Herbal medicine has existed for a long time; some might say for as long as humans. The many viewpoints and approaches make it difficult to separate legitimate claims from bogus sales pitches. The average misinformed allopathic doctor sees herbs as unregulated voodoo.
Yet research continues to prove the effectiveness of select therapies, and many market drugs are derived from natural sources (for instance aspirin, from willow bark). While that’s not to say that all herbs have healing properties, the presence of just a few merits full investigation into the discipline.
Below, we’ll be looking at a few of the more common myths and why they fall short of reality.
1. All Herbs Are Equally Safe
While the majority of natural substances are safe, herbs are not universally without their risks. Herbalists are fully aware that incorrect dosages or combinations are capable of causing harm; they are aware that conventional drugs can be magnified, inhibited or otherwise interact with herbs in ways that might prove disadvantageous to their patients.
Ginkgo biloba, for instance, is used to treat patients with dementia and can help patients achieve better blood flow. Unfortunately, it has also been shown to cause bleeding in some patients and interacts poorly with common medications such as warfarin and aspirin.
Should you find yourself in need of herbal medicine, be sure to get it from a reputable source. Online shops can sometimes be just as good or better than buying in person, but be sure you’re doing so from a safe connection. Even though most shops use secured pages, accessing via public WiFi can put you at risk in spite of their precautions if you haven’t taken some of your own.
2. Doctors Don’t Use Herbal Medicine
An increasing number of doctors are considering herbal medicine solutions as pharmaceutical drugs both increase in cost and danger. Even M.D.’s—traditionally the peddlers of conventional drugs—are starting to realize the benefits. And they aren’t the only real doctors by any stretch of the imagination.
Doctors of Oriental Medicine (DOM) and Naturopathic Doctors (NDs) undergo rigorous training in the use of herbs. In fact, their curriculums are much more specialized in those fields and tend to shy away from conventional Western drug therapies.
Ayurvedic practitioners make extensive use of herbs as do some chiropractors, although the latter more frequently uses supplements due to a difference in training.
3. Herbal Medicine is Tightly Regulated
For a variety of reasons, herbs aren’t truly regulated. Because of their status as “natural,” very few limits are put on the sale of herbal remedies; this is beneficial to consumers when it comes to cost, as there’s no middle man driving up prices.
But no regulations also mean no quality control. According to research done in 2013, OTC supplements and herbs purchased in big box stores rarely contained what was on the label. Many contained benign substances but some were actually dangerous.
The only real way to be safe is to shop with reputable companies. Always check that herbs are being carefully monitored and inspected, preferably by a third party. High-quality vendors will also know about storage and how to protect their product from environmental harm.
4. No Research, No Evidence
Research is extraordinarily expensive—the cost of setting up an experiment, getting subjects to willingly participate and receiving approval for ethical purposes all tend to drive a wedge between herbal medicine and research because large groups don’t exist to fund said research. For instance, bringing a pharmaceutical drug to market in the US costs upwards of $2.6 billion, although these costs are usually recovered by patent (something herbs are immune from).
But the lack of research does nothing to say if herbal preparations actually work. It isn’t the only field with limited research available either. Spinal fusion surgery is utilized frequently in conventional medical practice, yet very little evidence actually supports it.
However, we are likely to see more research in the not too distant future. The opioid epidemic gripping those treated by conventional means is driving research into alternative therapies that are almost certain to enter herbal territory.
Be it conventional medicine, manual therapies or herbal remedies, nearly all modalities have something useful to contribute to our health. Companies that focus on creating high-quality herbal preparations do a great service to the practice of herbal medicine and should be encouraged to maintain a high standard.
Despite a need for additional research, herbal medicine continues to see significant utilization. Conventional therapies—especially under Functional Medicine’s paradigm—continue to add relevant herbal remedies to their therapeutic regimen. While only time can tell where herbal medicine’s position will be in future treatment and prevention of disease, one thing is for sure: it’s here to stay.
About the Author: Caroline has spent years searching for safe and effective treatments for herself and her family. While she does not discount conventional medicine, her interest in traditional and alternative treatments has continued to grow alongside the body of research. In her spare time, she enjoys blogging about her other interests, including technology and nutrition.