Herbal Medicine
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Herbal Medicine for Physical Disability

Laurance Johnston, Ph.D.

By helping to maintain health, to treat disability aggravated ailments, and to reduce exposure to drug side effects, people with physical disabilities, such as spinal cord injury (SCI) or multiple sclerosis (MS), can benefit greatly from herbal medicine. Many herbs have become so popular that they should no longer be considered alternative medicine.

Years ago, a friend shared with me his herbal health regimen in which he prevented spinal cord injury (SCI) related urinary tract echinacea: herbal medicine for spinal cord injury (SCI), multiple sclerosis (MS), and physical disability infections (UTIís) by taking cranberry extract. If he started to get the flu or catch a cold, he took echinacea, and when he had the blues, he consumed St. Johnís Wort. At that time, my inclinations as a scientist kept me from embracing such remedies because they were based in tradition not modern science.

My friend was right on target, once again demonstrating why our biomedical experts should listen to healthcare consumers with disabilities. Specifically, research has now shown that cranberry prevents UTIís by keeping bacteria from adhering to the bladder lining. Likewise, scientists have determined that echinacea, a Native American medicinal plant, can fight bacterial and viral infections, while St. Johnís wort, an ancient herbal remedy, is as effective as antidepressant drugs

Although people with disabilities have benefited greatly from modern medicineís advances, they, like millions of other Americans, are concerned about the adverse consequences of technology-based medicine and desire healthcare with a more naturalistic, holistic perspective. As a result, there has been an explosion in the growth of herbal products, which only decade ago were relegated to natural food stores and are now displayed prominently in pharmacies and grocery stores. With more than a third of Americans using herbal products, this grass roots, consumer-driven movement is changing the face of the nationís health care.

Although conventional medicine often has botanical connections, herbal medicine is based on a fundamentally different philosophy. Essentially, it relies on natural substances of infinite complexity to address a broad sweep of bodily experiences. In contrast, pharmaceutically-manufactured chemicals target specific disease symptoms and are more likely to produce side effects because they lack the complexity of the natural product that provides buffering for a slower and more diffuse action.

Overall, herbal medicineís holistic focus supports wellness by enhancing the bodyís inherent healing potential.  Because it targets the causes of diseases and not merely symptoms, herbal medicine is more health-promoting instead of disease-killing.

Due to their traditional use over the ages, herbal remedies exist for virtually all ailments, including those that often affect people with spinal cord dysfunction (SCD), including spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis. Although proponents and critics may debate their effectiveness, in many cases when scientists have actually tested herbal remedies, they work as well as the comparable pharmaceutical drug.


Medicinal plants have been always a part of mankindís healing armamentarium. They even have been found in Neanderthal burial sites. Ancient cultures, such as the Sumerians and Egyptians in our ďcradle of civilizationĒ and the Aztecs and Mayans in the Western Hemisphere relied on plants for medicines.

Herbal medicine is the cornerstone of age-old Eastern healing disciplines that live on today. Some of these include Traditional Chinese Medicine and Indiaís Ayurvedic medicine, which have both become increasingly popular recently in the West.

Indigenous healing traditions also emphasized medicinal plants, and many became incorporated into Western medicine. For example, over 200 Native American herbal medicines have been listed at one time in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia. Ironically, the most powerful and sacred Native American medicinal plant, tobacco, has become our substance of greatest abuse.

Herbal medicine even laid the foundation for Western medicine. The Ancient Greeks - including Hippocrates, the Father of Western Medicine - and, in turn, the Romans relied extensively on herbal remedies. Through the Dark Ages, herbal knowledge was preserved by Islamic cultures and by village women, many of whom were burned at the stake as witches for their healing talents.

The discovery of numerous New World medicinal plants stimulated renewed interest in herbal remedies, and, as a result, by the mid-1800ís, most Western medicines were plant derived. 

The interest in herbal medicine subsided, however, as a schism began to grow between botany and medicine. We started to lose our connection to nature as society became more industrialized, and pharmaceutical companies began to chemically synthesize, patentable, money-making drugs. As modern medicine evolved around pharmaceutical concepts, it neglected herbal remedies.

Currently, U.S. physicians obtain most of their information on medicines from the pharmaceutical industry, a giant economic force whose drug products generate more than a $100 billion a year in revenues in this country alone.

Todayís World

Once again, however, the tide is turning. Many doctors are revisiting herbal remedies in response to consumer interest.  And, as consumers themselves, 40% of family physicians also use them. In addition, herbal alternatives are increasingly being used to control soaring healthcare costs. For example, an Oklahoma HMO has started prescribing St. Johnís wort instead of Prozac because the herb is just as effective yet much cheaper. 

Although we may think that our pharmaceutically-based medical practices are the norm for the world, this is not true. In fact, 80% of the worldís population relies on herbal remedies because they cannot afford Western drugs.

Even in many wealthy nations, herbal remedies are being re-integrated into mainstream medicine. For example, in Germany and France, millions of herbal prescriptions are written each year, ginkgo biloba is prescribed more often than any pharmaceutic, and 30-40% of all doctors relies on herbal remedies as their primary medications.

Regulatory Philosophy

Although Americans have ready access to herbal remedies, few are officially used as medicines. In 1994, to protect consumer access to these remedies from FDA regulatory zeal, Congress adopted legislation classifying them as dietary supplements, provided they only claim to affect the bodyís structure and function.

However, if an herbal product claims it can treat or cure an ailment, it is now a drug, and, hence, subjected to the arduous, expensive, FDA drug regulatory process. Because herbs cannot be patented, no financial incentives exist for profit-making companies to seek such a drug designation.  Under this regulatory approach, semantics become important. For example, if an herbal product claims to cure UTIís instead of just promoting urinary tract health, it becomes a drug.

Single vs. Multi-Component Remedies

More than 30% of modern medicineís drugs have botanical origins. For example, willow tree bark contains salicylic acid, aspirinís active agent; cinchona bark has malaria-fighting quinine; foxglove digitalis treats congestive heart failure; rosy periwinkle has leukemia-fighting chemicals; and the evergreen ephedra is commonly used in decongestants. Even life-saving penicillin that revolutionized spinal cord injury healthcare was isolated from molds used as folk remedies.

Given such a botanical basis, why does modern medicine struggle so much with herbal remedies? After all, pharmaceutics and herbs mediate their action through physiologically active molecules.  Part of the answer is that the acceptance of herbal healing would challenge modern medicineís belief that it is a scientifically driven instead of an empirically based discipline.

Specifically, modern medicineís drug use is based on rigorously designed clinical trials, while herbal use is based on centuriesí of experience. Because the pharmaceutical approach focuses on only one molecularly defined drug, scientists can more readily evaluate cause and effect, determine mechanisms of action, and define appropriate dosing. Such assessments are difficult for complex herbal remedies possessing a multitude of biologically active components.

As such, scientists prefer to initially isolate a remedyís active agents believing that overall activity will be the sum of the component parts.  This reductionistic view, however, is rarely true because the plant components act more in concert than individually to create the overall healing effect. In many cases, scientists have been disappointed to discover that the isolated agent had less activity than the crude herb.


Biological activity can vary substantially between herbal preparations. For example, it depends on the parts harvested (i.e., leaves, roots, flowers, stems, etc.), plant maturity, soil and environmental conditions, and appropriate preparation and storage. 

It is truly a healing art, which at times has confounded ethnobiologists, who have been provided exciting new medicinal plants by shamanic medicine men but who could not later duplicate their initial success when they harvested the plants themselves.

The variability in activity among supposedly comparable products is a major criticism of herbal medicine and inhibits its acceptance by doctors, who understandably are more confident prescribing medicines at truly defined doses.  Some herbal products have been prepared without good quality control and lack standardization. There have been cases, independent of price or brand name, of products that contain little biologically active agent.

Although many companies now attempt to standardize their products, this process can also be controversial. For example, if a given herbal preparation lacks sufficient activity, it may be spiked with additional active ingredient.  Such spiking, however, creates a chemical imbalance that diminishes the natural synergy of plant components, violating herbal medicineís supposed philosophical foundation.


When prepared with good quality control, most herbal remedies are gentle and unlikely to cause serious side effects.  Nevertheless, because they, like drugs, contain physiologically active agents, such side effects can occur. In practice, however, the most common are allergic reactions, throat irritations, gastrointestinal upsets, and headaches.

When more serious side effects do occur, the medical establishment frequently touts them as a reason why people should stay away from herbal remedies. Because the documented incidence of serious reactions to herbal remedies is much less than that to pharmaceutics, this self-serving criticism is a double standard. In fact, studies suggest that adverse drug reactions account for over a quarter of all hospitalizations and are a major cause of death in this country. 

Given such statistics, people with physical disabilities, who often face a heavy medication burden, may be better off using herbal medicine for routine ailments and saving the heavy pharmaceutical artillery for the more serious conditions.

Herbal Applications

By helping to maintain health, to treat spinal-cord-dysfunction (SCD) aggravated ailments, and to reduce exposure to drug side effects, people with SCD can benefit greatly from herbal medicine. Furthermore, the use of infection-fighting herbal remedies that enhance the bodyís inherent healing potential will help preserve the effectiveness of life-saving antibiotics over time. A sampling of the more popular remedies is highlighted in the attached table.

Many herbs specifically support and nourish the nervous system, and, in turn, some of then may be especially relevant to spinal cord dysfunction.  For example, studies suggest that the popular ginkgo biloba may alleviate multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms by interfering with the diseaseís inflammatory process.

In another example, the Ayurvedic herb Mimosa pudica (sensitive plant) has been shown to promote neuronal regeneration in animal studies and may benefit some people with spinal cord dysfunction as indicated by a small pilot study carried out by the author.

In addition, Feather Jones, Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies (Boulder, Colo.) director has suggested that several other nerve-nourishing herbs may potentially help in spinal cord dysfunction. For example, she has indicated that a fresh plant extract of skullcap (a member of the mint family) reduces nerve inflammation; a tincture of milky oats (i.e., immature oat seeds) can rebuild the neuronal myelin sheath that is often damaged in both multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injury; an external liniment of Cow Parsnip, (a common weed that is a member of the parsley family) is a traditional Southwestern Hispanic remedy for treating injured nerves and stimulating regeneration; external application of St. Johnís Wort can treat neural inflammation; and hawthorn helps to hold collagen fibers in place along the spinal cord.

Given such effects, the potential for these remedies to treat people in the acute phase of spinal cord injury seems especially intriguing and deserving of further research.


Herbal and conventional medicine are part of a healing spectrum, in which each has something positive -but different - to offer. Although conventional medicineís high-technology approaches are especially useful in treating acute disease and in emergency care, herbal medicine by supporting wellness is more suitable for dealing with the chronic ailments that are increasingly affecting modern society. Because herbal medicine addresses an important health-care need, its continued integration into mainstream medicine should benefit everyone, including people with disabilities

Resources: For additional information, consult The Healing Power of Herbs, Michael Murray (Prima Publishing, 1995); Herbs for Health and Healing, Kathi Keville (Berkley Publishing, 1996); and Natureís Medicine Ė Plants that Heal, Joel Swerdlow (National Geographic, 2000).


Herbal Favorites:
Bilberry enhances eye health, including improving night vision and preventing cataracts, macular degeneration, and glaucoma.
Cranberry prevents urinary tract infections.
Echinacea (purple coneflower) fights cold, flu, urinary tract and other infections by stimulating the immune system (because multiple sclerosis appears to be an autoimmune disease, some believe that Echinacea should not be used when one has multiple sclerosis).
Garlic fights bacterial, viral, and parasitic infections, reduces high blood pressure, lowers cholesterol, prevents atherosclerosis, and is associated with lower cancer rates.
Ginger treats digestive disorders, such as nausea and vomiting, motion sickness, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Ginko biloba increases blood circulation, especially in the brain, enhancing memory and mental alertness.
Ginseng has stimulant properties useful for chronic fatigue, convalescence, lethargy, depression and chronic infections due to immune weakness. Ginseng can help diabetics by lowering blood sugar.
Hawthorne strengthens your heart and prevents heart disease. It reduces blood pressure, angina attacks, atherosclerosis, and treat congestive heart failure.
Kava treats anxiety, mild depression, and insomnia.
Saw Palmetto eases symptoms associated with prostate inflammation or enlargement.
St. Johnís Wort treats depression and insomnia.
Valerianís sedative properties promote sleep.


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Adapted from article appearing in Paraplegia News, January & March, 2, 2001 (For subscriptions, contact www.pn-magazine.com).