By Willow Older
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita ) is a fragrant herb known for its apple-like taste and scent. In fact, this relative of the daisy gets its name from the Greek words "kamai'melon," or "ground apple." For thousands of years, people all over the world have been brewing chamomile's fine leaves and small white flowers into teas to aid digestion and calm jangled nerves.
What is it good for?
Chamomile's soothing taste makes it a universally popular beverage. The herb has been approved in Germany to treat gastrointestinal disturbances as well as mouth infections and skin irritations. Few studies have tested the effects of drinking chamomile tea on humans, although its ingredients have shown anti-inflammatory and stomach calming properties in the laboratory. In two human studies, a chamomile mouth rinse helped prevent or treat mucositis (mouth sores) caused by radiation therapy or chemotherapy. A few small trials in Germany found that chamomile preparations can speed healing when applied to skin wounds. Another herb, Roman chomomile (chamaemelum nobile) is used similarly to German chamomile, although less is known about it.
How does it work?
Chamomile produces a brilliant blue oil containing the compound azulene as well as several flavonoids. Together, these substances are thought to serve as natural digestion aids, muscle relaxants, anti-inflammatories, and infection fighters. (The oil is also an ingredient in many perfumes and sells for more than $400 a pound.) Even though the strongest chamomile tea yields only a small fraction of the essential oil originally present, it does contain flavonoids; some experts speculate that drinking three to four cups daily may have cumulative benefits.
How safe is it?
Chamomile is generally safe, though like many herbal remedies, it may interact with prescription or over-the-counter medications. If you take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, be aware that taking chamomile at the same time may increase your risk of internal bleeding. The herb can also increase the effects of narcotic painkillers and anti-epileptic drugs. It's always a good idea to let your doctor know what herbal remedies you use so he or she can alert you to any possible drug interactions. On rare occasions chamomile may produce an allergic reaction in people prone to hay fever. If the herb causes any itching or discomfort, stop using it.
How is it taken?
To prepare chamomile tea, pour a cup of boiling water over one heaping tablespoon of flower heads and steep in a covered vessel for 10 minutes. Since commercially prepared teas may be adulterated with other plants, it's best to use only whole flower heads, although these can vary in potency depending on growing conditions and harvest time. You may be able to find them at specialty natural food stores. The plant extract is also found in lotions, ointments, and massage oils. Ask an herbalist, naturopath or pharmacist to recommend reputable products.
Glowania HJ et al. Effect of chamomile on wound healing - a clinical double-blind study. Z Hautkr 1987 Sep 1;62(17):1262, 1267-71.
Carl W, Emrich LS. Management of oral mucositis during local radiation and systemic chemotherapy: a study of 98 patients. J Prosthet Dent 1991;66(3):361-9.
Fidler P, Loprinzi CL, O'Fallon JR, et al. Prospective evaluation of a chamomile mouthwash for prevention of 5-FU-induced oral mucositis. Cancer 1996;77(3):522-5.
Spinella M. Herbal Medicines and Epilepsy: The Potential for Benefit and Adverse Effects. Epilepsy Behav. 2001 Dec;2(6):524-532.
Abebe W. Herbal medication: potential for adverse interactions with analgesic drugs. J Clin Pharm Ther. 2002 Dec;27(6):391-401.