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Better Than Big Pharma: 5 Herbs You Can't Do Without

Sometimes herbs can deliver up healing powers that pharmaceutical companies can only dream about.

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One word of caution about using turmeric: some sources say that the active ingredient is fat soluble (meaning you have to consume it with some fat in order to get its benefits) and works best when combined with a small amount of black pepper. In other words, maybe consuming turmeric in a curry is a good idea!

4. Dandelion: This scourge of suburban lawns everywhere is actually a superfood. And every single part of the plant is useful or edible, from the root to the flower. Even the sap can be used topically on warts. In herbal medicine, the root and the leaf are used most often. Dandelion leaf is bitter, especially after the plant flowers. Herbalists say the bitterness of the leaves stimulate digestion, making dandelion leaf a good choice as a salad green to eat at the start of a meal.

Dandelion leaves are also highly nutritious. But watch out – the French word for this diuretic herb is pissenlit (“wet the bed”). While it will send you to the bathroom, it won’t actually make you wet the bed.

Both the leaf and the root – especially the root – are great for your liver. Dandelion root is a fantastic detox herb. One way to enjoy it is as “coffee,” by roasting the dried root until it changes color and becomes fragrant. Then use the roasted root to make a coffee-like, caffeine-free beverage. You can even add cream and honey like you would to real coffee.

5.   Elder: Although elder is used for fewer purposes than the other herbs on this list, it makes the cut because they are such a delicious introduction to herbal medicine. You might be familiar with elder only through pop culture references in Harry Potter and Monty Python, or maybe you’ve heard of elderflower cordial and elderberry wine. But did you know that elderberries are an herbal powerhouse for boosting your immune function? Before cold season begins, make a batch of elderberry syrup to help your family keep from getting sick. Elderberry syrup blurs the line between medicine and dessert.

Before delving into treating yourself with herbs, it’s a good idea to check out a book or at least a website like to familiarize yourself with the basics. And be sure to check with your doctor, especially if you are treating children or you are pregnant, breastfeeding, taking prescription drugs, or suffering from a medical condition.

However, you might already use ginger and turmeric in your cooking, and odds are you use other potent herbal remedies in the kitchen as well. Garlic, cinnamon, onions, thyme, shiitake mushrooms, peppermint, black pepper, cilantro, cayenne, and lavender are all useful for both culinary and medicinal purposes. So even if you don’t plan on becoming a guru of herbal remedies, go ahead and spice up your cooking. Or expand on your culinary use of herbs and spices by discovering how to take your health into your own hands. 

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of "Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It."

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