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Herbal Medicine: The Ancient Practice and New Trend (But is it Effective?)

Herbal medicine has grown increasingly popular in the last decade as more reports flood the media describing the harmful effects chemicals and synthetic substances have on the human body. Many celebrities and hippies alike have taken to the trend with many describing impressive results including weight loss, increased energy and healthier skin. The most famous instance of the switch from Western medicine may be Steve Jobs’s battle with a rare pancreatic cancer, choosing extreme diets instead of surgery and conventional chemotherapy treatments. The story of his diagnosis and early decision to rely on fruit juices, herbal remedies and acupuncture before Western methods first broke in 2008. In his biography, Walter Isaacson details the frustration and anxiety Jobs’ loved ones felt while trying to convince him of the benefits of early surgery. His family was angry and upset over the lost time spent on treatments that were ultimately abandoned for the most cutting edge technology Western medicine had developed to treat cancer. Steve Jobs was diagnosed in October 2003 and continued herbal treatments until July 2004. So if the co-founder of Apple made the switch back from herbal medicine to Western treatments, is there anything behind the talk supporting natural medication? We answer the question by looking at the pros and cons of the ancient practice.


The first thing to note about herbal treatments is that they are often used for a different function than Western medicine. Most people in the US use Western medicine to alleviate disease while herbal medications are used to maintain and promote good health. The largest benefit of natural treatments used in this way is to prevent future problems and complications. Many herbal treatments are based upon plants known as adaptogens which support healthy bodily function and increase resistance to environmental, emotional and physical stressors. Examples of such plants include rhodiola, ashwagandha, reishi and Asian ginseng.

Another benefit, simply stated, is herbs have more experience than drugs. Traditional Chinese medical physicians and Ayuryedic practitioners have been using the same formulas that were used by ancient doctors centuries ago. The medicines used to heal and prevent diseases have stood the test of time and in some countries have always been the standard practice. Conventional Western medicine was not developed until long after traditional herbal practices had been well established for hundreds of years. Today, the United States has been catching on to the trend. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, herbal medicine has grown popular with patients trying to avoid the high cost of prescription meds and the harmful effects chemicals have on the body; both of which have been highly publicized as of late.

Finally, herbal formulas provide a natural solution to many conditions with comparable results and fewer side effects than pharmaceutical drugs in certain cases. Such herbs can be so effective because they benefit multiple body systems at once, for example a pill that boosts your immune and digestive systems. Examples of herbs with multi-systemic effects include ginseng, reishi mushrooms and astragalus, all of which can be found at local herbal supplement stores. When multiple systems benefit from one treatment it eliminates the need to take additional medications with the possibility of multiple side effects and higher price tags .


Unfortunately, for cases in which the symptoms need to be quickly alleviated, herbal medicines may not be much help. Pharmaceutical medicine targets specific symptoms to relieve them immediately, while herbal medicine is known for being more subtle. This is not necessarily the case for every herbal treatment, but it is something to consider when choosing to move away from conventional modern day practices.

Secondly, herbal medicines may not be as much of a guarantee and you may be taking on more risk as a patient. Unlike pharmaceutical manufacturers, who must prove their product’s effectiveness and safety before selling it to the public, herbal medicine manufacturers do not need to file this evidence with the United States FDA. There is no agency or organization officially charged with the oversight of manufacturing and labeling herbal medicines. The consumer may be at risk when trusting the actual contents or dosage of said herbal remedies. The best way to navigate this problem is by doing research and consulting several medical opinions before beginning your herbal regimen.  

Our take on the issue? There are benefits and risks to almost everything you do, especially in regards to health care. Do some research, find the products you think would be good additions or replacements to your current medications and then consult with your physician. Someone who knows your medical history and full medical regimen will be able to help you make the most informed decision possible. Pharmacists are wonderful people to consult as well because they are trained to understand how different medications and compounds will interact with each other. If you work in a pharmacy, make sure to brush up on the most current herbal medication trends, you may be receiving some questions!