Used for centuries in cooking and medicine, sage could be considered one of the world’s most versatile herbs. Classified as an evergreen subshrub (or dwarf shrub), this fragrant specimen is a sister to rosemary and a member of the mint family. Sage’s distinct aroma and flavor has made it a cooking staple— Thanksgiving dinner simply wouldn’t be the same without it! Its edible dried leaves and grinds have a place in grocery store aisles and produce sections, not to mention farmers’ markets.
But beyond its savory elements, sage is also good for what ails us. Rich in antioxidants and vitamin K, the herb can be extracted into tinctures or essential oils, brewed into teas and even applied directly to the skin. Medicinally, its uses encompass many facets of health.
BODY AND MIND
What is it about sage that gives it so many applications for healing? It’s thought to possess anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-microbial, antiseptic and astringent properties. A 2009 study conducted in Tunisia and published in Food Chemical Toxicity showed sage oil to produce potent vapor activity against a panel of bacteria, yeast and fungi, which suggests its validity as a natural disinfectant. It contains phenolic acids, which may fight conditions such as staph infection, E. coli, salmonella and certain yeasts, including Candida.
As an anti-spasmodic used in steam inhalation, sage can quell asthma attacks, and the herb’s tannins purportedly give it the ability to reduce inflammation and allow the body to heal.
Ken Rosen, MS, LAc, holistic health consultant and Traditional Chinese Medicine specialist, sums up the properties of sage. “In TCM, sage root belongs to the category of herbs that invigorate blood and remove stagnation,” he explains. “It’s considered bitter, slightly cold.” The bitter component, he says, aids the digestive system and gives it a role in easing gastrointestinal conditions. The German scientific advisory board Commission E, often referred to for its analysis of herbs, approves internal use of sage for gastrointestinal upset and excessive sweating, as well as for external use for conditions of the mouth and throat.
Sage might be especially helpful for women, Rosen reports. “It can be ingested as a tea to relieve excessive menstrual bleeding, congestion and inflammation— heat—from the blood,” he says, “and menopausal symptoms such as night sweats and hot flashes.”
And a 2013 study at the Research Institute of Medicinal Plants in Iran found that subjects with type 2 diabetes had lowered fasting glucose readings after a trial period of ingesting sage extract when compared with their counterparts who were taking a placebo.
But it’s perhaps in the area of mental health where sage might prove cutting-edge critical. A groundbreaking 2003 study from the Medicinal Plant Research Centre at the Universities of Newcastle and Northumbria in the U.K. found that subjects who took sage oil capsules performed significantly better in word recall tests. Reinforcing that finding was a 2006 study in the neuroscience unit of the same universities, which discovered that mood and cognitive performance were improved in typical subjects using sage extract.
This research has big implications for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). A study in 2003 at the Iranian Academic Centre for Education, Culture and Research found that subjects with mild to moderate AD who were given sage extract demonstrated better cognitive function than those who were given a placebo. The study also suggested that sage might reduce agitation in patients. Researchers believe that the herb might have a positive impact on levels of the chemical messenger acetylcholine, which drop in Alzheimer’s patients. In fact, some current pharmaceutical formulations for AD contain compounds similar to dan shen, or Chinese sage. Research is now investigating the use of sage—natural or synthetic—for new medications.
Perhaps renowned herbalist John Gerard, who said in 1597 that sage was “singularly good for the head and quickeneth the nerves and memory,” will at last be scientifically proven correct!
–by Andrea Renskoff