Healing Properties of Common Herbs

Updated on May 6, 2019
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Exploring food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

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Until man duplicates a blade of grass, nature can laugh at his so-called scientific knowledge. Remedies from chemicals will never stand in favour compared with the products of nature, the living cell of the plant, the final result of the rays of the sun, the mother of all life.

— Thomas Alva Edison

What Was Old is New Again

When was the last time you read the ingredients label on a package of food? More often than not it seems that most of the words are unknown and unpronounceable. How sad that in the 21st century the foods we purchase rely less on natural ingredients and more on chemicals. Convenience foods may streamline meal preparation, but what are they doing for and to our family members?

In her book “Herbal Kitchen” Kami McBride says that “we are experiencing the phenomenon of being overfed but undernourished.”

Look through a cookbook from long ago. Within those pages, you will find old-as-time pairings of foods with herbs and spices—sage with turkey, horseradish with roast beef, and mint with lamb are just a few of the examples. These combinations were used not simply because they tasted good together but because home cooks knew that adding herbs and spices to family meals provided health and healing.

Long before medical science produced chemotherapy drugs, employed radiation therapies, and developed mapping of the human genome, there were physicians who practiced a more natural, holistic approach to curatives. With the advent of “modern medicine,” many of these herbal remedies came to be viewed with skepticism, but health professionals are now taking a second look. Unlike lab-manufactured preservatives, herbs and spices contain vitamins and minerals. Perhaps some of the ancient remedies aren’t so far-fetched after all. Let’s examine some of the most common herbs and spices (most of them are probably in your pantry right now), and see if there is any truth to the age-old tales.

Glossary

  • Antibacterial – destroys or inhibits the growth of bacteria
  • Antifungal – Inhibits or treats fungal infections
  • Anti-inflammatory – a substance that reduces inflammation (a response of body tissues to injury or irritation; characterized by pain, swelling, redness, and heat)
  • Antimicrobial – destroys or inhibits the growth of microorganisms
  • Aromatherapy – the use of fragrances to affect or alter a person’s mood or behavior
  • Chemo-protective – an agent that protects healthy tissue from the toxic effects of anticancer drugs
  • Phytochemical – a chemical compound found in plants that is considered beneficial to human health

Basil

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Some historians believe that basil originated in Africa. More than 4,000 years ago it was used by the Egyptians for embalming. And basil is referenced in some of the 700 herbal medicines listed in the Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 B.C.). Other historians believe that basil originated in India. This close cousin of mint is indigenous to the lower hills of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh (south of Pakistan) but cultivated throughout all of India. Named Tulsi (holy basil), this fragrant herb is cherished in India for its healing properties. For those of the Hindu faith, Tulsi is an essential part of the worship of Vishnu.

Several recent studies have presented results that basil may be helpful in reducing swelling and the inflammation of arthritis. Lab studies have also demonstrated that basil has antibacterial properties—it resists the growth of Listeria and Staphylococcus.

Garlic

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As soon as you slice into the bulb of this plant your nose tells you that you are dealing with a potent herb. There have been many clinical studies of the use of garlic in cardiovascular disease; it is useful in reducing high-blood pressure and lowering the risk of stroke. Garlic has also been shown to be effecting in lowering LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. The National Cancer Institute has identified garlic and other members of the allium family as having chemo-protective phytochemicals.

Ginger

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I could probably write an entire article on the healing properties of ginger. Ginger is a beautiful fragrant flowering plant, a luxurious tuberous perennial that spreads her fleshy roots underground to expand and propagate. Her story begins as many of our tales about treasured herbs and spices—deep within the heart of India. It is there that anthropologists have found remnants, tiny fragments of ginger root used 5,000 years ago. In the beginning, long before the written word, long before Man began to record his own history, there was ginger. We know that ginger also grew in China; wise men in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic Indian systems viewed it as a healing gift from God.

Ginger tea is a common remedy for an upset stomach whether the source is seasickness, simple nausea, or a response to chemotherapy. Feel a cold coming on? Ginger and honey can help alleviate the mucus. One more thing—ginger is a proven anti-inflammatory. Aches and pains and even PMS symptoms can be lessened with ginger.

Lavender

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Simply smelling this herb is enough to impart a sense of calm and relaxation which is why it is used so often in massage therapy. But lavender also contains volatile oils with antimicrobial, antifungal, and antioxidant properties so it not only calms one's spirit it can also help heal external problems as well. Lavender helps relieve the pain of cuts and bruises; it’s helpful in healing chapped lips, treating acne flair-ups, relieving itchy skin, controlling dandruff, and combatting cold sores.

Lemon Balm

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This herb is a member of the mint family and as such it has the endurance of cast iron. It will grow just about anywhere (which is not always a good thing; it can become down right invasive). This leafy herb has a distinct lemon taste and so lends itself well to cooking. It works as a topical treatment for easing the pain of wounds and the sting of insect bites, as an aromatherapy aid in relieving anxiety and insomnia, and is a curative in reducing flatulence and upset stomachs. Chop it up and toss in your salad, serve as a tea on ice or hot and comforting; heck, you can even place it in your bathwater and luxuriate in a steamy, lemony soak.

Oregano

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Like the fragrances of rosemary and garlic, the scent of oregano, with its hint of lemon and black pepper, is deeply evocative of the Mediterranean. In fact, the name oregano comes from the Greek "oros" meaning mountain and "ganos" meaning joy, which literally translates to “joy of the mountains”. From Greece to the shores of Italy, to France and even to the northern reaches of England, oregano carpets the landscape.

This herb is traditionally used to treat respiratory issues such as stuffy noses and coughs and is an expectorant. In folk medicine, it was also used to treat menstrual cramping and it has very potent antimicrobial properties.

Parsley

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Once upon a time parsley was nothing more than a pretty sprig of decorative greenery on your plate. Some of us knew that it was a good cover-up for bad breath, but it does much more than that. Parsley contains a number of volatile oils which have been proven useful in the treatment of urinary tract infections, and kidney and bladder stones.

So which type of parsley is better—curly or flat leaf? In truth, they are equal in their healing properties, but I find that the flat leaf variety has a stronger flavor. Parsley is nutrient dense, which means that it is chock full of vitamins and minerals. You can put it in just about anything (well, other than dessert) and it won’t disappoint. It makes a great tea if you are being plagued with hayfever.

Peppermint

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According to Greek mythology, mint originated from an ugly (is there any other kind?) lovers triangle. Pluto seduced the nymph Minthe. His wife (Persephone) was not too keen on his dalliance, so she crushed Minthe to the ground. From the ruined body arose an herb we know today as mint.

And, isn’t that exactly what we do today to fully enjoy peppermint? Take a mint leaf between your thumb and forefinger and rub gently—you will notice a subtle minty scent. But, take that same leaf (actually lets toss in a few more while we’re at it) and mince with a knife, pulverize in your food processor, or grind with mortar and pestle and you will be rewarded with an exhilarating rush of cool, frosty aroma that fills the entire room in an instant. This is the glory of mint. The interaction of plants and people is a strange and amazing thing, isn't it? When you think of chilies, you immediately think of being surrounded in warmth—in your environment and on your tongue. The capsaicin in chilies stimulates heat sensors that not only tantalize the mouth but also can provide soothing warmth to tired and aching muscles.

Think of peppermint as the opposite side of the spectrum. Peppermint contains menthol, a chemical substance that triggers the cold-sensitive receptors in the skin. It gives us a cooling sensation when inhaled, eaten, or applied to the skin. If you have indigestion or gas, sipping tea made of this medicinal herb might provide relief. The aroma of peppermint has also been shown to help soothe headaches.

Rosemary

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It has been said that medicinal herbs like rosemary help memory and concentration. Even Shakespeare wrote of it. (“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.” Ophelia in Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5). The scent is invigorating, but that’s just the start. The volatile oils in rosemary are effective in slowing the growth of several strains of bacteria. Maybe that is why rosemary is often included in meat marinades.

Sage

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Sage is native to the countries that touch the Mediterranean Sea. This beautiful gray-green shrub grows from 8 inches to 24 inches in height, with spikes of purple, pink, white, or blue flowers. The leaves are downy and oval-shaped. It was not used as a seasoning until the 17th century but its therapeutic properties have been known for thousands of years. In fact, its botanical name, Salvia, is derived from the Latin salvare, which means to heal. Throughout the millennia sage has been used in countless concoctions, such as a cure for snakebites, a potion to increase fertility, and a balm to serve as a local anesthetic. Its importance even caught the attention of Charlemagne, who recommended that it be cultivated. Sage was also one of the ingredients in Four Thieves Vinegar—a blend of spices thought capable of warding off the plague.

We can probably lay to rest the belief that sage is a curative for snakebites, a remedy for infertility, or can offer protection against the plague, but it does help provide relief for mouth and throat inflammations.

Thyme

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The active principle in thyme, thymol, is a strong antiseptic and expectorant. If you suffer from coughs or congestion, thyme oil is recommended. A few drops in a steam inhaler or rubbed on the chest as night will provide relief.

Take a trip back in history—do you remember hearing of the Benedictine monks? They formulated a liqueur of the same name. The actual recipe is a trade secret, but super-tasters have identified the primary ingredients: angelica, juniper, myrrh, mace, lemon balm, coriander, clove, and thyme.

If you enjoyed a bit too much dinner, are feeling bloated and stuffy (or perhaps a little gassy) enjoy an after-dinner tea of thyme and honey.

Turmeric

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You probably know turmeric as the poor man’s substitute for saffron. Although it doesn’t possess the flavor of saffron, it still delivers the same color punch. This root, which is a member of the ginger family, is packed with antioxidants (vitamins C and E) and bolsters the immune system. According to author Kami McBride “turmeric claims a long history of being taken to reduce rheumatic pain. It cools your joints and has been clinically proven to reduce the inflammation that contributes to arthritis.”

Easy Reference Chart of Herb Properties

Herb
Part Used
Properties
Basil
Leaf
reduces swelling and inflamation, antibacterial
Garlic
Bulb
effective in reducing risk of stroke, lowering blood pressure and LDL cholesterole; has anti-cancer properties
Ginger
Root
relieves upper respiratory infections, stomach upsets
Lavender
Flower bud
the aroma imparts calm and promotes restful sleep; applied topically is eases skin irritation
Lemon Balm
Leaf
in aromatherapy helpful for anxiety and insomnia; treats upset stomach. Applied topically reduces pain and the sting of insect bites
Oregano
Leaf
relieves congestion and coughs. Is an antimicrobial
Parsley
Leaf
eases urinary tract infections; good relief for upper respiratory ailments
Peppermint
Leaf
the aroma soothes headaches; as a tea it eases indigestion and gas
Rosemary
Leaf and flower blossoms
the aroma stimulates; reduces bacterial growth in foods
Sage
Leaf
provides relief for mouth and throat inflammations
Thyme
Leaf
antiseptic and an aid in upper respiratory congestion relief
Turmeric
Root
boosts the immune system; helpful in relieving the inflammation of arthritis

What is the Best Way to Include Herbs in Your Diet?

Visit the internet, do a Google search, and you will find countless recipes for herbal cordials, drinks, honey, nectars, oils, salts, smoothies, sprinkles, teas, and waters. Although they sound (and no doubt are) amazing, they can be time-consuming and actually utilize very little actual herbs in the final product.

My favorite (and easiest) way of using fresh herbs is in pesto. Before you exit and go on to the next article, allow me to explain a few things you might not know:

  • Pesto is not always made with basil
  • Pesto is not just a topping for pasta

Pesto can be made with just about any fresh herb. Some are more pungent than others and so might need to be "diluted" with other produce (that you already have lingering in your crisper) such as spinach, arugula, or tomatoes.

Sure, it's great on pasta, but you can also stir it into soup, smear on crostini, add to cooked rice, or use to flavor cooked veggies. Truth be told, I often have a serving of non-fat cottage cheese for breakfast as part of my daily routine. I often put a spoonful of pesto on top (I've always been more of a savory rather than sweet sort of gal). So, I'm getting some calcium, and a boost of healthy herbs too.

Equipment and Ingredients You Will Need:

  • food processor
  • rubber scraper
  • clean (sterilized) jar with lid
  • olive oil
  • garlic
  • fresh leafy greens
  • fresh herbs
  • cheese
  • nuts
  • salt
  • tart or briny ingredients

Basic Recipe

  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 1/2 cups fresh greens (see notes for suggestions)
  • fresh herbs (see notes for suggestions and quantities)
  • 1/4 cup cheese (see notes for suggestions)
  • 1/4 cup nuts (see notes for suggestions)
  • tart/briny ingredient (see notes for suggestions and quantities)

Ingredients

  1. Place the olive oil, garlic, and greens in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until almost smooth.
  2. Add herbs, cheese, nuts, and briny/salty ingredient of your choice and process until finely minced and blended.

NOTES:

  • Leafy greens - spinach or arugula are fantastic and this is where you can make use of greens that are slightly past their prime for a salad. However, please don't use greens that are spoiled and slimy.
  • Fresh basil, oregano, parsley - can be used with wild abandon
  • Fresh rosemary, sage, lemon balm, peppermint - no more than 1/4 cup
  • Fresh lavender - no more than 2 tablespoons
  • Cheeses - Parmesan, Romano, asiago
  • Nuts - pine nuts, almonds, walnuts, cashews
  • Briny - kalamata olives, capers - use up to 1/4 cup
  • Tart - lemon juice, balsamic vinegar - use up to 1 tablespoon

A Few Words of Caution

I am not a dietician, nor am I a nutritional specialist, and I am certainly not a physician. I am nothing more than a home cook who appreciates the value of natural ingredients and home-made, home-cooked meals.

Before you opt to add herbs and spices to your diet, please talk with your physician. Although they are natural ingredients, some plants are contraindicated for those who use certain medicines. Talk openly with your doctor first.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Linda Lum

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      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        5 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Hi Denise - I think you can have a very good pesto without cheese. It DOES add a little body to the pesto and salt, but I would recommend that you try it without any cheese. I think you'll like it, and the flavor of the herbs will really shine through.

      • PAINTDRIPS profile image

        Denise McGill 

        5 weeks ago from Fresno CA

        What a great and thoroughly helpful list. I love the pesto recipe. I have to make that! Since I have changed to a vegan diet, I have been much more interested in herbs and their qualities. I think I can easily change the recipe to a vegan version by substituting vegan cheese where cheese is listed. Thanks for sharing.

        Blessings,

        Denise

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Patricia, you are an angel here among us. Your words are always so full of love and encouragement. Blessings to you.

      • pstraubie48 profile image

        Patricia Scott 

        2 months ago from sunny Florida

        How lovely it is that so many of these herbs taste divine. I use many of these on a daily basis. Knowing that foods that I enjoy can be healthful is a plus thank you for sharing Angels are on the way to you this afternoon ps

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 months ago from Washington State, USA

        R Talloni, I have a friend who puts basil on just about everything, and why not? I love the aroma and the flavor. Thanks for stopping by.

      • RTalloni profile image

        RTalloni 

        2 months ago from the short journey

        In reading through your post I smiled at the herbs growing outside my window. So appreciate the pesto recipe and will be using my herbs and goat cheese to top our evening salad. LOVE the permission to use basil in wild abandon! :)

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Thank you Eric.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        2 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Ok, I used gloves for the Nettles - thank you, why didn't you tell me years ago Lol. I left three of the devils. I await instruction.

        I like your interchange with Manatita. Indeed be careful what you expect out of our great sister herbs.

        Sometimes I do not comment but love to come back and read your loving exchanges with your great friends. "Does a great chef share the love through food or the food through love?" I answered my question of a few decades ago - BOTH!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Flourish I haven't thought about potpourri for ages. I gave it up when kitties introduced themselves into our lives. I don't think the scent would last very long in a room but they might work in sachets.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        2 months ago from USA

        I've always wondered what the point of lemon balm was. It smells good, but I wondered what next? Great article, Linda! I wonder it some of these couldn't be combined into a wonderful potpourri. I'm sure that would be a delicate mix given the potentially clashing scents.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Kristen, I make it every year. Gather the uppermost leaves (with gloves, of course) and a bucket. When the bucket is full separate the leaves from the stems (still wearing those gloves). Plop the leaves in a large stockpot of boiling water and cook for 2 minutes. Remove with a skimmer and shock with an ice water bath. Now the nettles are safe to handle. Squeeze dry and chop as you would spinach.

        Some people think that nettles have stickers--they don't. The sting comes from formic acid which is in the millions of little hairs that cover the leaves and stems. Some people are more sensitive than others. My husband can get stung and in 5 minutes he's back to normal. I blossom out in large red welts that last 48 to 72 hours, so when I say "wear gloves" I really mean it!

      • Kristen Howe profile image

        Kristen Howe 

        2 months ago from Northeast Ohio

        Linda, you're welcome. I'll be interested to hear on how it turned out--I never had nettles before.

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 

        2 months ago from Central Florida

        Oops. Mom will be 81 next month. Born in 1938.

        Cool, Linda!

      • manatita44 profile image

        manatita44 

        2 months ago from london

        I know. It's actually a 'standard' with American naturopaths and Herbalists. as the law is always out to get them. Some have much more than you. You are honest, but some of the other guys are as money spinning as the allopathic doctors that they don't like. You are right, though. There is no such thing as natural and side-effect free. Herbs are gentler, true, but can be as potent as pharmaceuticals. Have a great day.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Shauna - My brother is 90.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Eric, I'm not sure what you are grinding, but your theory is basically sound. As for taste vs. nutrition. If it doesn't taste good you probably won't eat it. Frozen is often just as good as fresh (when you are talking about vegetables). Carry on.

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 

        2 months ago from Central Florida

        She is a wise woman. She'll be 80 next month. You'd never know it. She's vibrant and gorgeous!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Your mom was a wise woman (and the acorn doesn't fall too far from the tree).

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        2 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Back at it here. Sometimes I like to absorb knowledge. (however I am doubtful of your stinging nettles ;-)

        I am trying to use my "grinder" more. Seems like whole "kernel" should retain their nutrition more. I cannot get everything fresh. What say you. Perhaps more about taste than nutrition - I am down with that.

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 

        2 months ago from Central Florida

        You did an excellent job with this topic, Linda. You even taught me a few things I didn't know, Sis!

        As far as parsley goes, I actually prefer the curly type. To me it has more flavor than the flat leaf. To each his own, right? My mom used to pack lunches for my dad before he retired. She'd always put a sprig or two of parsley in his lunch container. She calls it "Nature's toothbrush".

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Thank you, Kristen, you are very kind. I take no prescription meds and hope to keep it that way. I don't care for tea, but pestos make a frequent appearance in our meals. This week I'll be making pesto from stinging nettles (yes, you can do that).

      • Kristen Howe profile image

        Kristen Howe 

        2 months ago from Northeast Ohio

        Linda, though it's been a long while since I read your hubs, this was so useful and interesting to know how useful they are to make you feel better from teas and other uses. Nicely done!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Eric, I wrote this one specifically for you. I am glad that you enjoyed it. I heard the sirens, but they'll never find me. Take photos of Gabe with that garden, OK? I'd love to see them.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Manatita, I'm glad I could make you chuckle, but I AM concerned that someone could become ill if they mix herbal medicine with prescription medications.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Pamela, thank you so much. This one was a bit of a challenge because I'm just a cook, not a dietician. I learned quite a bit while writing/researching this one, and that's always a plus.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        2 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Linda -- you are having too much fun. I called 911 for the fun police. They will be by soon. But the first responders will get there quicker to administer first aid for fun infections.

        How fun that I printed this out. My elder son says no raised garden. My soil is already to rich. Whahoo herbs will abound per your instructions.

        Can you imagine the look on a 9 year old's face when he pulls up his radishes. God shines. And you are the silver lining.

      • manatita44 profile image

        manatita44 

        2 months ago from london

        Great article on herbs and their uses. West Indians and Africans are pretty good at this. Our grandmothers lived by the intuition that God gave them.

        I like your disclaimers at the end. Made me smile. You research your stuff well and present it like a delectable meal. Elegant and tasty.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        2 months ago from Sunny Florida

        I use most of these herbs at different times. Basil and oregano for spaghetti sauce, etc. I also like Ginger tea. My doctor told me to use tumeric to reduce inflammation.

        I like the chart you made as it just a minute to look up any particular herb. You have written an excelent, informative article my friend.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Bill, herbs are pretty easy. Many of them grow like weeds. Those in the mint family need to be kept in pots or barrels unless you want them EVERYWHERE. I'm finding that the same is true with oregano, but it spreads by seed, not underground shoots.

        As for the market, we will miss seeing you there. :(

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        2 months ago from Olympia, WA

        Since HP is messing around with my Mailbag, I have time for this informational and interesting look at herbs. I need to make time to properly grow some herbs. I'll put that on my to-do list, right after building a fence. :) Have a great week, my friend. And for your info, I quit the farmers market. Too much to do and something had to give.

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