Herbal Medicine, Does it really work?
I asked this question a lot before heading down this wonderful rabbit warren of a career path and the unequivical answer to it is... "YES, ABSOLUTELY!"
Most medicines come from plants, whether it be salicylic acid (from which we get aspirin) or spearmint which contains "Carvol", a constituent that any parent will recognise from over the counter infant remedies.
Are herbal medicines the same as pharmaceuticals? No, generally not. That said, some do have dramatic effects and are regarded as poison for this very reason. Think Henbane, Deadly Nightshage, Foxglove etc. Some extracts are illegal such as heroin from the poppy plant or cannabis (though slowly, ever so slowly, we are beginning to see the light in regard to this particular little gem of a species). Most herbs though take time to create the desired effect. St. Johns Wort (Hypericum Perforatum) can take a few weeks to help people suffering from depression but it should be noted, that many anti-depressants require the same.
So, which is better?
Pharmaceuticals take inspiration from plants, they extract constituents and isolate them for study and research. This action creates opportunites for patenting. It allows the company to make something powerful that will tackle a specific illness and fix the problem. Patenting allows for profit, and lets face it, profit is what these companies are all about. The fundamental difficulty for patients is that you need to take a cocktail of drugs for different individual illness' which can negatively interact with each other and cause damage elsewhere.
Herbal remedies are fundamentally different. As little or no money can be made from whole herbs there isn't really an incentive to study the whole plant. That is not to say we are without research. There is ample research having been undertaken over the years and herbalists have the advantage of 1000's of years of practice. Herbs are also something of a mystery. Take St. John's Wort as an example. There have been hundreds of studies on particular isolates of St. Johns Wort. It is generally understood that the constituent hypericin is responsible for the herbs anti-depressive properties. What is not understood, however is the fact that St. John's Wort seems to help people with depression better when taken as a whole herb as opposed to taking an individual constituent. Aspirin is another example. Taken as a medicine we now know that we run the risk of thinning our blood and for some patients aspirin should be avoided at all costs. However, it is facinating that when taken as part of a whole plant, the pain relieving properties remain (albeit slightly weaker) but the blood thinning properties are absent. Which would you rather have?
So should you just go to the nearest health food shop and buy lots of herbs?
Well, perhaps. However, herbs are funny little things and it seems they have caught on to the fact that big business' are also on the herbal health & well-being band-wagon. Herbs make it very difficult for companies to gaurantee their effectiveness as the constituents of plants vary greatly according to climate, soil ph, rainfall, sunshine etc. Standardisation can allow for purity but it can also provide opportunies for companies to add isolates to products that are substandard. Take rosehip for instance. Lots of rosehip capsules claim to be enriched with vitamin C or as being extra strength. Its always good to ask yourself how they managed to make an extract stronger than it might be naturally. It is very unlikely any of them can claim to be organic if they are adulterated in such a manner.
Take dandelion for instance? It is known for being a hepatoprotective and diuretic. Its a funny diuretic though as it is also full of potassium which most diuretics make the body excrete. Dandelion root also contains up to 40% inulin in its roots, making it a great pre-biotic. However, there is a catch. Only dandelion root harvested in winter will have this much inulin. Harvest it in spring or summer and there may only be as little as 2 % inulin. Use dandelion leaves in the spring on your salad for its potassium rich diuretic properties but if you wait too long and the flowerheads start to bloom then most of the plants nutrients and goodness have already moved on up the plant and into the flower. In which case consider making some dandelion wine instead.
The problem for customers, is knowing that the manfucaturer you buy from knows intimately the plant you are buying. Has it been harvested not just organically and ethically but also at the right time of the year when that part of the plant is at its most potent? You might also want to ensure the shelf-life is adequate and that the plant won't loose its properties.
Then there is the question of bioavailability. A plant might be good for a certain condition. It may well be that reishi mushrooms have the potential to be anti-cancerous but did you know that if you drink a tea or tincture - the properties within the product will be very different? That has huge implications as to how the body may be able to make good use of the medicine you are giving yourself. Go back to any commercial herb extracts and that kind of information just isn't available. Instead they sell you the reputed benefits of a herb without telling us how best to extract its nutrients.
There is an art-form to herbalism. And that's really important to understand. Herbs can be misunderstood and thought of as powerless or ineffective because they aren't being used appropriately. It takes someone with the knowlege of a herbs polarity, solubility in water or ethanol etc., to really harnesses the power of the plant. Its complex. Plants are also known to work synergistically with the body's metabolism. Herbalists use herbs to fix the body but rather support the body in healing itself and that has many therapeutic implications for how they practice.
Herbs work. However it takes the body (and the person) to want to get well. Creating a healthy balance and lifestyle is all-encompassing. That's why herbalists take into account diet, history, trauma, symptoms, causes, emotions and spirituality. Only when the whole person is being supported can the body get the chance to recouperate and sadly, in this busy world, many of us have lost the innate connection to our inner selves.
An added little problem for herbalist in this country is how the law prohibits us from labelling things as medicinal. I've always been fond of corporate conspiracies but the fact remains that there is lots of poor information out there because despite the research confirming a herbs potency and effectiveness we are not allowed to state these properties when selling them over the counter. We can prescribe herbs for clients that are specific to conditions but we are not allowed to sell them over the counter to people walking in. Certainly, some herbs carry contraindications but surely it is better to empower us to be responsible and state those claims along with advice as to how to take such medication safely. It empowers patients, is much much cheaper than pharmaceutical products and surely hones in to that wonderful proverb that food is our medicine.
Alas, the government would rather disempower people wishing to care for themselves, make it difficult to remain self-sufficent and instead create numerous means to intoxicate us by legalising pesticides, herbicides and dietary guidelines (forget the food pyramid please - its just a lie! In no uncertain terms Carbs should not be making up the main part of our diet and polyunsaturated plant based oils are not better for your health.) that are absolutely detrimental to our health and to those plants & animals we share this planet with.