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?

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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