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Herbal Medicine in the New Millennium

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As we embark upon the new millennium, herbal medicines are everywhere. Herbs one could rarely find in health food stores 10 years ago now line their shelves. It's a sign of the times.

As we embark upon the new millennium, herbal medicines are everywhere.

Herbs one could rarely find in health food stores 10 years ago now line their shelves. It’s a sign of the times. People everywhere want to take charge of their health–to be less dependent on experts and authorities, less in need of toxic drugs and risky, invasive medical procedures.

Mainstream medicine is also venturing boldly forward into its herbal past. Doctors and researchers alike are rediscovering the roots of healing, not to mention its flowers, leaves, bark, buds and stems.

In North America, some 25 percent of prescription drugs contain at least one plant-derived compound or are based on botanical models. And yet, fewer than 10 percent of the world’s estimated flowering plant species have been examined for their therapeutic potential. With half of the top 150 pharmaceutical companies actively investigating this natural motherlode, herbs seem poised to move into the forefront of pharmaceutical medicine in the new millennium.

Public interest in herbs is both reflected and stimulated by the mass media. Newspapers, magazines, television, radio and the internet regularly highlight the benefits of herbs: here a positive review of studies of St John’s wort for depression or kava kava for anxiety, there an article noting that in many European countries the standard treatment for an enlarged prostate is the herb saw palmetto. Coverage of the health benefits of herbs is indeed a media growth industry.

Today’s health consumer is seriously looking to herbal strategies not only for treatment but also to help prevent or forestall the diseases that await us in the new millennium, like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, depression, macular degeneration and senile dementia. Hundreds of herbal remedies that are resurfacing in the current renaissance of botanical medicine have much to offer in this regard.

Consider the Examples

Garlic (Allium sativum) is well known for strengthening the immune system, which, of course, is vitally important for fighting cancer. Worldwide, epidemiological evidence suggests that garlic in the diet helps reduce the risk of cancers of the gastrointestinal tract.

Recent research published in the Japanese Journal of Cancer also indicates garlic protects against esophageal and stomach cancer. As well, researchers are investigating garlic’s potential to prevent breast, prostate and uterine cancer. Garlic may even fight existing cancer.

In a 1993 report by Rainov and Burkert, a man’s pituitary tumor shrank 50 percent during the five months he ingested garlic daily. It was the first documented case in which this type of tumor shrank without chemotherapy or surgery.

Ever the panacea, garlic also has much to offer for preventing cardiovascular disease by lowering blood pressure and, like aspirin, preventing blood clots that cause heart attacks, strokes and vascular dementia. A clinical trial has also linked garlic consumption to preventing stiffening of the aorta, the artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body. After two years, the aortas of the 70-year-olds in the garlic group were as supple as those of the 55-year-olds who did not take the supplement. A flexible aorta may help reduce age-related heart damage.

Like garlic, the preventative effects of green tea (Camellia sinensis) have also been demonstrated for several forms of cancer, including skin, stomach, duodenum, colon, liver, lung, prostate and pancreas. On the cardiovascular front, in test-tube studies green tea has suppressed oxidative damage to "bad" LDL cholesterol, the initial step in the buildup of plaque in the arteries, or atherosclerosis. Not surprisingly, a Japanese study of 1,371 men linked daily consumption of green tea to the prevention of heart disease.

In North America, as consumer demand grows, money is starting to flow for more studies on herbs. A landmark example is the $4.3 million multicentre trial of St John’s wort for major depression, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States.

In Germany, St John’s wort has long been routinely prescribed for numerous medical conditions. There, prescriptions for the herb actually outnumber Prozac 25 to one. Recent studies have demonstrated that St John’s wort can improve symptoms of anxiety, depression and feelings of worthlessness, and greatly improve sleep quality. Basic research suggests St John’s wort works via several mechanisms, including the ability–like Prozac and other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)–to raise the level of the chemical messenger serotonin in the brain. The ongoing three-year study by the NIH seems to be the largest rigorous double-blind, controlled clinical trial of a herbal medicine to date. The results should be in soon, and they may well make St John’s wort the "poster herb" for scientific herbalism in the new millennium.

We have arrived at an extraordinary place in time. Consumers are voting with their pocketbooks and their feet to take more responsibility for their health. As immigrants to the 21st century who still face the chronic diseases of the 20th, we are turning more and more to ancient healing systems and rediscovering, through anecdotal experience and rigorous science, that one such system–herbalism–can complement and reinforce other holistic measures for promoting a good quality of life into old age.

Herbal medicine is in for a great deal of growth and refinement in the coming years. As the scientific evidence continues to pour in, thanks in part to unprecedented innovations like the National Institute of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the United States, the integration of traditional herbal medicine, East and West, into modern Western mainstream medicine seems an inevitable next step in the evolution of healthcare. We are in for a treat.

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