Do Herbal Remedies Count as Real Medicine?
—by Jessica B. Turner and Daisy Simmons
You don’t have to travel back in time to leech-sucking days to see that all claims for medicinal value were not created equal. Today, miracle cures are everywhere—including, sometimes, the natural products aisle. Unfortunately, because they’re not regulated as drugs by the Food and Drug Administration, some herbal supplements may not have been scientifically proven to deliver the medicinal benefits they claim—these, you might argue, shouldn’t actually be considered medicine, alternative or not. That said, many herbs really are medicinal, offering a host of positive health benefits that have been scientifically studied and proven.
“Herbal remedies are not really alternative—they have been part of scientific medicine for decades, if not centuries,” Yale neurologist Steven Novella wrote in Science-Based Medicine, an online publication that seeks to bring a scientific perspective to the conversation around alternative medicine. (Read the deep-dive myth for more on plant-based medicine.)
The trick is to do your homework. Don’t just read the label—ask your doctor what they recommend. Check out PubMedCentral to find out what scientific papers have been published on the herb in question. And know that even the most beneficial remedies, like any medicine, can have complicated side effects and can unfavorably interact with other medications.
For instance, if you are a woman battling Seasonal Affective Disorder brought about with this cold winter, you might want to reconsider taking St. John’s Wort…it can reduce the efficiency of your contraception.
So, if you’re up for a little homework, going herbal can have its perks.
Your Crash Course in Plant-based Healing
Let’s say a local farm grows herbs that have been medically proven to help soothe that lingering cough: Your environmental footprint is going to be way smaller if you’re brewing up a tea using local plants that were simply dried in the sun, rather than purchasing something that was packaged and shipped from who knows where.
Going herbal can also be a feel-good thing. Medicinal plants tend to be “softer,” milder medicines, with fewer side effects than conventional pharmaceuticals—when you use them properly, according to Aurélie Jacquet, a PhD candidate in ethnopharmacology at Purdue University.
Plus, you can make tea with some herbs you grow yourself. Why buy expensive medicines to combat a runny nose when you can take dried flowers from your garden and make a tasty medicinal tea that helps?
If you don’t have a green thumb, swing by your local grocery store/farmers market/or co-op, buy some tea in bulk or the plants to make it. Not only can a good brew help maintain your health—it’s also generally less gross and way cozier to drink than a spoonful of fake cherry-flavored syrup.
Inspired? Check out one of these tea recos, all which can grow right here in good old North America:
- Dandelion tea: a delightful bitter bite that finishes by flushing your system (diuretic).
- Echinacea tea: a floral bouquet with a burst of possible immune-boosting earthiness. (FYI, WebMD writes that research on human immune system is lacking.)
- Peppermint tea: fresh, bright undertones, with a palpable reduction in nausea or upset stomachs. (Mayo Clinic: It may provide short-term relief, but might also worsen heartburn.)
- Chamomile tea: notes of dreamy botanicals that soothes away anxiety and nerves.
- Black cohosh tea: A woodsy treat, which ends with a reduction in menopausal symptoms.
- Stinging nettle tea: While you do want to avoid stepping on these with bare feet, they may be worth handling with gloves to help treat urinary tract problems
We gotta say it again: Herbs with scientifically proven benefits can serve as medicine—and as such, they should be treated carefully. If you choose to embark on the adventure of plant-based medicine, be sure to consult a healthcare professional first, and make sure it doesn’t interact with any of your other medications.
Myth Outcome: Myth Busted
Herbal remedies aren’t alternatives to medicine—for one thing, scientists have been using plant-based chemicals to make medicine for decades. Just do your homework to determine if a product is scientifically qualified to serve as medicine or not, and discuss it with your doctor. WebMD has a pretty comprehensive and user-friendly index of herbal remedies on the market.
One Green Thing You Can Do
Plant your favorite healing herb. If nothing else, it’ll look good on your windowsill.