Using herbal medicine as a viable treatment option

Countries around the world use herbal medicine as a viable treatment option. China, Japan, France, England and Germany are among the top users, while the United States is still slow to follow in their footsteps. Executive Director of the American Botanical Council, Marc Blumenthal says, “I think being a kind of frontier country, we kind of got into the scientific aspect — we weren’t tied to any roots and there was no history here.” With no formal introduction or history of herbal medicine, other than the Native Americans, it has never taken off. The reason given by supporters of herbal medicine in the United States, is money.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the gatekeeper of medicine approvals in the United States. Most orthodox medical doctors will not put any merit into a drug or treatment method unless it has been supported by the FDA. Before getting approval for a drug, clinical trials must be conducted in the United States. Herbalists may apply under existing guidelines for approval of new pharmaceutical drugs, but it is very expensive. According to James Duke, with the United States Department of Agriculture, the total cost of bringing a new pharmaceutical drug to market in the United States is an estimated $140 million to $500 million. Because plants are not patentable, an herbal medicine manufacturer can not recover the money. Herbal medicine expert Michael Tierra says, “The FDA needs to look at a different approval process for herbs. They also need to recognize herbalists for our experience and expertise, and should consult us about efficacy.”

At present in the U.S., herbs are marketed as food supplements. Therefore, manufacturers are not allowed to make any medical claims about the use of the herb. If a manufacturer or distributor makes specific health claims about an herbal product without FDA approval, the product can be pulled from store shelves. Therefore, since the FDA is not regulating the herbs under the umbrella of medicine, the herbal product industry has had to regulate itself.

Consumers are able to buy herbs to treat themselves for medical ailments, but the jars, boxes or bags of herbs are not allowed to state what the herbs should be used to treat. Instead, there is a 20 foot rule. Printed information stating which herbs are treatable for which ailments must be no closer than 20 feet from the herbs. So in effect, consumers are allowed to treat themselves, but don’t have all of the proper information available to do this safely. Herb stores that are open to consumers, allowing them to come in and scoop their own herbs or purchase capsules or teas often have disclaimers such as this: “We do not directly or indirectly dispense medical advice or prescribe the use of herbs as a treatment for sickness without medical approval. In the event you use the information without your doctor’s approval, you are prescribing for yourself, which is your constitutional right, but we assume no responsibility.” Medical herbalists say the government is not doing consumers any favors by not allowing the manufacturers to label the products fully.

Despite the FDA’s disapproval of herbal medicine, consumer interest in the area is growing. As more and more patients find that orthodox medicine isn’t healing them, they are looking for alternatives. In 1993, the sales of herbal supplements in supermarkets rose to $22.7 million. This is expected to keep rising as more people seek alternatives.

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