The Benefits of Herbal Pairings
In partnership with our friends at New Chapter
Headlines are often about the promising effect of a specific food or single ingredient that we are quick to label “super.” But we also know, both intuitively and through research, that healthy diets are composed of a wide variety of plants and whole foods that work together to do wonderful things for the body.
In the realm of herbalism, this concept is known as synergy. “Herbal synergy means that the combined herbs work better together than if each herb were taken on its own,” says Chris Webb, an herbalist and formulator at New Chapter. “This could mean that when constituents within the herb or from different herbs are combined, they drive a greater effect than when the herbs act alone. Or certain outcomes in a study could be more greatly affected when multiple herbs work together rather than alone.”
One example of this is New Chapter’s Zyflamend, which contains ten powerful herbs that have been shown in cell studies to work better together. The clinically studied blend is made to provide holistic help for healthy joints, including support for mobility and joint function. Ginger supports the body with occasional minor pain or soreness after exercise, and the formula has extracts from rosemary, turmeric, holy basil, green tea, hu zhang, Chinese goldthread, barberry, oregano, and Chinese skullcap. And anecdotally: One goop editor recently discovered that her prudent and health-obsessed mom has been taking Zyflamend for seven years.
Webb helped us gather a few pretty cool examples of herbal synergy below. It’s the best kind of nutritional news: It encourages us to try new combinations of ingredients, while reminding us that some things we’ve done all along are working hard behind the scenes.
Turmeric and black seed
There’s quite a bit of data on both turmeric and black seed, which are studied for their ability to lower blood lipids (which is helpful for cardiovascular and metabolic health). They appear to work in different yet synergistic ways: In one clinical study, taking a combination of these herbs was better than taking either one alone for metabolic parameters including blood cholesterol and blood sugar. The major active component of black seed is thymoquinone, and that of turmeric is curcumin. This study used whole powdered plant parts instead of isolated components to take advantage of the other, less well-known components as well. We don’t know precisely how or why this synergy works.
Tea with ginger, black pepper, and tulsi
People often used to drink tea by boiling it with ginger, black pepper, and tulsi. And in 2014, researchers reported that the antioxidant activity in a combination of these four plants was better than in any one plant alone.
Green tea with grape seed, amla, pomegranate, cinnamon, and ginkgo
Green tea, grape seed, amla, pomegranate, cinnamon, and ginkgo all have antioxidant activity. And combining these herbs with green tea results in higher measures of antioxidant activity than was seen in any one plant alone. Researchers think that combining different flavonoids and phenolic compounds from the various plants results in a synergy.
Lemon and fruit teas
Do you like to put lemon in your herbal tea? It can add antioxidants to complement the polyphenols in fruit teas.
Honey, on the other hand, may lower the antioxidant levels a little. But don’t worry: It’s not a huge effect, and honey has other value.
It’s not always desirable to isolate one bioactive compound from a plant and ignore everything else. Or to think that we know what it is in plants that works so beautifully for us. We evolved together with whole, complex plants and combinations of plants—and it’s way too simplistic to try to reduce their health-giving benefits to a few isolated compounds. One perfect example of this is chocolate, which contains both cocoa flavanols and methylxanthines (such as theobromine and caffeine), which work synergistically.
This was demonstrated in clinical studies: The ability of arteries to expand as needed is an important measure of healthy arteries, and the combination was better than either alone at improving this function.
Alcohol and the grape polyphenols resveratrol and quercetin have shown synergistic effects on nitric oxide in one type of white blood cell implicated in cardiovascular disease. Polyphenols are antioxidants. We still don’t really know what alcohol does to our cells, but it’s likely a very different mechanism of action than antioxidant effects. There’s not much research on this beyond the study we’ve linked above—and we’re not going to go out of our way to drink more wine—but we’ll file it in the nice-to-know category.
Tomatoes and Garlic
Another example of herbal teamwork comes from tomatoes. Tomatoes contain multiple nutrients that work together as free-radical-scavenging antioxidants: lycopene, beta-carotene, and vitamins C and E. Adding garlic or rosmarinic acid (from rosemary) to tomato adds another level of herbal synergy. Garlic contains a variety of antioxidants. So when we make a classic tomato sauce with tomatoes and a variety of vegetables and herbs—it doesn’t have to be garlic or rosemary—we’ve stumbled upon a combination of plants containing a synergistic blend of antioxidants.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.