by Dr. Timothy J. Maggs, © 1999
I recently read an article in the L. A. Times about herbal products and the popularity they were gaining in this country. I've always been a proponent of nutritional therapy, and the thought that the "trend" is all of a sudden catching up with my beliefs of 20 years or more is, well, heartwarming.
According to this article, a national survey was done 2 years ago and found that 45% of Americans were aware of or had tried herbal products and 16% used them regularly. The same study, just completed, found that 70% are now aware of or have tried herbs while 40 percent use them regularly. Not only are these products gaining popularity amongst the masses, but staid medical journals recently published scientific studies on herbs and indicate the conventional medical community is also beginning to take notice.
"It's no longer a fringe movement," said Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council. "Herbs are no longer folklore. People are finding out there is research to support the scientific side of it."
Herbs have been used by many groups and countries for many years. Authorities believe the future of herbal medicine will depend on ethical collection, organic cultivation and the protection of the natural environment. Ethical collection of wild plants was first taught by the Native Americans. Their reverence for plant life was symbolized in the prayer of gratitude offered before collection. It was their practice to only collect every third plant, knowing this would ensure a continued supply. Early medicine, in fact, used practices which today might be confused with those of herbalists or homeopaths.
Modern medicine, along with the pharmaceutical industry, grew significantly about the same time our country transformed from an agricultural nation into an industrial nation. As we entered the 1940's and 50's and farmers began moving to the cities, society accepted"artificial" in their trade for convenience in both food preparation and healthcare. The use of drugs and artificial food ingredients rose dramatically. Flavorings, colorings and preservatives were on the rise. As we entered the 60's, 70's and into the 80's, Americans began to recognize that, although they were living longer, they now led the world in degenerative disease and their quality of life was declining. Moving into the 90's with the baby boomers at the helm, they decided "enough was enough". They would have nothing to do with anything less than the best, including healthier foods and more natural medical care. Wrinkles, aches and pains once again have brought people back to herbs, and the cycle continues.
Most Popular Herbs
Now that herbs and other natural remedies have gone mainstream and are no longer the sole domain of health food purists, which are the most popular and what do they do for you?
Whole Foods Magazine recently surveyed a group of retailers and consumers to find out what the most popular herbs being sold today were:
- Echinacea. There are different forms of echinacea, but all of them provide relief for cold and flu symptoms. In fact, this is the third year echinacea was ranked number one.
- Garlic. This boasts a host of benefits, including reducing blood pressure and cholesterol and helping to prevent colds and other infectious diseases.
- Ginkgo Biloba. This reportedly improves circulation to the brain and lessens ringing in the ears.
- Goldenseal. This, too, is a popular remedy for cold and flu symptoms.
- Saw Palmetto. A truly interesting herb, saw palmetto has shown to dramatically improve benign prostatic hyperplasia, or enlarged prostate. This condition plagues men 40 years old and above. Traditional lore surrounding the plant also includes a prolific reputation as an aphrodisiac.
- Aloe. This acts as a laxative taken internally and a skin treatment externally.
- Ginseng. This increases resistance to stress and provides endurance energy.
- Cat's Claw. This reportedly boosts the immune system.
- Astragalus. This is supposed to have immune enhancing properties.
- Cayenne. This relieves pain.
The survey also found that St. John's Wort is expected by retailers to be the hottest selling herb this coming year as the media touts it as "Natures Prozac".
When all is said and done, keep in mind there are no miracles in health care. Yes, herbs can offer a better and more natural approach to wellness, but they cannot override poor health habits. Exercise, quality sleep, good nutrition and a good attitude are still necessary to ever capture all that life has to offer. As I tell my kids, "The Dirt Road" is the only way. Pay now rather than later. Herbs do offer relief of symptoms and a more natural approach, but they need to be a complement rather than a cure.