HERBS EFFECTIVENESS

In many instances herbs are as effective as, and sometimes more effective than, conventional pharmaceuticals in treating many common health problems. Did you know, for instance, that clinical trials1 have shown St John’s wort to be more effective than SSRI drugs in treating mild to moderate depression? Medicinal plants can often treat problems that defy modern medicine, including the common cold and chronic fatigue syndrome. They are equally applicable for ailments that arise suddenly, for instance heartburn, and for long-standing conditions, such as joint pain.

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EVIDENCE BASE

The effectiveness of herbal treatment is backed up by many clinical trials. Therefore herbal medicine is an evidence-based treatment according to modern scientific standards.

Personally, I believe that the records we have of traditional use constitute valid evidence as well: our ancestors were quite skilled at treating everyday illnesses with herbs, even though they did not understand the nature of the disease. Today, we have the enormous advantage of being able to use the best of both worlds and combine modern understanding of what causes a particular ailment with traditional insight into which herbs best treat that ailment. A good example of this is the elderflower, which has been used for centuries by country folk in Britain and Austria alike to treat the common cold, but only relatively recently has it been shown to exhibit antiviral properties.2 See the References for details of clinical trials.

LOW RISK OF SIDE EFFECTS

The majority of herbs carry an extremely low risk of side effects when compared with pharmaceuticals. But, although all plant medicines are natural, it would be naive to assume that they are all equally safe – some should be taken only with the guidance of a qualified medical herbalist. You must treat herbs with respect as you would any medicine: stick to the recommended dosage and make sure your information comes from suitably qualified professionals.

The herbs that I recommend in this blog have an exceptionally good safety record and, as long as you follow the guidance for usage and pay attention to the cautionary advice, you are unlikely to experience any serious problems. Many herbs carry warnings, which normally means that they are not suitable for a very small proportion of people. For instance, in my practice I have come across one person allergic to echinacea and one to chamomile, yet these herbs are commonly used by a lot of people every day.

Some people may be allergic to certain herbs, and that is no different from being allergic to certain foods or to conventional medicines, and on very rare occasions some may experience a headache or a digestive upset. It is important to buy from reputable suppliers and rely as far as possible on native herbs to be safe, as some imported rare herbs have been known to be adulterated with potentially harmful species.

I would like to point out that the low risk of side effects applies to herbal products that have undergone minimal processing. Dry herbs and ordinary-strength tinctures are in that category. Highly concentrated products, for instance essential oils, are not safe to be used internally and should be reserved only for external treatment. All highly concentrated herbal extracts, which well exceed the concentrations traditionally used in the past, should be treated with circumspection. See post 6 for more on the safety of specific preparations.

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