A Wealth of Information, or a Good Read Spoiled?

Learn how to navigate through the millions of herbal websites on the Internet...

| August/September 2001

  • Aristolochia serpentaria is one of many in this genus carrying a toxic compound that may cause kidney damage.
  • Using the internet for information on herbs gives new meaning to the words “garden tools.”
  • St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is effective for mild to moderate depression, but not for major depression.
  • Using the internet for information on herbs gives new meaning to the words “garden tools.”

Many of you may consider surfing the Internet as an experience akin to picking nettles. But, being on the cutting edge of herb information, especially on medicinal uses of herbs, has required not one good book, but an entire library of herbal information. I have such a library with about 4,000 volumes, on which I have spent thousands of dollars in the past twenty-five years. And while using computers to find and manage information will never be as seamless and pleasant as curling up with a book, the Internet offers more current information than you could possibly wade through in a day, much of it both up-to-date and cutting-edge.

Recently, a friend asked me for information on Parkinson’s disease, with which he had just been diagnosed. I did a PubMed (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/PubMed/) search and found more than 12,000 references. I downloaded the references and abstracts for the 3,000 most current references, and handed him a printout of about 1,000 pages. That’s a little more than most of us want to know, but it illustrates how rich this source of information can be.

Getting started with your search

Make sure you have the latest Internet browser (compatible with your computer and operating system) to take full advantage of a site’s capabilities. Many of us get complacent in our browsing habits. If you get a lot of “site failed to load” messages, it might be because you don’t have the latest browser software, which is free and can be downloaded directly to your computer. You must have an up-to-date operating system and a CPU (central processing unit—i.e. your computer’s brain) to make it all work.

Get a fast Internet connection. The bigger the “pipeline,” the less time you will sit there waiting, and waiting, and waiting for your computer to respond. The ol’ 56 K modem connection doesn’t get you anywhere very fast. Check with your phone or cable TV company to see what’s available in your area. Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) service is available in most metropolitan areas. Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) lines can go twice as fast as most modems. Cable TV (especially digital cable) will make you feel like you’re driving an Internet sports car. Even direct home satellite Internet service is widely available. Connect as fast as you can.

The search

Remember that there’s more than one search engine! Don’t rely on the same search engine all the time. If you use America Online, its browser engine works great for searching companies and organizations that have some kind of arrangement with the company. You’ll find more than you can plow through, but maybe not exactly what you’re looking for. The same is true for Excite, Yahoo, Hotbot, Lycos, AltaVista, and dozens of others. To learn more about search engines, I did an Internet search on “search engines.” It led me to a site called searchengine.com, which lists all sorts of search engines—general, world, topical, and reference. It explains what they are and what they do. My favorite search engine, the one that seems to give me the most hits relevant to my search, is www.google.com. I have it bookmarked as my home page in Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator and use it many times each day.

Limit your search by entering specific information into the search field. I did a search on google.com for “herbs.” In .19 seconds, the search gave me 1,510,000 hits. “Herbal medicine” took .06 seconds to led me to a mere 113,000 sites. “Herbs for Health” took .50 seconds and led me to only 41,800 sites. “Herb Companion” took .34 seconds and led me to 2,030 hits. “Herb Companion Steven Foster” led me to, well, zero sites. Hmmm. Arm yourself with the information you need to conduct an Internet search. Let’s say you want to find out more about saw palmetto. You should know not only the common name of the plant, but the scientific name as well. If you know other, older synonyms for the scientific name, even better. For example, in the case of saw palmetto, it has been known botanically for more than 100 years as Serenoa repens. However, for whatever reason, non-botanical scientists in Europe often still use the more than century-old scientific name Sabal serrulata for saw palmetto. Therefore, if you do a search of scientific articles with “Serenoa repens” as a title or subject phrase, you will miss the several articles (including clinical studies) which use the obsolete name Sabal serrulata in their title. You are in control of your search. The more you know what you’re looking for, the better your results.

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