Germany’s Rich Herbal Traditions

Exploring the impact of the German Commission E.

| September/October 2004

Like the roots of an herb hidden beneath the soil’s surface, the foundations of current herb use in the United States are not immediately evident. Have you ever asked yourself why ginkgo, St. John’s wort, black cohosh, ginseng, garlic, echinacea, saw palmetto, valerian, bilberry and milk thistle are the top-selling herbs in the United States? Does some common factor draw consumers to them more than other herbs?

The simple answer is science. These herbs have more science behind them than most other herbs on the market. They also have something else in common: They are all approved as drugs in Germany. Since the late 1970s, changes in Germany’s drug regulations have required a system that registers herb products. This system requires development of information on how herbal products work (their chemistry and pharmacology), how well they work (clinical trials), and safety information based on their long history of use and any new scientific data.

Anyone who has done even cursory research into an herbal supplement or product has seen references to findings by the German Commission E. Few of us actually know what the commission is or how it is doing work that, by all rights, our own regulatory agency ought to do for the American consumer. If you’re interested in medicinal herbs — and you probably are if you’re reading this magazine — this relatively unknown working group has a great deal of influence on the choices available to you.

Germany: Past and Present

Germany is a place of contrast and continuity, where the past is never far from the present, embraced seamlessly as if time were nonexistent. When engaged in conversation about herbs, one is likely to hear the name Hildegard of Bingen, evoked as if the 12th-century nun were someone’s grandmother who had died just yesterday. Hildegard, author of Physica (Natural Science), the first herbal written by a woman, lived from 1098 to 1179. Her herbal was published in 1533 — a short time ago by German standards.

The therapeutic use of herbs is a longstanding tradition in Germany. A 1901 law, reaffirmed in 1961, allows for the sale of herbal medicines as drugs, giving them special status as medicinal agents, a unique situation compared with other European countries. In essence, throughout the 20th century up to the present, herbs sold with the intent of curing, alleviating or preventing disease or symptoms of illness have been allowed in the German market as drugs.

German research and herbal products have driven the U.S. market. Today, we turn to Germany for scientific information on herbs, including American medicinal plants. Much of the scientific data — chemical, pharmacological and clinical — on the best-selling herbs comes directly from German research. Many of the best-selling herb products in the United States also come from Germany.

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