Years ago, I witnessed an open-heart operation at the University of Shanghai in China. The surgeons opened the chest of a young woman using acupuncture as the only “anesthesia.” This experience left me with an open mind about the possibilities of what was then called “alternative medicine.”
Natural remedies have been used for centuries. In fact, many of the prescription drugs we take are plant-based. Some 5 billion people worldwide rely solely on traditional plant-based treatments to heal what ails them, and more than half of Americans take dietary supplements, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Unfortunately, the FDA does not supervise the manufacture or importation of herbal remedies. The pill you take may not contain what’s listed on the label, and there is a risk of contamination. Until recently, claims about the effectiveness of supplements had not been tested.
The good news is that large and well-designed trials of many natural therapies are being conducted to determine their effectiveness. Here is what we know so far:
This popular herb has long been used to boost energy, increase sex drive, prolong life and improve appetite. However, most of the research supporting its effectiveness was performed on animals. Try it if you like, but don’t take ginseng if you have heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure or are taking an anticoagulant.
Marketed as a pill, capsule or powder, garlic supplements are said to lower cholesterol and blood pressure and to have antibiotic properties. I believe that it does these things—but not well enough to be used as the sole treatment for high cholesterol, hypertension or infection. Don’t take it if you also are taking aspirin or anticoagulants.
Millions of Americans take echinacea because they believe it boosts immunity and helps prevent the common cold. Studies have shown conflicting results, possibly due to variation in the contents of the products tested. It seems that one particular species, Echinacea purpurea, works best. There’s no harm in trying it unless you are allergic to ragweed, have an autoimmune disorder or are taking drugs that can hurt the liver.
This herb does have some antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties. I recommend chamomile to improve sleep, settle the stomach, soothe a sore throat and relieve bronchial congestion. Some of my patients tell me that it eases the pain of arthritis and menstrual cramps and that a chamomile bath can reduce symptoms of hemorrhoids. Avoid it if you are taking an anticoagulant, are allergic to daisies or are pregnant.
St. John’s wort
This herb acts on receptors in the brain to improve mild depression. However, it interacts poorly with some medications and may reduce the effectiveness of oral contraceptives. If you’re not taking other medication and your depression is mild, it’s OK to try it.
Evidence suggests that ginkgo biloba has a positive effect on the vascular system, probably because it contains flavonoids and organic acids and helps to eliminate free radicals. It has anti-inflammatory properties and reduces the tendency to form blood clots. Some doctors recommend it to boost memory, promote circulation to the legs or ease cognitive impairment due to decreased blood flow to the brain. It’s well-tolerated at prescribed levels, but don’t take it if you also are taking an anticoagulant.
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