more positively to the treatment, with elevated levels of immune response cells.
One of the most nutritious plants on the planet, stinging nettles grow like a weed in much of the U.S. I’ve harvested them (with gloves) from my mother’s garden, and simmered them into a tea, which removes the sting. I’ve also folded them into scrambled eggs, and even made nettle pesto—both delicious. You can purchase nettles in dried-leaf form at Go Ask Alice, or find them fresh at the farmers market. The resulting tea is deep green with a grassy taste, and, when experiencing seasonal allergies I found some relief after drinking a huge pot—as nettles are said to contain natural antihistamines, though studies confirming these are scarce. Most notably, they are a diuretic, and have been used for centuries to treat urinary problems, as well as gout, anemia and in compresses to treat painful muscles and joints. Sufferers of rheumatism have even reported relief through deliberate stinging called urtication—apparently also performed by some as a recreational activity in the bedroom.
Native to North America, easy to grow, and the top-selling herb in the world, echinacea is often touted as a medicine-cabinet staple for the winter time to help stave off colds and flu. But does it work? Well, it’s also one of the most scientifically studied herbs, and studies have shown it to stimulate cellular immune enhancement of T-cells and cytokines. Along with elderberry, Upton recommends it as a powerful way to deter a cold, especially for its strong antiviral properties. “When you feel something coming on, power it down every hour, then take a hot bath at night and go to bed,” he says. “A lot of times you can knock it out in one or two days rather than five or six.” Prolonged daily use is not recommended, however, since your body will get used to it and start to ignore it—so take echinacea only when you need it to maximize its benefits. Available as a tea at Go Ask Alice as well as in tincture form in various health stores around town.
For the insomniac who’d rather not resort to pharmaceutical-grade sleeping pills, many of which are habit forming: valerian root comes to the rescue. I’ve had some success getting to sleep with hops, skullcap, damiana and passionflower, but valerian root has been consistently powerful in knocking me out. Cold. Purchased from Staff of Life’s bulk bins, the only downside to the twig-like roots is that they give off a dirty sock smell. Made into a tea, it tastes something like dirty sock with a hint of vanilla. Its effects should not be taken lightly, either. Valerian quells anxiety by calming the nervous system, has been used as a natural pain reliever, lowers blood pressure and settles the stomach. Drinking a strong cup before bed—add about two teaspoons to boiling water and let steep for 15 minutes—should ease most people into not just any sleep, but a deep sleep, like if you were a rock at the bottom of Lake Tahoe, that kind of sleep. Daytime use may be recommended for the overly anxious, but for me it induced a trance-like state which was not ideal for writing or for my dinner date. Yawn.
Also known as the “heart herb,” Upton says that hawthorn is one of his favorite botanicals, and he’s seen more than a 100 children be successfully taken off ritalin thanks to hawthorn berry syrup.
“It’s used for ‘quieting the heart,’ in Chinese medicine,” he says. “To calm, soothe and nourish the mind, the spirit and the heart. Oftentimes it’s combined with lemon balm tea as an anti-anxiety tonic.”
Controlled medical studies in Europe have also shown hawthorn to lower blood pressure and reduce strain on the heart by dilating the blood vessels and boosting the utilization of oxygen by the heart by slightly dilating the coronary vessels. It’s recommended for those with a history of heart disease in their family as well as those recovering from a heart attack. Available in powder form at Go Ask Alice.
The first time I tried this as a tincture, I loved how it tasted—an ineffable but extremely strong medicinal flavor with a bitter finish. “That must mean your body needs it,” said my friend, and maybe she was right. Astragalus is a revered tonic in Chinese medicine, used to rebuild the immune system, stimulate the spleen, liver, lungs, circulatory and urinary system, and improve stamina. It’s also antibacterial and antiviral, and an ideal choice for treating chronic fatigue syndrome. Currently, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is sponsoring studies of astragalus on the immune system, and a review by the National Medicine Comprehensive Database (NMCD) found that long-term astragalus use may relieve seasonal allergies and help prevent colds. Intravenous use may help chronic hepatitis patients and may even benefit breast cancer and certain lung cancer patients.
I’ve taken astragalus off and on, and can report a general feeling of well-being during the times that I take it, usually by the third week, although I can’t rule out the placebo effect.
Sold at Go Ask Alice as a “Magical Mystery Dream Tea,” mugwort is used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat general feelings of malaise as well as cardiac problems. It’s also used as an emmenagogue, so should not be used if you’re pregnant. As for dream induction, it definitely works. The herb smells wonderful, but the tea is bitter tasting. If you’re interested in vivid experiences, flying, and exploring other astral-projection claims, I recommend ingesting this herb before bed, which some say may also be effective when placed under your pillow.