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Bad News for Herbal Medicine?

The British Medical Association calls attention to a new study in the Postgraduate Medical Journal that assesses the efficacy of individually tailored herbal medical treatments. The outcome? “There is no good evidence to suggest that individually tailored herbal medicine treatment works well,” the BMA declares.

The nuances here are interesting. While studies on the efficacy of herbal medicine have grown steadily over the past 20 years, most of the research “has involved standard preparations or single herbal extracts rather than the individually tailored treatments favoured by herbal medicine practitioners.”

The new study suggests this result is because many of the past studies have been sponsored by herbal products manufacturers — but since most practitioners mix and match herbs, the results of these studies aren’t necessarily valuable.

As such, the authors of the newest study attempted to isolate the randomized controlled trials of mixed treatments from which they could draw meaningful conclusions. They found that only 3 such studies existed, out of about 1,300. An analysis of the useful trio — for the treatment of knee osteoarthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, and the relief of side effects caused by cancer treatments — found all three to be ineffective. The risk of side effects from the interaction of various herbs, meanwhile, was significant.

I know many people who put a good deal of stock in herbal medicine. My mother became a naturalist and an herbalist decades ago, well before it was popular. She was totally convinced of the value of gobbling rose hips from the garden as well as supplements like “raw female,” and, if I remember correctly, “shark heart.” I was skeptical of their value, but the fact was that there wasn’t much data to debate.

Even though this new study is, on its face, bad news for fans of herbal medicine, I would argue that, in fact, it is very good news: the more scientific rigor that is brought to this realm, the more quickly the valuable treatments will be separated from the quackery.

I am guessing, however, that Kevin Trudeau would disagree.