Herbal Remedies vs. Convential Medicine – a Discussion

Throughout history, humans have used plants to treat all kinds of illnesses. Today, about 40% of the world’s prescription medicines come from plant extracts or synthesised plant compounds. Plant-based medicines are everywhere! Some examples would be Menthol, from Mint (Mentha), which is found, for example, in throat lozenges, muscles creams and nasal sprays.

Another is Quinine, the drug to treat Malaria. Quinine is derived from the bark of the Cinchona Tree (Cinchona pubescens). Around 10000 tons of Cinchona bark is harvested annually to make drugs to treat malaria. Aspirin is derived from the bark of the Willow (Salix). In North America, more than 80 million aspirin tablets are used each year.

As lesson 6 of my Advanced Certificate in Naturopathy (Health Academy) – medicinal herbs course states:

There is no doubt that herbal medicine offers fantastic opportunities for developing new and effective treatments for many of our ills. In fact, many of the pharmaceuticals used today have been discovered by biochemists analysing and testing plant extracts.

High Value Pharma

The pharmaceutical business is a very high value industry. Pfizer Australia, our largest manufacturer of prescription medicine, has sales over $1 billion a year and $500 million worth of exports a year. They employ over 1600 people around Australia. Pfizer invested $50 million in Australian research and development in 2008, and this figure is increasing strongly.

Another $5.9 billion is spent on health and medical research (H&MR) in Australia each year, this amount coming from various sources including government and educational institutions. In 2005 – 2006, Australian public hospitals dispensed $1.2 billion worth of medicine, and private hospitals $1.7 billion.

Low Value Natural Therapy

Within the Australian Natural Therapy section, there are no companies with a dominant market share. Revenue in May 2016 was estimated to be around $4 billion a year. This sector does not have the backing of the big pharmaceutical companies, and funds for research and development just don’t compare to the amount spent on R&D for ‘conventional’ medicine.

Alternative Medicine Degrees

Around 400 high profile doctors, medical researchers and scientists joined forces in 2012 to form lobby group ‘Friends of Science in Medicine’ (FSM) in order to have alternative medicine degrees removed from Australian universities.

An article, written by Sarah Schwager, raised the question: “Why is a group of prestigious doctors and scientists, who have the backing of the most profitable industry in the world, according to Fortune 500 – the pharmaceutical industry – targeting a few poorly-funded natural medicine courses?”

It is a very interesting matter, as the FSM accused these universities of ‘putting the public at risk’, however, the World Health Organisation (WHO), estimates that 80% of the world’s population relies on natural therapies. Also, nearly 85% of US medical schools offer elective courses in alternative medicine. 

Herbal Revenue

The National Health and Medical Research Council states it has a responsibility to inquire into, issue guidelines on, and advise the community on matters relating to the improvement of health, as well as the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease. They abide by the ‘National Health and Medical Research Council Act 1992’.

They state: ‘All health treatments, whether conventional, traditional or complimentary, should be subject to a rigorous evaluation of the evidence for effectiveness.’ Unfortunately for the whole Australian population, the natural therapy industry does not have the backing of big pharmaceutic companies, as ‘herbs’ do not produce anywhere near the amount of revenue, and therefore there is no such things as ‘rigorous evaluation of the evidence for effectiveness’.

Problems with Herbs

This is a true shame, as many of our amazing medicine stems from plants which grow freely on our earth. With proper research funding, people could make informed decisions on which herbs to use, and how to use them.   

Problems with herbal medicine arise from a few issues. People generally assume that, because the herb is natural, it is therefore safe to use and self-administer. Also, over the years, there have been many people practicing natural medicine without proper education. And, as herbal medicines contain powerful active ingredients, they may interact with ‘conventional’ medicine, and cause them to have reduced efficacy, or even increased effect. Without proper guidance by a qualified practitioner, the use of herbs can be dangerous.

Herbal Authenticity

Another problem which arises, is the authenticity of herbs sold. Canadian research found that out of the 44 bottles of herbs they tested, a third were outright substitutions. The plant advertised on the bottle was simply not there, and instead the bottles were filled with things like powdered rice and weeds. Although weeds can be very helpful herbs in their own right, obviously this is, as the WHO call it: ‘A threat to consumer safety’.

Depending on the part of the plant used (root, stem, leaf, fruit), the concentration of the active ingredient is likely to vary. The harvest season may also influence the concentration of the active ingredients. According to reports in the literature, plants are misidentified, and potentially toxic plants may be used in the manufacturing process. Contamination of herbs with other substances such as lead, and arsenic has occurred. Adulteration with ephedrine and prednisone have also been reported.

Lack of Comms

Yet another problem is the lack of communication between conventional medical practitioners and herbal medicine practitioners, or natural therapists in general. I read many an article about MD’s refusing to communicate with natural therapists and they were ‘quacks’ and were only ‘ripping off’ patients. Obviously, with some cooperation from both sides, there would be an immense benefit to the patient.

Other patients might employ alternative treatments which cause direct harm; for this, there are numerous options; for instance, if they self-medicate St John’s Wort, they would decrease the effectiveness of many mainstream medications, including some cancer drugs.

Professor Olver, a medical oncologist, said people with cancer should seek a wide range of opinions about treatment options, including from their doctors about what would work for them. But they should know that Australia took a softer approach to regulating alternative medicines than conventional medicines, allowing them to be registered for sale if only proven safe, not effective.

Natural Therapy before Conventional Medicine?

The problematic question is a vicious circle. Did the patient start using natural therapies because conventional medicine was letting her down, or did conventional medicine not have the required effect because she was using natural therapies?

We need more research, as I, for one, believe the knowledge of free-to-grow, and freely harvestable herbs would be of great benefit to humanity.

References used at the time of writing:

National Health and Medical Research Council, ‘Research funding statistics and data’, accessed 1st of October 2016, from < https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/grants-funding/research-funding-statistics-and-data>

ABC News, ‘Will Australia’s new medical research fund be the biggest in the world?’, accessed 1st of October 2016, from < http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-05-21/will-australia-have-the-biggest-medical-research-fund/5454810>

Research Australia, ‘Australian Research Facts’, accessed 1st of October 2016, from < http://researchaustralia.org/australian-research-facts/>

Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Cancer death of ‘Wellness Warrior’ Jess Ainscough bring focus into alternative treatments’, accessed 1st of October 2016, from < http://www.smh.com.au/national/health/cancer-death-of-wellness-warrior-jess-ainscough–brings-focus-onto-alternative-treatments-20150304-13vp0z.html>

Cancer Council Australia, ‘Complementary and alternative therapies’, accessed 1st of October 2016, from < http://www.cancer.org.au/about-cancer/treatment/complementary-therapies-and-cancer.html>

US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, ‘Toxicological risks of herbal remedies’, accessed 1st of October 2016, from <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov>