Natural health remedies and the use of herbal health products have seen a dramatic growth in popularity over the past decade, perhaps due to the fact that modern medicine has been seen to place more importance on prescribing drugs instead of focusing on disease prevention and healthy diets. Andrew Weil, an American celebrity doctor who preaches holistic health and integrative medicine, has said, “I have argued for years that we do not have a health care system in America. We have a disease-management system – one that depends on ruinously expensive drugs and surgeries that treat health conditions after they manifest rather than giving our citizens simple diet, lifestyle and therapeutic tools to keep them healthy.”
Acai, goji berries, chia seeds, hemp seeds, wheatgrass, pomegranate — now a staple in many grocery strores — have been labeled and marketed as “superfoods”, natural ingredients that are purported to be rich in antioxidants or contain high levels of nutritional benefits. However, natural health and medicinal ingredients span a much wider range than the superfoods trend.
There is ample evidence that medicinal plants have been used since ancient civilization to supplement diets and cure common ailments. These plants produce beneficial compounds that act as a natural defense mechanism against things like disease and fungal infections. The earliest record of medicinal plant use was found from the Sumerian civilization. There are also records and recipes utilizing hundreds of medicinal plants from ancient Greek and Egyptian civilizations. Traditional Chinese medicine and Indian ayurveda also form the basis for the most commonly practiced forms of natural medicine today.
Despite the long history of medicinal plants, modern medicine, which is less than 100 years old, often dispute their benefits due to lack of scientific evidence, preferring the use of proven therapies. For example, despite being one of the most researched herbs, ginseng’s medicinal effects remain unclear. Another natural plant which remains controversial worldwide is cannabis, which many argue can help manage chronic pain, nausea, glaucoma, and PTSD.
In contrast, there are traditional and natural remedies that have been scientifically proven to be beneficial. Cranberry has been shown to be able to prevent urinary tract infections in women, while turmeric — a yellow-colored ingredient commonly used as a spice and in religious ceremonies — is recognized as “a potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimutagenic, antimicrobial, and anticancer agent.” Spices have even been added to national dietary guidelines in the U.S. and Australia.
Research is still ongoing as scientists try to justify the public’s interest in medicinal herbs and spices. Scientifically proven or not, “super” ingredients rooted in traditional medicine have spurred major health crazes, from wheatgrass shots, kale chips, avocado toast, to turmeric lattes (also known as “golden lattes”). Specialty food stores, supermarkets and even large department store chains are not shy to cash in on these trends, giving rise to opportunities for novel food inventions and new food producers to enter the scene. The South China Morning Post reported that in Europe, imports of spices and herbs have increased by 6.1% annually between 2012 and 2016.
Today, traditional or alternative medicine still plays a distinct role in healthcare in many cultures — some more than others. During the SARS crisis in China in the early 2000s, 40-60% infected patients received “Chinese medicine treatment on top of the standard modern medicine treatment,” a practice that was endorsed and encouraged by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Proponents argue that the traditional Chinese medicine treatment helps to boost the immune system and restore the body’s internal balance, priming it to fight the SARS virus, a claim that scientific journals still deem inconclusive.
Used in conjunction with scientifically-proven modern medicinal therapies, traditional Chinese medicine is said to do no harm to the patient as herbal treatments present little to no side effects. “In contrast, the combination of ribavirin and steroid, which was the core of the Western medical treatment protocol [for SARS], remains highly controversial because of their known side effects.”
The potential dangers of traditional medicines lie in the fact that it’s most often self-prescribed, not standardized, and not strictly regulated. Also, the public’s perception of natural products often leads consumers to ignore the risks of excessive or chronic use and the risks of ingesting inferior products. Herbal weight loss treatments were responsible for poisoning and liver failure in China and Africa, while Ginkgo biloba “has been demonstrated to be capable of inhibiting platelet-activating factor and altering bleeding times.”
Life-threatening risks could also arise from producers using the wrong species of plant, misuse, or contamination with toxic or hazardous substances. The discovery of quinine — a component of the cinchona tree bark effective in treating malaria — in the 17th century makes for one of the best cases demonstrating the benefits of natural medicine. Unfortunately, its efficacy in treating malaria has been marred by poor quality formulations and high quantities of impurities.
As consumers grow more accepting of alternative medicine, physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and other providers of modern medicine must show a willingness to understand how patients’ health are affected by herbal medicines instead of dismissing them as mere diet supplements. Education and knowledge-sharing are key in preventing serious injury and misuse.