The use of herbal medicine dates back thousands of years, but only recently has it, along with other forms of alternative medicines become popular in westernized countries. Vitamins and nutrition boosters currently rack up $1.3 billion in annual sales and are growing by 10 to 15 per cent a year. The Canadian herbal market runs an estimated $150 million a year.
One attraction of herbal medicines is they are considered natural plant products. Plants are readily acknowledged as the original source of many valuable modern medicines. Morphine comes from the opium poppy, digitalis from the foxglove plant, ephedrine from the ephedra (ma huang) plant, and acetylsalicylic acid from the bark of the white willow tree. Herbal medicines are available in many forms, including whole plant, plant parts, extracts, teas and infusions.
As consumers take a more active interest in managing their own health care, they are demanding more information. Encouraged by results from some popularized clinical studies, the public is searching for preparations to enhance energy and sexual function, increase longevity and ward off chronic disease. However, some precautions are in order. Different forms do not necessarily contain the same ingredients, and may not provide the same effects.
The preparation should be used only for minor, short-term, self-limiting conditions. The person should not be pregnant, breastfeeding, taking other drugs or suffering from diagnosed medical conditions.
Canada has been reviewing safety and regulations for herbs and botanical (plant) preparations sold as food and used for medicinal purposes. In 1985, the Health Protection Branch (HPB) of Health Canada established an Expert Advisory Committee on Herbs and Botanical Preparations to examine current practices and make recommendations.
In 1993 the committee recommended nine herbs and botanical preparations be listed as food adulterants, meaning they have an undesirable effect when added to food and others sold as food be listed as requiring cautionary labeling concerning their use during pregnancy. The committee recommended that a detailed description of herb and botanical product be developed. Traditional herbal medicines would be registered as non-prescription drugs and an editorial review board would evaluate the information about each product. These recommendations are still being reviewed.
Coverage of this topic by the media has led to many misunderstandings. In one study, 54 per cent of cancer patients viewed this type of treatment as a potential cure. Many thought that it might at least provide a remission of their disease. Some cancer patients hope that some alternative medicine will “boost” the immune system, and prevent the toxic effects of chemotherapy.
Thirty-one per cent of patients believe herbal medicine is non-toxic. Unfortunately, many people think “natural” is synonymous with “non-toxic.” They believe that it can’t hurt and it might help, even if it won’t cure.
Generally, people who seek out herbal medicines have less faith in conventional medicine. They believe that alternative healers are more “patient-oriented.” Often these patients have a chronic disease with symptoms not completely relieved by conventional medicine. Many of these patients then turn to alternative medicine because they want to have some control over their own health. There is also a perception alternative medicine is less costly than conventional medicine.
Herbs can be medicinal and can be powerful. It is important that people understand how to use them properly. If you want to use them, it would be prudent to discuss their use with your family doctor or pharmacist. It is wise to consider a herb in the same way you would a medication. Be an informed consumer and first ask yourself the following questions:
It is important to share with your family doctor and your pharmacist the names of all products you are using for self-medication. This includes vitamin supplements, herbal products and all over-the-counter drugs that include pain killers, laxatives, cold and cough remedies. There may be good reasons not to be using these products at the same time or with prescription medication; they may interact. Your personal medical problems may cause risks when taking herbal preparations.
Herbal products may be “natural” in that they are derived from plants. Keep in mind “natural” does not necessarily mean “safe” nor does it mean “effective”. There are poisonous plants as well as plants that are very safe. Each herb or herbal mixture requires its own study, and it is unwise to lump them all together and make a general statement about their benefits or dangers.
There are a variety of herbal medicines that are currently popular such as feverfew, echinacea and garlic. While these products are receiving public attention, little is know about how effective they actually are or what the correct dose might be.
Feverfew is a plant that has been studied in controlled trials. It has been used to manage fever, asthma, rheumatism, gynecological problems and migraines. Two controlled trials studying the use of feverfew in preventing migraines have been published. Both studies showed a decrease in the frequency and severity of the headaches and vomiting. While feverfew has some benefits, the exact dosage, length of treatment and safety are not yet well established.
Echinacea is a popular herbal remedy. It has been heralded as a way to heal wounds and as a stimulant of the immune system. On the skin it is thought to reduce inflammation. When taken by mouth it is thought to help the immune system destroy unwanted material and germs in the body. There is some data to support these claims. However, studies have involved small numbers of patients, the type of echinacea and the dose have varied, and no well-controlled studies have been performed with products available to the consumer. A toxic level of echinacea has not been determined, but adverse reactions may appear as its use increases. Also, one study showed that echinacea may actually suppress the immune system rather than strengthen it when used in multiple doses.
Many people are taking herbs to maintain good health and well-being. They hope to ward off chronic diseases such as heart disease or cancer, as well as some everyday viruses such as that causing the common cold. Eating a well-balanced diet, with lots of variety and an abundant supply of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains would be far more effective than taking a herb in the form of a powder or a pill or a special tea.
We are just beginning to name and study the benefits of thousands of components found in whole foods, especially in foods that come from plants. Some of the categories of these phytochemicals (chemicals found in plants) include:
A look at one example of a whole food shows that the benefit is not due solely to one or two isolated nutrients. For instance, let’s have a look at tomatoes. The hot news about tomatoes is lycopene, a bioflavonoid, which gives the tomato its red colour. Lycopene (found also in pink grapefruits and watermelons), protects plants from insects, disease and ultraviolet radiation. It may play a role in plant respiration, morphogenesis (the formation or development of new parts) and sex differentiation. Until recently, not much attention was paid to lycopene because it didn’t appear to have the traditional vitamin activity and was considered a non-nutrient component. It is now thought to help protect people against some cancers, including prostate cancer.
One medium-size ripe tomato contains only 25 calories and no fat. It also has about 20 to 25 mg. of vitamin C which is about half our daily requirement. About 1,400 I.U. (international units) of vitamin A, in the form of its precursor, beta carotene, is also found in this same tomato. Both vitamins A and C are powerfulantioxidants and play a role in preventing heart disease and some cancers. The tomato is also a good source of the B-vitamin, folate, as well as the mineral potassium (approximately 370 mg. of potassium in a medium tomato). All of these nutrients, along with many, many other others, come packaged nicely as a tomato. This makes the “whole” tomato far more nutritious than any of these nutrients in isolation.
But the tomato alone is not the magic bullet. Tomatoes contain many wonderful nutrients but they do not contain all the nutrients that the human body needs. That is why, it is so important to get a wide variety of different foods, each food having its own specific and unique mix of nutrients.
We are just now learning of some of the benefits of the thousands of components found in foods. We do not know much yet about how they react with each other, so it is far healthier to take these chemicals in the form of whole foods rather than individually in food supplements. As our knowledge of these food components increases, and if an isolated substance is proven beneficial for a particular medical condition, there may be a case for its individual use. In the meantime, eating a healthy diet which includes appropriate amounts and lots of variety from the four food groups (Grains, Vegetables and Fruit, Milk & Milk Products and Meat & Alternatives) is still your best bet for staying healthy. The Canada Food Guide to Healthy Eating says it all.