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KEEPING FIT

For Many, Herbal Treatments Are Natural Solution

March 30, 1993|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After suffering from severe allergies all his life and getting nothing more than short-lived relief from over-the-counter medication and nasal surgery, Nick Nicholas of Tustin decided to visit a specialist in herbal medicine.

By that time Nicholas, 38, didn't hold out much hope, so the results shocked him.

"I had a dramatic change after just one week of herbal treatment. It was as if I hadn't suffered from sinus problems in the first place," he says. He hasn't had a recurrence of the condition for the past two years.

While some think of the use of medicinal herbs as a recent phenomenon, Nicholas' allergy treatment actually involved an ancient Oriental herbal formula.

Long before pharmacies and non-prescription drugs, herbs were used to medicate and protect the body against illness. Even today, herbs form the base for a number of prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Herbs can be the roots, fruit, leaves, flowers and even the bark of plants.

Most who believe that herbs are an effective remedy for routine ailments still realize the importance of medical doctors in treating illnesses and injuries. The American Medical Assoc. does not take a position on the use of herbal medicine.

"Five thousand years ago there were no corner drugstores; people and animals were all dependent on the natural world, and they constantly used herbs for medicinal purposes," says Eloy Rodriguez, a medicinal plant biochemist and biologist who is a research scientist and professor in UCI's College of Medicine and School of Biological Science.

Many countries use herbal remedies as a primary form of health care. In the United States, up until the discovery of penicillin in 1929, herbs were an important medical treatment for the many infectious diseases that threatened lives.

"When the Pilgrims came to America, they brought their own herbal remedies from Europe and were soon introduced to an abundance of new herbs by the American Indians. It is thanks to this sharing of herbal knowledge that the Pilgrims were able to survive," Rodriguez says.

Many Americans have no idea how powerful herbs can be for the treatment of medical problems and the prevention of disease, says Ronald Bieler, who operates Bieler Herbal Clinic and Acupuncture in Costa Mesa.

"Seventy percent of doctors in China today use primarily herbal treatments for illness," says Bieler, who has a degree in Oriental medicine from the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco and has worked in a Chinese hospital and in a Taiwanese herbal shop.

"Not only do (Chinese) herb shops regularly dispense herbal formulas for minor aches and pains like stomach and headaches, they also treat more serious problems like colitis, diabetes, asthma and even appendicitis (unless it's about to rupture) with herbal remedies. Patients in the emergency room of a hospital generally receive an herbal treatment."

China isn't the only country making use of herbal remedies. "In Germany, garlic, which is used to lower cholesterol, outsells aspirin," says Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the Austin, Tex.-based American Botanical Council and editor of HerbalGram magazine.

In the United States over the past several years, herbal medicine has rapidly gained popularity, says Blumenthal.

Rodriguez says many Americans turn to herbal remedies when Western medicine fails them.

"Many people have built up a resistance to the antibiotics prescribed by medical doctors or are experiencing complications from their use. Herbal remedies generally have no side effects, and it's virtually impossible to build up a resistance, because, unlike American synthetic drugs which consist of just one compound, herbal formulas contain a combination of substances," Rodriguez says.

Herbal remedies have undergone thousands of years of quality-control testing, he says. "According to chemical studies done in recent years by anthropologists, 85% of the plants used for treatments were used appropriately," Rodriguez says.

Herbs can be used for a variety of infections and aches and pains as well as for prevention, Bieler says. There are herbs to settle the stomach, herbs for migraines, respiratory and ear infections and herbs for urinary tract infections, says Bieler.

Chronic conditions, such as the symptoms associated with menopause, menstruation and allergies, can also be treated with herbs, Bieler says.

Herbs come in a variety of forms, including teas, pills and formulas made by acupuncturists. They can be bought at health food stores and through mail order.

Shopping for herbs can be difficult because herb packaging is not likely to tell the consumer much. Herbs are considered a food and by law manufacturers cannot make health or therapeutic claims about them. Blumenthal suggests those interested in trying herbal remedies educate themselves on the uses of a dozen or so useful herbs and then make selections from that group based on their needs.

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