I get this question frequently – are medicinal herbs better than pharmaceuticals? The answer most often is yes. But not always.
Ultimately, it really is not an either/or question. Both medicinal herbs and pharmaceuticals are valuable medicine and each have their place, advantages and disadvantages.
It is important to understand that herbs have been around far longer than modern pharmaceuticals. Knowledge of medicinal plants is primarily based on thousands of years of use. We evolved, survived and flourished by ingesting these trusted remedies and the wisdom of their use has been passed down for generations. There are now scientific studies that have confirmed historic herbal insight.
With new drugs appearing in the marketplace at a rapid rate, they do not have the benefit of being time tested. While many are safe, unfortunately there are several cases where these pharmaceuticals were discovered to be harmful once they were consumed over a period of time and on a larger public scale. The number of annual deaths from drugs prescribed properly by physicians and taken as directed is staggering. Meanwhile, the number of annual deaths from proper use of herbs is negligible. Pharmaceuticals that are found to be safe often come with the consequence of unwanted side effects. Sometimes those side effects outweigh the benefits.
That being said, there are times when pharmaceuticals are appropriate and times when herbal medicine is a better choice. Occasionally they can be used together in a complementary approach. Let’s look at some examples.
Pharmaceuticals are powerful drugs that are highly important for serious diseases such as cancer. Chemotherapy drugs have saved countless lives. We are facing these serious diseases more and more frequently as we encounter a deluge of harmful chemicals in our air, food and water. Antibiotics have also been truly life saving for many conditions. For most herbalists, the antibiotic doxycycline is the first go to for Lyme disease.
We do need these pharmaceuticals. However, they have been far too over-prescribed. Tieraona Low Dog, MD, a well-respected doctor as well as herbalist states, “Instead of drinking sage to cool the hot flashes of menopause, we turned to hormonal therapies that increased our risk for blood clots and breast cancer. Instead of chamomile tea, babies are now given proton pump inhibitors, medications that shut off stomach acid, to treat colic and reflux. These medications put infants at greater risk for severe intestinal infections and impair their ability to absorb iron, calcium, and magnesium from milk.”
Sadly, many pharmaceuticals have found their way into our waterways and into the fish we consume. It’s called pharmaceutical pollution. Researchers at Baylor University studied the issue which was then followed up by additional research by the EPA. Some of the pharmaceuticals discovered in fish include antihypertensives, antidepressants, antihistamines and antiseizure medications.
We are also now faced with a serious situation of antibiotic resistance. Stephen Harrod Buhner quotes in his book, Herbal Antibiotics, Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug-Resistant Bacteria, “The era of penicillin miracle is over. Through our indiscriminate use of pharmaceutical antibiotics in hospitals and factory farms, humans have created ‘Superbugs’ – tenacious and virulent bacteria that develop resistance to solitary antibiotic compounds at an alarming speed.”
Buhner further goes on to say, “Pharmaceutical antibiotics are, in fact, simple substances, not complex, and because of this bacteria can more easily figure out how to counteract their effects. But herbs like garlic are very complex. Faced with this complex chemical makeup, invading bacteria find it much more difficult to develop resistance or to avoid the medicine’s impact.”
To help alleviate this growing dilemma, it’s important to support our immune systems with immune boosting herbs so that we are much less likely to need antibiotics. One way plants truly excel at keeping us healthy is prevention. It is those tonic herbs that nourish us. They are feeding and building to the system, increasing our very vitality. If we are healthier and stronger in the first place, there is far less need for medications.
Plants range from gentle to quite powerful. Even the most gentle herbs are very effective. They sometimes do however require a longer duration of use than pharmaceuticals, especially for more chronic conditions. Since herbs are more gentle and have far fewer side effects, they are often a wiser choice than pharmaceuticals for a whole host of common conditions including depression, insomnia, pain and anxiety.
There are times when herbal medicines and pharmaceuticals can and should be taken together. Herbs are exceptional at supporting the body and minimizing the harsh effects when taking pharmaceuticals. An example would be for those taking antibiotics, it is important to support intestinal mucosa with soothing herbs such as marshmallow.
There are also times when you should not mix herbal medicine and pharmaceuticals. For example, St. John’s wort should not be taken with any medication since it increases elimination of those medications from the body too quickly making them ineffective. It is also important not to take herbal antibiotics along side pharmaceutical antibiotics. A doctor or herbalist should be consulted any time herbs are used in conjunction with pharmaceuticals.
Unfortunately most medical doctors do not have knowledge or training regarding herbal medicines. Thankfully there are a few remarkable medical doctors such as Aviva Romm, MD who are also herbalists. Here is what she has to say about herbs compared to pharmaceuticals. “I continue to use botanical medicines in nearly 100% of my patients, and always use them preferentially over conventional pharmaceuticals whenever possible for many mild-to-moderate, acute, or even complex chronic conditions. The reality is, in most cases, with exceptions of emergencies and oncology, or advanced chronic disease (and sometime even then), botanical medicines are safer and carry fewer side effects.”
There are many other advantages to using herbal medicines. They are very accessible to anyone. Herbs are easy to find whether we harvest them from the wild, grow them or purchase them. They are also very inexpensive, especially when we make teas, tinctures, oils and salves ourselves.
Lastly, we cannot forget that by taking herbal medicines, we are connecting with our medicine in a way that we can never do with pharmaceuticals. There is an extra, indescribable healing that occurs when you have actually met the plant that you are taking into your body. This is truly special medicine.
Feel free to leave any comments or questions below. If you would like to learn more about herbal medicine, check out the Home Herb School at www.homeherbschool.com