Consumers and even mainstream doctors are starting to view herbal remedies more seriously. This attitude shift is partly due to increasing recognition of the benefits of a more healthful diet and herbs and spices, which paved the way for their more exotic cousins, the medicinals.
But perhaps the biggest reason more people are turning to nature’s medicine chest is worries about pharmaceutical recalls and the lengthy list of potential side effects of many modern drugs.
“Often, people need a second prescription to deal with the side effects of the original drug they’re given,” says Cheryl Myers, an integrative health nurse who sits on the editorial board of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians’ Natural Medicine Journal.
Myers may lean toward natural cures, but her approach to healthy living combines herbals and conventional medicine. “I keep a foot in both worlds. If I get run over by a pickup truck, don’t take me to an aromatherapist; take me to the best trauma center there is,” she says.
One issue fueling the argument against herbals is the lack of approval by the Food and Drug Administration of their use as medicine. Supplements and natural remedies are regulated by the standards set for food, not pharmaceutical drugs.
“There are procedures for natural remedies, which don’t need the same approval as drugs. But facilities are inspected to make sure there’s a good manufacturing process — it’s regulated like food production and even a bit more intensively,” Myers says.
She notes that even conventional drugs that undergo the FDA approval process can pose risks, citing the 2012 outbreak of fungal meningitis from contaminated steroids made in a Massachusetts lab that sickened more than 200 people and killed 64.
There are unscrupulous manufacturers in the natural supplements market, too. “Curcumin is so hot right now, everyone is jumping on the bandwagon, and fakes are coming onto the market. There’s a Chinese synthetic curcumin derived from petrochemicals,” she says.
Choosing the right product
Myers advises doing the homework and checking labels, only buying supplements form companies with quality formulations – two good resources are the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the National Institutes of Health's Office of Dietary Supplements. “Also, build a relationship with a nutritionist or a health food store you trust. They often know the latest developments before the public does. They can be extremely knowledgeable.”
Also, as with conventional drugs, follow the dosage; just because it’s natural, more isn’t necessarily better and could be dangerous. “If the dosage is four pills a day and it’s not working for you, then it’s not the right remedy,” she says, “or the formulation is inferior and it’s not being absorbed. Don’t take more pills; change the product. The most expensive product is one that does nothing for you.”
Myers is confident herbals will become an accepted part of modern medicine: “[Ibuprofen] doubles the risk of stroke and heart attack; it causes gastric bleeding. Nothing is risk-free, but taken as prescribed, the benefits of many herb cures is good health.”