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5.7 Politics and herbal medicine

The growing awareness of herbs is nothing but growing competition to profitable product lines - at least if you're a pharmaceutical company. Which is why pharmacogiants do their very best to spread FUD (Fear Uncertainty Doubt) about herbs and herbal medicine.

A case in point: the German kava debacle, leading to its banning in many countries without any published details on the adverse effect cases whatsoever. In fact, these oh-so-dangerous adverse effects were mostly due to meds taken together with or even instead of kava, or due to pharmaceutical-type kava products (50+ % kavalactones, extracted with acetone? That's not a herb, that's a med!).
Adverse effects from kava, the herb, extracted at 1:2 in 95 % ethanol are very rare. In fact, I'd suggest the use of education (don't extract insanely high amounts of "active constituents", and don't use toxic solvents) and common sense (stop using kava if you get the telltale scaly skin) instead of legislation, to help clear up the rather few (and quite benign) adverse effects from kava, the herb.
Kava, Piper methysticum, is a direct competitor to Paxil and other anti-anxiety agents. It's cheap, can't be patented, and has next to no side effects. Oops.

Another case in point: headlines (and study conclusions) like "<herb> does not work" hide the fact that the med compared in the same trial was way below placebo, too: http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/287/14/1807 - a better headline would have been "<placebo> better than <herb> and <med>!" And this is but a single example of the multitude of skewed research headlines that have been shouted over the rooftops over the last 6 years - ever since St. John's wort made it big on 20/20, back in 1997. FUD. Fight it.
St. John's wort, Hypericum perforatum, is a direct competitor to Zoloft and other antidepressants. In addition it's cheap (or even free - pick your own!), can't be patented, and has next to no side effects. Oops.

How to know who's right and who's wrong, then? There's two types of medical journals, the biased ones and the unbiased ones. This is my take on two of the big ones - the ones that get quoted in headlines:

  • if the BMJ publishes something on alternative healthcare it's unbiased unless proven biased.
  • if JAMA publishes something on alternative healthcare it's biased against unless proven unbiased.

I'm not saying there aren't quacks in herbal medicine - there are, foremost among them those that take advantage of the desperate (like selling essiac to terminal cancer patients at exorbitant rates) (those people are despicable), and the multitude of MLM'ers (multi level marketing biz people) (these people are just clueless and annoying). And don't let me get started on the supplement business ...

However, mainstream medicine and pharmaceutical companies aren't any angels either. Perhaps they believe in what they are doing to alternative healthcare in general and herbal medicine in particular, but that doesn't make them right.

So herbal medicine is under siege. And you generally see only the anti-herbal headlines, because the ones critical to meds and MDs are hidden away as well as they ever can be. How then do you find balancing information? Here's a few links. I hope they are as enlightening to you as they were to me:

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