Many of today’s modern medicines were first part of “folk” apothecaries, often handed down from the ancients. Take the heart medication digitalis (aka digoxin): it’s extracted from the dried leaves of the purple foxglove plant (digitalis purpurae) and used to strengthen heart muscle contractions. The medication was “discovered” when a physician had no treatment for a patient he thought was dying and sought out a remedy from a “gypsy healer” who gave him the herb. The doctor was amazed by the patient’s recovery and obtained the herbal remedy for further study. Today, while the process may still begin with curiosity and concern for a specific health issue, herbs that make the grade as modern medicine are studied, formally and informally, to determine safety and effectiveness.
There’s a saying: all news is local. Well, when it comes to the transition from ancient treatment to modern medicine, that too starts local: one patient at a time, one healthcare provider at a time, until there is a groundswell of use and success . . . until there is such word-of-mouth it can’t be ignored. When patients seek alternative solutions for a particular condition, it’s often out of concern about side effects associated with conventional medicine. Or they have a deeper desire to explore options that will help them age better, stay strong and manage stress. And when they have success, word gets around.
Once an alternative treatment becomes well-known and has the potential to become a commodity, research begins. It typically starts with informal research, such as a case study. Data will then be collected, including folk knowledge, clinical observations of herbalists, doctors and botanists, research studies (lab and clinical) and more. Eventually, if needed, large formal clinical trials will be organized and conducted. The research results are then compiled, analyzed, papers written and published in a wide variety of media.
As a consumer, always question research conducted by a company that plans to sell the herb for profit. However, if this is just a small part of a larger body of research done by an independent research team (a group not paid by a company selling the herb and with no chance of profiting from the herb), then it does not necessarily need to be discarded.
After the research is sufficient, and published, it can take a long time for the herb to become part of conventional medicine. However, it enters modern medicine early on through holistic practitioners such as herbalists, naturopathic and osteopathic doctors, chiropractors, holistic nurse practitioners, and some medical doctors. Remember, good medicine is personalized. The right herb, in the right form and proper dose for each person, is best determined by a natural medicine physician.
The following are some herbal or plant based medicines that have modern research to support their health benefits:
- Garlic – managing cholesterol
- St. John’s Wort – treating mild to moderate depression
- Valerian Root – insomnia
- Flaxseed – managing cholesterol
- Chaste Tree Extract – menopausal symptoms
Firenzuoli, Fabio, and Luigi Gori. “Herbal medicine today: clinical and research issues.” Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM vol. 4,Suppl 1 (2007): 37-40. doi:10.1093/ecam/nem096. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2206236/
“Digitalis.” (folk remedy history) https://www.ch.ic.ac.uk/vchemlib/mim/bristol/digitalis/digitalis_text.htm
Mayo Clinic. “Natural Healing: Prevent illness and Improve Your Life.” (January 2018 edition, print)