Healing where the whole is greater than the parts: Home Medicine Cycle 31

When speaking and writing about herbs, I often encounter argumentative people who promote pharmaceuticals as inherently "safer" and "better" because they can be more strictly controlled from a chemical standpoint than herbs and other naturally occurring medicines. And these discussions can quickly devolve into a contest of citing studies on which specific remedy is better or safer, if the pharmaceutical proponents set the rules of debate.

Creative Commons Image by  Aotaro of Flickr. com

Creative Commons Image by  Aotaro of Flickr. com

I wish I had all the answers to settle the controversy, but I don't. There aren't as many studies about herbs as there are about pharmaceuticals because herbs are more difficult to patent and more complex to process. The profit margin will never be as high with herbal medicines as it is with synthetic and isolated chemicals. And so they aren't as widely studied in big laboratories with the resources for lengthy medical trials with large test and control groups. This fact alone leads many to dismiss herbal medicines out of hand. If it hasn't been through that expensive process of established medicine it is seen as worthless and potentially dangerous.

But let's look at this for a moment, most of these medical trials take six weeks. Only a few go on for a few years and almost none watch patients over a life-time. Very few of these pharmaceutical studies look at the overall effect of a mix of pharmaceuticals on the body over time. And yet there are clearly effects, beyond the side effects of a certain drug. The use of synthesized, isolated chemical compounds as medicine (i.e. pharmaceuticals) increases the acidity of the body and causes a variety of long-term and systemic problems. When medical people complain that herbs have not been studied enough to be "safe," I worry that the long-term and cumulative effects on the immune system and delicate biochemical balance of the body of the many synthetic pharmaceuticals we consume today are not known either.

Herbs haven't been studied by many modern studies but what has been done almost always confirms the observations of generations of herbalists concerning the particular use of an herb. Some of herbalist records are more meticulous than others, but over many centuries and a wide variety of sources, patterns emerge that are usually confirmed when they are put to a modern medical trial. The peer criticism of other herbalists has generally been enough to root out insubstantial claims about an herb. 

As a result, we know that yarrow has anti-inflammatory and anti-septic effects both from studies and from the battlefields of history. But more importantly, we know from the combined experience of many herbalists that taking moderate doses of medicinal herbs over a lifetime, strengthens the body rather than weakening it. We know that some herbs can cause liver damage if taken too often and too much. We know that others can become ineffective if the body builds up a resistance to their effects. And we know which herbs are safe to consume regularly as food, partly because they have been consumed as food for thousands of years without ill effects.

Creative Commons image by Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia

Creative Commons image by Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia

I certainly don't want to spread a myth that herbs are inherently safe because they are "natural." Herbs have to be treated with the same respect we treat any medicine. And it is worth remembering that any time we tamper with the balance of the body, we are likely to do more than just what was intended. That is true with pharmaceuticals and with herbs. There is some evidence that herbs sometimes carry compounds that act to compensate for the wider systemic effects of their medicinal compounds, thus mitigating some of the unintended effects. But this can't be counted on to simply fix everything. It is only a hopeful sign that should be suited further. Some of the effects of herbs may be helpful in one context but harmful in another. For example, sage tincture can be used to deal with low-blood pressure attacks and thus modulate blood pressure. It doesn't necessarily raise blood pressure on a continuum as a simple synthesized chemical might, but It could be adverse for peope with high blood pressure to take a lot of sage in a concentrated form.

My journey in learning about herbs and taking back my health over six years, when I had become very sick and vulnerable to infection due to a lot of pharmaceutical use during several rounds of in vitro fertilization, taught me many things about herbs. But the most important thing it showed me was the importance of the residual and cumulative effects of medicines.  None of the pharmaceuticals I consumed had labels warning of adverse effects on immune function and yet their cumulative effect was that I had wide-spread fungal infections and a simple cold would lay me out as hard as the flu. I was sick more days than I was well for two years.

But here's the crucial bit. I didn't take any specific herbs to "fix" my immune system either.

Creative Commons image by Bogdan of Wikipedia

Creative Commons image by Bogdan of Wikipedia

At that time, I didn't dream that herbal medicine could really help with the severity of my problems. I simply hoped that if I stopped taking pharmaceuticals, the problems would recede. I took herbs for simple things--for cold and flu symptoms that I had constantly, for cuts and scrapes and for fungal infections. And I saw that unlike the pharmaceuticals I had previously tried to fight these problems with, the herbs helped while I experienced very  few negative side effects. And instead of getting sick with something else after using them, I gradually got better over all. Over three years my immune response improved and I was sick less and less often.

At first, I thought this was simply because I had stopped taking harmful pharmaceuticals, and I am sure that helped. I noticed that if I broke down and took an Ibuprofen for a headache, I would get infections quickly in the next day or two and I would have a rebound headache two days (almost to the hour) after taking the pill. But I also noticed some of the opposite general effects when I took herbs. Not only did elder flower help with congestion as I'd hoped, I also felt stronger after taking doses of herbs and was unlikely to get sick soon afterward. If I simply suffered through an illness (as I did sometimes in the days before I had seen enough proof of the efficacy of herbs), I was much more likely to have a relapse than if I used herbs to help with the symptoms. Even though those herbs were not supposed to "cure me" or "fix" my immune system, they helped to support general health as well as deal with specific symptoms.

I never took just one herb in isolation for weeks at a time. I never overdosed on any particular "miracle" herb. Those who get overexcited about inflated claims concerning the curative powers of a specific herb sometimes end up with liver damage or other health problems. Herbs can be abused, and if they are, they won't promote overall health very well. But the moderate, well-considered and diverse consumption of medicinal herbs has wide-ranging benefits beyond just the specific condition or symptoms the herbs were taken to aleviate.

I believe this is why we find many families who use herbs as their primary medicines, who are very rarely sick. Those who use them consistently believe strongly in the abilities of herbs to benefit our health, even though there may not be a modern medical trial showing that these specific  herbs can be used in ways found to be effective by herbalists. We observe in short that the whole is greater than the parts when it comes to health. And herbal medicinals, used thoughtfully and moderately, have an overall beneficial effect on health.

That concept is unlikely to be studied in a large medical trial, even though it could be logistically. Even the part of the pharmaceutical and dietary-supplement indudstries that sell herbal remedies will not be very interested. Because the only way to reliably reap these overall benefits from herbs is to grow and make your own medicines, to make your medicine as local, fresh and individually designed as possible. While a skilled, professional herbalist may be able to provide this kind of medicine to local patients, that won't make for large-scale corporate profits.  And in many cases, health is best achieved by simply homecrafting herbal medicinals and consulting with doctors and professionals in an intelligent way. No one has found a great way to profit from the quiet, perennial craft of the home herbalist and no large, expensive trials will be funded to prove the efficacy of such a grassroots method.

Instead the individual has to rely partly on observations of what works for you as an individual--employing caution, common sense, herbalist experience and the advice of medical professionals to steer a balanced road. Eight years after I was brought to my knees by the combined effects of many pharmaceuticals, I am now as healthy as I have ever been. My children who were expected to have poor immune response and constant infections from having spent time in orphanages before being adopted are now the ones at school who are "never sick." 

We treat those things that do inconvenience us with things we grow in our own backyard. There is no one thing I did to cause this result. Instead it's a case of the whole being greater than the parts. It has come from an overall lifestyle to promote health and the careful use of herbal medicinals.  Please feel free to comment and add your own experiences on the topic of promoting general health.