There was an article in the Spectator last week. Professor Ernst argues that to use herbs safely and effectively, you should only buy over the counter products that contain a single herb or herb extract, which has been subjected to rigorous scientific research.
By his own admission, that would limit you to less than 30 herbs. There is very little good quality research into herbal remedies, and that’s not likely to change any time soon. Research costs money, so most of it is undertaken by businesses hoping to develop products they can sell. And most of that consists of in vitro trials on cell cultures, usually not with whole herbs but one or two of their most active constituents.
It’s cheaper that way, but its value to real humans living real lives is pretty limited
The next most popular type of research is in vivo, i.e. using live animals, inducing pathologies in them and then treating them with herb constituents or – sometimes – whole herbs. Whatever you think about the ethics of this, it’s still not a sure-fire guide to what will work for humans. And the human research itself varies hugely in quality, from short trials on a few people to the gold standard, randomized double-blind controlled trials on a significant number of carefully selected subjects.
These are very rare, as he says, for obvious reasons
So we don’t have much good ‘scientific’ evidence for the efficacy of herbs. But to say ‘In that case, we’re safer not using them at all’, is to dismiss thousands of years of traditional use. Most of the world’s population uses herbal medicine, and always has done. Often, they have no choice. And that isn’t going to change any time soon either.
‘Safety’ is not a very useful criterion when you’re deciding what to do about your ailments. Prescribed drugs, which are subjected to years of trials before going on the market, have caused harm to their users countless times. There is no safety. But doing nothing is not safe, either, when you’re dealing with serious illness.
So what can you do?
Unless you’re prepared to go looking for the original research papers, and you know how to evaluate them, you need to be a little sceptical about ‘scientific’ claims. If you’re not sure about how your various medications might interact – herbal or ‘orthodox’ – go to a professional.