The Healing Power of Herbs

I’ve always been interested in herbs, even before Simon and Garfunkel sang about Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme in their evocative song, Scarborough Fair. In 1999, I took a course from Don Ollsin, who created The Herbal Healing Pathway and once owned an herbal dispensary, Self Heal Herbs, in our city. From him, I learned to recognise herbs, appreciate their healing properties, and even make medicine.

All that winter, while taking lessons, and searching fields and forests for healing plants, I dreamed about developing a second career in the field of herbal medicine. But that wasn’t to be. Corporations had just discovered that there was serious money in making and selling herbs. Within a couple of years, pharmacies and grocery stores were selling these products as fast as they could shelve them. The world of herbs, carefully nurtured by teachers like Don, had become commercialized, never to be the same again.

The popularity of herbs

At one time, patients in industrialized countries had complete trust in conventional medicine. During the past 30 years, that faith began to wane, and interest in natural therapies was on an upswing. In 1990 people were spending an estimated 13 billion on alternate therapies and nutritional supplements. By 1997 this had doubled, and expenditure on herbals continued to grow. Today, the industry is worth exponentially more. In 2015, an update was reported in a SciDevNet article:

“Global Sales of Chinese herbal medicine has reached $83 billion, up more than 20 per cent from 2011. The global market for all herbal supplements and remedies could reach $115 billion by 2020, with Europe the largest and the Asia-Pacific the fastest growing markets.”

Currently, herbal preparations are a force in the holistic healing industry. That’s not to say they are accepted. Rather, they are still criticized by health practitioners, and largely ignored by mainstream medical professionals—and there is still the widespread belief that they ‘do not work’.

How pharmaceutical medicine evolved from plants

History tells us otherwise. Until pharmaceutical companies began to formulate various medicines out of chemical compounds, many medicines in common use originated from plants. Physicians and herbalists, for instance, used foxglove to treat disorders such as tuberculosis and edema. Later, in 1988, the connection between foxglove and congestive heart failure was made, and today digoxin, (derived from foxglove) is a popular drug, used to treat atrial fibrillation in thousands of patients. There are other examples, like aspirin, which comes from the white willow tree, and morphine which is derived from the opium poppy.

In fact, nearly a quarter of all modern medicines come from natural sources, many of which were first used in traditional remedies. Of 121 prescription drugs used worldwide for cancer, 90 are derived from plants. Nevertheless, there are still those who decry the use of herbal preparations, say they don’t work, and are only a ruse to bilk people out of their money.

Why do people use herbs?

People are attracted to the use of herbs for a variety of reasons. For one, preparations made from herbs are more affordable. Research, testing, and marketing add to the price of prescription medicines, making their cost prohibitive in some cases. As well, herbs are more easily available. Patients don’t require a prescription to buy them, and some, like ginger and chamomile teas can be made at home.

Unlike many chemical (synthetic) medicines, most herbs are well tolerated by the patient, with typically fewer side effects. Since they are frequently slower acting, and require a longer time to take effect, they may be safer to use over time. Sometimes chronic, less life-threatening complaints respond better to alternative medicines, than to the use of conventional ones. Furthermore, herbal medicines are widely perceived as natural, safe, and not toxic, a belief is not necessarily true.

Are herbs safe?

Although herbs are derived from natural substances, and don’t normally cause an allergic reaction in the body, it is still possible to have adverse reactions from their use. However, research on the safety of herbals as compared to the safety of pharmaceuticals was a real eye opener for me.

Pharmacist Joel Albers, in a comparison between herbal and pharmaceutical reactions, outlines the following findings:

-Deaths from herbals do happen, although to a much lesser extent than with the use of legally prescribed drugs.

– In the US, the FDA received over 2,900 adverse event reports (including 104 deaths) in a study on the use of thousands of herbal supplements.

-Sometimes, interactions between prescribed and herbal drugs can lead to dangerous reactions, although no formal reporting of this issue has been conducted.

-Conversely, adverse reactions to legally prescribed drugs is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.

-According to the American Medical Association, legally prescribed pharmaceuticals kill approximately 106,000 hospitalized patients annually, are responsible for an estimated 198,000 related annual deaths and necessitate 23% of all hospitalizations.

Why aren’t herbs regulated like other medicine?

In recent years, researchers, some of whom appear to be acting in the interests of large, pharmaceutical corporations, have pressured the holistic community relentlessly.

Reviews like the following, by pathology professor Roger Byard of the University of Adelaide claim that traditional herbal substances are dangerous and “may contain highly toxic chemicals and heavy metals, in addition to naturally occurring organic toxins. These substances” he said, “may cause illness, exacerbate pre-existing ill-health or result in death, particularly if taken in excess or in an unusual manner (e.g., injected rather than ingested).”

Although his mission may have lost steam, others have taken up the cry, determined to level the financial playing field between herbal and pharmaceutical companies.

It is true that herbal medicine is still largely an unproven, inexact science. There are reasons for this. Given the enormous number of different herbs used, to isolate each active ingredient from each herb would be daunting—an immensely time-consuming and expensive exercise for manufacturers.

As well, herbs (botanicals) have multiple active components which act together to result in a greater response in patients. This is an advantage over conventional single-response drugs, but makes it difficult to separate, identify and standardize active components.

Although historically, decades, sometimes centuries, of anecdotal information formed the basis of herbal knowledge, the drive to subject herbals to scientific study is relatively new, and confined to industrialized countries like the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia.

How some countries are addressing this

In some countries, like India, the approach toward traditional herbal medicines is more respectful. Ayurveda, Siddha, and Unani (ASU), are considered safe because of their long history of use, and studies and regulations don’t appear to be necessary.

In the US, as of 2010, herbal preparations, if classified as dietary supplements (under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act) are considered safe, and do not need approval from the Food and Drug Administration before they are marketed. This ruling appears to have held to this day.

In Canada, herbal remedies must comply with Natural Health Products Regulations, which says that all natural products require a product license before they can be sold. Thus, detailed information on the medicinal ingredients, source, potency, non-medicinal ingredients, and recommended use are required.

Recently, Canada has adopted a tougher line, with Health Canada planning to dramatically overhaul the process in a bid to regulate herbs and supplemental vitamins under the same rules that apply to drugs, evaluating these products according to the health risks they pose.

The jury is still out on this measure, and to date, I am not aware of any official decision. Ideally, consumers should be given science-based information on dosage, contraindications, and effectiveness. Whether or not herbal medicine and pharmaceutical drugs should be evaluated in the same way is up for debate, and may never be resolved.  And in truth, the call for global harmonization of legislation regarding herbal preparations may be pie in the sky.

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22 Responses to The Healing Power of Herbs

  1. Rummuser says:

    While herbal medicine is popular for preventive measures, for treating symptoms, allopathic medicine is still the first choice for most Indians.

    People come to herbal medicines as the last resort also when all else has failed, like for instance some forms of cancer.

    Incidentally, Tibetan herbal medicines are also popular in India, thanks to a large Tibetan refugee population here.

  2. Barry Dym says:

    Wonderfully informative.

  3. hillsmom says:

    Well I swear by Arnica Gel for bruising. I prefer the Boiron brand, and the gel as opposed to the creme. I had a “sunset” hematoma on my hip from a hard fall. The gel really eased the pain and the discoloration went away very fast. (Just my opinion as I have no stock, or am selling the product.) You can find it in many pharmacies and health food stores, although you may have to look carefully.
    Evidently Oil of Arnica has been around for years.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      You are right, arnica has been around for a long time. One year, I grew it in my garden, just to enjoy it’s delicate stalk and yellow flowers. It’s a perennial, so it came back year after year. Although I knew about arnica cream, I didn’t make it—the process is easy. I think.

  4. I’m always amazed at the controversy surrounding the use of cannabis for pain relief. People don’t hesitate to take strong pharmaceutical drugs but don’t consider asking for medical marijuana. I don’t use cannabis and I’m fortunate not to live with chronic pain. However, I’m amazed at how judgemental our society has become when somebody uses an herb like cannabis rather than choosing an opioid for pain.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      People have had great results using cannibis. Yes, there is controversy here as well, but there has been more acceptance lately. We are always judgemental about something we don’t understand.

  5. Ian Dallas says:

    Very interesting Diane. Thanks for your research

  6. Lynne Spreen says:

    I should look into this. I’d enjoy making herbal tea from my garden. And BTW, I have for decades had a potted aloe vera plant for insect bites, skin rash, paper cuts, etc. It’s just an all-round great skin healer. No home is really complete without it!

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I had an aloe vera plant years ago. But it must have left us in one of my ‘downsizing purges”! It was especially good for the burns I seemed to cause on my hands in the kitchen! I guess I grew out of that stage!

  7. Yeah, Another Blogger says:

    I never knew that aspirin derives from a tree.

    Fine article, as usual.

    Neil S.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Lot’s of interesting sources for medicine in nature.Much of the knowledge humanity had about folk medicine in the past is regrettably lost!

  8. I have a bad cold at the moment, so I’m drinking ginger tea. 🙂

  9. Cathy says:

    Comfrey cream works wonders on my knuckles and fingers – recommended by of all people, my GP over 20 years ago.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      You have probably recognized comfrey—a dusty purple with drooping leaves. I is actually a volunteer plant (weed?) and can be very attractive.

  10. I’m not sure if the term is synchronicity or serendipity, but I had just made myself a drink of lime juice and turmeric prior to sitting down to read your very informative blog. I usually make a big pitcher of ginger, lime, and turmeric tea every couple of days, but had been out of ginger root and forgetting to buy some more, The limes were just sitting around and I was afraid they’d dry up so, on the spur of the moment, squeezed one, added the turmeric, and brought it over to the computer to go through my email!

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Sounds like a tasty drink! Turmeric is a powerful herb, with many healing properties. And, of course, it can be used in cooking many Indian dishes.

  11. joared says:

    I recall an older family member who used to harvest ginseng root from surrounding woods and sold it in the fifties. He had been doing so probably from the 1930s and would have learned from his elders. Wish I had gone with him to learn how he located the roots and other wild safe edibles he knew. We also had sassafras tea.

    I also vividly recall when I was a young child my grandmother walking with me to a nearby field where she showed me a plant growing wild along the fence line. She amazed me by picking a leaf, telling me to do the same, showing me we could eat it. What a delightful surprise — it was my introduction to mint!

    While visiting grandmother’s farm I acquired what a doctor later diagnosed as a stone bruise on the bottom of my foot. We didn’t know what it was at the time, but it wasn’t getting better. Since we had no transportation for the next couple weeks, Mom concluded a poultice was needed to draw the inflamed site to a head. She gathered plantain leaves, crushed them and wrapped them around my foot. Since it wasn’t an infection or an insect bite this did not preclude my need for medical intervention later when we could get to the doctor. Since we hadn’t known what the cause was her solution was logical and did no harm.

    Really lots needed to know if using herbs for meds or otherwise as well as source, I think. Understand freshness, strength and potency of many not always consistent or easily known.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Your last sentence is true, but somehow older people, who spent a life time using herbs, were able to judge how much, and how long herbs were to be used. What a shame that people like that are rare now!

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