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Natural Drugs, Herbal Medicines

What You Should Know About Herbal Medicines

 By Dr. Gifford Jones

“Eat three pineapples a day, take hot baths with Epsom salts, followed by cold showers, and call me in a week!” This was the advice given by a Chinese naturopath to a Harvard doctor whose backache could not be cured by conventional medicine.

Since he was also a researcher at the prestigious National Institute of Health, the doctor considered the advice absolute nonsense. And that he was a damn fool to fall for this balderdash. But it cured his pain! An article written about this triggered letters asking me to write more about herbal medicine.

Last year North Americans spent over 1.5 billion dollars on herbal remedies. It’s estimated that one in ten people are using some form of “natural medicine”. And most never tell their doctors about it.

But what is fact and what is fiction about herbal remedies? And how safe are these herbs?

Dr. Frank Chandler is Professor of Pharmacy, Phytochemistry, and Herbal Remedies at Dalhousie University. He says that many people have lost faith in conventional medicines and also fear the more potent drugs on the market.

He contends that people get fooled by the word, “natural”. But the body cannot tell whether or not a medicine is natural. How a drug works does not depend on where it’s found. Rather its pharmacological action depends on the molecular structure of the drug.

The greatest misconception of consumers is that they do not perceive herbs as drugs. But “natural” does not imply that it’s safe just because it’s come from a health food store. The world’s greatest poisons are plants.

The fact that herbal remedies have been handed down for centuries helps to rule out acute toxicity. But it does not rule out the possibility of long©term complications.

Some cases of toxicity are fairly easy to diagnose. For instance, consumers who use some herbal laxatives may develop muscular weakness due to low blood potassium.

But Chandler says some reactions may not be associated with the herb being taken. For example, unexpected severe bronchospasm can be due to yohimbe. And hepatitis can be related to jin bu huan, a traditional Chinese herb.

Consumers also have to be careful of how herbs affect the action of other medication. Garlic for instance, can alter the action of drugs used to prevent blood clots. The use of Ginseng along with antidepressant drugs can cause insomnia and headache. And Evening Oil of Primrose may increase the risk of epileptic attacks when given with drugs to treat psychiatric disorders.

One of the worst incidents involved 48 Belgian women who attended a weight loss clinic from 1990 to 1993. They developed various degrees of kidney failure.

This happened after taking a Chinese herbal preparation containing Stephania tetranda and Magnolia officinalis. 18 of these women had permanent kidney failure.

Dr. Chandler urges caution when using Oriental herbal remedies. Some have been laced with conventional drugs such as cortisone to make them more effective. Toxic amounts of oxalates have been found in other herbal remedies.

The big problem is the lack of quality assurance. Some manufacturers such as Planta Dei have standardized the extracts of different plants. This means that when you buy the same product from month to month you’re getting the same strength.

But for others this is not the case. For instance, about a third of the batches of “Ginseng” do not contain any of it at all!

So suppose you want to use herbal remedies. Be sure to get advice from a practitioner trained in botanical medicine. Consider that in Europe there are 240 herbal remedies for insomnia!

People suffering from migraine headaches are sometimes helped by “Feverfew”. It’s also recommended for painful menstrual periods and as a tonic for asthmatics. But about one in five users develops ulcers of the mouth.

Echinacea has been used to bolster the immune system and to promote wound healing. And Garlic has been shown to slightly decrease blood cholesterol. It may also be of help in treating hypertension and digestive ailments.

Devil’s Claw Root has been used to treat rheumatic and inflammatory conditions. Dr. Chandler claims he has seen a couple of cases in Halifax where people with severe arthritis received tremendous relief from good quality Devil’s Claw.

Like computers, herbal medicine is here to stay. But I’d advise caution as some herbal remedies are more risky than eating three pineapples a day!

Be sure to buy herbal remedies from reliable sources. And remember that herbs, like drugs, should be avoided during pregnancy and lactation, and never given to small children.

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Dr. Gifford Jones  Bio
Dr. Gifford Jones Most recent columns

W. Gifford-Jones M.D is the pen name of Dr. Ken Walker graduate of The Harvard Medical School. He’s been a ship’s surgeon, hotel physician and family doctor and later trained in surgery at McGill in Montreal, University of Rochester N.Y. and Harvard. His medical column is published by 60 Canadian newspapers and several in the U.S. He is the author of seven books. Dr. Walker has a medical practice in Toronto. His Web site is: http://www.mydoctor.ca/gifford-jones

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