The Pros and Cons of Herbal Medications


You know that old saying, "Money doesn't grow on trees?" Well, what if it applied to medicine? According to your next-door-neighbor, the woman who sits in front of you in yoga class, and other "expert" sources, herbal medication works just as well as prescriptions from your doctor. (At least, that's what the Internet tells them.) But what are the real facts? Could natural cures be growing in our backyards?

It may be possible to have success with natural remedies, but that doesn't mean you should start chugging wheatgrass supplements without understanding what they do. "Before you take herbal medications, make sure you are educated about their pros and cons," said Dr. Christopher Roller, a pharmacist at Central Utah Clinic. As someone who works with medications on a daily basis, Dr. Roller stresses that you should always investigate the potential side effects of anything you put in your body. Here is some information to serve as a foundation for your personal research.

Pro: Natural medications are, well, natural

Dr. Roller shares that there are reasons to look into herbal alternatives. "There may be fewer differences between ‘natural medicine' and ‘pharmaceuticals' than you think," he says. Plants are rich in a variety of compounds that have been used in medications for thousands of years. From phenols to antibiotics to new emerging cancer treatments, naturally occurring compounds are an excellent source of healing for modern medicine. Nearly 25 percent of drugs prescribed worldwide are based on active ingredients derived from plants. In fact, of the 177 drugs approved for treating cancer, 70 percent are based on natural products.

Con: Herbal medicines are not FDA-approved

Just because a medication is made from natural ingredients does not guarantee that it is safe or effective. "Herbal supplements are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)," says Dr. Roller, "which means that they have not passed any safety, efficacy, or human clinical trials." Because these natural medications are not subjected to the same scrutiny as FDA-approved medications, it is even more important to research potential benefits or side effects, especially related to certain health issues.

Though the FDA does require that herbal supplements follow good manufacturing procedures that ensure some level of quality, this in no way ensures that they are safe for anyone's use. Any supplement could have potential side effects, and these negative consequences can increase when taken with other over-the-counter or prescription medications. Be sure you speak to your doctor or pharmacist about any medications you taking in addition to the herbal supplement you are considering.

Research can help you make an informed decision

"It is against the law for manufacturers of herbal supplements to have specific claims to the efficacy of their marketed product, but that doesn't stop these companies from inferring certain benefits of their products," Dr. Roller says. "Be consumer savvy and do your homework on what really works and what is just smoke and mirrors." There are some easy ways to access information that can be helpful to make an educated decision. First, there are great resources available that show true scientific research and findings. Both the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the Office of Dietary Supplements have websites that can help you make informed decisions on the safety and efficacy of herbal products. Second, remember that your doctor and local pharmacist will be able to help you make good decisions regarding your health. Finally, you can always contact the manufacturer if you have specific questions about a product.

"Herbal supplements can be a healthy alternative for treating certain disease states, but remember to do your homework and don't just trust your local Avon rep," Dr. Roller recommends. "Be smart about your heath and ask questions." Remember to be safe and follow the supplement instructions, keep track of what you take, and be careful with any other medications or supplements you might be taking.

Dr. Amy Osmond Cook is the Executive Director of the Association of Skilled Nursing Providers, Marketing Director of North American Healthcare and a health/wellness columnist.

Healthy Living with Dr. Osmond

View full profile

You May Also Like

Free AgingCare Guides

Get the latest care advice and articles delivered to your inbox!


You've hit a hot button for me. This is a good article, as far as it goes.
It has a very good admonition to public to "do their homework".
BTW, that admonition to "talk with your Doc about everything you are using", is largely futile--most Docs are so clueless about nutrition and herbals, they only tell people to stick to Pharma drugs they prescribe, and scare patients into stopping alternatives, out of the Doc's own ignorance, or fear of losing their jobs.

As a Registered Nurse, with most years in the Alternative Medical fields, I've spent countless hours educating people on common sense, providing rational substantive information about both alternatives and allopathic methods.
I grew up in family of at least three generations of Docs, Nurses, Chiropractors, Psychologists, many involved in both alternatives and mainstream medical.
We need BOTH, for a lot of reasons--but largely economical, and to insure greatest success in alleviating suffering.

Herbals have been used for thousands of years with success at least as good, and often better, than Allopathic methods.
There are film-flam artists on all sides, including Pharma; that can only be solved with honest education.
Herbals [and supplements], have been witch-hunted for decades, as allopathic med. became increasingly entrenched. For instance: entire deserts were scraped clean of Creosote bushes [chaparral] used to treat some cancers. Many States have labeled medicinal plants as "noxious weeds" [like milk thistle], depriving public of both food and medicine.
Herbals /can/ do just like pharmaceutical equivalents...herbals are what Pharma drugs started out being derived from.
Some herbs, like Milk Thistle seeds, have protective properties critical to saving sick livers, which Pharma has yet to come close to.
Magnesium, in proper forms, can drastically reduce or cure many ills, yet this has been minimized so sweepingly, it's drastically diminished in our produce, blocked by agricultural chemicals like Glyphosphates/Roundup. Trace minerals are mostly missing in action.
Officially pronounced 'Minimum Daily Requirements', are a deficient joke that's poorly done.
We have automated lab testing which mainstream relies on, yet it's riddled with false results--better than nothing, and faster than doing it by hand in the lab, but not optimal, and even some specialists do not know how to properly interpret results.

--Herbs work like the correspondent drugs, usually with lesser adverse effects, partly because one is getting the Co-factors also in the herbs, and not just the concentrated "main/active ingredient" that Pharma usually makes.
Purifying and reducing a substance to it's main ingredient, is a large part of why overall health conditions have gotten so much worse over time [white sugar, salt and flour; grains stripped of their Germ, grown on depleted or chemically treated earth, etc].
--Psychologically, using nutritionals and herbs allow individuals to take charge of their own health.
--It's harder to overdose on herbals, /most of the time/; whereas with a pharma drug, it's easy to OD.
--Many people with allergies or sensitivities to Pharma drugs, /May/ have less of those using herbals and nutritionals.
--There is a great variety; it's fairly easy to tailor herbal use to one's own requirements.
--Using synergistic combinations can mean far lower or no adverse effects and, boosted efficacy.
--Docs learning /some/ about alternatives, are helpful, but...too many only take "shake'n'bake' classes.

--Herbs /can/ harm, especially if users lack proper information [sweepingly and chronically blocked by industries for decades].
--Herbals work better, often in combinations with other herbs, which most people do not understand or know how to do. People and Industries are too often ignorant of proper growing, harvesting, and preparation conditions and procedures.
--Practitioners who know some, but not enough, trying to guide people--Education in use of Alternatives is still inadequate; too many Docs in mainstream also seem to be less-than-competant.
--Industries are still destroying or blocking use of herbals and nutritionals which might be competition for them.
--Industries have committed atrocities which have resulted in deaths and disease from chemical contaminants or adulterations left in products sold to unsuspecting public [like tryptophan years ago, or in some Chinese or Ayurvedic Patent Medicines].

--But bigger issues are:
===Docs /know/ how to dose Pharma drugs, but not herbs or nutritionals.
Pharma sponsors Medical Schools and conferences; most Docs feel Uncomfortable trying to figure how herbals will work, because herbs do not grow a fixed-strength, and Docs are largely clueless about those and nutrition, too; they get nearly no education on that subject, unless they take time and effort to study on their own--and risk being dropped or banned by insurers, clinics and hospitals.
Few Alternative Practitioners have hospital priveledges.
===People can grow their own herbals, or pick them in the wild, for free....
THAT is a problem for Pharma; those industries feel threatened if people take their own health into their own hands; even if people buy herbals, Pharma does not get to pillage people's pockets, if people use more natural alternatives.
===A large part of public /THINKS/ they know how to use herbals, and Don't!!!
When public, industries and advertising stop using misleading statements such as: "it can't hurt you, it's just an herb", and people start /really/ educating themselves, THEN more people will be better equipped to use those.
===Reputable and pure Chinese Patent Medicines, as well as pure Ayurvedic formulas, are sometimes hard to find, since some manufacturers have added actual Pharma drugs to the traditional herbal formulas which are NOT on the label.
FDA is correct to scrutinize and go after those, but should leave the pure formulas alone.

Pharma needs to stop "witch-hunting" herbs as they have done at least for the past 60+ years; stop using scare tactics to prevent people using them, and stop CPS'ing sick children from loving homes that choose alternatives instead of mainstream chemicals; stop using other agencies which are ignorant of the games being played, as their tools to force public to only accept allopathic medicine.
We need to overturn laws that force people to only choose between surgery, chemo and radiation for cancer treatments. There are plenty of alternative options that also work, and maintain quality of life as well.
Much has been done badly over time, by /Both/ Allopathic and Alternative medicine.
But the most egregious crimes over the last 60+ years, imho, have been committed by allopathic medical and Pharma, forcing [using scare tactics and misinformation] people to only use Pharma; mainstream's funneled into a practice of medicine from the stance of "killing things off", and using drugs as bandaids for symptoms, instead of finding root causes and fixing those.

Allopathic medicine has /Much/ work to do, to change their attitudes, get educated better, and make that system into something that practices medicine, instead of being shills for Insurance, and Pharma industries reinventing symptoms as new diseases, boosting some often poorly tested [or disclosed] drugs to an ignorant and suffering public.
Alternative medicine needs to Stop castigating mainstream medicine, too.
Right now, we could make good use of BOTH.

One of the greatest missing links is Nutrition.
Too many Docs still swear nutrition can't cure diseases...yet understand people get sick one bite of food at a time, and that numerous diseases are KNOWN to be caused by lack of, and cured by, nutrition.

Growing numbers of public DO know how to use herbals and nutritionals decently....they should be able to keep using them, with support of mainstream medical practitioners.
By support, I mean, Docs must /stop/ declaring to patients: "Why should I order lab tests done on you, if you refuse to take the pharmaceuticals I can prescribe?"
Because, the same lab tests that monitor drugs, or monitor body conditions, are appropriate for those using alternatives, too! [And lab testing needs to be improved in accuracy!!]
Support, because Docs are educated, specialized, and can insert some common sense, perhaps, and /could/ assist patients in using Both systems optimally and appropriately.

People need to legally be allowed to choose what they are most comfortable with for treatment; human beings are Not 'inventory', Not 'lab rats' to be used by industries.
People need to be truthfully Informed about both ways of doing things, if they want.
But most often these days, what passes for mainstream medical "informing", is a bad concoction of misinformation, under-information, scare tactics and mind-games played on sick, suffering people [common in VA facilities]; this is too often /part/ of what passes for "research", too.

There is growing disinformation being perpetrated in and by every sector on our Gonzo internet; That needs fixed.
We don't know everything; we will never know everything.
The most educated, smartest people, still have much to learn.
We've been bullied by industries protecting their profit margins, far too long.

[[stepping off soapbox now]]