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Herbal Medicine

What is herbal medicine?

Herbal medicine — also called botanical medicine or phytomedicine — refers to using a plant’s seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark, or flowers for medicinal purposes. Herbalism has a long tradition of use outside of conventional veterinary medicine. It is becoming more mainstream as improvements in analysis and quality control along with advances in clinical research show the value of herbal medicine in the treating and preventing disease.

What is the history of herbal medicine?

Plants had been used for medicinal purposes long before recorded history. Ancient Chinese and Egyptian papyrus writings describe medicinal uses for plants as early as 3,000 BC. Indigenous cultures (such as African and Native American) used herbs in their healing rituals, while others developed traditional medical systems (such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine) in which herbal therapies were used. Researchers found that people in different parts of the world tended to use the same or similar plants for the same purposes.

In the early 19th century, when chemical analysis first became available, scientists began to extract and modify the active ingredients from plants. Later, chemists began making their own version of plant compounds and, over time, the use of herbal medicines declined in favor of drugs. Almost one fourth of pharmaceutical drugs are derived from botanicals.

Recently, the World Health Organization estimated that 80% of people worldwide rely on herbal medicines for some part of their primary health care. In Germany, about 600 – 700 plant based medicines are available and are prescribed by some 70% of German physicians. Since about 1990 in the United States, public dissatisfaction with the cost of prescription medications, combined with an interest in returning to natural or organic remedies, has led to an increase in herbal medicine use.

How do herbs work?

In many cases, scientists aren’ t sure what specific ingredient in a particular herb works to treat a condition or illness. Whole herbs contain many ingredients, and they may work together to produce a beneficial effect. Many factors determine how effective an herb will be. For example, the type of environment (climate, bugs, soil quality) in which a plant grew will affect it, as will how and when it was harvested and processed.

How are herbs used?

The use of herbal supplements has increased dramatically over the past since about 1980 in the United States. Herbal supplements are classified as dietary supplements by the U.S. Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994. That means herbal supplements — unlike prescription drugs — can be sold without being tested to prove they are safe and effective. However, herbal supplements must be made according to good manufacturing practices.

The most commonly used herbal supplements in the U.S. include echinacea (Echinacea purpurea and related species), St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), garlic (Allium sativum), saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), ginseng (Panax ginseng, or Asian ginseng; and Panax quinquefolius, or American ginseng), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), valerian (Valeriana officinalis), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), ginger (Zingiber officinale), evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), and milk thistle (Silybum marianum).

Often, herbs may be used together because the combination is more effective and may have fewer side effects. Health care providers must take many factors into account when recommending herbs, including the species and variety of the plant, the plant’s habitat, how it was stored and processed, and whether or not there are contaminants (including heavy metals and pesticides).

What is herbal medicine good for?

Herbal medicine is used to treat many conditions including allergies, cancer, gastrointestinal conditions and nutritional challenges. Herbal supplements are best taken under the guidance of a trained health care provider. For example, one study found that 90% of human arthritic patients use alternative therapies.Buying standardized herbal supplements helps ensure you will get the right dose and the effects similar to human clinical trials. Ask your veterinarian or pharmacist about which herbal supplements are best for your health concerns.

Is there anything I should watch out for?

Used correctly, herbs can help treat a variety of conditions, and in some cases, may have fewer side effects than some conventional medications. But because they are unregulated, herbal products are often mislabeled and may contain additives and contaminants that aren’ t listed on the label. Some herbs may cause allergic reactions or interact with conventional drugs, and some are toxic if used improperly or at high doses. Taking herbs on without input from a veterinarian increases risk.

Some herbal supplements, especially those imported from Asian countries, may contain high levels of heavy metals, including lead, mercury, and cadmium. It is important to purchase herbal supplements from reputable manufacturers to ensure quality. Many herbs can interact with prescription medications and cause unwanted or dangerous reactions. For example, there is a high degree of herb/drug interaction among patients who are under treatment for cancer. Be sure to consult your veterinarian before trying any herbal products.

Who is using herbal medicine?

Nearly one-third of Americans use herbs, although, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that nearly 70% of people taking herbal medicines (most of whom were well educated and had a higher-than-average income) were reluctant tell their doctors that they used complementary and alternative medicine. Few reputable studies have been undertaken in veterinary medicine, but anecdotal evidence observed by Dr. Mark Newkirk, Director of the Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine at Saint Francis, suggests that about 20% of his patients were interested in or actively utilized these therapies for their pets.

What is the future of herbal medicine?

In some countries in Europe — unlike the U.S. — herbs are classified as drugs and are regulated. The German Commission E, an expert medical panel, actively researches their safety and effectiveness.

While still not widely accepted, herbal medicine is being taught more in medical, veterinary and pharmacy schools. More health care providers are learning about the positive and potentially negative effects of using herbal medicines to help treat health conditions. Some health care providers, including veterinarians and pharmacists, are trained in herbal medicine.

References (veterinary)

10 Herbs for dogs (and their people). Dogster. http://www.dogster.com/lifestyle/herbs-for-dogs-alternative-treatments

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Source: http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/herbal-medicine-000351.htm#ixzz2JDG8c92i