What is better – plant remedies or pharmaceuticals (man-made drugs)? There is not one clearly defined answer to this question, as both have their advantages. Understanding the essence of both makes it a little easier to choose when to follow which route:
Before the advent of the pharmaceutical industry as we know it today, apothecaries and pharmacies used traditional remedies to treat ailments. Although there was a lot of trial and error, the basis was steeped in knowledge of the properties of plants and herbs. The ancient civilizations – Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, Native American, Koi San – all had a deep understanding and respect for the healing power of plants.
The pharmaceutical industry was founded on replicating the healing properties of certain herbs in a laboratory – eg aspirin contains salacin (from willow bark). The first pharmaceutical companies – Merck, Beecham, Pfizer, GSK (GlaxoSmithKline), Eli Lilly, Squibb – produced aspirin, alkaloids, insulin and penicillin. Even today, 25% of pharmaceuticals are derived from plants by replicating their structure in the laboratory and mass-producing it.
During and post the second world war, there was much collaboration between these companies – sharing experimental data and research results – all for the common good of finding the safest and most effective drugs.
The industry expanded rapidly from 1950 and governments on both sides of the Atlantic began imposing regulations to control the claims and sales of pharmaceutical products. The Thalidomide scandal in 1961 prompted even stricter regulation and testing of drugs before licensing.
In 1977 Tagemet, an ulcer treatment produced by GSK became the first “blockbuster” drug. The spirit of collaboration in the industry was replaced by fierce competition between the companies to develop the next “blockbuster”. Research was kept secret and there was urgency behind the experimentation of new drugs.
Some excellent drugs were produced between 1955 and 1975: the contraceptive pill, Valium, anti-psychotics, ACE inhibitors (control of tumor growth) Paracetemol, Ibuprofen. Millions of people have benefitted from reduction of pain, prolonged life, better quality of life and the saving of lives due to many of these drugs.
The belief has always been that if a drug is approved by the regulatory councils (eg. FDA in the USA. SAHPRA in South Africa, MHRA in the UK, TGA in Australia) then it is completely safe. However, this is not always the case (as mentioned in PAIN & NSAID’s).
8% of hospital admissions in the USA are due to adverse or side effects of synthetic drugs (3 times more than drunk driving). Thousands also die from supposedly “safe” OTC (over-the-counter) drugs. Adverse reaction to legally prescribed drugs is the 4th leading cause of death in the USA.
All these drugs have been approved and licensed by the FDA.
Synthetic drugs address symptoms caused by specific diseases as understood by scientific pathology, whereas herbal medicines usually aid the body’s own healing process. They act gently and support the systems and processes that have become deficient, or to help remove excesses that become preponderant.
Symptom relief is only a section of medicinal plants’ therapeutic strategies. Eg. arthritis is usually treated with NSAID’s which frequently have disturbing adverse or side effects. The approach of herbs to these conditions causes moistening of synovia, stimulation of circulation in the effected regions, facilitation of elimination via kidneys and hepatic routes, dietary modification of metabolism, etc.Journal of Nephropharmacology 2015
Death or hospitalization from plant remedies is so rare that it doesn’t even feature on the statistical charts.
However, plant remedies are not without risk.
On the extreme side of we find borage, comfrey, pennyroyal, ephedra, deadly nightshade (belladonna), opium….
Although some of these plants do have therapeutic properties – analgesic, anesthetic, calming – if taken in excess, or incorrectly, they can have psychotic, hallucinogenic and fatal consequences. These are the high risk herbs, but there are thousands of other herbs that have wonderful therapeutic actions with very low risk.
The use of plants as medicines goes back as far as 60,000 years and some of the ancient remedies are still recognized and used today for various ailments.
The sale of herbal remedies is now controlled by the regulatory agencies mentioned above. If a herbal remedy is not registered with these councils as a “medicine” a disclaimer has to be printed on the label. This is not to say that the product does not work, simply that it has not been approved by the council as a licensed medicine. The licensing with the council is very costly and often naturopaths cannot afford to do so. The big pharmaceutical companies do not have this problem.
When herbal medicines are produced in a licensed laboratory, all necessary precautions have been taken and risk factors are clearly stated. Although risk factors exist, they are very low in comparison to many NSAID’s and other pharmaceutical drugs.
Pharmaceutical drugs will give a “quick fix” as opposed to the natural route which takes a little longer to give results. However, our bodies respond well to the natural remedies because the essence is organic and the body’s systems will recognize and react to the more gentle introduction of the herbs, assimilating and correcting problematic functions.
All doctors and practitioners of natural, holistic medicine believe in discovering the root cause of illness in order to treat it at a fundamental level. There are some differences between the areas of specialty:
Naturopathy: This is an all-encompassing term for a natural medical approach embracing many different types of treatment, including homeopathy.
Naturopathic doctors study the same sciences as medical doctor in addition to homeopathy, nutrition, botanical medicine, counselling and other integrative therapies.
Homeopathy: The focus is the application of homeopathic remedies for illness, including medicines of a plant, animal or mineral source.
Herbalist: Although similar to homeopathy, herbalists use only botanical (herbal) medicines.
Doctors of natural medicine are highly qualified – doctoral degrees in addition to specialist therapies and practices.
There are times when conventional medicine is the best approach to an illness.
Equally, natural medicine has great benefits with low risk for other illnesses.For chronic ailments, the natural route is often wiser.