There's no magic
March 27 1997
Name an ailment. Any ailment.
Somewhere in the world there's an herbal remedy suggested
for it. For many conditions there are dozens of purported
herbal remedies, and some herbs are touted to cure almost
Popular interest is skyrocketing in
products from plants believed to have medicinal value.
But do herbs actually work? Are they safe?
Dr. Donald D. Hensrud is a Mayo
Clinic preventive medicine and nutrition specialist who
examines vitamin and herbal supplements. He says
questions of safety and effectiveness must be answered
herb by herb using the best available scientific
Unfortunately, in most cases such
data are insufficient. "Many believe herbs are a
panacea. Others believe they have no value," Dr.
Hensrud says. "As is often the case, the truth
probably lies somewhere in between, although proven value
is lacking for most herbal products."
If your neighbor says an herbal
product worked for him, that does not constitute proof of
benefit. The "placebo effect" may be at work.
Conversely, lack of proof does not mean there is no
benefit. "It may be that the appropriate studies
have not been performed," Dr. Hensrud says.
"However, each herbal product should be judged on
the data available and the quality of that data. For most
herbs, there are few good controlled studies."
Disillusionment with conventional medicine partly
explains the growing interest in herbal products. For
many, sipping a "natural" tea is more appealing
than popping a synthetic pill. However, if you are
interested in herbal treatments, Dr. Hensrud offers the
following points of perspective:
- Not magic: "There
is nothing magic about herbs," he says.
"Whatever health effects they possess is due
to the pharmacologic properties of their active
ingredients. Herbs may contain many different
ingredients and it may be difficult to determine
the exact composition and also which ingredients
are responsible for any observed effects."
- Some good, others toxic: It's
safe to conclude that some herbs are potentially
beneficial and others are toxic. However,
"for most herbs current data does not
support much benefit or toxicity," Dr.
Hensrud says. "For herbs with potential
benefit, the degree of benefit, if present, is
mild in most cases."
- Dosage: The amount and
type of ingredients in herbal products can vary
with differences in soil, growing and harvesting
conditions. This often makes it difficult to get
a consistent dose. Consuming wild herbs is
dangerous unless you know exactly what you are
- Lack of standards: There
is an overall lack of quality controls for herbal
products and dietary supplements. An act of
Congress in 1994 reduced the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration's regulatory control of dietary
supplements and herbal products. As a result,
such products can be marketed without proof of
either effectiveness or safety. In addition,
health-food stores and web sites can make health
claims about unproven products as long as they
avoid assertions that these products cure or
prevent specific diseases. It's common to see
such statements as "improves the immune
system" or "slows the aging
process" on the labels of products even
though there is no research on humans to support
- Whole foods: For people
seeking to promote wellness and prevent disease,
Dr. Hensrud suggests a proven path a
healthful diet emphasizing a wide variety of
unprocessed and low-fat whole foods.
"Virtually the entire population could
improve their nutrient intake through healthier
dietary changes," he says. "For
example, fruits and vegetables are excellent
sources of many nutrients and at least five
servings daily are recommended. Yet fewer than
one person in three consumes this amount."
Get the facts
Reliable information is the best
remedy for unrealistic claims offered for any medicinal
product. "Every herb is different from every other
herb," Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D., a professor of
pharmacognosy (the study of natural drugs) at Purdue
University, writes in the preface to his book, The
Honest Herbal: A Sensible Guide to the Use of Herbs and
Related Remedies, which examines the properties of
more than 100 popular herbs. "Some are safe and
effective. Some are neither. As is the case with other
drugs, the administration of herbs may produce
undesirable side effects."