Herbal medicine: does it work?

Most healing approaches involve ingesting various substances that alter the biochemistry of the body in some way. Humans have always taken various substances believing they have a remedial effect. In times gone by, most of these were found in the natural world. Nowadays they are equally as likely to have been conjured up in a laboratory.

Herbal medicine

Herbs have always played a role in physical and emotional wellbeing. Many well known herbs have been found to have potent antiseptic, antibacterial and medicinal qualities. They can help prevent ill health, cure minor ailments, bring about a feeling of wellbeing, energise and relax. Some have great nutritional value too, e.g. containing vitamins, minerals and trace elements, easing digestion and elimination. Many are easily grown in a garden or window box.

Herbs can be used in many ways – infusions, tisanes, tinctures, creams, poultices and ointments etc. Their oil is extracted for massage, aromatherapy and inhalations or simply a pleasant, relaxing bath.

Herbal medicine uses exclusively plants and plant extracts – or does it? Not totally. Most come from flowers, stems, root, bark and so on, but Chinese herbs can also include animal and reptile parts including tusks, horns and hoofs and the much-prized seahorses.

Does it work?

A 2007 study by Guo et al [1] began by stating that ‘evidence of efficacy for some herbal medicines, but by no means all those in common use, has increased substantially in the past 29 years.’

The authors went on to point out that most studies were of the classic type where standard doses of single herbs are administered and results compared with a control group given a placebo. But herbal medicine, like most holistic medicines, is simply not prescribed in this way. It is holistic in approach. It aims to treat the whole person and repair the underlying causes of disease, not just deal with symptoms.

It is widely recognised that the sorts of trials used by the pharmaceutical industry and endorsed by governments around the world are unfair on holistic medicine precisely for this reason.

‘There is a sparsity of evidence regarding the effectiveness of individualised herbal medicine,’ write Mr Guo and his colleagues as if they have proven that herbal medicine is useless. But they did not. They could equally have written that there is a sparsity of evidence that it doesn’t work, and plenty of evidence from centuries of use that is does. For example, everyone knows rubbing a nettle sting with a dock leaf brings relief, camomile or valerian are great for disturbed sleep, St John’s Wort is clinically proven to help with depression, garlic for colds, lavender and eucalyptus for blocked noses, peppermint as a pick-me-up, fennel seed for digestive troubles, licorice for constipation and so on.

The burden of proof is much greater for natural medicines than for the pharmaceutical industry. Personal experience is mistrusted as if it counts for nothing. You can imagine what would happen if a group of herbal practitioners published a study on such flimsy foundations and concluded that herbal medicine is effective and can be highly recommended!

Herbal medicine can be powerful, effective and side-effect-free in trained hands, but of course there are no profits to be had by the big pharmaceutical companies for products that can be found in the natural environment or grown in a window box!

©FGATT, 6.3.2017

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[1] R Guo, PH Canter and E Ernst, ‘A systematic review of randomised clinical trials of individualised herbal medicine in any indication,’ Postgrad Med J 2007; 83:633-637 (at www.postgradmedj.com)


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