Miracle Cures: Medical Science for Natural Remedies

Jean Carper shares her research into the use of medicinal herbs and their potential within the U.S. medical community.

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Rarely has a book on natural healing captured the public’s interest as quickly as Jean Carper’s Miracle Cures. A combination of no-nonsense advice and thoroughly human stories, it shot to the top of The New York Times best-seller list within days of its release. Here, an excerpt from her book and an interview with Carper offer a glimpse at the future of medicine. 

While writing and researching Miracle Cures, I was constantly surprised and impressed by the vigor of a national trend toward integrating natural remedies into mainstream medicine. This incorporation of natural medicinals and conventional medicine is happening much faster than most people realize.

This will eventually have a dramatic beneficial impact, if it has not already, on all of us personally and on the quality and cost of our health care. We are talking about major changes and reforms in a basic structure of all medical systems, from ancient to modern: the appropriate use of drugs to overcome sickness.

Here’s what surprised me most:

•  The intensity and persistence of people seeking safer, effective cures outside the conventional treatments, even in the face of resistance from establishment medicine;

• The willingness, even eagerness, of leading doctors and scientists at the very core of modern scientific medicine in the United States to explore the potential of unconventional remedies;

• The mounting scientific evidence supporting the validity and safety of natural remedies, and the extensive study and use of such natural remedies among mainstream doctors in other countries.

Much twentieth-century scientific knowledge about the powers of plant medicines comes from Germany. In that country, botanical medicines are approved as over-the-counter drugs by a government body known as Commission E, which is similar to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Doctors are also given strict guidelines on which natural remedies to prescribe for which conditions, and their expected effectiveness and safety. The natural substances are meticulously manufactured to pharmaceutical standards and clearly labeled as to their approved uses and doses, possible side effects, toxicity, and contraindications.

In many other countries, if you have a question about a natural remedy, you can get a valid answer from your doctor or pharmacist. Plenty of trained professionals oversee the rational dispersal of natural drugs. In Germany, physicians and pharmacists are required to pass tests on their knowledge of botanical medicines. They regularly prescribe and dispense natural drugs and can answer questions about their benefits and safety. Truly one of the big dilemmas in the United States is that there is no reliable medical enclave that individuals can rely on and trust to give advice on natural remedies.

This situation shouldn’t lead us away from natural medicines that are such a prominent part of sound medical practice throughout the world. The science is here and growing. This article describes only two successful experiences with herbal medicines and the scientific evidence that explains how these remedies work.

An herb to help a failing memory

Jerry Cott, a psychopharmacologist and chief of the Pharmacologic Treatment Research Program at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), has studied the impact of ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) on brain cells. He is familiar with the large body of European scientific evidence supporting its effectiveness and is convinced it helps retard the loss of memory and mental capabilities due to “mini strokes” and even Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, his own mother, Eula Cott, began to have memory problems when she was in her late seventies. Four years later, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She went to the NIMH clinical center in Bethesda, Maryland, for experimental treatment with various drugs. None worked, and after six months she was released back to her family.

Her scientist son began giving her ginkgo in standardized doses of 240 mg daily, following the practice of some German physicians. She didn’t suddenly recover, but her Alzheimer’s hasn’t progressed as he would have expected it to, Dr. Cott says.

“Definitely, you would normally see a measurable deterioration every six months,” he says. “But she has not gotten a smidgen worse in four years, which I think is pretty remarkable, and so do her other doctors.”

Eula Cott, now eighty-eight and living in an assisted-living center, has a better quality of life than she would have without using ginkgo, her son believes.

The medicine known as ginkgo biloba is derived from the leaves of the ginkgo tree, an ornamental tree growing in temperate climates. Its action may be attributed to chemicals known as ginkgolides, which are generally extracted from the leaves and turned into tablets of various potency. Researchers have found that ginkgo is an antioxidant that discourages blood-platelet stickiness, reducing formation of devastating blood clots and plaque buildup.

Since the 1950s, more than 400 papers on ginkgo, most from German investigators, have appeared in the medical literature. More than fifty controlled clinical trials confirm ginkgo biloba as an effective treatment for diminished memory and concentration, increased absentmindedness, confusion, energy loss, tiredness, depression, dizziness, and tinnitus (ringing in the ears). According to one German study, blood flow increased 57 percent one hour after ginkgo was taken, as measured in subjects’ capillaries. One other recent German study found that ginkgo improved brain function by a striking 72 percent on average after three months of use by ninety-nine older patients who had suffered brain disturbances for about two years. In another study of 200 patients, whose average age was sixty-nine and who had endured memory problems for about four years, 71 percent improved after three months on ginkgo, compared with 32 percent on a placebo.

Before you use it: There have been occasional reports of mild side effects, such as upset stomach and headaches, and high doses of ginkgo may cause some dizziness at first; if this occurs, lower the dose. If you have noticeable memory disturbances, consult a doctor immediately and don’t assume you are suffering age-related memory decline that can be self-treated with ginkgo.

Ginkgo’s benefits appear to accumulate over time and are greater at six months than at three months in cases of dementia, one study shows.

How it’s used: Generally, ginkgo is believed to benefit those with age-related decline of brain function, and the recommended dose for age-related loss of short-term memory and other mild signs of brain disturbances is a total of 120 mg daily, divided into three doses of 40 mg pills or two doses of 60 mg pills.

Nature’s migraine fighter

As any sufferer of migraines knows, aspirin is a wimp against these ferocious headaches. However, dramatic relief lies in the leaves of a plant called feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium).

For more than twenty years, Theresa Colonna, now sixty-one and living in a Pittsburgh suburb, was a prisoner of migraines. The headaches struck about once a week, often spoiling weekends and holidays with her husband and four children. She tried every orthodox medical treatment, and when the headaches were extra bad, she went to the hospital emergency room. Then she learned about feverfew and began taking it—one tablet three times daily for three months. Now she takes one a day.

“It was just amazing,” she says. “I had tried everything possible, and this little pill took my migraines away. Now I may get a headache every six months instead of once a week, but they’re nothing like they were.”

The benefits of feverfew were documented early on in a double-blind controlled study of migraine sufferers who had never before used feverfew. The results were reported in the British medical journal The Lancet in 1988 by researchers from University Hospital in Nottingham, England. For two periods of four months, migraine sufferers took either a daily capsule of air-dried feverfew leaves (about two medium-sized leaves) or dried cabbage leaves as a placebo. When subjects took feverfew, migraine occurrence dropped by one-fourth and headaches were much milder, with less vomiting and visual disturbance.

Feverfew’s most likely anti-migraine agent is parthenolide, which has been shown to block the release of serotonin, a hormone implicated in triggering migraines, most likely by constricting blood vessels. Feverfew tests also show the herb’s anti-inflammatory effect. Recent British research has shown that feverfew contains a complex mix of thromboxane B and leukotriene B4, potent inhibitors of bodily substances that foster inflammation and pain.

Before you use it: Side effects from feverfew are generally few and very mild—minor mouth sores and gastrointestinal upset. A few cases of rare allergic reactions and rapid heartbeat also have been reported. No studies have been done on its long-term use. Pregnant women should avoid it because it might cause uterine contractions; lactating mothers and children under age two shouldn’t take it. Feverfew has blood-thinning properties and in rare cases could interact with anticoagulants, which promote bleeding. Feverfew may trigger allergies in those who also are sensitive to ragweed.

How it’s used: If you eat the dried leaves, two or three leaves a day are considered effective. Feverfew capsules or tablets usually contain at least 300 mg of the herb. The label recommends three a day, but one a day is often enough, say experts, to prevent migraines. To be effective, pills should contain 0.2 percent parthenolide.

Excerpted from Miracle Cures (HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1997), with permission.


Interview with Jean Carper

A journalist’s approach to herbal ­medicine 

For Jean Carper, ­writing Miracle Cures was a logical step. ­Carper, author of several books about nutrition and health and a former senior ­medical ­reporter for CNN, says she couldn’t ignore natural ­remedies—not when studies show that about one-third of the U.S. population, or sixty million people, is using them.

Herbal medicine’s newfound fame, however, is accompanied by a sense of doubt about its validity.

“Everybody was wondering which of these things work and what the evidence is, and so was I,” she says. “This is my field, so it was logical for me to explore this.”

In preparing her book, Carper searched medical databases, such as Medline; interviewed medical doctors and other health-care experts; and placed announcements in her USAWeekend column, requesting that people contact her to share their experiences with natural remedies.

She verified individual stories by checking with physicians and comparing stories with scientific evidence. Once she found the people she wanted to feature in her book, she wove their stories into chapters focusing on twenty-three “miracle cures”. She uses that phrase to refer to the feeling some have when they use unconventional remedies with success: The event is so incongruous with conventional medical expectations that patients find the new medicine “miraculous”.

Carper says she insisted that the case studies she used be supported by scientific evidence because no treatment—natural or otherwise—will become part of the U.S. health-care system without it.

“This is not going to be widely accepted until the National Institutes of Health—and others that people in the medical profession trust and will listen to—really get interested,” she says.

Carper predicts that in five years, St.-John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum), an herbal remedy for some forms of mild depression, will be more commonly used than the current popular depression drug Prozac, and the popularity of other alternative treatments will increase as more becomes known about them.

“While you have to consider that the pharmaceutical industry is very powerful and not going to give up without a fight, I don’t think that people who are fed up with the high cost of health care are just going to lie down and let this happen,” she says. “And I think Congress is definitely in the mood to do something. It’s what the public wants.”

Jean Carper also is author of Stop Aging Now!, Food—Your Miracle Medicine, and The Food Pharmacy. She is a columnist for USA Weekend and a former senior medical correspondent for CNN. She lives in Washington, D.C., and Florida.