While you slip, slop, slap and wrap this summer, have you considered that herbs may help you? Medical herbalist Karina Hilterman explains that some herbs are able to soothe sunburn and are even used to treat skin cancers.
Long-term sun exposure (particularly to UV light) has been shown to be the cause of sun-induced skin damage. This includes sunspots, actinic or solar keratoses, and skin cancers. Generally, the more long-term sun exposure a person has the more likely they are to develop some type of sun-induced skin lesion, especially if the skin gets sunburnt.
As people age their skin has a tendency to develop ‘abnormalities’ which include areas of thickened, scaly skin. These skin changes are more likely to develop on people who have had considerable exposure to sunlight. Higher incidence of these abnormalities or lesions are found in fair–skinned people in countries with a sunny climate or closer to the equator, and with people with outdoor occupations and those who enjoy outdoor activities. Australia has the highest skin cancer rate in the world and the greatest prevalence of actinic keratoses amongst adults older than 40 years. It has been reported that for people older than 40 years 40–60% of them will have at least one. New Zealand and the USA follow closely in numbers. This is due to the number of fair–skinned inhabitants with Celtic ancestry.
Current Medical Treatments for Sun-Induced Skin Damage
The medical treatments available to treat sun-induced skin damage include destruction of the lesions with cryogens (freezing), electrodessication (burning), curettage (cutting), chemical peeling agents and medical therapy with chemicals such as 5-Flurouracil and retinoids. Other treatments include escharotic (eroding) paints, creams and lotions. All these treatments cause varying degrees of pain and leave some scarring.
There are also commercially available products sold as ‘cosmetic treatments’ that contain chemicals that bleach the skin, thereby fading skin marks. These are specifically for sun and age spots. This merely masks the abnormality.
From the very early history of mankind, plants were used to treat disease. Skin lesions were not historically recognised as a specific name. They were considered as ‘growths’ or ‘cankers’, along with other skin lesions, including skin cancers. There is a tradition of use of herbs for such skin conditions. Some examples of these herbal treatments for abnormal skin lesions include the following:
Viola odorata used “Internally and externally for cancer…Externally for swellings; inflammations…”
Apium graveolens used “…as a lotion for treating sores and cankers.”
Silybum marianum was “…Externally applied for cancer.”
Sanguinaria canadensis for “…cancer; skin growths. A paste was made of Sanguinaria extract, zinc oxide, flour, and water and applied to skin cancers.” (Used successfully in Middlesex hospital for superficial cancers of the nose and external ear – Lewis and Elvin–Lewis, 1977. Medical Botany)
Hypericum perforatum can be used “… Externally to dissolve swellings; hard tumours…”
Viscum alba was considered to be “A heal all …tumours, to cure ulcers and sores and to draw out bad nails.”
Galium aparine was used both “Internally and externally for cancer.”
Trifolium pratense “…Fomentations and poultices of the herb have been used as local applications to cancerous growths.”
(Reference – Fisher, C. P., G. (1996). Materia medica of western herbs for the southern hemisphere (1st ed.). Auckland: self published)
Plants are complex chemical cocktails. Each specific chemical has a specific therapeutic action. There has been some research conducted to assess a number of the individual constituents; particular attention has been focused on a large class of phytochemicals (plant chemicals) broadly known as antioxidants. There is a group of phytochemicals called polyphenols. They have been shown to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-tumour properties, all of which are relevant therapeutic actions for treating actinic keratoses.
Flavonoids are another significant group of chemical compounds in plants that have been referred to as “biological stress modifiers”, as they have been shown to protect cellular function against environmental stressors. They assist to stabilise cellular membranes and they have anti-oxidant and anti– inflammatory actions. These actions assist to counter the UVR (Ultra Violet Radiation) damage on human skin. A review by Degner & Romagnolo (Degner, SC., Romagnolo DF. (University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, USA), Chapter 40, Professor RR Watson, Professor VR Preedy, Botanical Medicine in Clinical Practice: CABI International, England) reviewed and assessed research on groups of plant chemicals that have therapeutic modes of actions relevant to treating cancers (including polyphenols and flavonoids). They concluded that phytochemicals target multiple pathways with cancer and therefore have potential as “effective agents” for treating and protecting against cancers. Another important comment they make is about the “Synergy between Phytochemicals”; they consider that “it is reasonable to expect that the combination of several phytochemicals would be more efficacious than one alone.”
When considering the choice of which herbs to blend in a formulation for treating sun-induced skin conditions, reflection is made on the therapeutic actions that are required to treat the condition. For actinic keratoses, for example, the main requirement is to ‘normalise’ the aberrant cell formation in the dermal layer. For this, herbs would be chosen with alterative and anti–neoplastic actions, while adding ‘healing’ actions such as vulnerary (wound healer) and demulcent (soothing and healing), which assist reducing inflammation and nourishing the dermal layer.
Herbs are chosen with the desired therapeutic actions, with the least negative side effects, as opposed to such herbs as Sanguinaria canadensis or Euphorbia peplus which have some of the desired actions, but have known negative side–effects (the escharotic or eroding action when used on healthy skin can cause irritation, including blistering), thereby negating the efficacy and usefulness of the product. Often called ‘black salves’ are herbal–based eroding creams or ointments based on the herb known as bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).
These creams/ointments are available from naturopaths, health shops and websites. It must be used with care as it has an escharotic action, which erodes the tissue it is applied to, often causing irritation and blistering. There may be a lot of pain and discomfort throughout the treatment process and post treatment there may be some degree of scarring to the treatment area, which in turn leaves the area more photosensitive.
Herbs for treatment of sun damage
Arctium lappa (Burdock)
Therapeutic Actions: Its primary use is as an alterative, which means it acts as a blood cleanser, when taken internally, and helps the body attain a better state of wellness. It is very useful for a wide range of conditions, especially for skin such as acne, eczema, boils, ulcers, psoriasis and dry scaly skin. As it has a purifying effect, it is great for digestive disturbances, rheumatic and urinary conditions and also has antibiotic properties. It helps the body purify itself and eliminate toxins.
The root is primarily used for medicinal purposes. For external conditions use a poultice or wash. The leaves can be used as a digestive tonic infusion or as a poultice.
The ground-up seeds are traditionally used for coughs and colds and to help reduce blood sugar levels.
(Calendula aka pot marigold)
Therapeutic Actions: Vulnerary, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, astringent, antiviral, antifungal, lymphatic stimulant and immune supporter, menstrual regulator, cholagogue (stimulates liver and bile production). Soothing to the digestive tract and aids assimilation of nutrients, and helps lower elevated blood pressure.
External Use: Calendula can be used as a wash, compress, lotion, essential oil, cream or ointment for most skin conditions, especially slow-healing wounds, bruises, cuts, burns including sunburn, eczema, fungal infections, cracked or sore nipples, oily skin or varicose veins.
Internal Use: It is very useful for liver and gall bladder dysfunction, stomach and digestive tract ulceration, menstrual dysfunction, candida and helps tone the circulatory system. It stimulates the lymphatic and immune systems and is an aid to help lower elevated blood pressure due to its vasodilatation effect. Calendula infusion can also be used as a mouthwash for mouth ulcers and gum disease or as a douche for vaginal infections or inflammations including candida (thrush).
This herb certainly exhibits the necessary therapeutic activity that would indicate it as having potential for assessment as a possible treatment for actinic keratoses, preferably included in a formula with other herbs that have actions to complement it for treating actinic keratoses, or other sun-induced skin damage.
Aloe vera (Aloe)
Therapeutic Actions: The therapeutic actions differ depending on the part used. The green outer skin is the bitterest part and has more purgative actions than the gel. The anthraquinone glycosides, which are in greater concentration in the green skin, are cathartic and purgative, a bile flow stimulant (as are most bitter tastes), emmenagogue, vulnerary, tonic, demulcent, anti–fungal, vermifuge (wormer), sedative and nutritive.
Traditionally, in addition to its use in internal treatments, it has been used externally. Aloe is very good for healing wounds and burns, as it stimulates skin cells to proliferate and is vulnerary and demulcent.
The medical use of this herb was recorded in the Ebers’ Papyrus, a medical text, which is believed to have been written in about 1500 BC. It is now in the library of the University of Leipzig. In a recent study, Ali et al., used aloin, an extract of Aloe vera on melanophores (which are pigment cells which contain melanin; they are commonly found in the skin of reptiles and amphibians). Aloin is considered to assist with regulating melanin aggregation in the skin. Their finding indicated that this herb has potential for treating hyper-pigmentation as a non-toxic melanolytic agent.
Galium aparine (Cleavers)
Therapeutic Actions: Diuretic, lymphatic, alterative, tonic, mild astringent, anti–inflammatory and anti–neoplastic. It is described as a cleansing and purifying herb. It helps rid the blood and lymph of toxins and is excellent in cases involving swollen or enlarged glands, including tonsils and adenoids.
External Uses: For skin conditions, a strong infusion (tea) of cleavers can be used externally for grazes, psoriasis and other skin inflammations or as a rinse for dandruff and other scalp problems. Also use as a wash for burns and scalds, including sunburn, or freckles. The same infusion taken internally can be used to treat ‘underlying causes’ of such conditions and support the healing function of the body.
Stellaria media (Chickweed)
Therapeutic Actions: Anti–rheumatic, alterative, blood cleanser, cooling, vulnerary, emollient, demulcent, anti–inflammatory, astringent, anti-pruritic (anti-itch) and nutritive. No wonder hens love to eat it. It is the aerial parts that are used medicinally with this herb. The enhancing metabolism demulcent and anti–inflammatory properties of chickweed will assist to soothe digestive problems, and it is useful for treating colitis, gastric ulceration and constipation. These properties also make it a primary herb for skin conditions or wounds especially eczema, burns, itching or stings.
Trifolium pratense (Red Clover)
Therapeutic Actions: Dermatological healing agent, expectorant, mild antispasmodic, mild anti–inflammatory, anti-neoplastic, diuretic, mild sedative, alterative. Its oestrogenic activity may help women with hormonal imbalances and it has traditionally been called a blood cleanser.
Viola odorata (Sweet Violet)
Therapeutic Actions: Anti–inflammatory, stimulating expectorant, diuretic, alterative, nutritive, anodyne (pain relief), emollient and anti–neoplastic.
Up to the 1930s, violets were used as a treatment for breast and lung cancers by doctors. Leaves can be used as a poultice on skin cancers in conjunction with taking them internally. This is an example of a plant with a long history of use, due to its wonderful properties that are just now beginning to be validated by clinical research.
Today it is still used in natural therapies for cancer treatment especially after surgery to help prevent secondary tumours. Using violet as part of a cancer treatment protocol has yet to be scientifically proven, but perhaps just allow time.
Traditionally, violets were used on bruises, as either a strong infusion or poultice, which is still a relevant use today.
In a research paper published in 2010, Gerlach et al., assessing the anti– tumour activity of cyclotide from Viola odorata, cycloviolacin O2 (referred to in the study as CyO2), found that it causes cell death to tumour cells by membrane permeabilisation. In addition to this, they did find that there was only insignificant disruption to membranes of brain endothelial cells in humans, which they suggest indicates that cyclotide specificity toward induced pore formation in highly proliferating tumour cells.
Viola tricolor (Heartsease)
Therapeutic Actions: Expectorant, anti–inflammatory, antirheumatic, diuretic, laxative, stabilises capillary membranes.
External Uses: The anti-inflammatory activity of heartsease makes it ideal for topical use, for such conditions as eczema, cradle cap, nappy rash, skin eruptions and irritations and tubercular skin conditions; as relevant today as historically.
Considering the complex chemistry and significant tradition of use there appears to have been little research undertaken to verify its efficacy. This is an easy–to–grow annual herb, whose aspects are worth taking into consideration for commercial production, particularly as it is widely accepted as a useful and safe herb.
HerbNews – Summer 2012–13