Origins and Birth
Edited by Co-Editors in Chief
Herbal Medicine: How effective is it?
It is not unknown that certain plants possess therapeutic properties. In fact, the oldest traces of herbal medicine – a science, and an art, based on preventing and treating ailments using plants – date back to five thousand years ago, when Sumerians in Mesopotamia wrote herbal recipes on clay tablets (Petrovska, 2012). Archeologists have also discovered an entire intact papyrus on which Ancient Egyptians categorized as many as 850 recipes (Abou El-Soud, 2010). Farther to the East, ayurvedic texts were first written down in India and its surrounding countries in the 4th century BCE (Reddy et al., 2007). Today, Chinese herbalism is one of the most globally acknowledged, since it is still widely present in Chinese contemporary medical practices; a tendency that is far from surprising given the country’s history. Indeed, The Pen Ts’ao Ching is the oldest Chinese pharmacopeia found to this day: it compiles texts on three hundred sixty five herbs supposedly written by the emperor Shen-Nung who studied the effect of plants on human health around five thousand years ago. However, even though herbal medicine has been around for so long and countless cultures have relied on this traditional practice for centuries, modern medicine has somehow taken over. Why? Does modern medicine provide more effective treatments? To what extent exactly does herbal medicine work? In this article, I will inquire into these questions.
In today’s Western culture, most people tend to head to the pharmacy or to their physician hoping they can be provided with a simple and effective synthetic drug that will fix whichever condition they may have. Why are man-made drugs our go-to, even though the vast majority of them contain the very same therapeutic agents found in plants? There is indeed a growing interest in alternative treatments. Actually, the trade of medicinal plants and herbs has an annual growth rate of 15% recorded by the World Health Organization (WHO, 2019). According to one study, 6-48% (numbers vary greatly depending on the country) of the EU population has used herbal medicine at least once (Eardley et al., 2012). A very common example is the use of chamomile tea for relaxation and better sleep; another example is garlic, which has antimicrobial and cardioprotective properties. I myself have used rosehip oil to successfully heal and fade a large hyperpigmented surgical scar, a much cheaper alternative to silicone gel. In fact, the attractive costs of herbal treatments are one of the reasons why they are preferred. This, among culture and history, explains why 80% of the population in developing countries depend on them almost entirely (WHO, 2019). On top of this, what captures the interest of individuals seeking alternative treatments is the holistic aspect of this type of therapy. Doctors are criticized for not taking a step back and looking at their patient as a whole, instead quickly prescribing them some drugs that simply have the opposite effect of the symptoms presented, hoping they will go away. Herbalists on the other hand tend to take their time, ask the patient about their diet, their mood, their lifestyle, look at their tongue or smell their breath - which is hardly to be seen among today’s physicians. As our body parts are all linked in more than one way, occasionally the main symptom is a sign of a different problem, somewhere else, and possibly more serious. A herbalist will then aim to treat the overall illness instead of that one symptom only. This way, every individual gets a tailored treatment corresponding to the uniqueness of their body and its condition.
Of course, another major attractive characteristic of herbal medicine is that it is natural. However, this does sometimes lead to the belief, and complete misconception, that “natural” implies “good” and “safe”. Seeking something more natural mostly comes from a fear of side effects of synthetic drugs. But, there is also a danger that comes with using plants. For instance, using certain plants alongside other drugs, synthetic or not, can be harmful. Adverse reactions usually include elevated liver enzymes or kidney damage. Garlic, which I previously mentioned, can for example make you bleed more easily if taken in large amounts. So it is best to avoid it if you are taking warfarin which is a blood thinner (Garilli et al., 2021). Also, echinacea (in the daisy family), commonly used to treat colds and flus, can lower the immune system if used over a long period of time. Much worse is the allergic reaction to the plant. If someone is allergic to its pollen, they could very well be severely allergic to the root or the leaf too. An allergic reaction to echinacea can be particularly bad, the worst being anaphylaxis. This is why it is crucial to always let your doctor know about any herbal medicines you may be taking. Not only can natural medicines be bad for you in some cases, but they can also be insufficient. For several serious diseases, plants are simply not potent enough.
When it comes to depression or cancer, herbal treatments will not be successful. They definitely can be complementary to another treatment, but will not cure these severe illnesses on their own. This is at least what we are told and what researchers have observed. Alternative medicines are considered to be less of a good option in comparison to modern medicine, due to the lack of high-quality studies on them. Clinical trials are regularly conducted and most of the time results show that the natural drug is just as ineffective as a sugar pill. Some people believe the lack-of-scientific-proof excuse is just a cover that doctors use and the actual reason for their rejection of herbal medicine is that they fear how powerful it may be. After all, those doctors have put a lot of time, money and effort to get to where they are, which could explain why they feel the need to solely support and practice the modern medicine they have been trained to do. Certain doctors will admit that, yes, plants may help patients cope with side effects such as the nausea, the pain and the fatigue that cancer patients experience. But they are only truly effective against minor ailments such as rashes or digestive issues.
In summary, the skepticism towards modern medicine is growing, which boosts the attraction to herbalism. Indeed, herbal treatments can be rather appealing as they may have fewer side effects (if used properly), are often cheaper, and take a more holistic approach. Although we do not have enough scientific evidence showing its effectiveness, 60% of the world population still relies heavily on herbal remedies (WHO, 2019). Of course, in Western societies, one tends to make use of it for treating minor ailments only, while trusting conventional medicine to handle more severe conditions. Nevertheless, as more patients observe how helpful it can be as a complementary medicine, I must say, the future of herbal medicine definitely looks promising.
Abou El-Soud, N.H. (2010). ‘Herbal medicine in ancient Egypt.’ Journal of Medicinal Plants Research, 4(2), 082-086.
Eardley, S., Bishop, F. L., Prescott, P., Cardini, F., Brinkhaus, B., SantosRey, K., Vas, J., Von Ammon, K., Hegyi, G., Dragan, S., Uehleke, B., Fønnebø, V., & Lewith, G. (2012). A systematic literature review of complementary and alternative medicine prevalence in the EU. Forschende Komplementärmedizin (Vol. 19, Issue SUPPL 2, pp. 18–28)
Garilli, Bianca MD, Foley Maryann RN BSN, Sather, Rita RN (2021). A Guide to Common Medicinal Herbs. Brigham and Women’s Hospital, (brighamandwomens.org)
Petrovska, B. (2012). ‘Historical review of medicinal plants’ usage.’ Pharmacognosy Reviews, 6(11), 1-5.
Reddy, J.K., Bahadur, B., Bhadraiah, B., & Rao, M.L.N. (2007). Advances in medicinal plants. Hyderabad, India: Universities Press
World Health Organisation (2019), WHO Global Report on TraditionalL and Complementary Medicine 2019.