Understanding herbs and using herbal medicines
Most people are familiar with herbs as foods-for example, basil and oregano in sauces, parsley as a garnish. However, for thousands of years many cultures around the world have used herbs and plants not just to eat but to treat illness.
Archaeological evidence shows that even prehistoric man used plants to heal. Today, the World Health Organization estimates that 80% of the world’s population uses some form of herbal medicine.
Many of the drugs now prescribed come from plants that ancient cultures used medicinally. (The word drug comes from the Old Dutch word drogge, meaning “to dry,” because pharmacists, doctors, and ancient healers often dried plants to use as medicines.) About one fourth of all conventional pharmaceuticals-including roughly 120 of the most commonly prescribed modem drugscontain at least one active ingredient derived from plants. The rest are chemically synthesized.
Some herbs and plants have value not just for their active ingredients but for other substances they contain, such as
- volatile oils (used in aromatherapy)
- glycosides (sugar derivatives)
- alkaloids (bitter organic bases containing nitrogen)
- bioflavonoids (colorless substances that help maintain collagen and blood vessels).
In the United States, many traditional health care providers lack knowledge about herbal remedies, and their patients may be reluctant to reveal their use of such remedies. But renewed interest in all forms of alternative medicine has led consumers, health care providers, and drug researchers to reexamine herbal remedies. Medicinal herbs have been touted in magazines, books and television shows, sometimes with advocated making amazing claims for their benefits.
Common drugs made from plants or herbs
Many drugs in common use today have botanical origins. Here’s a selected list.
- Aspirin (salicylic acid)-from white willow bark and meadow sweet plant.
- Atropine, used to treat irregular heartbeats-from belladonna leaves.
- Colchicine, used for gout-from autumn crocus.
- Digoxin (Lanoxin), the most widely prescribed heart medication-from foxglove, a poisonous plant.
- Ephedrine, used to widen or relax the airways-from the ephedra plant.
- Morphine and codeine, potent narcotics-from the opium poppy.
- Paclitaxel (Taxol), used to treat metastatic ovarian cancer-from the yew tree.
- Quinine, a drug for malaria from cinchona bark.
- Vinblastine (Velban) and vincristine (Dncovin), anticancer drugs-from periwinkle.
Uses of natural herbs
A plant’s leaves, flowers, stems, berries, seeds, fruit, bark, roots, or any other part may be used for medicinal purposes. Most herbal remedies are used to treat minor health problems, such as nausea, colds, cough, flu, headache, aches and pains, stomach and intestinal disorders (such as constipation and diarrhea), menstrual cramps, insomnia, skin disorders, and dandruff.
Some herbalists have reported success in treating certain chronic conditions, including peptic ulcers, inflammation of the colon, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, and respiratory problems. Some use herbal remedies for illnesses usually treated only with prescription drugs, such as heart failure.
However, if you have a serious disorder and are considering an herbal remedy, don’t discontinue ongoing medical treatment. Also be sure to tell your health care practitioner about any prescribed drugs you’re taking, because these may interact with herbal remedies.
Forms of natural herbs
Herbs come in various forms, depending on their medicinal purpose and the body system involved. You can buy herbs individually or in mixtures formulated for specific conditions. Herbs may be prepared as tinctures or extracts, capsules or tablets, lozenges, teas, juices, vapor treatments, or bath products. Some herbs are applied topically with a poultice or compress. Other are rubbed into the skin as an oil, an ointment, or a salve.
General precautions when you are taking herbs
- Check with your health care practitioner before using any herbal product, especially if you’re taking a prescription drug. Tell your practitioner about all drugs you’re taking, including nonprescription medications and vitamins. Many herbal remedies can interact with other drugs. Make sure your health care practitioner is aware of your medical history, including allergies.
- When taking an herb, follow the instructions exactly. If you take too much of an herb or take it inappropriately, you may get no benefit from taking it-or put yourself at risk for potentially dangerous side effects.
- Never ignore symptoms you’re experiencing. Contact your health care practitioner if you experience side effects of an herbal agent or if you have other health concerns that would normally require medical attention.
- Be sure to call your health care practitioner if you experience abdominal cramping, abnormal bleeding or bruising, changes in your pulse or heart rhythm; vision changes, dizziness or fainting; hair loss; hallucinations, inability to concentrate or other mental changes, hives, itching, rash, or other allergic symptoms, appetite loss, or dramatic weight loss.
- Don’t use herbal agents to delay seeking more appropriate therapy. Keep in mind that herbs aren’t necessarily a substitute for proven medical therapy.
- If you’re a parent or other caregiver, consider each of the preceding precautions before giving herbal medicines to a child or an elderly or debilitated person. Discontinue herbs at least 2 weeks before surgery. They can interfere with anesthesia and cause heart and blood vessel problems.
When to avoid natural medicinal herbs
- Avoid herbal preparations if you’re pregnant or breast-feeding. Most herbs effects on the fetus are unknown. If you’re a woman of childbearing age, use birth control when taking herbs.
- Don’t use herbs for serious or potentially serious medical conditions, such as heart disease or bleeding disorders.
- Never let other people take your herbs or other medicine. Store herbal agents out of reach of children and pets.
- If you have questions about the herb you’re taking, seek advice from a qualified health care provider. If your practitioner Isn’t knowledgeable about herbs, ask for a referral to someone who is.