Disturbing Herbal Presentation
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Helen Swartz
Posted on: February 14, 1999

I just returned from an herb conference in Illinois and I was a bit upset by a presentation on medicinal herbal tea and the claims made by the presenter. She made claims of herbal tea for diabetes and reproductive problems in women (did not specify) and I have worked in the medical field and have a Ph.D. in genetics (cytogenetics and quantitative genetics) and teach my students that the most important thing they can get out of my courses is to read newspapers, periodicals, tabloids, etc. and be able to discern between truth and fiction. She gave a handout and I don’t have it in front of me so I can’t remember the herb she added to her tea for diabetes. That was pretty broad but if a diabetic in the audience should go home and discontinue their insulin and have their sugar shoot up to a pretty high value, would this woman be liable?

I am wanting to include herbs in my classes but I want it to be documented and researched before I use it in my curriculum. Obviously, we have some genotypes that respond to herbs differently than others. That certainly [they] do to drugs. Herbs are in the news everyday and I think the institutions should not ignore but them but embrace them as partners and see how helpful they can be for health treatment and prevention in substitution for drug therapy.

I would appreciate an answer from you on this subject. From your newsletter and your disclaimer, I think you are a reliable source of information that could be used in a college classroom.

There is no question that there is a lot of misinformation and self-interest in the promotion of herbal medicine. There are people and companies promoting the use of herbs in dangerous ways or offering false hope to the unsuspecting. The Richters HerbLetter has documented some cases that have become public in recent years.

We have a clear self-interest in promoting herbs as we are in the business of selling herb plants and seeds, and want to see the herb industry thrive. We hope, at least, that we are not guilty of misinforming the public, but even there we cannot be sure. As much as possible, we rely on the latest information available to us, but the body of valid herbal knowledge consists of a surprisingly small portion that is to modern scientific standards. The vast majority is of the time-honoured, hand-down-the-generations variety that has been refined through thousands of years of trial and error.

There are many herbalists who believe that knowledge passed down in a living, unbroken, herbal medicine tradition is more reliable than the insights gained from a two year controlled study done in a clinic. A two year study cannot tell you anything about long-term safety, for example, but a thousand year history of safe use of a particular herb gives us some confidence that the herb in question is probably safe.

In addition, because so many herbal therapies cannot be patented, there is little incentive to conduct the kind of trials that would shed light on the efficacy, safety, and mechanism of action of herbs.

In addition to that, there is the severe limitation imposed by modern medicine that requires that clear, reproducible, dose-dependent responses be demonstrated, and that is difficult to do for herbs. In many cases herbs act as regulators, restoring normal function by raising or lowering parameters as required, not by fast one-dimensional effects that can easily overshoot homeostatic balance.

Because acceptible evidence in the herb world is a jumble of scientific and traditional, it is difficult to sift through the body of knowledge to decide what is reliable and what is not. In this environment it is very easy for profiteers to operate because it is difficult to rebut their claims by the same standard of evidence.

We do not know what the Illinois speaker said about diabetes, but would agree with what we think your objection is: that someone would promise miraculous results with herbs and would brazenly suggest that herbs can replace insulin. Having said that, however, we do not want to subscribe to the latter day thinking that diabetes is an incurable illness and that herbs cannot contribute to the effective management of it. That this thinking should be questioned comes from the simple fact that diabetes is not a new disease, that it has been around for thousands of years, and that people must have found ways to manage it otherwise the genetic basis for it should have disappeared long ago according to darwinian theory.

There are, for instance, herbs that can function as sugar-substitutes (such as stevia, sweet cicely, and many others). There are herbs that are know to reduce blood sugar. The much maligned purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) may have some promise as a hypoglycemic agent, as was shown in animal studies 2-3 decades ago. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that other herbs have similar effects.

Is it responsible to tell people to get off insulin – probably not. Is is responsible not to look for plant-based treatments or even cures, definitely not. Will a plant-based treatment be found soon – probably not, especially if doctors and government regulators are sold on the insulin-only option.

For those who are looking for reliable infromation that is informed by modern scientific evidence, there are several books of note to recommend:

* "The Green Pharmacy: New Discoveries in Herbal Remedies for Common Diseases and Conditions" (James Duke)

* "Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals: A Handbook for Practice on a Scientific Basis" (Norman Grainger Bisset, ed.)

* "Proven Herbal Blends: A Rational Approach to Prevention and Remedy" (Daniel Mowrey)

* "Herbs of Choice" and "The Honest Herbal" (Varro Tyler)

(The books by Varro Tyler are often criticized by herbalists for being far too quick to dismiss herbs as dangerous or ineffectual in the face of the traditional experience that suggests otherwise.)

You mention the issue of legal liability in the event of someone suffering from following herbal advice. This is a serious issue for the whole industry. There are cases where health care providers have been tried for criminal negligence or sued for malpractice, and of companies being sued for unsafe products or inadequately labelled products. This is largely uncharted territory, but the herb industry as a whole will be forced to reckon with the implications whether it wishes to or not.

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