Healing Options: The Healing Power of Herbal Medicine

Scientists have determined that echinacea, a Native American medicinal plant, can fight bacterial and viral infections.
Reprinted from PN January 2001
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Years ago, a friend shared with me his herbal health regimen in which he prevented spinal-cord-injury (SCI)-related urinary-tract infections (UTIs) by taking cranberry extract. If he started to get the flu or catch a cold, he took echinacea, and when he had the blues he consumed St. John's Wort. At that time, my inclinations as a scientist kept me from embracing such remedies because they were based in tradition, not modern science.

My friend was right on target, once again demonstrating why our biomedical experts should listen to healthcare consumers with disabilities. Specifically, research has now shown that cranberry prevents UTIs by keeping bacteria from adhering to the bladder lining. Likewise, scientists have determined that echinacea, a Native American medicinal plant, can fight bacterial and viral infections, while St. John's Wort, an ancient herbal remedy, is as effective as antidepressant drugs.

Although people with disabilities have benefited greatly from modern medicine's advances, they, like millions of other Americans, are concerned about the adverse consequences of technology-based medicine and desire healthcare with a more naturalistic, holistic perspective. As a result, there has been an explosion in the growth of herbal products, which only a decade ago were relegated to natural-food stores but are now displayed prominently in pharmacies and grocery stores. With more than a third of Americans using herbal products, this grass-roots, consumer-driven movement is changing the face of the nation's healthcare.

Due to their traditional use over the ages, herbal remedies exist for virtually all ailments, including those that often affect people with spinal-cord dysfunction (SCD). Although proponents and critics may debate their effectiveness, in many cases when scientists have actually tested herbal remedies, they work as well as the comparable pharmaceutical drugs.

Many doctors are revisiting herbal remedies in response to consumer interest. And, as consumers themselves, 40% of family physicians also use them. In addition, herbal alternatives are increasingly used to control soaring healthcare costs. For example, an Oklahoma HMO started prescribing St. John's Wort instead of Prozac because the herb is just as effective, yet much less expensive.

Although we may think our pharmaceutically-based medical practices are the norm for the world, this is not true. In fact, 80% of the world's population relies on herbal remedies because they cannot afford Western drugs.

Even in many wealthy nations, herbal remedies are being reintegrated into mainstream medicine. For example, in Germany and France, millions of herbal prescriptions are written each year, ginkgo biloba is prescribed more often than any pharmaceutic, and 30-40% of all doctors rely on herbal remedies as their primary medications.

Americans have ready access to herbal remedies, few of which are officially used as medicines. In 1994, to protect consumer access to these remedies from Federal Drug Administration (FDA) regulatory zeal, Congress adopted legislation classifying them as dietary supplements, provided they only claim to affect the body's structure and function.

However, if an herbal product claims it can treat or cure an ailment, it is now a drug and, hence, subjected to the arduous, expensive, FDA regulatory process. Because herbs cannot be patented, no financial incentive exists for profit-making companies to seek such a drug designation. Under this regulatory approach, semantics becomes important.

Part two (February) continues the herbal-medicine discussion and includes a list of popular herbs and their usefulness.

Information for this column is provided by S. Laurance Johnston, Ph.D.,


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Healing Options: The Healing Power of Herbal Medicine


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