Herbs and Herbal Medicine

For thousands of years, herbs have been used safely all over the globe to nourish, balance, cleanse, and heal the human organism. In the United States, herbs and homeopathic remedies were commonly used to prevent and treat medical illnesses until the early 20th century.

Even now, Americans spend nearly $34 billion annually—approximately one-tenth of their out-of-pocket health care expenditures—on complementary and alternative medical therapies, including herbal remedies. (Marchione M, Stobbe M. Americans spend $34B for alternative medicine. Associated Press July 31, 2009)

In contrast to “modern medicine,” which connotes the use of powerful pharmaceuticals and abrupt interventions, herbs are still the mainstay of both long-term health maintenance and acute care in many cultures.

Does Scientific Evidence Support Herbal Medicine?

Unfortunately, studies designed to evaluate the effectiveness of herbal supplements produce almost uniformly disappointing results. Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen’s health research and long-time critic of the FDA’s inefficient oversight of prescription drugs, voices similar concerns about the widespread use of dietary supplements and herbs: “People think they are cleared (by the FDA)…” but “mainly they are ineffective.”

Proponents of herbal medicine, however, point out that many so-called “rigorous studies” designed to evaluate the effectiveness of herbs are flawed or, worse, deliberately biased to show that herbs don’t work. They claim that these studies, which are often sponsored and funded by pharmaceutical companies, don’t take into account the sources of the herbs being tested, or that the manner of herbal preparation or dosing is not in keeping with traditional methods.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Some herbs that enjoy popular appeal may, indeed, be useless, and other herbal preparations which have been discredited in recent scientific trials—or that have not yet been scrutinized—might actually prove valuable if they were properly studied.

Well-designed trials that addressed the concerns of herbalists would be useful, especially since it appears that many Americans are willing—if not eager—to include herbs in their health maintenance programs.

Whether or not the popularity of herbal medicines will change with proposed health care reforms and hoped-for universal coverage remains to be seen. Notably, nearly half of individuals who resort to alternative medical therapies say they cannot afford conventional care. (Pagán J, Pauly M. Access to conventional medical care and the use of complementary and alternative medicine. Health Affairs 2005;24(1):255-262)

Back to Herbal Basics

It is worth remembering that a large number of today’s prescription medications have their roots, as it were, in herbal medicine. In many cases, the molecular structures of modern drugs were derived from botanical predecessors.

Antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, chemotherapeutic agents, cardiac drugs…a significant number of widely-used medicines are only a few generations removed from their horticultural ancestors.

Perhaps herbal efficacy is a victim of the same misguided philosophy that has cheapened so many commodities in today’s world: In order to reap the maximum economic return from a given crop, we cultivate it in endless, monotonous stands, alter its environment with pesticides and fertilizers, and harvest it en masse, oblivious to the nuances of nature.

With all due respect to the scientific community, is it unreasonable to believe that the herbal analogs of today’s drugs might still find use if they are grown and prepared appropriately?

After all, the traditions of the herbalists—passed from one disciple to the next through the millennia—were gleaned from the natural world by observers no less astute than today’s most esteemed scientists.