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How Does a Herb Differ from a Drug?

By Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, B.Sc., M.D., Ph.D.

This article originally appeared on page 31 in the October 18-19, 2003 issue of
The Mississauga News under the feature: Health & Wellness, Doctor's Corner.

I am never quite certain as to whether such questions refer to the freshly grown herbs or processed capsules and pills? Any substance that is ingested or applied to the body to produce a desired change is a drug, in my view. Many drugs that I prescribe today originate from plants. Active ingredients once identified are then purified, and run through clinical trials to determine the appropriate dose, unwanted actions and so forth. A herb is a plant or part of a plant that is used for its medicinal values. Herbs are also used for aromatic or industrial purposes such as dyes. A herb can contain one active substance or numerous substances. The attraction to herbs is that they can be obtained without prescription or advice from your doctor. There is a wrongful assertion that this implies safety. Most processed herbal preparations are marketed as food supplements. This does not imply safety, but is one way to circumvent rigid testing and controlled trials. One chooses to use a herb in the hopes of exerting a change in a body system. This makes a herb and drug synonymous by definition. Most major breakthroughs in the last twenty years began with examining natural ecosystems often in tropical rain forests where immense diversity exists.

My mother was in essence a herbalist. Only, in her day, the premise was to use things fresh out of the garden, or dried on the stem. At the first sign of a cold, we would be treated with "Ukrainian Penicillin" freshly made borscht, containing beets, tomatoes, garlic, sage, dill and I wish I wrote down what else, but never did. We had a small, but very diverse garden. Mom was adamant about using these things fresh, knew how to avoid side effects, and never used them indiscriminately. She would freely share her secrets with anyone willing to listen. I remember dropping in once, only to find that she had managed to maneuver two door-to-door missionaries into the poppy garden, where the debate between herbs and religion lasted hours, while they tended to the chores. To this day, I still don't know who converted whom.

It is a disservice to generalize about herbs. They must be evaluated on a herb-by-herb basis. Naturopaths are persons trained to use herbs. A Naturopath trained and certified in Canada will be the first to tell me that the actions of herbs and drugs are similar, and must be employed with caution and wisdom. But there exists no regulatory body for Naturopaths, and for every properly trained and certified one, there are about 10 others claiming to have the same wisdom. Buyer beware is the rule. There are immense profits at stake. A vendor of food supplements only needs to withdraw a product if complaints about injury and death start to mount. A new product can quickly be marketed without need for clinical trials. In comparison, a prescription medicine implies potency, care and liability. One of my pet peeves is the large-scale use of impressive sounding terms in the marketing of these products. Terms such as detoxifier, liver scrubber, all-natural, kidney cleaner, blood purifier and revitalizer. These phrases are without meaning and can force one to make wrongful conclusions when trying to understand the mechanism of action.

A few simple tips. Do not equate herbs with safety because the list of harmful ones continues to grow. Ask yourself what you are seeking to change by ingesting a foreign substance. Seek advice from qualified independent sources whose profit does not depend on sales. Politely ask for their qualifications and what training they have, and especially find out what their liability is, should the substance have a particularly negative effect. Above all, admit to your doctor that you used a product, so that interactions with other medicines and long-term problems can be recorded and tracked. Or take my mother's advice, and consume your herbs in the dining room and your pills in the bathroom!

Related resources:

Herbal Medicine from MedlinePlus.
Herbal Medicine Databases.
Drugs, Supplements, and Herbal Information - Drug Information: Browse by first letter of generic or brand name drug, from MedlinePlus.
Michael Moore - Southwest School of Botanical Medicine. Includes Medicinal Plant Images, Medicinal Plant Photographs by Genus, Video Clips of Medicinal Plants, Color Illustrations, Pen and Ink Drawings, Herb Manuals, Classic Texts - e.g. Herbal Pharmacology in the People's Republic of China, and more.
ABC of complementary medicine - Herbal medicine Clinical review by Andrew Vickers and Catherine Zollman, from British Medical Journal (BMJ).
RxList Alternatives. The Internet Drug Index. Note: "...there may be unreported adverse effects, toxicities, and/or drug interactions that have not been widely recognized. Please consult with your physician before using any alternative products."
Traditional Chinese medicine from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Herbalism from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

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