Dr Tendai Zuze
With Covid-19 in our midst, you may be considering to take herbal medicines.
It would be wise to consider the benefits and disadvantages of doing so. The fact that herbal medicines are drugs is, under-appreciated by most people. Herbal medicines are often promoted as “natural” (and therefore gentle).
But while the implication is that “natural” is good, the majority of the most toxic compounds we know of are natural.
Despite the criticism of herbal medicine among mainstream medical professionals, it is useful to remember that many common drugs we use today are derived from plant-based sources. For example, scientists originally derived aspirin from willow bark, while herbalists prescribe white willow for headaches and pain control.
There are a number of possible advantages associated with using herbal medicine as opposed to pharmaceutical products.
Advantages of herbal medicine
Most herbal medicines are well tolerated by patients, with fewer unintended consequences when compared to pharmaceutical drugs.
Herbal medicines tend to be more effective for long-standing health complaints that don’t respond well to pharmaceutical medicine.
One example is, herbs and alternative remedies used to treat arthritis.
Herbs cost much less than prescription medications. Research, testing, and marketing add considerably to the cost of prescription medicines.
Herbs are available without a prescription. You can grow herbs such as peppermint and chamomile at home.
In some remote areas, herbs may be the only treatment available to the majority of people.
Disadvantages of herbal medicine
Herbal medicine is not appropriate in all situations. These are a few of the disadvantages to consider.
Modern medicines treat sudden and serious illnesses and accidents much more effectively than herbal treatments.
A herbalist would not be able to treat serious trauma, such as a broken leg, appendicitis or a heart attack as effectively as a conventional doctor using modern diagnostic tests, surgery, and drugs.
Another disadvantage of herbal medicine is the very real risks of doing yourself harm through self-dosing with herbs.
While you can argue that the same thing can happen with medications, such as accidentally overdosing on remedies, many herbs do not come with instructions or package inserts.
There is a very real risk of overdose.
Harvesting herbs in the wild is risky, if not foolhardy, yet some people try to identify and pick wild herbs. They run a very real risk of poisoning themselves if they don’t correctly identify the herb, or if they use the wrong part of the plant.
Herbal treatments can interact with prescription medications. It’s important to discuss your medications and herbal supplements with your doctor to avoid dangerous interactions.
Because herbal products are not tightly regulated, consumers also run the risk of buying inferior quality herbs. The quality of herbal products may vary among batches, brands or manufacturers. This can make it much more difficult to prescribe the proper dose of a herb.
Herbal medicines require consistent use over a longer period of time than most prescription drugs. They have not been optimised in a laboratory for effectiveness, and, due to this naturalness, they take time to work.
Any conventional medication can have side effects. These side effects are described and reported after drug trials and research studies have been conducted.
In contrast to conventional medications, herbs have little or no actual scientific basis so doctors can guide their patients with regards to proper usage or potential toxicity.
There are no standardised references and most of the herbal formulations have not been analysed, are not uniform, and have not been quality controlled. Moreover, even if a given herb has a known toxicity, the manufacturer may not warn consumers.
Before you take any herbal medication, consider the above and discuss with your doctor, especially if you are on any chronic medication.