Open the medicine cabinet of someone acquainted with the power of healing herbs, roots, botanicals, and you’ll find a familiar array: Ginger, turmeric, echinacea, ginkgo, and tea tree oil are among the go-to supplements that are both readily available and effective. And while those are no doubt healthful, they’re not the only ones out there that can provide potent benefits.
In fact, hundreds of thousands of naturally-occurring substances exist — consider that between 50,000 to 80,000 flowering plants alone are used for medicinal purposes, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the World Wildlife Fund. I want to introduce you to five supplements you may not have heard of that can help you overcome the stressors of the season.
If You Want To: Improve Your Mood
Try: Lion’s Mane Mushrooms
All mushrooms are winners in my book, but each variety has a unique set of qualities, and lion’s mane is a stand-out. For one, this mushroom may lift some proverbial weight off your shoulders.
In a study from the Chiba University Center for Forensic Mental Health in Japan, mice who ate an hericium erinaceus extract — the scientific name for lion’s mane — produced more anti-inflammatory markers and displayed fewer depressive behaviors. And we know that inflammation and depression seem to go hand-in-hand.
In another small study from Japan, women who were suffering from menopause-related symptoms like poor sleep and depression were given cookies with lion’s mane mushroom extract baked in. After four weeks, those who’d gotten the extract-laden treats reported less anxiety and better sleep compared with those who’d received a placebo.
If you spy lion’s mane fresh at a specialty store or farmers’ market, you’ll know it on sight: The bulbous shroom is covered in fine, cascading threads which give it its name. To enjoy them at home — the mushrooms have a great seafood-like flavor, similar to crab or lobster — slice them into thick disks and gently sauté in olive or avocado oil, and finish with a sprinkling of sel de mer.
Easier yet: Grab a bag of lion’s mane powder and sneak a spoonful into smoothies, soups, and pasta sauce, or take it in supplement form.
If You Want To: Defend Against Microbes
This shiny, leafy plant with pale yellow flowers is found in Africa, and its roots have been used in traditional medicine in Central and West Africa for centuries, particularly to combat malaria. Biologically speaking, it makes sense that the same large swath of land would contain both an illness (in this case, a subtropical protozoan parasite transmitted by mosquitoes) as well as its antidote. After all, a plant’s properties are responsive to the environment in which it evolves.
Similarly, cryptolepis can act as an antimicrobial and antiprotozoal agent. For instance, it’s been shown to be effective against Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria behind Lyme disease, and may actually help keep the bacteria at bay when it’s in its dormancy, according to a recent paper published in Frontiers in Medicine. It also has activity against babesia and bartonella, two common Lyme coinfections. Plus, it’s well-tolerated, unlike some medications like antibiotics, which can wreak havoc on the gut microbiome.
For people who are coping with a microbiome imbalance or weakened immune system whose current slate of herbs aren’t giving them enough relief, or if they’ve plateaued or developed a tolerance to their regime, that’s when I add cryptolepis into their routine.
If You Want To: Beat Stress
It has multiple pronunciations — I say SHILL-a-jit — but it’s commonly believed to be a “wonder medicine of Ayurveda.” In fact, the traditional Indian teachings call it a maharasa, or super-vitalizer.
Shilajit is a black mineral substance that is extruded by the rocks in the Himalaya Mountains in the summertime. It’s considered an adaptogen, meaning that it helps the body cope with stress and improve the way the body functions.
The reason it’s so effective goes hand-in-hand with the way it’s produced. Rocks contain tiny bits of plant matter, and that matter is squeezed out when the rocks get hot and highly pressurized. The resulting shilajit is a potent collection of phytochemicals, beneficial plant compounds that have a host of uses beyond stress, including helping heal the GI tract, regulating blood sugar and cholesterol, and possibly increasing dopamine—the hormone that makes you feel good.
Plus, shilajit is great for athletes. In an industry-backed study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, of 63 men in their twenties, the ones who took the highest dose of a shilajit supplement were able to retain the most amount of muscular strength during a physical stress test versus those who had lower doses or placebo.
Further, the study found shilajit may also help promote collagen retention and growth, making for healthier connective tissue — the cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and more that bind and connect muscles to bones and other tissues and help with movement. Shilajit comes as a resin to be mixed into hot water or tea, or as a powder, drops, or capsules.
If You Want To: Soothe Achy Joints
Try: Eggshell Membrane
If you’ve ever made an omelet, you’ve come into contact with this particular supplement. It’s the thin skin that coats the inner part of the eggshell, meant to protect the home of a growing baby chick.
This membrane contains a natural matrix of beneficial nutrients and proteins like collagen, peptides, and calcium that promote joint health. In particular, a class of proteins called glycoproteins that include collagen help to build cartilage that deteriorates with age and usage. In one study of older women who were given either 500 mg of natural eggshell membrane or a placebo, those taking the eggshell membrane supplement recovered faster from stiffness and pain after exercise after just four days than the others.
For myself, I’ve found that eggshell membrane works best when paired with an herb with anti-inflammatory properties like turmeric or boswellia. That combination has helped my knees — which felt inflamed and chronically uncomfortable in my 50s — feel just fine now in my 60s.
If You Want To: Ease Digestive Issues
Try: Slippery Elm
Derived from the inner bark of the slippery elm tree, this acts as a mucilage, which is a good substitute for mucus. People with coughs and sore throats find it soothing, but I especially like it for its effects on the GI tract. Here’s why.
There are billions of microbes in the gut, and like all living things, they need to eat to survive. Some of those microbes are unhealthy pathogenic bacteria, and their preferred source of food are cells, so they go after the cells of the digestive tract. Normally, the stomach and intestines are lined with a robust mucous membrane that secretes mucus, providing a barrier between the bacteria in the gut and the cell wall.
However, different factors such as chronic stress or eating too many unhealthy, processed foods cause the mucous layer to begin to erode. This allows bacteria and other foreign substances to slip through and cause issues like stomach ulcers, abdominal pain, and digestive disturbances like constipation and diarrhea. Similarly, if your GI microbiome is imbalanced and you have an overgrowth of bad bacteria, the bacteria may be able to overcome the mucus barrier.
Slippery elm acts as a substitute for mucus, coating the mucous membranes to both help block microbes and also soothe irritated tissue. Slippery elm also spurs natural mucus secretion to help rebuild your mucus barrier. You can find slippery elm in capsules, powders, teas, and lozenges.
Utilizing herbs and natural remedies is a great way to enhance your health, but don’t feel limited by the ones you hear about day after day. Trying new and different ones like the five we’ve talked about here could give your mental and physical health just the boost you’ve been looking for.
1. Shi-Lin Chen et al. “Conservation and sustainable use of medicinal plants: problems, progress, and prospects.” Chinese Medicine. July 30, 2016. Link: https://cmjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13020-016-0108-7
2. Wei Yao et al. “Effects of amycenone on serum levels of tumor necrosis factor-α, interleukin-10, and depression-like behavior in mice after lipopolysaccharide administration. Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior.” 2015 Sep;136:7-12. Link: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26150007/
3. Mayumi Nagano et al. “Reduction of Depression and Anxiety by 4 Weeks Hericium erinaceus intake.” Biomedical Research. 31 (4) 231-237, 2010. Link: https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/biomedres/31/4/31_4_231/_pdf/-char/en
4. “Cryptolepis sanguinolenta.” Science Direct. Link:https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/cryptolepis-sanguinolenta
5. Jie Feng et al. “Evaluation of Natural and Botanical Medicines for Activity Against Growing and Non-growing Forms of B. burgdorferi.” Frontiers in Medicine. 21 February 2020 Link: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmed.2020.00006/full
6. C Velmurugan et al. “Evaluation of safety profile of black shilajit after 91 days repeated administration in rats.” Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Medicine. 2012 Mar; 2(3): 210–214. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3609271/
7. Joshua L. Keller et al. “The effects of Shilajit supplementation on fatigue-induced decreases in muscular strength and serum hydroxyproline levels.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 06 February 2019. https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-019-0270-2
8. Kevin J Ruff et al. “Beneficial effects of natural eggshell membrane versus placebo in exercise-induced joint pain, stiffness, and cartilage turnover in healthy, postmenopausal women.” Clinical Interventions in Aging. 2018; 13: 285–295. Link:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5822842/
9. Keller, Joshua L., Terry J. Housh, Ethan C. Hill, Cory M. Smith, Richard J. Schmidt, and Glen O. Johnson. 2019. “The Effects of Shilajit Supplementation on Fatigue-Induced Decreases in Muscular Strength and Serum Hydroxyproline Levels.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 16 (1): 3. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-019-0270-2