Inside Herbal Therapy - Pharmacology

In recent years, herbal therapies have gained popularity as multimillion-dollar businesses have capitalized on the therapeutic properties of natural herbs and the fact that herbs are exempt from the government regulations imposed on the pharmaceutical industry.

Herbs are plants or parts of plants that have a proven therapeutic effect. These were the “original” medicines. Even today, physicians in Germany and other countries prescribe herbs as the first choice when combating certain diseases. However, herbs are not typically prescribed in the United States for a number of reasons. Few pharmacy schools offer courses in botanical remedies and some nursing pharmaceutical courses focus more on misuse of herbal therapies than their proper use. Probably the most leading reason that herbs are not prescribed is that health insurance in the United States does not pay for these therapies.

Herbal therapies cannot be patented, which is a likely reason why the pharmaceutical industry hasn’t pushed the government and the medical community to use herbal therapies as treatment for diseases and symptoms of diseases. The Food and Drug Administration is not required to approve herbal therapies. This creates an open and unregulated market for herbal therapies that lacks quality standards found in the pharmaceutical industry.

In 1992, Congress instructed the National Institutes of Health to develop an Office of Alternative Medicine to support research studies of alternative therapies— including herbals.

Interestingly, herbs are the raw material of old and new pharmaceutical medication. For example, the herb foxglove is the source for digitalis and the herb salicin is the source for aspirin. The breast-cancer-fighting drug Taxol comes from the pacific yew tree.

Although the therapeutic effect of herbs have been well known for thousands of years, there seems to be a lack of uniform information about them that describes their use, dosage, side effects, and contraindications. This is information that is available for all prescription and OTC pharmaceutical medications. In addition, there aren’t any qualitative monographs that provide guidelines for compounding and standards of purity for herbal medication. That is, there isn’t a well-defined measurement for purity and manufacturing of herbal medication as there is for prescription and OTC pharmaceutical medications.

An effort has been launched by the United States Pharmacopeia (USP), the World Health Organization (WHO), American Herbal Phamarcopeia (AHP), and others to develop herbal therapeutic monographs that provide this information for herbal therapies.

One in five people in the United States who have taken prescription medication also have taken herbal medications. And while herbal preparations can be therapeutic, the lack of quality standards and contraindication with prescribed and OTC medication exposes patients to potential toxicity and other adverse side effects.

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