In recent years, herbal remedies have enjoyed a great surge of popularity, as they have been rediscovered by mainstream consumers as well as those who have long looked to them for alternatives to modern ("orthodox") medicine. What was once a cottage industry at most is now a powerful economic force in America, thanks to loopholes in the law.
Under current U.S. law, the marketers of herbal supplements are not required to provide any proof of the efficacy of their herbal concoctions, so long as they do not claim beneficial effects with respect to a disease. Orthodox medicines require testing and approval by the FDA before they can be marketed; herbal supplements are effectively presumed safe, and are normally only pulled from the market if they are proven harmful. (Cannabis is a notable exception to this, and there are others.)
This is exactly why we are now inundated with advertisements for herbal supplements, claiming to help us lose weight, gain sexual potency, increase libido, remove cellulite, and so on.
Herbal supplements are often proposed as a preventative measure; since maintaining wellness is not the same as curing a disease, herbal supplements can make this claim legally as well. And, since there is no testing to reveal their side effects, they can claim to have none... even though this is patently false.
What is not said, because it doesn't have to be said under current law, is that herbal supplements are not fundamentally different from other medications. A particular herb may be beneficial, harmful, or neutral with respect to our health; being herbal does not eliminate any of these possibilities. There are herbs which are recognized as having medicinal properties, and are approved by the FDA as treatments for disease; likewise, there are herbs which are toxic to humans. (We've all heard of belladonna, right?)
Herbs occur in nature; however, natural occurrence is no guarantee of safety. Almost every poison known to man is derived from a natural source, either plant or animal. Even most orthodox medicines are concentrations of naturally-occurring substances -- it is only in the last few years that we have gained the ability to engineer specific proteins without first finding them in nature. It is also worth mentioning that the diseases we are using these medicines to fight are also naturally-occurring.
Like orthodox medicines, herbal remedies affect the biochemical balance of our bodies; most of them do so in minor, inconsequential ways, and are the equivalent of food. Some certainly do have beneficial effects; likewise, others have detrimental effects. Some have both. Unfortunately, there is no requirement that those who sell herbal supplements disclose their effects. They are entitled to claim benefits, but not required to reveal risks.
For example, there are medicines and herbs which affect the clotting behavior of blood. There are a number of reasons why a person might want such medications; a hemophiliac would have use for a medicine which improved clotting behavior, while someone with heart problems would benefit from a reduced clotting factor. A typical pharmacist has both in his stores, and can dispense the appropriate medicine to each patient. That pharmacist would be legally responsible for making a mistake and giving the wrong medicine to either patient.
Likewise, there are herbs believed to have the same sort of effects. But the local herb merchant is not responsible for the effects of selling the wrong herb to a patient -- in fact, the herbalist's clients are not even considered "patients". Consumers walk in the door, assess their own needs, buy the herbs they think they need, and take them -- and have only themselves to blame, if the herbs make their conditions worse.
Similarly, medicines (both herbal and orthodox) can interact with each other, producing effects together which neither alone can cause. In some cases, this is the goal -- in other cases, it is disastrous. These interactions do not go un-noticed; orthodox medicines tend to come with a few pages of warnings which include all major interactions... and additionally, doctors and pharmacists are trained to spot such combinations when a patient is taking both.
Such interactions occur in herbal supplements as well... except that there is no one to warn the consumer, no one keeping track of what supplements the consumer is taking -- unless, that is, they do so on their own.
The point of all this is not to denigrate herbal remedies; there is enough evidence, both scientific and anecdotal (as well as simple common sense) to say with confidence that there are herbal remedies worth using. The point is merely to bear in mind that herbal remedies are not tested, and do not have warning labels.
With that in mind, here are a few generic, all-purpose warnings -- which are valid for both herbal and orthodox treatments:
* Do your homework; learn whatever is available about a new supplement, medication, or vitamin before taking it.
* "Natural" does not necessarily mean "effective". It does not even necessarily mean "safe". It probably doesn't mean "harmful" either, but the point is not to make assumptions.
* There is such a thing as a "new" herb, but that just means no one has any idea yet about what it does. Use caution.
* Consult a trained physician before changing, adding, or dropping any medication, supplement, or vitamin.
* The point of homeopathic medicine is to maintain a natural equilibrium. Taking pills -- of any kind -- is not natural. Taking more pills won't make it more natural.
* It's your body and your choice. You are ultimately responsible for the good and bad results of what you ingest.
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