In the past twenty years or so we have seen a renewed interest or reawakening of the use of herbs in our Western culture. Many people in the United States and Canada have begun exploring the ancient wisdom of healing herbs or brewing teas as preventative health maintenance. Because of this, the manufactured drug industry feels threatened and wants the government to step in to regulate or stop the sale of these products. In order to sway public sentiment, the big drug companies will launch a media campaign from time to time and attempt to give the growing herbal industry a black eye.
The latest attempt involves a person who has written a book denouncing the use of herbs as being totally ineffective and dangerous. This fellow apparently does have some credentials; at least enough for the media to bill him as expert or qualified to do the research and publish. However when the truth comes out it will be very likely that the synthetic drug industry is linked to all this. Judging from the amount of drugs that are advertised during those same news broadcasts I think it fair to say that the pharmaceutical industry definitely has the attention of the national media network.
Mind you, I am not an herbalist myself although I do sell plants. In doing so, I have learned some of the folklore and various uses of these plants. I enjoy drinking some herbal teas now and then. I do take one supplement in pill form on a fairly regular basis. I also will add Echinacea as a tea or additional pill during cold and flu season. Other than this I do not take any vitamin or mineral supplements. I believe I get all the nutrition I need from a healthy diet that consists of all the organic food I can raise myself or buy locally. I do not take any pharmaceuticals (including aspirin) on a regular basis. I have not been prescribed by a doctor in many years (perhaps due to the herbal supplements and semi-organic diet). I say this not because I want to expound on my herbal knowledge or fortunate good health but because I would like to share with you some my own opinions that make this battle between the drug companies and dietary supplement people seem rather silly. What it really boils down to has little to do with health and much to do about money.
Consider the fact that prior to the 20th century there was no such thing as synthetically produced drugs. All drugs and various components used to compound drugs came from natural sources; mainly plants. Penicillin, which gave rise to modern antibiotics, came from a fungus. Opium (morphine, codeine) perhaps the most widely used herb in history comes from poppies. In fact, in the book “Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest” author Delena Tull states that even with our ability to synthesize chemical compounds a full 35% of our modern day medicines are still derived from plant extracts. Hmmmm???…………That being true it seems the folks who adamantly oppose herbal remedy are using a few herbs themselves. So historically we find that synthetically produced drugs have only been around the past 100 years or so. How did we manage to survive?
If we travel to Asia and visit a pharmacy there we would find that what the doctor prescribes and what the patient is given usually comes in the form of seed, leaf, root, or powder. Most often instructions are given to brew a measured portion as a tea to be ingested by the patient at certain intervals. Pretty much what you and I, in the United States, would call herbal remedies. This should give any of us who watch the evening news cause to feel sorry for the poor Asians who don’t have the benefits of modern medicine. You might also assume that the death rate over there would be astronomical plus the doctors should wise up and study Western medicine. Fact is the Asian continent is the most heavily populated part of the Earth. History shows Asians to be world leaders in math and science. Many Asians live to be a ripe old age and they, as a people, are every bit as healthy, if not more so, than we are. Asians do use drugs, they just don’t take pills. Hmmmm!!!
So the issue really boils down to money. The drug companies spend millions on research and testing. They are strictly regulated by the FDA (OR at least they appear to be). They pass along the cost of research to the consumer plus a healthy profit for themselves. Meanwhile herbal remedies are currently defined as dietary supplements being lumped in with vitamins and mineral supplements. As such, one can purchase an herbal treatment for the fraction of the cost of prescribed medicines. This seems to be a valid argument for the drug manufacturers until you realize that plants have been used as medicine by mankind for millennia. Common herbal treatments have already been tested and the knowledge passed on. These are not new drugs. They are just not registered by the FDA. In ancient times the knowledge of these remedies were carefully passed down to the most intelligent members of a given community. The art of healing was given great respect. Rituals usually accompanied the application of medicines. The shaman, wizard, or healer often carried more clout than the chief, or king.
One of the case studies in this latest book attacking herbal remedies was that of a woman who claimed that her entire nose was eaten away from using St. John’s wort (hypericum perfoliata) to treat a tumor. This testimony made for compelling evidence on the evening news. However, after checking uses for St. John’s wort in four different reference books, I found it is used primarily for nervous disorders such as anxiety and depression plus a multitude of other things including a dye but I found no recommendation for tumors although it was mentioned for healing scar tissues. I have heard of cancers that have eaten away things like ears, lips, and noses. I also know of plant juices that can burn or blister skin. I have never heard of a plant extract so powerful it can dissolve muscle, cartilage, and bone. Perhaps the woman was misinformed? Maybe what she treated herself with was something other than St. John’s wort? Could her testimony possibly have been bought? Hmmm………. Therein lays an important problem.
Remember that in the past, herbal remedies were left to those with the intelligence to know how to use them. What is to stop a person from self medicating? Also what can stop someone from passing on a hearsay prescription? Let’s face it, drugs are drugs and it’s all about dosage. I’ve read that two level tablespoons of salt can kill an infant yet we all eat salt on a daily basis. Almost any substance used incorrectly can lead to complications. Furthermore, since we are not all exactly alike, different people have different responses to the same drug. Just listen to all those side effects warnings in these “new” miracle drug commercials. Honestly, I would rather take my chances with high cholesterol or blood pressure than risk some of these serious side effects!!
Another popular herb that was singled out in this news report is Echinacea. Echinacea is the genus of several species of wildflower that includes the popular landscape plant called purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). The news story claimed that according to the book there was absolutely no scientific proof that Echinacea could cure a cold. Well, of course there isn’t! Pick up a bottle of Echinacea (or read up on it) and you will find that the use is intended to boost the immune system and PREVENT illness such as a cold. Another good example of misinformation.
Be that as it may, consider the fact that Echinacea and many other common herbs can be harvested from the wild over a wide range of habitats. It would be extremely difficult for the FDA to stop people from using it even if they did decide to make it a controlled substance or stop the sale of medicinal herbs altogether.
I know there are some good herbalists out there. Among others I have had the great privilege to spend some personal time with Joanne Boudreau. Here is a lady that practices what she preaches. In person you will notice quickly that she is fit as a fiddle in both mind and body. We look forward to her articles each month and hope to find her open for business whenever we happen to pass through Mineral Wells. On the other hand, because of the rising popularity of herbal remedies I think there are far too many “wannabe’s” who are passing on information without having taken the time to study their craft thoroughly.
Should medicinal herbs be regulated by the FDA as drugs? Perhaps when more doctors prescribe them or as the drug manufacturers make use of them they will be. However, most people define herbs as any plant that can be used as food, spice, or medicine. This definition would cause the better half of all plants on Earth to be included as an herb. Then we have to further define that. Is turmeric merely a good spice or is it a medicine? Actually it is both. Where do we draw the line?
Should herbs be studied by modern science? Definitely; Plants are Nature’s own chemical factories. The knowledge we have acquired on different plant compounds is nothing compared to the things we have yet to discover. In a National Geographic article published in 1988 Lady Bird Johnson stated that only 200 of the many thousands of plants indigenous to the United States had been studied in depth. I strongly believe that any ailment that comes from natural causes has a treatment that can also be found in Nature.
Let the drug companies and the dietary supplement companies squabble over their respective share of the market all they want. Where there is money there will always be corruption. The real key is knowledge. What works will be passed on to the next generation. What doesn’t work, will eventually fall out of favor. If you are going to self medicate then make sure to do some research first. If you let someone else prescribe treatment then make certain that he or she has the necessary experience. Our true goal should be to maintain good health which is what herbal supplements do best. Diet and exercise can cure or improve almost any condition. Eat healthy……..be healthy.