Herbal medicine uses different parts of a plant including flowers, fruit, bark, seeds and vines to treat disease. These parts are made into medicinal remedies. Traditional herbal therapies have been the mainstay of many Eastern and Western medicinal styles including Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine (Eastern Indian), Native American medicine (naturopathic) and homeopathy. In fact 80% of the world’s population uses herbal medicine of some kind. In the United States, use and sale of herbal treatments have increased, reaching into the multimillion dollar range. They are available in grocery stores, drug stores and health food or natural food stores. Herbal remedies can be in a variety of forms including: liquid or capsules; as a tincture made from the whole herb in an alcohol solution; or an extract made from one or more parts of the herb. Extracts are usually diluted in a solution of water and alcohol. These are considered more potent than tinctures.
Choosing remedies can be somewhat confusing. They vary widely from manufacturer to manufacturer. The exact contents on the product label may not necessarily be present in the amounts stated. Some ingredients may not be listed on labels. In addition products can be contaminated with other ingredients like pesticides, heavy metals, or other unapproved drugs. For example, a recent study found that 14 of 70 Ayurvedic herbal medicines made in South Asia but marketed in the United States contained high levels of lead, mercury and/or arsenic.
It is important to realize that dosing with herbs is an inexact science. The potencies may vary from batch to batch or between manufacturers. The Dietary Supplement, Health and Education Act passed in 1994 has categorized herbal therapies as supplements. Therefore the same Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines that govern prescription or over the counter medications do not apply to herbal remedies. In fact as long as products were marketed prior to 1994, an herbal manufacturer is not required to provide the FDA with any information regarding adverse effects of the product. An excellent source of information on herbal medicine is the Physicians’ Desk Reference® (PDR®) for Herbal Medicines™. This is a monograph that features over 600 profiles on medicinal herbs. Many of the findings include comments by the German regulatory authority called Commission E. This is a highly regarded world authority on herbal medications. The PhytoPharm U.S. Institute of Phytopharmaceuticals has reviewed other remedies extensively. These are also included in the PDR® for Herbal Medicines™. The products are listed in generic form, not under proprietary names. Discussions include different names for the herbal remedies, descriptions of the botanical parts used, the actions and pharmacologies of the herbs, contraindications, adverse events and dosages.
A number of herbal remedies have been used for upper respiratory allergies and sinusitis. Two recent studies have shown the benefits of butterbur, also known as butter dock or bog rhubarb, for seasonal allergic rhinitis and a dry mixture of 11 traditional Chinese herbs for perennial allergic rhinitis.