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Herbal vs Pharmaceuticals
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Herbal vs Pharmaceuticals

Herbal  vs  Pharmaceuticals

The following comments are the opinions of Michael Castleman, the author of several herbal books; The Healing Herbs, The Green Pharmacy and his latest book; There's Still a person in There, a guide for Alzheimer's Patient.  And comments also taken from The Complete Guide to Herbal Medicines, by Charles W. Fetrow, Pharm. D. and Juan R. Avila, Pharm.D. :

    The presence and use of herbs has withstood the test of time.  Furthermore, according to recent surveys by various mainstream medical authorities, herbs have been proven to be much safer to use than pharmaceuticals. 

     Each year the American Associations of Poison Control Centers in Washington, D.C., compiles figures on accidental poisonings around the country.  For one recent year, pain relievers, cough and cold preparations, antibiotics, sedatives, and antidepressants accounted for more than 480,000 poisonings (both intentional suicide attempts and accidental overdoses).  Medicinal herbs accounted for only a few dozen, overwhelmingly, these were reactions to Chinese ephedra (ma huang) taken as an amphetamine-like intoxicant.

     In a report by the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers at the University of Toronto combed 30 years of medical literature (1966-96) for reports of drug side effects among hospital patients.  Extrapolating from 39 of the most scientifically rigorous studies, the researchers estimated that drug side effects account for an astonishing 106,000 U.S. hospital deaths a year and cause 2.2 million serious nonfatal medical problems leading cause of death and kill more people than AIDS, suicide, and homicide combined.  Surprisingly, these side effects did not result from any medical error but, rather, occurred when drugs were administered in accordance with FDA dosage guidelines (Lazarou, J., et al., Journal of the American Medical Association (1998), 279; 1200)

     Given the statistics, it is clear the pharmaceuticals are more hazardous than herbs and that toxic reactions to herbs are not a major public health problem.  One unfortunate result of mainstream medicine's long standing prejudice against herbs has been an equally uninformed backlash by some herb advocates who have claimed that herbs cannot possibly cause harm.  This line of thinking is incorrect, since some of the most potent poisons are botanical.  

     As briefly discussed above, ma huang can be hazardous when misused as an intoxicant.  Further, in the 1980's, researchers discovered that comfrey and coltsfoot contain potentially liver-damaging pyrrolizidine alkaloids.  Responsible herbalists no longer recommend their ingestion, but recommend it for healing of tissues, muscles and bones.  Socrates was put to death with a cup of poison hemlock, an herb their resembles parsley.  Never eat wild parsley.  Another potent herbal poison is the Amanita ('death cap") mushroom.  Never pick wild mushrooms unless you're certain you can identify them correctly. 

     Like drugs, any plant with the potential for healing when used appropriately also has the potential for harm when used irresponsibly.  The most popular medicinal herbs are reasonably safe for most people, most of the time, and when taken in their recommended amounts.  However, medicinal herbs contain pharmacologically active compounds that have drug effects on the body.  And all drugs have the potential to cause allergic reactions, side effects,  fetal harm, and interactions with other herbs and drugs.  Overall, herbs are safer than pharmaceuticals, but they can still cause harm, and anyone who uses them should do so cautiously, responsibly and be well informed on the herb they choose.

     Until quite recently, mainstream medicine promulgated a double standard concerning dissemination of information about medicinal herbs.  Specifically, mainstream medical journals have been notoriously quick to publish reports on the hazards and side effects of herbs, sometimes using studies of questionable scientific merit.  On the other hand, the very same journals have been slow to publish reports of herbal benefits, sometimes ignoring studies that are scientifically rigorous.

     Fortunately, in the last few years, mainstream medical journals have adopted a more objective view.  The journals include not only more reports of herbal benefits, but also well documented, less lurid reports of their side effects.

     Despite the changing perspective in medical journals, doctors and the public still generally believe that pharmaceuticals are more trustworthy than herbs simply because pharmaceuticals are more tightly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. 

     In the United States, many traditional health care providers lack knowledge about herbal remedies, and their patients may be reluctant to reveal their use of such remedies.  But renewed interest in all forms of alternative medicine has led consumers, health care providers, and drug researchers to reexamine herbal remedies. 

     Unfortunately, herbs don't have magical or mystical properties.  Like all drugs, they must be taken in the  right doses for the right length of time an for the right purpose to produce a benefit. 

     Today, herbal remedies remain largely unregulated.  The  FDA regulates herbal products only as dietary supplements, not drugs. Manufacturers can't claim a particular product cures or prevents a specific disease, they can make any other claim about the supposed benefits without providing supporting evidence. They need only add the following disclaimer:  "This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA.  This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease."

     In essence, herbal remedies in the United States are sold on a buyer-beware basis.  This highlights the importance of learning everything you can about any herbal products you plan to use.  Make sure the company brand name you choose is reputable and has good quality control processes.  Beware of cheap, over-the-counter brands of herbs and vitamins, flashy T.V. advertisements, etc.. 

 Common Pharmaceuticals made from Plants

  • Aspirin (salicylic acid) - from whit willow bark and meadowsweet plant.

  • Atropine, used to treat irregular heartbeats - for belladonna leaves.

  • Colchicine, used for gout - from autumn crocus.

  • Digoxin (Lanoxin), the most widely prescribed heart medication - from foxglove, a poisonous plant.

  • Ephedrine, used to widen or relax the airways - from the ephedra plant.

  • Morphine and Codine, potent narcotics - from the opium poppy.

  • Paclitaxel (Taxol), used to treat metastatic ovarian cancer - from the yew tree.

  • Quinine, a drug for malaria - from cinchona bark.

  • Vinblastine (Velban) and Vincristine (Oncovin), anticancer drugs - from periwinkle.


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