Have you ever wondered what the active ingredients in herbs are?
When we start to turn to more natural lifestyle solutions, herbs pop up in just about all areas. They can be used in cleaning products, hair and skin products and supplements. They can be used to flavor foods, aid in relaxation during massage or aromatherapy and be prescribed as an alternative medicine. Before we turn to these products to replace conventional, chemical-based ones, we can’t help but wonder, what are the components that make up an herb?
Herbs are similar to foods in that they contain a variety of ingredients, including vitamins and minerals. Below are the active components found in plant-producing herbs that modern medicine and science has discovered thus far.
Flavonoids are compounds that are found naturally in certain foods and beverages. They are most commonly linked to foods like wine, berries, tea, chocolate, fruits and vegetables. They are also responsible for creating the yellow and orange colors in herbs. Flavonoids have many benefits for the body, including antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. They can also act as diuretics, lowering blood pressure and healing the blood vessels.
Volatile oils, or essential oils, are made up of various chemical compounds that create their flavorful aromas. Volatile oils are most commonly used in massage therapy or aromatherapy thanks to their relaxing effects on the mind and body. Science has yet to prove that volatile oils can be beneficial from a medical perspective, but many people firmly believe that essential oils can treat and prevent certain health conditions, and because of their complex chemical structures, there is no reason to believe why they can’t.
Volatile oils are taken from the plant through a process called distillation. The oils are a mix of hydrocarbons and oxygenated compounds. The oxygenated state is what determines the taste and smell of the mixture since it’s this form that is soluble in water and alcohol. Monoterpenes are the largest group of volatile oils and include camphor and menthol.
Essential oils are used in settings beyond aromatherapy and massage therapy thanks to their antiseptic and fungicidal properties. Volatile oils have anti-inflammatory and anti-parasitic effects, allowing them to be used for conditions like ringworm, hair loss, colitis and irritable bowel disease. They enhance the body’s ability to fight off certain infections, and they can be used as expectorants or diuretics. Some of the most common volatile oils used for these purposes include thyme, rosemary, chamomile and parsley.
Volatile oils can be absorbed through the skin, inhaled or taken in foods, drinks and herbal medicines.
Phenols are found in the tissues of the plant, and their chemical structures are varied, leaving them to exhibit their own unique characteristics and traits. Thymol, eugenol and salicylic acid are examples of simple herb phenols. Although phenols have many different chemical structures, they are often used for their antibacterial and antiseptic qualities. In some instances, phenols can be used for anesthetic purposes as well.
Tannins are polyphenols that are found in tree bark, wood and the leaves and roots of a plant. What’s interesting about tannin is that it is found in almost all plants across the world. Some plants have a lesser quantity of tannins, such as algae and fungi, but most plants will have some level of these polyphenols. Tannins can be divided into two groups: hydrolysable tannins and condensed tannins.
In plants, tannins are meant to protect them from microorganisms, but tannins also have many uses in our everyday world. For instance, tannins can be used to dye leather or cloth. It has strong antiseptic properties, so it can also be used as a medicinal astringent. Since tannin is designed to protect plants, it also has unique properties that may help with gingivitis and provide anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and anti-parasitic benefits.
Tea and coffee also contain tannins; the slightly bitter aftertaste and brown color can be attributed to tannins. Who knew? Wine is another drink that has tannins from the grape plants. Too much tannin is not ideal since it can lead to calcium deficiencies, but you would need to drink a lot of coffee or tea for this to happen. Still, it’s a factor to keep in mind if you consume a lot of these beverages, as it may be best to switch to a white or green tea.
You may remember from science class that polysaccharides are the long chains of sugar that store carbohydrates for plants and animals. For humans, polysaccharides are one of the three types of carbohydrates. Examples of polysaccharides include starch, pectin and cellulose. Foods with these simple sugars are beneficial to the body since they provide it with energy, help maintain healthy digestion and allow the body to feel fuller for longer.
Since the majority of foods with polysaccharides are starchy ones – potatoes, beans and grains – they can lead to weight gain if you eat too much of them. This happens because polysaccharides are insoluble in water and are able to store glucose without affecting other cells until the glucose is needed. When you consume a lot of carbohydrates, you can gain weight. While a human may not appreciate this fact, for plants and animals that don’t have readily available food like we do, the ability to store energy is crucial.
Alkaloids are plant-derived organic compounds that are composed of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen. Some alkaloids are toxic, but many others are used for medicinal purposes. All alkaloids have physiological effects on the body.
Many of the plant components we’ve discussed today may be foreign to you, but you’ll be surprised to learn that substances like cocaine and caffeine are alkaloids. Alkaloids are generally found in herbs that are used by herbalists and doctors, and they tend to have potent effects, so they must be used carefully. The good news is that as long as the dose is controlled, the effects are generally safe. The most common alkaloids include morphine (opium poppy), nicotine (tobacco), atropine (deadly nightshade) and theobromide (coffee, black tea and cocoa leaves).
Glucosinolates are organic compounds that contain both sulfur and nitrogen and are found in plants from the Brassica genus. When humans eat vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, they consume glucosinolates in their normal diet, which is beneficial to the functioning of our bodies. Glucosinolates detoxify the human body from harmful carcinogens, and they contain antioxidants and enzymes that help the body fight off certain cancers, including breast, lung and colon cancers.
Moreover, glucosinolates work in conjunction with other components such as flavonoids, folate and Vitamin C to cleanse the body and remove toxins and free radicals. It’s important that we eat a diet that is rich in glucosinolates, about five cups a week of vegetables like kale, cabbage and spinach. Other good picks for glucosinolate-rich foods include bok choy, turnips, mustard greens and arugula.
Vitamins and Minerals
Herbs are packed with vitamins and minerals that are essential for the healthy functioning of our bodies. With dozens of herbs such as fenugreek, kelp, saffron, watercress and parsley, it’s possible to get a healthy boost just by adding more herbs to your diet. Below are some of the most common vitamins found in herbs.
- Vitamin A is found in herbs such as dandelion, okra pods and parsley. It’s good for the eyes and the functioning of the mucous membranes and skin cells.
- Vitamin B1 and B2 are good for growth and development and are part of a healthy diet. These vitamins are found in herbs such as fenugreek, dulse and bladderwrack.
- Vitamin B12 helps the development of red blood cells and can help maintain weight in young children. It’s found in kelp and alfalfa.
- Vitamin C is needed daily since it cannot be stored in the body, but it keeps our immunities boosted and our teeth and gums strong. This nutrient can be found in elder berries, marigold and paprika, among others.
- Vitamin D is essential for building strong bones and teeth, and it is contained in herbs like watercress and wheat germ.
- Vitamin E is known for its healthy bone building qualities as well as contributing to healthy eyes and skin. Herbs like wheat germ, watercress and dandelion leaves contain plenty.
In addition to the above vitamins, herbs contain Vitamin G, K and B as well as niacin. All of these vitamins and minerals help the body function properly, boost immunity and keep the skin, bones and teeth healthy and strong. By eating plant-based foods or using herbs to flavor dishes, you can nourish the body with more of these wholesome ingredients that are naturally good to the body, unlike fatty oils, dressings and butters.