75 Safe and Effective Herbal Remedies

Used correctly, herbal remedies can be a safer, less expensive alternative to pharmaceuticals. Doctors have begun to recognize their treatment value.
By Michael Castleman
October/November 2010
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Herbal remedies can be a safer, less expensive alternative to pharmaceuticals, and you can grow many of them in your backyard.
PHOTO: DIANE GUTHRIE, STYLING BY BITTERSWEET FLORAL & DESIGN
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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 herbal remedies, 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.


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Post a comment below.

 

shagydeep
5/21/2013 1:02:27 AM

Superb article Michael, natural herbs are contains good healing power in itself. And from your study you have shown that herbs are uniquely has a great identity in medicine treatment...

<a href="http://www.charak.com/clinic">Ayurvedic Treatments</a>


Meleca Jong
1/15/2013 7:03:41 AM
Hello....My name is Meleca and I had a reaction called SJS TENS 1 in 50 million, 50% morbidity. Well, I am alive by the grace of God and I know it. I was the first person through the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The reaction was due to a generic version of an antibiotic. The reaction burns you inside out...and I apparently looked gross. My son was the one who got me downstairs, sensing at his very young age then I was in trouble. My brother then escorted me to the Hospital. They had no idea what was wrong and were again going to send me home. In and out of consciousness they asked me If I knew what was wrong. I said that I thought it was an allergic reaction but very different. They did what they could as it was then I went completely unconscious and heard them yell...emergency stat....and my last thought was..."well they can't send me home now". I was in a coma...having an interesting experience while everyone around me...doctors...nurses...family and friends...had no idea what to do...except their best...and lots of prayers. I went from the emerg. to the dying unit, to the burn unit and then to the reconstructive unit...once I awoke from being "away". My friends and family were told at one point to come and say their goodbyes. But came and found me sitting up in my bed brushing my hair. Honestly...they had no idea what to do or what was going on. I had strep, and ear infection and food poisoning and the reaction...all at the same time. But, I survived...thank God....and healed with only a few scars. So, I now treat myself with natural herbs and remedies as much as is possible with a few (very few) exceptions. Once I awoke...and my body in time awoke as well...and eventually I was allowed to leave the hospital when I was ready. I thought the sooner the better...and as soon as I could eat....and do other necessary everyday bodily things...and could walk to a small degree....I did. And the first thing my sister and her husband asked me was if I wanted to go for a bowl of Bosch Soup...and I did. Being Spiritual and connected.... Natural is the way to go....as a preventative...and maintenance of good health. "Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food" Hippocrates I certainly agree.....

Louise
11/4/2010 7:08:24 AM
There is a bill in the EU being put through in April 2011 which would ban buying and selling of all herbal remedies and related products. You can fight this bill here http://www.anh-europe.org/ Please support us in the EU. Thanks

Louise
11/4/2010 7:03:54 AM
There is a bill in the EU being put through in April 2011 which would ban buying and selling of all herbal remedies and related products. You can fight this bill here http://www.anh-europe.org/ Please support us in the EU. Thanks

Louise
11/4/2010 7:03:14 AM
There is a bill in the EU being put through in April 2011 which would ban buying and selling of all herbal remedies and related products. You can fight this bill here http://www.anh-europe.org/ Please support us in the EU. Thanks

58Bob
10/30/2010 6:54:21 PM
Dan I would like to comment on your statement of potentcy. The standard for pharmaceuticals is measured in miligrams which varies in potentcy by numbers obviously the higher the number, the higher the dosage, the stronger the potentcy. The higher the miligram for one person could kill another. For example I'm on 10 miligrams of methadone this same dosage given to you could possibly put you in the hospital with an overdose causing some kind of complication. What I'm trying to get at is how does one measure the potency of herbal medicine?

Alex McKenzie
10/26/2010 7:22:35 AM
While I'm overall a fan of herbal remedies, the risks to trying it yourself cannot easily be overstated. Some medicinal herbs look a lot like a lethally toxic plant. And there can be extreme reactions between prescription medications and herbs: the combination of St. John's Wort and some prescription anti-depressants has been known to cause liver-failure! If you're going to look at herbal remedies, find an expert and talk to your doctor. That herbal may be just what you need, but it also might cause a lot of damage, just like any other medication. When your doctor asks are you taking any over-the-counter medications, include whatever herbs you're taking: it really does matter, and you could wind up in a terrible situation if you don't tell them. Now... that said, some herbal remedies are actually more effective than the equivalent medications. Taking the example of St. John's Wort again, I've met a few people who had better results with that than with pharmaceuticals. There have been real, double-blind, controlled studies on some herbs, and they generally turn out to work well, so it's not all junk science. It's just important to do your own research before you try to make sure you don't run into a known problem.

Dan
10/25/2010 12:23:34 PM
Interesting article, but there were some serious issues. Psuedoscience like this is what gives herbal remedies such a bad reputation. The biggest issue is bias. Castleman's major purpose in writing this article is clearly to sell his books. Effectiveness He mentionions thousands of studies confirming the effectiveness of herbal remedies. Very few of these unnamed studies would stand up to any sort of academic muster. Double-blind clinical trials???-nope, usually just surveys of customers with obvious bias. Safety He gives two statistics about overdose and deadly side-effects. But, there is a lurking variable that must be considered. Patients in hospitals are already suffering from serious conditions, you can't compare someone battling pancreatitis to someone at home with the sniffles. Drug side-effects the number 4 cause of death in the US??? Really??? It's not even in the top 10. Number 4 is chronic lower respiratory infections. Unregulated Yes, herbs are unregulated. We've seen that even with regulation, there are dangers. What's your point? More side-effects in drugs??? No, it's just that drugs have been studied and the side-effects are known. Also, one of the big issues with herbal remedies is potency. Potency varies from batch to batch. Potency with drugs is very precise. That makes a big difference.








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