Herb is both the name given to the harvested product of a particular type of vegetation as well as a classification of the vegetation itself. Herbs are distinct in their structure and lifecycles from all other forms of plant life. The stem of an herb is not a hardy, woody structure as is found in a tree or shrubbery; the herb plant typically dies down to the ground after it has flowered in a particular season. The stem, fruit, seeds, leaves, or roots may all be harvested as herbal products.
Herbs are grown in three different types of plants. Herbs that are grown from a seed to be cultivated and harvested in a single year are known as annuals. Those herbs that are planted in a season to flower and produce their fruit in a second year are known as biennials; perennials are those herbs that grow and are available for harvest year by year.
Herbs have been valued for their medicinal and restorative powers throughout the history of humans on Earth. The development of herbal remedies until the twentieth century was founded primarily on the folk medicines and traditions of various cultures throughout the world, where indigenous plants were used in a multitude of ways until the development of manufactured pharmacological products pushed herbal preparations into the shadows. A revival of interest in natural medicines has spurred the development of a global industry centered on herbal products, diet and nutritional supplements, and an expansion of traditional Chinese medicines (TCM), of which herbs were an important component. There is an ever-growing body of sport science research that supports the usefulness of herbal products to enhance general health and athletic performance.
There are hundreds of herbs used either as freestanding products or as components of supplements, teas, or lotions. Common herbs that have a recognized effectiveness include:
- Alfalfa is a plant whose leaves are rich in minerals as well as the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and E.
- The aloe vera plant, native to parts of Africa and the Caribbean, possesses leaves with well-known analgesic properties, and is prized as an ingredient in topical burn lotions.
- The burdock plant produces a root that assists in kidney function and healthy blood circulation.
- Chamomile is a plant whose qualities as a digestive aid have been recognized since the Middle Ages.
- Echinacea is a plant possessed of natural antibiotic qualities; it is commonly found in cold remedies.
- Garlic plants have been used to combat illnesses of many types for thousands of years.
- Ginger was a preventative medicine in ancient Chinese therapies, particularly as a stabilizer of the digestive system and to combat headaches.
- Ginseng root was another significant component of Chinese practice, believed to be a powerful stimulant to physical and mental endurance.
- The root of the guarana plant, native to the Amazon basin, is a source of the stimulant, caffeine. Guarana is commonly found in sports energy drinks and supplements.
- Hawthorne berries enjoy a long history in the Chinese practices. They are a plant product widely employed as a diuretic, and as possessing soothing qualities to the digestive system. Hawthorne berries are referred in modern language as a bioflavonoid, a substance that possesses both antioxidant (a substance with the ability to counteract cell damage and disease) and anti-inflammatory properties. Cranberries and blueberries are other well-known examples of bioflavonoids.
- Licorice, a plant extract, is often used in combination with other herbs in supplements as an aid to the respiratory system.
- Ma huang, also variously known as ephedra or Mormon tea, is a backbone to the traditional Chinese herbal practices. Ma huang is the leaf of the ephedra plant, a source of the stimulant, ephedrine. The physical properties of ephedra and its ability to increase energy and reduce fatigue have been the subject of intense scrutiny in North America in recent years, due to concerns regarding the potential heightened risk of heart attack through its consumption. Ephedra and ephedrine are prohibited substances in competitions subject to regulation by the World-Anti Doping Agency (WADA).
- The rose hip is the portion of the rose flower that remains intact after the petals have fallen away. Rose hips are a comprehensive source of vitamin C.
- Although best known as a soft drink flavoring, sarsaparilla was widely employed by the Native American and Chinese cultures as an anti-inflammatory and urinary tract cleanser.
- Yellow dock is a plant commonly used in supplements as it is rich in the mineral, iron, and it is an excellent cleansing agent.