Where to Find Nature’s Medicine and How to Use It
Traditional medicine is sometimes scoffed at, but there's no denying that certain plants and herbs can help the body. Many of them are part of healing practices that go back centuries or even millennia.
While we're lucky to have modern medicine, sometimes it's good to go with the tried-and-true natural remedies that, though usually less potent, can also be less abrasive to the body.
These are the most effective plants that act as nature's medicine and how native cultures have traditionally used them.
Native to: Arabian Peninsula
Aloe vera has been used for medicinal purposes for over 5,000 years, starting around 3000 B.C. Through trade within the Byzantine Empire, it spread from its native Arabian Peninsula to Northern Africa and all the way to Italy.
As anyone who's ever been sunburnt will tell you, aloe vera is the main ingredient in most after-sun treatments. The plant's gel helps reduce inflammation, redness and burns. It also has antibacterial properties, healing wounds and preventing small infections. In small quantities, it can be eaten to improve digestion.
Aloe vera is easy to grow and maintain in any garden or apartment.
*Note: As with any modern medication, traditional healing plants can have side effects or react badly in combination with other medicine, natural or not. Consult a doctor if you are unsure of potential risks.
Native to: China, Korea, Siberia, United States
Ginseng is mostly connected to traditional Chinese and Korean medicine, where it has been used for over 5,000 years. Even today, you will likely leave any modern doctor's office with packets of ginseng extract. In North America, the plant is used by numerous tribes, including the Muscogee (or Creek) people in Oklahoma and the Meskwaki people of the Great Lakes Region.
Considered a panacea, ginseng is thought to help with everything from headaches to fevers to digestive issues, fatigue and even impotence.
Because it is safe to ingest, it is often recommended that people integrate ginseng into their diets as a regular ingredient, or take daily supplements of it for its numerous health benefits.
Native to: South Asia
The bright orange spice is a staple of South Asian diets, both for its flavor and its purported healing abilities. Turmeric is an essential part of Ayurveda, a traditional wellness practice that continues to be important in the Indian subcontinent.
For more than 4,000 years, turmeric has been consumed for its anti-inflammatory properties, helping people with arthritis and tendinitis. It is also believed to be rich in antioxidants, which help prevent aging and decay in the body.
Because of its effectiveness, turmeric is one of the herbs we constantly recommend to friends.
Native to: Southwestern Asia, Western Europe, Macaronesia, the Mediterranean
Another panacea that has spread around the world, calendula is also known as marigold. It is mainly used topically, to help with numerous skin issues, as it is astringent, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory without being abrasive. Because of this, calendula is a common ingredient in several skin care products from the best-known brands.
Not content with helping your skin externally, this pretty little flower also can be safely ingested to treat ulcers, gastritis and digestive issues. It is usually made into a soft and soothing tea and any leftovers are used for skin and hair masks.
For anything skin-related, we can attest that calendula will never lead you astray.
Native to: Europe and Asia
Valerian's history as a medicine is so old, Hippocrates himself used to prescribe it to his patients, and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius took it for his insomnia.
The extract from this flower is a powerful depressant that is used to induce sleep. Though it is very effective, it should be used with caution. Think of it as a natural Benadryl. Take it right before going to sleep, and do not operate heavy machinery or drive afterward.
When ingested as tea, it is not as potent, but drops can affect people dramatically. Start with three drops to see how the plant affects you, and then slowly up the dosage if you find that the effect is not strong enough for you.
Native to: The Americas
Cacao originated in Ecuador, where the Mayo-Chinchipe people used it as a drink over 5,300 years ago. Over time, it spread up to Mexico, where the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs famously regarded it as the drink of the gods.
Different civilizations in the Americas used cacao as medicine. The dried beans make a bitter tea that boosts the immune system and is said to help lower blood pressure and cholesterol. It has also been proven to release endorphins, the happiness hormones, which is why chocolate is linked to romantic gestures today.
Shamans still use cacao for spiritual rituals, believing that the euphoric state it leads to can help connect to other realms.
Though it's difficult to find cacao beans in most places, you can enjoy some of their health properties by eating dark chocolate (the darker, the better) or booking cacao-centric tours and experiences in destinations like Mexico, Ecuador and Puerto Rico, where the fruit is grown.
Native to: Eastern and southern Europe, western Asia
Even the biggest herbal medicine skeptics have to concede the power of chamomile. The small flower is used to make one of the most popular teas in the world, famous for its soothing and relaxing effects.
In the second millennium B.C., ancient Greeks and Egyptians crushed the flowers and used them to treat topical skin problems. Though this use isn't as common anymore, you can still find soothing beauty products that list chamomile as an ingredient.
The best part about chamomile is that it can be safely consumed in large properties, particularly when diluted as a tea. People also ingest it by taking pills or tablets, which have higher doses and can be helpful for people with anxiety.
Native to: Temperate regions of Asia, northern Africa
In China, sweet wormwood has been used as an effective medicine for intermittent fevers since the third or fourth century A.D.
Though use has never waned in the region, modern medicine scoffed at the practices for decades, until a Chinese scientist named Tu Youyou combined traditional and modern knowledge to make an antimalarial medication using sweet wormwood extract. The medication proved so effective that Youyou went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2015.
Other types of wormwood are used throughout northern Africa to treat hypertension, stomachaches and even bronchitis.
Native to: South Pacific Islands
The exact origin of kava is unsure, though it's usually traced some 3,000 years back to the islands that make Vanuatu (one of the least-visited countries in the world). The shrub spread throughout the South Pacific, including Hawaii, where native islanders still use it.
Like chamomile, kava is mainly used to treat stress and anxiety by using it to make a calming tea. Naturally, it is also used to help induce sleepiness.
Enjoy kava's relaxing properties, but be mindful of how much you ingest since consuming too much can lead to an upset stomach. You should also be careful if you're handling the root directly, as some people have an allergic reaction.
Native to: East and South Asia
For over 2,000 years, people in Asia have valued ginger as a golden egg of wellness. Famous for its anti-inflammatory properties, it is considered one of the healthiest ingredients you can add to your diet, which is why you will find it in numerous forms and in countless traditional meals throughout the continent.
Other properties of ginger include reducing nausea and seasickness, helping with indigestion, relieving sore throats and killing rhinoviruses. If you have a common cold, you should drink ginger tea at least once a day.
Because of its ability to provide relief from different afflictions, ginger was extremely valuable in ancient China. Records suggest that it was worth as much as a sheep. We're just thankful that we get to live at a time when ginger is affordable and easily accessible.
Native to: South Asia, Middle East, Africa
Ashwagandha is native to an extensive region between Africa and Asia, but it is mostly connected to Indian Ayurveda.
The ancient practice has used ashwagandha since at least 6000 B.C., categorizing it as a Rasayana, or rejuvenator, because it is rich in antioxidants and helps reduce stress. Traditionally, the superfood is also used in India to boost cognitive processes and memory.
Now popular around the world, the shrub can be found in the form of tea, pills or powder. Fans of alternative medicine use it for anxiety and fatigue, claiming it can boost energy.
Native to: The Americas
A species of passionflower, maypop is an integral medicine for some North American tribes, including the Houma people of Louisiana. Traditionally, the flower is used as a tonic that is mildly sedative, helping reduce anxiety and improve sleep.
The Mayans crushed it and used it topically to treat ringworm and swelling. In Peru, it is mixed with other plants to create a hallucinogenic drink present in some indigenous spiritual rituals. Passionflower was so important to native peoples in the region that Spanish Jesuit monks brought it back to Europe and presented it as a gift to Pope Paul V in 1605.
Though it is mostly safe for consumption and can certainly help with stress, it should not be consumed during pregnancy, since it can induce labor.
Native to: North America
Though Europeans made evening primrose into a pretty decorative flower, Native Americans were aware of the plant's benefits for centuries.
The Cherokees, Iroquois, Ojibwe and Potawatomi use evening primrose as both food and medicine, taking advantage of every single part of it. Boiled as tea or chewed, the plant boosts energy and can help with weight control. There are claims that it may help polycystic ovary syndrome, which causes fatigue and extreme period pain. Applied topically, it soothes soreness in muscles or improves mild skin problems like dermatitis or eczema.
If you grow it in your garden, you'll also enjoy a beautiful and unique plant whose flowers open up as the sun sets.
Native to: Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East, South Asia
One of the easiest medicinal plants to incorporate into your diet, flax seeds are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids. You can find them pretty much in every supermarket and add them to a variety of foods like smoothies, baked goods, salads and meat sauces.
Purported benefits include antioxidant properties, calming swelling, reducing the likelihood of heart diseases, lowering cholesterol, improving bowel movement and sweetening bitter foods.
But historically, flax seed was much more than one of nature's most versatile medicines. During ancient times, it was used all over Asia and the Mediterranean to make clothes, ropes, fishing nets and other useful materials.
Native to: Australia
Anyone unfortunate enough to have ever dealt with acne knows tea tree is considered the holy grail ingredient for treating greasy, acne-prone skin.
The first people to use tea tree were the aboriginal people of Australia, who, like us, take advantage of its benefits to treat skin problems. Besides acne, it can be used for insect bites, small wounds and even athlete's foot.
Aborigines also inhale the oil made from tea tree extract as cold medicine, since it can help with coughing and congestion.
Native to: North America
Native Americans used echinacea for centuries before European colonization and helped make it mainstream in Europe when doctors noticed different tribes use it to treat the common cold.
Plains tribes that have traditionally used the plant include the Cheyenne, the Pawnee, the Lakota and the Kiowa. Besides colds, it's used for sore throats, headaches, pain, stomach cramps and toothaches. Some tribes even used it to treat snake bites.
There is some Western scientific evidence suggesting that echinacea is effective in preventing or killing colds at the onset, so the next time you feel yourself coming down with something, reach out for your echinacea tea.
Native to: Central Asia
Have you ever heard that red wine is good for you because it has antioxidants and can promote good circulation? While that's true, wine also has side effects, including intoxication, dehydration and a bad hangover the morning after.
But you can still get all the alleged benefits of wine by taking some grapeseed oil. Like wine, the oil is made from grapes, so you get all of the good aspects without dealing with drunkenness.
Grapes are originally from Central Asia. They were one of the crops to extend the earliest and fastest among civilizations. It's easy to see why. They make great food, great wine and great medicine.
Native to: Central Asia
Garlic was another cure-all medicinal food in the Indian subcontinent. In India, it has been used for millennia for pretty much everything. Besides making any meal more delicious, it is said to help with high blood pressure, arthritis, colics, and indigestion.
Traditionally, it was thought to even help against intestinal worms and disinfect food. In Sanskrit, garlic is "mahoushudh," which translated to "panacea."
Most people today consume garlic every day, though it's more for its flavor than for medicinal purposes. But the next time you're cooking, remember that fragrant herb is also good for your health.
Native to: South Africa
One of South Africa's most famous exports, rooibos is used to make a strong tea used for cramps, digestive issues and vomiting.
In South Africa, traditional doctors often prescribe it for babies who are suffering from restlessness and cramps. The leaves are diluted in water or milk to make a weak drink for infants.
Adults around the world also enjoy the caffeine-free tea for its taste and its antioxidant qualities.
Native to: South America
Coca has sadly become one of the most misunderstood medicinal plants on Earth because of its connection to cocaine. And though the plant is used to make the synthetic drug, on its own, it is not dangerous nor addictive.
Before the drug trade marred its name, coca was one of the most important medicines of indigenous people throughout South America. The plant helps your body adapt to high altitudes by stimulating oxygenation and the respiratory system. It also boosts energy, suppresses hunger and thirst, and numbs mild pain.
Before colonization and for centuries after, coca was key to helping people cross through the majestic but challenging Andes mountains. Today, it continues to be an important ancestral plant for indigenous groups in the region, as well as for the population at large.
When dealing with the high altitudes of the continent, drinking coca tea will help ward off altitude sickness. If you plan to go hiking or climbing, bring dry coca leaves to chew — you will feel a surge of energy almost immediately.
Native to: The Mediterranean
There is a reason why spas all over the world use lavender candles, oils and creams. The beautiful purple plant is known for its calming therapeutic properties, which reduce blood pressure, migraines, anxiety and stress.
Traditionally, people in the Mediterranean region have also used it topically, as it can serve as an analgesic for bug bites, small wounds and burns.
Native to: Northern Africa, the Mediterranean
The ancient Egyptians valued mint so much that it could be used for currency. Even before 1550 B.C., they treated stomachaches with it and also used it for its antiseptic and antimicrobial benefits.
You will still find medicinal creams and tablets that use mint for preventing infections, but it is now most commonly made into tea appreciated for inducing calmness and relaxation. It is effective for sore throats and coughs as well.
Native to: Eurasia
Dandelions were used as food by prehistoric hunter-gatherers in Eurasia. The entirely edible plant is rich in Vitamins A and K, iron and calcium. Because of this, it is incorporated into numerous cuisines worldwide, from Spain to Korea.
When it's not cooked, dandelion can be used for tea, where it acts as a diuretic and a mild laxative, for those who are experiencing digestive issues. It stimulates the pancreas and helps detox, something that has made it very popular with the health-conscious community.
However, we recommend being careful about how much you consume, since you don't want to end up going overboard and suffering from a bad case of loose bowels.
Native to: India
If the name hasn't tipped you, holy basil is venerated in India, where it provides natural medicine for a number of health issues.
Tea is made with it to treat colds, intestinal issues, fevers and asthma. Some even believe it can help with diabetes, though it is difficult to prove how accurate this is.
Skin ailments are also treated with it, with afflicted areas rubbed in juice from the holy basil plants. Stings and ringworm are two of the most common issues treated with it.
Native to: China
Like ginseng and ginger, ginkgo is part of Chinese millenary medicinal knowledge. The leaves from the ginkgo biloba tree are used for respiratory problems like asthma and bronchitis. It is usually prescribed for patients suffering from chronic fatigue and over-exhaustion.
Because of its numerous benefits, ginkgo is now planted all over the world, with vitamin capsules, powders and drinks being sold in mainstream pharmacies and markets as well as in alternative health stores.
Native to: Europe, Western Asia, North Africa
Saint-John's-wort is another pretty yellow flower with healing properties. It was used by the ancient Greeks and Romans for insomnia, lung and kidney problems and depression. Records show that Roman military doctors relied on it for wound healing and for alleviating muscle soreness.
During the Middle Ages, the flower appears to have been used in potions thought to be magic. Today, it is still used in Eurasia and the Maghreb to induce sleepiness and to complement depression treatment.
Native to: Balkan Peninsula
This perennial plant works both as a condiment and as medicine. Ancient Romans cooked with it often, using it to make a common seasoning paste. Rue was also a main ingredient in several poisoning antidotes, though it's difficult to know how effective it was for this.
The medieval Catholic Church used rue to ward off witches and bad spirits. Priests would dip it into holy water and then shake the branches over parishioners to sprinkle them, thus blessing them.
Rue continues to be an important medicinal herb, used mostly for stomach and digestive issues. It is supposed to aid with indigestion, diarrhea, colics and gas.
Native to: Southwestern United States, Northern Mexico
Translating to "holy weed," yerba santa is a miraculous medicinal plant. Spanish priests gave it its name after they learned about its healing abilities from Native Americans.
Traditionally, the entire plant was used in various ways. Tribes like the Kawaiisus, the Salinan and the Ohlone treated ailments like gonorrhea, eye irritation, rheumatism, wounds, insect bites, fevers and respiratory problems. The Ohlone also made clothes with the leaves.
Yerba santa can be brewed into tea, chewed, smashed or smoked, depending on what you want to treat. It also works as a diuretic and contains Vitamin C. It is miraculous, indeed.
Native to: Europe
The rare and beautiful arnica has been used in Europe for centuries to treat muscle and joint pain as well as swelling. Its analgesic properties have made it a popular cream sold around the world, though production is limited by environmental protections in several European countries.
Arnica is very effective in calming down pain, but this also makes it a plant that warrants some caution. In large or concentrated quantities, it can be poisonous or harmful. Direct contact with the plant can also irritate the skin.
Unless you're an expert, we suggest definitely using arnica for pain, but sticking to premade creams and treatments that are safe and regulated.
Native to: Sub-Saharan Africa, Oman, Pakistan, India
Though it is found in several countries in Africa and Asia, Sudan is responsible for most gum arabic production.
Made from the sap of tree bark, gum arabic is an important part of traditional medicine in the arid regions of Sub-Saharan Africa. It is used to treat a variety of ailments, including typhoid fever, bronchitis, bleeding, dysentery and diarrhea.
It also used to be an ingredient in medicine for leprosy, but that's more uncommon today.