Herbal Medicine – Introduction

Six common medicinal herbs in Tibet according ...

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The following is excerpted from my upcoming book, Armageddon Medicine.

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Allopathic doctors (M.D.s and some D.O.s) have little experience with herbal medication, yet we have the greatest likelihood of making some sense out of a thorny issue.  Although I know many people distrust the medical establishment, should you trust an herbalist more?  What sort of training have the clerks at your local health food store undergone?  Are they selling you a useful remedy or merely a bottle of hope?  At least physicians are trying to get at the truth, which is often elusive and requires painstaking effort to ascertain.  Biology is not a simple matter and neither is the treatment of disease.

Several other problems plague the practice of herbal medicine.  All too often a morsel of legitimate data suggesting a possible beneficial effect is inflated by those with minimal scientific training, especially by those who stand to gain financially.  Proving cinnamon lowers blood sugar slightly is not tantamount to a cure for diabetes. When a kernel of truth becomes a mountain of misinformation, significant damage may result.  And anyone in the health care profession must remember:  first, do no harm.

Secondly, anyone can sell herbs.  The profit margin is large and expectations minimal.  Have you ever noticed that nutraceuticals all carry the same warning, that the products have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to treat any medical condition?  Do you trust a teenager who directs you to the digestive aisle in the health food store more than you trust your own physician?  Saying something is natural in no way makes it safe.  Arsenic is natural.  So are poison mushrooms.  But patients buy these purported “natural cures” because they view them as harmless, and because they offer at least the illusion of putting some control back in the hands of the patient.

Thirdly, large, high-quality, unbiased medical studies involving herbal products are very expensive to perform.  Since no pharmaceutical company stands to gain from such research, it is unlikely to be performed, and smaller studies are rarely published. 

Fourth, the placebo effect is very strong.  Doctors realize that a third of patients will have a therapeutic effect from almost any treatment at all.  Although a patient may swear by a certain remedy, which indeed may appear effective for him or her, this does not prove the same treatment will help anyone else.  

Dioscorides’ Materia Medica, c. 1334 copy in A...

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Fifth, herbs from foreign lands, though available currently, will not be easy to find at TEOTWAWKI, and even today most people do not recognize native plants.  Can you name the weeds in your yard other than dandelions?  Can you recognize the difference between mandrake and ginseng?  Do you know how to cultivate either? 

Sixth, even if a plant is beneficial, has a therapeutic dose been determined?  Are two leaves enough?  Is six too many?  Big leaves or small ones?  Spring sprigs or autumn roots?  Are there side effects to be concerned about?  I often warn my patients that every medication is a potential poison, and the same can be said about every plant. 

Despite all this, I do feel that herbal therapy is a vastly unexplored and underrated territory.  There is no doubt that plant chemicals interact with those of the human body.  Foxglove can help – or hinder – the heart.  Caffeine can improve – or worsen – a headache.  Opium can relieve pain, or cause addiction.  Ma huang can decrease the appetite, or cause palpitations.  The use of herbal preparations is even more complex than treatment with patent medications, which basically involve a single chemical, whereas any plant contains hundreds to thousands of uniquely identifiable molecules. 

 Very gradually the body of evidence is mounting regarding the medicinal uses of various plants and herbs.  My intention is to share what is scientifically known.  Although Grandma may have some favorites of her own, and though she may indeed be proven correct, I am aiming to share proven evidence.  What science lacks, though, is Grandma’s healing touch, and belief in a remedy is almost as important as the remedy itself.

Nevertheless, in addition to the therapeutic uses I have included in other chapters on specific medical problems, what follows is a discussion of the evidence for medical uses of plants that are available in the northern hemisphere, and more particularly in America. 

Next:  Dandelions (note – banner image shows Hawksbeard, not dandelions – and example of how easily plants can be confused)

 Copyright © 2010 Cynthia J. Koelker, M.D.

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About Cynthia J. Koelker, MD

CYNTHIA J KOELKER , MD is a board-certified family physician with over twenty years of clinical experience. A member of American Mensa, Dr. Koelker holds degrees in biology, humanities, medicine, and music from M.I.T., Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and the University of Akron. She served in the National Health Service Corps to finance her medical education.
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