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It’s difficult to imagine a Thanksgiving dinner without a generous helping of homemade sage dressing nestled alongside the turkey, the mashed potatoes and the cranberries. Sage fits nicely into a variety of other dishes, too: from breads to soups; from roast meats to broiled fish to cured sausages; from sauces to infused butters and honeys, sage is held in high esteem by both casual cooks and professional chefs the world over.

Sage’s reputation isn’t confined to the kitchen, however. The herb’s generic name, Salvia, is derived from the Latin verb meaning “to feel well and healthy.” Medieval healers believed “the desire of sage is to render man immortal,” and one old proverb holds that a man cannot grow old while sage has a place in his garden. Through the millennia, common sage (Salvia officinalis) has been used to treat a variety of conditions, including hot flashes associated with menopause, poor appetite, excessive perspiration or salivation, peptic ulcers, gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining), stomatitis (inflammation of the oral cavity), laryngitis, asthma, sore throats, irritable bowel syndrome and dysmenorrhea (menstrual cramping). In some cultures, women use sage, either alone or in combination with other herbs, to reduce or stop postpartum lactation when breastfeeding is not desired. Applied topically, sage helps alleviate the discomfort of canker sores and herpes labialis (cold sores).

While there isn’t sufficient scientific evidence to support the use of sage for all of these disorders, and while sage is unlikely to prolong life indefinitely, modern science confirms that it does possess healing properties and it may, in fact, slow the progression of some age-related disorders. For example, several human studies have shown that sage is one of two herbs (lemon balm being the other) that improves the cognitive status of people suffering from mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. Clinical trials have also demonstrated sage’s effectiveness for treating hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating), menopausal symptoms and sore throats. And sage exhibits lipid-lowering properties that could make it useful for treating high cholesterol and other forms of dyslipidemia.

Animal and in vitro studies suggest that sage could have other medicinal uses, too, such as improving glucose tolerance in diabetics or people at risk for diabetes, reducing liver damage in individuals with hepatic diseases and preventing certain types of cancer or ulcers. It isn’t clear which constituent or constituents of sage are responsible for its salutary actions; like other members of its family (e.g., mints, rosemary, hyssop and lavender) sage is a repository for polyphenols that have demonstrable pharmacological activities:  carnosic acid, carnosol, apigenin, hispidulin, luteolin,  caffeic acid, rosmanol and ursolic acid have all been identified in sage. Other constituents with known or potential medicinal effects include chlorogenic acid, linalool, thujones and other volatile oils, and a number of methylated flavones. (When consumed in high doses, however, some of these compounds—thujone, for example—can be toxic.)

While sage can be administered in various forms, it is most commonly taken as an infusion (tea), which can be prepared by steeping either dried or fresh leaves in hot water for 10 minutes prior to drinking. Daily use of sage tea should not exceed 5 grams of the dried leaves, and sage tea should not be consumed for longer than 2 weeks before taking a break.

Sage tinctures are easily prepared at home, and they can be purchased at any herb or supplement store. (Because commercial preparations vary in strength, always follow label directions.) Sage essential oil should not be taken internally, as it contains significant amounts of thujone, which can cause nerve damage in high doses.

While sage can be safely consumed as a spice during pregnancy, its use at higher, medicinal doses in pregnant or breastfeeding women has not been thoroughly investigated. Because some of sage’s constituents are uterotonic (i.e., they trigger uterine contractions), the medicinal use of sage during pregnancy could lead to miscarriage or premature labor. Women who intend to breastfeed should avoid sage, as it may decrease milk production.

References

  1. dos Santos-Neto LL, de Vilhena Toledo MA, Medeiros-Souza P, de Souza GA. The use of herbal medicine in Alzheimer's disease—a systematic review. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. Dec 2006; 3(4): 441–445
  2. Walch SG, Tinzoh LN, Zimmerman BF, et al. Antioxidant capacity and polyphenolic composition as quality indicators for aqueous infusions of Salvia officinalis L. (sage tea). Front Pharmacol. 2011; 2: 79
  3. Physicians’ Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines, 2nd Edition. Salvia officinalis. Thomas Fleming, PharmD, Chief Editor. 2000
  4. European Medicines Agency, Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products. Public statement on the use of herbal medicinal products containing thujone. 22 May 2012