Saturday, August 13, 2005

Why Don't Botanists use Herbal "Medicines"?

After the weekly Department meeting on Friday afternoon, I corralled the Botanists in the group for a brief informal survey. The question I posed to them was this:

"Do you take herbal 'medicines'? Why or why not?"

The responses I got were interesting, if not surprising. The Chief of the Botany Division was a non-user, which might not come as a surprise to many herbal "medicine" enthusiasts, since he is of a generation that has not been enthusiastic consumers of alternative" medicine. However, the responses of some of the younger members of the division were illuminating.

"No way! Do you know the kind of things plants make? Even the plants we work with all the time make compounds that we don't fully understand."

"Even if I wasn't worried about the safety and efficacy of phytochemicals - most of which have never been adequately tested - there's no way to tell how much of the active ingredient I would be getting. The production varies with climate, season, growing conditions, insect damage...just too many things to control for."

"Yeah, 'natural' medicines - like hemlock, aconite and foxglove. No, I prefer to know what I'm getting when I take medicine."

I'm not sure how the "nature makes everything we need for perfect health" lobby would "spin" these comments, but I know how I interpret them.

One botanist who is from a country whose ancient (and not-so-ancient) vitalistic medical practices are currently much in vogue had this to say:

Where I grew up, people used roots and herbs for medicine because they didn't have access to real medicine - Western medicine. The people who had money or influence could go to the big city and see a doctor trained in real medicine, the rest of the people had to get by with "traditional" medical therapies.

They did that not because the traditional remedies worked, but because they had to do something. They couldn't just stand by and watch their loved ones suffer."


Yet, in the Western world, where advanced medical care is freely available (even if it isn't free), a large number of people are ignorant of something people in the "Third World" are acutely aware of - herbal "medicine" is something you use when you don't have access to real medicine.


Prometheus.

4 Comments:

Anonymous sysyphusian tax said...

Good points.

I guess when you have it available you can afford to pretend like you don't want it.

Also, using alt med gives one a feeling of control, like 'you can't make me do it your way', but that comes out of being spoiled. The poor people you described using roots because they couldn't go to the city and see a doctor trained in Western medicine, they aren't going to feel that way about Western medicine, they aren't spoiled.

Then there's the high you can get off of being superior and 'knowing' stuff about herbs and chi and moxybustion that even DOCTORS don't know.

I'm speaking from experience.

You asked the right question of the right group of people there. I never thought about Botanists. What about 'ethnobotanists' do you suppose they are the same? I think they want to haul those wild plants into labs and turn them into tamed Western medicines to be cranked out by Pharmco, for the reasons your botanists mentioned.

13 August, 2005 12:52  
Anonymous Skeptico said...

Interesting article. Of course, some herbal remedies probably work. The trouble is, we don't know which ones. And as this group of experts point out, you also don't know the dose and you don't know what else is in there that might harm you.

13 August, 2005 13:20  
Anonymous HCN said...

A (at the moment) hot and sweaty bike ride away is a special garden. It used to provide medicines like belladonna and digitalis early in the 20th century (http://archives.thedaily.washington.edu/2000/112900/N4.allaboutbu.html ).

But the university expanded... and the garden was supplanted by better sources. BUT... it was taken over by a group of volunteers. So now... after a bike ride I can see some very special herbs.... like digitalis:
http://nnlm.gov/pnr/uwmhg/display.html?FILE=mhg97061017.jpg&SP_ID=d-purp ...

I could not find belladonna... but I grow that in my yard as delphinium (and it is a bit finicky).

There are lots of lovely, and nasty plants there. I would like to wander through... I drove through earlier this summer and noticed a plant with fuzzy leaves and yellow flowers that is usually a very nasty weed in the garden (it has a very long taproot).

A perusal through its (very neglected website) shows some very nasty plants... like wormwood.

17 August, 2005 00:19  
Blogger Pierce Wetter said...

As someone who uses herbal medicines I concur that herbs very in efficacy, just like strawberries vary in sweetness and taste.

However, I use herbs when I want something more subtle then a Western pharmaceutical. I'm also aware that their use is temporary.

Valerian root is a lot more gentle then Excedrin PM for instance.

Restraint is good in Western medicine too: tetracycline shouldn't be perscribed like asprin...so prescribing something like belladonna or hemlock should be temporary and limited. Prescribing something like cinnamon twig isn't so bad.

04 October, 2005 10:59  

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