Wrangling an“Herban” Legend

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The nickname stuck for the Texan herb enthusiast.
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Mark Blumenthal has edited several herbal reference books and is the editor and publisher of the journal HerbalGram.
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A 1985 photograph (at left) of Blumenthal posing with a ginseng soda is a takeoff of the 1980 film “Urban Cowboy.”
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More than 25 years after being dubbed the “Herbal
Cowboy,” American Botanical Council Executive Director Mark
Blumenthal is still slingin’ the information on herbs far and

Mark Blumenthal may play a bigger role in your
life than you realize: If you subscribe to the quarterly journal
HerbalGram, he informs you about the latest herbal news; he’s a
good part of the reason you’re reading these pages right now; and
he might just be why you know about herbal medicine at all.

Modern-Day Pioneering

One of the world’s most-quoted herbal authorities, Blumenthal is
the founder and executive director of the American Botanical
Council (ABC) in Austin, Texas. He created and is editor and
publisher of the ABC’s HerbalGram and is the editor of the
bimonthly literature review service HerbClip. Blumenthal was senior
editor of The Complete German Commission E Monographs–Therapeutic
Guide to Herbal Medicines (1998), Herbal Medicine: Expanded
Commission E Monographs (2000) and The ABC Clinical Guide to Herbs

Not only is he one of the original disseminators of herbal
information in this country, making appearances at dozens of
conferences, conventions and other events each year, but he’s a
really nice guy!

Though he doesn’t like to use the word “pride,” he will admit
that some of his accomplishments stand out in his mind. He began
HerbalGram in 1977 as a newsletter called Herb News; it evolved
into HerbalGram six years later. HerbalGram was a real pioneer–the
first publication in the United States to systematically report on
the growing body of herbal literature and scientific research. “I
envisioned a Scientific American of herbs, a magazine that deals
not just with scientific issues but also covers a lot of industry
issues and conservation issues,” Blumenthal says. “HerbalGram
probably has some of the widest coverage of any herbal publication,
and I think we’ve done it in a way that’s engaging because it’s
colorful and editorial.”

Blumenthal became even more involved in the burgeoning herbal
medicine field by starting the ABC in 1988 as a nonprofit research
and educational organization. Born and raised in Texas, the “herban
cowboy” (Blumenthal’s e-mail alias has long been “HerbCowboy”) says
the one thing in his career that gives him the most satisfaction is
that three of the most venerated elders in the herbal
community–James Duke, Norman Farnsworth and Varro Tyler–helped him
start the ABC and were on the board of trustees and offered
guidance. ” To me, if I were to take pride in something, it’s that
three of the leading experts and elders of the herbal community in
the United States from a science point of view all helped found and
guide the early years. I find that very rewarding and empowering,”
he says.

And you can count Herbs for Health, sister publication to The
Herb Companion, among Blumenthal’s credits, too. It was
Blumenthal’s HerbalGram material that originally formed the basis
of Herbs for Health. “I will take partial credit with my good
friend Steven Foster for being part of the genesis of Herbs for
Health,” Blumenthal says. “Steven and I would take some of the
research reviews from HerbalGram and rewrite them to make them more
accessible, and [The Herb Companion] did a two- or four-page insert
called Herbs for Health,” he says. “Then they realized they were
getting such high response from the readers that Herbs for Health
became a spin-off publication.”

Blumenthal, along with James Duke, Steven Foster, Rob McCaleb,
Christopher Hobbs, Art Tucker and the late Varro Tyler were the
original advisory board for this publication, and we take pride in
the fact that many of those names still advise us today.

Self-Educate, Self-Medicate

Blumenthal strongly believes that the herb community needs to
increase well-designed research studies and increase awareness
among the public and health-care practitioners’ of herbal
medicines. Herbs and other natural remedies, he says, should be the
first choice in health care and pharmaceutical medicines the second
or third down the line, when appropriate. “Herbs are the first
medicine. That’s why droog, which means ‘to dry’ in Old Dutch,
became the basis for the word ‘drug.’ The whole concept behind the
word ‘drug’ refers to herbs,” he explains.

A growing group of people in this country are realizing they can
self-medicate at home, simply with teas and herbal supplements,
Blumenthal says. “But here’s the proviso: Self-medication requires
self-education. You can’t be a good self-medicator unless you have
good education, and that’s something you’ve got to do on your own
in the current regulatory environment.”

While acknowledging that self-education is a good thing to do
with any type of medicine, Blumenthal hopes the government
eventually will develop reasonable standards for herbal medicines
so that labels can include information on the documented benefits
of supplements. He argues that the United States needs a system
similar to Germany’s Commission E that will review the entire body
of evidence on an herb–including its history, chemistry and human
and animal studies–to determine government-approved benefits that
can be printed on the label. ” I see that as part of our future. I
think it’s inevitable that it will happen because consumers will
demand it.”

The Science Behind It All

So many herbs have been shown by historical use to be
beneficial, yet literally thousands of herbs haven’t been
clinically tested or have been minimally tested, Blumenthal says.
“Do we need more studies on tested herbs, like ginkgo or garlic?
The answer is yes because the medical establishment has a double
standard. They’re very willing to accept one anecdotal or poorly
documented report or clinical case report of adverse effects, but
even after a dozen or two dozen clinical trials showing benefits or
safety, even when they’re meta-analyzed, even then many people in
the conventional medical community are very reluctant to accept the
benefits,” he says.

According to Blumenthal, a big problem plaguing current herbal
medicine studies is a lack of specificity regarding what herbal
constituents are being tested and what lengths of time and dosages
are needed to see results. Because of a lack of standards in test
design and practices, studies on herbs come back skewed or just
wrong. The media then picks up on these skewed results and reports
the ineffectiveness of herbs, without understanding the base
problems with the studies. This was the case in last summer’s
failed echinacea study, in which researchers used the less
medicinally recommended variety of echinacea (Echinacea
angustifolia rather than E. purpurea or E. pallida) and less than
one-third the recommended dose–then they declared echinacea
ineffective. The general public, as well as many members of the
mainstream medical community, will never hear the problems with the
study, nor any further details about it, Blumenthal says. All they
will hear is the media’s sound bite: Echinacea doesn’t work against
colds and the flu.

Blumenthal and the ABC are taking steps to change this problem.
“I do a one-hour presentation [several times a year at universities
and conferences] showing the results of certain clinical trials on
herbs and supplements and the headlines. We show the disconnect
that happens sometimes between the actual results of the trial and
the way it was reported to the media,” Blumenthal explains. “When
looking over a group of studies, unless it was a specific brand …
if they say ‘ginseng extract from China,’ was it 1:1? Was it 4:1?
What are we talking about here? We need for there to be better
characterization of the herb being used,” he says.

Many companies are discouraged by the current situation,
Blumenthal says, and they are reluctant to fund and organize
further studies until there is some kind of consensus regarding
study requirements so that everyone can agree on the specific
trial’s results. He cites another recent study: “They did an
eight-week designed trial in the Mayo Clinic. … They didn’t really
have an eight-week trial, however. Instead, it was a four-week
trial, then a ‘washout’ period, then another four-week trial. Of
all the clinical trials on record of using black cohosh for hot
flashes, all of them are anywhere from 12 to 24 weeks. This trial
was one-third to one-sixth the duration. It never should have been
funded because there was no evidence that women will respond in
four weeks. … There needs to be better review of some of these
trial designs.”

Herban Renewal

Despite the challenges of herbal research and education,
Blumenthal is optimistic about the future of herbal medicines. He
says the growing green movement in this country will help carry the
herbal agenda forward. “The green movement–renewable energy, green
building materials, reducing, reusing, recycling–is all an
outgrowth of a deeper awareness of people who understand that we
need to live in a sustainable symbiotic way with our environment,”
he says. “But some people who are environmentally sensitive may
care more about what people dump into a river than what they dump
in their mouths. People must recognize that the environment is us
and we are the environment. There’s no distinction between what we
allow to be put into the river or the air and what we put in our
bodies and on our skin. It’s all part of the same matrix.”•

Jessica Kellner is coordinating editor of Herbs for Health.

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