My wife is an M.D. trained in pharmaceutical medicine. She prescribes drugs every day, but also recommends medicinal herbs. In our medicine cabinet, we stock drugs and herbs, but we use more of the latter. When we catch colds, we prefer echinacea and andrographis (immune-boosting herbs proven to speed recovery), ginseng (ditto), licorice root (for sore throat), tea or coffee (caffeine helps relieve stuffed nose and chest congestion), eucalyptus lozenges (for cough), and pelargonium (if post-cold bronchitis develops).
Thirty years ago, when I started writing about medicinal herbs, the vast majority of M.D.s (my wife included) never recommended herbs over drugs. Today, doctors are increasingly open to recommending nondrug alternatives given reasonable evidence of safety and effectiveness.
Unfortunately, many medical authorities still disparage medicinal herbs. Critics make four accusations: Herbs are ineffective, unsafe, unregulated and, when they work, they’re not as strong as drugs.
Ineffective? Hardly. As I document in my book, The New Healing Herbs, thousands of studies confirm the effectiveness of medicinal herbs for hundreds of conditions.
Unsafe? Like drugs, medicinal herbs can cause harm. Anything that’s pharmacologically active can. To ensure safety, purchase a guide that emphasizes safety, such as my book or the American Botanical Council’s ABC Clinical Guide to Herbs, or check out the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database.
Anyone who calls herbs hazardous is totally misinformed. Every year the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) compiles statistics on accidental deaths from drugs, herbs, vitamins and other supplements. The AAPCC’s most recent report (2008) records 1,756 accidental poisoning deaths. How many were attributable to medicinal herbs? Zero. In every accidental death caused by a pharmacological agent, the culprit was a pharmaceutical. And it’s been that way for many years. Herbs are safer than drugs.
University of Toronto researchers combed 30 years of medical literature (1966 to 1996) for reports of drug side effects in hospital patients. Extrapolating from the 39 most rigorous studies, they estimated that drug side effects kill an astonishing 106,000 U.S. hospital patients per year and cause 2.2 million serious, nonfatal problems. This makes drug side effects the nation’s fourth leading cause of death. The true number of drug-caused injuries is undoubtedly higher; this study focused solely on hospital patients, not the public. Note: These deaths didn’t result from medical errors; they occurred when drugs were administered as approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Unregulated? Before approving new drugs, the FDA requires drugmakers to prove them safe and effective. Such tests aren’t required of herbs, leading to claims that herbs are unregulated and, by implication, unsafe. But as we’ve seen, the supposedly stringent regulation of drugs hasn’t kept them from causing great harm.
In addition, preapproval studies typically involve only a few thousand people. Many side effects — some serious — only turn up in one user in 10,000 to 50,000, or more. These problems don’t emerge until the drug is widely used by people unaware that they are guinea pigs. Because so many new side effects turn up during the five years after approval, the FDA requires drugmakers to rewrite the warning labels of half of new drugs. Yes, drugs are regulated more stringently than herbs, but regulation doesn’t guarantee safety. Hundreds of studies show that, when compared head-to-head with herbs, drugs almost always cause more side effects. The vast majority of medicinal herbs have been used for centuries, standing the test of time.
Not as strong? Dose for dose, yes, herbs aren’t as strong as drugs. Willow bark contains a natural form of aspirin, but the standard dose (1 to 2 cups of tea or 1 to 2 teaspoons of tincture) doesn’t relieve pain as well as a standard dose of aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin), acetaminophen (Tylenol), or naproxen (Aleve). As a result, critics dismiss herbs as medicinal wimps.
Rather than herbs being too weak, many drugs are too strong, causing side effects ranging from annoying to insufferable. Do no harm is the first axiom of medicine. This means that treatment should begin at the lowest possible effective dose. Why use a bulldozer if a broom suffices? Herbs should be prescribed first. Only those who truly need stronger medicine should use drugs, which cost more and have a greater risk of side effects. Unfortunately, American medicine does the opposite. Doctors prescribe drugs first, and only when the drugs are intolerable do some doctors suggest herbs. We don’t need medicine that’s stronger. We need medicine that’s smarter. For many common ills, herbs are cheaper and smarter.
If you’d like to try herbs instead of drugs, our Herbal Remedies for Common Ailments chart is a good place to start. These herbs have been included because of the strong clinical evidence of their efficacy.
Michael Castleman is one of the nation’s leading health writers, according to Library Journal.