Health stores like 'Planet Organic' are becoming increasingly popular and are starting to pop up on high streets in pretty much every major city. There's a big push at the moment towards organic foods and towards natural herbs and it seems that people will buy pretty much anything as long as it's some kind of root or extract.
The question is though: are these herbs worth your money? As a rule do they work? And how do you tell the good ones from the bad ones?
Talking about herbal remedies is a bit of a difficult subject because there are so many issues surrounding the topic that muddy the waters.
For starters, there are some 'natural' remedies that give the industry as a whole a bad name. Perhaps the biggest culprits here are the homeopathic remedies. While it would take a long time to go into the whole storied history of homeopathic remedies here, suffice to say that it's based on two principles: that 'like cures like' and that water has a 'memory' and can somehow record the 'life essence' of other compounds. Thus, the process of creating a homeopathic remedy, involves adding an active compound that would cause the same symptoms as the illness itself to some water and then 'diluting' it to the point where not even a single molecule of that compound exists any more.
So basically when you pay for a homeopathic remedy, what you're essentially getting for is a cup full of water. If you're lucky they might add sugar. The best chance it has of working at all is as a placebo: but you shouldn't have to pay so much for a placebo and it can be very dangerous when people believe they can use these treatments to cure serious diseases.
As you can imagine then, this has left the more critically minded rather upset with homeopathy and it (deservedly) gets a lot of bad press. Unfortunately for a lot of sellers of natural remedies, this has resulted in a lot of scepticism for natural and herbal remedies of all kinds and unfortunately some good treatments get tarred with the same brush as the homeopathic ones.
Another issue is the evangelical nature of some proponents of herbal remedies. Many people believe very strongly in the power of natural cures and as such will be dismissive of anything they see as scientific or in any way funded by 'big pharma'. In these cases, patients may use herbal remedies instead of prescription medication, with the danger of becoming seriously ill. Note that even a supplement that works to improve your health, is unlikely to be suitable for treating a terminal illness.
Why the Distrust of Science?
One important question, then, is where this distrust of the scientific method comes from. Really, all the scientific method is, is a critical approach that involves testing things before deciding if they work or not. You can replace the word 'science' with 'testing things' in some arguments and quickly you see that some arguments in favour of alternative remedies are highly flawed. Saying 'I don't believe in letting science tell me which treatments work' is the equivalent of saying 'I don't believe in letting testing things tell me which treatments work'. Science is not a religion or an organisation it is simply the process of measuring and testing ideas to see if they work reliably.
A lot of users of natural supplements and medications are impressed by the fact that they have been used for many years. Many articles promoting certain herbs will say 'X herb' is far from a new trend, in fact its traditional use dates back centuries'. While this might sound impressive, remember that we had much shorter lifespans. We also used to believe in treating infections by bleeding them out. Older does not necessarily equal better.
Yes, pharmaceutical companies make a lot of money from selling various drugs, and in the US where all healthcare is private, it's easy to see why this might make people sceptical of some treatments. On the other hand though, in the UK where healthcare is provided by the state, the same medications are still prescribed with no ulterior motive.
Likewise, it's worth remembering that the companies behind herbal remedies are also in it for a profit: and that they are actually selling their products with huge overheads. And if doctors really wanted to make money from prescribing medications, then they could just as easily prescribe homeopathic medications. The only reason they don't is that they haven't been proven to work.
There is no conspiracy here. Sure, it would be nice to blame the system and to discover that a natural solution existed all along but ultimately this is just denial and can be fatal.
That isn't to say that traditional medicine is infallible however, or that there is never any benefit to natural alternatives. In some cases traditional medicine does get it wrong (doctors are humans after all). Some treatments do have serious side effects, and sometimes medications are prescribed when we don't fully understand the mechanisms of action. If you can find a natural alternative to a powerful medication and you find it is effective, then that's a very good thing.
Herbs That Work
There are plenty of herbs that do have powerful benefits. Herbs contain active compounds that can be just as potent as medications in some cases, and often medicines are actually derived from those same substances. In these cases, studies exist that back up the claims and we have at least some understanding of how they affect us.
Just as some herbs and mushrooms can cause psychedelic affects, so others can alter hormones, provide all kinds of nutritious benefits or affect the brain in positive manners. In short herbs can be potent.
For the most part however, these herbs are still just 'super foods' in that they increase certain vitamins, minerals or compounds. In that sense they aren't going to cause any changes that much more profound that altering your diet.
Can an herb help you sleep better? Probably. Can it boost your concentration? Maybe. Will it improve your skin? Sure. But compared to using something like chemotherapy for treating cancer, it simply isn't potent enough to make a difference. Cancer is caused by mutations in your DNA, which spread through your body as your cells divide leading to the loss of function of many crucial organs. In other words: you can't cure it with vitamins alone, and if you try, then it could kill you.
How to Use Natural Treatments
So with all that in mind, you shouldn't completely boycott natural treatments, it's just important to recognise their potential limitations, to do your own research and to make sure you still see your doctor and that you still use the treatments they recommend for any serious conditions. Natural supplements can work, but think of them as healthy additions to your diet not magic cures. And stay away from anything with the word 'homeopathic' written on it