As an herbalist, I occasionally come across a person that has no faith in the efficacy of herbal medicines. Some are of that opinion because they simply have no information or experience with herbs. Others have had experience and been unsuccessful. I’ve found some common threads among folks that don’t believe in herbal medicine. Here are some examples.
Some of those people are physicians and I get that. Physicians have no training in herbal medicine for the most part and are pretty restricted in their ability to vary much from established protocols. They know herbs do things but they often don’t know what those things might be or how the chemicals in the plants might impact the chemicals in the pharmaceuticals they’re using. So, they tend to err on the side of caution and tell their patients not to use herbs. As a medical practitioner myself (albeit a veterinary one) that position makes sense to me. It’s a bad idea to combine herbs and pharmaceuticals without having a good understanding of both.
There are some physicians that have taken the time to learn a little about herbs and are comfortable recommending them (or at least not disapproving of them) in certain situations. Other physicians know what they don’t know and are willing to consult with folks that do know. I occasionally get to visit these excellent doctors. Last summer I spent some time consulting with a hospitalist in Ohio that was managing an intensive care patient. The patient’s family had brought in a bunch of herbs and wanted to give them to the patient to help him. The doctor didn’t know what the herbs would do and called me. We went through the meds he was using and what he was trying to accomplish. We then went through the herbs that were being proposed. When we were done discussing, he had a shortlist of herbs I thought he could safely allow for his patient without compromising what he was doing with the pharmaceuticals. He also had a list of the herbs that the folks had brought in that they certainly should not use on the case.
Doctors aside, there are lots of other people that have a low opinion of herbs. Many of them arrive at that conclusion because of a doctor leading them to that conclusion…OK, we talked about that. Others have just never tried herbs. But some have tried herbs and they didn’t work. So, what’s going on in those cases? How is it that a person could use these wonderful plants and not see any benefit? Well, there are a number of possible reasons.
It’s hard to get a bullseye if you aren’t pointing at the target. Oftentimes, when people self-diagnose and then try to solve their problems with herbs, they have poor results because they aren’t treating the right thing. It’s significantly easier to solve a problem if we know what that problem is. People often call me with questions about their dogs and what herbs they could use to help them. While sometimes it’s easy for me to figure out what’s going on in such cases, as often as not, my response is to take the dog to a local vet and get a diagnosis, and then we can talk. The same is obviously true in human cases. I am a big fan of the diagnostic capabilities of physicians. They have amazing tools and remarkable skills at figuring out (or at least ruling out) what’s wrong with people. Often the tools they have to fix the problem are excellent as well. Sometimes herbs or a combination of herbs and meds are a better choice…but that’s another blog article. The point is that unless you know what you’re treating, your chances of succeeding are pretty slim….even with really great herbs.
Bad Herbs….Or NO Herbs
A few recent studies of commercially available herbal supplements have had some alarming findings. In one study, single-herb supplements (Echinacea, St. John’s Wort, Gingko biloba, etc…) were purchased from major retailers and subjected to DNA analysis. In that study 1/3 of those supplements contained none of the herb that was on the label. Yeah…None!
Many of the remaining 2/3 contained so much useless filler as to render the small amount of herb actually found medicinally irrelevant due to dilution. Fillers typically include soybean, wheat, rice, powdered weeds, and even walnuts (which could be a really bad idea for a person with nut allergies!). Remember, these were not herb blends or formulas. These were all products labeled as single herbs.
So, if a person took these products and experienced no benefit, we can’t really blame them for being unimpressed.
Another common problem I see is the incorrect dosing of herbs. Herbs generally need to be taken at least twice a day and often more frequently depending on the particular herb and condition being addressed. Echinacea is a good example. Echinacea is a very mild herb that requires larger doses and higher frequency than most plants. For most herbs, a teaspoon or so of the dried powder two to three times a day is a typical adult dose. For Echinacea, I’d recommend doubling both the amount and the frequency. Echinacea also benefits greatly from having a catalyst herb taken with it to “wake things up” in the body to improve absorption and utility of the medicine. Echinacea is a mild, quiet, sweet-tempered thing and sometimes needs a little help getting the body’s attention…
You know that lady at the church party who is so quiet and sweet that you’d never know she was there if her obnoxious husband wasn’t with her? That’s Echinacea.
Taking a catalyst herb like peppermint, ginger, cayenne or some such serves the “obnoxious husband” role to get the body’s attention and makes Echinacea much more effective. Taking 2-3 teaspoons 3-4 times a day instead of one teaspoon twice a day works better too. So, if a person takes a couple of Echinacea capsules in the morning before work and never takes anymore that day, it’s a pretty good bet that it isn’t going to cure their cold. Well…that and the fact that there are LOTs of herbs that are better at killing cold viruses…but that’s another blog article.
Herbs As A Last Resort
Often, people don’t start taking herbs until they’re good and sick. While this is certainly better than nothing, a better strategy is to take those amazing plants at the first signs of an illness. I recently wrote a blog article on this subject called Early, Often & After which discusses my philosophies on this in more detail. If you want the Reader’s Digest version of the article it’s simply this: Herbs work much better if you take them at the first sign of illness, take them frequently during the illness, and keep taking them for a couple of days after you think you’re better. Starting the herbs very late in the game will always have less exciting results than getting them on board early.
Some people are absolutely convinced that herbs won’t help them. And, more often than not, those folks are absolutely right about that. I’ve seen this a number of times. For some people, herbs just aren’t very effective. So why is that? Well I have some theories. One of those theories is that as children of God, humans have a divine, creative spark that has more power over our lives than we understand. Not religious? How about this one; the human brain has remarkable power to alter our own physiology and health through its thoughts, feelings and attitudes. Whether those two ideas are actually the same idea is perhaps a subject for a theological debate for another day but the fact is that humans have an uncanny power to affect their own heath. There have been numerous studies that have shown that a positive attitude, happiness, faith, prayer, meditation, focus and other difficult-to-measure variables can have positive effects on our health.
My advice? If you’re going to take herbs, you might as well have a positive attitude about it. Heck, it couldn’t hurt.
So, How Do We Know That Herbs Really Work?
Many of us who use herbs know they work from our own experience. In fact there is about 5000 years of such anecdotal evidence that plant medicines are effective for a number of maladies. People aren’t dumb (for the most part) and when something doesn’t work, they abandon it and move on to the next idea. As evidence of this, ask yourself how many physicians are still using blood letting and mercury as their “go to” treatments these days. Herbs really have stood the test of time for thousands of years and across every human culture. Pretty good references if you ask me.
For those who are skeptical of anecdotal evidence, there is also the scientific evidence. Yup….mountains of it. Just for fun, go to Google Scholar and type in your favorite herb. You’ll typically find pages and pages of references to scientific journal articles validating the medicinal chemistry of plants. Also, many of our modern medicines were originally derived from or inspired by plant medicines. Herbs do in fact have a medicinal, phytochemical actions on the human body. If they didn’t, the doctors wouldn’t be worried about combining them with medicines…right?
So, What Can You Do To Help Your Skeptical Friends?
Some folks are determined to believe what they are determined to believe and aren’t up for changing their minds about herbs. Others are willing to open their minds a bit if they are treated kindly and shown good information. More and more folks are interested in herbal medicine these days. Be a good example, teach them what you can and, most of all, love them anyway even if they aren’t interested.
If you’re really serious about helping and teaching others, we’d love to have you join us in the
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