Scientists identified vitamin E about 80 years ago, but only in the past few decades has its power as an antioxidant been revealed and fully appreciated. What this means is that you’ll have to get far more than the government-established RDA for this vitamin to benefit from its ability to stave off disease and enhance overall health. Unfortunately, most foods containing vitamin E–nuts, vegetable oils and margarine, for example–are high in fat. So to get the protective punch of vitamin E without adding fats to your diet, you need to seriously consider taking supplements.
In the eighteenth century, seasoned sailors found that by sucking on lemons they could avoid scurvy, a debilitating disease that often developed during long voyages when fresh fruits and vegetables were scarce. When the lemon’s key nutrient was formally identified in 1928, it was named ascorbic acid for its anti-scurvy, or antiscorbutic, action. Today ascorbic acid is widely known as vitamin C.
This famed vision-enhancing nutrient was isolated in 1930, the first fat-soluble vitamin to be discovered. The body acquires some of its vitamin A through animal fats. The rest it synthesizes in the intestines from the beta-carotene and other carotenoids abundant in many fruits and vegetables.
Found growing in hot, swampy regions around the world, from India to the southern United States, the herb gotu kola (Centella asiatica) has a storied past.
The Iroquois and Cherokee were among the first of the American tribes in the eastern United States to use this small perennial plant (Hydrastis canadensis) medicinally. They harvested its fleshy underground stems (rhizomes) and roots and used them to treat a variety of infections and other complaints, from insect bites and digestive upset to eye and skin ailments. By the nineteenth century, healers began to refer to this native wildflower (which resembles a buttercup) as goldenseal because the cuplike scars on its bright yellow rhizomes resembled the wax seals then used to close envelopes and certify documents. The plant’s colorful roots also provided dye for clothing.
One of the most popular herbal remedies in the world, echinacea contains active ingredients thought to fight colds, flu, and other infections. There are nine species of this herb, commonly called the purple coneflower, but just three (Echinacea angustifolia, E. pallida, and E. purpurea) are used medicinally. Various parts of the plant (flowers, leaves, stems, or roots) from a variety of species appear in literally hundreds of commercial preparations. Depending on the species and plant part used, the herb will stimulate the immune system and combat bacteria, viruses, and other disease-causing microbes.
One of the safest medicinal herbs, chamomile is a soothing, gentle relaxant that has been shown to work for a variety of complaints from stress to menstrual cramps. This herb has a satisfying, applelike aroma and flavor (the name chamomile is derived from the Greek kamai melon, meaning ground apple), and it’s most often taken as a delicious, mild therapeutic tea. Concentrated extracts of chamomile are also added to healing creams and lotions or packaged as pills and tinctures.
A succulent perennial plant belonging to the lily family, aloe vera grows wild in Madagascar and large portions of the African continent. Because of its many therapeutic uses, it is now commercially cultivated in the United States, Japan, and countries in the Caribbean and Mediterranean. Many individuals also grow aloe as a houseplant.