Having thoroughly confused people by stating my limited support for herbal remedies, and my utter contempt for practitioners of CAM, I offer the following thoughts for your consideration.
To be healthy, the theory goes, we should avoid processed foods. We should avoid things that are full of chemicals. We are told that, to be healthy, we need to eat lots of plant-based foods – as close to their natural state as possible. Fruits and vegetables are good for us. We are told
Plant-based fats like avocados and olives are good for us, too. Refined oils are not.
Is it any wonder, then, that people think that it is healthy to avoid chemicals? Whether or not we do it successfully, we know that we should. We are bombarded with the idea:
- plants are good
- artificial things are bad
What About Herbs?
Given all this input, doesn’t it make sense to view plants as a major component of a healthy lifestyle? If we’re supposed to avoid the artificial, why not stay away from drug-store medications and rely on natural herbs?
Herbs work for a lot of things. They were used for centuries before scientists figured out how to synthesize similar compounds. There would have been no point in figuring out how to manufacture chemical-equivalents if the herbs didn’t have any value.
Herbs don’t always work, though. There were serious drawbacks to herbs; laboratory-created chemicals solved the problems. Herbs aren’t always available; they vary in strength from one plant to the next, and from one year to the next. In the laboratory, quality control on the chemical equivalents means that one FDA-approved pill of a given kind is equivalent to the next FDA-approved pill. People don’t have to wonder how much will be needed because every pill is identical. People don’t have to worry about availability as they travel about the world.
As we rely more and more on technology, sometimes we forget that pills have disadvantages, too. Medications have long lists of possible side effects. Medicine can be expensive. And, somehow, it seems that the lessons we’ve learned with food should apply to everything we put in our bodies. If natural plants are better than chemicals in the world of food, it should come as no surprise that so many people extrapolate this thinking to the medical sphere.
Is it true?
I think the problem is one of ambiguity. Sorry to get all philosophical on you. When I was in college, for a while I wanted to be a philosophy major. Logic was one of my favorite classes. However, when I excitedly shared with the professor what I was thinking, he ever so eloquently pointed out the dearth of career opportunities for philosophers. I changed majors.
Logical constructions are required to pick one definition and stick with it. Changing the meaning of a word isn’t allowed. Some simple examples:
Some triangles are obtuse.
Whatever is obtuse is ignorant.
Therefore, some triangles are ignorant.
A mouse is an animal.
Therefore, a large mouse is a large animal.
These examples illustrate the logical fallacy of equivocation.
Back to health and herbs. The terms “natural” and “chemicals” are used in reference to both food and medicine, but on careful examination, they don’t necessarily mean the same thing. By holding different definitions of the terms, two people can discuss an issue and completely misunderstand one another. People who argue in favor of natural fruits and vegetables in our diets, and against artificial chemical concoctions (hooray for carrots; boo Twinkies), then turn around and claim that we should rely on natural herbs instead of toxic medicines developed by chemical companies, are committing the fallacy of equivocation.
One person thinks of herbs and envisions a beautiful garden, organically grown to avoid pesticides. The gardener can slip out in the early morning and snip a few inches off the mint plant, a few leaves from the lavender hedge, and perhaps a little lemon balm, then brew a relaxing cup of tea that has health benefits. When her kids get the sniffles, the gardener slip out to the horehound patch to collect ingredients for a nice batch of candy.
Another person thinks of herbal medicine and pictures the modern-day health nutfood store with aisle after aisle of herbal extracts but nary a plant in sight. If an herb is good for you, then capsules of the beneficial components of that herb must be great! Believing “herbs are nature’s gift,” this person spends hundreds of dollars on “natural herbal extracts” that bear no resemblance to anything in nature.
The person who views herbal medicine as meaning #2 will have a very different perspective than the person who holds meaning #1. It would behoove us all to clarify our definitions before rushing to judgement about the efficacy of herbs.
Herbs can interact with prescriptions.
If you are taking any medications, talk to your doctor or pharmacist before trying an herbal remedy.