For Many, Herbal Treatments Are Natural Solution


After suffering from severe allergies all his life and getting nothing more than short-lived relief from over-the-counter medication and nasal surgery, Nick Nicholas of Tustin decided to visit a specialist in herbal medicine.

By that time Nicholas, 38, didn’t hold out much hope, so the results shocked him.

“I had a dramatic change after just one week of herbal treatment. It was as if I hadn’t suffered from sinus problems in the first place,” he says. He hasn’t had a recurrence of the condition for the past two years.


While some think of the use of medicinal herbs as a recent phenomenon, Nicholas’ allergy treatment actually involved an ancient Oriental herbal formula.

Long before pharmacies and non-prescription drugs, herbs were used to medicate and protect the body against illness. Even today, herbs form the base for a number of prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Herbs can be the roots, fruit, leaves, flowers and even the bark of plants.

Most who believe that herbs are an effective remedy for routine ailments still realize the importance of medical doctors in treating illnesses and injuries. The American Medical Assoc. does not take a position on the use of herbal medicine.

“Five thousand years ago there were no corner drugstores; people and animals were all dependent on the natural world, and they constantly used herbs for medicinal purposes,” says Eloy Rodriguez, a medicinal plant biochemist and biologist who is a research scientist and professor in UCI’s College of Medicine and School of Biological Science.

Many countries use herbal remedies as a primary form of health care. In the United States, up until the discovery of penicillin in 1929, herbs were an important medical treatment for the many infectious diseases that threatened lives.

“When the Pilgrims came to America, they brought their own herbal remedies from Europe and were soon introduced to an abundance of new herbs by the American Indians. It is thanks to this sharing of herbal knowledge that the Pilgrims were able to survive,” Rodriguez says.

Many Americans have no idea how powerful herbs can be for the treatment of medical problems and the prevention of disease, says Ronald Bieler, who operates Bieler Herbal Clinic and Acupuncture in Costa Mesa.

“Seventy percent of doctors in China today use primarily herbal treatments for illness,” says Bieler, who has a degree in Oriental medicine from the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco and has worked in a Chinese hospital and in a Taiwanese herbal shop.

“Not only do (Chinese) herb shops regularly dispense herbal formulas for minor aches and pains like stomach and headaches, they also treat more serious problems like colitis, diabetes, asthma and even appendicitis (unless it’s about to rupture) with herbal remedies. Patients in the emergency room of a hospital generally receive an herbal treatment.”

China isn’t the only country making use of herbal remedies. “In Germany, garlic, which is used to lower cholesterol, outsells aspirin,” says Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the Austin, Tex.-based American Botanical Council and editor of HerbalGram magazine.

In the United States over the past several years, herbal medicine has rapidly gained popularity, says Blumenthal.

Rodriguez says many Americans turn to herbal remedies when Western medicine fails them.

“Many people have built up a resistance to the antibiotics prescribed by medical doctors or are experiencing complications from their use. Herbal remedies generally have no side effects, and it’s virtually impossible to build up a resistance, because, unlike American synthetic drugs which consist of just one compound, herbal formulas contain a combination of substances,” Rodriguez says.

Herbal remedies have undergone thousands of years of quality-control testing, he says. “According to chemical studies done in recent years by anthropologists, 85% of the plants used for treatments were used appropriately,” Rodriguez says.

Herbs can be used for a variety of infections and aches and pains as well as for prevention, Bieler says. There are herbs to settle the stomach, herbs for migraines, respiratory and ear infections and herbs for urinary tract infections, says Bieler.

Chronic conditions, such as the symptoms associated with menopause, menstruation and allergies, can also be treated with herbs, Bieler says.

Herbs come in a variety of forms, including teas, pills and formulas made by acupuncturists. They can be bought at health food stores and through mail order.

Shopping for herbs can be difficult because herb packaging is not likely to tell the consumer much. Herbs are considered a food and by law manufacturers cannot make health or therapeutic claims about them. Blumenthal suggests those interested in trying herbal remedies educate themselves on the uses of a dozen or so useful herbs and then make selections from that group based on their needs.

As with any synthetic drug, herbs should not be taken in large quantities. Some are very dangerous and should be avoided, such as pennyroyal, which can cause miscarriage.

If a person experiences any signs of toxicity--such as nausea, vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, inflammation or skin rash--after taking herb pills or drinking an herbal preparation, it’s important to stop taking the herb immediately and seek medical care.

Here are some common and not-so-common herbs and their medicinal uses:

* Aloe vera. This is one of the most widely used herbs in the United States. Many people know that aloe vera gel found in the leaves of the plant is a burn remedy and general skin conditioner. What they might not know is that a strong over-the-counter laxative is made from the latex found in the leaf.

* Chamomile. Chamomile tea is one of the most popular beverages in the world. In addition to having a mild relaxing effect, it also aids in digestion, helps relieve gas and has anti-inflammatory properties, Blumenthal says. Chamomile is also available in pill form.

* Cinnamon. This fragrant spice can be used as a natural home remedy for a number of problems, including certain kinds of diarrhea and as a stimulant for digestion. Powder or a cinnamon stick can be put in tea or other hot beverage.

* Dong quai. An aromatic root that is the primary ingredient in a number of Chinese herbal formulas, dong quai has been used for centuries by women for menstrual cramps, irregular menstruation, excessive bleeding and symptoms resulting from menopause, including hot flashes. Available in tea, capsules and extract.

* Echinacea. This root of this herb was very popular among North American Indians and the juice of its leaves was used often by Europeans. It has been shown to lessen the severity of colds and flu. In Germany it is approved as a cold and flu remedy and can be found in American health food stores as a flu treatment. Available in tea, capsules and extract.

* Feverfew. Approved in Canada as an effective prevention and treatment for migraines, the leaf of this plant has been used historically for menstrual cramps by the Romans and to lower fevers by the English. Available in tea, capsules and extract.

* Garlic. Many people eat garlic or take garlic capsules on a regular basis. A number of studies have shown that garlic lowers blood cholesterol and reduces the risk of cardiac disease, Blumenthal says. It is also thought to lower the risk of stomach cancer. Garlic is helpful in the treatment of hypertension and has anti-bacterial properties that will help ward off or minimize a cold if taken at its onset, Bieler says.

* Ginger. In several studies ginger showed an ability to reduce nausea and vomiting associated with motion sickness. A ginger and scallion drink at the beginning of a cold can also nip it in the bud, Bieler says. Powdered ginger can be mixed with beverages or a slice of fresh ginger steeped along with a tea bag.

* Peppermint. This herb is especially helpful for stomach upset, including aiding in digestion and relieving nausea and gas. “It has an anti-spasmodic affect, which calms the stomach,” Blumenthal says.

Peppermint is also the original source of menthol, used in many over-the-counter remedies for inflammation and muscle pain. “You can buy peppermint tea or put fresh peppermint leaves or peppermint extract in your tea,” Blumenthal says. “It’s even possible to get some relief by chewing peppermint gum.”

* Saw palmetto. The United States exports more than 100 tons of berries from this tree to Germany every year, where they make saw palmetto extract tablets that are used to treat benign prostatitis in men. These tablets cost much less than the American-made drug for this purpose and can cut nighttime urination in half, Blumenthal says.