Foreword: Before You Begin this Book
Ten years ago, when I first told a friend that I was writing a book on herbs, he looked startled and said, "Why, Earl, I had no idea that you could cook!"
Today, his comment seems laughable but, back then, most people still thought that herbs were only something you added to tomato sauce or sprinkled on a salad.
What a difference a decade makes!
According to a recent survey, one-third of all Americans today use herbal supplements and related products. Once relegated to a small shelf in the back of the store, herbs now account for about 25 percent of all sales in natural food stores. There are now row upon row of herbal supplements not just where you'd expect to find them -- in natural food stores -- but also in conventional pharmacies, discount stores, supermarkets, and even in doctors' offices. Aspirin and acetaminophen now stand side by side with herbs such as echinacea, goldenseal, kava, valerian, ginseng, and St. John's wort. If, as the saying goes, money talks, Americans are loudly voicing their support for herbal products. In 1994, Americans spent 1.6 billion dollars on herbal preparations; by 1998, that number had nearly tripled, to $4 billion in retail sales. I predict that the market will continue to grow exponentially.
Sales of herbal products have skyrocketed since Congress passed the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which radically changed the way supplements can be sold and marketed in the United States. The law lifted decades of regulatory barriers that had made it difficult, if not impossible, to bring new supplements to market. The law also made it easier for manufacturers to make health claims for their products as long as they had scientific backing. If an herb was a proven treatment for cold or headache, the manufacturer could say so on the label. This made it easier than ever for people to find and use the appropriate herbal products.
The herbal revolution has done nothing less than change the way medicine is being practiced. Once dismissed as quackery, traditional remedies are now getting a close look from mainstream scientists. The United States Congress has established the office of Alternative Medicine under the National Institutes of Health to study alternative medicine, including herbs. Recently, an entire issue of the conservative Journal of the American Medical Association was devoted to exploring various forms of alternative medicine. So much has happened since the Herb Bible was published in 1992, that it has become necessary to update this book. Not only do I introduce scores of new herbs in this new edition, but I also include the latest scientific findings on herbs that were listed in the old edition. Similar to the old Herb Bible, the new Herb Bible is designed so that it can be used by both the novice and the experienced herbal consumer.
In a sense, as we embark on a new millennium, we've come full circle. When I was growing up in Canada, my parents often relied on herbs and natural medicine to treat the common illnesses of childhood. However, by the time I started pharmacy school in 1958, the pill-popping era was just dawning. By the time I graduated and entered practice, there seemed to be a pill for whatever ailed us. Have a sore throat? Take an antibiotic. Think a headache is coming on? Reach for an aspirin. Need to drop some weight or pick up some energy? Try amphetamines. Want to calm down? A tranquilizer will help you. This was also the dawn of the space age. The United States was preparing to send a man to the moon in a space capsule. Therefore, it was only logical to believe that we would soon be able to cure the common cold, flu, acne, and various catastrophic illnesses with time-release capsules. The notion that lifestyle, diet, or exercise could possibly influence health was considered unscientific and profoundly silly. "Scientific" remedies were not hard to find, however. They were widely advertised and came packaged in attractive boxes, bottles, or blister packs. Natural remedies -- the kind our grandmothers and great-grandmothers relied on -- were dismissed as pure hokum. These were the days when there seemed to be nothing that nature could do that humans could not do better.
Against this backdrop, I reluctantly registered for the required course in pharmacognosy, the study of drugs derived from plants. My classmates and I disparagingly called the course "weeds and seeds," and thought that it was utterly weird. We went on field trips and foraged for plants known for their medicinal value. With my own hands, I picked them, dried them, and with an old-fashioned mortar and pestle, turned them into useful drugs. In the process, my skepticism about natural remedies began to fade and I started studying the literature some might call the lore of natural remedies. I was astonished to discover that people had been using natural remedies for thousands of years to successfully treat a wide variety of ills, ranging from heartburn to heart disease. In fact, prior to World War II, herbal medications were listed side-by-side with chemical drugs in the U.S. Pharmacopeia, the official listing of accepted medicines. Even today, nearly 50 percent of the thousands of drugs commonly used and prescribed are either derived from plant sources or contain chemical imitations of plant compounds. The list is impressive:
- Digitalis, a potent cardiotonic, is derived from the foxglove plant.
- Aspirin is a chemical imitation of salicin, found in the bark of the white willow tree.
- Reserpine, a blood pressure medicine, is actually an ancient remedy from India derived from an Asian shrub.
- Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, found in many over-the-counter cold remedies, are derived from the ephedra plant, used in China to treat colds and flu for more than five thousand years!
- Quinine, a famous malaria treatment, and quinidine, an antiarrhythmic medication, are made from the bark of the cinchona tree.
- Vincristine and vinblastine, two of our most successful cancer treatments, are derived from the rosy periwinkle tree, native to southern Madagascar. Medicine derived from this plant has saved the lives of thousands of victims of childhood leukemia.
- Taxol, derived from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree, has been used successfully to treat advanced ovarian cancer.
- Penicillin, the grandfather of antibiotics, is actually a mold, an organism produced by a fungus, a primitive plant.
Thus, I owe my lifelong interest in herbal medicine to the courses I took in pharmacognosy. After graduation, I began collecting antique herbal guides, often called herbals, some of which are more than two centuries old. But I never took my herbals to the pharmacy with me, because herbalism was considered obsolete. Indeed, not long after I graduated, pharmacognosy was dropped from the list of required courses by many pharmacy schools. Ironically, many schools have reintroduced the course and many others are considering it.
The major reason for the decline in herbalism was not the herbs' inefficacy but economics. Herbs are not as profitable as drugs. In the United States, most herbs are not recognized as drugs or as having any medicinal value. Rather, they are classified as food or food additives. Even if an herb is known to be beneficial as a medicine, it cannot be sold as a drug until it receives the official stamp of approval by the Food and Drug Administration, and approval does not come quickly, easily, or cheaply. Where the introduction of new drugs is concerned, the United States is one of the most restrictive countries in the world. The extensive testing required to achieve official drug status, that is, to prove a substance is safe and effective, can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take many years. This explains why the cost of the average prescription has risen tenfold since 1950!
Moreover, natural substances cannot be patented. When a pharmaceutical company creates a new drug, the company is given a twenty-year exclusive right to market that product, so that the company can recoup its research and development costs. Were a pharmaceutical company to simply package an herb, the company would receive no such market protection. Thus, there is little incentive to spend time and money investigating the potential benefits of an herb that people can grow themselves or that competitors are free to market. It's not surprising, therefore, that many pharmaceutical houses have lost interest in pursuing plant drugs altogether, and instead have focused their research and development efforts on new synthetic medications. An unfortunate consequence of this shift in emphasis to synthetic drugs was that many time-honored natural remedies were displaced and, at least for a while, forgotten.
Today, however, we are witnessing a renewed interest in herbal remedies, not only on the part of alternative physicians but from traditional medical practitioners as well. One reason is the recognition that, although synthetic drugs have certainly performed many miracles and saved countless lives, they have not turned out to be the "silver bullet" that pharmacologists hoped they would be. Virtually all of these drugs have well-known side effects, ranging from the unpleasant to the lethal. In many cases, they are not even effective. For example, antibiotics, for all their ability to defeat bacterial infections, are essentially useless against viruses, and many of the diseases that plague us today, from Shanghai flu to AIDS to chronic fatigue syndrome, are viral syndromes. What's even worse is that, due to the overuse of antibiotics, we are now threatened by new and deadlier strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria. One-third of all strains of streptococcus pneumonia are now resistant to one or more antibiotics. Once easily cured by penicillin, 90 percent of all staph infections are now resistant to this antibiotic, and some new strains are resistant to all drugs.
Another reason for the...
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