The New Healing Herbs: The Ultimate Guide to Natures Best Medicines
By Michael Castleman
Twenty years ago, when I wrote the first edition of The Healing Herbs, it was clear that herbal medicine was becoming increasingly popular. But no one involved with herbal healing in the late 1980s had any inkling of the explosion in popularity that herbal medicine would enjoy as the 20th century turned into the 21st. And in my wildest dreams. I could not have imagined how popular The Healing Herbs would become-now more than one million copies sold in English, Spanish, French, Italian, and other languages
Herbal medicine is now an industry worth more than $4 billion a year, about five times the size it was when the original edition of this book was published in 1991. According to a national survey conducted for Prevention magazine, 49 percent of American adults-more than 100 million people-use an herbal medicine each year, and 24 percent-some 25 million people-call themselves "regular users." And a study published in 2005 in Archives of Internal Medicine shows that in adults over the age of 18, 16 percent of men and 19 percent of women use a medicinal herb every week.
This third edition has been expanded from 100 herbs to 130. The new herbs-including andrographis, butterbur, cat's claw, elderberry, and maitake mushrooms-are not "new" in the sense of newly discovered. These plants have been well known for centuries, and in the case of elderberry, since ancient times. But only during the past decade have studies clearly shown how medicinally valuable they are.
Twenty years ago, the medical profession was, at best, skeptical of herbal medicine. No longer. Today, it's not at all unusual for physicians to recommend echinacea for the common cold, ginger to prevent motion sickness and morning sickness, black cohosh for menopausal discomforts, cranberry to prevent urinary tract infections, St. John's wort to treat depression, or elderberry to treat flu.
Doctors have become more open to herbal medicine in part because their friends and family members have reported success with it. But in addition, mainstream American medical journals have changed their position on herbs. Twenty years ago, major journals were quick to publish reports of medicinal herbs' hazardous side effects (including several reports that-turned out to be erroneous), but only rarely did they publish information about herbs' benefits. Today, these same journals publish a steady stream of studies in support of herbal healing. A report in the British Medical Journal (now BMJ) was largely responsible for popularizing St. John's wort as an antidepressant. A review in the Journal of Family Practice concluded that echinacea is an effective cold treatment. Studies published in Lancet have demonstrated the effectiveness of feverfew in migraine prevention. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine, once openly hostile to herbs, showed that cranberry juice helps prevent urinary tract infections. And reports in the Journal of the American Medical Association, another traditional herb-basher, have supported ginkgo as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease and saw palmetto for benign prostate enlargement.
In other words, herbal medicine is more mainstream in the United States today than it's been in 100 years. It's still not as medically accepted in this country as it is in some other countries, notably Germany, nor as mainstream as it was in 19th-century America, before the pharmaceutical industry took medicine out of the herb garden and moved it into the laboratory. But herbal medicine is no longer the fringe practice that it was when the first edition of this book appeared in 1991.
Medicinal herb products have also come a long way in the last 20 years. Not only are there many more of them, but they are much more widely available, now stocked by many pharmacies and even some supermarkets. And they have become more reliable with the advent of "standardized extracts." preparations from plants bred to contain a certain concentration of pharmacologically active compounds, and then grown, harvested, stored, and prepared under controlled conditions to produce reasonably reliable dose uniformity. Standardized extracts are not quite as dose-controlled as laboratory-synthesized pharmaceuticals, but they're close, and considerably more dose-controlled than bulk herbs.
Unfortunately, the past decade has also witnessed a few serious safety problems with herbs, two in particular. In one, an estimated 30 young adults died after taking mega-overdoses of Chinese ephedra (ma huang). They were not using this herb medicinally, but rather to experience amphetamine-like intoxication. They took hundreds of times the dose that responsible herbalists would recommend. In addition, 82 people worldwide suffered liver damage-and nine died-while using kava. the South Pacific herbal tranquilizer. It turned out that kava's meteoric rise to popularity led to adulteration of the root with aerial parts of the plant that contain compounds toxic to the liver. Because of the scandal, kava's popularity plummeted, adulteration ceased, and so did reports of liver damage.
But despite occasionally scary headlines, herbal medicines have an admirable safety record overall. With more Americans using more medicinal herbs than at any time in the past century, there have been few serious mishaps, especially when compared with the side effects-and deaths-from pharmaceuticals.
Nonetheless, safety concerns seem destined to remain the most pressing issue in herbal medicine, largely because the Food and Drug Administration has to date refused to reopen its review process for over-the-counter drugs to include evaluation of herbs. But for the first time, considerable numbers of FDA staff support the use of healing herbs. I'm cautiously optimistic that over the next decade, the FDA will adopt medicinal herb labeling regulations that are more appropriate to Americans' needs.
Meanwhile, The New Healing Herbs -completely revised, updated, and expanded-should help you use medicinal herbs confidently, effectively, and above all, safely.