The Healing Power of Herbs: Kitchen or Medicine Cabinet?

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” – Hippocrates

0f751d012fd13d2c1188d9fcbd44b73e-e1425746974769The use of herbs as medicine (‘herbalism’) dates back nearly 5000 years in China and is also found in Indian, Egyptian, Babylonian and Native American traditions. Before Aspirin, salicylic acid was obtained from willow tree bark to help relieve fevers.  Likewise, the Chinese herb Ma huang, containing ephedrine, was used early on for the treatment of asthma. And the list of traditional, herbal remedies for common ailments is a long one. This is because, before the corner store pharmacy came into being, civilizations largely relied on herbs as their primary source of medicine. In fact, many of our modern pharmaceuticals, such as Aspirin, can be traced to herbal sources or even contain herbal components and extracts to this day.

In herbal medicine the term ‘herb’ broadly refers “not only to herbaceous plants but also to bark, roots, leaves, seeds, flowers and fruit of trees, shrubs, woody vines and extracts of the same that are valued for their savory, aromatic, or medicinal qualities.”(American Journal of Clinical Nutrition). The healing properties of herbs come from their active phytochemicals, a naturally-occurring chemical compounds found in plants. These can range from flavonoids to carotenoids to polyphenols, and so on. These phytochemicals contain antioxidants and support immune function, cleansing the body of toxic substances and thus acting as healing agents. Common cooking herbs such as thyme, sage and rosemary further contain volatile essential oils that suppress cholesterol and tumor growth. In addition, carotenoid-containing leafy green herbs such as parsley, cilantro, basil, or mint have been shown to reduce the long-term risk of developing cancer and heart disease.


When you look at the possible side effects of modern medicines, it can be quite alarming. Take Aspirin, for example. Common side effects may include “rash, gastrointestinal ulcerations, abdominal pain, upset stomach, heartburn, drowsiness, headache, cramping, nausea, gastritis, and bleeding.” What was once a simple tree bark extract has been manipulated and reproduced to such a degree that at times it can seem the potential costs outweigh the potential benefits.  As a result, people are increasingly turning to natural remedies that don’t have the harmful side effects of pharmaceuticals.  According to a survey of unconventional medicine in the United States conducted in 1993, 3 percent of respondents had used herbal medicine in the past 12 months. By 1999, the annual sale of medicinal herbs in the United States exceeded $2 billion (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition) with an estimated 20 percent overall use by 2008 ( Univ. of California, San Francisco Medical Center). While anyone considering using herbal remedies as medicine is strongly advised to consult their doctor since using herbs as a dietary supplement alone have many immediate and long-term benefits, not the least of which is adding flavor and color to food!

Image/Zak Greant

As the rise of herbalism has taken hold again both as a source of healing and nutrition, let’s take a closer look at the two most common herbs found in our kitchens: parsley and cilantro. Cilantro, or coriander, has a divided following. Flavor-wise, people tend to either love it or hate it. Personally, it is my favorite herb, adding freshness and aroma to nearly any savory dish.  Scientific studies show that cilantro has the ability to bind to and neutralize heavy metals such as lead, nickel or mercury that we take in from our environment. One study in Mexico even used cilantro to decontaminate water for irrigation!  Furthermore, cilantro is truly an herb for the ages with its health benefits recorded in ancient Sanskrit and Greek writings and its seeds found in the tomb of Ramses II. Likewise, parsley naturally balances insulin by regulating blood sugars and is an excellent source of Vitamin C (antioxidant/anti-inflammatory/immune booster) and beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is associated with a reduced risk for atherosclerosis, diabetes and colon cancer among other diseases including arthritis. Due to these cleansing and balancing properties, parsley and, or cilantro now figure prominently in many detoxification regimens.

Traditionally, however, these herbs have been treated as a garnish due to their strong aromatic properties. While there is a definite overlap between herbs and vegetables, the aromas and essential oils of herbs are what ultimately set them apart from their peers. In an effort to bring parsley and cilantro back from the garnish category and into a more central role in our diets, here is a salad recipe that uses cilantro as its main ‘vegetable’:

‘Food Babe’ Vani Hari’s Lentil Detox Salad w/ Cilantro:

Image/Robert Gourley

In addition, here are two more quick recipes for a ‘heavy metal detox’ juice and smoothie incorporating cilantro and parsley:

Quick heavy metal detoxes juice:

  • 2 apples, cored
  • 2 large carrots
  • 1 small bunch parsley, cilantro or both
  • 1 teaspoon powdered chlorella (found as a supplement in many health food stores)
  • Juice the vegetables and herbs, add chlorella to juice and stir. Serve immediately.

Quick heavy metal detox smoothie:

  • 1 banana, sliced
  • 1 mango, chopped
  • 1 cup parsley, cilantro or both
  • 1 cup water or coconut milk
  • 1 date, pitted
  • 1 tsp. to 1 Tbsp. powdered chlorella
  • Add all ingredients to blender and process until smooth

The beauty of herbs like parsley and cilantro, or really any herb, spice or essential oil, is that they are easily added to smoothies, juices, soups, etc. If you are interested in diving further into the world of herbalism and the amazing variety and healing properties of herbs, visit for more information.  As Charlemagne so aptly put it, “an herb is [both] the friend of physicians and the praise of cooks.” Let food be your medicine and you will never have to take medicine as your food.