Medical Herbs

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 kill off men: guns, drugs, self-neglect, poor diets, more smoking. But one factor wasn’t mentioned, probably not worth considering by statisticians, and that 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 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 you blood pressure (Hawthorne does work) or your anxiety (as does St. John’s wort) 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<TCM>) 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 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 of 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 high recommended by Dr. Andrew Weil (later to create the Fellowship of Integrative Medicine at 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 should, 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 wellbeing.”

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.

We stock an excellent inventory of herbal tinctures manufactured by Herbalist and Alchemist, Inc. These arrive to our apothecary in pint sized bottles and our apothecary manager pours them into 4 ounce dropper bottles with a label and dosing instructions.

If you’re interested in collecting a shelf in your medicine chest of herbs (rather than pharmaceuticals),  I’ll end each Health Tip with some recommendations.

Skullcap (scutulleria) a Native American herb for reducing stress and anxiety. James Duke recommends it for PMS as well. 50 drops (1/2 tsp) in water or juice 2-3 times a day as needed.

Bupleurum, a Chinese herb, especially useful as a liver cleanse, 20-30 drops in water or juice twice a day. Best used every three months for regular cleansing.

Hawthorne (Crataegus) (dried berry/flower) a very well researched herb for heart disease (angina, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, palpitations), 5 ml (1 tsp) twice a day but also available as capsules.

If you want me to continue this series, let me know.

Be well,

David Edelberg, MD


    Yes, Would love to learn more! Thank you for the wonderful care of your patients:)

    Kelly Leiseca
    Posted May 15, 2024 at 3:42 pm

    Yes, please continue

    Posted May 14, 2024 at 3:18 pm

    Please, please, please.

    Posted May 14, 2024 at 11:56 am

    Please continue!

    Posted May 14, 2024 at 9:05 am

    I am turning 80 and do have some major health issues, primarily my heart. I am on loads of pharma meds and quite frankly terrified to come off of them I read your description of Hawthorne and am going to check it out. Thank you.

    Sharon F
    Posted May 14, 2024 at 8:38 am

    Please continue this series and the downside of herbs as well like allergic reactions, etc. I definitely want to learn more about herbs and have some on hand. Which practitioner should I connect with at WH on Clyborne for herbs? I normally see Samantha. She is a wonderful practitioner.

    Posted May 14, 2024 at 6:26 am

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