Nature’s Pharmacy Is Full of Surprises

Nature’s Pharmacy Is Full of Surprises – natural remedies

Leslie Dickstein

Millions of Americans are turning to plants and other natural remedies to boost their general health as well as to treat everything from colds and hot flashes to headache and depression. Here’s how to use them wisely.

When in the recent movie You’ve Got Mail, brainy bookstore owner Kathleen Kelly (played by America’s sweetheart Meg Ryan) comes down with a miserable cold, what does she do? The same thing millions of other Americans are doing these days: she reaches for the echinacea.

Welcome to the new era of flower power. Today, natural therapy is blooming all over the U.S. Dissatisfied with conventional medicine’s bureaucracy and coldness, Americans are turning to alternative therapies in record numbers. According to a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, more patients are visiting alternative practitioners than primary care M.D.s. “People want that sense that they are being heard, listened to and understood,” says Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the Austin, Texas-based American Botanical Council, a nonprofit organization devoted to researching the effects of plants. “That’s something that conventional medicine can’t do, because it can’t afford to.”

A better bedside manner isn’t the only draw. Americans increasingly recognize that conventional medicine, while often superb at treating acute serious illness, isn’t as successful in handling the less critical chronic complaints that plague people’s lives. Nor is it geared, despite all the talk, to prevention of illness and the maintenance of robust health, a major concern, especially of baby boomers anxious to stave off the depradations of aging.

Today, more and more M.D.s are coming to believe that conventional and alternative therapies can be complementary. In doing so, they and Americans are following the lead of Asian nations, particularly China, and European countries, especially Germany, France and Italy, where herbal and other natural remedies have been embraced for centuries. But is there a firm scientific footing for such use? Which herbs work and for which conditions? Research in the U.S. is just beginning, but there is a wealth of well-conducted studies from abroad to offer support and guidance.

The greatest trove is from Germany, where herbs and other phytochemicals are strictly tested and regulated. Indeed, after reviewing clinical trials, the German government has approved nearly 300 herbal remedies for sale in the nationg pharmacies. Most popular: ginkgo to boost mental alertness and memory, and St. John’s Wort to lift spirits and combat depression.

Still, even the most ardent advocates of alternative therapies warn consumers to be careful. Just because a remedy is natural doesn’t mean it is totally safe. These are powerful agents–that’s why they’re attractive, after all–just like modern drugs, may have unhappy side effects when inappropriately used. Patients being prescribed–or already taking–medication for illness should be sure to tell their doctors about any natural remedies they are using and be alert to possible toxic interactions. Also, pregnant and nursing women may need to totally avoid some herbal and other therapies.

When using natural remedies, keep in mind that potency can vary greatly. “The tricky thing with all these plants is that the amount of the active ingredient varies tremendously, depending on the soil, the time of year the plant is harvested and the way it’s processed,” observes Dr. Mary Ann O’Hara, clinical researcher and family practitioner at the University of Washington in Seattle, who has reviewed the safety and efficacy of popular herbs in the Archives of Family Medicine. (For a general guide to potency, see box.)

The U.S. Pharmacopeia, a non-profit organization that sets strength and purity standards for over-the-counter and prescription drugs, recently published American standards for nine popular botanicals, and more entries are in progress. Products that meet USP standards will have the letters “NF”–for National Formulary–displayed on the package.

Consumers should also check the new Food and Drug Administration-mandated “supplement facts” panel that will begin appearing this March on packaging of dietary aids. Similar to the “nutrition facts” on most foods, the new panel will contain such details as which part of the plant was used to make the product and how much of the product would be an “appropriate serving size.”

There are also several new good herbal reference books, including an English translation, put out by the American Botanical Council, of the Complete German Commission E Monographs, the 685-page tome compiled by the group of scientists who advise the German government about herbal safety and effectiveness. Other helpful guides: Herbs of Choice (Haworth) by Varro Tyler, one of the country’s foremost herbal experts and Dean Emeritus of Purdue University’s School of Pharmacy and Pharmacal Sciences, and The Green Pharmacy (Rodale) by James A. Duke, an expert herbalist and former U.S. Department of Agriculture botanist. “Whatever herb you’re taking,” stresses Duke, “I recommend that you learn as much as you can about what to expect from it.” Here’s our guide to get you started.


Herbs and other natural healing agents are available in many forms, from tablets to teas. Choose the one that best suits you. For example, some people prefer to mix an herb in with food to mask its flavor, others like to take it in a capsule. Keep in mind that strength varies with different preparations, as shown by the guide below. And remember, always follow the package directions.–L.D.

FRESH HERB Least concentrated form (about 80% water).

Can be made into teas or sprinkled on foods.

DRIED HERB More concentrated than fresh herb and four

times more potent (only about 20% water).

Has a longer shelf life than fresh herb. Often

used in teas or mixed in foods.

TINCTURE Liquid preparation typically made by steeping

dried herb in alcohol, glycerin or vinegar. May

be taken straight, in juice or tea.

EXTRACT Liquid or dry concentrated form of natural plant.

Taken as tablets, capsules or liquids.

STANDARDIZED Extract is guaranteed to contain a specified amount

EXTRACT of one or more active ingredients. Taken as tablets,

capsules or liquid.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group