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Reduces water retention

If you occasionally enjoy a dry martini, you can thank juniper berries. Actually, you can thank a 17th-century Dutch physician named Franciscus de la Boe, otherwise known as Dr. Sylvius. Dr. Sylvius was well aware that juniper berries are a powerful diuretic that helps the body flush away excess water. And it was while trying to distill the essence of juniper berries into alcohol that he inadvertently created gin.

His herbal concoction proved extremely popular, especially with the English, who didn't give two hoots that it was supposed to be medicinal.

The use of the oil from juniper berries as medicine goes way back. Egyptian doctors used it as a laxative as early as 1550 BCE. Since then, in various times and places, the oil has been used to treat an incredible variety of human ailments, everything from cancer and arthritis to gas and warts. Also appearing on this unlikely list: swelling, bronchitis, tuberculosis, gallstones, colic, heart failure, intestinal diseases, gonorrhea, gout, hysteria and back pain.

Over time, herbalists finally focused on the kidneys as the favored organ for treatment with juniper. They recommended the herb for kidney disease, kidney stones and inflamed kidneys.

Little Berries With a Powerful Punch

It wasn't until the current century that doctors discovered that juniper actually irritates the kidneys, says William J. Keller, Ph.D., professor and head of the Division of Medicinal Chemistry and Pharmaceutics at Northeast Louisiana University School of Pharmacy in Monroe. While juniper is a potent diuretic, it's actually harmful to anyone with a kidney problem. What's more, as little as six drops of the oil can have a toxic effect whether or not you have kidney disease. That's why you should never just pick a handful of berries and munch, says Dr. Keller. "The safest way to use juniper oil is to buy it in health food stores as an ingredient in over-the-counter 'water pills.' And as long as you're not pregnant, just follow the dosage instructions on the label.

"Under no circumstances should a pregnant woman use juniper in any form," adds Dr. Keller. It's known to cause miscarriage.

The best use of juniper? Probably as the flavoring agent in gin-and-tonic, chuckles Dr. Keller. These days, there's just enough juniper oil to give the drink its characteristic flavor and smell, but not enough to have a pharmacological effect.

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