In my line of work as an herbalist, I frequently give consultations for skeptical clients. Many of my clients have been overly eager to accept everything I say as gospel; many other have rolled their eyes at every suggestion I make. I’ve rarely encountered anyone who has approached me with a healthy degree of critical skepticism– but one client molded my career with her inquiry. As I explained herbal flu remedies to her, she suddenly cocked her head to the side and asked me the most complex single-word question in the English language: “Why?”
That simple, beautiful act of critical thinking was the highlight of my career.
There are hundreds of reasons to choose herbal medicine, but herbalism remains largely misunderstood by the mainstream medical community (and many consumers). Herbalism isn’t about rejecting science, self-experimentation, or expecting nebulous “plant spirits” to cure terminal illnesses. It’s about embracing the rock-solid union that occurs when ancient wisdom and modern science meet. Herbal medicine is a safe, sustainable, spiritually balanced, evidence-based alternative to the alienating form of medicine that pervades the modern era.
Is Herbal Medicine Really Safe?
I’ve always found it disturbing that consumers panic any time an adverse reaction is reported from an herbal medicine, despite the fact that millions of people die each year from prescription and over-the-counter drugs. It takes only one incidental, anecdotal report of a serious adverse event for media-wide mayhem to break out, warning consumers about the dangers of “unproven” herbal medicines.
The University of Maryland, one of the leading pioneers in the study of complementary alternative medicine, notes that, “used correctly, many herbs are considered safer than conventional medications.” It has been my experience that the vast majority of herbal medicines cause fewer side effects than their pharmaceutical counterparts. Most herbal medicines have a very low risk of toxicity or drug interaction– in fact, many have powerful hepatoprotective and detoxifying properties.
While I have seen hundreds of people whose lives have been severely damaged by pharmaceutical drugs, I have seen no one who has experienced significant or dangerous side effects from any herbal medicine. When we consider the fact that one-third of Americans use herbal medicine on a routine or ongoing basis, we see a fairly decent track-record regarding the safety of herbal therapies.
This isn’t to say that all herbs are, by default, completely safe. There is danger in automatically equating “natural” with “harmless”. Some of the most toxic pharmaceutical drugs are derived from herbal extracts. For example, foxglove (digitalis) is the source of a digitoxin (trade name Crystodigin), which is used to treat heart conditions This compound has an alarmingly narrow therapeutic index and can be either powerfully effective or deadly– any experienced gardener will warn you to keep your pets and children away from foxglove as it is a poison.
Is Herbal Medicine Just for Guinea Pigs?
Many doctors dismiss herbalism is a pre-scientific prelude to modern medicine. Because herbalism is categorized as a complementary alternative therapy in the United States, doctors may broadly clump herbal medicine with the range of snake oils and infomercial-scams advertised on television and in New Age magazines. Citing the common misconception that herbs haven’t been scientifically researched, they may suggest that anyone who uses herbal medicine is volunteering herself as a guinea pig for the scientific community.
The fact of the matter is that most herbal medicines have been studied fairly extensively– often to a greater degree than their pharmaceutical counterparts. A patient should never assume that a drug is scientifically proven simply because a doctor prescribes it. The Cochrane Collaboration, an organization that evaluates both “alternative” and “conventional” medical techniques using the scientific method, found that about forty-five percent of mainstream medical techniques are ineffective or lack sufficient evidence.
Ineffective pharmaceutical drugs persist because they are supported by top-dollar pharmaceutical companies– as well as the medical schools they sponsor and the doctors who graduate from the schools. We have become so content to listen to the “experts” that we often lose sight of the healthy, critical thinking that defines human nature. Many systemic reviews by the Cochrane Collaboration– which supports science, not any particular industry– have found that herbal medicines are frequently safer and more effective than pharmaceutical drugs.
Long before the advent of clinical trials, placebo-pills, and animal testing, humans had only one way to discover medicine itself: try it and see. After millennia of careful observation, many cultures discovered the complex effects associated with hundreds of herbs, fruits, seeds, and roots. While some of these “discoveries” were based in wives’ tales and erroneous assumptions, many others have been consistently proven through modern systemic reviews and clinical trials. It is certainly true that no one can predict his response to a particular herb– but the same is true about prescription drugs.
The Do-it-Yourself Approach to Herbal Medicine
In health-related writing as well as herbal medicine, suggesting a “DIY” approach is taboo. We’ve all seen the warnings at the end of articles and advertisements– consumers are never supposed to self-treat or self-diagnose, right? You should talk to your doctor before taking any herbal supplement or over-the-counter remedy– right? And of course, we’ve all seen the notorious statement on supplement bottles: “These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”
The fact of the matter is that I’m legally obligated to tell my clients that self-diagnosis and self-treatment are dangerous, but everyone self-diagnoses and self-treats to some degree. When a menstruating woman has cramp-like pain in her lower abdomen, she diagnoses herself with menstrual cramps without rushing to a medical doctor. When a man has mild pain in his head after a stressful day, he diagnoses himself with a tension headache. When a child has a stuffy nose for a few days, his parents may diagnose him with a cold. All of these people are likely to self-treat using an over-the-counter drug– Midol, Tylenol, Dimetapp– without giving a second thought the supposed dangers of self-diagnosis.
Self-diagnosis and self-treatment are actually a reasonable aspect of self-sufficient living. No one wants to be dependent on a doctor, a pharmacy, or a pharmaceutical enterprise for the treatment of minor ailments. Proponents of herbal medicine may take self-treatment a step further: instead of simply buying home remedies, why not grow them yourself? Instead of asking your doctor for a prescription drug to treat your insomnia, why not harvest that catnip that grows wild in your back-yard and see if that helps?
I certainly don’t advocate that people self-diagnose or self-treat when it comes to serious conditions, and I do not encourage anyone to self-treat without thoroughly researching the herb or drug that they have selected. Life is far too precious to entrust to chance and intuition, so, by all means, see a doctor if you are facing a condition that has the potential to be life-threatening or disabling. Still, allopathic physicians shouldn’t cringe at the thought of a patient “self-treating” with an herbal remedy– there is no reason that a healthy adult shouldn’t use ginger to fight a mild episode of nausea or reflux.
The Spiritual and Ethical Side of Herbalism
I don’t believe in some tooth-fairy-like “plant spirit” that delivers ginkgo biloba to my clients’ brains. However, I do believe that herbal medicine provides a uniquely integrated approach to holistic care: it connects people to the planet while also connecting them to their own bodies. A patient may pop a Motrin with little to no thought, but the process of drinking an earthy-tasting, leafy tea is much more grounding and meditative– even more so for someone who has grown the plant himself. Despite cries of quackery from the “scientific” community, the spiritual aspects of herbalism are impossible to deny.
Herbalism also offers many benefits for the planet. Pharmaceutical drugs are, almost by default, unsustainable. By this, I don’t simply mean that they are not “green” or “eco”– I mean that they cannot be sustained indefinitely in the face of peak oil and economic mayhem. While we can not count on the idea that aspirin and Paxil will still exist in five centuries, we can be fairly certain of the fact that white willow and kanna are– ruling out a serious ecological catastrophe– here to stay.
Despite my objections to many of the scams that pervade mainstream medicine, I don’t view the emergency medical care provided by modern hospitals as anything less than miraculous. Pharmaceutical drugs, when used correctly, save millions of lives every day. In the last week, I have seen mainstream medical doctors halt hemorrhage in a woman bleeding to death after childbirth. I saw a close friend regain the use of two fingers that were severed in an accident. I saw a four-year-old defeat a condition that, fifty years ago, would have been terminal. Many of these people were helped by the complementary use of herbal therapies, but they owe their lives to mainstream medicine.
Given the miracles that are offered by the appropriate use of conventional drugs and therapies, it would be heinous to abuse this unsustainable system. Like other finite treasures– oil, virgin forests, fresh water– pharmaceutical drugs can be miracles when used appropriately. However, when they are over-used or used inappropriately, they become pollutive, dangerous, and alienating. Pharmaceuticals should be reserved for the people who need them most– and the uses for which they have been clearly shown to be effective. I would never suggest that anyone eschew modern technology entirely, but– when it comes to day-to-day challenges– I will always favor home-grown, evidence-based herbal remedies over the concoctions offered by Walgreens.