Herbal History

A botanical is a plant (or part of a plant) valued for its medical or therapeutic properties, flavor and/or scent. Technically, herbs are a subset of botanicals. Products made from botanicals that are used to maintain or improve health conditions may be referred to as herbal products, botanical products or phytomedicines.

Substances derived from the plants are the basis for a large percentage of the pharmaceutical drugs used for the treatment of heart disease, high blood pressure, pain, asthma and many other health problems. For example, since 1775, foxglove is an herb used in the manufacture of the heart medication, digitalis. St. John’s Wort is widely used in the treatment of mild depression and does not have the side effects of Prozac, which is used for the same purpose. Other herbs have been found to be very useful for reducing cholesterol, diabetes and so on. It has been estimated that 4 billion people, about 80% of the world’s population, use herbal medicines for some aspect of their primary health care. (World Health Organization).

These herbal preparations are used in many traditional medical protocols: homeopathic, naturopathic, Ayurvedic and especially Native American medicine. There has been a resurgence of herbal medicines today, especially in the face of the side effects from the drugs manufactured by pharmaceutical companies.

Today, we are rediscovering the utility of herbal medicines as botanical dietary supplements with potentially important preventive and medicinal effects. However, when patients talk about using herbal medicines, primary care physicians often lack the knowledge to provide intelligent advice or their use or misuse.

That is not to say that herbal products are totally risk free. This is why it is important to obtain products from reputable companies selling products that are farmed, processed, formulated and encapsulated/tableted with proper oversight and taken properly.

Since toxicity is often related to the dose of the single most active constituent, the contributions of other analogs of the parent compound or even unrelated compounds to the biologically effective dose can lessen the risk of toxicity.

The increased use of plant medicines has potential for improving public health and lowering health care costs. Phytomedicines, if combined with the preventive model of medical practice, could be among the most cost-effective, practical ways to shift the focus of modern health care from disease treatment to prevention. However, drug regulatory policy prevents the United States from taking advantage of these phytomedicines for two reasons.

Rather than concentrating on the isolation of chemicals from herbs and plants in order to develop drugs, the focus of modern research on herbal medicines and botanical dietary supplements is the establishment of a sufficient science base to support definitive clinical trials. Modern research techniques would include detailed phytochemical profiling using mass spectrometry, biological assays including gene expression analysis and transgenic animal models of chronic disease. Also needed are toxicology and pharmacokinetic studies in animal and humans. In fact, the entire armamentarium of modern medical research can be brought to bear on these ancient herbal medicines to advance their use in modern times.

The first is the high expense involved in investigating each plant extract’s chemical compound for its clinical usefulness. There is an urgent need to reevaluate current research guidelines permitting the whole plant material or combination mixture of plant extracts to be evaluated, instead of requiring separate evaluations of each chemical component of the therapeutic ingredients.

In view of their preventive benefits and potential lack of toxicity when properly used, I view these botanicals as the medicines of the 21st century and predict they will ultimately be used for the prevention and treatment of many modern chronic diseases of aging.

The second reason deals with those regulatory requirements for proof of safety and efficacy. At present this, constitutes an economic deterrent for private industry to conduct additional scientific studies. Relaxing regulatory requirements for the efficacy for herbal products might make it economically feasible for more private companies to pursue research into issues of safety and quality control.

As a nation, our health is in steep decline. Our diets are seriously lacking in phytonutrients and their benefits. For instance, 25% of the vegetables we eat are French Fries. We have literally lost the benefit of herbals and plant foods. The health problems we face cannot always be safely and effectively addressed by pharmaceuticals. Herbal medicines can be a magnificent asset to your nation’s prevention and treatment of the many modern chronic diseases of aging.