Herbs vs. Drugs: Get the Facts About Medicine

Get as many facts about medicine, safety, and potential benefits as you can before you decide between herbs vs. drugs.

  • herbs vs drugs - woman studying labels
    To the extent you can, learn the facts about medicine first before choosing between herbs vs. drugs.
    Photo courtesy of Image Source/Superstock
  • herbs vs drugs - man at computer
    Online research can help you make safe choices when choosing between drugs and herbs.
    Matthew T. Stallbaumer
  • herbs vs drugs - pharmaceuticals arranged into a question mark
    Get your facts straight before choosing between prescriptions and supplements.
    Matthew T. Stallbaumer

  • herbs vs drugs - woman studying labels
  • herbs vs drugs - man at computer
  • herbs vs drugs - pharmaceuticals arranged into a question mark

Medicines, both herbal and pharmaceutical, are big business. These days, Americans spend $200 billion per year on prescription drugs and $20 billion on herbs and other dietary supplements. When choosing the best remedy or preventive medicine, most of us simply want the safest, most effective option available, whether it’s food, herbs or a pharmaceutical drug. But the question of using herbs vs. drugs isn’t moot. The facts about medicine aside, people often turn to supplements because they’re perceived as more natural than drugs, and can have fewer side effects and generally cost less.

For instance, the popular drug Celebrex, used to treat arthritis, costs more than $4 per day, while ginger supplements, a popular herbal remedy for inflammation, cost about $0.38 per day. The high cost of prescription drugs can cause many to compromise: For example, in 2001 alone, nearly one in four senior citizens reported skipping doses or leaving prescriptions unfilled.

Recent prescription drug recalls, such as the 2004 Vioxx withdrawal, also have cast a dubious light on both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the pharmaceutical industry, prompting more people to turn to nutritional supplements. A September 2006 study on drug safety conducted by the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, found that “The credibility of the FDA, the [pharmaceutical] industry, the academic research enterprise, and health care providers has become seriously diminished in recent years. Of particular concern are the common but inaccurate perceptions that the FDA approval represents a guarantee of safety, that approval is based on high degrees of clarity and certainty about a drug’s risks and benefits.”

Though herbal supplements are an attractive alternative to pharmaceuticals, the former actually receives less governmental regulation, so it’s important to be aware of how both industries are regulated, and to do your homework when deciding which treatment is right for you.

Regulation of Drugs

The FDA is responsible for monitoring the safety and efficacy of pharmaceutical products. While most people assume the agency itself closely tests new drugs, this is not the case. Pharmaceutical companies must provide the FDA with research from clinical trials to prove their new drugs are safe for the market — a practice that unfortunately leaves room for bias, according to Marcia Angell, M.D., former editor in chief of The New England Journal of Medicine.

“Can we believe those trials? After all, that crucial last stage of research and development is usually sponsored by the company that makes the drug, even if the early research was done elsewhere. Is there some way companies can rig clinical trials to make their drugs look better than they are? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Trials can be rigged in a dozen ways, and it happens all the time,” Angell writes in her book The Truth About the Drug Companies. Furthermore, FDA approval committees often include members with ties to pharmaceutical companies. In fact, the 2006 Institute of Medicine’s study recommended that the FDA should “establish a requirement that a substantial majority of the members of each advisory committee be free of significant financial involvement with companies whose interests may be affected by the committee’s deliberations.”

4/14/2018 4:16:57 PM

Infomercials on radio and TV who hawk herbal pills as remedies and cure-alls need to be regulated. First off, they're crazy expensive. I take a prescription drug that has a generic. My cost at Walgreens is $7. Herbal meds can cost in upwards to $70 a bottle for a one month supply. There's no generic because nature has not generics. Herbs are what they are, and I don't believe $70 is a justified price for herbs from nature. Second, the claims never work. At best, there's a placebo effect. Most of the herbal pills I've taken for specific ailments have never cured the issue. The only thing that did work was seeing a doctor and taking the prescribed medicine or undergoing surgery. Bottomline, herbal medicines are the snake oils of the modern age, and the so-called doctors who pitch them are the snake oil salesmen.

Kari Bohnstead
11/16/2011 5:51:19 AM

Most people are starting to realize the value of eating nutritional foods. The difference between white bread & whole wheat. Someone tried to fool us when they started enriching &/or fortifying our food. Not only has the nutritional value of our food deteriorated, so has our health. I see a correlation, there. The steady increase of disease is brought about by not having the nutrition we need. Eating foods with the nutrients we need obviously keeps our bodies healthy. For 1000's of years medicine has always been derived from something grown on this earth. We have seen what processing has done to our food, & now we are paying the price with our health. Common sense that processed medicine does not work, it masks & creates other problems to compound the problem. Common knowledge that herbs work in harmony within our bodies. Common knowledge that pharmaceutical drugs are not compatible with our biological chemistry. It is so simple that it is sad. It is sad to realize how many Dr.s don't have a clue about nutrition. Good nutrition will keep us healthy.

Dianne Goulet_1
9/28/2008 5:51:26 AM

I was seriously disappointed to see a Mother Earth article taking a strong FDA stance on this very important healthcare issue! While I fully agree that there need to be universal quality control measures, I absolutely disagree with allowing FDA to regulate herbals. They have already tried to remove many of them from shelves, while allowing much more dangerous prescription drugs to continue being handed out. Unfortunately, most consumers don't have the level of awareness required to truly make an informed purchase when it comes to herbals, how they work, and potential interactions/contraindications. Added to this, there are inferior and even contaminated herbs on the market. What consumers don't realize is that just because a bottle says "300 mg capsule" doesn't mean it contains 300 mg of active constituents. Ten different 300 mg capsules may contain drastically different amounts of active herbal constituents, and this can have a drastic effect on the health of the consumer. Some companies are importing herbs from China, and there have been enormous problems with contamination. Find out where the company gets its raw materials! Does a company have independent quality control? This is an important factor. The average consumer doesn't do the homework before purchase, unfortunately. In these economically trying times, most people buy the cheapest bottle out there. That, unfortunately, is not necessarily the best option. I'm not saying that only the most expensive brands are pure--there is price gouging in the herbal industry as well!--but in many cases, you do get what you pay for. I have been a Master Herbalist for sixteen years, and I believe that herbs must be treated with the same caution and respect as prescription drugs--precisely because herbs DO work, and some are toxic. Many can have dangerous interactions with prescriptions; others are contraindicated for individuals with certain health conditions.



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