by Stephanie Barlow
The issue of suitable proof for claims made about herbs occasionally comes up with friends, customers and generally those with an enquiring mind. Although what they are looking for is often ‘peer reviewed, double-blind, scientifically based studies’, the issue is much more complex than they might originally perceive. Often, this kind of study does not exist for herbal medicines, but this in no way reflects the veracity or reliability of herbal medicine. There are a number of reasons these studies are hard to come by.
Firstly, let’s look at why research happens in the first place. Scientific, double-blind, laboratory, whizz-bang studies are expensive! No herbalist is going to fund a $2 million study to prove whether or not chamomile calms the nerves (when a simple cup of tea will show that it does). The only reason any company would ever fund this kind of study is if they are motivated by profit. As herbs are not able to be patented, there is no big profit to be had by being the first to do the research. What’s more, the main impetus behind all these studies is not to prove the efficacy, but rather to prove the safety of the pharmaceutical drug under scrutiny. Herbs that are commonly used in herbal medicine are safe when used in their whole form in sensible doses. Thousands of years of human use can tell you much about a substance’s safety and use. Pharmaceuticals are not generally safe, however. Did you know that correct use of pharmaceuticals killed 150,000 people in USA alone in 1995 (Journal of the American Medicinal Association). That is not counting incorrect prescription, overdose, negative interactions between different pharmaceuticals or medical mistakes! I sure hope that any company wishing to bring out a new pharmaceutical does a whole host of studies. Although these studies often incorporate a small section on the drug doing what it claims to do, the vast majority of the time and money is spent on proving it won’t kill people too quickly. Based on this understanding, we can see that there is no real reason to undertake this kind of study on herbs.
It is true that government and universities also give out research grants, which on the surface seem not to be motivated by profits. However, if you were to look in to how these research dollars are distributed, you would find that the area and scope of research is indirectly controlled by corporate interests.
Secondly, what do animal studies really tell us? Most pharmaceutical studies are done on laboratory animals. Leaving aside the question of ethics that comes up when we torture other species of animals for dubious benefit, how similar are we to rats anyway? Although I appreciate that animal studies do tell us something about how chemicals work in mammalian bodies in general, no truly scientifically-minded person would accept the claim that tests on animals are as worthy as tests on humans. Although some studies are done with humans, they are all short-term, and tell us little about the long-term effects on the body, or even on future generations.
There are big question marks around the value of artificially ‘controlled’ clinical trials to try to establish what happens in an uncontrolled, complex ‘real world’ scenario. In fact, we can argue that medicine is as much a socio-psychological phenomenon as a scientific one, especially when we consider the extreme lengths that pharmaceutical companies go to, to eliminate the placebo effect from their trials. What better tests than multiple generations of use over 100s or 1000s of years by humans? This is what we have with herbs: documented ‘tests’, happening over the course of people’s lives (and their ancestors’ and children’s lives) on real human beings, in the real world, over a long term period. Many people feel this data is much more reliable than that found in controlled clinical trials.
Thirdly, I question the great assumptions that our society continually makes that only knowledge that is validated by science is really true. If we look deeply into the history of knowledge, understanding, and ‘science’ in human thought, our only sensible conclusion is that the scientific paradigm is merely one more epistemology (way of understanding knowledge and the world) among others. At one point in history, science proved that the Earth was flat, when it clearly is not. Further down the track many modern medical ‘breakthroughs’ will seem just as preposterous and out-dated as that belief. In my opinion, the truth is that ‘truth’ is much too big for us to adequately grasp. There are many ways of learning, and understanding truth. Anyone who has worked extensively with altered states of consciousness, dreams, etc is firmly of the view that there are many valid ways to learn about the world. It is just as likely (if not more so) that our ancestors knew which herbs to take for what because the spirits told them through dream states as it is that they worked it out through trial and error.
Finally (and most importantly), herbal medicine belongs firmly within the folk medicine tradition, not a biomedical, interventionist tradition. The term ‘folk medicine’ is often used by those operating from the dominant medical paradigm as a derogatory term to refer to unsubstantiated or ‘unscientific’ medical superstition, but it is far from that! Folk medicine is quite simply medicine that belongs to the people (the folk)! It is the medical tradition that the people have developed over countless years, learning from their mistakes and successes. Despite their derogatory comments, most pharmaceuticals are based purely on folk medical traditions. Pharmaceutical companies send researchers all over the world to talk to local healers and try to find plants that work – to extract, patent and make a fortune from, often giving the original owners of that knowledge no compensation. Almost 85% of pharmaceuticals are extracted or synthesised from herbs. If that doesn’t tell you they work, what does?
Herbs are the jewels of folk medicine, and are here for us to enjoy. We don’t need millions of dollars of lab equipment to know what herb to use. This is about taking our health and wellbeing into our own empowered hands. If there are hundreds of documented cases of a herb being used successfully and safely for a certain ailment, then I see little need for a $2 million clinical trial.