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Herbal Treatments Vs. Western Medicine

By Tracy Morris ; Updated August 14, 2017

Herbal treatments were widely used for centuries before conventional Western medicine came along. Also known as allopathic medicine, Western medicine is now conventional medical treatment in the United States and some other countries. When it began in the early 19th century, allopathy was the alternative mode of care. Fortunately, in the 21st century, there are many choices for health care. In North America, people have access to the best that Western Medicine can provide as well as time-tested traditional forms of healing, such as herbal medicine.

Herbal Basis

Herbal medicines are either extracted from or manufactured from an entire plant. The most active ingredient is embedded within a host of other natural compounds that can help to lessen side effects and improve absorption of the active ingredients. For this reason, their effects tend to be more gentle and safe for long-term use. Maria Badell, a licensed acupuncturist, says that herbal treatments can be varied according to your needs. She explains that for a serious, acute attack on the body, such as a cold, herbs can give a stronger tonifying boost and don't require a lengthy treatment time compared to a chronic ailment or a deficiency of energy. Chris Axelrad, a licensed acupuncturist and director of Axelrad Clinic, adds that "Plants are living things, and they carry an intelligence into our bodies when we consume them. For instance, plants that grow in humid climates are typically helpful for conditions like edema and excess fluid retention."

Synergistic Formulas

Naturopathic physician, Dr. Jennifer Potter, explains that because herbal remedies are using an entire piece of the plant, if not the whole plant, the biological components work in a synergistic way with our bodies. "Allopathic medicine, or pharmaceutical medicine, uses single chemical extracts of the ingredients found in the plants without using the remaining beneficial components." Herbal treatments usually combine several herbs into one formula. This takes into account the main treatment goal, such as relieving headaches, as well as corollary goals that may support the primary goal, for example, calming stress, improving sleep, enhancing circulation.

Single Chemical Drugs

In contrast, Western drugs typically contain a single chemical substance engineered for a single purpose. This chemical is given in high concentration to effect drastic and rapid change in the body. There is no consideration for long-term effects or corollary issues. The same patient mentioned above might receive a migraine medicine, a sleeping pill and a platelet-reducing medicine. All of them are given in high concentrations and may interact or have side-effects.

Medical Professional Teamwork

Many allopathic physicians in the United States are joining with alternative medicine colleagues -- naturopaths, chiropractors, traditional Chinese medicine physicians and even herbalists -- to make sure their patients can access the best of all possible treatment avenues. Naturopathic physician Janet McKenzie describes how Western medicine and herbal medicine are not mutually exclusive and can be used together to achieve great results. She elaborates, "Sometimes pharmaceutical medicines are necessary but have intolerable side effects. Herbal medicines can be used to support the activity of the pharmaceutical preparations so that only the smallest doses of the synthetic medicines need be used, thereby minimizing side effects that can interfere so drastically with a person's quality of life." Not all M.D.'s, however, are quick to work in tandem with practitioners who prescribe herbal medicines. Psychiatrist Laura Davies, M.D., says that lack of scientific evidence is one of the main reasons she resists herbal medicine in her practice. Another point Dr. Davies makes is in regards to the lack of quality controls over botanicals, declaring, "Their dosages are not standardized, so, from package to package, the patient doesn't know how much they will be getting." Specifically in terms of her field of medicine, Dr. Davies says for patients with depression, anxiety or any psychiatric illness, "the evidence is clear that allopathic medicines are much more effective and safer, and predictable."

Not Merely Supplements

Badell emphasizes that herbal medicine is different from supplementation with vitamins and minerals. Herbs as medicine are used when your body needs an extra boost or a calming balm to bring it back into balance. Unlike supplements, most herbal medicines should not be taken for extended periods of time, though it depends on the type of herbs used and for what purpose. Badell adds that "Taking vitamins and minerals is akin to eating nutritious food, but herbal supplementation should be taken with an amount of seriousness and prescribed by a qualified licensed professional, just as regularly-prescribed drugs are given by allopathic practitioners today."

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