When Anne Bower's doctor suggested she take a statin drug to lower her cholesterol, she had other ideas. Call it a lifestyle redo.
Beginning in July 2013, working with doctors and later a nutritionist, Bower began eating lots of beans, greens, and grains; a little fish; and almost no meat. She cut way down on sugar and saturated fat and began doing yoga. She hiked in the Wissahickon and took long walks with the dog.
"But the biggest change I made was to increase the number of medicinal plants I use," said Bower, associate biology professor at Philadelphia University in East Falls, who shared her knowledge of those plants with students this semester.
And her experience.
Besides feeling better, Bower achieved measurable results with her new regimen: She lowered her overall cholesterol by 76 points, her LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, by 63 points, and dropped 18 pounds.
"I decided to make whatever changes it took. And I am not on a statin, with all its potential side effects," she said with obvious satisfaction.
Medicinal plants, long a cornerstone of traditional healing regimens around the world, are a growing trend in the West, where many pharmaceuticals already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are derived from plants.
New data are expected in early 2015. But in 2007, the latest figures available, almost 40 percent of adults in this country, and 12 percent of children, were found to have used some form of so-called complementary and alternative medicine in the previous 12 months, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the federal government's National Institutes of Health.
This included not just plant-based remedies, but all sorts of health practices and products, ranging from acupuncture for pain relief to vitamin D for bone strength.
Many lack rigorous, evidence-based science to bolster health claims, but, Bower said, "they have 5,000 or more years of observation behind them . . . and they can be a useful complement to drugs, surgery, and vaccines.
"They can make a difference in quality of life," she said, especially when it comes to addressing long-term chronic, preventable diseases, such as diabetes.
Besides her plant-based diet, Bower relies on a host of medicinal plants in various forms (infusions, oils, tinctures, gels, creams, balms, salves) for general health or specific problems. She likes lavender, ginger, and lemon balm teas for stress, and elderberry, cinnamon, and fennel for coughs.
Bower's class - geared toward students interested in health-science careers, such as psychologist, nutritionist, physician's assistant, occupational therapist - compared medical traditions in different parts of the world. They did their own biochemical analyses of the plants involved, studied the relevant research in online databases such as nccam.nih.gov and ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed, and conducted simple demonstrations.
Which was the fun part.
Several kept weekly food diaries, tracked the added fiber and antioxidants in their new plant-centric menus, and compared it all to the typical American diet. For this, they planted a slew of flowers, herbs, and vegetables under classroom grow-lights: artichokes, basil, carrots, feverfew, kale, marshmallow, nasturtiums, onions, rosemary, spinach, tomatoes, and watercress.
(Obviously, not everything made it to harvest in a 15-week semester, but Bower reinforced supplies at Weavers Way Coop or Reading Terminal Market.)
During one class, students boiled water to make Jerusalem artichoke spaghetti and prepared a sauce of organic crushed tomatoes with raw garlic and sautéed basil, thyme, and watercress.
For Korie Rogan, a biology major from Lancaster who was snipping watercress leaves, learning how to incorporate more plants into her diet has been "very useful. It's really good to have this information under your belt no matter what you end up doing."
Senior Omosi Anabui, a biology-psychology major from Allentown, was making tea from astragalus, an Asian herb used to stimulate the immune system. Earlier in the semester, she made a peppermint tea that cured her insomnia.
"I was tossing and turning, really stressed out, up working at 3 or 4 a.m.," reported Anabui, who allowed a visitor to sample her astragalus tea.
It smelled like . . . cigars.
"I'll add cinnamon," she said.
Sophomore Daniela Rosen plans to include medicinal plants in future practice as a physician's assistant. "They're real simple fixes that are preventative," she said, while stirring a homemade cough syrup made from sugar, water, orange juice, and marshmallow.
Not the ultra-sugary, spongy confection that originated in ancient Egypt and is now synonymous with the name of the plant it came from, but the actual plant. Its leaves, flowers, and roots are used medicinally for coughs, colds, and bronchitis.
No cigar stink with this one. It was delicious, and very soothing to the throat.