Herbal Medicine – Start with the Science

Herbal medicine – fact or fiction?

How does one separate the truth from the hype?  Most of what you find online is anecdotal evidence.  Can you trust someone who is trying to make a sale?  It’s one thing to believe a certain treatment is useful in your own particular case (placebo effect or otherwise).  It’s another to recommend its use for others.  I often tell my patient that every helpful medicine or herb is also a potential poison.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine offers a free brochure entitled Herbs at a Glance, which outlines what each herb is used for, how it is used, what the science says, and side effects and cautions. 

Download and print this 55-page free booklet at the link above to include with your prepping supplies.  I would consider this a starting place, to guide you toward useful remedies.  

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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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8 Responses to Herbal Medicine – Start with the Science

  1. Laura m. says:

    Some herbs work for some ailments and others don’t. One herb may work on a person and not the next just like other medicines. I have tried various herbs over the years and found that culinary herbs (tumeric, parsley, pepper sauce, sage, etc) help the immune system also. Depending on the ailment, best to do internet research on natural herbs for ailment/sickness listed and just try one bottle to see if it helps. Olive oil has lots of antioxidents, so does cooking herbs.

  2. GoneWithTheWind says:

    Take two willow twigs and call me in the morning.

    Most of the belief in herbs and naturopathic “medicine” is pure superstition. To want to make this witch doctor technique part of generally accepted health care is insane. If you want to consume herbs and tiger penis or acupuncture then be my guest but do not try to scam the general public or try to force insurance to pay for it. Stupid 12th century beliefs belong in the 12th century.

    • To rephrase what GoneWithTheWind has said, most beliefs about herbal medicine are based on anecdotal evidence rather than thorough scientific investigations, many of which will never be done due to cost constraints.

      It is logical that biologically active compounds would be found in the realm of biology/botany. For any medicine to work on humans (or any living thing for that matter), it must be able to interact with the subject’s physiology on a biochemical level.

      As mentioned elsewhere, many human medicines are based on or derived from chemicals in other living creatures. Think for a moment about tobacco, marijuana, and poppies – common sources of the psycho-active drugs nicotine, cannabis, and opium. Even alcohol is a normal by-product of fermentation.

      Western medicine finds it simpler to purify and quantify a single ingredient from a given plant than to deal with the multitude of variables presented when dealing with a whole-plant extract, which is actually more complicated. Much of the herbal industry, however, advertises their products on a ridiculously simplistic (and subsequently false) basis. If the scientists and doctors don’t understand how best to use a whole plant extract, is it more likely a health food store clerk does?

      My assessment is that herbal medicine does have a role to play, but that despite thousands of years of experience, our understanding is in its infancy. Read about the history of the blood thinner warfarin and decide for yourself whether it’s simpler to use a pill or rely on an extract of moldy hay.

      Doc Cindy answers other related questions at: http://armageddonmedicine.net/?p=4263

    • Chris MD says:

      GWTW, I do agree that there is a lot of hooey that has been mixed in with herbal meds. Unfortunately, this can have the effect of conflating study of herbals with “studying” crystal healing, homeopathy and aura therapy. Herbals are the root for most modern meds, and if we truly end up in an Armageddon situation, no matter how deep your pharmacy storage, you will run out sooner or later. With no industrial pharma to fall back on, there won’t be a way to restock. I am not ready to get to the last pill in my kit and go, “oh well, gotta die now.” There are many legit, well researched and potent natural, renewable medical resources out there. I urge folks to start researching now. I’ve outlined a few in previous posts, just to get started.

  3. ssurvy says:

    Relying overmuch on what science says about herbs is ridiculous. Science doesn’t study herbs, it studies constituents of herbs in isolation, and at huge doses. Herbs work differently than that – the various medicinal aspects work together on the specific person/situation.

    Example – antimalarial drugs – usually have huge bad side effects for some, one specific drug (and I can’t name names, for obvious reasons) with harsh side effects is entirely derived from one plant, but isolates some chemicals in the plant, adds fillers. But if you take the plant as an antimalaria,l it has none of the side effects. Why? Because the other plant chemicals, and their total interaction, either prevent or avoid those side effects.

    Looking to science is great, but traditional use, across cultures, may lead to more accurate information. Scientists don’t know WHY or HOW yarrow stops bleeding, and some scientists say it does others say it doesn’t. But it does (thousands of years of human-yarrow experience, and personal experience are the proof I need, not whether science can agree), regardless of what science might think that day.

    Not that science is bad. It isn’t, but it is also not the whole story. Herbs don’t work the way drugs work. Many herbs are only useful in, for example, some types of high blood pressure, with a specific cause, but won’t do a thing for the other types/causes – which makes great sense, but to science, that just means it doesn’t work. if you have a greatly overweight middle-aged man under lots of work stress who eats lots of carbs and fats and sits all day, a pregnant woman at week 29 with swollen legs, high bp, and can’t eat or drink, and a older thin woman with no previous history of high bp who is also experiencing dizziness and confusion, you have three very different situations. Why one would expect that their remedy would be identical is a mystery to me.

    Yes, science says many herbs, if not most, are useless, but that is a flaw of science, not herbs. Herbalism has been practiced throughout human history. It’s not the new kid on the block, our so called modern medicine is.

  4. Nate says:

    In the past year my wife and I have begun using naturopaths for our family’s medical needs. An $18,000 price tag for a natural childbirth in a hospital prompted this new trend for us.

    The first time was after my wife had repeatedly visited an allopath for a persistent UTI. Antibiotics were prescribed but no counseling regarding possible yeast infections. The yeast infection that followed was very miserable and in desperation she turned to a local naturopath who was able to help her beat the yeast infection through diet and grapefruit seed extract. We also have a naturopathic pediatrician who helped us treat a very bad cough/ear infection our 2 year old had without antibiotics (they use antibiotics as a last ditch measure.) The naturopath also helped me get rid of pneumonia through a dietary change that ended my sugar and dairy consumption. No antibiotics were used and as an interesting side note, my life-long bout with severe hay fever ended as well. I guess the sugar was causing my immune system to malfunction and attack pollen. Now I smell flowers with impunity.

    The last experience we are having now with my two-year-old, who pulled a pot of almost boiling on his face and arm (no I didn’t torture my baby boy – I wasn’t even home when it happened.) He suffered severe 2nd degree burns which the ER doctors treated with a magical medicine called Bacitracin and made me deposit $350. They’ll let me know how much it is later:) They also gave me a special referral to the burn center and detained me for 5 hours before the police and CPS could interrogate me and decide to let me keep my child at least temporarily. Our naturopath prescribed Silvadine cream and was surprised when I told him that the raw honey I had put on the burns the day before seemed to take away the redness of the burns. He was not familiar with the treatment and told me that we could use the honey and Silvadine alternately. Yesterday since we were out in public we used just the Silvadine as it looks more “medical.” At the end of the day the wound was significantly more irritated than with the raw honey. Here is an article outlining various studies on honey in healing: http://pittsborohoney.com/rawhoney_heals/grotte.pdf

    In addition I have used Hyaluronic Acid and Glucosamine Chondroitin to great effect in treating tendinitis. I have also seen a very rapid cure for poison ivy using a poultice of Plantago Lanceolota (it’s a common weed.) “Cui Bono” is the question to ask whenever we are looking into natural remedies. There isn’t much money to be had in telling people to rub 5 cents worth of honey on a burn. I know there are a lot of folk remedies that are harmful as well. I haven’t tried any of them but my instinct tells me anything with kerosene in it is suspect:) There are two herbs I am interested in right now that I have seen both villainized and idolized. One is Comfrey for broken bones and the other is Chapparral for multiple uses. Both of these can be dangerous if misused, so many scientists say don’t use them at all. I wonder why this rule of thumb doesn’t apply to prescription drugs? Oh well…take what I say for what it’s worth. Soon we may be left with only these natural medicines, so now is a good time to find out what works and what is just wishful thinking. In the end we may find that a healthier diet is all we need, starting with the elimination of processed sugar.

    • Doc Cindy says:

      Doctors who don’t provide their patients with adequate counseling give the profession a bad name. I apologize on behalf of all doctors to all of you who’ve experienced this . . . and I’ve experienced the problem myself as a patient.

      Eliminating dairy may have done as much for your allergies as eliminating sugar. Cutting out one at a time could pinpoint the answer a little better.

      I’m happy to hear about your experience with honey, which has been shown to be as effective as Silvadene for second-degree burns.

      I tell my patients that every medicine is a potential poison, which would also apply to plant medicines.

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