Herbal products are used by about 20% of the US population; this means that 1 of every 5 persons uses herbal remedies! That is, about 70 million people in this country have enough faith in natural medicine to utilize the powers of herbal products. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, 30% of adults and 12% of children engage in medicinal treatments or remedies that do not fall into conventional western medical definitions.
Integrative health is a term that denotes the attempted fusion of conventional western methods with more holistic and patient-focused natural and complementary methods. This is what Well Theory is all about; we hope to integrate the two worlds.
One of the over-arching concerns that I have as the surgeon that founded The Well Theory is safety. Although I believe in natural and complementary care and I run an Integrative Surgical practice, my first ethical duty is “to do no harm”. This stems directly from the Hippocratic oath that I took when I graduated from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia (since renamed the Kimmel Medical College).
Herbal methods of treatment for various health conditions are used worldwide and have been in use globally and here for thousands of years. Because of this, the US government has recognized most herbs to be ‘generally safe.’ Thus, these are not regulated as are mass-produced drugs under patent; herbs are regulated the same way that dietary supplements are. These are regulated by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994.
The Science Behind Herbal Medicine
As discussed, herbs have been in use successfully for thousands of years in most countries of the world. However, one should still bear in mind a few of the safety concerns present. Most industrial pharmaceuticals are derived from or an extract of a plant; 80% of today’s drugs have this characteristic. Most of today’s prescriptions are single molecules that are patented and have undergone regulated studies to ensure safety. Nonetheless, about 5% of all FDA approved medications are pulled off the market every year due to safety problems.
Herbal remedies or medications utilize what is known as the entourage effect. That is, these work well because they are not just made of an extracted single molecule. Rather, there are many active chemicals in each herb and these work together within the human body to give a balanced, holistic and more homeopathic effect which likely to be ultimately safer.
The Risks of Herbal Medicine
It is important to understand the type of chemicals thought to be active in the herb you wish to take for any given condition. Next, it is important to have a good understanding of the overall quantity of that herb and the others in the entourage. Finally, it is often helpful to ensure that there are not any heavy metals or pesticides within the formulation. A recent study looked at ginseng. The authors found a 15 to 200-fold variation in the amount of activity of the 2 important constituents within 25 different ginseng products on the market.
Many clinical studies of herbal remedies are difficult to interpret due to issues inherent to herbs. Different species are looked at for example and then compared to each other. A study on Echinacea angustifolia stated that it did not work for rhinovirus, but most herbalists use Echinacea purpura. As well, the doses of herbs in clinical studies are usually well below the size of the doses typically recommended by naturopaths or herbalists.
Contaminants are of particular concern if the herbal medicine is sourced outside of the US. One study examined 260 Asian patent herbals and found problems. 7% of the medications had additives not mentioned on the label placed to increase efficacy. About ¼ were found to have high levels of heavy metals. Contaminants are especially a problem with remedies touted as aids for sexual function, body-building or weight loss.
It is important to understand how the herb is processed within the body. Some herbs affect the liver and liver enzymes in such a way that they render other prescription or herbal remedies less or more effective. The liver is finely tuned to process drugs with certain enzymatic methods and often herbs alter the balance. One very well-known example of this is how St. John’s Wort interacts with prescription industrial anti-depressants. These sorts of interactions can be managed with a knowledgeable practitioner.
If you are planning on joining most of the adults on the planet and use herbal remedies as a safer and more natural alternative for wellness and health, do so with proper education and skepticism. We are here to help and maintain a constantly active research department and compliance center for your benefit (and ours as we too take these products).
With regard to the use of herbal products in general, Well Theory does not recommend the use of such products for pregnant women or for children. There are simply too many unknown variables and children and babies are too precious for us to risk any negative outcomes.
Choose Well Theory for resources on full-body betterment and products to bolster your wellness so that you can live to your fullest potential.