Hardly a day goes by when Beth Reardon does not recommend at least a few herbal supplements to patients.
Reardon, an integrative nutritionist at Duke Integrative Medicine, has a pedigree out-of-step with what one might expect from a medicinal herb enthusiast, with a bachelor’s degree in nutritional biochemistry and a master’s degree in kinesiology. In her approach, Reardon and the rest of the staff at Duke IM approach health in a way not typical of some of Duke’s more traditional medical and research programs. Considering natural foods and diet management, Reardon laments what she believes to be a prevalent overreliance on cheaply available pain relievers and overprescribed medication.
“Too many people make meals of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories for chronic pain, arthritis-type conditions,” Reardon wrote in an email Saturday. “We know long-term use of these pharmaceuticals is harmful, so I take a plant-based approach with the addition of whole foods and herbals such as turmeric, ginger and green tea.”
Part of what brings people to Duke IM is the desire for a broader outlook on treatment not focused solely on pharmaceuticals, she added. The facility offers patients a holistic blend of conventional and alternative medicine.
“Many of the people I see would fall into the category of being sick and complicated in terms of their medical management,” Reardon said “People come here to get an integrated approach to improving their health.”
Franca Alphin, director of nutrition services at Duke Student Health, said she considers all options—including herbal supplements—when making nutrition recommendations to students. She cautions users, though, to make sure they trust the brand of supplement they are using. Purity, however, is sometimes an issue with herbs and herbal treatments because they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
Reardon said she prescribes a broad array of herbs to patients, noting several that she recommends more often than others. Turmeric, for example, inhibits enzymes responsible for inflammation. It has also been shown to increase cancer cell death and inhibit cancer cell division.
“Turmeric is a must,” she said. “If we are not eating it, then we should be supplementing it.”
Reardon said she recommends ginger for inhibiting inflammation, adding that the root is also useful for fighting nausea. Bromelain, the active compound in pineapple stems, is used for treating sinusitis, as well as bruises, strains and other minor injuries. She also encourages people to regularly use plant herbs, such as thyme, parsley, sage, rosemary and cilantro, which support liver health and have been shown to have anti-cancer compounds.
She also recommends peppermint tea for easing stomach pain and digestive discomfort, including gas and cramping after meals. Chamomile tea is widely recognized for its calming and soothing properties.
Sophomore Abby Glackin has been taking supplemental melatonin, an herbal compound often used as a sleep aid, since last summer.
“It helps me fall asleep and not wake up in the middle of the night,” Glackin said. “It works pretty well.”
Jeanine Davis, associate professor of horticultural science at North Carolina State University, said several medicinal herbs can be found growing wild in the Triangle area. But one would be more likely to find useful species—including black cohosh, wild ginger and bloodroot—in cooler, more mountainous regions of North Carolina.
“A lot of the plants are woodland botanicals, and they would be found in the forests in the western part of the state,” Davis said.
Alphin noted an increasing body of scientific research regarding supplements, but emphasized the distinction between herbal supplements and pharmaceuticals.
“They’re not drugs, and they’re not intended to be drugs, so just to be on the safe side always familiarize yourself with what you’re taking before you take it,” she said.
Reardon warned that individuals taking prescription medications should be very cautious when adding herbal supplements to their diet and should always consult their physician.
Despite the concerns, Davis is optimistic about the future of medicinal herbs. She said she is pleased with the increase in herbal research and the steps the herb industry has taken to improve quality.
“It’s a growing movement in North Carolina and throughout the nation,” Davis said. “In many cases, I feel [herbs] are safer than some of the pharmaceuticals or over-the-counter drugs available.”