It was in the papers and online just last week: women, who have always outlived men longevity wise, just widened the gap a bit more. All sorts of usual suspects: guns, drugs, self-neglect, poor diets, more smoking. But one factor wasn’t mentioned, probably not worth considering by statisticians, and that’s this:
All around the world, not only do women take better care of themselves, but they are far and away the main users of medicinal herbs.
The use of herbs for healing goes back to the dawn of time. Again, on a worldwide basis, herbs come from indigenous cultures (American Indian, ancient China and India) and innumerable subcultures.
Each of the cultures will use a plant’s seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark, sap or flowers for medicinal purposes. During the past one hundred years, scientists have learned how to extract the active ingredient from a medicinal herb and create an often more effective version as a prescription drug. One of the most famous, the anticancer drug Taxol, was extracted from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, adding months to the lives of 800,000 breast and ovary cancer patients worldwide. Now, an astonishing 25% of all prescription drugs are derived from botanical sources.
U.S. physicians seriously lag behind those in other countries when it comes to herbal medicine. You may have experienced that uncomfortable moment when you asked your doctor about taking an herb for your blood pressure, or your anxiety, or your cholesterol, and heard, “I don’t know anything about that” or, “not FDA approved”. Or (worse yet), “You better get off all those herbs you take and use real medicine instead.”
It’s a whole lot different in Germany, where a division of their FDA, known as Commission E, evaluates medicinal herbs. Currently, over 700 herbal products are regularly prescribed by 60% of physicians. India (Ayurvedic medicine) and China (traditional Chinese medicine) use well over 13,000 herbs, but then, through years of clinical trials, combine herbs into 1,500 patented TCM products. If you’ve ever worked with a medical herbalist of any culture, you’ll see she’ll combine several herbs into a prescription medicine unique to your needs.
Quite a few people living in the U.S. know something is seriously amiss when you compare our herbal medicine with the rest of the world. A survey of herbal medicine users (working on their own or with a knowledgeable practitioner) found that nearly one-third of Americans use herbs. Unfortunately, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that nearly 70% of people taking herbal medicines (most of whom were well educated and had a higher-than-average income) were reluctant to tell their doctors that they used complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).
Here’s a list of the most commonly used herbs in the U.S.:
- Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea and related species)
- St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum)
- Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
- Garlic (Allium sativum)
- Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens)
- Ginseng (Panax ginseng or Asian ginseng) and Panax quinquefolius or American ginseng)
- Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)
- Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
- Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
- Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
- Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
- Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis)
- Milk thistle (Silybum marianum)
I am pretty sure I’ve written an article about each of these that you can find if you use the search engine on our WholeHealth Chicago website. I also edited, “The Healing Power of Vitamins, Minerals and Herbs” with a team of excellent medical writers from Reader’s Digest, available from many used book sites.
My own background in herbal medicine began when I was ten years old or so. My family owned a seriously ancient drugstore on Chicago’s south side whose original owner was Charles Walgreen. The area was the landing site for what would later be named the “Great Migration” of African-Americans from the South. My pharmacist father and his ten-year-old son bottled, packed, and poured powders, tinctures, ground leaves. I tied up pieces of a vile-smelling gum resin called asafetida which was worn around your neck to ward off colds and flu. (We get the word ‘fetid’, and apparently South Indians use it as a cooking spice).
After medical school and internal medicine residency, which, although interesting, were sort of dull when compared to learning about the dozens of fields of alternative medicine (which I’ve also written about on the WHC website).
One very memorable seminar on medical herbalism I attended had been highly recommended by Dr. Andrew Weil (later to create the Fellowship of Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona).
The presenter was Dr. James (“Jim”) Duke, Ph.D., then well into his seventies, very folksy, but very smart author of a dozen books on herbal medicine. With his white beard and carrying a large bag over his shoulder, he looked very much like Santa Claus.
He had been walking through the vacant lots of the city we were in (Kansas City, as I remember), and reaching into his bag, pulled out what were basically “weeds”. He named each “weed” and then gave instructions on how to use it medicinally.
He ended with, “The world surrounds us with the means for our health and well-being.”
So what about you? Can you learn herbal medicine?
Sure. A good place to start is Jim Duke’s, “Green Pharmacy”. But there are many other excellent writers as well. There are several online herbal medicine courses which will be teaching you western herbalism rather than traditional Chinese or Ayurvedic herbalism. However, be aware that unless you are already a licensed healthcare professional, you can’t actually practice as a medical herbalist as they are not licensed in any state. Being a medical herbalist is solely for your good health and pleasure.
Can you see a medical herbalist at WholeHealth Chicago? You’ve got to be kidding. Herbs will always be our first choice whenever possible. When you do need a prescription drug, we’ll tell you, and write the rx, but herbs, whether Western Traditional Chinese, Ayurvedic, or homeopathic are always first in line.
David Edelberg, MD