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Herbs, supplements and pharmaceutical thinking

Pharmaceutical drugs and herbs work differently. Understanding how they work differently is important to proper use.
Pharmaceutical drugs and herbs work differently. Understanding how they work differently is important to proper use.

More people are turning to supplements, particularly herbs. The unfortunate thing is that many people think about, and use supplements in the same way they use pharmaceutical drugs. This has been encouraged by the supplement makers as a way to drive sales. Supplements and particularly herbs were traditionally used to either “supplement” something that is not being provided in the diet or needs to be replenished for a specific reason ( for example, probiotics after antibiotics ) or in the case of medicinal herbs, used as an extreme food to alter the function of the body. In either case the goal is to adjust how the body functions in order to help the body function better. If the body functions better, than the problems of concern often are corrected.

People have been conditioned by the biomedical community to think about health in a symptom related way. The result is that many people take a supplement for a particular symptom or condition as defined by biomedical medicine. This is the same way pharmaceuticals are prescribed and that system is familiar to people. As a result people take ginkgo for memory even though there are many herbs that would do a better job at helping memory and that the memory issues may be related to other health issues which the ginkgo does not address. Herbs are often mixed into various supplements in ways that make marketing sense but do not make medical sense.

Traditional herbs and foods were prescribed to a patient with a problem, rather than a specific medical problem. To use herbal medicines and supplements properly, one needs to get an evaluation as to what is really needed by the body and then change that supplementation as needed. A traditional herbalist will prescribe a formulation of herbs and foods and then alter the prescription as the patient changes. Often this is part of a teaching process of helping the patient understand how their body functions. Since herbal medicines are extreme foods, the dosages are often not as restrictive as with pharmaceutical drugs. The result is that often patients learn when to increase their use of a particular herbal medicine and when they can decrease it. This is a way of empowering the patient to better manage their health.

Using herbal medicines and supplements appropriately is not a function of standardization, maintaining specific dose levels, or chasing symptoms. Proper use comes from understanding that these products change the way the body functions and that the function is specific to the individual and usually not specific to the medical condition. As with all medicines, determining what is needed is the first step. Taking herbs and supplements because it sounds like a good idea often results in using products that are not providing a benefit to the person. Before taking herbs as medicine it is best to talk to a medical provider that has the training to prescribe the herbal medicines that are most appropriate for the situation.