Herbal Corner Old wives tales. No clinical tests to prove anything about herbs being effective. Right? Well, once upon a time, that was true. But no longer. Phytotherapy is a new movement originating in Europe but now  practiced in America, in which herbs are scientifically studied. A few studies have just a few dozen participants, many have participants by the hundreds, while others may have 1,000 or even 8,000 participants. Wide cultural cross-sectors have been studied as well, involving entire nations of people. Chemical constituents have been identified, out of which many mainstream medications are manufactured. Tests are being conducted of the isolated constituents, the herbs themselves, singly and in combinations….in vitro (in test tubes), on consenting patients, in double blind clinical studies, on animals….you name it.

 More than 1,000 clinical studies exist for the herb St Johnswort alone: Yet other studies exist in large numbers for individual herbs almost all the way across the board. Drug-herb interactions have been noted, and continually are researched and catalogued. And while much has been proven, uncovered, discovered, and all of the facts detailed, it remains that the large body of information is growing on an on-going basis. The American Herbalist’s Guild sends out emails with approximately two dozen new herbal studies logged to Pubmed, the government’s medical database, on a daily basis. Phytotherapy is a young science, albeit a rapidly expanding one and quite sophisticated in its depth. 

As the scientific studies of herbs continues, the very interesting thing is that many of these “old wives tales” are actually being proven by the science, says phytotherapist Christopher Hobbs. Findings would overwhelmingly indicate the folklore to be scientifically sound and effective. While the greater percentages of cases prove the so-called “old wive’s tales” to be true, Hobbs also doesn’t hesitate to say that a few cases also do disprove the matters as just that: Old wive’s tales. Hobbs is always very full-disclosure, just as I have found the herbal industry to be in general, with only a few exceptions. Alas, there are a few scam operations out there, sales people looking to make money and claiming to know about herbs, which discredit the herbalist movement. Beware of any such scam operations which may officially subscribe you for the long-term, as I have seen some of these which can cause side-effects based on the way they are formulated. But in my experience, even the most reputable herbal companies themselves, which never sell you on long-term or short-term subscriptions FYI,  are very full-disclosure with their studies and are not usually biased or selling-oriented, but genuinely interested in healing. They will even refer practitioners to other companies for selling purposes, and really are a healing network working in a very humanitarian way. Studies by most mainstream American herb companies will come right out and tell you when a herb has side-effects or is otherwise contra-indicated in certain health conditions. Fortunately, such herbal side-effects occur with far less frequency than with mainstream drugs, and because the drugs are so concentrated, the herbal side-effects are much more low-scale. So in essence, the herbs are generally much safer than the mainstream drugs. But that is not to say that herbs have zero side effects either. Poison ivy is natural after all too, you know, and so is the poison aminita mushroom cap. You get the point. Needless to say, such herbs are never used in herbal healing. And those healing herbs with constituents known to be of concern are often filtered to reduce or eliminate the offending substances, and are clearly marked on the label, making them safe for internal use (with a note, however, that it may be impossible to get every last trace of the offending chemical component out of the herb, so some caution may still be merited). Examples are deglycerinated licorice (marked DGL on the bottle) or pyrrolizidine alkaloid-free comfrey (marked PA on the label).

Details known by high-ranking phytotherapists include body chemistry, pharmacology, physiology and herbal chemistry alike. Not to mention studies, drug-herb interactions, herbal uses, contra-indications, plant identification, how to prepare formulas and tinctures, salves and ointments, therapeutic modalities, regimens and protocols, and lots more.  In fact, the vast amounts of knowledge required in modern herbalism is a life-long study, an open-ended one which continues over a lifetime. That is exactly what makes it so fun and interesting!

A consultant to the health industry world-wide, Christopher Hobbs is no slouch. In the intensive apprenticeship I did with him, he rattled off the top of his head, without looking up a thing or even stopping to think, about Western, American Indian, Chinese and Ayurvedic herbs alike, matters such as:

  • History
  • Botany
  • Pharmacology
  • Chemistry, illustrating details of chemical components and molecular chains, without looking up a thing
  • Double blind studies, including patients participating in individualized studies with medical vulnerabilities prior to participating; how much of any given herb they used, how that plus their vulnerabilities affected the outcome of the study, the sex of the participating patient, etc.

And so much more! Well if you want to talk about a walking encyclopedia where herbal wisdom is concerned, Hobbs is the man for you. In fact, world-wide authorities who rank as highly as he does in his reputation, also quote him and phythotherapist David Hoffmann more often than other authorities in their ilk. And biased as one would think Christopher Hobbs or David Hoffmann to be, indeed they are far from it. On the contrary, they never hesitate to give full disclosure, in writing or in spoken word. Like most herbalists I have seen and who as said tend to be very humanitarian, they are absolutely trustworthy and truly concerned about human well-being. Let me represent Christopher Hobbs here, because I know him based on studies with him: With his background as botanist, herbalist and acupuncturist, and more than 35 years of practicing experience, you’ve got a gem of a practitioner. As consultant the to health industry world-wide, he advises and formulates for numerous herbal and vitamin companies across the globe, and started up the Rainbow Light product. 

While attending American Herbalist Guild conventions and taking intensive courses, I have noted that Christopher certainly does rank as one of the most knowledgeable of the noted herbalists world-wide, but also want to stress that he is far from the only authority in this area. Many phytotherapists, or scientifically-trained medical herbalists, are practicing world-wide and are extremely knowledgeable and experienced, right up through treating cancer and AIDS patients. Books you read about herbalism written in the past two decades are very much informed by this combination of science and hands-on practicing experience. Watch out for the writings of the renowned herbal authorities David Hoffmann, David Winston, Rosemary Gladstar, Roy Upton, Michael and LesleyTierra, Jonathan Treasure, Christopher Hobbs, Paul Bergner, Aviva Romm, Brigitte Mars, Amanda McQuade Crawford, and many more (this is only a partial list).

You can find a local herbal practitioner and read about the best-known authors in the field, conferences, events, films, DVDs, literature, and lots more information, from the American Herbalists Guild: www.americanherbalistsguild.com/

In the list of books I am recommending below, I am including several which may be of use to your doctor, both those who are interested in herbs and those who are skeptical. These books may come in handy to answer questions such as which liver enzymes may be triggered by which herbs, and thus how they are bound to affect any drug-herb interaction. They also would be handy to show that herbal studies are being done in an intensive way, and what the details of those studies are. Chemical constituents and pharmacology would be important for your doctor to determine whether or not any herb is indicated or contra-indicated in your own unique case.

Please note: Your doctor may also log on to the government medical database, www.pubmed.gov, and look up herbal studies/facts there.

Drug-herb interactions may be referenced here by your pharmacist or doctor: www.herbmed.org (not the .com site, which sells herbs. The .org site is very scientifically based, and sells nothing). 

To date, only a few herbs have been shown to have negative (action-diminishing or over-enhancing) interactions with mainstream medications, although duplicating functions is usually not a good idea, to prevent over-stimulating any given body system or pushing a patient “over the top”. But other herb-drug interactions are quite favorable, in fact often complementing a mainstream medication. To mix certain medications and herbs can actually enhance the beneficial effects, though other herbs and drugs may not mix as favorably (overdose risk) unless the drug dose is scaled down by the prescribing physician, because the herb’s enhancement of the particular drug in question. This means that certain herbs co-administered with particular mainstream drugs can quite beneficially interact, while other combinations would lead to required reduced medication dosages, as proven by ongoing clinical testing. And to enhance the uptake of a mainstream medication is not always a good idea. Some herbs, as noted above, may also reduce the effectinveness of certain mainstream medications. (NOTE: It’s urgently important to notify your doctor of any herbs or vitamin supplements you use. You might be surprised how many may affect your medication dosage, duplicate functions and thus over-stimulate your body system, or interfere with the efficacy of the drug you may be taking. Never co-administer herbs and medication on your own, without asking your physician first).

A reference book about drug, herb and nutrient interactions was just recently published in 2008, detailing the favorable and unfavorable interactions alike, 932 pages long:

“Herb, Nutrient and Drug Interactions” by Mitchell Bebel Stargrove, ND LAc, Jonathan Treasure, MA, MNIMH, RH (AHG), and Dwight L. McKee, MD This authoritarian work is co-authored by two physicians (one mainstream, the other an acupuncturist as well as naturopathic physician) and the noted medical herbalist Jonathan Treasure, who is a cancer specialist and an authority in the area of drug-herb interactions.   ISBN 978-0-323-02964-3 Moseby Elsevier, publishers  

Here is Christopher Hobbs’s website, and a few books authored or recommended by Christopher Hobbs: Christopher Hobbs’s website www.christopherhobbs.com contains a herbal directory. Here, you can look up herbs or ailments alike alphabetically, reading indications and contra-indications in short  one-paragraph format which does not go into scientific depth as his books do. A lay-friendly reading source.You can read about indications, contra-indications, nutritional benefits, and more. The website lists a few of Christopher’s books, with links to Amazon’s website where they may be purchased.  

“Healthy Healing” by Linda Rector-Page, ND, Ph.D. Naturopathic Doctor, herbalist and nutritionist Linda Rector-Page has written a book which has become the Bible of healthfood stores nation-wide. Her excellent one-page format for each ailment includes columns, each of which are devoted to herbal, nutritional, bodywork and food regimens for individual ailments. This is THE book for laypeople to own and to look up how to take care of oneself in a natural way. Although your healthfood store is sure provide this book as a reference reading source, I still recommend owning it because to be able to look things up, moment-by-moment, is important where health is concerned. And you will learn so much as you read this book. It’s wonderful. You could buy it new or used on Amazon.com’s website. Healthy Healing Publications, ISBN 1-883334-50-4 (this is the 9th edition but I recommend you look up the most current edition) 

“Pocket Guide to Herbal Medicine” by Christopher Hobbs L.Ac and Karin Kraft, MD published by Thieme Medical Books. Karin Kraft is to Germany what the FDA is to America. She spearheads that organization in Germany. Together, she and Christopher Hobbs have written up a pocket-sized book in which the efficacy of herbs, compared to individual mainstream medicines, are detailed. Drug-herb interactions are noted in brief, and treatment modalities are explained (excellent). As previously, full disclosure is always given. Sometimes the authors will recommend the herb above the medication, and other times they will come right out and say it, that the herb is less effective than the mainstream drug, depending on the herb, the drug and the medical condition. Thieme Medical Books, ISBN 1-58890-063-0 

The Way of Herbs by Michael Tierra, C.A., ND Naturopathic Doctor and phytotherapist Michael Tierra comes well-recommended by Christopher Hobbs. This is a good book for the layperson which discusses a little bit of science while mostly serving as easy reference source. Pocket Books, ISBN 0-671-72403-7 

Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford nutrition from a Chinese medical perspective, which is very different from Western practice. Yin-yang explained, heating/cooling and other principles explained, foods detailed according to their thermal natures and nutritional values, ailments and regimens outlined, etc. Excellent! North Atlantic Books, ISBN 1-55643-221-6 (cloth) ISBN 1-55643-220-8 (Paperback)

“Potters Herbal Cyclopedia” by Elizabeth Williamson, herbal pharmacist with numerous degrees to her name. This book refers to clinical and double blind studies, lists herbal chemical constituents and pharmacology, and is The Book I would recommend you bring to your doctor who wants to know more about herbs in a truly scientific way. It is formatted in a short presentation about each herb, each no longer than one page long, in alphabetical order. Half of this info lists the herbal constituents and studies, while the other half is a short presentation to benefit laypeople and professionals alike. Please note: There is another book by the same title written by someone else. Be sure to get Elizabeth Williamson’s version. The CW Daniel Company Ltd, ISBN 0-85207-361-5  

“Natural Therapy for your Liver” by Christopher Hobbs, L.Ac. contains a wealth of information about the role of the liver itself in physiology, which herbs support or cleanse it, which have “cooling” and “warming” natures, and much more. Christopher always goes into great scientific depth, yet manages to write in a lay-friendly way at the same time. All of his books are short yet a real education. This book is no exception. This book, updated from the previously-titled “Natural Liver Therapy”, contains new information for Hepatitis C. Avery, a member of the Penguin Group, ISBN 1-58333-132-8 

“Medical Herbalism” by David Hoffmann, FNIMH, AHG (American Herbalist Guild) David Hoffman is, like Hobbs, one of the world-top phytotherapists. The British herbalist has written an enormous book detailing the scientific break-down of herbs. This is not a book to look up individual herbs, although it does contain a herbal reference section: Instead, it is for the serious student interested in scientific details. A good book to steer your doctor to, although it’s a large book. Healing Arts Press, Rochester, VT ISBN 089281749-6 

Christopher Hobbs’s books titled “Medicinal Mushrooms”, “The Ginsengs”, “Vitex: the Women’s Herb”, and so many more….are all short (the characteristic of most of Hobbs’s books) but in scientific depth which, at the same time, are meant for the layperson to read and enjoy. So while much scientific detail is included, the over-all presentation is simple and very educational. Available from Hobbs’s website, above. 

Drina Brooke

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