Herbal misconceptions

According to Varro Tyler, Ph.D., a respected authority in plant drugs or herbs, the ''green wave'' is upon us. By this, he means that more consumers than ever before are attracted to anything ''natural'', including herbs. Tyler is a leading advocate of the rational, safe, and effective use of herbs as drugs. He is highly qualified in this field as he is a Lilly Distinguished Professor of Pharmacognosy in the School of Pharmacy and Pharmacal Sciences at Purdue University. He has written over two hundred scientific and educational publications. He also writes a column on the use of herbs for Prevention Magazine.

Tyler is concerned about the exaggerated claims made by many companies that sell herbal products. He says that while many herbs are safe and effective, many others are neither. In his book, ''The Honest Herbal'', Tyler lists several myths about herbs that can get the average consumer into medical or financial trouble.

Myth No. 1: Herbs are not drugs.
People who state that they don't like to take any kind of drug but think nothing of swallowing all kinds of herbal concoctions are fooling themselves. Tyler says that herbs are nothing more than ''diluted drugs''. ''Whenever herbs are used to diagnose, cure, mitigate, treat, or prevent disease, they are, by definition, drugs''. Tyler believes that ''drugs of any kind, natural or synthetic, prescribed or self-selected, should improve the consumer's health, not cause it to deteriorate. That is what herbal medicine - or any kind of medicine - is all about''. It is precisely because herbs are drugs that the consumer has to be very careful about taking them.

Myth No. 2: Herbs possess magical or mystical properties.
Though herbs have been used for centuries by ''witch doctors'' or ''tribal medicine men'', there is nothing magical or mystical about them. They are simply composed of complex chemical compounds that may have beneficial or detrimental effects on the human body.

Myth No. 3: Herbs have no undesirable side effects.
This is the myth that causes the most trouble. Many people believe that as long as something is ''natural'', it cannot have bad side effects. Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Tyler. Mother Nature makes some of the most potent poisons. A natural poison, hemlock, killed the philosopher, Socrates. Cigarettes, cocaine, and heroin are all made from ''natural'' substances, and yet, they are destructive to the body.

Myth No. 4: ''Natural'' herbal products are superior to the same product produced in a laboratory.
Tyler says that anyone with knowledge of biology or biochemistry recognizes the fallacy in this belief. ''There is no difference in the Vitamin C, for example, obtained from natural biosynthetic processes in rose hips, or by synthetic processes in the laboratory of a chemical manufacturer. The word ''natural'' applied to such materials identifies only a source and does not imply a degree of superiority or inferiority''

Myth No. 5: Herbal products have the same active constituent.
According to Tyler, the active chemical constituents in herbs can vary according to the following factors: the conditions under which the plant was grown, the degree of maturity at the time of collection, the manner of drying, the conditions of storage, etc. Unless the active constituents are ''standardized'', you can get varying amounts in the same herbal product each time you buy it.

Myth No. 6: The best source of herbal information is from ancient writings.
Tyler claims that one needs to know botany, chemistry, and pharmacology to understand plant drugs completely. He says that very few modern herbalists have such comprehensive knowledge and rely instead on ancient writings like those of the 16th century herbalist John Gerard or the 17th century apothecary-astrologer Nicholas Culpeper, aside from recommendations based on ''hearsay, folklore, and tradition''. He says that these writings have not kept up with the latest scientific findings, and, therefore, can be potentially dangerous. For example, Culpeper claims that lily-of-the-valley ''does not leave any harmful results if it is taken over a long period'' and yet, modern authorities recognize it as a toxic substance that can cause heart attacks! Comfrey, coltsfoot, and sassafras are all mentioned as being beneficial and harmless when, in fact, they have been discovered to be carcinogenic (cancer causing).

Myth No. 7: Plants grown ''organically'' are better than those grown ''inorganically''.
''Organically grown'' is defined by Tyler as ''a product that was grown under conditions utilizing only natural fertilizers, such as manure, and that no pesticides of any type were applied to it''. He says that consumers need to be aware of several facts concerning organic farming. ''Plant physiologists have known for years that plants have no mechanism for differentiating whether nutrients such as calcium, potassium, and nitrogen are derived from organic or inorganic sources, provided they are in a form the plant can assimilate. If anything, the organic forms are less readily available and may have to be acted upon by soil microorganisms before they can be utilized by the plant.'' Tyler says that pesticide residues may ''pose health hazards if present in sufficient concentrations'' but that ''most can be removed by proper cleansing, and for those which cannot, appropriate limits of safety have been established.'' He points out there may be more problems in the air or water supplies than there are with pesticide residues on produce. In short, you may be breathing in more poisons than you could possibly get in a lifetime of eating food grown with pesticides. He says that some experts are more concerned with the carcinogens naturally present in foods and herbs than they are with the current levels of pesticide residues. Besides, he says that the ''typical consumer has absolutely no way of knowing whether the item he purchased is ''organic'' or not''.

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