A recent survey shows that over a third of people in the UK use herbal medicine. This might be surprising in a country where people have access to free healthcare. Even so, herbal medicines remain popular. Whether they are supplied by herbalists or over-the-counter. Herbal remedies are generally seen as being safe, natural and gentle treatments. They also offer support for long term or chronic degenerative conditions. An area that conventional medicine does not always satisfy patients.
Herbal remedies have a long tradition of use. Records show that plants have provided medicine for hundreds, even thousands of years. Yet critics say herbal medicines do not have the same level of scrutiny as conventional drugs. And, so do not have the same level of evidence for use in a healthcare setting.
Many herbalists might welcome such scrutiny. But, it is difficult to test the use of herbal medicines as used in clinical practice. Herbalists tend to use combinations of medicinal herbs. Combinations formulated for the individual following a consultation.
Compare this to a clinical trial. That involves a single herbal medicine or herb constituent. Given to the person, regardless of the uniqueness of the patient and their needs.
Polypharmacy and synergy
Herbalists use several herbal medicines in a formula because of the benefit of polypharmacy. The synergy between the active ingredients enhancing treatment, whilst minimising side-effects. As quoted from Aristotle “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts”.
This synergy can also enhance the effects of conventional drugs, such as antibiotics. Herbal medicines alongside antibiotics demonstrate this effect. And can help to reduce the development of antibiotic resistance.
So, herbal medicines have a lot to offer. Yet in the past, research into herbal remedies was limited. Mainly because there is little financial incentive to study herbal medicines. The financial rewards are simply not there as herbs can not be patented.
More recently, research into herbal medicines has begun to grow. Several rigorous and well-designed trials are underway. With a suitable evidence base, herbal medicines may contribute to mainstream healthcare. Offering safe and effective treatments for chronic and long term conditions.
Evidence for the benefit of herbal medicines
Chronic degenerative diseases make demands on modern healthcare that herbal medicine could ease. Now, the evidence for the benefit of herbal medicines in these conditions is increasing.
Studies show the use of herbal medicines for these chronic conditions:
- treatment of cardiovascular conditions
- management of diabetes
- treatment of skin conditions
- treatment of irritable bowel syndrome
- antibacterial herbs that help combat antimicrobial resistance
- treatment of respiratory conditions including asthma
- for treatment of depression
- treatment of arthritis
- for the treatment of other conditions including gynaecological disorders
Altogether, these studies provide good quality evidence for the efficacy of herbal medicines. With a possible role in the management of several common chronic conditions.
While herbal medicines show some benefit for these conditions. Many are those for which conventional treatments may not be satisfactory. This may especially be true for antibiotic treatments. Antimicrobial resistance means the effectiveness of current treatments is beginning to wane.
Professional herbalist organisations such as the EHTPA welcome scientific research into herbs and herbal medicines. But, in the long term, methods of research may have to allow for polypharmacy and the real-world use of herbal medicines.