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Beyond the Mainstream

Growing Yourself a Dose of Medicine

April 02, 2001|Barrie R. Cassileth

Got a headache? There are pills for it. Too much stress and anxiety? Numerous pills and capsules for those problems, too. Sex life not up to par? A pill can take care of it. High blood pressure? Good medication for that as well. Pharmaceutical companies have done a fantastic job of making our lives healthier and more comfortable.

Why, then, is the natural and herbal remedies business going so strong? More than 1,000 Web sites are dedicated to herbs. A catalog for a food supplement store offers more than 10 pages of herbal products, each page jammed with 100 or more listings.

There are several explanations for the exploding interest in natural remedies. Some people want to avoid man-made chemicals. Many want to take charge of their own health through the use of self-selected natural products. A bottom-line explanation is that a good number of botanicals and other over-the-counter remedies actually work. Many have been available for centuries as part of traditional medical systems in China, Tibet, India and other countries, or among Native Americans in the United States.

Some we know through their culinary use. Examples of herbs commonly used in cooking that also have medicinal properties include ginger (nausea), garlic (fungal and digestive problems), horseradish (blocked sinuses), parsley (bad breath) and watercress (fatigue). And, of course, the Mayan delicacies in the film "Chocolat" deliciously typify the culinary-medicinal link.

We tend to think of botanicals as natural remedies that are simple and safe. Sometimes safe but rarely simple.

Even the plainest herbal remedy, in its natural state, is a blend of chemicals. And any product strong enough to heal ailments is also strong enough to create side effects or interact with prescription drugs, or with one another.

Ginger and garlic are examples of herbs that, like aspirin, should be stopped before surgery, as they interfere with blood clotting. Other herbs, like St. John's wort, work effectively in most healthy people but should be avoided by those on birth control pills or receiving medication for cancer or other major problems. St. John's wort can negate the action of serious medications.

Because we do not have government evaluation of herbs and other food supplements, the possibility of contamination due to careless processing remains a risk. Consider the reputation and quality of the manufacturer when purchasing over-the-counter remedies.

Here is a list of some popular botanical medicines for common ailments that contribute to the well-being of many.

Aloe vera: Found in many skin creams, gel directly from the plant leaves is good for maintaining soft skin, healing sunburn and other minor surface burns and abrasions. I keep an aloe vera plant on the kitchen windowsill, where a leaf is always ready to yield a bit of gel that soothes the skin.

Black cohosh: This is a traditional Native American remedy for gynecologic problems. It is used today primarily to treat premenstrual discomfort and hot flashes. Because it contains phyto (plant) estrogens, it may not be safe for women with breast cancer.

Capsicum cream: Capsicum, the active ingredient in cayenne and chili pepper, can be added to cold cream for topical relief of muscle and joint aches.

Chamomile: This daisy-like flower has been used for thousands of years to make a tea that aids digestion and acts as a mild sedative. Steep this herb in hot water for 10 minutes. Some allergic reactions have been reported.

Echinacea: Although research results are equivocal, many take echinacea capsules to abbreviate colds and related conditions such as sore throats.

Ginkgo: Extracts of gingko biloba appear to expand blood vessels, improve blood flow to the brain and treat circulatory disorders. Research suggests it may improve working and long-term memory. As with other serious medications, ginkgo has potential side effects. It may interact with anticoagulants and antiplatelet agents used to treat heart problems.

Goldenseal: As a tea, goldenseal helps calm inflammations of the digestive and urinary tracts. Goldenseal contains an antibacterial chemical that lowers blood pressure. It should not be taken during pregnancy. High doses may cause vomiting, diarrhea and respiratory failure.

Milk thistle: This is an old "liver protecting" remedy, and modern research supports its value in treating inflammatory liver disorders and cirrhosis. It contains antioxidants that block the action of cell-damaging free radicals.

Psyllium: Its seed husks are used primarily as a fiber supplement to relieve constipation.

Saw palmetto: This herb effectively relieves the symptoms of enlarged prostate, or benign prostatic hyperplasia, including frequent or difficult urination.

Valerian: As a tea made from its root or as an extract, valerian has mild sedating effects and works well as a sleep aid.

Of course, there are hundreds more. Before you try one, read up on the product and do not combine natural remedies with prescribed medications. Seek reliable information, and don't depend wholly on anecdotal reports or information from those who sell products. Physicians have increasing access to information about the chemical implications of botanicals. Talk with your doctor first.


Barrie R. Cassileth, PhD, is chief of integrative medicine at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. She can be reached at Her column appears the first Monday of the month.

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