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The Dangers Of Herbal Remedies

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I’ve long been an advocate of what I call complementary medicine, that is, using techniques not normally utilized by your family physician to complement the work he or she is doing. I refuse to use the word “alternative” to refer to things like acupuncture, herbal remedies, or massage therapy because that creates a connotation both unsafe and untrue.

The word alternative implies that these treatments can be used instead of, or isolated from, the ways in which traditional medicine does things. While it’s true I might make a cough medicine out of a couple of plant leaves that I know will help as much as any over the counter stuff, I’m still going to go see an orthopaedic surgeon when I break my leg.

Somehow or other the word alternative has come to be mean harmless when it is used with regard to medicinal use. People have gotten mighty confused over the meanings of the words natural and organic. The perception is that just because it wasn’t made in a lab, it won’t hurt you. Tell that to Socrates and the bowl of hemlock tea he had to drink.

Herbals are not some newfangled remedy. They were used long before we had pharmaceuticals, and have gone in and out of style with genteel society over the generations. Victorian era society women would have a tisane to help calm their nerves and men would take tonics to restore their “vigour”.

It wasn’t really until after World War I that people began experimenting with ways of synthesising remedies in a lab. Synthetic versions were thought to have the advantages of being easier to mass-produce, and allowed for the standardization of doses.

Herbals do have the disadvantage that from plant to plant a variety of factors can affect their potency. Soil conditions, rainfall, and exposure to sun can all come into play. The other advantage of man-made medicines was the assurance of a constant supply.

All plants have a very specific growing season and harvesting schedule. Some plants, like dandelion, can only be picked before June in order to have medicinal value, while others can only be picked in the fall. The other consideration is that in some instances the root of the plant is called for, and not only could it take years for the root to develop in size, but once used, the plant has been destroyed.

So, while some people may still have been using herbals, during the post World War II years the use of pharmaceuticals took off. They were convenient to take, and produced quick results, two things that were of major importance in our new faster paced world. People wanted not to be bothered by being sick and needed to get back to work fast. They couldn’t afford to take the time it took to heal using herbals.

It wasn’t until it became apparent that there were problems with some of the prescription drugs in terms of side effects that people began to rethink that attitude. When women who had been taking the anti-nausea drug Thalidomide for morning sickness during pregnancy started to give birth to children with birth defects, it was the first sign that these drugs might not be as safe as was previously thought.

As more and more cracks started to develop in the corporate drug world, and as the sixties progressed, people began to “discover” other methods of dealing with illnesses. Unfortunately, too many people had come to expect the quick fix provided by the synthetic drugs as the standard for treatment, and demanded similar results from herbals.

This has resulted in a willingness to overlook the potential for abuse that exists in herbals as much as it does with any drug. One of the best examples is the way in which Echinacea angustifolia has been misused. The root of this flower had long been known for it’s antimicrobial properties, and works well to fight off low level infections such as fevers brought on by colds and flu.

But it is a remedy, not a preventative. Somehow or other, people started to believe it was some sort of miracle drug that they could take to prevent themselves from getting colds or the flu. Would you take an antibiotic before you got sick? No, because it would be dangerous to your health.

But that’s exactly what people are doing when they take echinacea when they have nothing wrong with them. What’s even worse is that the demand for the root of this flower has been so high that it has now become an endangered species in the wild. It takes four or five years for an echinacea plant to become fully developed and it was not given sufficient time to replenish.

Open any decent herbal book and not only will it tell you all the properties of the plants — what ailments it should be used to treat, what part of the plant is used, when to pick it, and how to best utilize it (tea, tincture, or compress) — it will also tell you it’s contraindications — what medical conditions make what herbs unsafe (if you have high blood pressure don’t use any liquorice root in a tea for instance), and they always say consult your doctor to see what long-term effects this medicine could have upon any other medications you are taking.

It’s been a number of years now since herbals have caught the public’s attention again and have risen in popularity, so much so that you can buy them everywhere now. But even after the idiocy of using an asthma drug in diet pills (ephedra) caused people to have strokes, people don’t seem to be learning the lesson that these are potentially dangerous.

It depresses me to see that Health Canada still feels the need to hold conferences on the dangers of mixing herbal remedies and prescription drugs. That they still have to spell out for people that natural does not mean it can’t be harmful after all these years of them being on the markets is a sign that the people who are prescribing herbals, and the companies manufacturing them, are failing the people they are supposed to be serving.

It’s because of the abuse and misuse of herbal remedies and medicinal plants in general that we’ve already seen some of the more effective treatments become harder and harder to obtain. When it was shown that ephedra and it’s derivatives were causing strokes when used in diet pills, it became a proscribed drug. In every herbal book, that I’ve ever made use of, it explicitly states that people with high blood pressure should never use it, and it’s sole purpose is for the opening of bronchial tubes to help relieve asthma attacks. Why companies started to put in into diet products is beyond me.

Herbal remedies have been used for centuries as medicines. Until they were saddled with the label “alternative” they were treated like we would treat any drug prescribed to us from a doctor. But now, all of a sudden, they have become safe compared to what our doctors offer us.

If those of us who make use of these medicines aren’t able to change that perception soon, we are gong to find governments moving in to ban the sale of loose herbs, and only allowing pre-packaged pills and doses to be sold. That would be a shame, because part of the pleasure of working with herbs is having the ability to circumvent buying a product and making your own remedies.

In a world where we have so little control over so many things, being able to have a say in the medicine I take, even if only in a small way, is a privilege. I would hate to have to give that up.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • sal m

    an unfortunate new component to human behavior is the “more is better” syndrome. this applies to most everything, even medicine in all its forms. this is why people suffer from – or die from – tylenol poisoning, become resistant to anti-biotics and a whole host of other, self-inflicted problems. add to the mix the reality that some people “self medicate” and “self diagnose” and you have a bigger problem.