Medicinal herbs have been covered in thousands of books over the years and herbs have been used for centuries to treat all kinds of illnesses. Yet herbal remedies remain a very misunderstood area of natural health. Just what is an herb anyway? How is an herb different from broccoli or an asparagus spear?
There seems to be as many opinions about what constitutes an herb as there are medicinal herbs themselves, well almost.
One widely accepted definition is that an herb is any plant lacking a woody stem, in other words not a tree or shrub.
They also die at the end of the growing season. This definition goes to the structure and lifespan of the plant. Another definition describes herbs as aromatic plants used in or as medicine or as seasoning. This is a functional definition.
Photo: Boxed dried herbs; pretty, aren't they.
So what is or isn't a medicinal herb covers a lot of ground and a lot of plants. "A Modern Herbal" authored in 1931 by Margaret Grieve lists "800 herbs and other plants" but generally only 60 or so herbs are in common use in the west as healing herbs.
In addition to medicinal herbs, there are also aromatic, culinary and ornamental classes of herbs although there is often considerable overlap.
I recently attended a lecture on herbs by a medical doctor who titled his presentation, "Natural Isn't Always Better".
When it comes to herbs, I have to agree and caution people to do their homework before blindly taking an herbal remedy.
During the course of the presentation, he talked about DSHEA, the Dietary Supplement Health Education Act of 1994.
He noted that the Act requires sellers of supplements to give the disclaimer that supplements do not cure, heal, mitigate or diagnose any disease condition.
Then with a chuckle, he rhetorically asked why anyone would ever take a supplement if it doesn't heal, cure, etc. In my experience, that was a typical response from most medical doctors.
Out of politeness, I kept quiet but the answer to his question is obvious. People take dietary supplements because they are "nutrition" and supply a lot of nutrients that we no longer get in our highly processed fast food industry; and let's not forget soil depletion and green harvested agricultural produce.
We take supplements because we want to stay healthy and not need the services of the good doctor.
That gets to the heart of the reason why I believe a new category needs to be established for herbals.
People take dietary supplements to maintain health, not to treat a disease. However, most people who use medicinal herbs, ARE trying to treat something; that's why they call them herbal remedies.
I would have expected the doctor to realize that DSHEA is the Dietary Supplements Health Education Act; not the Herbal Health Education Act. Dietary supplements and herbals are just too different to lump together.
So here's a great recommendation for anyone interested in the healing properties of herbs...try growing your own. A good way to get started is to take a look at Herb Kits.com by clicking the banner below. For "do-it-yourselfers" it is a good way to begin your education.
Next is to get a good book on medicinal herbs and there are many. Try either of the books shown below:
There are several myths concerning herbs that need to be put to rest. Very often misconceptions can be life threatening.
Natural's Not Always Better
One common belief is that since herbs come from plants, they are natural and safe. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!
Some of the most potent poisons in nature come from plants. Generally, herbs are safe when used properly and used alone BUT if you ingest herbs in combination with prescription drugs, you better do your homework and know what you are doing.
Interactions on the Right, Interactions on the Left
Hundreds of herbs interact with prescription drugs, supplements and ordinary food with adverse results ranging from an inconvenient discomfort to death.
Herbs can interfere with drugs and cause a reduction in absorption thus reducing the drug’s effectiveness.
They might also speed up absorption and increase the drug’s strength which could have the same effect as a drug overdose.
It's All in the Liver
The mechanism that could cause the overdose gets back to the liver and how it uses enzymes to break down pharmaceutical drugs.
If the liver enzymes are allowed to do their job, the drug is broken down and enters the bloodstream is it was designed to do; in the right quantity and at the right rate.
Photo: The human liver; the enzymes workshop
Many herbs interfere with the liver enzymes, thus the drug doesn't get broken down as it should and a more concentrated dose of the drug enters the blood stream, faster than it would normally, resulting in the overdose.
Photo: Grapefruit interferes with the enzymes work
Several common foods inhibit liver enzyme action as well. Green tea is known to inhibit the breakdown of the statin drug Zocor and Grapefruit has a similar effect on several drugs, Norvasc and Hyzaar to name two.
How to Boost a Side-Effect
If a drug has an inherent side-effect, adding medicinal herbs to the mix could boost the drugs harmful side-effect. Worse, they could combine with the drug and produce new side-effects, alter lab test results, and actually worsen existing diseases.
Going By The Book
If you are into medicinal herbs or thinking of using herbs AND are taking prescriptions and/or dietary supplements, this is the book to buy.
Doing ten minutes worth of research with this book before taking that medicinal herb could save you a world of grief. Click the link below to buy it now...cheap at twice the price!
It Takes All the Pieces to make a Whole
Another myth prevalent in the pharmaceutical industry is that all of a plants desirable properties are present in one compound and that isolating that compound from the whole plant will bestow all the plants benefits to the user.
It sounds logical but is just wrong.
Industry labels the isolated compound as the active ingredient and dismisses the rest of the plant as inactive.
Plant chemistry is very complex and generally, one compound isolated from the plant and refined is more toxic than the compound would be if present in the whole plant complex.
The downside is that the isolated compound tends to intensify the effects of the compound and bring it on more rapidly but with a shorter duration.
Often they fail to provide the favorable effects of the host plant and may lack natural safeguards present in the whole plant.
Desirable secondary compounds in the plant would not be present in the isolated compound as well. In general, the pharmaceutical industry has failed to grasp that natural substances may be better than synthesized or isolated "active" compounds.
Follow the Money
It is likely that the situation is not so much a failure of the drug industry but rather their emphasis on profits.
It figures that the real motivation of the drug industry to shrug off natural plants is that it would be difficult to patent Rosemary, Sage and Thyme.
However, if the flavanoids from Rosemary or the thujone in Sage or thymol in Thyme could be synthesized or isolated by a proprietary process, there would very likely be the basis for a new patent worth millions.
It has been demonstrated that hundreds of plants and herbs interact with hundreds of medications, both prescribed and over-the-counter. Even many common dietary supplements have been shown to exhibit interactions with herbs. Let's look at three widely used medicinal herbs.
St. John's Wort
As an example, consider St. John's wort. Its common natural uses are in the control of depression, as an anti-inflammatory, as a sedative and lately as an anti-viral. If St. John’s Wort is combined with birth control pills, bleeding of the uterine wall (breakthrough bleeding) may result and even an unwanted pregnancy.
Photo: St. John's Wort; It can really trash your party!
Combine the herb with Zoloft, another anti-depressant, and a rapid increase in the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin could result causing hallucinations, confusion, vomiting and, possibly, coma.
Mix it with Lanoxin, used to treat congestive heart failure, and the drug's effectiveness could be degraded to the point that the heart fails completely.
Consider Echinacea, one of the common medicinal herbs used for colds and upper respiratory tract infections. It is considered generally safe BUT combine it with Tylenol for your headache pain or Zocor or Lipitor for elevated cholesterol, and you could end up with a severely damaged liver.
Photo: Echinacea; Want to trade your headache for a damaged liver?
Mix it with aspirin, or any of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatories like Ibuprofen, or Celebrex for arthritis pain and uncontrolled bleeding could result.
On the plus side, echinacea has been scientifically proven to have antibiotic effects and exhibits anti-viral activity. It stimulates the production of white blood cells making it an excellent immune system enhancer. There are no known foods or supplements that may interact with echinacea.
Nevertheless, when it comes to drugs, exercise extreme caution if considering taking echinacea.
Let's look at one more. If you are taking ginkgo biloba in an effort to keep your mind sharp don't even think
of mixing it with certain anti-depressants or the antibiotic Cipro unless you want to experience seizures.
Photo: Gingko Biloba: Handle this one with care
If you are taking any drugs to treat diabetes and take ginkgo biloba at the same time, the herb will interfere with the meds and send your blood sugar out of control.
Gingko Biloba has been around for thousands of years but today is known for being able to improve memory and ward off signs of senility, possibly for its ability to increase blood flow to the brain. Studies as recent as November 2008 tend to discredit the herb as an effective remedy for cognitive decline.
Interactions between medicinal herbs, medications and supplements is an extremely serious issue and much more education is needed in the medical community.
Medical schools and continuing medical education courses
need to include curricula on herbs and their interactions. Healthcare providers need to be trained to ask their patients what herbals and supplements they are taking before reaching for the prescription pad.
Anyone taking medicinal herbs must do their homework and understand the implications of mixing herbs with their meds. If you are taking herbs, The Essential Herb-Drug-Vitamin Interaction Guide mentioned earlier must be on your required reading list.
Herbs and supplements are very safe and beneficial when taken properly and sensibly but in too many cases, the old western movie cliché, "this town ain't big enough for both of us" is very applicable. Either the herb or the pharmaceutical has to go.
The graph shown below illustrates an explosive growth in research on the medicinal benefits and interactions of herbs with common drugs, foods and supplements. The time period is from 1990 through 2007.
Rather than try to address the hundreds of medicinal herbs that people are likely to take, it may be more effective to look at a few of the common classes of drugs taken today and list the herbs they interact with.
From the graphic shown above, there is no shortage of research to backup the stated interactions listed below.
Statins are used to lower cholesterol levels in people with, or at risk of, cardiovascular disease.
They work by inhibiting the action of an enzyme in the liver which stimulates LDL (bad cholesterol) receptors, resulting in an increased clearance of LDL cholesterol from the bloodstream and a decrease in overall blood cholesterol levels. The first results can be seen after one week of use and the effect is maximal after four to six weeks.
There are many statins but we will look at four of the most popular and widely prescribed: Crestor, Lipitor, Plavix and Zocor; giving the medicinal herbs, supplements and foods that they interact with.
Crestor (rosuvastatin): Interacts with ethanol, gotu, kola, niacin, oats, pectin, red yeast rice, St. John's Wort and wild cherry.
Lipitor (atorvastatin): Interacts with bitter melon, boneset, butterbur, chaparral, colt's foot, comfrey, echinacea, fenugreek, gotu, kola, grapefruit, kava kava, mate, niacin, oats, pectin, red yeast rice,
St. John's wort and wild cherry.
Plavix (clopidogrel): Interacts with ajava seeds, allspice, andrographis, angelica, arnica, asa foetida, astragalus, bilberry, bishop's weed, bladderwick, bog bean, boldo, borage, borage seed oil, bromelain, buchu, carrageen, cat's claw, cayenne, clove, danshen, deer's tongue, dong quai, English hawthorn, evening primrose oil, feverfew, garlic, ginger, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, green tea, horse chestnut, kava kava, licorice, lovage, pau d'arco, quinine, red clover, reishi mushroom, safflower, saw palmetto, sea buckthorn, stinging nettle, sweet clover, sweet vernal grass, turmeric, valerian, vitamin E, white willow and yarrow.
Zocor (simvastatin): Interacts with beta carotene, bitter melon, boneset, butterbur, chaparral, colt's foot, comfrey, echinacea, ethanol, fenugreek, gotu kola, grapefruit, mate, niacin, oats, pectin, red yeast
rice, St. John's wort, vitamin E and wild cherry.
Leaving statins, let's turn to drugs used to treat moderate to severe anxiety disorders, panic attacks, and as adjunctive treatments for anxiety associated with major depression. As with the statins, we will look at four of the most widely prescribed and look at sampling of the medicinal herbs they interact with.
Prozac (fluoxetine): Interacts with catnip, ergot, ethanol, ginkgo biloba, goldenseal, gotu kola, kava kava, lemon balm, marijuana, nerve root, sassafras, stinging nettle, St. John's wort and valerian.
Valium (diazepam): Interacts with ashwahandha, bitter almond, California poppy, catnip, cedar leaf, cowslip, echinacea, elecampane, English lavender, ethanol, evening primrose oil, German chamomile, ginkgo biloba, goldenseal, gotu kola, grapefruit, kava kava, lemon balm, linden, mate, nerve root, passion flower, poke, poppy, rauwolfia, sage, sassafras, scullcap, senega, stinging nettle, St. John's wort, valerian, wild carrot, wild cherry, wild lettuce, wormseed and yarrow.
Xanax (alprozolam): Interacts with ashwahandha, bitter almond, California poppy, catnip, cowslip, danshen, elecampane, ethanol, German chamomile, goldenseal, gotu kola, guarana, kava kava, lemon balm, linden, mate, nerve root, passion flower, poke, poppy, rauwolfia, sassafras, scullcap, senega, stinging nettle, St. John's wort, valerian, wild carrot, wild cherry, wild lettuce, yarrow and yohimbe.
Zoloft (sertraline): Interacts with ergot, ethanol, gotu kola, kava kava, marijuana, St. John's wort, valerian, and yohimbe.
You can't turn on the TV anymore without seeing some guy dancing with his sweetie and the announcer intoning, "when the moment is right". One would think every male past the age of puberty has a problem getting it up.
Ok, so let’s take a look at the big three and see what medicinal herbs they interact with.
Cialis (tadalafil): Interacts with digitalis, ethanol, Indian squill and squill.
Levitra (vardenafil): Interacts with digitalis, Indian squill, and squill.
Viagra (sildenafil): Interacts with aloe, black cohosh, cascara sagrada, Chinese rhubarb, digitalis, grapefruit, guarana, Indian squill, licorice, senna, and squill.
All those guys living in Florida, eating grapefruit and sucking down aloe-based drinks while taking their "Viva Viagra" might be in for a big surprise "when the moment is right".
That's enough to make the point that all drugs interact with something. We can look at a list of common allergy drugs, osteoporosis drugs, sleeping aids or any class drug you can think of and generate a long list of medicinal herbs, supplements and foods they interact with.
The final message is to get an herbal interaction guidebook, do your homework and know what you are taking. Especially let you doctor know what herbs and supplements you are taking before you walk out of the office, prescription in hand.
Just click on the herb and a new window will give a good summary of that substance. The main drawback is that it does not get into interactions or side effects.
Better still, ask your doctor if he knows everything that interacts with that drug he wants you to take; then verify. Trust but verify. I'll lay you odds that your doctor won't have a clue what herb, food or supplement interacts with that prescription.
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