HERBS:THE ROOTS OF MEDICINE
BY MERRY SUE BAUM
2000 BC - Here, eat this root.
1000 AD - That root is heathen. Here, say this prayer.
1850 AD - That prayer is superstition. Here, drink this potion.
1940 AD - That potion is snake oil. Here, swallow this pill.
1985 AD - That pill is ineffective. Here, take this antibiotic.
2000 AD - That antibiotic doesnt work. Here, eat this root.
Something new on todays medicine
shelves is actually quite old. Ancient, in fact. And like many things,
its come full circle.
Medicinal herbs were once the backbone of this countrys medicine.
Native American healers taught the settlers how to use local plant life
to heal wounds and quell fevers. By the 1930s, pharmacology of natural
products was being widely taught to healthcare professionals. But around
the middle of the 20th century, "natural medicine" became almost
extinct when more scientifically sound medical practices came into being.
It was considered an interesting part of American folklore, and nothing
About 15 years ago, however, herbal remedies made an astonishing
resurgence and have continued to gain popularity ever since. A number
of other non-traditional treatments are in use today, as well. Some of
the better-known ones are acupuncture, hypnosis, meditation, therapeutic
touch, qi gong, reflexology and the use of mega-doses of vitamins and
All these approaches to healthcare are collectively known
as complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM. It is defined by the
NIHs National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
(NCCAM) as: those treatments and practices not widely taught in medical
schools and not generally used in hospitals. The NCCAM was established
in 1992 to study the hundreds of different types of complementary and
alternative medicines that originated in countries around the globe.
Americans of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds have
wholeheartedly embraced these new-but-old treatments, particularly the
use of herbs. Its estimated that some 15 million adults take herbal
medicines and/or mega-doses of vitamins in addition to prescription drugs.
Between 1990 and 1998, the prevalence in the use of herbs and other forms
of CAM went from 25 to 42 percent, and experts now say that half of the
general population, and between 70 to 85 percent of those with HIV/AIDS
and cancer, use it in some form. In fact, U.S. consumers spend about $13.8
billion on CAM every year.
Why are we so gung-ho to try these unconventional remedies?
James S. Gordon, MD, chair of the White House Commission on Complementary
and Alternative Medicine Policy, recently spoke at UMDNJ. He says Americans
began looking around the world for alternative treatments in the 1970s,
because they saw limits to Western medicine. "Our medicine is so
potent and sheds so bright a light, that we can easily see where it doesnt
help," Gordon says. "People with chronic, pain-causing diseases
who were getting no relief started asking, What else is there?
and What else is there that I can do?"
Experts at UMDNJ agree. Riva Touger-Decker, PhD, RD, FADA,
acting director of the UMDNJ Center for the Study of Alternative and Complementary
Medicine, adds that more than ever, people want to participate in their
own healthcare, perhaps because of the plethora of information available
today. "Patients often go on their own to CAM providers for stress
reduction and relaxation therapies," says Touger-Decker, who is also
program director of the MS in clinical nutrition at UMDNJ-School of Health
Related Professions. "Some people dont want to deal with the
side-effects of prescription drugs; others like the holistic approach
that is the basis of many forms of CAM, and usually those providing the
therapies are enthusiastic and give patients a great deal of attention
Physicians in increasing numbers are becoming more familiar
with complementary and alternative treatments. A 1997 survey conducted
by the Association of American Medical Colleges found that about 75 percent
of the 125 U.S. medical schools were offering some type of instruction
in CAM as part of required courses. Research on the efficacy and possible
uses of CAM is also ever-increasing.
At UMDNJ, many physicians are investigating a host of
these therapies. Robert DiPaola, MD, assistant professor of medicine at
UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS), for example, is studying
the effects of licorice root on laboratory-grown cancer cells. The physician
also found that an ancient Chinese remedy comprised of eight herbal extracts,
known as PC-SPES, produces an estrogen-like effect that helps keeps prostate
cancer at bay. He has identified a number of adverse
side effects of PC-SPES as well. David August, MD, director of surgical
oncology at The Cancer Institute of New Jersey and an assistant professor
of surgery at RWJMS, is studying green tea as a possible preventive of
So with all this good news, whats the downside of
CAM? Only about 17 percent of those using it tell their physicians. Biological-based
CAM herbs, vitamins, minerals and other chemicals can interfere
and/or interact with medical treatments and in some cases do more harm
Take St. Johns wort, for example, one of the most
popular herbs sold for the relief of depression. Its less expensive
than its counterparts, Prozac or Zoloft, and can be obtained without a
prescription. The herb, however, reduces the effectiveness of several
important medications by speeding up activity in a key pathway responsible
for their breakdown. This lowers the drugs levels in the blood.
Two types that are particularly affected are protease inhibitors, used
in the treatment of HIV infections, and immunosuppressant drugs, used
to prevent organ transplant rejection. Other medications that work through
the same pathway and whose effects are decreased by the herb are birth
control pills, cholesterol-lowering medications, seizure drugs and blood
thinners. The safety of St. Johns wort during pregnancy hasnt
been established, and some users say it causes insomnia, irritability,
mild diarrhea and photosensitivity.
Ephedra, an herbal stimulant used by millions for bodybuilding
and weight loss, has been linked to strokes, heart attacks, seizures and
even death. At least 54 deaths and about 1,000 reports of complications
from the herb have been reported since the mid-1990s. Some of the other
side effects and interactions that herbs can cause are allergic reactions,
edema, hypertension and prolonged or enhanced bleeding. (see chart on
the following pages).
"Natural is not synonymous with safe," says
Touger-Decker. "Tobacco and arsenic are all natural, and theyre
very dangerous." She explains that herbs are sold in various forms
teas, pills, tinctures, lozenges, syrups and mouthwashes
and each has a different potency. For example, a tincture, which is an
herb plus alcohol/water, is stronger than a tea, and an extract is even
stronger than a tincture. The particular species of an herb, the length
of the season in which it is grown, and the time of year its harvested
all affect its concentration.
Perhaps what is most important for consumers to know is
that plants and parts of plants are not defined as drugs. Instead they
are considered dietary supplements and undergo the same level of scrutiny
as commercially available foods. Herbals dont undergo the same FDA
approval process as pharmaceuticals. In fact, the FDA has no control over
safety guidelines that regulate the consistency and purity of herbal compounds.
The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, however, does
require the herbal industry to follow certain safety standards, but as
with the food industry, its the manufacturers responsibility
to make sure its products are safe.
Despite the controversy surrounding medicinal herbs, this
time around they are here to stay. As more research is done, they will
no doubt become an important part of mainstream medicine. Perhaps Paracelsus
a famous 16th century Swiss physician who advocated observation
and experiment best described the role of herbs in medicine when
he said: "Poison is in everything and no thing is without poison.
It is the dosage that makes it either a poison or a remedy."
HERBS: THEIR USES AND SIDE EFFECTS
USE: Externally -The clear gel from the leaf is used to soothe
dry, damaged skin, treat minor cuts and burns and in cosmetic products.
Internally - A juice made from the gel is used for constipation.
RISKS: Considered generally safe, although there have been rare
cases of allergic reactions. Pregnant women should not take Aloe
USE: Internally - Native to the U.S., echinacea
is an antibacterial and antiviral agent. It is used to boost the
immune system and to prevent colds and flu.
RISKS: It is generally non-toxic, but people with autoimmune
illnesses, like lupus, or progressive diseases such as tuberculosis
or multiple sclerosis should not take the herb. Those with allergies
to flowers of the daisy family should use echinacea with caution.
USE: Internally - Taken for relief of menstrual cramps, symptoms
of menopause and uterine spasms. Scientific studies are currently
RISKS:This herb has an estrogen-like effect, so it should
not be taken by pregnant or lactating women. It can only be taken
for up to six months, then discontinued.
USE: Internally- Commonly known as ma huang, ephedra is used
in weight loss and body building preparations and in herbal ecstasy.
RISKS: This herb is potentially dangerous alone and in combination
with prescription drugs. It contains ephedrine, which stimulates
the central nervous system, causing increased heart rate and blood
pressure. Anyone with high blood pressure, heart condition, diabetes,
glaucoma or thyroid disturbances should consult a physician before
using ephedra. It has recently been linked to strokes, heart attacks
and even some deaths.
(cayenne, hot pepper)
USE: Internally- Cayenne stimulates digestion. Externally
-Several over-the-counter preparations are used in the treatment
of arthritis and for relief of herpes zoster, or shingles. It is
also used to ease the pain in stumps. Oil of cayenne may soothe
toothaches and mouth pain.
RISKS: Generally considered safe. As with any topical preparation,
some people may have an allergic reaction. Capsicum should be kept
away from eyes, nose and mouth to avoid a burning sensation. Excessive
intake may cause GI distress.
USE: Internally -Feverfew has analgesic properties and
is used for relief of migraine headaches and menstrual cramps.
Taken as recommended, feverfew has minimal side effects. Mild side
effects include gastrointestinal upset and nervousness. It is not
recommended for use during pregnancy and lactation.
USE: Internally - Chamomile is used as an anti-inflammatory,
anti-spasmodic and smooth muscle relaxant. It is used to relieve
indigestion and other gastrointestinal complaints. Chamomile tea
is also commonly thought of as a mild sedative. Its mild sedative
effect, however, has not been proven. Externally - Chamomile extracts
are useful for treating inflammation of skin and mucous membranes.
Though rare, allergic reactions to chamomile have been reported.
People allergic to ragweed, asters or chrysanthemums should not
USE: Internally -Studies have shown garlic to support the
cardiovascular system. It may help lower cholesterol and triglyceride
levels on a short term basis and help slow blood clotting activity.
It is not meant to replace stronger anticlotting drugs. It is mildly
antihypertensive, so may help lower blood pressure. It is also antibacterial,
antiviral and antifungal, so may support other drugs in fighting
infections. Eating garlic regularly may help reduce the risk of
esophageal, stomach and colon cancers.
Because of its anticoagulant properties, people taking blood thinners
should consult a physician before taking garlic. Some individuals
who are sensitive to garlic may experience heartburn and flatulence.
USE: Internally - Ginger is most commonly used for the treatment
of upset stomach, nausea and vomiting, motion sickness and morning
sickness. It is sometimes used for migraines. It also may support
the cardiovascular system. Ginger is being used experimentally for
Reported side effects of ginger are rare. Some people who are sensitive
may experience heartburn. Long-term use during pregnancy is not
USE: Internally - Licorice is one of the most widely used
medicinal plants in the world. It is most often used for soothing
inflamed mucous membranes and is often recommended for treatment
of gastric and duodenal ulcers and as cough and asthma remedies.
Licorice mimics the effects of the drug prednisone. Long-term use
or ingestion of excessive amounts of licorice can produce headache,
lethargy, sodium and water retention, excessive loss of potassium
and high blood pressure.
USE: Internally - Extract of gingko leaf increases circulation
and has shown antioxidant activity. It is used for a variety of
conditions associated with aging, including memory loss and circulatory
problems. It is being used experimentally in people with Alzheimer's
A small number of people reported mild headaches and upset stomachs.
This herb causes changes in heart rate and blood pressure.
USE: Internally - St. John's wort is used to treat mild to
moderate depression and anxiety. Scientific data supports its use.
This herb reduces the effectiveness of several prescription drugs,
including protease inhibitors used in the treatment of HIV/AIDS,
immunosuppressant drugs used to prevent rejection of transplanted
organs, cholesterol lowering medications, seizure drugs, birth control
pills and blood thinners. St. John's wort makes the skin more sensitive
to ultra-violet light, so caution should be taken, especially by
those with fair skin. Other antidepressants, such as Prozac, should
not be taken along with St. John's wort, and tyramine-containing
foods like red wine, cheese, yeast and pickled herring should be
avoided. Reported side effects include insomnia, irritability and
USE: Internally - This herb is recognized to enhance the mental
and physical resistance to stress.
Ginseng causes changes in heart rate and blood pressure. Occasional
cases of insomnia and agitation have been reported, but these conditions
are more likely to occur when caffeine containing foods and beverages
USE: Internally - Used for insomnia, anxiety and as a digestive
This herb can cause morning drowsiness. It is non-addictive, but
may become so if taken with other sedative medications.
KAVA USE: Internally - Kava kava is a relaxant
used to treat fibromyalgia, tension headaches, anxiety and stress.
It is also used to relax skeletal muscles.
Kava kava is not recommended for use during pregnancy or lactation
and should not be taken with other substances that also act on the
nervous system, such as alcohol, barbiturates, antidepressants,
antipsychotic drugs or muscle relaxants.
MEXICAN YAM USE: Internally - An extract has been
shown to lower blood triglycerides and to raise HDL cholesterol.
May cause nausea. Contrary to popular claims, wild yam does not
contain and is not converted to progesterone in the body. Women
who need progesterone should consult their physicians and not rely
on wild yam or other herbs.
otherwise indicated, there are no scientific data to support the
claims in this chart. Before using any herbal products, check with
a physician or other health professional.