People hate taking what they perceive as ‘drugs’. They hate taking anything synthetic and when the doctor tells them they are getting an injection of steroids, or of chemotherapy drugs, or of a vaccination, or of antibiotics then they often will react badly. It doesn’t seem natural to put things in our veins or our stomach that have been concocted in a lab, and it requires an awful lot of trust to believe that the drugs we are consuming are doing us good.
Thus many of us will turn to herbal supplements and herbal medicines instead and see these as a ‘safer’ and more ‘natural’ solution. They exist in the wild, we could have eaten them when we were still evolving, and in many cases they have no harmful side effects. Many advocates of herbal supplements believe that doctors are just trying to get their money (in the US at least where the health system is private) and that these natural alternatives provide a more honest way to treat conditions. What they forget is that those herbal companies are businesses too – they’re also trying to get money, and if doctors really only cared about their profits then surely they would use herbal remedies too and increase their market? The question that you should be asking is why doctors are so adverse to them – and why if they’re so effective everyone isn’t using them? It’s also worth bearing in mind that in counties like England, where doctors are employed by the NHS and don’t get paid for prescribing drugs, they still advise all the same medications and these never include herbal remedies.
The answer? Well there’s a lot wrong with a large number of herbal supplements. Here we will look at what those problems are and what dangers exist with regards to herbal remedies and medicines.
They Don’t Work
Firstly, in the vast majority of cases herbal supplements just don’t work. Some do of course – guarana is a herbal supplement and it is perfectly effective as a way to boost your metabolism. However a shocking 2/3rds of all herbal supplements have never been clinically proven to work and that usually means quite simply that they don’t work. In unbiased blind tests, never have the vast majority of these herbal medications been shown to have any measurable effect on health.
That’s fine if you want a placebo to help you feel better or more alert (though it’s very expensive seeing as a sugar pill could achieve the same effect). However if it means that you are foregoing the use of other proven medication then this becomes a dangerous attitude – as you won’t be treating a condition that could easily worsen.
Let’s take a particular school of herbal remedies as an example: homeopathy. Homeopathy is a very popular form of herbal medicine that involves consuming things in tiny qualities that have been diluted thousands of times over.
The original premise of homeopathy is that a medicine should mimic the symptoms of an illness as this will cause the body to fight against those symptoms more and thus cure the illness. Of course this was based on no science and in fact based on just one observation of a particular remedy for malaria. Obviously giving people medicine that would make them more ill wouldn’t be popular and would probably kill a lot of people, and so homeopaths started diluting the substances and claiming that you would just be drinking the ‘life force’ of the ingredient. The amount of dilution however is often so large as to be scientifically impossible – in the vast majority of cases there is not a single particle of the original substance left in the concoction.
So what the individual drinks is water with a bit of sugar and often some alcohol (no doubt to give the illusion of an effect). It seems like a convenient way to make money from water with no overheads, and of course there is no scientific way whatsoever that this could work as a treatment for anything. Despite that homeopaths will advise people not to take antibiotics, not to use chemotherapy, and instead to use their water and sugar – which is highly dangerous. They also claim that their remedies work for fighting headaches, colds, swelling and depression – less dangerous but still a serious waste of money.
They Cause Side Effects
And despite claims that herbal medications don’t cause side effects this is in fact incorrect – and in many cases they can cause side effects that are just as severe. Just because something comes from the ground this certainly doesn’t mean it’s safe – many recreational drugs come from the ground as do a range of poisons.
For instance the DFA not that long ago released a warning that kava root, one of the top ten selling herbal supplements, potentially caused liver damage. Meanwhile ephedra, a Chinese weight loss herb, was banned after being linked to over 100 deaths. Others cause vomiting, nausea and further problems. Because these drugs are rarely tested in the same way as pharmaceutical drugs, and because those responsible for packaging and selling them often lack a proper scientific understanding, there are many more herbal supplements out there for which the side effects are unknown.
They Cause Interactions
Further, even if the herbal supplements do not cause side effects per se in themselves, they may still have negative interactions with other drugs. For instance taking Saint-John’s wort can prevent HIV medications from working, as well as some heart drugs. This is unfortunate as Saint-John’s wort is one of the 1/3rd of herbal medications shown to actually have a measurable effect.
They Aren’t Regulated
Finally, when you take herbal supplements and remedies you will be taking substances that haven’t gone through the same rigorous testing and regulation as pharmaceutical drugs. Likewise the precise ingredients and methodology will vary from one brand to the next, so you may find that you end up consuming a ‘bad batch’ which doesn’t work or that has more severe side effects.
What to Do
Despite all this, some herbal remedies do work, and others have been shown to have a range of positive effects on our health. Some herbs are ‘superfoods’ that contain a range of powerful nutrients and others can help to treat a range of diseases.
When using herbal supplements then it is your responsibility to research what you are taking fully. Read in detail how they work and what the mechanism of action is, and then use your common sense to decide for yourself whether the substance is likely to have any merit. Read up on any negative side effects, and on any potential interactions with other drugs. Likewise you should read up on reviews to see what other people make of the substance.
Finally you should consult with your doctor if you are unsure before you begin a new course of medication. They have a lot more experience and knowledge about human biology, and they will be able to tell you whether the medication is likely to work or have negative consequences.