Herbal medicine vs. pharmaceuticals: which work best?

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Herbal medicine can be a great option to support one’s health. However, I get a lot of people ask me: why is herbal medicine so cautiously regarded by the medical profession, when it’s been around for so many years?

The main character of my first book is a herbal healer during the early 17th century, so it’s a topic I’m passionate about. This blog is going to take a look at how and when it is best used, and why there are so many regulations today as well as restrictions.

One of the first things I want to make clear is I’m all for herbal medicine – but I’m also a scientist. My early Degree was in Naturopathy (from Southern Cross University), specialising in Herbal Medicine; but I also studied a Bachelor of Science at University (from Adelaide University) before switching career paths. I then worked on therapeutic supplements for many years, following the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) requirements, so I understand why the regulators make the rules they do. A lot of their principles are set to protect consumers from misinformation, whilst also enabling them to have freedom of choice. In other words, I understand the traditional concepts of herbal medicine, but respect the concept of robust evidence when determining which medical treatment is best suited, and why Governments take that approach.

Let’s consider the empirical and scientific evidence for herbal medicine. Obviously, there is significant historical data that has led to the development of scientifically respected texts like the British Pharmacopoeia. There are also some modern studies conducted into the more well-known herbal medicines for a variety of conditions. I have got to say, in all honesty, some of these studies aren’t designed the best they could be, and sometimes don’t use the dosages that I would have prescribed as a naturopath. If you don’t take a medicine, even a drug, at the right dose, it won’t give the result you are hoping for, which has impacted some of these modern investigations. But it’s not only dosage that is important with herbal medicine; you also need to consider the person as a whole, not just their symptoms, to ensure they are given the best remedy for their condition. For example, Cimicifuga racemosa (black cohosh), Caulophyllum thalictroides (blue cohosh), Vitex agnus-castus (chaste tree) and Dioscorea villosa (wild yam) are all well-known to treat a variety of female hormonal conditions. However, they all have different activities within the body, and need to be prescribed either as blends with other herbs or on their own, depending on what is happening on each woman’s specific condition. Some of these, when prescribed incorrectly, (either for the condition or by amount), can make a woman quite sick – so there is no doubt there is power in these herbs, but the needs of the individual need to be considered to get the best results, not just their presenting symptoms.  

As a comparison, since we’re talking about female health issues, let’s now consider the pill or hormone replacement therapy (HRT) – one or the other is often needed at some stage of a woman’s life for various reasons. Let’s face it, as women, we can have significant hormonal fluctuations that need controlling in some way or another! A medical drug typically contains one or two active ingredients to ‘give’ the body what it is missing, so that it can work better. Granted, that is an incredibly simplistic description, but you can see how this concept works even when you consider anti-biotics! So, a medical drug ‘gives’ back what the body is missing, and has undergone years and years of stringent and exhaustive research following very strict rules about ethical standards and trials before they can be used for the larger population. This means a medical drug provides expected performance in a wide variety of people for a presenting condition – and therefore differs in how herbal medicine often needs to be approached on a much more individual basis for best results.

Does this mean medical drugs are better than herbal medicines in general? Not necessarily, but they have, without a doubt, had far more research into their specific activity, using isolated active compounds, to predict with greater certainty the safe and efficacious dose. Herbal medicine has not had anywhere near the same type of scientific research conducted, which is why there is not as much certainty about dose. At the end of the day, Governments and their regulators want to ensure safety of their consumers, which is why some limits are set.

There are some real up-sides to using herbal medicine in the early stages of treatment for non-life-threatening conditions. One of the great things about herbal medicine, if used correctly, is that plants contain not only the active compounds that ‘do the work’ in the body, but also contain a myriad of other phytoconstituents that are hard to properly track and determine the activity of – but what these other compounds do is often prevent side effects. That is why a lot of medical drugs have side effects – they are isolated, active compounds with very powerful activity. A herb, by comparison, contains the key active constituents along with an assortment of ‘helper’ compounds that work to mitigate side effects. Another great aspect of herbal medicine in the early stages of treating many conditions is that they work with the body to help it correct itself. If you can catch an illness in its early stages and give your body what it needs to correct the imbalance, it’s a lot kinder on the body than letting an illness get to a serious or more critical stage, and then having to use more drastic treatments.

At the same time, thank goodness those medical treatments exist! We now live longer than ever before, and tackle incredibly challenging diseases that herbal medicine just doesn’t have the power to treat. Without many of these medical treatments, we wouldn’t have the long-life expectancies and enjoy the optimum standards of living we now do. Unfortunately, there are a lot of empty promises about anecdotal treatments for serious conditions that persuade people away from what science has discovered. That is why regulators ‘control’ what gets marketed about herbal medicines, as well as other natural health, vitamin and food ingredients for that matter. The wrong information about what can be of benefit for more serious medical conditions is more harmful than any side effects and sometimes, no treatment at all.

We should not take an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to our health, but we do need to consider the scientific evidence behind a treatment decision. Herbal medicine can be great for early-stage treatment of non-serious health conditions, to rebalance our bodies and help us face each day the best we can. But there will be times when heavily researched and highly active pharmaceutical compounds are needed, and the longevity this provides us cannot be ignored.

I hope this blog has helped you understand why, if you’ve tried herbal medicine without a professional’s guidance, you may not have got the results you were looking for. I’ve also explained why regulators set rules and limits on herbal medicines, so that safety and efficacy are paramount, particularly since so many consumers self-prescribe. I hope you can also see how medical science also provides valuable options, especially when herbal medicine just isn’t going to be enough to get you better.

Please subscribe to my blog to be notified of when my book launches – it’s set during 1604 at the height of the witch era in Europe – so you can bet a herbal healer in that time would have been closely watched! Is she using herbs as acts of kindness, or is it the work of the Devil?     

Published by Belinda Carli

Belinda is the Founder and Director of the Institute, and has worked with hundreds of brands on thousands of products for over 20 years. She started her career as a Naturopath, specialising in herbal medicine, before moving into a Regulatory role within an International company overseeing a variety of personal care and ingestible therapeutic goods. She grew within this role over the years to also cover Project Management of multiple SKUs and work closely with the R&D Department, before moving into her own business as a consultant for personal care and supplement regulatory affairs and formulation. After being a private consultant for a few years, she was asked to train some of her Company Clients and decided to work with the Department of Education in Australia to develop full Government Registered and Recognised courses. She then worked with peers in the industry to develop the Diploma of Personal Care Formulation and Diploma of Cosmetic Brand Management, and finally, in 2007, the Institute of Personal Care Science and the Industry Recognised courses were launched. Since then, Belinda has grown the Institute to what it is today and has presented hundreds of videos on Youtube on various formulation, regulatory and brand management topics. She has been the Official Technical Advisor to the in-cosmetics Group internationally for 5 years and a judge on International Beauty Awards Panels for many years. She has written 5 books on Beginners and Advanced Cosmetic Formulation, Organic and Colour Cosmetic Formulation and Brand Management. She has also been a regular presenter at major International events and her work can be found in many national and International publications, UL Prospector and Special Chem formulators site. She has also created the Create Cosmetic Formulas program, an online site that enables people with no prior experience to pick and choose ingredients they want in a formula, and then shows them how to put the product together. She is a member of the Australian Society of Cosmetic Chemists (ASCC) and International Federation of Societies of Cosmetic Chemists (IFSCC). She was the winner of the Annual Industry Award from CHC Australia for her contribution to Research and Training and was a finalist in the Australian Telstra Business Women’s Awards in 3 categories.

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