There are many advantages and disadvantages of herbal medicine. Before treating yourself with herbs or seeking advice from a qualified herbalist or naturopath, consider the pros and cons of herbal treatments and remedies.
Studying Herbal Medicine
Herbal medicine remains largely an unproven, inexact science. Although the history of herbal medicine provides decades, sometimes centuries, of anecdotal information, scientific study of herbal medicine is relatively new. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has only been in operation since 1992. Compared to the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which was founded over 100 years ago, NCCAM has only begun to scratch the surface of scientific research.
Despite the criticism of herbal medicine among mainstream medical professionals, it is wise to remember that many common drugs we use today were derived from plant-based sources. For example, scientists originally derived aspirin from willow bark; herbalists prescribe white willow for headaches and pain control. Digitalis, a drug prescribed for certain heart conditions, comes from an extract of potentially toxic foxglove flowers. These are just a few examples of why it's important to consider the advantages and disadvantages of herbal treatments.
Herbal Medicine: Advantages and Disadvantages
There are numerous advantages and disadvantages of herbal medicine. Anyone considering using herbal medicine to treat health conditions should speak with a qualified health professional.
There are a number advantages associated with using herbal medicines as opposed to pharmaceutical products. Examples include the following:
- Reduced risk of side effects: Most herbal medicines are well tolerated by the patient, with fewer unintended consequences than pharmaceutical drugs. Herbs typically have fewer side effects than traditional medicine, and may be safer to use over time.
- Effectives with chronic conditions: Herbal medicines tend to be more effective for long-standing health complaints that don't respond well to traditional medicine. One example is the herbs and alternative remedies used to treat arthritis. Vioxx, a well-known prescription drug used to treat arthritis, was recalled due to increased risk of cardiovascular complications. Alternative treatments for arthritis, on the other hand, have few side effects. Such treatments include dietary changes like adding simple herbs, eliminating vegetables from the nightshade family and reducing white sugar consumption.
- Lower cost: Another advantage to herbal medicine is cost. Herbs cost much less than prescription medications. Research, testing, and marketing add considerably to the cost of prescription medicines. Herbs tend to be inexpensive compared to drugs.
- Widespread availability: Yet another advantage of herbal medicines are their availability. Herbs are available without a prescription. You can grow some simple herbs, such as peppermint and chamomile, at home. In some remote parts of the world, herbs may be the only treatment available to the majority of people.
Herbs are not without disadvantages, and herbal medicine is not appropriate in all situations. These are a few of the disadvantages to consider:
- Inappropriate for many conditions: Modern medicine treats sudden and serious illnesses and accidents much more effectively than herbal or alternative treatments. An herbalist would not be able to treat serious trauma, such as a broken leg, nor would he be able to heal an appendicitis or a heart attack as effectively as a conventional doctor using modern diagnostic tests, surgery, and drugs.
- Lack of dosage instructions: Another disadvantage of herbal medicine is the very real risks of doing yourself harm through self-dosing with herbs. While you can argue that the same thing can happen with medications, such as accidentally overdosing on cold remedies, many herbs do not come with instructions or package inserts. There's a very real risk of overdose.
- Poison risk associated with wild herbs: Harvesting herbs in the wild is risky, if not foolhardy, yet some people try to identify and pick wild herbs. They run a very real risk of poisoning themselves if they don't correctly identify the herb, or if they use the wrong part of the plant.
- Medication interactions: Herbal treatments can interact with medications. Nearly all herbs come with some warning, and many, like the herbs used for anxiety such as Valerian and St. John's Wort, can interact with prescription medication like antidepressants. It's important to discuss your medications and herbal supplements with your doctor to avoid dangerous interactions.
- Lack of regulation: Because herbal products are not tightly regulated, consumers also run the risk of buying inferior quality herbs. The quality of herbal products may vary among batches, brands or manufacturers. This can make it much more difficult to prescribe the proper dose of an herb.
Can Herbal Medicine Be Part of Your Healthy Lifestyle?
The bottom line is that herbs are medicines, and like other medications, they have some advantages and disadvantages. Visiting a physician for the correct diagnosis, consulting an herbalist for the proper herb and dosage, and embracing modern medicine when it makes the most practical sense may be the best of all possible worlds for those who wish to use alternative and complementary therapies.