Do Herbs Really Work?

Do Herbs Really Work?

David J. Zeiger, D.O.

If you know how to use them safely, herbal remedies can fight off colds, headaches and other ills.

Herbs, Mother Nature’s remedies made from the leaves, flowers, bark, berries, or roots of plants, are becoming the treatment of choice for millions of Americans. Herbal products registered $1.6 billion in sales last year. Botanicals, as herbs are also called, have become the fastest-growing category in drugstores.

The fact is that Americans are just catching up with the rest of the world in recognizing the value of the medicinal use of herbs. Botanicals have long been considered an important complement to conventional drugs in Europe where doctors routinely prescribe herbal preparations for insomnia, colds, heart problems, constipation and depression.

Used properly, herbs add another dimension to health care. For example, it is better to take echinacea (a mild immune stimulant) to lessen flu symptoms than antibiotics, which are useless against viral illnesses. Botanicals are also less expensive than drugs. In Europe, saw palmetto, prescribed for an enlarged prostate, costs 40 cents a day. The drug finasteride, prescribed in the U.S., costs about $1.75 a day. Cholesterol lowering drugs cost nearly $4 a day more than simple garlic tablets which also lower cholesterol. Some U.S. insurance companies have taken notice. So have U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials who have stated that they welcome any botanical that could treat conditions for which there are currently no effective drugs–such as the need for sleep-inducing agents that aren’t addictive, and safeguards against migraines.

Do Herbs Work?

The success of herbal remedies is the product of testimonials, tradition, and research. Many herbs have undergone extensive testing–especially Chinese herbs. Plants give us about a quarter of all drugs. The opium poppy has given us such pain killers as morphine and codeine. Belladonna has yielded atropine, a muscle relaxant. Periwinkle has been the source of cancer drugs vincristine and vinblastine. Willow bark produces salicin from which we have gotten aspirin. The FDA has judged at least 16 herbs to be both safe and effective and allows them to carry health claims and be sold as over-the-counter drugs. Slippery elm bark (Throat Coat Tea) and two laxatives, senna (Senokot) and psyllium seeds (Metamucil) are examples.

Are Herbs Safe?

Herbs that have the ability to heal also have the ability to harm if they are misused. Generally herbs are safer than drugs because most drugs have potentially serious side effects. Illnesses associated with herbal use are relatively uncommon and deaths are rare. Look at it this way. Our favorite herbal beverage in the U.S. is coffee. If you drink two cups of coffee a day, that is generally safe. Drink five cups a day and you may get headaches or become nervous. Drink fifteen cups and you can get dizzy or get ringing in your ears. Each herb has its own safe dose. Most of the few people who get seriously ill from herbs each year make the mistake of thinking that if something is natural any dose is safe. Herbal medicine is like any other medication. It should be used with discretion and under the guidance of a knowledgeable healthcare provider.

The Safe Use of Herbs

It’s best to take herbal remedies on your own only for minor, short-term discomforts like colds. For everything else, see a doctor.

Don’t take herbs if you are pregnant, trying to become pregnant, or nursing, and don’t give herbs to your baby. When you drink a cup of coffee, for example, caffeine is cleared from your body in less than five hours. A baby would take 80 hours to clear a comparable dose.

Don’t overdo herbal usage. You can damage your liver, kidneys, and other organs if you take a potentially toxic herb or when you consume botanicals in large amounts over a long period of time. Early symptoms of liver damage resemble the standard flu or cold symptoms. Jaundice may show up later.

Don’t use a large variety of herbs regularly. No botanicals have been checked for safety when combined with other herbs or drugs. Physicians or pharmacists who have taken courses on herbal remedies should be consulted. Get Chinese herbs prescribed by a licensed physician trained in Chinese medicine.

Learn as much as you can about the herbs you are taking. Two helpful sources are Peterson Field Guides Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants by Steven Foster and James Duke (Houghton/ Mifflin) and The Honest Herbal by Varro Tyler (Haworth Press). You can learn a lot about Chinese herbal medicine in the book Between Heaven and Earth by Harriet Bienfeld and Efram Korngold.

Page modified on 5/15/2011

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