Herbal Supplements: Nature’s Medicine
Plants have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. However a more intimate knowledge of botanicals or herbal medicine is lacking for many, particularly here in the U.S. Throughout much of the world the reliance of plants is the primary means for addressing healthcare, as the vast majority of the global population simply cannot afford the products of the Western Pharmaceutical Industry. Using at times the root, stem or leaves of plants, medicinal compounds have been synthesized and used to successfully treat a variety of maladies since ancient times. However, navigating this database of knowledge can be difficult for the layperson. In an effort to clear the muddied water somewhat, I will review the challenges faced in doing so and touch on some of the more popular herbal supplements on the market that have shown to be helpful when taken under the guidance of a healthcare provider.
First and foremost, one should understand that herbal supplements are not subjected to the same level of scientific scrutiny as traditional pharmaceuticals. They are classified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as dietary supplements and therefore don’t have to get approval from the FDA prior to their release on the market. Neither are they subjected to the same standards as drugs for proof of safety and effectiveness prior to their release.
Secondly, it is important to recognize that just because an herbal supplement is labeled as “natural” does not mean that it is safe for everyone and absent any risk of harmful effects. Like traditional western medications, they can cause medical problems if not used correctly or are taken in appropriate amounts. Additionally, many have the potential to interact with current prescription medications. The lesson here is it is important to consult your health care provider before using any herbal supplement and to always disclose supplements you already are taking.
To help you navigate the world of herbal supplements, there are online resources available. Two good sources include the National Center for Complementary Medicine (NCCAM) and the Office of Dietary Supplements. Both have websites that provide information to help consumers make informed choices.
Sales of herbal supplements continue to rise in the U.S., with total revenue over $5 billion dollars in 2011. Here’s a brief review of some of the more popular ones.
Black Cohosh: a shrub-like plant from the Eastern U. S.; traditionally used for alleviating menopausal symptoms and painful menstruation.
Garlic: traditionally used for cardiovascular conditions, including high cholesterol , high blood pressure and slowing the process of hardening of the arteries.
Saw Palmetto: used as a traditional or folk remedy for urinary symptoms associated with an enlarged prostate gland, a common condition in men over age 50.
St. John’s Wort: a plant with yellow flowers whose medicinal uses were first recorded in ancient Greece. The name St. John’s wort apparently refers to John the Baptist, as the plant blooms around the time of the feast of St. John the Baptist in late June. Historically, St. John’s wort has been used for centuries to treat mental disorders and nerve pain. Today, St. John’s wort is used as a folk or traditional remedy for depression, anxiety, and/or sleep disorders.
Evening Primrose oil: Evening primrose oil contains gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an essential fatty acid, and has been traditionally used to treat eczema as well as premenstrual symptoms.
Valerian: Valerian has been used as a medicinal herb since at least the time of ancient Greece and Rome. Its therapeutic uses were described by Hippocrates, and in the 2nd century, Galen prescribed valerian for insomnia. In more modern times it has been traditionally used for treatment of insomnia and nervousness symptoms such as trembling or gastrointestinal spasm or distress.
We’ll close with one that perhaps doesn’t have the recognition that some of the others above do, pie cherries. Along with providing the fruit’s bright red color, the antioxidant compounds in tart cherries – called anthocyanins – have been specifically linked to high antioxidant capacity and reduced inflammation at levels comparable to some well-known pain medications. Research has linked tart cherries to anti-inflammatory benefits, including reduced pain from gout and arthritis. More recent studies even suggest tart cherries can help reduce post-exercise muscle and joint pain.
Remember, when in doubt regarding whether botanical or herbal supplements might be helpful to you and/or safe to use, consult your primary care physician to discuss. Here at Austin Family Medicine Associates we pride ourselves on a holistic integrative approach to assisting people with the health care needs and have an excellent team in place to do so.