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
Years ago, a friend shared with me his herbal
health regimen in which he prevented spinal cord injury (SCI) related
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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).