Herbal Remedies​—Can They Help You?

FROM earliest times herbal remedies have been used to treat disease. The Ebers Papyrus, prepared in Egypt about the 16th century B.C.E., contains hundreds of folk remedies for various afflictions. Usually, however, herbal remedies were explained orally from one generation to the next.

Western medical herbalism appears to have begun with the work of first-century Greek physician Dioscorides, who wrote De Materia Medica. It became the leading pharmacological text for the next 1,600 years. In many parts of the world, traditional herbal remedies continue to be popular. In Germany, government health programs may even reimburse the costs of herbal prescriptions.

Although it is sometimes claimed that traditional and folk-remedy herbs are safer than modern pharmaceutical drugs, they are not without their risks. So the questions are raised: What cautions and recommendations should one take into account when considering herbal remedies? And are there any circumstances under which one form of therapy may be more advantageous? *

How Herbs May Help

Herbs have been credited with many therapeutic properties. Some are thought to help the body fight infection. Others are said to aid digestion, settle nerves, serve as a laxative, or help regulate the glands.

Herbs may have both nutritional and medicinal value. For example, some plants that serve as diuretics, such as parsley, also contain significant amounts of potassium. * The potassium in these plants compensates for the loss of this vital element through urination.  Likewise, the valerian plant (Valeriana officinalis), long used as a sedative, is high in calcium. The calcium may enhance the herb’s sedative effect on the nervous system.

How Herbs Can Be Taken

Herbs can be taken in many ways, such as in teas, decoctions, tinctures, and poultices. Teas are made by pouring boiling water over an herb. But authorities caution that herbs used as teas should generally not be boiled in water. Decoctions, made from such things as herbal roots and bark, are boiled in water to release their active ingredients.

What about tinctures? One book says that these “are herb extractions made with help of pure or diluted spirits of alcohol, or brandy, or vodka.” Then there are poultices, which can be prepared in various ways. Usually they are applied to diseased or painful body parts.

Unlike many vitamins and drugs, most herbs are considered foods and are often taken alone on an empty stomach. They can also be taken in a capsulated form, which can be more convenient and more palatable. If you decide to take herbal remedies, it is wise to do so under professional guidance.

Traditionally, herbs have been suggested for such conditions as the common cold, indigestion, constipation, insomnia, and nausea. However, herbs are also sometimes used for more serious ailments​—not only as a cure but also as a preventive. For instance, in Germany and Austria, the herb saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) is used as a first-line treatment for benign prostatic hyperplasia (swelling of the prostate gland). In some countries this disorder eventually affects 50 to 60 percent of men. It is important, however, that the cause of the swelling be diagnosed by a physician to make sure that the condition does not require more aggressive intervention, as in the case of cancer.

Some Cautions

Even though an herb may be widely regarded as safe, caution is advised. Never let your guard down simply because a product is labeled “natural.” An encyclopedia on the subject of herbs states: “The unpleasant fact of the matter is that some herbs are downright dangerous. [Regrettably] some people don’t give any herb​—dangerous or benign—​the appropriate respect.” Chemical compounds in herbs can change heart rate, blood pressure, and glucose levels. Hence, people with cardiac problems, high blood pressure, or blood-sugar disorders such as diabetes must be especially cautious.

Usually, however, the side effects of herbs are limited to allergic-type reactions. These include headaches, dizziness, nausea, or rash. Herbs are also said to prompt a “healing crisis” by producing flulike or other symptoms. The one taking herbs may appear to get worse before getting better. It is generally claimed that this reaction is caused by toxic wastes being removed from the body during the early stages of herbal therapy.

The mortality occasionally related to certain herbal products underscores the need for caution and sound guidance. For instance, the herb ephedra, commonly taken for weight loss, can also elevate blood pressure. Over 100 reported deaths in the United States have been linked to ephedra products, although San Francisco pathologist Steven Karch states: “The only cases I know where people [who took ephedra] died, they had severe coronary artery disease or they took overdoses.”

Dr. Logan Chamberlain, author of a book on herbal supplements, holds: “Virtually every report in recent years about harmful effects of herbs has stemmed from cases in which people didn’t follow directions. . . . Dosage recommendations on reliable products are safe and even conservative. Don’t second-guess them unless you have good advice from a trained herbalist.”

Herbalist Linda Page provides this cautionary advice: “Even for serious health conditions, moderate amounts are the way to go, mega-doses are not. Much better results can  be obtained by giving yourself more time and gentler treatment. It takes time to rebuild health.”

A book on herbology explains that some herbs have a built-in overdose protection mechanism. For example, one herb used to relax the body induces vomiting if taken in excess. However, this characteristic, which does not apply to all herbs, does not negate the need to adhere to a safe dosage.

Still, many believe that for an herb to be effective, sufficient amounts must be consumed and in the proper form. At times, the only way to do so is to take an extract. This is the case with ginkgo biloba, long used to enhance memory and circulation, since many pounds of leaves are needed for a single effective dose.

A Possible Dangerous Mix

Herbs can interact with medicinal drugs in various ways. For instance, they can magnify or reduce a drug’s effect, cause it to be eliminated from the body faster than usual, or increase the risk of side effects. St. John’s wort, often prescribed in Germany for mild to moderate depression, causes many drugs to be eliminated twice as fast as normal, thus lessening their potency. So if you take a prescription drug, including birth-control pills, consult with your doctor before taking herbs.

A book on the healing properties of herbs states: “Alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, other mood-altering drugs and tobacco can cause life-threatening interactions when mixed with some medicinal herbs. . . . Common sense dictates you avoid [such drugs], particularly during an illness.” Also, pregnant women and nursing mothers should take that advice to heart. Of course, when it comes to tobacco and addictive drugs, Christians are protected by heeding the Biblical command to “cleanse [yourselves] of every defilement of flesh and spirit.”​—2 Corinthians 7:1.

In regard to herbs themselves, one reference provides this caution: “If you become pregnant while taking a medicinal herb, tell your physician and discontinue taking it until you have discussed it with him or her. Try to remember the exact dose and the length of time you have taken the substance.”

“The dangers of self-medication [with herbs] are several,” says an encyclopedia on herbs. In the accompanying box, “Risks of Self-Medicating,” you will find a list of possible dangers involving herbs.

As with all health products, herbs should be treated with respect, knowledge and, of course, balance​—and remember that for some things there is no cure at present. True Christians look forward to the time when the very cause of sickness and death​—the imperfection we inherited from our original parents—​will be completely eliminated under the benevolent rulership of God’s Kingdom.​—Romans 5:12; Revelation 21:3, 4.

[Footnotes]

^ par. 4 Awake! is not a medical journal and so does not recommend any specific treatment or diet, herbal or otherwise. The information contained in this article is purely for general information. Readers must decide for themselves on health and medical matters.

^ par. 7 Diuretics are substances that increase the flow of urine.

[Box on page 14]

Risks of Self-Medicating

The following are risks of using herbs without qualified professional help.

You may not really know what is wrong with you.

Your regimen of self-medication may be inappropriate for your ailment, even if you have properly diagnosed it.

Your self-medication program may delay more radical, but nevertheless necessary and appropriate, treatment.

Your self-medication may conflict with drugs prescribed by a doctor​—allergy medication, for example, or blood pressure medication.

Your self-medication may cure your minor ailment but aggravate another health problem, such as high blood pressure.

[Credit Line]

Source: Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs