Although food and water arguably have the greatest impact on our health, since ancient times herbal medicine has been the most common place people look for relief from illness. Even most, if not all, modern prescription drugs have their origins or inspiration in nature’s herbal pharmacy.
If you look on the Internet, you’ll find literally millions of sites offering herbal information. Today I’d like to identify the biggest misconceptions about herbs that I regularly run across and hopefully set the record straight.
Myth #1: Because herbs are natural, they don’t have side effects.
Anyone familiar with the recent FDA brouhaha about ephedra knows that herbs can, when used incorrectly, have very profound side effects.
Here’s an example you may not know about: everyone’s heard about ginseng, but very few people know that under certain circumstances it can raise blood pressure. If you already have high blood pressure, ginseng might be contraindicated.
Another example: there are whole classes of herbs that stimulate blood flow. Not usually a problem if someone’s blood is not freely flowing, but if someone is taking aspirin or other blood-thinning drugs, these herbs could exacerbate the situation and lead to a risk of bleeding.
Although side effects tend to be less extreme with herbs, it’s good to work with someone who knows what they are and can steer you in the right direction.
Myth #2: Herbs are okay for cooking or a nice cup of herbal tea, but they aren’t really effective for serious illnesses.
Effectiveness in using any form of treatment (herbal medicine, acupuncture, surgery) hinges on correctly identifying the problem. For herbal medicine this includes recognizing a person’s biochemical individuality and the unique patterns of imbalance they carry.
For example, the condition typically called “migraine headache” in Western medicine can come from any of six fundamental underlying imbalances in Oriental medicine. Herbs that would have a profound effect on one underlying pattern may not have any effect on another. Without a clear understanding of the underlying pattern, no herbal formula can be effective except by pure luck.
Myth #3: Because herbs are not regulated by the government, they can’t really have much medicinal power.
This is a myth based on the belief that the government is protecting our interests. While it sounds good in principle, in practice it looks more like they are protecting the profits of the large pharmaceutical companies.
More to the point, the really big profits in healthcare require the intellectual property protection of a patent. Since you can’t patent natural substances, there is much less financial incentive to do research on them. Government regulation is, by default, primarily designed to regulate artificially created substances. At another level it functions to protect patent holders’ (large pharmaceutical companies) profits.
Although this is relevant to the issue, it begs the question of the medicinal power of herbs. Most pharmaceuticals are made up of concentrated, single substances. This makes them powerful, but only in a very limited way. Because the body is extremely complex, this single-minded focus often creates a long list of side effects since there are almost always unintended consequences from focusing too much on only one or two chemical interactions in the body.
Herbs, on the other hand, naturally contain a combination of co-factors. Literally thousands of years of use have identified the effects of herbs on the body. In addition, when used in a comprehensive system such as Chinese herbal medicine, any unwanted effects are automatically neutralized by other herbs in the formula. Although herbs generally take longer to get the effect, the correct formula along taken for the right amount of time will most often correct the problem without unwanted side effects.
Myth #4: I’ve taken herbs before, but they didn’t seem to do anything. This means herbs aren’t effective.
In my opinion, there are any number of reasons why someone would have this experience. The first is that they haven’t correctly identified the underlying pattern of imbalance. In addition, if their digestion is impaired, there are levels of toxicity in the body or the foods they’re eating aren’t right for them, practically no herbal formula will be effective.
The other mistake I see people make sometimes is they want a quick fix. They’ve had the problem for 20 years but if one week’s worth of taking herbs doesn’t fix it they give up. Especially in long-term chronic conditions it often takes months of herbal remedies to achieve lasting results.