The thread continues:
Thanks so much for posting my response. It’s one of the many things I truly appreciate about your site, the airing of both sides. You posted an update from another reader immediately after mine:
True, some herbs have medicinal properties, but unless one has run a double-blind test, then you truly don’t know if the herbs do anything beyond the placebo effect. The US government has spent over a billion dollars trying to prove non-Western medical claims, and guess what? The herbs and other items very rarely do anything positive, occasionally show mild effects, and often have undocumented side effects.
I have to take issue with this comment as well. I happen to work in the dietary supplement industry, specifically selling botanical extracts in raw material form to dietary supplement manufacturers and contract manufacturers. I’ve worked for some of the largest German Botanical Extract companies that are at the forefront of research for botanical medicines.
I’m all for running double-blind tests, but the design of the study is incredibly important. I’ll give you an example: St. John’s Wort.
You may recall in the late 1990’s that St. John’s Wort was discussed as an exciting way to treat depression and anxiety. Historically it’s been used to treat various nerve conditions and disorders, as well as mild to moderate depression. There was a huge explosion of sales of St. John’s Wort after Barbara Walters did a 20/20 special on the herbal extract that aired in early July of 1997.
Naturally the NIH decided to do it’s own double-blind placebo controlled study, but they decided in spite of little evidence, to research St. John’s Wort for treatment of moderate to severe depression. However, most materia medica’s and botanical monographs for St. John’s Wort suggest it for mild to moderate depression. So the study moved forward, and guess what? The results showed that it gave little to no effect for treating severe depression. This was no shock to those of us in the industry but the general public and media response to the news was that yet another herbal medicine was proven to be ineffective.
Another great example is to think of the deaths we have in the U.S. each year by those who forage for wild mushrooms. You inevitably hear about someone who picked and ate the wrong species and dies from liver toxicity. In Germany they use an IV treatment of milk thistle extract, which is kept stocked in hospitals, and their outcomes are much better. There have been a few instances of doctors in the U.S. using the IV therapy with promising results and there have been discussions with the FDA to approve the use of this therapy.
I’d be much more inclined to listen to studies on botanicals that come out of Europe because they actually use botanical medicine in their medical system much more than we do in the U.S., and their herbal therapies are often treated as drugs requiring a prescription. They also integrate herbal therapy into their medical schools so medical doctors know how to properly use them and treat their patients.
Here’s the thing. Botanical/herbal medicines are a great when used preventatively, or as a first line of defense against common illnesses and ailments, if you know how to use them properly and use them at the required dose. If they don’t do the trick, you bring out the big guns, prescription medicines and more invasive surgical interventions. I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but to take the either/or approach is to ignore centuries of successful historical use for botanical/herbal therapies.
(Photo of St. John’s Wort via Wikimedia Commons)