If Herbal Medicine is Medicine, Shouldn’t it be Treated as Such?

Recently, the UK Government announced a consultation on whether practitioners of acupuncture, herbal medicine and traditional Chinese medicine should become subject to statutory regulation. Unsurprisingly, the announcement has sparked some lively debate. Currently, most herbal remedies and dietary supplements are classified by regulatory authorities as “foods,” and therefore subject to far less stringent legal requirements than pharmaceutical products. However, if a herbal remedy offers some pharmacological effect over and above its nutritional value (and many undoubtedly do), then it becomes no longer a food but a medicine.

Medicines, including herbal medicines, make changes at a physiological level. Some of these changes are desirable and some are not. It would be irrational to imagine that any agent would have only positive benefits: if you believe an effect is real enough to do you good, you must also believe it could do you harm. The secret of good medicine is to balance the potential benefits of a drug with its known side effects.

There is a widespread perception that a herbal remedy is somehow more gentle or less ‘alien’ than a prescription drug. In fact, herbal medicines are generally no more than plant extracts containing an assortment chemicals whose actions are largely unknown. Is it really better to swallow a jumble of plant chemicals than a single, purified and identifiable one? With a prescription or over-the-counter drug, at least you know what you are getting; a herbal remedy, by contrast, can vary from one country to another, one manufacturer to another or even one bottle to another. In fact, analyses have revealed that the contents of many herbal products do not always match the ingredients listed on the labels, and some even contain dangerous poisons, including pesticides, lead or mercury. It is ironic that so many people who are so particular about what they consume are prepared to take tablets they so little about.

Despite the advances made in conventional medicines, many people live their lives in constant pain and discomfort, and are willing, or desperate, to give anything a try. It is these people more than most who must be protected from the false hopes and exaggerated claims that some herbal remedies offer.

Of course, many alternative health practitioners care deeply about their patients, and genuinely believe they can offer something that alternative medicine cannot. These practitioners stand to gain from regulation, through the increased credibility and patient reassurance that it brings. Indeed, the European Herbal and Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association (EHTPA) and National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH) have both publicly welcomed government consultation. So, with support from practitioners and encouragement from the government, can it be long before alternative medicine comes under the umbrella with its better researched and more robust cousin, medicine?

  • Um, no.

    Like medicines regulation has down and up sides. Government has its own agenda – and the power to impose it: that there concern is health is simplistic if not naive.

    The benefits need to be demonstrated or at least argued for. Saying government regulation will be good is an article of faith (where’s the science or evidence?).

    “Despite the advances made in conventional medicines, many people live their lives in constant pain and discomfort, and are willing, or desperate, to give anything a try.” Very true. And many have found relief through ‘alternative medicine’. What’s more as many of these successes are after the conventional (usually government subsidised) medicine has failed, each of these can be seen as demonstrating the superiority of the ‘alternative’. It seems that swallowing the unknown may be done for good reason.

    Herbs make changes at the physiological level. Of course. So does food.

    This article seems confused. It argues for government but doesn’t accept the current regulation (the placing of herbs in the category regulated as food). If the current regulation by government is flawed, why is it a good idea to have more of it? This article doesn’t even seem to be aware of this, let alone attempt to address it.

    • The Other John Mc

      Here’s some evidence (“science!”) that government regulation can help in unregulated and anarchy-like social systems: (1) seat belts save lives. (2) Helmets save lives. (3) Laws against drunk driving have saved lives. (4) Laws (and punishment) against murder have lowered murder rates.

      Plenty more where that came from!

  • The problem with the proposed statutory regulation is that it would endanger the public. It is a form of pseudo-regulation that would give a government stamp of approval to people who are often no better than quacks while doing little or nothing to protect the public.

    There is still time to vote against these proposals (the consultation ends on November 2nd) and you’ll find plenty of material at http://dcscience.net.

  • In Canada, at least, it is moving in that direction. Sadly, the powerful lobby groups backed by food giants such as Monsanto and pharmaceutical giants link Pfizer are the ones putting the most political pressure on the government to make it happen. And this is the danger: The proposed legislation essentially makes it illegal to grow and use traditional remedies if you are not a licensed producer, yet many remedies like stinging nettles grow wild in peoples’ back yards. If there is one sector of the Canadian economy that can still be considered to have a lot of cottage industry in it, it’s the herbal remedy industry.

    For many, it is a way of life. Telling them they can’t make tea (for example) and sell it at the local market is an infringement on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (in the U.S. there are similar amendments to the constitution). But legislation is not made for moral reasons, as any first year law student can tell you. So the question on how to regulate is a thorny one, especially when there is not a level playing field in the political arena for making the decision.

    The decision to regulate (and how to regulate) has less to do with good science, as it has to do with which lobby groups get to have the most influence in the final bills.

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  • Jen

    Yes it’s a real medicine. Let’s remeber that reflexotherapy and massage as well as
    homeopathy became an official part of traditional medicine. I think it just takes some time for official medicine to acquire other possible methods and succeed with that/ Also I do believe, that if doctor doctors, he/she SHOULD show the interest to all possible ways for treatment and cure.

  • angely

    In my humble opinion if you believe an effect is real enough to do you good, you must also believe it could do you harm. The potential benefits of a drug with its known side effects.

  • nurahmedkankudti

    I want a course of DHMS by correspondence so please give the deails about this coure
    presentyl I am working as a doctor (opd)IBAM/RMP.

  • This informative post has the potent to give precise info about the dietary supplements that have positive effect on our health. sea veg is another product that is prepared from nutrients of see weeds and extremely useful for our body’s natural mechanism.

  • Em

    I guess this whole thing really just feels like an agenda. I don’t see anything good coming out of this at all. First, I don’t see that anyone is going to fund the clinical testing for herbal supplements. So what we are going to end up with is a “war on drugs”. How are they going to enforce this propoal? How are they going to give Dr’s the information that they need. The public is eventually going to realize that the “purified” pills you are talking about all come at a very real price, whether by side effects or even death. Modern medicine has done some pretty amazing things. but nature is perfectly compatible with us when used intelligently. There just isn’t the money behind nature to get herbal products tested clinically for the market. What they should do is regulate for purity, period.

  • Herbal medicine is by far not harmful unless taken with other drugs. Ginger for example causes iris bleeding if taken with the drug “warfarin”. Other herbal medications cause harmful and dangerous adverse reactions when taken with certain drugs.

    So yes, it is important that people know about this, so it must be regulated to avoid complications that may be life threatening!

  • the only thing that should be regulated are the adverse reactions of herbs when taken with other drugs that may make those drugs inefficient or dangerous.

  • Ethcathinone is a stimulant drug, to which it acts as a prodrug, and is completely responsible for its outcomes. Herbal has also side outcomes upon the herbal remedy, the dosage, and any pharmaceutical medications used by the patient. Quite a few alternate wellbeing treatments, such as adjusting the diet strategy or getting homeopathic treatments, are very secure. Yet some herbs are tricky and should be employed in the suitable quantities for optimal wellness and nicely getting.

  • Karma Dorje

    The assumption (dogma-based, not science-based) that herbal remedies must somehow work through the action of a single “Active Ingredient” (or class of compounds) overlooks certain very important things.

    It is entirely possible that the desired clinical response obtained by herbs is the result of the summation of dozens or perhaps even hundreds of gentle and pharmacologically subtle and distinct mechanisms of action. This may account for the difference in toxicity, because herbal remedies may be gently “asking” the body to react in numerous physiologically desirable ways, none of which create, by themselves, a large change in the overall economy of the organism (thus few “side effects”). Conventional medicines act, generally, by one or only a few “mechanisms of action”, and, because of their physiologically more significant pharmacological dose, create a much larger re-action on the part of the organism in an effort to maintain homeostasis (thus many “side effects”).

    Assuming that isolated “Active Ingredients” are a substitute for the whole herb (or purified extract) is somewhat like a General assuming that the most effective platoon in a Division, is, in battle, an adequate replacement for the whole Division! The excuse that the relationships (or even identity) of all the possible active compounds in a given herbal preparation might never be elucidated, in no way argues against the evidence of the clinical effectiveness of the whole herb! The handwriting has been on the wall for a long time as to how free most well-prepared herbal preparations are from undesirable effects.

    Isn’t it about time that Pharmacologist looks back in time to remember and learn from the Phamacognocists, whose knowledge formed the basis for modern Pharmacology?

    Charles W. Sullivan, D.O.

Rachel Danks, PhD

Rachel Danks, PhD, is a freelance medical writer and editor with over 12 years of experience in the field. She has written and edited numerous academic papers, and is experienced in preparing marketing materials, educational resources and regulatory documents. Her clients include medical education groups, advertising agencies, pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions.

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