Have you ever tried a slippery elm bark smoothie to relieve an upset stomach? Or flaxseed oil to lower your cholesterol?
Most people are accustomed to reaching for a prescription or over-the-counter drug to treat these and other ailments. But this past semester, students in a course on medicinal plants learned about the merits of natural ingredients and herbal remedies to treat and prevent illnesses by growing their own plants and creating homemade remedies.
“If medicinal plants are incorporated into everyday life they offer tremendous potential health benefits,” said Anne Bower, associate professor of biology, who taught the course. “It is a radical departure, however, from the standard American diet and allopathic treatment approach. As medicines, plants have been used effectively for centuries to treat and prevent illness.”
During one class, senior biology student Korie Rogan made a dandelion root tincture by extracting the plant’s valuable phytochemicals with alcohol. Adding a few drops of this natural diuretic to a drink will help stimulate liver and kidney function. It also can stimulate a poor appetite, aid in digestion and serve as a blood cleanser.
“Because they’re weeds, everybody wants to get rid of dandelions,” said Rogan, noting that dandelions were a dietary staple for Native Americans. “They have no idea that it has actual value.”
Kate Novac, a senior biopsychology student, prepared a fennel infusion by steeping ground fennel seeds in hot water. The resulting vitamin-rich tea is a powerful digestive aid and can lower blood pressure.
Novac said she’s made changes in her diet since taking the class. “I’ve started eating garlic on a more regular basis,” she said. “It helps with high cholesterol, which is a concern for my family.”
Other remedies students made during the semester include wound-healing aloe vera gel, a cinnamon tincture used to relieve dyspeptic disorders and a lavender oil to relax muscle spasms. “Plants have many medicinal properties, but very few side effects,” said Khiree Moore, a pre-medical studies senior.
Alexandra Sarno, a junior environmental and conservation biology student, said she believes medicinal plants are underutilized in this country because of how they are labeled by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Here, they’re categorized as dietary supplements, but in other countries they’re categorized as actual medicinal treatments and prescribed,” she said.
With state-of-the-art laboratory space, grow lights and humidity and climate controls, the class grew 20 different plants from both tropical forest and desert climates. Some remedies students made during the semester included tea tree shampoo, an anti-microbial; witch hazel cream to reduce inflammation; and marshmallow—the plant, not the treat—cough syrup, an expectorant.
The course, taught in Hayward 211, one of PhilaU’s two new Nexus Learning Hubs, offered a hands-on approach to science education and prepared students for careers by focusing on professional skills they will need in the work place. The students had to conduct research, evaluate source credibility and effectively communicate their findings through writing assignments.
“Most of the students enrolled in this course are majoring in the health professions and intend to go to graduate or professional school in such fields as occupational therapy, trauma counseling, physician assistant studies, psychology, medical research or biology,” Bower said. “The scientific research, analysis, critical thinking and writing skills will be invaluable to them.”
Daniela Rosen, sophomore health sciences major, said learning about medicinal plants and natural health remedies will help her be a better health care provider after she graduates. “I hope to use some of my knowledge to improve patients’ lives in the future,” she said.