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Herbal Medications
Carol Burckhardt PhD


A friend passed along this "
A history of medicine" the other day.  Seen on the Internet, I believe.  So I'm certain that it's academically sound and thoroughly reviewed for accuracy.  It went something like this:

2500 BC - for this illness, eat this root

1000 AD - that root is heathen, say this prayer

1850 AD - that prayer is old-fashioned, buy this patent medicine

1950 AD - that medicine is snake oil, take this antibiotic

1997 AD - that antibiotic is ineffective, eat this root 

The last few years of this decade have seen an enormous upsurge of interest in  herbal medicines, natural remedies, or alternative therapies.  Whether from western folk tradition, Native American culture, Chinese medicine, or a myriad of other geographic locations, times or cultures, it is clear that people today are searching for ways to heal themselves or be healed.  The inability of modern western medicine to treat effectively chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia (FM) have lead most people with chronic conditions to seek other means of help and healing.  In fact, well over two-thirds of people with chronic rheumatic conditions use so-called alternative therapies". Because the use of natural substances is never far from the front pages these days, I thought I would ponder a bit on how they can help life to go on. 

 It's a confusing world out there.  What's a medicine?  What's a supplement?  What's natural?   What's an herb?

Medicine - any substance taken into the body in order to modify one or more of its functions.  In current terms, this may mean that the substance has therapeutic value; that is, it modifies an abnormality, like lowering high blood pressure.  Or the substance may have preventive value in that it boosts the body's ability to ward off potential disease, like taking antioxidants. 

Supplement - these are substances that are added to what a person already ingests or manufactures.  For example, vitamins and minerals taken by pill form supplement what we get in the foods we eat.

Natural - usually defined as not artificial, coming from nature.  When referring to medicines or supplements it usually means coming from a source in nature and not manufactured through chemical means.  The term is also used to mean that nothing has been added.

Herb - defined in botany as a plant with a soft stem and little wood, esp. an aromatic plant used in medicine or seasoning.  But the word also may mean any plant or plant part used for medicinal purposes, a more broad definition. If you are going to try herbal medicines, here are some thoughts on what you might want to know before you swallow them:

In the United States herbal medicines are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as long as they are marketed as food, food additives or dietary supplements and do not make medical claims on the bottle label.  In fact an herbal product cannot be removed from the market until the government has proved that it is  harmful.  This is unlike a drug company which has to prove that its product is safe and produces desired results before it can be marketed.  In contrast, Germany has a commission set up specifically to examine the claims of herbal products and ensure their safety.  While the commission does not require that the herbal remedy be proven effective, it does publish summaries of research studies that give prescribers' and consumers information about which parts of a plant are safe to use, active chemicals , potential side effects, dosage and possible interactions with other drugs.  Now one might think that such regulation would put a damper on the herbal industry.  Not in Germany.  St. John's Wort, for example, is prescribed 25 times more often for depression than Prozac.  Gingko biloba is widely prescribed for circulatory disorders.

  What the above data from Germany is telling us is that some herbs are powerful remedies for common physical disorders.  Here in the USA, the government and mainline medicine seem to treat them as if they are largely harmless and beneficial only for gullible people.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Some plants and herbs are poisonous, known to cause cancer and liver damage, or dangerous to persons with heart conditions.  And some are safe and effective. 

 If you want to try herbal medicines, there are several sources of information that can help you make an informed decision. The clerk in the health food store is not one of them nor is most of the sales material produced by the manufacturers.  On the other hand, neither is your health-care provider, most likely.  He or she probably does not know much, if anything about herbs, and has been educated only in the use of mainline pharmaceuticals.  The following books might be of help:

 Carol Newall and others, Herbal Medicine: A Guide for Health Care Professionals

 Varro Tyler, Herbs of Choice and The Honest Herbal 

Or check out the website for the Herb Research Foundation at

The foundation can also be contacted by e-mail at
FAX (303) 449-2265,    
Phone (303) 449-7849

Or snail mail: Herb Research Foundation,
                    1007 Pearl St.,
                    Suite 200,
                    Boulder, CO 80302.  


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