When you tell friends or relatives that you are using herbs and traditional natural health methods, they may react with dismissal. “A mere New Age fad, with no evidence that any of it really works.” “Drugs prescribed by a doctor are safe and effective — herbs are dangerous.” “It’s ignorant superstition — it only works by placebo effect.” Do these opinions sound familiar? Many extreme statements about herbs are made by academic and medical professionals who lack practical expertise in their use. The fear, uncertainty and doubt generated by such statements cause many people to avoid herbs that could be beneficial for minor or mild chronic conditions.
The Natural Medicine Controversy
In America, many doctors tell their patients that herbs aren’t as good as drugs. Some people believe there has been an organized campaign to discourage their use. Pharmaceutical companies can only get patents on medications that are made with highly profitable synthetic chemicals. Herbs come under the food laws, since they are extracted from a natural source, and are sold without a prescription or medical drug claims. The labels of natural healing substances can’t include claims to cure, treat or prevent any disease or condition.
In 1992, the FDA tried to restrict or ban vitamins, herbs and other natural medicines in order to keep people from using them for healing purposes instead of commercial medicines. Congress received a huge flood of protest mail — one of the largest amounts of mail ever on a single subject. Because so many people felt strongly about vitamins and herbs, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act was created. This authorized the sale of natural non-harmful substances as long as they were considered food rather than drugs.
Traditional herbs are accepted as allopathic medicines in most of Europe. In both France and Germany herbs are prescribed by medical doctors alongside synthetic pharmaceutical drugs. Whatever substance is the best one for the purpose is chosen by the doctor. This practice is called complementary medicine. Attempts to ban or restrict the use of natural medicines in England and Europe will be met with resistance by doctors as well as patients.
Do Herbs Work?
Obviously, herbs have some beneficial properties. Many of today’s familiar drugs such as aspirin and birth control pills began as natural remedies. Plenty of anecdotal evidence — stories from satisfied consumers — suggests that herbs work for many people.
But like allopathic medicines, herbal and natural medicines should be tested to see what beneficial properties they actually possess. Scientific studies of herbs and plants used in both Chinese and Western herbal medicine is being done in the U.S. and abroad, with findings published in medical journals. You can find some of these references on line, and they might help you come up with rebuttals to the nay-sayers.
If you’ve never tried herbal or natural medicine before, go to your local bookstore or library and look for books and websites with down-to-earth explanations. Prescription for Nutritional Healing by Phyllis and James Balch is a complete guide, updated frequently. The prestigious Mayo Clinic now puts out a book on alternative medicines. David Hoffmann’s Medical Herbalism is also recommended. Old-time remedies and recipes are found in Jethro Kloss’ Back to Eden. To learn how to use food and herbs according to Ayurvedic tradition, start with Hakim Chishti’s Traditional Healer’s Handbook. Online, try herbcraft.org and botanical.com.
Are Herbs Dangerous?
Of course you should use herbal and natural medicines with care just as you would use any other medicine. Herbs often have side effects which are not harmful in themselves but may be undesirable in your condition. If you are being treated for a particular ailment, consult your doctor and a naturopathic physician before starting any herbal or natural medicine.
As a relatively mild example, some herbs like nettle, dandelion and goldenseal, are specifically used for their diuretic properties. But nearly all herbs are diuretic to some degree. This can be helpful if you have water retention or high blood pressure. But increased urination can also remove important elements from your system, especially electrolytes and potassium. You should replenish these any time you are using herbs.
Some herbs, while useful, should not be self-administered because they have other properties that make them risky. Among these are lobelia (traditionally used to help asthma and bronchial congestion), comfrey (safe when used externally to heal wounds) and pennyroyal (an abortion herb). Some of the studies on these herbs, especially animal tests, are not conclusive proof of danger to human beings, but extreme caution should be taken nonetheless.
Be as careful with herbal medicines as with allopathic drugs. Use the recommended amount and prepare it as directed. Use extreme caution when trying to identify herbs in your garden — poisonous plants often look very much like nontoxic ones. Consult an expert if you have the slightest doubt.