Book Review: Herbal Prescriptions for Better Health

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Herbal Prescriptions for Better Health: Your Everyday Guide to Prevention, Treatment, and Care
• By Donald J. Brown, N.D.
• Prima Publishing, PO Box 1260BK, Rocklin, CA 95677, 1996.
• Hardbound, 349 pages, $22.95 in the United States, $29.95 in Canada.

For years, I’ve been a big fan of Dr. Donald Brown, thanks to his terrific column on herbal medicine in the Townsend Letter for Doctors. Each month, he reviews a selection of herb studies published in the medical literature and comments insight­-fully on the importance of the results. So I was not at all surprised to find his new book scientifically rigorous, thoroughly up-to-date, and medically sound. I expected that. However, I did not expect Herbal Prescriptions for Better Health to be as accessible and well written as it is. Brown, who teaches herbal medicine at Bastyr University, the naturopathic medical school in Seattle, has a real gift for explaining complicated medical concepts simply and clearly. His discussion of herbal therapeutics is equally engaging. And I must say, he has excellent taste in music. You’ve got to love a doctor who, for stress management, suggests listening to Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue”.

Herbal Prescriptions for Better Health opens with brief but insightful discussions of recent developments in medicinal herb regulation—notably the impact of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. Like every other herbalist I respect, he argues that the United States should adopt some form of the European herbal regulatory system, with an expert panel similar to Germany’s Commission E that would review the medical literature and historical experience and recommend specific doses of specific herbs for specific conditions. (Here’s hoping we live long enough to see the U.S. Food and Drug Administration do this.)

Next, Brown provides basic, medically responsible background information on how to use medicinal herbs safely and effectively. He also explains the healing actions of the herbs he finds most useful in his own practice: astringents, laxatives, immune-system stimulants, adaptogens (stress-relieving ­performance enhancers), anti­oxidants (helpful in preventing cancer, heart disease, and other conditions), carminatives (stomach soothers), cholagogues (liver tonics), demulcents (general soothers), and bitters ­(digestive stimulants).

Brown devotes about one-third of his book to in-depth analyses of eighteen herbal medicines that he finds particularly valuable in his own practice. Some will be familiar to even herbal novices: chamomile, ­garlic, ginger, echinacea, and ginseng. Others have only ­recently begun to receive the ­attention they deserve, notably bilberry (for vision improvement and varicose veins), kava-kava (for anxiety relief), milk thistle (a liver protector), St.-John’s-wort (an antidepressant), and chaste tree (for menstrual and menopausal complaints). The discussion of each herb includes references to at least a dozen recent studies that establish its therapeutic value, safety, and proper dosage.

The largest section of Herbal Prescriptions for Better Health, encompassing about half the book, recommends herbal treatments for some sixty medical conditions, ranging from acne, colds, and bruises to angina, Alz­heimer’s disease, and HIV infection/AIDS. Brown’s experience as a naturopathic herbal practitioner shines through his treatment advice. I just wish he practiced near me so I could benefit personally from his “sage” counsel.

Herbal Prescriptions for Better Health is selective, not encyclopedic. Although some readers may feel miffed that their favorite herb or most vexing ­medical condition is not discussed, Brown’s selectivity is ­ultimately the book’s strength. He covers a great deal of medical and herbal territory without turning his book into a tome, and he equips readers to use a modest number of medicinal herbs for a reasonable number of ill­nesses.

Two thumbs up. I just hope that book writing does not lead Dr. Brown to abandon his herb column in the Townsend Letter for Doctors. That journal would be considerably less valuable without it.