Herbalism Is Here To Stay


“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” – Hippocrates”

Ginger alleviates nausea. Chamomile relaxes and soothes. Garlic fights and reduces cholesterol, feverfew prevents migraines and peppermint calms an upset stomach. These common herbs available in most people’s pantries are well-known for their therapeutic effect along with their culinary usefulness. Despite extensive research confirming their therapeutic applications, most people discover herbal medicine through their family or friends. But common kitchen herbs are just the beginning. All manner of plants are becoming familiar to consumers as they’re exposed to them through the media, Internet and their supermarket shelves. St John’s Wort, ginseng and echinacea used to be in the sole realm of herbalists but now they’re found in most convenience stores.

According to the NPS, Australians have increased their use of complementary medicine (CM), with supplements and herbs at the top of the list. Whether they’re prescribed by a physician, naturopath, herbalist or self-medicating via health shops, chemists and online shopping, more consumers are turning away from conventional medicine as their sole avenue for healthcare. Most users of CM use it to enhance health, cope with stress or manage a chronic condition. Australians spent $1.3 billion on CM in 2004, and it’s forecast to rise above $4.6 billion in 2017-18.

There are many passionate critics of CM ready to label all non-medical therapies together as a con. One such organisation is the Friends of Science in Medicine (FSM). Their sole purpose is to discredit and remove CMs from universities. While some CM practices are ineffective and dependent on placebo effect — such as “energy” based treatments — others are based on sound empirical research and practice. Moreover, naturopaths and herbalists are highly trained, now requiring a Bachelor of Health Science to be registered by professional associations and then, health funds. They have extensive training in Anatomy & Physiology, Biochemistry, Pathology, Nutrition, Ethics, Pharmacology, Diagnostics, Clinical practice and of course, herbal and supplement prescribing — which needs to be backed up by current research. They’re also trained in determining when someone should visit their physician instead, and a lot of their practice is collaborative with other professionals rather than independent of them. 

While anti-CM organisations are quick to disparage CM university degrees, they’ll also want to convince you how ineffective and dangerous plants are as therapeutic agents, even if the foundation of modern pharmaceuticals they champion originate from botanicals. Indeed, most of today’s life-saving drugs are patented, synthetic versions of a plant’s active ingredient.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) which has released four volumes on medicinal plants from around the world, 11% of today’s 252 basic drugs are plant derived, 50% of cancer-fighting molecules and medicines approved over the last 30 years are plant based, and 80% of plant-based therapeutic drugs mirror their traditional therapeutic use. This means that despite some claims that traditional medicine is based on superstition and ignorance, plants’ historical use was for the same conditions as their synthetic counterparts today.

Dr Valerie Malka, a former surgeon and director of trauma at Westmead Hospital, is infuriated with the blatant ignorance of the facts about CM and the AMA’s and FSM’s dishonest attack on traditional medicine. She points out that to ignore 10, 000 years of empirical experience on traditional therapies that 80% of the global population use, in favour of a totalitarian choice for modern medicine that’s a mere 100 years old is arrogant at best: there’s a place for both. In an article for SMH she states: 

“There is no better than modern medicine when it comes to surgery, emergency and trauma, but for almost everything else, traditional, natural or alternative medicine is far more effective — particularly for chronic illness which modern medicine is completely unable to treat or cure. These therapies, unlike modern medicine which focuses on symptom control, work to treat the entire person, recognising and stimulating the body’s innate capability to heal the root cause of illness. Modern medicine actually suppresses and thwarts that innate healing mechanism by unbalancing the complex human organism and its systems, particularly the immune system, with the liberal use of drugs and ignorance of the importance of diet and lifestyle.”

Her views aren’t unfounded. According to WHO, one of the top ten reasons for death is medical errors with one in 300 hospital visits resulting in death, and one in 10 leading to infection or further complications. That’s not accounting for US’s Institute of Medicine’s statistics of 98 000 deaths annually from medical errors in the United States alone. Furthermore, the argument that modern medicine is evidence-based and thus safer is also not entirely accurate.

While pharmaceuticals have to go through trials before approval, there’s a problem with tests and data being manipulated by their manufacturers to present a favourable outcome; and a favourable outcome means “better” than placebo (which can mean as little as 5% improvement), rather than the best equivalent drug. Combine that with the increasing off-label prescriptions across the board and one begins to question the whole pro-pharmaceutical-for-everything argument.

Because of herbalism’s extensive history and its foundational place in today’s pharmaceutical versions, it behoves naturopaths and herbalists what the FSM is arguing against with nutritive lifestyle therapies like Naturopathy and Herbalism. Such modalities’ principal goal is to change their client’s lifestyles to healthier options via diet and exercise. If herbs or supplementation is prescribed, it’s usually only done if a deficiency is found or support is required, but they’re under no illusion if a faster acting or life-saving drug is better suited. 

Consider mild to moderate depression, for example. Millions of people are on an addictive, symptomatic anti-depressant drug over a non-addictive anti-depressant herb like St John’s Wort. Considering the over-prescription of anti-depressant medication and its detrimental effects such as suicide ideation and death — especially among children, adolescents and the elderly — herbal alternatives would seem an obvious option. Furthermore, it’s not as if herbs like St. John’s Wort don’t have research to back up their efficacy. Indeed they do, and a lot of it.

St. John's Wort
St. John’s Wort

There are 13 randomised placebo-controlled trials showing St. John’s Wort’s comparable efficacy with SSRI’s, minus the withdrawal symptoms.

But research isn’t confined to this one herb; there’s research supporting hundreds of conventional plants. That’s because botanicals contain active ingredients that are responsible for their innate therapeutic properties.

Take Paclitaxel (Taxol) for example, it’s a common chemotherapeutic drug for lung, ovarian, breast, gastroesophageal, endometrial, cervical, prostate, and head and neck cancers, in addition to sarcoma, lymphoma, and leukaemia, and is derived from Taxus brevifolia (Pacific yew): powerful little conifer plant!

Or your garden-variety aspirin. Did you know its active ingredient came from the bark of the white willow tree (Salix alba)? What about artemisinin; the anti-malarial drug? Yep, from another plant, Artemisia annua. The point is that while pharmaceutical-grade, synthetic versions of these plant’s active ingredients are clinically indispensable, it’s also hypocritical to claim their natural, unsynthesised versions are useless.

Regardless, people of every demographic are returning to traditional therapies such as herbalism to increase their health. One such place consumers go to is Herbosophy: an online dried herb and extract supplier that encapsulates customer’s herbs on demand. One of its employees is Jodi. She didn’t know much about herbs, plants and their therapeutic use when she was initially employed.

“I just needed work, and a position came up to help with customer service and packing orders,” she smiles. “But soon after, I was astounded with the customer’s requirements and feedback. It blew me away.”

Jodi describes the fervour and gratitude expressed by the hundreds of customers she’s talked to who’ve benefitted from a botanical regimen. Men and women, laypeople and professionals, CM practitioners and physicians, pharmacists and researchers keep returning for their favourite botanicals. “Anecdotal or not, it’s hard to ignore so many people’s experience. With Jorge’s direction I gave it a go and my health started improving too.”

Jorge is a certified herbalist and founder of Herbosophy. Diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease in 2005, and was given a 2 – 5 year terminal time frame. MND doesn’t have a treatment or cure, and all medical contact becomes palliative. “I had to take responsibility for any possibility of recovery or delay in progression,” Jorge says. He reasoned that herbs are like super-charged foods that stimulate the body’s innate healing mechanisms to repair itself. Herbs became instrumental in coping with the disease to the point where he’s still working, studying and purposeful eleven years later. “My progression halted too late. I’m mostly paralysed, wheelchair-bound but still functional. If I knew in 2005 what I know now, I may have been able to slow or halt progression much earlier; but who knows, hindsight is always 20/20. 

Herbosophy’s service evolved from Jorge’s personal practice. He wanted the dried herbs to be freshly ground and encapsulated as needed. His workroom is full of different herbs and preparation tools. The smell of plant material is strong but pleasant, reminiscent of a bygone era. Variously labelled jars of differing sizes containing dried leaves, flowers and roots span the wooden shelves.

Jorge has been using specific herbs to help himself, friends and family, for a while now, and they’ve worked. He has immense respect and awe for science and modern medicine, knowing it has its place. “I have no problem using pharmaceuticals if needed, and currently do; I’m not a puritan. This isn’t a case of either/or. It’s a case of using a natural, traditional, established and proven system for health,” he clarifies. “Inversely, a faster-acting and effective pharmaceutical trumps plants in many cases too: insulin, antibiotics, steroids, analgesics, vaccinations, etc. I would be the worst kind of hypocrite to deny these miracles of modern medicine.” Jorge spends most of his day turning away potential customers so they visit a physician or a very experienced CM professional. “I have no interest in the false dichotomy of modern vs traditional; drug vs plant: they’re symbiotic. I do, however, have an interest in an individual’s right to use a time-tested botanical to improve their health status.”

But there’s also this final thought Jorge emphasised: human civilisation has flourished and thrived for thousands of years on plants for their food and medicine. We have reached this point in medicine because of plants, not in spite of them. There’s something to that.


References

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