Herbs: Cure All or 21st Century Snake Oil?

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Remember when herbs were only used to season your food? Now we are deluged with internet advertising for herbal remedies that claim to cure everything from dry skin to stage four cancer. Are herbs a viable alternative to manufactured and regulated medicine, or is this yet another magic bullet? The answer to both questions is yes. So let’s proceed with caution—and a healthy dose of skepticism.

First, the best place to get reliable information on health issues of any kind is not the internet. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and undertaken by Drs. Charles A. Morris and Jerry Avorn, the internet is “rife with bogus claims on herbs.” Morris and Avorn evaluated 443 herbal remedy Web sites and found that 338 of them either sold an herbal product or linked directly to a vendor. Of those, 273 offered at least one health claim for their herbs. Of those, 149 claimed to treat, prevent, diagnose or cure specific diseases, even though such claims are specifically prohibited without prior approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

According to Morris and Avorn’s study, more than half the Web sites they evaluated did not have the FDA disclaimer. And, more disturbing, there were numerous instances of sites putting forth unsubstantiated disease claims. While some “natural” remedy proponents allege that the FDA is in collusion with prescription drug companies trying to discredit herbs’ effectiveness, it is wise to note that 76 percent of the Web sites studied by Morris and Avorn are profit-making vendors of the herbal remedies for which they make dubious claims.

Morris is not against the use of herbs, but rather the tactics and false claims that some manufacturers use. “Some of these products have demonstrated efficacy,” he says. “The manufacturers who make health claims need to prove them.”

 So are herbs just another too-good-to-be-true, pie-in-the-sky panacea? Not at all, most experts agree. Herbal remedies do indeed provide health enhancement and symptom relief. But beware: don’t take the advice of internet sites or clerks at natural/health food stores. Dr. Letitia Wright warns that putting your health in the hands of a minimum wage clerk can be hazardous to your health. Never take any supplement or preparation without consulting your healthcare provider first.