by Kathy Ashley
October 05, 2016
Herbs were the first drugs that humans had available. Over time, our ancestors learned which plants were harmful and which ones offered real benefit. They discovered ways to preserve and extract the healing compounds from the plants. All over the world, most cultures have knowledge about local plants that can be beneficial for them.
In most cases, what ancient civilizations learned about treating illnesses with herbs has been proven by modern researchers. Echinacea, for example, has been shown to increase the activity of immune cells and help fight infection by viruses and bacteria, characteristics that help explain the herb's cold-fighting power.
The first herbal drugstore included all of nature, with a huge selection of medicinal plants. Comparatively, the modern drugstore has moved far from its natural roots. Herbs are available in capsule form, liquids and sprays that don't even resemble a living plant. You can use products that contain combinations of herbs or compounds that have been isolated from herbs and highly concentrated. Widely available, you can buy these products anywhere from health food stores to conventional pharmacies to the internet. Actually, you can make many of these herbal products yourself.
Before you can make informed choices about the many remedies available, it's good to have a basic knowledge of herbs, how they work and what they can do for you.
Basically, an herb is any plant material that is used to alleviate unwanted symptoms or boost overall health. In this context, garlic (a bulb), cayenne (a spice), and ginkgo extract (from the leaves of a tree) can all be correctly be called herbs. Reishi, a mushroom, can also be called an herb, even though you're most likely to take it in the form of a liquid or tablet. Feverfew is one of the few herbs that you might take in its fresh, green form, and is used to relieve headaches.
Herbal medicine, then, is the use of plants, plant extracts or plant preparations to improve health. It is only one of a number of healing techniques that fall under the category of alternative medicine.
There are two foundational principles that herbal medicine shares with other alternative therapies. One is working with the body instead of against a disease, as mainstream medicine does. Rather than killing germs, alternative therapies enhance the body's innate ability to fight disease and return itself to health. That's why practitioners of many alternative therapies, including herbal medicine, put emphasis on diet, exercise, deep relaxation and massage.
The second principle common to other alternative healing methods is the use of medicinal plants instead of pharmaceutical drugs. Medicinal plants are the basis of herbal medicine, aromatherapy and flower therapies. Herbs play a central role in homeopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurvedic medicine and naturopathy. Additionally, medicinal plants are connected to nutritional therapies because some herbs, such as onions and apples, are foods.
Medicinal plants and pharmaceutical drugs are mostly seen as opposites, but actually they have a lot in common.
An estimated 25% of all pharmaceuticals are still derived directly from plants. The world's first "wonder drug", the malaria treatment Quinine, was extracted from South American cinchona bark almost 500 years ago. Digitalis, used to treat congestive heart failure, comes from foxglove. Aspirin was originally an extract of white willow bark and meadow-sweet, both of which contain aspirin's chemical precursor, salicin. The active ingredient in the mouthwash, Listerine, is the antiseptic thymol, which comes from thyme essential oil. Surgical salves that help speed the healing of wounds often contain allantoin, a compound derived from comfrey. The discovery of Taxol, a compound derived from the yew tree, is used in the treatment of breast and ovarian cancer. And the list goes on and on.
Another similarity is that medicinal plants and pharmaceuticals contain compounds that alter body processes, which is the point of using them to treat illness. When you have an infection, you might take a pharmaceutical antibiotic or the natural antibiotics contained in garlic or goldenseal. Compounds from the drug or the herb enter the bloodstream and assist the immune system in eliminating the micro-organism that's causing the problem.
Scientists study herbs and drugs similarly, using what is called randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trials. "Randomized" means that the subjects are not specially pre-selected. They may be all the residents of a certain nursing home, or the next 250 patients to visit a particular clinic.
"Placebo-controlled" means that some of the participants take the active herb or drug, while others receive an inactive substance, or placebo. Because of the ability of the mind to stimulate the immune system, placebos typically provide significant relief for about 1/3 of those who take them. To be considered effective, the drug or herb being tested must significantly outperform the placebo.
"Double-Blind" means that neither the participants nor the researchers know in advance who took the test compound and who got the placebo, preventing researchers from treating subjects differently.
Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City conducted a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study to test an extract of Ginkgo as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease. They recruited 309 people who were newly diagnosed with Alzheimer's and gave them either Gingko extract or a placebo for a year. Compared with the placebo, Ginkgo significantly slowed the participants' mental deterioration. Incidentally, several previous studies had indicated that it might be effective in treating Alzheimer's. Because this study was large and scientifically rigorous, it was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, made headlines and established Ginkgo as a viable treatment for Alzheimer's.
As you can see, medicinal herbs and pharmaceutical drugs have quite a bit in common, but they also have differences.
Most herbs are less potent than pharmaceutical drugs. This may sound like a disadvantage but it makes herbs safer to take.
Pharmaceutical manufacturers extract unique chemical constituents from plants or create synthetic versions in the lab, then pack large amounts into pills or capsules. With most herb products, the plant material itself limits how much of the medicinal compounds you get.
Sometimes drug-level potency is necessary -- even at the risk of experiencing side effects. Conventional medication does have a place; if you are in severe pain you may take a strong drug even though it may cause abdominal distress. However, if you have something like a tension headache you probably don't need strong medication. A cup of chamomile tea might do the trick, with a substantially lower risk of side effects.
A low risk of side effects is a big reason why medicinal herbs are so popular. Check out the potential side effects of any over-the-counter cold remedy, or any blood pressure medication. They may make you feel worse than the condition itself. Comparatively, many medicinal herbs have no known side effects for people who are otherwise healthy and are not taking other prescription or over-the-counter drugs. Many are safe for everyone except pregnant or nursing mothers and infants. Some are even safe for babies.
Just like any medicine, herbal remedies must be used with care. It would be a bad mistake to assume that because medicinal plants are natural, they are completely harmless.
Cascara sagrada, for example, is a potent laxative that can help relieve constipation. In large doses, however, it can cause abdominal distress, intestinal cramping and diarrhea. Licorice root is a scientifically proven treatment for ulcers; if you take unusually large amounts or take it for extended periods, you may experience water retention that raises your blood pressure to possibly hazardous levels. Herbs and herbal products have the potential to be highly beneficial when used responsibly. At the same time they may cause harm when used carelessly.
First of all, become well informed. Read up on herbs before using them. Get your information from a reliable source that includes safety warnings. Start with a low dose. Herb dosages are typically presented as ranges; for example 1 to 2 teaspoons of herb per cup of just-boiled water, steeped for 10-20 minutes and taken two or three times a day. Begin at the low end of the recommended range -- with 1 teaspoon steeped 10 minutes twice a day. If a low dose does not provide sufficient relief, gradually move toward the top of the recommended range. If you still do not experience noticeable benefit, consult an herbalist, a naturopath or your physician.
If you buy commercial preparations, like teas, tinctures/extracts, pills, capsules, combination products, etc, follow the label directions. These preparations may very in strength; some are concentrated.
If you experience unusual symptoms within 8 hours of taking an herbal medicine, discontinue use. Everyone reacts to herbs differently. If you're unusually sensitive, you may experience side effects and allergic reactions even at low doses.
Do not give herbal medicines to children younger than age 2 without the approval of the child's doctor.
If you are over age 65, stick with dosages at the low end of the recommended ranges. Sensitivity to drugs and the medicinal compounds in herbs increases with age. So does the risk of side effects.
If you are pregnant or nursing, or if you have chronic illness and/or are taking any medication, do not take medicinal herbs without consulting your physician.
If you consult an herbal practitioner, follow their instructions and promptly report any unusual symptoms to them or to your doctor.
On the topic of medicinal herbs, the news media often quote skeptical doctors who warn that if you fool around with herbs, you're playing with fire. With herbs, they claim it's impossible to guarantee good dose control. Dose control means knowing exactly how much of the active ingredient you're getting per dose.
To some extent, they are correct. Drugs offer a precise amount of active chemical. With herbs, potency can vary with the health of the individual plant, how much time the product spent in storage and other factors. Warnings about dose control obscure a larger truth. When used as recommended by reputable herbalists, medicinal herbs are almost always less potent than their pharmaceutical counterparts. So with most herbal remedies, the risk of overdose is tiny. In fact, it's virtually nonexistent, according to the latest research.
That's not to say you can buy anything that claims to be natural or herbal, use it in any way, and expect absolute safety and effectiveness.
Extremely high doses of ephedra, a stimulant herb, have caused deaths. Some essential oils are very dangerous when taken internally, even in small amounts. That's why their labels will warn you not to ingest them. Some herbs have interactions with drugs or other herbs than can range from uncomfortable to life-threatening. Some even interact with food substances as common as caffeine.
As with any product, the most important thing to do before using an herb is to read the label carefully and completely. Don't take an herbal product because a friend says that it works. Take the right amount of the right herb at the right time for the correct number of days. If you do have an ongoing health problem or are taking a prescription drug, it's essential to consult your doctor before launching an herbal regimen.
Do you use medicinal herbs? Comment below and let me know which herbs you like and how you use them! If you found this post helpful and informative, please share the love! Like it and Share it with your friends using the social media buttons on this page!
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