Alternative Medicines, An Honest Discussion Into Their Medicinal Utility

Ginko Biloba as alternative medicine
Ginko Biloba is an ancient Chinese herb with a history entwined with humanity spanning thousands of years.

Alternative medicines, do they work?  Some do, some don’t.  In this article I’m going to argue on behalf of herbs as having some validity in the sphere of health and well being.  Why?  Well, I have a lot of experience with them, and I take it as an opportunity to try and show that there is a place for a more intellectually honest and less hostile version of ‘Mike Adams the Health Ranger‘ out there.  A guy like that loses credibility with people not already inclined toward alternative medicine by denouncing skeptics and Western medicine in the caustic and sweeping way that he displays in his writing.

Warranted Skepticism

Tristan recently wrote an article about the rejection of science in favor of homeopathy, in which he reaches conclusions I agree with.  There arose from this article some conversations as to whether this was a condemnation of herbal medicine in general, or just this one brand of spooky pseudoscience.  I won’t speak to Tristan’s views, save to say they are more educated and nuanced than to lump all ‘alternative medicines or treatments’ into the same category of this one brand of unsubstantiated rubbish.

Before I write in defense of herbs as valid treatments for certain conditions, it would be fun to show a video that is contrary to my own premises.

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By definition alternative medicine is either not been proved to work or has been proven not to work.  Do you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work?  Medicine. – Tim Minchin

A Different Definition Of Alternative Medicine

I like the above video, it’s a poetic piece of comedy that makes some excellent points.  At the same time, I’m not entirely in agreement with it.  If you go to a Naturopath and purchase herbs to treat illnesses, be it Hawthorn for the heart, kava or valerian root for anxiety, or brahmi, ginko biloba, and fish oil to benefit the brain and decrease anxiety, most people would label this in the realm of alternative medicine.  Several of these herbs fall into the category of ‘Ayurvedic’ which is the ancient Hindu art of medicine and prolonging life, while others are derived from other parts of the globe, such as kava or valerian root.

Despite the fact that many herbs have been used for thousands of years, throughout near all regions of the globe as medicine, it is not in and of itself proof of that they work.  They do however fall within the common vernacular of alternative medicine, and so are looked at with an often condescending eye by a skeptic.  That isn’t to say there aren’t skeptics who have examined these herbs and have found reasons not to be so skeptical about their efficiency in dealing with various illnesses.  Because a treatment is thought of as ‘alternative’, simply means it falls outside the spectrum of mainstream Western medicine.  It doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no science to back them up.

Scientific Evidence For Herbs As Effective Medicine

Before providing some scientific evidence for the efficiency of these herbs, let me first preface, in the spirit of intellectual honesty, that I am of course attempting to find information that will support my assertion that herbs can have benefits.  The sources I found are reputable, and through them you can find many studies to support the conclusions.

I didn’t go out of my way to find any glowing endorsements of the herbs, I just went found websites with reasonable claims.  I would also like to acknowledge the obvious, that anyone can search for studies that indicate these herbs may well act as placebos.  Also, I won’t claim that these herbs are entirely safe under all circumstances, or without taking note of the dosage and potency.  Just because it is natural, does not make it safe.  Arsenic, mercury, and lead also happen to be natural, but I don’t advocate ingesting them in any significant amounts.

Valerian works similarly to benzodiazepines by affecting the neurotransmitter GABA.

Scientists aren’t sure how valerian works, but they believe it increases the amount of a chemical called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA helps regulate nerve cells and has a calming effect on anxiety. Drugs such as alprazolam (Xanax) and diazepam (Valium) also work by increasing the amount of GABA in the brain. Researchers think valerian may have a similar, but weaker effect.

One of the best designed studies found that valerian was no more effective than placebo for 14 days, but by 28 days valerian greatly improved sleep for those who were taking it. Some researchers now think you may need to take valerian for a few weeks before it begins to work. However, in another study, valerian was more effective than placebo almost immediately.

Other studies show that valerian reduces the time it takes to fall asleep and improves the quality of sleep itself. Unlike many prescription sleeping pills, valerian may have fewer side effects, such as morning drowsiness. [ ]

Kava as an alternative medicine
Kava has long been used in Islander tradition as a sacrament for social gatherings to inspire good cheer and an alternative intoxicant to alcohol.

Kava is another herb that is popular for addressing anxiety.  It is a time honored herb from islands such as Fiji, Vanuatu, and Samoa.

Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database rates effectiveness based on scientific evidence according to the following scale: Effective, Likely Effective, Possibly Effective, Possibly Ineffective, Likely Ineffective, Ineffective, and Insufficient Evidence to Rate.The effectiveness ratings for KAVA are as follows:

Possibly effective for…

  • Anxiety. The majority of evidence shows that certain kava extracts (extracts standardized to 70% kavalactones) can lower anxiety and might work as well as prescription anti-anxiety medications called low-dose benzodiazepines. But it might take up to 8 weeks of treatment to see improvement.
  • Reducing withdrawal symptoms in people who need to stop taking anti-anxiety and sleep medicines called benzodiazepines. Slowly increasing the dose of kava while decreasing the dose of benzodiazepines over the course of a week seems to work for some people.
  • Anxiety in women going through menopause. Improvement can occur after only one week of treatment. [ ]

Though I have used all of the herbs I listed above, I can attest that my subjective experience with brahmi and ginko biloba is that they work quite well at improving memory and increasing focus.  What does my subjective experience count for?  Absolutely nothing in the realm of science.  You should not value my experience as evidence, though if you knew me and trusted me, you might find it interesting, perhaps a reason to try it for yourself to see if there was any benefit.  Or perhaps not.

It might also be worth noting that brahmi and ginko biloba can be thought of as herbal nootropics, a topic covered by Nick in a recent article about the potential of humanity.

Brahmi is a plant that has been used in traditional Indian medicine (Ayurveda). Be careful not to confuse brahmi (Bacopa monnieri) with gotu kola and other natural medicines that are also sometimes called brahmi.

Brahmi is used for Alzheimer’s disease, improving memory, anxiety, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), allergic conditions, irritable bowel syndrome, and as a general tonic to fight stress. [ ]

I’m not going to attempt to provide any evidence regarding other herbs I’ve mentioned in this article.  Not because there’s none to find on the internet – I trust you’re all adept with google – but rather in the interest of brevity, and using this space to touch on another point or two.

Isolating Active Alkaloids To Create Herbal Medicine, And Synthesizing Them Into ‘Western Medicine’

Around 70% of Western medications are derived from plants.  I’ve seen reports of up to 90%, and others around 50%, but the one I’m going to cite claims 70%, so we’ll go with that.  The fact the percentage is substantial is enough to make one question why it would be that isolating, and often synthesizing a chemical compound found in nature is what is required to make it work.  That doesn’t seem to jive with common sense when placed in the context of evolution by natural selection.

We have cannabinoid and opioid receptors in our body and brains, for instance, which are there because of the ancient relationship between man and plant.  It doesn’t seem to marry up with reality that these plants would only be a benefit to humanity once pharmaceutical companies got involved.  Equally, it doesn’t stand to reason that modern science can’t derive compounds from these plants that are more practical, efficient, and powerful than the plants themselves in many circumstances.

Profit Motive For Pharmaceutical Companies Not To Endorse Using Raw Herbs As Medicine

There is a reason why pharmaceutical companies would not wish to invest funding into the research of using raw herbs for health benefits over their medicines derived by many of the active alkaloids, isolated or synthesized, found in the same herbs.  You can’t patent something that grows from the ground.  There’s a profit motive in synthesizing an organic compound, patenting it and marketing it as the new drug on the block.  This isn’t the stuff of pharmaceutical conspiracy, it’s just an obvious consequence where big moneyed interests are involved.

In closing, there are medicines and treatments in the Eastern traditions that can benefit humans in many circumstances, but it would be disingenuous and dangerous not to acknowledge the great strides modern medicine has come in addressing illnesses that before carried a high likelihood of a death sentence, or of causing greater and more prolonged suffering than in their absence.

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food

This article is a debate starter.  A gauntlet thrown down to any hardcore skeptics regarding the validity of some alternative medicines. The scientific arguments and information I have provided do not constitute conclusive proof, but they are a starting point to giving credibility that there is a great deal on the offering to better our lives that sprouts from the ground.  If there’s any interest in this topic, or perhaps just on a whim, I may delve deeper into specific herbs or forms of alternative medicines that I believe a credible argument can be made for their medicinal utility.



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