Herbs Safer Than Pharmaceutical Medicines
Seven questions about herbal medicines from Hana, a student, who asked me whether I might consent to an interview. I did, and here are the questions and my answers.
Here are my questions:
1. What advantages do you think herbal medicines have over traditional pharmaceutical medicines?
2. If herbs are natural, are they safe?
3. Many people say that herbal medicines are not safe because the FDA does not regulate them. How do you feel about that?
4. Would you advise someone to pursue a career in herbal medicine? Why or why not?
5. Do you know of a bad experience with herbal medicines? What happened?
6. Since sometimes herbs can be dangerous to a people, why are they not fully aware (by the government, doctor, etc)?
7. If both allopathic medicine and herbal remedies have side affects, which one do you think is better and safer?
St. John's Wort - a beautiful in-full-bloom bush growing at the back of one reader's bungalow
- - -
Here is my view on these questions, as given to Hana this morning:
1. Herbal medicines have several advantages (from the viewpoint of patients and doctors, not necessarily from that of pharmaceutical producers): One advantage is wide availability and simple preparation. Most herbs can be prepared with means we all have access to, such as making teas, extracting with alcohol, or similar. This is a large factor in cost of treatment. Herbs are also very well researched. If we pool the knowledge from diverse traditions, we have a cure for just about every illness known to man. Last factor: Herbs have been around in nature for millennia and our bodies are - one way or another - accustomed to their presence. Pharmaceutical medicines on the other hand often introduce a completely new molecule that has never before been present, and it is difficult to predict (or find out without widespread use) what the exact effects are. So widespread use of pharmaceuticals has led to widespread death. See article: Death by Medicine.
2. No, herbs are not completely safe in the sense that you could take them without knowing and be all right. But in contrast to pharmaceutical medicines, herbs are well researched and real adverse effects are extremely rare. For comparative statistics on the safety of herbs (and supplements) as distinct from other causes of death, see the statistics prepared by Ron Law. The figures on supplements include herbal products as sold for instance in health stores.
3. The FDA regulates medicines, which are one of the most UNSAFE product categories in existence, to where they have become a major cause of concern. Herbs, on the other hand, are ultra-safe by comparison. So to say that herbs are not safe because they are not regulated by the FDA is really pure and simple propaganda. No truth in it whatsoever. There are bad problems with the FDA watching over drug saftey, see this article:
4. I would advise someone to pursue a carreer in herbal medicine in preference to a carreer in pharmaceutically based medicine because I believe that herbal medicine has a better future. First, according to the World Health Organisation, herbal (traditional) medicine is used by some 80 % of Africans and large sections of the world population as their primary form of health care. Second, pharmaceutical medicine is either going to be deeply reformed or it will die. Once awareness spreads of the amount of damage being done in the name of pharmaceutical medicine, there will be a widespread move away from it, towards more gentle and more safe forms of medical care. WHO has a strategy on Traditional Medicine, which you can find here (click on language to download)...
5. Bad experiences with herbal medicine seem to be extremely rare by comparison. I have no personal knowledge of one.
6. Sometimes herbs can be dangerous, just like cars can be dangerous, travelling in an airplane, horses, water, and all kinds of things we normally find in the environment. If I look at the real figures of statistics compiled by Ron Law referenced in number 2 above, I have to say that even though herbs can be dangerous, they are below what we consider a danger that something must be done about it. Let's start with more important dangers, such as food (more people die from eating peanuts or bad meat than from herbs) or let's look into pharmaceuticals.
7. I have no doubt that herbal remedies are infinitely safer than allopathic medicines. There is really no comparison in seriousness and number of cases of side effects.
- - -
Here is another discussion of the relative advantage of herbs over pharmaceutical medicine. It started with a request for an interview by a student:
Dear Mr. Hasslberger
My name is Shawnique Warren I am a student at the University of the West Indies, Mona in Jamaica. I am currently doing a research titled ' Does the advantages of herbal medicine outweigh those of modern medicine'.
I found your web page while doing my research and found it to be a valuable and reliable source. It is required of this research that an interview be done with an expert in the field and I chose you Mr. Hasslberger.
I know you may be quite busy but i am kindly asking you to please submit to a short interview of ten (10) questions. If you could please send responses to the sender email address email@example.com it will be greatly appreciated as it will help me immensely in my research. Awaiting your reply and thanking you in advance.
and another message:
Dear Mr. Hasslberger
My research began where I wanted to find out why there was a sudden increase in the advertisements of herbal medicine in local Jamaican newspaper. This intrigued me and when I was required to do a project in a foundation course which is based on writing researches in your discipline( i do biochemistry) I chose the topic. I had problems with the research and had to modify my topic to the one mentioned in my previous letter.
I have so far found information on detrimental effects of various pharmaceutical drugs which have even led to death, the many advantages that herbal medicine (when used properly) provides such as less side effects (in most cases none at all) since what is referred to as the 'silver bullet' approach is not used as in pharmaceutical drugs where they isolate the active ingredient and produce there wonder drugs , more convenient (can be obtained on shelves without prescriptions (although this could be argued to be a negative), and is more cost effective ( relatively cheaper than pharmaceutical drugs). It was also asked by the researcher whether a herbal medicine industry would do well for the economy of developing countries. Overall from these ideas it was seen that herbal medicine proves to be more advantageous than pharmaceutical drugs and so the researcher wondered why we were so dependent on pharmaceutical drugs, here i found where their were issues in production when it comes to testing the safety, efficacy and appropriateness of the drug where unlike pharmaceutical drugs they were capable of testing whether specific substances could affect other metabolic actions, cells, tissues and organs of which they are not intended to affect.
I know it is pretty scanty but this is what I have so far as finding reliable sources are a hard task since I mostly meet up on advertisements and herbal products website which would be bias.
I found your article titled 'herbs safer than pharmaceutical medicines' dated march 25 2005. which provided some advantages which corresponded to information I found on other websites and a book called herbal medicine written by R.F Weiss. Also I saw where in answering those question you could find reliable data to back up your points and this is why I chose you for my interview.
Here is my answer to Shawnique's questions:
here is what I can help you with:
The Green Pharmacy : The Ultimate Compendium Of Natural Remedies From The World's Foremost Authority On Healing Herbs
The Healing Power of Herbs : The Enlightened Person's Guide to the Wonders of Medicinal Plants
The Herbal Drugstore: The Best Natural Alternatives to Over-The-Counter and Prescription Medicines
(1) For how long have you been researching and working in this field?
My work in the field of natural health goes back more than 20 years - to the early 1980's.
(2) What is your occupation?
Self employed. I am owner of a company that imports natural health supplements, mostly nutritional such as vitamins etc.
(3) What are the major advantages which herbal medicine hold over modern medicine.
The major advantage of herbal medicines over modern medicine is the substantial absence of serious side effects of herbs compared with pharmaceutical medicines.
Herbs have been around for a long time and have traditionally been used in cooking as well as in the healing arts. Their effects are well understood and their toxicity is easily controlled by adjusting dosage.
Pharmaceutical medicines are either copies of a herbal "active ingredient" or are completely new molecules that do not occur in nature. The problem with copies is that pharmaceuticals that are identical to a herb cannot be patented, so pharmaceutical manufacturers strive to make a slightly different version of the molecule to evade inevitable competition. The tweaking of herbal molecules and the invention of ex novo drugs lead to patentability, but they also lead to problems of compatibility with the human organism. Unforseen side effects often appear after a drug has been on the market for years and is taken by many. Drug testing does not find these effects as the number of patients in trials is not generally high enough. Also, trials are controlled by the company that wants the medicine approved, they are slanted to find efficacy and safety, not side effects.
(4) Are there any significant advantages that modern medicine has over herbal medicine?
In the area of emergency care, modern medicine is superior. This is things like setting bones, patching people up after accidents, or life-threatening illnesses that require immediate intervention.
(5) My thesis statement states that 'Herbal medicine is a healthier, more convenient and cost effective treatment for ailments than pharmaceutical drugs' do you agree or disagree and are there any more important pints to be discussed?
I agree with the general statement.
What herbal medicine does, especially if combined with nutritional intervention (good, uncontaminated food and where needed nutrient supplementation), is that it shifts emphasis from late intervention to prevention. Huge savings can be obtained by keeping the population healthy as opposed to waiting until a person is sick and then intervening with heavy medication.
(6) Do you think investing in herbal medicine industry is a wise move for the economy of developing countries? Explain
I believe it would be a wise move for developing countries to invest in herbal medicine, but there is an important caveat: Investment in industry is only part of what would need to be done.
Another important thing would be to train medical doctors in the use of the herbs available in the country, as well as to revive any indigenous herbal healing tradition.
Also important: Care should be taken that environmental destruction does not result from indiscriminate harvesting of wild herbs. Cultivation of medicinal herbs is an opportunity to provide income for small scale farmers and growers.
(7) Do you believe that when it comes to the herbal medicine industry the tropics (specifically the Caribbean region) is sitting on a gold mine? Explain
I believe that every region has many herbs that can be usefully employed for healing. Trade is a possibility but is not the major advantage of having indigenous production of herbs. The first advantage and the real gold mine presented by the widespread use of herbs is that of saving on expensive pharmaceutically made medicines that are often not more effective than a herbal product.
(8) Why do you think doctors rely more heavily on pharmaceutical drugs than herbal medicine even after viewing all the side effects of pharmaceutical drugs?
It is a question of training. Doctors are trained in a pharmaceutically funded and largely pharmaceutically controlled environment. They are actually warned against using anything but pharmaceuticals in their approach to health. Side effects are seen as the necessary - and small - evil that accompanies effective medical intervention.
(9) Do you think that doctors are now becoming more accepting of herbal medicine?
I do not see any big changes yet. Doctors will change only when pharmaceutical manufacturers produce herbal products and promote them, or when their training will include alternative modes of intervention such as nutrients and herbs.
(10) What do you believe must be done to destigmatize herbal medicine and provide a level playing field with the World Health Organization when it comes to herbal medicine and pharmaceutical drugs.
II believe the World Health Organization is already making much of an effort in promoting herbal medicine. Unfortunately, when the WHO issued a publication proposing a new strategy for herbal medicine, the press seized upon it as if the WHO was warning against the dangers of herbs, not promoting their use.
What needs to be done to destigmatize herbal medicine is
a) studies need to be done with herbal medicines, that fulfill the criteria of scientific studies. (A possible idea would be to require that studies on the effectiveness of drugs must include not only a placebo as a control but also a standard, traditional herbal and/or nutrient intervention.)
b) a herbal pharmacopeia needs to be established, independent of the existing pharmaceutical one.
c) training of medical doctors to include herbal knowledge.
d) pharmaceutical influence in health policy needs to be kept to a minimum. Pharma is a supplier of products for health, but it should not be a monopolist. Officials in health authorities should also have training that includes both medicine and herbal/nutritional health intervention to counter-act the often one-sided information about only modern pharmaceutical drugs.
I hope this might be helpful for your work.
- - -
See also related:
St. John's Wort proven more effective than antidepressant drugs for treating depression
A new study published in Germany has found that St. John's Wort, a medicinal herb frequently blamed by conventional medicine for interfering with prescription drugs, is more effective than a popular antidepressant drug in treating depression.
posted by Sepp Hasslberger on Friday March 25 2005
updated on Friday October 3 2008
URL of this article:
WHO Issues Guidelines for Herbal Medicine: Press Exaggerates Warnings
The World Health Organization is engaged in a strategy of helping traditional medicine (TM) and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) to emerge and gain recognition as a valid alternative to our pharmaceutically controlled western-style medical system. One of the steps in this WHO program is to develop a consumer information strategy. A report released by WHO in January 2004 - "Guidelines on Developing Consumer Information on Proper Use of Traditional,... [read more]
June 30, 2004 - Sepp Hasslberger
Herbal Medicines: Italy Seeks Clarification
27 December 2004 - The Italian Ministry of Health has published an outline of recent European legislative changes that will affect supplements, specifically those containing herbs and plant extracts, asking industry to help shape the European discussion intended to clarify the borderline between what is a medicine and what is not. Reference is made to the European directive on food supplements, a contested piece of EU legislation that seems to... [read more]
January 05, 2005 - Sepp Hasslberger
EU to extend concept of medicine - eliminate "borderline products"
18 December 2003 - The European Union is in the process of revising legislation that regulates pharmaceutically manufactured medicinal products. This legislation was first passed in 1965 and is known to those who are familiar with food and medicines regulations simply as "65/65", that is, directive number 65 passed in the year 1965. Some of the discussion, which is currently being held in the European Parliament in Strassbourg, centers around... [read more]
December 20, 2003 - Sepp Hasslberger
European Directive on Medicinal Herbs Discriminates Against China, India, Other Cultures
On 31 March 2004, the European Union put the finishing touches on its directive for herbal medicinal products, which was published in the official journal and can be downloaded as a pdf here. The directive will have to be transformed into national law by the 25 EU member countries. It introduces a simplified registration for herbal medicinal products that have been on the market in Europe for at least 30... [read more]
July 19, 2004 - Sepp Hasslberger
Heavy Metals Warning For Ayurvedic Herbs Is A Distraction From The Real Threats To Your Health
..."What this announcement fails to mention is that a whole lot of the food products in the United States is also contaminated with heavy metals. There was an article a few months ago about a girl in the United States who, for a science fair project, found heavy metal poisoning in canned foods made right here in the U.S. There was also another story about candy made in Mexico that... [read more]
February 18, 2005 - Chris Gupta
Kava Kava - Germany, UK To Review Ban
Kava protest - Victory Column (Siegessäule) in Berlin Kava Kava, a calming and relaxing herbal preparation traditionally used in several South Sea islands, made from the roots of piper methysticum, was taken off the market in several countries on the strength of "safety concerns". Canada banned the herb in 2000, Germany in 2001 and several other European countries followed suit, although the evidence of actual harm to people's health... [read more]
April 07, 2004 - Sepp Hasslberger