Fall is the start of the colds season. As soon as the classic symptoms of coughing, sniffing and hoarseness become problematic, herbal medicines can provide fast and reliable relief – better still, they are almost well-tolerated.
It is these stressful days in fall that make Dr. Sebastian Michael wonder why he ever became a pharmacist. Throughout the day, he faces an unrelenting stream of coughing, sneezing and sniffing customers. “As soon as the weather turns cooler, we get the first wave of patients with cold symptoms.”
He likes to switch off after work by going for walks. And it is on these walks through the countryside surrounding his home town of Leipzig that he sees the nettles, chamomile and dandelions at the side of the road and remembers why he chose his job. “All these unassuming plants have enormous healing properties and can provide relief for a number of illnesses,” he says. “Even now, we have still not unlocked the full potential of what they contain – I find that simply amazing.”
His pharmacy is located in Waldheim, a small city in rural Saxony, Germany. A few years ago, he took over the well-established Löwenapotheke there, and then put his heart and soul into creating a pharmacy focused on phytotherapy – herbal remedies. “This means that our consultations consciously focus on plant-based treatments and highlight alternatives to chemical medicines,” explains Michael. “All my employees are trained in this, and our shop stocks a wide range of plant-based products and pharmaceuticals.”
Michael has been successful with this approach, and the feedback from his customers is all positive. His range of natural remedies is right on trend. “Plant-based pharmaceuticals are becoming increasingly popular – for good reason,” explains Bayer researcher Dr. Olaf Kelber. “In many cases, they are just as effective as chemical substances and have the great advantage that they are often very well tolerated.”
Dr. Olaf Kelber works in Bayer AG’s Consumer Health Division to develop innovative herbal medicines. The company is working intensively on researching plant-based health products, and its sales range includes Iberogast, a tried-and-tested treatment for functional gastrointestinal conditions, which is successful in many countries.
Plant-based pharmaceuticals are just as effective as chemical substances and they are often very well tolerated.
However, Kelber feels plant-based pharmaceuticals can help with the common cold as well as stomach problems. After all, “the centrally acting chemical medicines treat irritative cough by inhibition of the cough center in the brain, meaning they have to travel a long way to relieve the symptoms,” he explains. “Phytotherapy, on the other hand, treats the symptoms where they occur – in the throat.”
For example, Dr. Sebastian Michael recommends plant-based pharmaceuticals based on mallow for dry coughs. Bayer’s product Phytohustil makes use of this medicinal herb – especially the roots contain a comparatively high level of mucilage. “This forms a protective layer over the irritated membranes in the throat, thus providing quick, reliable relief from the cough,” explains Sebastian. “As quickly as one to 15 minutes after application, there can be a noticeable improvement in the symptoms.”
Ten Key Medicinal Plants
There are hundreds of plants that contain substances that make them ideal for treating illnesses. The history of herbal medicine stretches back to the beginning of human history, and there is written evidence of the use and cultivation of medicinal herbs that can be traced back to ancient times. Here are some of the tried-and-tested medicinal plants that have been used in phytopharmacognosy for generations:
The medicinal power of arnica is in the flowers. These contain flavonoids, essential oils and sesquiterpene lactones, which have anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties. Applied externally, arnica can help with injuries such as swelling, sprains and bruises. The medicinal plant can also be used as an ointment, oil or cream to treat muscle and joint complaints.
Valerian contains essential oils with sesquiterpenes. These are thought to give the plant its calming effect and promote sleep. Valerian is used on its own or in combination with other plants such as passion flower and lemon balm to create a mild sedative or sleeping aid.
The dried, ripe fruits contain spicy chemicals called capsaicinoids. If these come in contact with the skin or mucous membrane, the pain receptors in that area send a message to the brain and the heat receptors increase blood circulation in that region. The skin reddens, becomes warm, and burns. This loosens stiff muscles and eases spasms. The capsaicin also reduces sensitivity in the nerve endings, thus easing pain symptoms. Ointments, creams and plasters with cayenne pepper are effective for muscle and nerve pain.
The root of the mallow consists of between ten and 20 percent mucilage. This adheres to the mucous membranes of the mouth, throat and stomach, forming a kind of protective layer that has a calming effect. When the mucous membrane of the throat is irritated and inflamed due to a cold, mallow helps suppress dry coughs and ease hoarseness.
Ginseng is most commonly found in the forests and mountainous regions of China, Korea and Siberia. The roots of the plant are processed into medicine when it is four to seven years old. They contain saponins, which include ginsenosides. The roots also contain small amounts of essential oil, peptidoglycans and polyacetylenes. A number of studies have concluded that ginseng helps boost the body’s own resistance to stress and illness. There are also indications that ginseng improves the memory and ability to learn. Ginseng preparations can help in cases of tiredness, weakness and exhaustion.
The rootstock of the ginger plant contains an essential oil containing substances including zingiberens, curcumin and beta-eudesmol. The ginger root also contains zingiberols that give it its typical taste. The effects include increasing the amount of stomach acid, which stimulates digestion. The substances in ginger can also treat nausea, pain and inflammation.
Saint John’s wort
Saint John’s wort has been used as a medicinal plant from ancient times, and is used to treat mild to moderate depression, based on sound evidence. Among the main active components are hypericin and flavonoids.
The roots and leaves of dandelions are processed for medicinal purposes. The plant contains a lot of rare bitter substances. These increase the production of saliva and stomach acid, stimulate digestion and appetite and boost the function of the gall bladder. It has also been used for its diuretic effect.
Horse chestnut seeds contain aescin. This substance seals vascular walls, thus preventing water from accumulating in the tissue. Horse chestnut is also a mild anti-inflammatory. Extracts of the plant are therefore used to treat vein weakness and varicose veins, for example swollen ankles or heavy legs in the evening. Horse chestnut treatments come in the form of ointment, gel, capsules or tablets.
The roots and flowers of the primrose plant contain saponins, which are expectorants. They stimulate the mucous membrane of the stomach, and through a reflex also that of the lungs, making them secrete more. This thins the mucus. This effect helps in colds and coughs with thick mucus that will not clear the lungs on its own.
More information on medicinal plants can be found in the herbal encyclopedia published by Kooperation Phytopharmaka.
Even in the second phase of a cold, when the dry cough turns into a mucus cough after two to three days, there are two medicinal plants that can effectively treat the symptoms – thyme and primrose root. This is why Bayer's Phytobronchin contains extracts from these plants. They loosen stubborn mucus, enabling it to be removed more easily. “The pharmaceutical is also antibacterial and antispasmodic,” says Kelber. “What’s more, it can easily be combined with Phytohustil.” He adds that a further advantage of many plant-based pharmaceuticals is that they are compatible with other medicines.
Sebastian Michael is convinced of the benefits of his herbal champions: “Frequently, phytopharmaceuticals can help just as much, if not more, than chemical medicines,” he says. “It is not unusual for customers to be surprised by how effective they are, as they do not expect much.” Of course, he does not rely solely on phytopharmaceuticals. “It goes without saying that chemical medicines provide the only relief for many illnesses,” he says. “If side effects occur, however, even these can sometimes be treated using plant-based pharmaceuticals.”
Whether as a tea, syrup or tablet, the 37-year-old has reached for medicinal plant extracts at the first signs of a cold for years. “If you listen to your body and pay attention to what it tells you, you can catch a lot of illnesses early and prevent them breaking out at all,” he explains. “This saves you suffering through miserable days choked with a cold in the fall.” He is almost never ill – despite having people coughing and sneezing over him on a daily basis.