Plant-based remedies can ease the
infirmities that come with growing older.
By Lisa James
Greater happiness, wisdom and leisure, plus grandkids to dote on: For many people getting older does have its advantages. The biggest disadvantage, though, is the ill health that advancing age often brings. One study found that 82% of Medicaid beneficiaries (people 65 or older) had at least one chronic illness such as cardiovascular disease or arthritis; 65% had multiple conditions. It’s no wonder that Medicaid paid nearly half of the country’s $387.2 billion hospitalization bill in 2011.
These numbers—and the human suffering that lies behind them—explain why people are seeking alternative means to staying healthy, including the use of herbal remedies. “People realize that while orthodox medicine has many answers, there are situations where pharmaceuticals don’t work or have too many adverse effects,” says David Winston, RH(AHG), herbalist, ethnobotanist and coauthor, with Steven Maimes, of Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief (Inner Traditions).
Richard Mandelbaum, a clinical herbalist who practices in Brooklyn, New York, and directs the ArborVitae School of Traditional Herbalism in New York City, calls the increase in interest over the past two decades “dramatic” and says women were the early adopters of herbal medicine. “They tend to have been dismissed more by the medical community in terms of their own needs,” he explains. “When I first started practicing it was almost entirely women. That has started to shift in recent years.”
One reason herbs have become popular, according to Mandelbaum, is the “increased research and science to back up traditional herbal usages. The United States has always been an outlier in the use of herbs, which has been much more accepted elsewhere. We’re playing catchup.”
The strength of herbal medicine lies in its ability, when used with necessary lifestyle changes, to deal with the underlying causes of illness instead of simply addressing symptoms. “Our physiology has co-evolved with plants as remedies, not just as food,” says Mandelbaum. “The plants we consume as medicine can be incredibly important for the prevention of disease and regulating physiological function.”
Herbs are, in general, safer than pharmaceutical drugs, especially the milder types often eaten as food. This includes items such as “blueberries, ginger, turmeric, garlic, oregano, cranberry or cinnamon, as well as mild, very safe herbs such as lemon balm, hawthorn berries, chamomile, peppermint or dandelion root,” says Winston. “These herbs have a very low incidence of adverse effects, can be used in reasonable quantities and over long periods of time.” More medicinal herbs “are stronger acting, have a greater potential for side effects if used incorrectly and need a greater degree of knowledge before using them.”
Mandelbaum and Winston recommend seeing a professional before taking herbs, especially if you are under treatment. “For instance, if someone is on a blood thinner I would highly recommend they see a professional herbalist for guidance in addition to consulting a physician,” Mandelbaum says. “They need to communicate to the physician and other practitioners what they are taking.”
Winston notes that while a lot less common than interactions among different drugs, “herb/drug interactions can and do occur. This issue becomes more complicated when an elder is taking six, eight, 15 pharmaceuticals. Adding herbs to this already challenging situation should only be done with the supervision of a highly trained clinician.” (To find an herbalist, visit americanherbalistsguild.com; other professionals, such as naturopathic physicians and Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors, also include herbalism in their practices.)
Proper dosage is crucial. “Many herbs are safe when used at an appropriate dose,” says Winston. “Increasing the dose beyond what is recommended can at times lead to problems including nausea, headaches or diarrhea.” What constitutes a proper dose can change as people grow older. “The digestive function changes as we age; there may be a changed absorption rate, there may be changes in liver metabolism,” Mandelbaum explains.
Stress and Inflammation: Underlying Causes
Many of the long-term disorders that plague seniors have one factor in common: runaway low-level inflammation. This hidden biological fire has been linked to everything from cardiovascular disease to Alzheimer’s to several types of cancer.
Cutting sugar intake is the first step in dousing inflammation’s destructive flame, as is switching to a diet rich in low-carbohydrate vegetables. In addition, several herbs have anti-inflammatory properties. Turmeric (Curcuma longa), a spice used in curry, is used in its native India for inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and as a blood purifier and tonic; it has shown an ability to inhibit free radical damage. Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), best known for helping to ease migraines, also fights inflammation as does the kitchen spice oregano (Origanum vulgare), especially as the extract Origanox.
Studies have implicated stress as a trigger for inflammation and an accelerator of the aging process. A group of herbs known as adaptogens help offset the effects of stress, producing a “wonderful increase in resistance and vitality,” according to clinical herbalist David Hoffmann, FNIMH, AHG, author of numerous books on herbal medicine including Herbs for Healthy Aging (Healing Arts Press).
One of the best-known adaptogens, Korean or red ginseng (Panax ginseng) has been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine as a life-promoting tonic for seniors.Other adaptogens have also shown themselves to be useful. The Siberian native rhodiola (R. rosea) has been found to fight fatigue and sharpen mental acuity.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) helps support the adrenal glands, which can become exhausted under conditions of extreme stress; this Indian herb is available as the standardized extract Sensoril.
Stress can make it harder to get a good night’s sleep, already a problem for many older people. Poor sleep, in turn, has been found to promote higher levels of inflammation markers such as fibrinogen and C-reactive protein.
In addition to recommending a regular sleep routine and the avoidance of stimulants such as caffeine, especially in the evening, herbalists employ a number of gentle remedies to encourage better sleep. They include chamomile (Matricaria recutita), an inflammation fighter used to treat fevers and other conditions; hops (Humulus lupulus), which helps ease spasms; and passion flower (Passiflora incarnata), an anti-anxiety agent.
Stress and inflammation also play key roles in the development of cardiovascular disease, one of the most common conditions among elders. One herb that can help is as close as the kitchen pantry. Garlic (Allium sativum) has long been used “for lowering blood pressure and generally improving the health of the cardiovascular system, and recent research supports this traditional folk remedy,” says Hoffmann. The “stinking rose” has also been found to reduce cholesterol levels.
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is European herbalism’s main cardiac herb. With good reason: “There are stronger herbs, but none that provide the nourishing regeneration of hawthorn,” says Hoffmann, adding that this herb “is remarkably free of side effects, effective in its action and dramatically cheaper than equivalent synthetic preparations.”
The heart isn’t the only organ affected by poor circulation. Impeded blood flow within the brain can not only dull mental performance but may lead to strokes, in which brain cells start to die from lack of oxygen and nutrients.
The best-known herb for cerebral circulation is ginkgo (G. biloba). This Asian herb “is proving effective in a range of vascular disorders,” notes Hoffmann, who says ginkgo has been suggested for everything from vertigo and tinnitus (ringing in the ears) to memory and concentration deficits to intermittent claudication (leg pain caused by insufficient circulation) and diabetic tissue damage.
Two herbal extracts also show promise in supporting brain health. Huperzine-A, taken from the Chinese club moss (Huperzia serrata), has been shown to increase levels of a key brain chemical called acetylcholine. Vinpocetine, derived from the lesser periwinkle (Vinca minor), helps increase circulation in the brain.
Moving with Ease
Arthritis can seriously degrade one’s quality of life by making movement difficult and painful, sometimes to the point where exercise—a key factor in overall health and well-being—becomes practically impossible.
Two dietary supplements, glucosamine and chondroitin, are the most commonly used natural remedies for osteoarthritis. However, herbs can also be helpful. Black cherry (Prunus cerasus) helps reduce inflammation; it has been found to ease muscular pain as well. Boswellia (B. serrata), the source of frankincense, is an anti-inflammatory also available as the extract ApresFlex.
Urinary System Relief
Another irritation associated with aging is the need to spend more time running for the bathroom. Most male urinary problems are caused by benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), a swelling of the prostate gland. (Urinary difficulties should always be brought to a professional’s attention, as prostate cancer causes similar symptoms.)
The best-known herb for prostate ailments is saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), which Hoffmann says helps to “tone and strengthen the male reproductive system.” It is often combined with pygeum (Prunus africana), the bark of an African tree traditionally used for genito-urinary complaints.
Among women the need to urinate frequently, especially if accompanied by burning, is often a sign of bladder infections, which can become more frequent with age. Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) helps prevent bacteria from attaching to the walls of the urinary tract.
As medical costs continue to rise, especially for seniors, herbs can help boost well-being safely and less expensively. Mandelbaum says, “As we’re rethinking our healthcare system, if we begin to move towards promotion of health and prevention of disease, herbal remedies are a perfect fit.”
The Challenges—and Joys—
The Baby Boomers, those 76.4 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, became the first country’s youth culture in the 1960s, when the oldest cohort mobilized against the Vietnam War and for civil rights. And now the Boomers are remaking the American populace through both sheer numbers and the fact that the average person lives longer than ever before.
“Since January 1, 2011 (when the first members of this generation turned 65), and each and every day for the next 20 years, roughly 10,000 Americans will celebrate their 65th birthdays,” reports the Centers for Disease Control. By 2030, when the last Boomer blows out the candles on that special birthday cake, one of every five people in the US will be an older adult.
What’s more, members of this generation are redefining what it means to be a senior citizen. “The trend toward increased longevity is not just about adding years to your life, but adding life to your years,” says Jody Gastfriend, vice president of senior care at Care.com. “Many people remain fairly spry well into their 80s and beyond.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t bumps in the road to senior well-being, and one of the biggest can be limitations forced by declining mobility and health. Sometimes “adult children feel they must assume the role of parent and take charge,” Gastfriend says. “As well-intended as this approach may be, it frequently backfires. Adult children should try to engage with their parents in a collaborative way, making suggestions without being coercive.” Such conflicts can extend to differences in how adult siblings view an aging parent’s need for increasing support; Gastfriend suggests staying “focused on the current situation rather than dredging up unresolved conflicts from the past. Share points of view before approaching a parent about concerns, so you can address issues as a unified front as much as possible.”
The best way to make life easier as you age is to start preparing long beforehand. Gastfriend quotes Theodore Roosevelt: “Old age is like anything else. To make a success of it, you’ve got to start young.” She recommends planning ahead “financially, psychologically and logistically. Good care and a strong support system are essential, particularly for the 90% of people who want to age in place. Familiarize yourself with the landscape of senior care: the costs, different types of care, legal issues and family demands.”
While planning your senior years is important, so is finding purpose in them. “The connections we make and nurture over a lifetime bear fruit as we grow older,” Gastfriend notes. “To age successfully, we must find ways to be generative even as our capacities diminish. As people age they look back on their life and either achieve a sense of fulfillment and gratitude or are embittered by regret and despair.”
One way many older people find life’s sweetness is through attention to spiritual growth, starting with a realistic view of the aging process. Such equanimity “requires a level of spiritual maturity that challenges the best of us,” write Robert Weber, PhD, and Carol Orsborn, PhD, in The Spirituality of Age: A Seeker’s Guide to Growing Older (Park Street Press, spiritualityofage.com). “But this is the only path to embracing the entirety of our lives as the fulfillment of our spiritual purpose.”
Often people only start down this path when they are forced to. Orsborn notes that in addition to such external triggers as illness, relationship issues and money troubles, people can be led to a deeper questioning of life through “such internal instigators as the inability to make a decision, the nagging sense that you are perceived by others differently than how you feel inside, persistent self-neglect of your physical or emotional needs, free-floating anxiety and the like.”
To help develop such insight, Weber and Orsborn provide a series of thought-provoking questions. Some examples: How has your spirituality changed and deepened over time? What is the relationship between spirituality and religion? How can you assess your progress toward a more mature spirituality? The idea, the authors say, is to “become a whole that is capable of embracing opposing tensions.”
Do you have a 65th birthday coming up? It helps to remember that even as the passing years take away, they also provide. “With age comes perspective, emotional balance, wisdom and patience,” says Gastfriend. “And that is something to savor.”