Herbalists can, with considerable justification, claim that theirs is one of the oldest branches of medicine. Animals have instinctively used plants for thousands of years and so have human beings. The use of herbs can be traced back to three thousand years ago in China but I doubt if there has ever been a time when men did not seek comfort from vegetable products of one sort or another. Historians from all around the world have produced evidence to show that all apparently primitive peoples used herbs – often in a sophisticated way.
Penicillin has been used as an antibiotic for thousands of years, rauwolfia has for centuries been recognized as having tranquillizing effects, curare is known as an anaesthetic (it was first used as poison on darts and arrows intended to kill animals and enemies), digitalis is derived from the foxglove and morphine from the opium poppy – both have been widely used for many generations and are still two of the most important drug sources that we know of. Quinine was used to treat the symptoms of malaria long before the disease was identified and the raw ingredients of the common or garden aspirin tablet have been a popular painkiller for far longer than we have had access to tablet-making machinery.
Plants have for centuries been used as aphrodisiacs and contraceptives and there are about three hundred plants which have a fertility regulating effect – including yam tubers which contain hormone components that form the basis of the modern contraceptive pill.
By the middle of the nineteenth century at least 80 per cent of all medicines were derived from plants, and herbalism was practical pharmacology. And then came the revolution inspired by the development of the pharmaceutical industry. Today, in the middle of the ‘chemical’ era of drugs, only about a third of the drugs we use are plant-based. But herbalism is fighting back – and having a successful revival.
There are several specific reasons for this revival in the fortunes of herbalism – a revival which has been so dramatic that global sales of herbal products are now worth billions of dollars a year.
First, there is a massive ‘back-to-nature’ movement in the Western world – inspired at least in part by the fact that a growing number of people are aware of, and frightened of, the side effects associated with chemical drugs.
Second, there are many medical disorders (such as arthritis and asthma) that orthodox doctors still cannot cure.
Third, there is a widespread feeling that the individual should retain responsibility for his own health. It is easier to retain responsibility if you are not taking pills which have been prescribed for you by someone else.
Whatever the reasons may be for the rise in popularity of herbalism the fact is that there are today millions of people who use herbal products regularly. There are herbal remedies available for just about every illness imaginable – arthritis, menstrual cramps, asthma, bronchitis, coughs, diarrhoea, high blood pressure, anaemia, eczema and dermatitis are just some of the common problems for which herbal remedies are now available.
The herbal remedies are prepared in a variety of different ways. They are available as teas, tinctures, ointments, baths, juices, powders and poultices.
When individuals buy their own herbal remedies they must make their own diagnoses. When herbalists prescribe they rely on experience, guesswork, intuition or other alternative techniques to help them arrive at a diagnosis.
Herbal remedies are taken in two main ways.
First, they can be bought over the counter for use at home – in just the same way as other ‘proprietary’ medicines can be bought.
Second, they are ‘prescribed’, and usually ‘dispensed’ by herbalists.
The main problem with herbal treatments is that there is little continuity and apparently no logic to the type of treatments offered. There are 350,000 known species of plants and about 10,000 of these have been investigated for their medicinal properties. There are some treatment guidelines available to herbalists but most practitioners seem to be rather individual in their choice of remedies.
It is this lack of consistency that can make herbalism look bizarre and unscientific. In one book on herbalism, for example, I found a list of twenty-one different substances recommended for patients suffering from eczema. In another book there were eighteen herbal remedies listed for the same condition. Only two of the plants on the second list appeared on the first list. Recommended herbal remedies for eczema have included: great burdock tea, pansy compress, carrot juice, watercress, comfrey poultices, spinach juice, bergamot oil and strawberry leaf tea.
The practice of herbalism seems even more bizarre when you realize that in many instances herbalists make up preparations which may contain a mixture of a dozen or more different ingredients. If herbal products do work, and do have potentially powerful effects, then mixing them in this way could, in my view, be at best counter-productive and at worst positively dangerous.
One of the constant claims made by herbalists is that their products are entirely safe. This is not true. There is now a considerable amount of evidence to show that herbal products can be dangerous.
It has been claimed that herbal medicines can be as toxic as any other drugs and that their reputation for being entirely safe was built in the days when pharmacologists were unaware of the sort of problems that drugs can produce. It is impossible here to list all the possible side effects of all the available herbal products. But to illustrate the point I have picked a few of the commonest herbs and listed some of the side effects known to be associated with their use.
Used in the treatment of ulcers, wounds, fractures and hernias. But may cause liver damage and could be carcinogenic.
Recommended for premenstrual tension, high blood pressure, multiple sclerosis and eczema. But may cause skin rashes, nausea and headaches and should not be given to epileptics.
Used in the treatment of arthritis and migraine. But may cause mouth ulceration, soreness of the tongue, abdominal pains and indigestion.
Commonly used as a sedative and aphrodisiac. Recommended for a huge list of specific problems and as a general tonic. But may cause breast pains, high blood pressure, skin problems, nervousness and diarrhoea.
Used as a sedative and for heart problems and difficulties associated with the menopause. But has a definite effect on the heart and really needs to be taken under medical supervision.
Recommended as a diuretic, sedative and tonic. But may cause giddiness, mental confusion and an erratic heart rate.
Used as a tranquillizer. But may cause giddiness, headaches, spasms, excitability and hallucinations.
Used in fevers, colds, high blood pressure and menstrual problems. But may cause headaches, dizziness and skin problems.
All other herbal products also produce their own list of side effects. And when herbs are mixed, as they commonly are, it is nigh on impossible to decide exactly what herb is producing what side effect.
There are two other specific problems that ought to be mentioned here. First, many herbal products react badly with prescribed drugs. Pharmacologists and doctors now firmly recommend that any patient taking a prescribed drug should avoid all herbal preparations. It is, incidentally, also important that patients taking herbal preparations avoid alcohol since some herbs react dangerously with alcohol.
Secondly, there is also a risk that herbal products may be contaminated. This type of hazard is obviously even greater when local herbalists try preparing their own products, or when patients try treating themselves with products they have picked in fields and hedgerows. Even when products are not contaminated it is difficult to judge the purity, quality or strength of an individual batch. Studies of ginseng, for example, have shown tremendous variations in quality and quantity. There are seasonal variations and variations in plants grown in different soils.
Herbal products should be used with great care – and only ever according to the advice of experts.