Choosing Between Natural Herbal Medicine and Synthetic Pharmaceuticals

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The choice between natural herbal medicine and synthetic pharmaceuticals.
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Synthetic pharmaceuticals in pill form.

How to choose between natural herbal medicine and synthetic pharmaceuticals.

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People who pay attention to print and broadcast ads
probably are convinced that a prescription drug exists to
cure any ill — even illnesses they didn’t realize they
had. The same consumer might conclude that herbal medicines
are worthless — or dangerous, in fact, if the knitted
brow of the television news anchor is any indication. “A
new study reveals St. John’s wort no more effective
than a placebo in treating depression . . . “

Most news anchors missed the revelation in that same study
that the prescription drug Zoloft also was no more
effective than a placebo. They didn’t follow up the story
to discover that the study itself is now on trial, its
protocol questioned even by one of the leading scientists
who helped initiate it.

Much larger concerns about pharmaceutical medicines growl
and huff outside the studio door, but few members of the
mainstream media seen able to tear themselves away from the
party line (pharmaceutical drugs good, herbs weird) long
enough to investigate the differences between natural herbal medicine and synthetic pharmaceuticals.

The issue isn’t whether the best choice is synthetic
pharmaceuticals or natural herbs — the answer to that
question is as individual as the compounds and the
illnesses being considered. The issue is why the American
public can’t get its hands on enough well researched,
unbiased information to even make informed choices.

In 1997, the Food and Drug Administration decided to allow
pharmaceutical companies to advertise prescription drugs
using” their specific names and the conditions they treat.
And the rush was em: In 2001, according to a recent article
in The New York Times, the ding companies spent
$19.1 billion on promotional campaigns, including $ 2.7
billion — yes, billion — for advertising aimed
directly at you and me, not physicians. The article quoted
a report from the U.S. General Accounting Office stating
that spending on consumer-directed adversities rose at a
far greater rate than spending on drug research. In the
future. we may not have many new treatments for disease,
but we can count on lots of new, great-looking television
and internet ads. Stay tuned.

Some of this advertising has paved the way for frank and
helpful doctor-patient discussions. Consumers pay attention
to these ads; in fact, according to a 1998 study sponsored
by Prevention magazine with the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration, an estimated 61 million patients talked
with their doctors about a medical condition after seeing a
drug advertisement. Unfortunately, ads and news report,
rarely provide enough clear information and are sometimes
downright deceptive. Investigators for the General
Accounting Office recently reported that some drug
companies lave repeatedly disseminated misleading ads for
prescription drugs, even after being cited lot- violations.
That leaves only physicians, already over-worked, to answer
the questions created by advertising claims.

Doctors themselves give this advertising mixed reviews. A
recent FDA survey of 500 physicians reported that 40
percent of doctors surveyed said drug companies’
advertising of medicines to consumers had a positive impact
on their patients. But a nearly equal amount — 33
percent — disagreed, and said the ads’ effects were
negative. Among the criticisms were that the ads sometimes
prompt patients to ask for unnecessary prescriptions and
that the ads confused the relative risks and benefits of

And the physicians themselves are not immune to pressures
from the pharmaceutical industry. A study quoted in the
Journal of the American Medical Association said
that doctors’ interactions with drug company
representatives began during medical school and continued
at a rate of about four times a month. The study concluded
that these visits from pharmaceutical representatives
resulted in increased prescription rates of the sponsor’s
medications, and with “nonrational prescribing,” meaning,
the drug prescribed wasn’t necessarily the best suited to
treat the condition. The good news is, 81 percent of us who
asked about conditions we learned of from ads actually did
have the condition. The bad news is, the drugs we were
offered weren’t necessarily the best medicine — just
the best-advertised medicine.

Buried in the landslide of advertising dollars is the
crucial fact that our pantries are full of foods that can
help maintain our health — sometimes we don’t need
drugs in the first place. When we do fall ill, many safe,
relatively inexpensive, natural options exist to treat our
conditions. Humans have always had to deal with catarrhs
and fevers of unknown origin, ordinary aches and pains, the
side effects of overindulgence and the cyclical maladies
that accompany being male or female. Throughout hundreds of
generations we have used what nature provided to foster our
health and to treat our ailments.

Some of these treatments were no more effective than those
you and I might make up off the top of our heads. But many
traditional herbal remedies have passed the test of time
and deserve to be put on a front shelf in our medicine
cabinets (see “Herbal Remedies for Good Health,” page 92 in this issue).
This is not to say that synthetics are never useful but
simply that they aren’t the only game in town. There’s not
a lot of gold in them thar’ herbs, since they often can’t
be patented, so they’re minimally — if at
all — studied, tested and advertised. The media
generally ignore them — and only the most motivated
consumers ferret out the facts about what ought to be as
natural as a walk in the garden.

“The pharmaceutical drug industry spends between $8,000 and
$13,000 per year per physician to promote their
products,” says James Duke, Ph.D., one of the world’s
foremost authorities on medicinal plants. Recently retired
from a 30-year career with the U.S. Department of
Agriculture, Duke holds a doctorate in botany and has done
extensive fieldwork, which inspired his passionate advocacy
of herbal medicines — and an almost equally passionate
outrage over the promotion of expensive, often ineffective
and sometimes toxic synthetic drugs.

Is Garlic Right for You?

“A hundred times a day the television tells you to ask your
doctor if expensive Brand X is ‘right for you,'” Duke says.
“At the same time the press loudly lambastes herbal
companies for making unproven claims, they’re meekly
sleeping through the even greater deficiencies of some of
the synthetic drugs.

“How many of us have heard that no herb has been clinically
shown to arrest anthrax? True, none have. But how many of
us has heard that Cipro (the synthetic prescription
antibiotic presumed to work against anthrax) also hasn’t
been shown to arrest anthrax? How many have heard that
garlic often works with synthetic antibiotics? If
I were exposed to anthrax, I’d certainly want to take some
garlic (a proven antibacterial) and some echinacea (a
proven immune booster) along with my Cipro if I could even
get the Cipro. The garlic and echinacea, I have in my
garden and in my pantry.

“How many times do we hear the press tell us that a disease
is especially dangerous for people with compromised immune
systems? Do we ever hear the corollary, that boosting our
immune systems will help us resist these diseases, that
there is an abundance of herbs and foods that can give our
bodies that boost? Ninety percent of plant derived
chemicals are cheaper both environmentally and ecologically
to extract from whole plants than to synthesize. Which
alternative do you think makes more sense?”

The media’s failure to report positively or even from an
informed perspective on herbs and supplements is a
complicated situation — but worth untangling. At stake
is nothing less than our health. William Allen, an
independent science writer and a senior fellow at the
institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources, says that
those drug company advertising dollars are only part of the

“The situation has to do partly with public relations,
partly with the record of scientific achievement of
pharmaceutical companies,” Allen says, “and partly with the
perception of drug companies as mainstream and of herbal
companies/advocates as ‘fringe.’ I’m not saying it’s fair;
it just is.”

The pharmaceutical industry has a lengthy record of doing
and supporting good scientific research on many of its
drugs, Allen says. On the other hand, there has been good
science debunking some of the herbal advocates’ claims.
This contrast lingers in the minds of many journalists and
shades their perception on both sides of the issue. Add to
this the pharmaceutical industry army of public-relations
flaks, mountains of press releases and incessant presence
in broadcast and print advertising, and the sum is a
well-funded, powerful and extremely aggressive force.

“Against this tidal wave,” Allen says, “there are
relatively few science writers . . . to cover the
pharmaceutical industry for the mass media. This means
. . . that the drag industry gets relatively, little
scrutiny by journalists qualified to probe the drug
industry’s downside—not to mention having the time to
do so. Instead, it’s the non-science journalists who get
assigned to crank out a story on the big drug company’s
press release about this or that new drug.”

Drug development and trials are costly affairs:
Pharmaceutical companies are highly motivated to get their
products on the market as soon as they are able. According
to a study from the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug
Development, taking a drug from discovery to approval for
marketing in the United States typically takes 10 to 15
years and costs approximately $802 million. Unfortunately,
the drive to recuperate this investment sometimes means
that drugs are on the shelves and in our bodies before
they’ve been given a good test-drive. Adverse drug
reactions are one of the leading causes of death in this
country, according to a report in the May 2002 Journal
of the American Medical
Association (JAMA).
Right up there with heart disease and cancer, we’re dying
from drug companies’ oopsies.

In fact, 10 percent of all new drugs approved from 1975 to
1999 either acquired new warnings or were withdrawn,
according to a JAMA article, which concluded that serious
adverse drug reactions commonly emerge only after FDA
approval. Consider the drug Baycol, widely prescribed as
one of the newest and best defenses against dangerous
cholesterol. The parent company, Bayer, removed Baycol from
the market in 2002 after it was cited as the cause of more
than 30 deaths.

The good news is that often it isn’t necessary to resort to
drugs. Plenty of foods and herbs can help bring cholesterol
levels down. (See Natural Health, December/January

Hundreds of reports of adverse side effects on the
antimalarial drug Lariam also are on file, and the Army is
investigating whether Lariam played a role in murders at
Ft. Brag, involving soldiers just returned from Afghanistan
who had taken the drug. Yet, according to Duke, whole sweet
Annie (Artemisia annua), an herb vastly cheaper than the
synthetic chemicals in Lariam, contains several
antimalarial compounds that have been promo to work against
malaria and even cling-resistant bacteria.

In January, the FDA announced that all drugs containing
estrogen for menopausal women must include a boxed warning
on labels stating that these drugs may slightly increase
the risk of heart attacks, strokes, blood clots and breast
cancer. This warning comes decades after the dings were
first placed on the market.

The sky-high cost of research also means that many
effective but unpatentable herbal medicines never get fully
tested so they can be marketed as dings. Instead they are
sold as nutritional supplements, and FDA rules prohibit
manufacturers from making health claims about supplements.
If consumers want echinacea to treat a cold, or uva-ursi to
treat a bladder infection, they have to embark on their own
research projects to discover whether the herb is
appropriate for them, if the herbal medicine has
contraindications, and how much and how often they should
he treating themselves. They can buy the herb, but they
won’t find this information on the package.

Newer drugs are often more expensive and not as effective
as drugs that have been around for a while, but once the
drug companies’ patents on new medicine nun cut, any
company can produce a generic version. So the companies
want to establish a beachhead quickly and sell their brands
as aggressively as possible before their patents expire.
Consumers are admonished to buy, buy, buy
medications that may be no more effective but are certainly
more expensive than their older cousins.

Even Our Water is on Drugs

Many studies have surfaced in the past few years detailing
the appearance of drugs of all kinds, including
antibiotics, antidepressants and hormones, in our water
supplies. Some of these substances have been documented as
causes of genetic mutations in small fish and amphibians.
The primary methods of water treatment in the United States
fail to remove all of these micro-contaminants from our
drinking water, although some studies indicate that
activated charcoal filtration appears most effective.

The FDA has said drug residues in water supplies are at
such low levels that they are unlikely to pose risks to
human or aquatic life. But little research exists on how
much of this micro-contamination out-bodies can tolerate or
what is likely to happen when Substance A mixes with
Compound B plus a little fertilizer or pesticide runoff
from local fields. Perhaps nothing, perhaps a lot. The
point is, no one knows.

“The unnatural synthetic drugs our genes are just now
experiencing are much more likely to accumulate in the
environment and to harm the human body than natural
compounds our genes have known for 7 million
years,” Duke says. “Researchers have estimated that up to
80 percent of drugs taking by people and livestock are
excreted and thin go hack into the environment. If more and
mere synthetic drugs are made and sold, isn’t it reasonable
to believe that these substances will increasingly show up
in our drinking water? I would certainly expect that even
low levels of some drugs in our water will have an effect.
Fish and frogs’ sex lives today our lives tomorrow.”

Given medical care’s skyrocketing cost and the fact that
cheap, sale and effective herbal alternatives exist for
many common ills, maybe insurance companies will lead
the way to prevention and more natural treatments. A clash
among titans is sure to ensue — Forbes
magazine ranks the pharmaceutical industry as the most
profitable industry in the country, one that’s not likely
to go quietly into that good night.

But this doesn’t mean we arc cut the mercy of the drug
companies and an overly influenced medical profession. We
should review reliable research on whatever medicines we
consume — whether herbal or synthetic — and we
should ask who paid for that research. The internet makes
it possible as never before to do our own research,
carefully and with a grain of salt. Quackery and deception
abound and we need to be informed enough to spat
it — on either side of the medical divide.

Cheryl Long is the editor in chief of MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and a leading advocate for more sustainable lifestyles. She leads a team of editors which produces high quality content that has resulted in MOTHER EARTH NEWS being rated as one North America’s favorite magazines. Long lives on an 8-acre homestead near Topeka, Kan., powered in part by solar panels, where she manages a large organic garden and a small flock of heritage chickens. Prior to taking the helm at MOTHER EARTH NEWS, she was an editor at Organic Gardening magazine for 10 years.Connect with her on.