Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Internal Consistency - Part 2: Herbal Medicine

I've been thinking recently about the importance of skepticism and the need to apply skeptical thinking to my own life. As such, I've had to take a good, hard look at some of the things I believe. Why do I believe these things? Are these beliefs really supported by evidence, or is it just wishful thinking? You can read Part 1 of this exercise here.

Herbalism was one of the things about Wicca that appealed to me the most. Thinking that I could do something simple, like making a cup of tea, to help heal someone else made me feel really good. And there's nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but for the most part I was pretty ignorant about what I was doing. Sure, I had read a few books about herbal teas and tinctures and what herbs had been traditionally used to treat what symptoms...but I was really and truly ignorant about medicine. I wasn't a doctor, I was a dumb teenager who never stopped to think that the person I was making this tea for might have an adverse reaction to it or that it might interact negatively with some prescription medication they were already taking.

Herbal medicines are still chemicals and need to be treated as such. Unfortunately, herbal remedies are considered dietary supplements by the FDA, and therefore aren't regulated in the same way as prescriptions and over-the-counter medications. Basically, the products have to be 'safe', and that's about it. They don't have to regulate dosage or interactions, and they don't have to prove that the drug does what the manufacturer says it does.

Just to make that clear, an herbal supplement supplier can produce a product and claim that it does whatever they want. "This placebo will make you better at math, double your lifespan and cure your impotency! Give us your money!" They don't have to prove that it is effective beyond what it takes to convince people to spend money on their product. Why not? Basically, no one is sure where to draw the line between 'food' and 'drugs', making it difficult to regulate consistently. As the herbal medicine and supplement business gets bigger and bigger, it is becoming more and more apparent that the current laws are not adequate. There is a lot of debate going on currently about how and whether the FDA should regulate herbal supplements.

Herbal remedies aren't just snake oil, though. Many modern medicines are just concentrated or modified versions of the chemicals found naturally in plants. Which is even more reason to tread cautiously. Make sure you are as informed as possible before using any herbal remedy, and consult with an actual doctor before starting any herbal regiment. Yes, willow bark is where we get aspirin from and willow bark tea is a nice, relaxing way to treat your friend's headache...unless they happen to be taking another NSAID, and it happens to induce angioedema. You are not a doctor just because you know something about herbal remedies.

Just because a remedy is 'natural' or 'traditional' doesn't mean it will actually do anything, either. Here is an excellent run-down of some popular herbal treatments and their purported effectiveness. As long as herbal remedies are supported by published studies and common sense, and you use the appropriate caution, there is nothing wrong with them. In fact, they can be very beneficial. I would recommend books like this one, published by the prestigious MAYO clinic and backed up by research, if you're really interested in trying your hand at natural or herbal remedies. This book will not tell a patient to try anything that might be dangerous, anything that has been tested and found not to work, anything that is based on belief rather than on evidence, or anything that might delay or interfere with needed medical treatment. Be extremely suspicious of any 'natural' or 'herbal' treatment that can't meet those basic criteria.

So where does this leave me? Do I still 'believe' in the power of herbal medicine? To the extent that herbal remedies have been shown to be effective, yes. I 'believe' they should be treated like any other drug...with caution, medical supervision and common sense. I no longer take what is written in my books on herbalism at face value, and I wouldn't offer to prepare an herbal remedy for anyone without making doubly sure it was safe and being certain they were also seeking professional medical advice for their problem. I'm slightly less ignorant in that regard, at least.

I think the biggest difference between my perspective now and my perspective as a Wiccan in high school is that I no longer think of herbalism as the answer to everything. Dumb kid that I was, herbalism seemed like this mystical, perfect way to fix things. 'This tea will fix your body'. 'Burn this herb as an incense to fix your mind'. 'This herbal sachet will fix your heart'. If it didn't work right away, it was just because herbal remedies took longer to be effective. I believed everything I read in my books about herbal cures, without needing or looking for evidence. I had faith in the power of these plants to heal. Honestly, I'm lucky I didn't accidentally poison someone.

Faith is simply not a good basis for medical treatment. Knowing what I do now about herbalism and science, I feel like I am much better equipped to use herbal remedies effectively and safely...with a substantially reduced risk of accidental poisoning. I would call that a significant improvement.


  1. Supplement companies can't claim anything they want . . though its a very very thin line.

    Example: My snake oil cures cancer. = fail
    Example: My snake oil is believed by many scientists to have the potential to cure cancer. = win.

    - your favorite herbal remedy salesman

  2. Thank you for the clarification, friendly neighborhood herbal salesman!

  3. I didn't know that herbal remedies are considered dietary supplements. Thanks for the info.