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  » Alternative Medicine  »  Herbal Medicine

What is herbal medicine?

Herbal medicine, also called botanical medicine or phytomedicine, refers to the use of any plant's seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark, or flowers for medicinal purposes. While the scientific study and medicinal use of herbs began in the eighteenth century, documentation of the early practices of the people of Egypt, Greece, India, and Asia demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of herbs and their uses from well over a thousand years ago. Centuries later, settlers in North America gleaned much of their herbal lore from Native Americans. For example, black cohosh tea has been used in Native American cultures for centuries to soothe menopausal symptoms.

Although a renaissance is occurring in herbal medicine in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration still classifies herbs as dietary supplements and forbids manufacturers to claim that their products are able to treat or prevent specific diseases. Europe, however, is another matter. In Germany, for example, herbal preparations are regulated as drugs and an expert medical panel, known as the German Commission E, actively researches their safety and effectiveness.

Who is using herbal medicine?

Nearly one-third of Americans use herbs and it is estimated that in 1998 alone $4 billion was spent on herbal products in this country. Unfortunately, a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated that nearly 70 percent of individuals taking herbal medicines (the majority of which were well educated and had a higher-than-average income) were reluctant to reveal their use of complementary and alternative medicine to their doctors. Because herbal medicines contain a combination of chemicals, each with a specific action, many are capable of eliciting complex physiological responses—some of which may create unwanted or unexpected results when combined with conventional drugs. Be sure to consult your doctor before trying any herbal products.

How is herbal medicine sold in stores?

The herbs available in most stores come in several different forms: teas, syrups, oils, liquid extracts, tinctures, and dry extracts (pills or capsules). Teas are simply dried herb materials left to soak for a few minutes in boiling water. Syrups, made from concentrated extracts and added to sweet-tasting preparations, are frequently used for sore throats and coughs. Oils are extracted from plants and often used as rubs for massage, either alone or as part of an ointment or cream. Tinctures and liquid extracts are solvents (usually water, alcohol, or glycerol) that contain the active ingredients of the herb material. Tinctures are typically a 1:5 or 1:10 concentration, meaning that one part of the herbal material is prepared with five to ten parts (by weight) of the liquid. Liquid extracts are more concentrated than tinctures and are typically a 1:1 concentration. A dry extract form is the most concentrated form of an herbal product (typically 2:1 to 8:1) and is sold as a tablet, capsule, or lozenge.

Currently, no organization or government body regulates the manufacture or certifies the labeling of herbal preparations. This means you can't be sure that the amount of the herb contained in the bottle, or even from dose to dose, is the same as what is stated on the label. Some herbal preparations are standardized, meaning that the preparation is guaranteed to contain a specific amount of the active ingredients of the herb. However, it is still important to ask companies that are making standardized herbal products the basis for their product's guarantee. If consumers insist on an answer to this question, manufacturers of these herbal products may begin to implement more quality control processes, like microscopic, chemical, and biological analyses. Again, it is important to consult your doctor or an expert in herbal medicine for the recommended doses of any herbal products you are considering.

Are there experts in herbal medicine?

Herbalists, chiropractors, naturopathic physicians, and practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine all use herbs to treat illness. Naturopathic physicians believe that the body is continually striving for balance and that natural therapies can be used to support this process. They are trained in four-year, postgraduate institutions that combine courses in conventional medical science (such as pathology, microbiology, pharmacology, and surgery) with clinical training in herbal medicine, homeopathy, nutrition, and lifestyle counseling.

How can I find a qualified herbalist in my area?

For additional information, or to locate an experienced herbalist in your area, contact the American Herbalists Guild (AHG) at P.O. Box 70, Roosevelt, UT 84066 (435-722-8434) or visit their web site at www.healthy.net/herbalists. To locate a licensed naturopath in your area, contact the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) at 601 Valley Street, Suite 105, Seattle, WA 98109 (206-298-0126) or visit their web site at http://www.naturopathic.org/.

Supporting Research

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