Herbs on the Move

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Chances are you didn’t know how to pronounce echinacea a couple of years ago. But today, it’s a household word. The purple coneflower–Echinacea spp. to scientists–­accounted for nearly 10 percent of all herbal supplement sales in 1998, according to a Whole Foods magazine survey. And while echinacea was becoming the poster child for herbal medicine, other botanicals were finding the spotlight, too. Ginkgo, St. John’s wort, garlic, saw palmetto, and ginseng, to name only a few, are all part of the herbal medicine boom that’s upon us.

The numbers point to a new life for herbal medicine–a shift from niche market to mainstream, as Steven Foster, Herbs for Health lead adviser, describes it. It’s changing the way doctors, pharmacists, and herbalists work. Additionally, new players are coming to the table, including pharmaceutical giants such as Bayer, Rexall Sundown, and Warner Lambert, as well as super retailers such as Wal-Mart.

But whether this new life constitutes a better life for herbal medicine is a matter of opinion. To understand how newfound fame will impact herbs, we went to the experts–members of the Herbs for Health editorial advisory board.

Prediction 1:

Consumer reporting will take hold.

Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council (ABC), a nonprofit educational organization in Austin, Texas, has noted a few trends that provide clues to the possible future of herbal medicine. For one thing, he ­observes, the mainstream press is changing how it approaches herbalism–taking an investigative rather than reactionary tack. And, instead of discovering that the emperor has no clothes, mainstream journalists are learning that herbs work, in many cases.

According to Blumenthal, the issue for journalists now is de­­­­termining which products are safe and well made in today’s burgeoning and possibly confusing market, rather than merely reacting to trends or the latest scientific report about an individual herb.

“[The] media appears to be shifting from reporting about the herb market to investigative reporting, with increased interest in laboratory testing of commercial herb products” to verify the truth or falsity of label claims, Blumenthal writes in a recent editorial in the ABC’s quarterly magazine, Herbalgram.

Other clues exist as well. According to another recent article in Herbalgram, more than fifty investigational new drug applications for botanical medicines have been filed and accepted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And at least a dozen national health insurance companies have added alternative care to the services they’ll cover, in some cases reimbursing clients for botanicals.

Prediction 2:

Industry will adopt high standards.

The general consensus among herb experts is that the herbal boom has prompted many manufacturers to do a better job of monitoring the safety and efficacy of their products.

Varro Tyler, a pharm­­­­­acognicist and respected authority on botanical medicine, says that work on perfecting standardized extracts–and assuring that an herb’s active components exist in those extracts–has ­improved the herbal supplement manufacturing process.

By law, herb products must be produced by following the FDA’s current good manufacturing practice (CGMP) regulations for food. Some manufacturers go beyond that and adopt the more stringent CGMPs for pharmaceutical drugs, Tyler says.

“If you see that in [a supplement manufacturer’s] literature, it’s a pretty good indication of quality,” Tyler says.

Prediction 3:

Physicians, educators will take part.

The medical world is taking herbs a lot more seriously, too, says Mary Hardy, a medical doctor who lectures widely on medicinal herbs and integrative medicine. Physicians and pharmacists are clamoring for information, she says, because they’ve discovered that they need it to support and protect their patients.

“People who are taking herbs are often taking more than one herb at a time, and at least half, by some surveys, are taking pharmaceuticals, too,” Hardy says. “By other surveys, 18 percent are taking herbs and drugs.”

During the past five years, Hardy says that she has switched to herbs and holistic thinking in her practice.

“I don’t think that the average doctor will use quite as many herbs as I do,” Hardy says. “I think you’ll find that physicians integrate herbs into their prac­­tice–but I think they’ll use them like ‘green’ drugs”–in other words, they may consider herbs a healthy resource, but they’ll use them in the same way they use drugs, rather than via holistic practices associated with herbalism.

Arthur O. Tucker, a research professor at Delaware State University and an authority on essential oils and herb taxonomy, has also noted a decisive change in terms of interest in botanical medicine.

“Every day I receive letters, faxes, phone calls, and emails for information on herbs, and every week I receive several pleas to review journal articles or books,” he says. “This contrasts to my semi-pariah status twenty years ago when I had various descriptors applied to me by my colleagues–‘hippie flako’ comes to mind.”

Prediction 4:

Herbalists will stay the course.

In the midst of all this talk about science, doctors, and clinical testing, it’s easy to forget where herbs came from–both literally and in terms of their history. For years, centuries in fact, herbalists have practiced largely on the outskirts of commonly accepted medicinal methods, with a few exceptions. Today, however, herbalists are finding themselves in the midst of a meeting of science and tradition, each side having its own benefits to share.

Steven Foster, for example, says that his support of science’s role in herbal medicine has earned him a conservative reputation among some of his peers. But, he says, “I want to see herbs succeed in the marketplace, and I think to have that happen on a broad basis, for a broad cultural acceptance, we need scientific evidence.”

On the other hand, herbalists such as Christopher Hobbs, a licensed acupunc­turist and fourth-generation botanist, continues to emphasize a holistic approach, ­encouraging patients to develop healthy habits, protect the environment, and maintain balance, especially through humans’ ancient healing relationship with plants.

“Modern science studies the constituents, [the] pharm­­acology of herbs, but this is all highly reductionistic,” Hobbs says. “The spiritual nature of herbs and healing has yet to be grasped by the throngs of people rushing to buy ginkgo pills from the local drug­­­­store, hoping to find a better drug with less side effects.”

Some herbalists, Hobbs says, have made a lot of money from the herbal boom. But, he adds, he hopes that the newfound popularity of herbs won’t overshadow the spirit of herbalism.

“We’re here to listen to the green plants and the natural world and to serve as messengers,” he says. Meanwhile, herbalists shouldn’t ignore the developments and contributions of science.

“We’ll be better able to capture the potent healing essence of plants on a grander scale,” Hobbs says. “We can’t think of stopping here. Commercial standardization today is just in its infancy.”

Prediction 5:

Consumers will become more herb savvy.

The changing marketplace can lead to consumer benefits, such as lower prices, but it also can carry potential pitfalls, such as upstart companies entering the market with little or no experience in herbs.

“Unfortunately, it ends up being a ‘buyer beware’ market, where the consumer really has to know what they’re shopping for,” Foster says.

One tip from the trade for consumers: Ask about the source of the plant material used to make the supplement.

“Some companies are now putting the original source of the product on the label,” Tyler says. And some manufacturers have done extensive testing of their products, he adds; check with your local retailer to learn more about which companies both openly state their plant sources and invest in testing to assure quality.

Hardy also encourages self-education.

“If you don’t have the time and energy to call the company and get the information you need, then you need an adviser–your herbalist, doctor, or pharmacist,” Hardy says. “Short of that, there are ways to look at the label so that you can be more likely to buy a good product–standardization, botanical name of product, milligram amount, lot numbers, expiration dates–those kind of things give you a clue that the manufacturer is taking it ­seriously.”

For the information-hungry, Tucker suggests taking an academic approach.

“Read, surf the Web, and read some more,” he says.

“Subscribe to as many journals as you can afford, and utilize the free databases paid from your federal tax dollars: AGRICOLA and MedLine.” These databases are available on the Internet (which is available free of charge in some libraries).

Reading up on herbal medicines and taking time to research those of particular interest may open the door to slow, cautious, and safe experimentation, Tyler says.

“The typical person doesn’t have a lab in his hip pocket,” he says. “Short of that, just try the product.”

If it doesn’t work, “try another product before giving up,” says Tyler. “I recognize that’s the human guinea pig method, but there isn’t any other way for the average consumer.”

Jan Knight is editor and Erika Lenz is assistant editor of Herbs for Health.

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