The use of herbal medicines is gaining popularity among patients, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, due to the rising cost of prescriptions and a desire to return to natural therapies. While some conventional physicians don't consider alternatives like herbs to be therapeutically valid, many health care professionals are eager to learn more so they can answer patients' questions. Some physicians have established referral relationships with naturopathic physicians or even have staff on-site who might prescribe herbal medicines. If you aren't already sold on the idea of their advantages, chances are that you're at least curious about herbal medicines. Like any medicine, there are pros and cons to herbals.
Herbal medicine should not be confused with dietary supplements. While they may have similar or even some of the same components, there should be a difference in how they are used and in their actions on the body. Dietary supplements, also called nutritional supplements or simply "vitamins," do not necessarily contain herbal components and are specifically for adding nutrients -- vitamins, mineral, amino acids and others -- to your body. Herbal medicine, sometimes called botanical medicine or phytomedicine, involves the use of plants for medically therapeutic purposes. Depending on the plant, a number of plant parts may be used as medicine, including the seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark and flowers.
Herbs have been used as medicine for centuries, far longer than the drugs used in conventional Western medicine. Today, traditional Chinese medicine physicians and Ayurvedic practitioners use some of the same formulas that the founders of their professions used long ago to heal and prevent disease. The use of herbal medicine has always been standard medical practice in some countries, like Germany, where the University of Maryland Medical Center says 70 percent of that country's physicians prescribe more than 600 plant-based medicines.
Dr. Anne Jeffres, Associate Academic Dean and Research Faculty at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, says herbs and herbal formulas provide a natural solution for many conditions, and can be as or more effective than comparable pharmaceuticals -- with little or no side effects -- when overseen by a qualified licensed professional. Also, many herbs have been shown to benefit a variety of body systems simultaneously -- for example, your immune and digestive systems. Some of those include Ginseng, Reishi mushrooms, and Astragalus. This multi-systemic effect eliminates the need for multiple pharmaceuticals with multiple possible side effects. This is also one of the reasons that herbs and herbal formulas are often more affordable than comparable pharmaceuticals or other interventions.
Though made from plants, herbal medicine's components and actions aren't necessarily simple. Scientists have chemically analyzed medicinal plants to break down the active ingredients and understand how they work in the body. In fact, that's how the first drugs were created -- by using plant compounds. This long-time knowledge of the individual chemicals in herbals, plus the fact that the medications are often compounded specifically for each patient's prescription, adds flexibility to the list of benefits. Dr. Jeffres explains herbal formulas that are made up of several or more individual herbs can be modified and tailored to individual needs by adding or subtracting or changing the dosage of particular herbs within the formula.
The primary disadvantage of herbal medicine is, as described in Special Report for The Permanente Journal, that there's little evidence from randomized controlled trials that supports the use of many herbal supplements. Dr. Jeffres, who holds a Doctoral degree in Oriental Medicine, says while some aspects of herb drug interactions may still be unknown, there is a growing body of data related to potential herb-drug interactions. She recommends the extensive database compiled by Memorial Sloan Kettering for information on safest practices.
Quality Control Issues
In the United States, there is no agency or organization that is officially charged with the task of oversight in the manufacturing or labeling of herbal medicines. You, the consumer, are at risk in terms of the actual contents and the accuracy of dosages. Dr. Jeffres says the best way to make sure you're accessing the right herbal treatments is to seek the guidance of a highly-trained, licensed professional. She adds that all patients seeing an herbalist should also consult a physician regarding
any medical conditions. In many areas, you'll find licensed acupuncturist with national certification in Chinese Herbology or Oriental Medicine. You want to enlist the services of someone with a minimum of Masters-level training. Other practitioners who might prescribe herbal medicine include chiropractors, naturopathic physicians, compounding pharmacists, and even M.D's.
- NIH Office of Dietary Supplements: Botanical Dietary Supplements
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Herbal medicine
- Bastyr Center for Natural Health: The History of Naturopathic Medicine
- National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: What Is CAM?
- Anne Jeffres, MS, DAOM, LAc; Associate Academic Dean, Chair of Herbology; Pacific College of Oriental Medicine; New York