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Herbal Medicine

To the uninformed, herbs are generally thought of as ineffective medicines used prior to the advent of more effective synthetic drugs. The term herb refers to a plant used for medicinal purposes. Are herbs effective medicinal agents or is their use merely a reflection of folklore, outdated theories, and myth? To some, herbs and crude plant extracts are effective medicines to be respected, utilized and appreciated. Our challenge, if we are to become less dependent on the pharmaceutical community, is to become better informed about the world of herbal remedies!

The return to herbal medicine

Throughout the world, but especially in Europe and Asia, the use and appreciation of herbal medicine is on the rise. In Germany, estimates show that over $4 billion dollars are spent on herbal products each year. In Japan, the figure is thought to be even higher. Herbal products are a major business in the United States as well, with an estimated annual sales figure of $1.3 billion dollars for 1992 and climbing.

The rebirth of herbal medicine, especially in developed countries, is largely based on the renewed interest of scientific researchers. During the last 10 to 20 years their efforts have yielded an explosion of scientific information concerning plants, crude plant extracts, and various substances from plants as medicinal agents.

The role of herbs in medicine: Time for a Change

It is up to us to be our own advocates when we are faced with pharmaceutical vs herbal choices in our own health care. Why aren't our doctors prescribing more natural alternatives? Because they are funded by the pharmaceutical companies, and the pharmaceutical companies don't make any money on herbs and natural plants!

(Are you aware that a large part of a cancer doctor's income comes from bonuses from the chemo manufacturers.* Guess what? No one is going to pay him extra to prescribe a program of diet and natural therapies!)

Because a plant cannot be patented, very little research has been done in this century on whole plants or crude plant extracts as medicinal agents. Instead, pharmaceutical firms screen plants for biological activity and then isolate the so-called active constituents (compounds). (Indeed, pharmacognosy, the study of natural drugs and their constituents, plays a major role in current drug development.) If the compound is powerful enough, the drug company will begin the formidable process to procure Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. I say formidable, because in the United States FDA approval of a plant-based drug typically takes 10 to 18 years at a total cost of roughly $230 million dollars.

In contrast, European policies have made it economically feasible for companies to research and develop herbs as medicines. In Germany, herbal products can be marketed as medicines if they have been proved to be safe and effective.7 Actually, the legal requirements for herbal medicines are identical to those for all other drugs. Whether the herbal product is available by prescription or over the counter (OTC) is based on its application and safety of use. Herbal products sold in pharmacies are reimbursed by insurance if they are prescribed by a physician.

The proof required by a manufacturer in Germany to illustrate safety and effectiveness for an herbal product is far less than the proof required by the FDA for drugs in the United States. In Germany, a special commission (Commission E) developed a series of 200 monographs on herbal products, similar to the OTC monographs in the United States.7 An herbal product is viewed as safe and effective if a manufacturer meets the quality requirements of the relevant monograph or produces additional evidence of safety and effectiveness, which can include data from the existing literature, anecdotal information from practicing physicians, as well as limited clinical studies.

Herbal medicine will certainly play a major role in future medicine. As modern medicine gains more knowledge and understanding about health and disease it is adopting therapies that are more natural and less toxic. Lifestyle modification, stress reduction, exercise, meditation, dietary changes, and many other traditional naturopathic therapies are becoming much more popular in standard medical circles. This illustrates the paradigm shift that is occurring in medicine. What were once scoffed at are now becoming generally accepted as effective alternatives. In fact, in most instances these natural alternatives offer significant advantages over standard medical practices.

The Great Herbal Remedy Fallacy

One of the great fallacies promoted by the U.S. medical establishment has been that there is no firm scientific evidence for the use of many natural therapies, including herbal medicine. This assertion is simply not true. In fact, the last 10 to 20 years have produced a tremendous amount of information concerning plants, crude plant extracts, and nutritional substances as medicinal agents.

Compare this to just 30 years ago, at which time it was impossible for the scientific establishment to determine exactly how many herbs promote their healing effects. Take aspirin, for example: you may be surprised to read that the main mechanism of action responsible for aspirin's anti-inflammatory effect was not understood until the early 1970s, and that its mechanism of action for pain relief has yet to be fully understood.

Since in this not-so-distant past the mechanism of therapeutic action of a particular herb could not be fully isolated and understood, many effective plant medicines were erroneously labeled as possessing no pharmacological activity. Today, however, researchers equipped with more sophisticated technology are rediscovering the wonder of plants as medicinal agents. Much of their increased understanding is, ironically, a result of synthetic drug research.

For example, one of the latest classes of so-called "wonder drugs" includes the calcium channel-blocking drugs. These drugs block the entry of calcium into smooth muscle cells, thereby inhibiting contraction and promoting muscular relaxation. Calcium channel-blocking drugs are currently being used in the treatment of high blood pressure, angina, asthma, and other conditions associated with smooth muscle contraction. In many ways, the synthesis and understanding of these drugs symbolizes the level of sophistication of the modern science of pharmacology. After calcium channel-blocking drugs were isolated and their mechanism of action better understood, it was discovered that many herbs contain components that possess calcium channel-blocking activity. In most cases the historical use of these herbs as medicine corresponded to their calcium channel-blocking activity. In addition to possessing currently understood pharmacological activity, many herbs possess pharmacological actions that are not at all consistent with modern pharmacological understanding. For example, many herbs appear to impact homeostatic control mechanisms to aid normalization of many of the body's processes: when there is a hyperstate the herb exerts a lowering effect and when there is a hypostate it has a heightening effect. This action is familiar to experienced herbalists, who use such terms as amphiteric, alterative, tome or adaptogenic to describe this effect.

The advantages of herbal remedies

What advantages do herbal medicines possess over synthetic drugs? As a rule, herbal preparations are less toxic than their synthetic counterparts and offer less risk of side effects (obviously, there are exceptions to this rule). In addition, the mechanism of action of an herb is often to correct the underlying cause of ill health. In contrast, a synthetic drug is often designed to alleviate the symptom or effect without addressing the underlying cause. It has also been demonstrated with many plants that the whole plant or crude extract is much more effective than isolated constituents.

The future of herbal medicine

Herbal medicine will certainly play a major role in future medicine. As modern medicine gains more knowledge and understanding about health and disease it is adopting therapies that are more natural and less toxic. Lifestyle modification, stress reduction, exercise, meditation, dietary changes, and many other traditional naturopathic therapies are becoming much more popular in standard medical circles. This illustrates the paradigm shift that is occurring in medicine. What were once scoffed at are now becoming generally accepted as effective alternatives. In fact, in most instances these natural alternatives offer significant advantages over standard medical practices.

Appreciation is growing for the harmonious healing properties that herbal medicines possess, particularly in Europe and Asia. The United States is becoming more aware of the medicinal value of herbs as well. Without doubt, future medicine will make good use of herbs: the medicine of the past wili be the medicine of the future.

The difference will be due to the growing sophistication of herbal medicine. With the continuing advancement in science and technology there has been a great improvement in the quality of herbal medicines available. Improvements in cultivation techniques, coupled with improvements in quality control and standardization of potency, will continue to increase the effectiveness of herbal medicines.

* "Breakthrough - Eight Steps to Wellness" Susan Somers interview with Bill Faloon, page 78
This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.