Most Americans believe that we have the best health-care system in the world—at least that’s what all the doctors and government health experts keep trying to tell us. But anyone who has ever gotten the run-around from a doctor or had to deal with a health insurance company knows that if what we have is the best, then the best still leaves a lot to be desired.
Most Americans assume that the pharmaceuticals their doctors prescribe are unquestionably better than the herbal medicines that few doctors and relatively few Americans know much about. It delights me to no end that this picture is changing rapidly, because I’ve personally seen medicinal herbs succeed where pharmaceuticals were failing.
I’m not saying that pharmaceuticals are bad. I am saying that we need more research that tests herbs against pharmaceutical drugs. Until that happens, we simply won’t know which is better. That leads me to a rather shocking conclusion: Americans are not necessarily getting the best medicine. The Green Pharmacy with its herbal therapies may, in many cases, prove to be more economical, more effective, and safer—all with fewer side effects—than pharmaceuticals. Our challenge is to transcend the assumptions.
Medicinal herbs in meals,teas, and tinctures
There are many easy ways to use medicinal herbs. Whether you use them as foods, make teas, apply them as poultices, or add a dropperful of tincture to your morning glass of juice, you’ll get the benefit of their healing properties.
My favorite way to use herbs that can be safely ingested is as foods or mixed into foods. In the United States, we make a distinction between foods and drugs, but in many—but not all—cases there is no real difference. Is garlic, for example, a food or a drug? The correct answer is that it’s both. The same goes for some of the herbs on the accompanying chart, while others should never be taken orally, such as tea tree.
When it comes to meals that heal, I think it’s hard to beat a big mixed green salad, a bowl of vegetable soup, and a fruit salad topped with flavorful herbs such as mint or ginger or with zesty herbs such as cayenne.
You can make a good tea with dried herbs. You can even pop open capsules of powdered herbs and use the contents to make tea. But whenever possible, I use fresh herbs, at least in spring, summer, and fall, simply because fresh herbs are more fun and more flavorful. You can make healing teas from some of the herbs listed on the chart.
You can also use herbal tinctures, with dosages ranging anywhere from 5 to 50 drops or from a fraction of a dropperful to several droppersful. Sometimes they’re even measured in teaspoons or tablespoons. I occasionally add tinctures to herbal teas or juices. On the run, I’ll just take the recommended number of drops. One advantage of buying a tincture is that appropriate dosages are generally indicated on the label and, if stored properly, they last a long time.
Shopping for medicinal herbs
Standardized herbal products are available at health-food stores or herb shops. Standardized means that the herbal products have been processed a bit to guarantee a known minimum level of one or more of the major active ingredients. These products are the best quality you can purchase. Standardization largely compensates for the natural variability you find in bulk herbs—the kind available in bins or jars and measured out according to weight—and it takes the uncertainty out of herbal preparations. You know exactly how much of the active ingredients you’re getting.
Unfortunately, standardization makes herbs more expensive than the bulk herb would be. Even so, these “expensive” standardized herbal extracts are still only about a tenth as costly, on average, as the pharmaceuticals that treat the same conditions, so you’re still way ahead when you take the standardized green route.
Standardized extracts do vary somewhat, because the longer these herbal medicines are stored, the less potent they become (careful packing and the inclusion of herbal antioxidants such as rosemary can extend their shelf life). But then, pharmaceuticals aren’t perfect either.
You can usually find standardized herbal extracts quite easily wherever herbal products are sold. If you don’t see them, ask for them. If an herbal product is standardized, it will say so on the label.
Taking stock of precautions
I’ll be the first to admit that herbal medicine is not risk-free. To benefit from using herbs, you need to have some basic background information. There are a number of strategies that you can use to protect yourself.
Make sure of the diagnosis. Herbal devotees sometimes get the idea that they can diagnose illness as well as come up with herbs to treat it. But diagnosis is a separate art and one that is best left to physicians. I discourage self-diagnosis.
Listen to your body. If the herb doesn’t feel right,don’t take it.
Once you’re confident of a diagnosis, then you can discuss with your physician how to treat it: drugs, herbs, some combination of the two, or any of the foregoing plus diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes.
Watch out for side effects. I’m convinced that all medicines, natural or synthetic, have side effects. But it’s hard to imagine an active plant chemical or an herbal mixture containing thousands of them having just one targeted chemical reaction in our bodies. Of course we have other reactions, unrelated to the illness, that could appropriately be termed side effects—some desirable and some undesirable. That’s why you have to watch yourself when taking any new herb for the first time.
If you have an unpleasant reaction to an herb, such as dizziness, nausea, or headache, cut back on your dosage or stop taking the herb. Listen to your body. If the herb doesn’t feel right, don’t take it.
Be alert for allergic reactions. People can be allergic to anything. Even if you have no known allergies, you might be allergic to a new herb that you try. Be careful. Again, listen to your body. If you develop any unusual symptoms, stop taking the herb and consult an allergist or physician.
Beware of interactions. Pharmaceutical medicines sometimes interact badly with each other and with certain foods. The same goes for herbal medicines, although many herbal reference books neglect to mention this. Always be particularly careful when taking more than one drug or herb or a combination of a drug and an herb. Bad interactions are always possible. If you suspect a bad interaction, consult your physician or pharmacist.
Here’s one interaction that you should be particularly aware of: Antidepressants known as monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors interact badly with wine, cheese, and many other foods. If you take a pharmaceutical MAO inhibitor, you shouldn’t eat these foods. Some antidepressant herbs also may inhibit MAO, so the same food restrictions apply.
If you’re pregnant, take special precautions. As a general rule, you shouldn’t take herbs while you’re pregnant unless you discuss your selections with your obstetrician. There’s a good reason for this. Quite a few herbs can increase the risk of miscarriage. For more about herbs and pregnancy, see the March/April 1997 issue of Herbs for Health.
Enjoy the discovery
Now that you have in hand a list of tips on how to use herbs and some common-sense precautions, please enjoy the chart. Share it with your health-care provider and, above all, learn more. Ample research exists to guide you safely and healthfully to taking care of your body by using alternatives to the pharmaceuticals we now so readily digest. Welcome to the Green Pharmacy.
Reprinted from The Green Pharmacy: New Discoveries in Herbal Remedies for Common Diseases and Conditions from the World’s foremost authority on Healing Herbs by James A. Duke (Rodale, 1997) with permission.