Opinion: The Need for Clinical Trials of Medicinal Herbal Alternatives

Viewpoints to consider: Are herbs better for your health than pharmaceutical drugs?

| March/April 1997

Synthetic versus herbal: let the testing begin 

At The World Congress on Complementary Therapies in Medicine in Washington, D.C. last May, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop offered data which support my pentameric postulates for phytomedicinals (five conditions under which herbal medicines are often preferable):

1. If you cannot afford a U.S. physician and/or a prescription. (According to the Journal of the American Medical Association [JAMA], more than 40 million Americans were uninsured in 1994, projecting to more than 50 million in the year 2000.)
2. If you cannot communicate with your physician. (Koop said that the average HMO physician today spends six minutes with a patient and, when answering the physician’s questions, the patient is interrupted after fourteen seconds by male doctors and after forty seconds by female doctors.)
3. If your physician has misdiagnosed your major ailment. (He or she is wrong 50 percent of the time when diagnosing Lyme disease, according to JAMA; 20 percent of adult coughs represent undiagnosed pertussis.)
4. If more than one thing ails you. (I believe that most of us have several things wrong with us at any given time.)
5. And if you are deficient in any vitamin, mineral, amino acid, essential fatty acid, or other nutrients (and I believe most of us are deficient in one or more).

Otherwise, the physician’s prescribed synthetic silver bullet may really be the best possible medicine for you.

Why herbs?

Herbal alternatives might be better for you even if you can’t satisfy all of the above “ifs”. Why? First, the herbal alternative is often available to you whether or not you can afford or communicate with your physician. Half of the top-twenty selling herbs are growing relatively untended at my farmette, the Herbal Village, in Maryland.

Second, herbal alternatives contain thousands of biologically active chemicals, including some that can help with most correctly diagnosed ailments. (This is not to say that all herbs are safe; some, of course, are harmful.) Most phytochemical compounds exist in natural ratios, which your genes have experienced in evolution. When you take an herb or combination of herbs your body can sequester many phytochemicals it needs through homeostasis and reject, to a degree, overdoses of those it does not need. Evolution has “taught” your genes to direct this coordinated equilibrium; genes orchestrate the equilibrium of which good health is a major manifestation; disease directs disequilibrium.

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