Herbs Can Be Food; Herbs Can Be Drugs

real life

I was recently having a conversation with an organic farmer who also grows herbs.

She said, "You know, I see people every day who have destroyed their bodies with alcohol and drugs who now ask me for some herb to rejuvenate them. What they don't understand is that there is no free lunch with medicinal herbs."

There is a whole lot in this statement, and it accurately reflects the various uses of herbs, theories and misconceptions over the centuries.

The therapeutic use of herbs can be traced back millennia: perhaps 3,000, 5,000 or 10,000 years depending on which anthropological evidence you believe. The therapeutic use of plants of all types, from culinary aromatic herbs to various mushrooms has made a huge comeback in American culture over the last three to four decades. Until now, herbalism was kept alive through traditional uses in specific cultures — the elder mountain woman taking care of her family, for example — and by therapeutic arts outside of mainstream medicine.

This was not always the case. The use of plants, minerals and other naturally occurring substances right along with what could be made chemically was mainstream medicine at one point. Medicine gradually became very good at isolating active substances from natural ones to use for very specific effects.

We do this even today, and although close to a third of drugs still originate in natural substances, we still like to be able to make our therapeutic compounds. This preference occurs for various reasons.

The reasons arise out of the scientific method combined with governmental and social demands for safety, the amount of money needed to meet those demands, and the satisfaction of not only altruistic, but economic motives. Simply put, a synthetic drug is something we, on paper and in writing, know more about. We test for its effects and its side effects. We know how it works chemically, and we can design experiments that test that working. A new drug also is proprietary, and companies can recoup their investments in its development.

It was this scientific rigor that led to the initial rejection of herbalism by the establishment sometime during the early 1900s. The invention of antibiotics and other powerfully therapeutic drugs such as human insulin has fueled our progression toward scientific, measurable, laboratory medicine.

On the other hand, all of us have gradually become aware of certain failings in medical therapeutics as well as the successes. In terms of our drugs, they often help manage an illness, such as diabetes, but don't cure anything. Powerful drugs often have equally powerful and sometimes life-threatening side effects. Newer and better drugs are often more and more expensive.

Public awareness gradually has grown to view herbal remedies as: a valid option; an often inexpensive option; a safer, non-toxic option.

Now for a radical statement. The use of herbs per se has never been invalid. To give one example, we used leaf (herbal) digitalis for centuries in medicine because it treated the failing heart. Dosing was interesting, since enough leaf to just cause nausea was prescribed. This became the upper range of the dose. Backing off of this amount a little kept the patient safe and provided the maximum effective dose. Synthetic forms of digitalis now require laboratory monitoring and when overdose occurs, it might present not with nausea, but with serious side effects such as cardiac sudden death. There often is no nausea warning sign. On the other hand, the more potent synthesized drug has been faster-acting and lifesaving in situations in which the leaf would not have worked.

Many other current prescription and over-the-counter drugs simply represent the end of a spectrum from whole plant use to refinement into a more specific substance. Herbs are not invalid; they are a foundation of medical treatment.

Unfortunately, they are not always inexpensive. More and more preparations in the health food store, especially with the advent of many more extracts and "standardized" encapsulated products, are getting more and more expensive.

Part of this expense is due to a shift in thinking about herbs as mainstream M.D.s get involved in using and promoting "natural" medicine. Dr. Andrew Weil, for example, recommends standardized extracts because they guarantee a percentage amount of one or more ingredients. Studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association recently showed that saw palmetto berry helps men suffering from a swollen prostate gland. Once we know it "works" in this sense, we naturally want to know what is in it that works, and we want this standardized, which will lead to standardized extracts, guaranteeing a certain content. What remains to be seen is if the cost of such products is matched by the accurate and verifiable confirmation that you are getting what you pay for. Or, if the active ingredients in such products are truly active. Regulation of the herb industry is not intact.

As to safety, or let's say how much you can get hurt by judicious use of herbs versus drugs, herbs tend to win hands down. I say this with the caveat that extracts and essential oils of certain herbs can be toxic, damaging or lethal. The essential oil of good old peppermint, useful as a mosquito repellent, has caused deaths when ingested. Peppermint leaf is safe when ingested as tea. But herbs also can have unwanted side effects. Peppermint leaf, although not poisonous, even when consumed as tea, can lower the muscle tone of the human esophagus, aggravating heartburn.

There also are plants, such as comfrey, that contain known carcinogens. Some, such as tobacco, are downright poisonous. Then again, because whole herbs are generally less potent than drugs, it might often be more difficult to accidentally reach a toxic dose.

Which brings up another point, although herbalism is a relatively safe practice, it still is dependent on the skill of the practitioner. And practitioners from different backgrounds will use herbs differently. The traditional herbalist in this country used herbs in various combinations to support what the body appeared to need. Hence a "blood purifier" along with "tonic herbs" might be prescribed for a patient with poor circulation and fatigue. Herbs in this way are assumed to have multiple, synergistic effects. A Chinese herbalist will use herbs to support deficiencies in the flow of chi, or vital energy through the human energy meridians. This might be done in conjunction with pulse diagnosis and acupuncture. Herbs then become an adjunct to a wider system.

Those using herbs then range from the M.D. using a single herb because studies have demonstrated its effects, consumers self-medicating and in many cases experimenting on themselves, and practitioners coming from traditional systems with more extensive ideas about herbal use.

Science does not tend to study these wider systems, looking instead for specific ingredients in herbs that prove to have an already known biochemical effect, or in some cases, that help discover a new compound.

Whole plants and even single minerals, however, might indeed work in multiple ways, some effects being due to nutrient supply rather than to druglike ingredients. Worried about making unsubstantiated claims, many herb companies now label their product with the words "take as a nutritional supplement."

The consumer has several choices when it comes to herbs: find a traditionalist, find a sympathetic M.D. or self-prescribe. Toxicity often is not the biggest danger in this field, and rumored benefits are many. Some benefits now are being proven. On the down side, the field is not yet consistent. On the exciting side, treatment options are increased through herbs as food, herbs as drugs and herbs as popular health culture.

Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.