It seems that almost every day we come across a story in a newspaper or magazine which raises concerns about the use, misuse, or overuse of a particular pharmaceutical remedy in the treatment of minor ailments, or serious medical conditions. Often these stories are quickly discredited as being ill-informed or based on insufficient evidence, perhaps medical opinion is divided, or particular experts in the field prefer to wait for an extended period of time, maybe years, in order to ascertain the safety, or otherwise of these commonly used remedies. This is not to criticize medical science, or its practitioners, who must rely on objective and statistically valid evidence before giving an expert opinion. However, it is little wonder that many of us turn to herbal remedies, either as a supplement, or as an alternative to manufactured pharmaceutical products. There is a reassurance in that simple word “herbal”, taking us back to simpler times, when there was little choice in how to treat our day to day bodily malfunctions, aches and pains and we made use of what was available to us, perhaps in our own back gardens!
Are herbal remedies the answer? Surely if they have been in use since men and women first walked on the Earth they must be both effective and safe? The answer to this, as to many questions, is “Yes” and “No”, or even “Well it’s not as simple as that.” In the past, herbal remedies were often administered or recommended by one particular person in the neighborhood, frequently a woman, (probably regarded as a witch), who was an expert in her field. This person would have studied and learned, by trial and error, about the efficacy and safety (or otherwise) of the product she was supplying. Herbal remedies may be natural, but that does not make them safe and we need to be well informed about the optimum dosage as well as about possible side effects and what are called “contra-indications” in the medical profession. After all, before a doctor prescribes a drug to you, s/he will refer to your medical history and question you about your lifestyle. We need to be equally cautious in self-prescribing, and take advantage of information and advice that is available to us from reliable sources.
Should herbal remedies be regarded as an alternative, or a complementary supplement to conventional medicine? We need to use our common sense in this matter. If a herbal product appears to be effective in treating a minor condition, then by all means use it instead of resorting to a manufactured product, with possibly dubious side effects. As regards more serious and even life threatening conditions, it seems unwise to reject the offerings of modern science, which for the most part have a proven record in alleviating suffering and prolonging life, whether or not they also cause undesirable side-effects. Herbal remedies may in these cases be used in a complementary way, if this is appropriate. Let us also not forget that many widely used conventional medications are based on a herbal product, (aspirin and digitalis to name just two), so we may be using a herbal based product without being aware of it. Herbal and conventional pharmaceutical remedies are not always mutually exclusive.