Herbal Alternative Medicine: The Benefits of Being Informed
You are at your physician’s office for a yearly checkup. As a member of the staff reviews your medical history, you are asked to list any of your prescription medications, over-the-counter medications, and vitamins. Finally, you are asked to list any herbal treatments that you currently take. Does this last item sound familiar? If not, you may want to consider speaking with your physician about herbal alternative medicine. Although herbal medicines are natural and not synthetically prepared in a lab, they do have pharmacological use and can offer some health benefits.
Herbs are plants that possess medicinal properties and, therefore, are natural sources of medicine. Although there has been a growing trend in complementary medicine in the United States over the past several years, alternative forms of medicine such as herbal medicine date back to over 100 BC, when the use of Chinese herbal therapy was documented.1 It was not until the latter part of the twentieth century when herbs became more widely used in modern medicine, as the public became cautious of the potential side effects of pharmaceuticals.1
Since herbal medicines function pharmacologically in the body, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is the biomedical research agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, recognized the importance of performing careful research studies on these products. In 1998, the NIH introduced the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) to support research on herbal products, including research on the safety and efficacy of herbs.1 The research funded by NCCAM has improved our understanding of several herbal treatments, including St. Johns’ wort and green tea.
St. John’s wort is an herbal supplement that originates from the plant source Hypericum perfortatum. A 1996 study published in BMJ found that St. John’s wort was effective in treating mild to moderate depression in humans when compared to a placebo.2 As this initial study only lasted 8 weeks, the NCCAM funded longer studies on St. John’s wort, which later showed that St. John’s wort compared well to Prozac in treating mild to moderate depression, although it was not effective in treating major depression.1
Although there is promising evidence that St. John’s wort can help people who have mild to moderate depression, the supplement must be taken in caution as it can also decrease the effectiveness of other medications. The presence of this herb in the body causes the breakdown of other medications, including the cancer drug Irinotecan, the cholesterol medication Zocor, and blood clotting drug Coumadin.3 Furthermore, St. John’s wort should not be taken in combination with other antidepressants.3 Speak with your health care provider if you are taking St. John’s wort and want to learn about drug interactions.
Green tea, another herbal source, is derived from steaming the leaves of the plant source Camellia sinensis.4 Green tea contains high levels of antioxidants, called polyphenols, which are effective in preventing cancer onset.4 Specifically, antioxidants repair DNA damage in cells, which often triggers the origin of a cancerous cell. The high levels of polyphenol antioxidants in green tea have stimulated research on the health benefits of green tea.
The NCCAM, along with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) at the NIH, have funded basic and clinical research on the benefits of green tea in preventing cancer. A 2010 publication from the University of Alabama at Birmingham demonstrated that mice treated with green tea polyphenols had reduced DNA damage in skin cells compared to untreated mice upon exposure to UV irradiation.5 Although human studies on the effects of green tea on cancer have been less conclusive, a clinical study in China found that men who drank green tea were less likely to develop esophageal cancer;4 other cancers were not considered in this particular study. In contrast to St. John’s wort, there are no major drug interactions with green tea polyphenols, although caffeine in green tea may moderately interact with some medications.5 Therefore, this herbal remedy has often been associated with improving well-being.
The next time that you visit your physicians’ office, consider discussing herbal remedies. Understanding the health benefits and potential drug interactions associated with herbal treatments is important to health and wellness. If you are interested in reading more about research being done on specific herbal treatments, visit the NCCAM website on herbs at http://nccam.nih.gov/health/herbsataglance.htm.