2001: A Good Year for Herbs

First there was a positive media blitz. Then came a stinging backlash. This year, determined and well-funded science may lead the way to a new era of herbal medicine.

| January/February 2001

  • Red clover will be one of the herbs studied in new federally funded research.
    Steven Foster

What makes herbs tick? It’s a question that will be asked—and answered—in new and different ways in 2001 and the years to come.

Herbal medicine has come of age in the past five years, moving from the health-food market to the mass market. Once-obscure plants known only to herbal insiders are now household words. Major players in the pharmaceutical world have either bought their own lines of herbal medicine or are beginning to produce them. But as the market has matured, the holes in herb research have come into focus more clearly, often resulting in controversy and confusion.

For example, scientists may know about one active chemical component of an herb. But herbs are complex living organisms, made up of many interacting chemicals. If one of their constituents has an effect on the human body, chances are there are several others yet to be discovered. Even when the benefits of an herb are known—such as echinacea’s ability to reduce cold and flu symptoms—mysteries may remain about how the herb is metabolized in the body.

When research does exist on an herb, experts may—and frequently do—disagree on the conclusions that can be drawn.

The type of research being done on herbs also is changing. When herbs are effective, they still offer the potential to radically change the world of medicine. Such changes also carry the potential for great profit. The world is on the brink of a new era of herb research that will bring new technologies and new partnerships to bear on the science of botanical remedies, answering questions that have long puzzled experts.

The case of echinacea

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