Top 10 medicinal herbs in Europe
Herbs are enshrined in our traditions and sometimes given mystical properties. With the advancement of science, the secrets of their healing effects are revealed - encoded in the active substances.
Author: Rositsa Tashkova, Master of Molecular Biology and Microbiology
Europe is extremely rich in medicinal plants and herbs. The aroma of thyme, linden and chamomile evokes sweet memories of childhood in everyone whose grandmother once made herbal tea for breakfast.
The herbs are deeply embedded in our traditions and are sometimes given a mystical and almost magical action. As science progresses, the secrets of their healing effects are revealed - encoded in a variety of active substances.
In this article, we will look at 10 of the best medicinal herbs we can find in our nature or in the pharmacy.
1. Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) and danewort (Sambucus ebulus)
Elderberry is also called elder, black elder, European elder, European elderberry, and European black elderberry. It is a tree and should not be confused with danewort (Sambucus ebulus), which is a herbaceous plant. The fruits of the elderberry hang down, and the danewort is straightened upwards.
The other names of the danewort are dane weed, danesblood, dwarf elder or European dwarf elder, walewort, dwarf elderberry, elderwort and blood hilder. Both herbs are sometimes called elderberry. But enough about the names, let's find out what the properties of these plants are.
The fruit of elderberry contains the protein agglutinin Ivf (SNAIVf), which is homologous to the RIP type 2 lectin, as well as quercetin. The elderberry has the following medicinal properties [ref. 1]:
- Anti-inflammatory effect,
- Modulation of immune protection,
- Antioxidant effects thanks to the flavonoids,
- Antiviral effect - especially against influenza viruses type A and B, as well as against herpes simplex-1 virus,
- Potentially lowers blood pressure,
- Diuretic effect (elderberry flowers),
- Potentially stimulates glucose metabolism and increases insulin secretion from the beta cells of the pancreas,
- Potentially lowers cholesterol (fruit syrup),
- Potentially lowers the weight.
Attention, attention! Poorly ripe fruits, bark, roots and leaves of S. nigra contain cyanogen glycoside sambungrin, which is toxic and its intake can lead to cyanide poisoning.
Elderberry can adversely affect people with a variety of diseases and conditions, including: arrhythmia, cardiovascular disease, along with taking medications to lower blood pressure, diabetes, during chemotherapy, diseases of the central nervous system, in gastrointestinal disorders, eating disorders and in particular anorexia, migraines and others.
As it becomes clear, elderberry is a very potent herb, and it is good to use it after consulting a doctor, especially in the presence of accompanying diseases or specific conditions, including in pregnancy and lactation.
Danewort (herbaceous elderberry)
Unripe fruits of the danewort are also poisonous, and only ripe ones are used for medicinal purposes.
Other effects are [ref. 2]:
- For faster wound healing,
- Anticancer effect - demonstrated only in cells in laboratory conditions.
As a herb used since ancient times, danewort has a long history of food and medicinal applications and is still widely used. Its high potential for therapeutic applications, due to its many bioactive phytochemicals, heralds a bright future for danewort.
Where to look for elderberry
Both types of elderberry are found free-growing by the roads, settlements, in shrubs and forests.
It can also be purchased in the form of various preparations, dried fruit and syrups from pharmacies and drugstores.
2. Common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) - an ancient herb
The common yarrow is also called gordaldo, nosebleed plant, old man's pepper, devil's nettle, sanguinary, milfoil, soldier's woundwort, thousand-leaf, and thousand-seal. "Melifolium" means "thousands of leaves".
The herb has attracted people's attention since ancient times and has become part of a variety of myths and legends - including the one about Achilles, according to which he used yarrow to heal his wounds.
Besides yarrow, several other species of this genus are used to treat wounds, hemorrhages, headaches, inflammations, pain, spasmodic diseases, flatulence and dyspepsia. Phytochemical studies of species of the genus Achillea reveal that they contain many components that are highly bioactive.
The different effects of these plants may be due to the presence of a wide range of secondary active metabolites such as flavonoids, phenolic acids, coumarins, terpenoids (monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, dieterpenes, triterpenes) and sterols, which are often reported to be found in Achillea species.
Here are the effects of yarrow of medical importance [ref. 3]:
- Treatment of wounds - for faster healing, aqueous extract of the flowers.
- Antioxidant properties - tea from the herb.
- Estrogenic activity - traditionally yarrow is used as a means of regulating the menstrual cycle, since it contains luteolin and apigenin (luteolin and apigenin). Apigenin exhibits estrogenic activity, since it has the ability to bind to estrogen receptors.
- Antispermogenous effect - it has been found that in rats, alcoholic yarrow extract disrupts sperm formation processes.
- Anti-ulcer activity - the aqueous extract of the herb protects the disturbed mucous membrane of the stomach and promotes its recovery.
- Effects on the immune system - yarrow is rich in substances called sesquiterpenes, which have an immunosuppressive effect (suppress the activity of the immune system). This effect is manifested by the use of essential oil from the herb.
- Antibacterial effects - extract (hexane:ether:methanol = 1:1:1) of yarrow has shown [ref. 5] broad antibacterial activity against 5 bacterial species (Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Salmonella enteritidis) and 2 types of fungi (Aspergillus niger and Candida albicans).
- Antispasmodic effects - the use of yarrow infusion to relieve gastrointestinal problems, especially as an antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory agent, is quite common in folk medicine. Antispasmodic effects of the herb are probably due to flavonoids in the plant. The substances galangin, quercetin and eupatilin, which are common in this genus, have been reported to cause a powerful sagging of the ileum (the last part of the small intestine).
- Anti-inflammatory properties - the action is probably due to sesquiterpenes and alkamides.
- Undesirable effects - hypersensitivity may occur in some people and there is not enough data to determine whether the intake of the herb during pregnancy and lactation [ref. 6] is safe. However, consultation with a specialist is necessary if we intend to use the yarrow for longer periods of time.
Where can you find yarrow
The yarrow is found at an altitude of up to 2000 m above sea level. It grows in grassy places, meadows, shrubs.
In pharmacies it is available in a variety of forms - tincture, dried herb, essential oil, capsules, ointments, floral water.
3. European mistletoe (Viscum album)
European mistletoe, also called common mistletoe or simply mistletoe, is a semi-parasitic shrub that develops in the crowns of trees and gives specific white ball fruits.
The plant is poisonous, its stalks and leaves also apply as a herb, but it should not be taken for a long time.
Recently, white mistletoe has been more actively studied, as some of its potentially beneficial effects in the fight against cancer have been found.
The plant contains phenols, terpenoids and lectins. Lectins may act as immune system modulators and anticancer agents.
Various mistletoe extracts have anticancer, antiviral, antioxidant and proapoptotic effects (apoptosis is the programmed cell death or process in which the cell kills itself so as not to harm the body).
In fact, both mistletoe extracts and purified mistletoe lectins have great potential as anticancer agents and have been shown to inhibit the growth of tumor cell lines such as B-cell hybridomas, P815, EL-4, Ke37, MOLT-4 and U937 in vitro. The mechanism by which they stop cell growth involves inducing apoptosis.
It should be taken into account that the use of mistletoe alone is not the best therapy against cancer and the results are influenced by the use of other treatments. Given all this, the best way to evaluate the anti-cancer properties of mistletoe is to evaluate its use as an adjuvant drug rather than as an alternative to chemotherapy. [ref. 7]
In folk medicine, mistletoe is used in the form of a decoction for:
- decrease in high blood pressure,
- as a vasodilator agent with an effect on the lower extremities,
- as a hemostatic agent,
- in degenerative inflammation of the joints,
A curious fact is that the main toxic ingredients of the mistletoe are stomach-irritating alkaloids, heart toxins (viscotoxins) and lectins, as viscotoxins are physiologically similar to cobra snake poison. [ref. 8]
Where can you find mistletoe
As we said at the beginning, mistletoe is a semi-parasite that grows on the branches of various tree species, up to 2000 meters above sea level. Dried herb is sold in drug stores and it's not expensive.
4. Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) - bees love it
It blooms at the end of summer and is a honey plant attracting bees - it is also named after them. It's leaves smell like lemon.
For healing purposes, the leaves of the lemon balm are used before flowering occurs.
Phytochemical studies reveal that the herb contains volatile compounds, triterpenoids, phenolic acids and flavonoids.
Raw extracts and pure compounds isolated from M. officinalis exhibit numerous pharmacological effects, of which only the following are shown in clinical trials:
- anxiolytic (anti-anxiety),
- antispasmodic activities of this plant, as well as its effects on mood, cognition and memory. [ref. 9]
The herb has a potential positive effect in insomnia as well as in the role of an antioxidant. [ref. 10]
It is important to note that its intake with sedative and antipsychotic drugs is absolutely prohibited. Prolonged intake of lemon balm (30 days) can lead to a number of adverse effects.
Where can you find the lemon balm
The lemon balm grows in shrubs and small forests, courtyards, in grassy and rocky places - up to 1200 m above sea level.
5. Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) - the hidden treasure
Stinging nettle is also called common nettle or stinger. Leaves and stalks are collected from June to September, and the roots - in the autumn, in which case it is necessary to act responsibly and not destroy the entire bed, in order to have nettle in this place and the following year.
The plant is well known by everyone because of the dermatitis it causes when touched, due to biochemical mediators such as histamine and acetylcholine. Nettle exhibits a number of strong biological activities such as: antirheumatic, anti-infectious, immunomodulatory, antihyperglycemic (lowers blood sugar) action, as well as for the relief of allergies.
For a long time Urtica dioica has been used as a diuretic agent and for the treatment of arthritis and rheumatism in folk medicine. Today nettle is recognized as an important medicinal herb, and is also consumed as food due to its content of minerals, amino acids, lecithin, carotenoids and vitamins.
А variety of valuable substances are found in nettle, such as flavonoids, tanins and sterols. Its roots contain other biologically active compounds such as scopoletin, fatty acids, polysaccharides and isolectins.
Pharmaceutical studies also found additional medicinal applications of nettle [ref. 11]:
- Analgesic (in joint muscle pain),
- Hepatoprotective effect (protection of the liver),
- For patients with enlarged prostate and other problems with it,
Where can you find nettle
Nettle is a widespread plant and it's found near settlements, roads, landfills, manures, along rivers - on nitrogen-rich soils. If we pick the nettle for food, collect the young tips with the help of a pinch or dense gloves. Besides the leaves, the roots are also used for herb.
Nettle can be purchased at affordable prices - dried or fresh. It is also sold in the form of capsules.
6. Common hedgenettle (Betonica officinalis)
The herb is also known as betony, purple betony, wood betony, bishopwort, or bishop's wort.
The herb is used in [ref. 12]:
- digestive problems, including heartburn, diarrhea and flatulence;
- for breathing problems, including bronchitis and asthma;
- for painful conditions, including gout, headache and facial pain;
- for urinary tract problems including bladder and kidney stones (nephrolithiasis) and pain and swelling of the bladder (inflammation),
- it is also used to treat stress and tension, nervousness and epilepsy,
- in combination with other herbs, betony is used to treat nerve pain (neuralgia) and anxiety,
- potentially lowers blood pressure and therefore you should stop using it at least 2 weeks before surgery; not recommended for people with low blood pressure.
Where can you find betony
The herb grows in meadows, grassy places, in shrubs and small forests. It is allowed to be harvested only for personal needs, that is, up to 1 kg collected by one person per day.
Dried herb is available in pharmacies and drugstores.
7. Common marigold (Calendula officinalis)
Common marigold (Calendula officinalis) is also called pot marigold, ruddles or Scotch marigold. Phytochemical studies show the presence of different classes of compounds, the main ones being: triterpenoids, flavonoids, coumarins, quinones, volatile oils, carotenoids and amino acids.
Studies have reported the following properties of marigold [ref. 13]:
- Anti-inflammatory and against edema,
- For wound healing and for a variety of skin problems,
- In gingivitis (inflammation of the gums),
- Antitumor observed in vitro in cell cultures and in vivo in mice,
- Antigenotoxic (genotoxic substances are those that damage DNA),
- Chemoprotective and hepatoprotective - found in cells and mice,
- Antibacterial and antifungal - inhibits the growth in particular of various representatives of the genus Candida and Rhodotorula, as well as the bacteria Porphyromonos gingivalis, Prevotella spp., Furobacterium nucleatum, Caphocytophaga gingivalis, Veilonella parvula, Eikenella corrodens, Peptostreptococcus micros and Actinomyces odontolyticus,
- Antispasmodic and antispasmodic properties.
Where can you find marigold
It is most often grown in gardens, it loves the bright sun and moist soil and is easily grown from seeds.
The herb is sold in the form of dried flowers, ointments, tincture, oil, capsules.
8. St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum)
St. John's wort is a widespread herb. In order not to be mistaken for other representatives of the genus, when picking the herb, you need to pay attention to whether the petals have multiple small holes when lifting them against the light. From this feature comes the name of the species - perforatum, since the leaves are perforated.
The chemical composition of St. John's wort has been well studied. Antidepressants, antiviral and antibacterial (only in very high concentrations and in Gram(-) bacteria) effects of the herb are confirmed by research and explain some of the traditional uses of the herb [ref. 14].
It seems that many pharmacological actions are due to hypericin and flavonoids. It is believed that hypericin is also responsible for photosensitive reactions that occur when using St. John's wort and sun exposure - therefore, it is not recommended to take the herb in the summer.
With regard to the antidepressant effects of St. John's wort, hyperforin, and not hypericin, as originally thought, has emerged as one of the most important components responsible for antidepressant activity.
St. John's wort is not a harmless herb. Photosensitivity can lead to cataracts, a number of unpleasant side effects are observed, including influence on the emotional state, gastrointestinal disorders, numbness of the limbs. The herb is contraindicated in pregnant women due to negative (teratogenic) effects on the fetus!
Where can you find St. John's wort
St. John's wort is widespread and it grows up to 2000 m above sea level. It blooms from May to August.
9. Common poppy (Papaver rhoeas) and opium poppy (Papaver somniferum)
The common poppy is also called breadseed poppy, and the opium poppy is also known as corn poppy, corn rose, field poppy, Flanders poppy, or red poppy.
Both types of poppy contain the substances morphine, codeine, tecaine and narcotin. Poppy can cause poisoning in larger doses and it is mandatory to use it only under medical supervision!
The common poppy is used in folk medicine for:
- Breathing disorders,
- Treatment of dependence on heroin, morphine and other opioid drugs.
More scientific evidence is needed to assess the effectiveness of the common poppy in the treatment of these conditions.
The opium poppy contains the most opium and therefore overuse can lead to dependence! This type of poppy is used to produce opium, heroin and other drugs. Opium is used to produce morphine and is extracted from the liquid that occurs when immature fruits of the sleeping poppy are injured.
Not all subspecies of the opium poppy contain large amounts of narcotics and therefore find applications in culinary - poppy seed.
The following substances are isolated from the sleeping poppy and they have important properties for medicine:
- narcotic analgesics codeine and morphine,
- papaverine vasodilator,
- cough suppressant with anticancer potential, noscapine,
- antimicrobial sanguinarine,
- cholesterol-lowering berberine,
- muscle relaxant tubocurarine.
Where can you find poppy
Only poppy seed is sold commercially.
10. Maral root (Leuzea carthamoides, Rhaponticum carthamoides)
It is a rare endemic plant that grows in Siberia, Central Asia, Mongolia and China at an altitude of up to 3000 m, on the border of melting glaciers.
As it becomes clear, the herb is not found in our nature, but is sold in the form of various supplements.
Several different classes of compounds were found from different parts of R. carthamoides, of which the main groups were [ref. 15]:
- steroids, in particular ecdysteroids,
- phenols (flavonoids and phenolic acids),
- sesquiterpenic lactons,
- triterpenoid glycosides,
- terpenes (essential oil).
It has been established that various types of preparations, extracts and individual compounds derived from the Maral root have a wide range of pharmacological effects on the brain, blood, cardiovascular and nervous system, as well as on various biochemical processes and physiological functions, including:
- working capacity,
- reproduction and sexual function.
In addition, extracts and preparations of the plant exhibit various additional biological effects, for example:
- Antiparasitic and antiseptic or repellent actions against insects.
Where can you find Maral root
Maral root can be purchased in the form of tablets, essential oil or extract. The price varies depending on the type of product and brand.
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- Heart and Toxins. Chapter 5 - Plant Toxins and the Heart. 2015
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- Melissa officinalis L: A Review Study With an Antioxidant Prospective.
- Phytochemistry and pharmacologic properties of Urtica dioica L. Journal of Medicinal Plants Research. 2012
- Betony. Webmd
- Phytochemistry and Pleiotropic Pharmacological Properties of Calendula officinalis - A Review. Journal of Pharmacognosy and Phytochemistry. 2014
- St John's Wort (Hypericum Perforatum L.): A Review of Its Chemistry, Pharmacology and Clinical Properties. J Pharm Pharmacol. 2001
- Chemistry and pharmacology of Rhaponticum carthamoides: A review. Phytochemistry. 2009
👩 🔬 Rositsa Tashkova-Kacharova has a Bachelor degree in Molecular Biology and a Master's degree in Microbiology and Microbiological Control. She completed her Master's thesis at the University of Nantes, France. At that time she painted a Christmas tree of bacteria and inspired the announcement of the first competition for drawing with microorganisms Agar Art. For 3 years she was the editor of the journal Bulgarian Science and continues to write about science and medicine.