Do you use herbal remedies rather than traditional medicines? If you belong to the former group, you may find yourself part of a growing number of individuals who may be increasingly opting for the herbal medicine route in favour of the traditional medicine route.
What makes people resort to traditional medicine? There are many reasons. One may be that they have been on a particular type of medication for a long period of time, and have seen no improvement, and are keen to try something that might bring about change. For example, if you have been suffering from migraines for quite a long time, and the medication does not appear to alleviate the severity of the frequency of the headaches, then would you not be tempted into trying something else that might work? After all, you might think that if you do not try, you might miss out of the potential benefits. Hence, the search for a better treatment might be a motivating reason for going herbal.
But seeking products that might work better because they are more naturally occurring and possibly more readily adopted by the body may only be one reason for switching to or trying herbal remedies. Traditional medicine also carries risks of adaptation and addiction, which is why some individuals consider switching.
Take for example pain relief medicines such as ibuprofen. If taken consistently for a long period of time, the body adapts to this increased level and the benefit of ibuprofen is gradually neutralised and minimised. It does not bring pain relief if taken on a prolonged basis because the body has adapted. But because the body has acclimatised or become accustomed to this, it now depends on this level of ibuprofen. The medicine has now bred dependency, and an individual is now addicted to it. It is possible that something more potent in terms of pain relief may be prescribed by doctors but again with prolonged use there is the danger of adaptation and addiction, but this time to a higher dose.
Medicines also produce side effects if used for long term. We have already examined for example the effect of aspirin in the elderly – it can cause bleeding and other complications.
Hence it is unsurprising that individuals look to the herbal medicine route as a means of avoiding greater dependency on drugs, to avoid tampering with the body’s natural ability to heal itself, and in the hope that herbal remedies could provide a quick alternative resolution to medical issues that they have had long term treatment for.
The herbal medicine world is not as regulated as the traditional medicine world although there is increasingly a tightening on the controls, especially on the advertising and promotion of products to make sure that products cannot make claims to curing certain illnesses.
While some may protest into the regulation of the herbal medicine market as the clamping down on civic liberties by an over protectionist nanny state, there are actually valid medical reasons for these interventions.
Herbal remedies may interact with traditional medicines and cause conflicts. They may either neutralise the potency of the traditional drug, or enhance it to dangerous levels above recommended limits.
The most often reported drugs that can come into conflict with traditional drugs include the blood-thinning drug warfarin, cholesterol-lowering statins, anti-cancer drugs, antidepressants, immunosuppressant drugs for organ transplants and antiretroviral drugs for people with HIV. The most common result of a drug herb interference was that of cardiovascular disease, involving medicine such as statins and warfarin. Other unwanted spheres of influence include cancer, kidney transplants, depression, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and seizures.
The most commonly used herbal remedies included ginkgo biloba, St John’s wort, ginseng, sage, flaxseed, cranberry, goji juice, green tea, chamomile and turmeric, while those most likely to cause interactions with drugs appear to be sage, flaxseed, St John’s wort, cranberry, goji juice, green tea and chamomile.
In some cases herbal remedies can lead to death or secondary death. One man died after a herbal remedy prevented his anti-seizure medication from working properly, resulting in him drowning.
These facts highlight the need for patients to inform their doctors if they are taking other forms of herbal medication apart from the medication that the doctors are prescribing, so that the doctors can examine if there might be interference in the interactions. This need is particularly important if among the drugs are those that have been identified as being likely to be affected by herbal remedies.
But what stops people from mentioning they are trying herbal remedies? One main reason is embarrassment. Alternative remedies still have a reputation for being outside the periphery of the mainstream and carry with them the stigma of being unconventional, flaky and based on superstitious beliefs. Some might question their unscientific basis as a whole load of quackery, akin to snake oil or elephant powder. Subscribing to herbal remedies in some circles in seen as being illogical. And no one wants to be perceived as a nutter.
There is also the perception of owning up to being a failure for whom traditional medicine has not worked for.
The crossover group is the one most at risk as they are most likely to continue taking the doctor’s medication while trying herbal remedies at their prescribed doseages. In other words, they are most likely to take double of what is recommended in a bid to get the best of both worlds.
Herbal remedies may prove their worth in time. But in the meantime, while we move towards a scientific study, regulation and understanding of non-pharmaceutical medicines, it is best to be cautious of interference and their crossover effect.