Herbal medicine: A modern perspective
The following essay is extracted from a book called Healing Power of Herbs, by Dr. Michael Murray, N.D.
The term herb refers to a plant used for medicinal purposes. Are herbs effective medicinal agents or is their use merely a reflection of folklore, outdated theories, and myth? To the uninformed, herbs are generally thought of as ineffective medicines used prior to the advent of more effective synthetic drugs. To others, herbs are simply sources of compounds to isolate and then market as drugs. But to some, herbs and crude plant extracts are effective medicines to be respected and appreciated. In 1985, the World Health Organization estimated that perhaps 80 percent of the world population relies on herbs for primary health care needs. This widespread use of herbal medicines is not restricted to developing countries, as it has been estimated that 30 to 40 percent of all medical doctors in France and Germany rely on herbal preparations as their primary medicines.
The rebirth of herbal medicine, especially in developed countries, is largely based on the renewed interest of scientific researchers. During the last 10 to 20 years their efforts have yielded an explosion of scientific information concerning plants, crude plant extracts, and various substances from plants as medicinal agents.
For the past 25 years about 25% of all prescription drugs in the United States have contained active constituents obtained from plants. Digoxin, codeine, colchicine, morphine, vincristine, and yohimbine are some popular examples. Many over-the-counter preparations are composed of plant compounds as well. Because a plant cannot be patented, pharmaceutical firms are not very interested in investing in research on whole plants or crude plant extracts as medicinal agents. Instead, pharmaceutical companies screen plants for biological activity and then isolate the so-called active constituents (compounds). If the compound is powerful enough, the drug company will begin the formidable process to procure Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. This is a formidable process because FDA approval of a plant-based drug typically takes 10 to 18 years at a total cost of roughly $230 million dollars. No medicinal claims are allowed for most herbal products because the FDA requires the same standard of absolute proof as is required for new synthetic drugs. Currently, herbal products continue to be sold as “food supplements”, and manufactures are prohibited from making any therapeutic claims for their products.
The advantages of herbal medicines
What advantages do herbal medicines possess over synthetic drugs? As a rule, herbal preparations are less toxic than their synthetic counterparts and offer less risk of side effects (obviously, there are exceptions to this rule). In addition, the mechanism of action of an herb is often to correct the underlying cause of ill health. In contrast, a synthetic drug is often designed to alleviate the symptom or effect without addressing the underlying cause. It has also been demonstrated with many plants that the whole plant or crude extract is much more effective than isolated constituents. (Healing Power of Herbs by Dr. Michael Murray, N.D.)