Herbal medicine (also called herbalism, phytotherapy, botanical medicine or herbology) is a method of medical treatment that relies primarily on the use of plants and plant extracts.
Herbalism is commonly associated with other types of holistic health practices, such as aromatherapy and a holistic diet. Since the use of herbs is often called a “natural remedy”, many people believe it is inherently safe. However, many people often wonder – how safe is herbal medicine? Is it really the best option for caring for your health?
It’s extremely difficult to accurately evaluate the true safety of herbal medicine as opposed to pharmaceutical medicine. There are several reasons for this:
Unfortunately, not all herbal supplements that are sold in world markets are of the same quality. Some of these herbs may have been treated with pesticides or may include “fillers” to cut the cost of production. Other herbs may not have been harvested properly, and may not include as many active compounds as a higher quality herb. In some cases, the wrong type of herb could be sold (for example, there are several different types of ginseng). Since there is not a standard quality for herbal supplements, it’s difficult to assess the safety of herbal medicine.
A lot of debate around the safety of herbal medicine revolves around the unreliability of clinical studies. Some studies may not be viewed as a credible source, or may directly conflict with another study. For example, there have been several studies about Gingko Biloba, and its effects on brain function. While some studies report no change in brain function, other studies have discovered beneficial effects in the areas of memory and general cognitive function. Since both of these studies were from what could be called “reputable” sources, it’s nearly impossible to know which study had the correct conclusion.
It would be naive not to assume that there was a significant amount of propaganda on both sides of this debate. Does “Natural” really mean “Safe”? Are pharmaceutical drugs really safe? Which of these has the least instance of side effects? Since the nature of business – either the pharmaceutical business or the herbal business – is one of survival, it can be assumed that marketing material has been produced by both sides. For example, consider this news story – “Gingko Fails to Prevent Alzheimer’s” that was released by MSNBC. A further examination of the study reveals that it only tested 523 people, which could be debated is far too small of a testing group to come to such absolute results, much less release these results on major news networks as “fact”. If this is occurring, how can we trust any story that advocates herbs as being “safe” or “unsafe”?
As with any medication, treat herbal medicine with caution. Do your research, and talk to professionals about their opinion on certain herbal remedies. Many herbal remedies have been proven to be effective. However, make sure that your herbal medicine is from a good source, of good quality, and free of any additives, fillers or pesticides. By following these guidelines, you can greatly improve the safety of treating yourself with herbal remedies.