Herbal medicine commentary: are we 'chasing fairies'?

"By proper Herbalism, I mean the variety practiced by Herbalists who have devoted many years of study to the application of herbs for medical purposes, as opposed to the fairy chasing brigade who hijack any therapy that they can practice with minimal effort..."
This quote is part of an interesting piece I was reading on ProgressiveU.org. The author comes down pretty hard on therapeutic ideas like "hot stones placed on (the) body, or ... mystical energy massages from Maori tribesmen", attempting to differentiate more modern, unsubstantiated modalities from traditional Herbalism as a valid, ancient art.
Let me clarify two points at the outset:
-first off, I work with fairies everyday in my garden. They help me out a lot, and the spirits that inhabit plants have broad-ranging powers and may be responsible for much of nature's medicine. In making this statement I am being very grounded and scientific: in my experience, 'fairies' are real, and have observable and testable effects.
-secondly, I deeply value thought processes that transcend reason and rationality, and I believe these processes are a vital part of the herbal tradition. Nevertheless, they cannot function alone. Throughout history, human beings (and animals) have evolved systems for understanding nature and functioning more efficiently as part of her. These systems rely on rationality, at least on a temporary basis, and greatly facilitate learning. Herbalism employs many such systems (energetics, herbal actions, physiology, phytochemistry, direction of cure, doctrine of signatures, and many more) and I love them all. In my opinion, it is a balance between intuitive, acausal, non-linear feeling and creative, pattern-based, rational thinking that makes an effective human. Herbalism teaches both!

That said, the author of the piece has some very valid opinions that made me stop and think. For instance:
"When somebody introduces certain herbs and plants into the body they have a tangible and explainable effect. Herbalism does not rely on some magical explanation, despite the fluffiness of some of the people who practice the tradition and their assertions to the contrary".

Not all effects can be 'explainable'. Modern doctors will be the first to agree with this! Besides that, what does 'explainable' mean? You can provide meaning to any set of circumstances. I think the point here is that herbalism does have a grounded component to its therapy, and that phytochemistry and biochemistry have danced together a bit and come up with some nice stories to tell. But, just because the effect of Rose elixir taken on the tongue is best explained magically, doesn't mean there is no effect.

Where Herbalism gets the short end of the stick scientifically, is in the fact that many herbal preparations have not been scientifically tested in controlled clinical trials. As a result preparations which have a history of effectiveness in treating ailments don’t have official scientific verification, not because they have failed scientific testing, but because they haven’t received it. Quacks and other alternative therapists exploit this to make a case for their remedies.

Two important points: a long history of traditional use is somehow not seen as evidence of validity, while scientific trials are. Couple this with the inability to patent crude plant preparations, and you have and perennial inadequacy set up for herbal medicines. The answer isn't necessarily just more trials (though this is great, too). It's to change the system that defines validity.
I can't argue that some 'quacks' exploit my attitude. And I hadn't really thought about that so much until I read this article.

Personally, I believe that legitimate Herbalists need to take a stand and speak out against suspect therapies in an effort to protect consumers and distance their discipline from the quacks. Herbalists should make greater efforts to safe-guard their patients from exploitation rather than just fighting with Western doctors. As an advocate of integrated medicine, I see the constant bickering between much of the Herbalist and Western Medical community as just tiresome and regressive.

This, to me, makes a whole lot of sense. We just have to be really careful in defining a 'suspect therapy': I can see that issue becoming a slippery slope all the way back to 'evidence-based medicine' and its exclusive reliance on the double-blind, placebo-controlled study.

I feel, from a deep, non-rational place inside me, that these issues (and others) are going to come swiftly to the fore of herbalist's discussions as the community evolves and interfaces with the American culture in all its craziness. I only ask that we try to be aware of the forces and ideas that are shaping our philosophies and worldviews, and stop briefly to ponder them. And that's the rational place coming out, right where it belongs.


Bill said...

I recently purchased a herbal remedy for high cholesterol. I'm a little wary about taking them but even more nervous about the statin drugs on the market. I'm a native Vermonter so I'm a bit skeptical about taking any kind of substances (herbal or commercial).

guido said...

I don't blame you for being skeptical. After all, with good food, exercise, water, and air, we shouldn't need much else.
Not entirely sure what remedy you purchased, or how to help, or if you even need or want help. Feel free to email me with specific questions - and if not, I'd just like to say that I share your skepticism about many of the 'remedies' out there on the market today. Some are total junk. How can we handle this?? Is the answer more regulation?

greenopolis said...

I work in a health food store. The preponderance of junk is disheartening.
But when I think of regulation, I think of the FDA and how corrupt it is. I think of homeopathy and how difficult it is to regulate something that is understood by only a tiny minority of the population.
I try to sell herbs in bulk to customers, but they are more comfortable with pills. Things that look pharmaceutical-like are accepted more readily than a crushed up plant.
For example, there is a slickly packaged remedy for cholesterol on the shelf which is made solely of alfalfa. $25 a bottle.
The alfalfa in bulk is $7.95 a pound.
It's a complex issue. Seems like educating oneself is the best solution for now.

Mountain Mary said...

Regulation is not the answer in my opinion. Regulation often leads to corruption of the remedy by the "guy" with the deepest pocket pushing their agenda. Education and more education is the answer. Sharing our experiences with the "next guy". Help one person, they help another, and so on. I believe that one helpinganother would solve the majority of the social ills our world populations suffer. Mary

guido said...

Helping others has become passe' because our communities have become disconnected. People don't spend time together, and they certainly don't spend much time with plants either...

sog said...

I have worked in the natural health & wellness field for over 25 years. I manage a natural nutrition store and as mentioned above people are more likely to buy something in a bottle that looks like a drug and cost 4 times more than the raw herbs. I agree education is something we need to be doing on a daily basis.
Saying that I also think people are just to lazy to make their own remedies from scratch. Everyone wants an instant fix with everything.
In Health

Laura Lago said...

I don't think helping others has become passe' but just like almost any other profession in this country, when it gains popularity it loses quality. How to prevent or reverse the trend is difficult. Maintaining integrity and an ethical approach is a necessary basis a any type of healthcare provider. Less is more but damands on herbalists makes this difficult.