Don’t Run, Walk,

and take a couple of research laps around the block before running into the health food store to purchase the latest-and-greatest “natural” product for this or that. This post is going to be a vent of a frustration that’s been building up in me for quite some time.

I have been studying herbs – both formally and informally – for well over 20 years. I’ve watched herbal medicine once again come to the forefront as people try to live “natural” lives without synthetic drugs. The problem is, so many people believe all the advertisements they see on television and run to the store to buy the “new” product without doing any further research. They decide modern medicine is “bad” and don’t want to take any “drugs”.

First and foremost, herbs are drugs. The definition of a drug is “a substance used as a medication or in the preparation of a medication”.  That cup of chamomile tea you drink to calm you down in the evening is a drug. I don’t mind people self-medicating if it is as simple as a calming cup of tea in the evenings; or trying diet & lifestyle modifications plus an herb or two to lower cholesterol levels (after discussion with a doctor), but this pervasive idea that herbs will solve everything and are completely safe is getting on my nerves.

One problem with not doing your homework is interactions. Herbs can interact with each other and with synthetic drugs – sometimes unfavorably. Awhile back, a friend of mine saw an ad on television for a Ginkgo biloba product and thought he’d try it to “strengthen his ageing memory”. When we saw each other he mentioned he was going to pick some up the next time he was at the store. My immediate reaction was “whoa, there pardner!” I happen to know he’s on an anticoagulant for another issue. Ginkgo can increase the action of anticoagulants. (It has a whole list of potential interactions.) I told him perhaps he ought to check with his doctor before starting any Ginkgo. He did and his doctor gave him the go-ahead but they are carefully monitoring him.

Another example: my mother started taking a rather expensive product for her cholesterol based on an advertisement she’d seen on television. The product has some good chemical compounds which aren’t harmful and may actually be helpful to many people but the “scientific research” touted by its manufacturer is one tiny study (120 participants) done back in the mid-1990’s. Not quite as comforting as the hundreds of studies on the effects of garlic. Problem is, this particular product contains a compound that isn’t good for her. She self-medicated without doing any further research.

As a medical herbalist and someone that sells bulk herbs, I’m always being accosted by people telling me, “I have X problem. What herb should I take?” My first question back is, “what did your doctor say?” This seems to upset a lot of people. They get even further upset when I tell them that I don’t know what herb (or combination thereof) they should take right off the top of my head because I don’t know them, don’t know their medical history, what other substances they may be taking and a few other things. I spend a lot of time dispelling the notion that all herbs are safe all the time.

I know many herbal products do carry some warnings on the bottle or box but many don’t. I also know a lot of people who either don’t read the warnings or discount them. Sigh. They’re there for a reason. Scientific research is also finding out something new about herbs every day so the information on the bottle or box may be outdated until they can print new labels. Do your research.

While synthetic drugs wouldn’t be my first choice for a problem, they do have their place. Herbal therapy hasn’t cured cancer or AIDS, for example. Medical advancements (both synthetic drugs and other treatments) and a better understanding of what causes illness have greatly increased our lifestyle expectancy – from 38 in 1850 to 76 in 2000.  Not bad – doubling life expectancy in only 150 years. 38 was considered “old” for probably a millenium or more, when herbs were the only drugs doctors had in their arsenal.

All doctors will be happy if you make some diet and lifestyle modifications. Most (not all) medical doctors will grudgingly allow you to first try an herb for a problem. Discuss it with him/her and come armed with research. But for goodness’ sake, if all that doesn’t work, take the prescription as advised. I don’t know about you but I like living well past 38!