For thousands of years, mankind has used herbs to promote health and to combat illness. During the Dark Ages, however, prayer was believed to be the most effective cure-all, and people could expect to be labelled as witches if they were found to be in possession of something as simple as a jar of ointment.
Skip forward to the modern age, and we see pharmaceuticals ruling the medicinal market, while “dietary supplements,” are broadly seen as being OK – provided they don’t make too many health claims.
With many people either wishing to return to doing things the natural way or being desperate for cures, we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in herbal medicines. It’s not something the FDA and other regulatory agencies are particularly keen on. Is it a conspiracy with Big Pharma, or are there real reasons why we should be cautious about using herbal remedies?
Medical Research and The Problem With Plants
To understand the problem with plants, we need to consider “evidence-based medicine” and how it works. The simplest way to explain it is that researchers not only have to determine that something works but also why it works. They also have to look at interactions between any single ingredient and other molecules that may be floating around looking for trouble.
Here’s the implication for researchers and the basis of the problem with plants. Plants never contain only one ingredient. Instead, they contain many complex molecules, some of which may not even have been identified by science as yet.
So, if a researcher hopes to test a herbal remedy from a scientific perspective, he or she is faced with several lifetimes-worth of work at best. The alternative is to isolate a single type of molecule and test that. The non-psychoactive cannabis ingredient, CBD, provides an example that has been in the news a lot during the last decade.
It has demonstrated the ability to control seizures in a way that other meds can’t, but pharmaceutical CBD and medical marijuana are two different things. One is an isolated, carefully-measured molecule, the other is a cocktail of molecules that include a lot of untested, or even unidentified ingredients.
Nevertheless, CBD and its controversial cousin, THC, have shown promising results in early trials – often involving illnesses that pharmaceuticals can’t control. With a huge volume of anecdotal evidence, many states have decided to allow people to choose cannabis as a herbal remedy – and that’s why you can apply for a medical marijuana card and why Washington DC dispensaries, for example, are doing a roaring trade.
The Herbal Cure and its Problem With Evidence-Based Medicine
Those who advocate herbal remedies argue that it is the entire complex of molecules within a natural plant that work together to achieve results. This is known as the “entourage effect,” and it’s not just snake-oil peddlers that refer to it. Some very respected scientists have also pointed to the entourage effect as one of the reasons why herbal remedies might work when pharmaceuticals, or even isolated organic molecules, don’t.
It’s certainly true that anecdotal evidence shows that herbal remedies can be of benefit, but the problem is easy to spot. If you’re using herbs, it’s almost impossible to put one’s finger on just why they work. And what works for one person might, quite literally, be dangerous to another. If we don’t know EXACTLY why and how something works, we can’t say it’s scientifically proven.
Should the Government Stop Us From Using Herbal Medicine?
Since it’s easy enough to grow a wide variety of herbs in one’s own garden or obtain them from a trusted source, there’s no way the government can stop us from using them. But we do need to be aware of the potential pitfalls including direct toxicity and the possibility that innocuous organic chemicals can become dangerous when they interact with existing medications or even your body’s individual chemistry.
There’s also the problem of profiteering. In analyses of herbal remedies and supplements sold commercially, only 2 of 12 companies were found to have products containing the herb listed on the label. Dangerous hygiene issues and contamination were also uncovered. Big Herba might be just as “bad” as the common portrayal of Big Pharma – except that they don’t have to prove anything while Pharma must.
It all comes back to consulting your doctor about herbal remedies you’d like to try. Some doctors, including my own, are advocates of herbal remedies and health supplements. But they will be cautious about making recommendations, and since the consequences of a bad reaction could be far-reaching, it’s worth keeping doctors’ advice in mind when choosing to self-medicate using herbs.
Meanwhile, the government can and should protect us from exaggerated claims, fake herbal products, and that which is potentially unsafe. They can’t stop you if you want to try them, but you should proceed with caution.