Herbs Cure and Curse

One of the interesting phenomena that has developed in our society in recent years has been the growth of alternative medicine. There are many different approaches used in the broad spectrum of alternative medicine methods, but one of the more questionable is the use of herbs in place of conventional medicines. Many proponents of herb use give the message that herbs are natural and from God while conventional medicines are man-made. The idea is that the herbs are safer since God gave them to man, while conventional medicines being man-made are likely to be destructive. There are so many misconceptions in this area of discussion that it would take a good sized book to explore them all. We would like to make a few general points that we hope will be useful to our readers.

All Drugs Are Natural and All Herbs Are Man-Made

Where does penicillin come from? Answer: a fungus. Is it natural or man-made?

There is no place where you can go pick a "penicillin bean" off a tree and eat it. Like almost all conventional medicines, penicillin is derived from a natural substance. The notion that medicines are man-made is inaccurate. Most herbs are treated in some way before they are used in the human body. Boiling, grinding, burning, leaching, chopping, distilling, filtering, bleaching, freezing, and dissolving in another material are all methods used in both herb medicines and conventional medicines. It is true that some conventional medicines may come from animal products, but the Chinese who are given credit for most herbal medicines also use many animal parts in their overall practices, and it is virtually impossible to eat without ingesting some animal material. Milk, butter, eggs, many oils, and virtually all substances from the sea have animal material in them.

 The point of this discussion is that all medicines--herbal or conventional--must be prepared. Virtually no material is taken directly from a plant and put into our bodies.

Herbs Are Not Automatically Safe

In the chart below, we have a superficial listing of commonly used herbs, what they are used for, the active ingredient if it is known, and what recent studies have shown can be harmful effects from these herbs. It is important to realize that one problem inherent to herbal drugs is that there is rarely a control on concentration. Many natural substances are poisonous (poison ivy is a natural substance). This chart does not include purity problems or problems in gathering which are greater than in clinically controlled preparation.

 It is vital that before people take anything into their bodies, they make sure they know what possible damage can come from the substance. Some of the most deadly poisons on earth are natural products of plants.

Drug Claimed Use Active Ingredient Dangers
Mint tea Weight control Pennyroyal oil Liver damage, nerve damage
Ephedra or MaHuang Hundreds of products Stroke, heart attacks, seizures
Podophyllin  Laxative Bajiaolian Nerve damage
Tripterygium Wilfordii Autoimmune, inflammatory disease Blood cell damage
L. Tryptophan  Dietary supplement Nerve and muscle damage, death
Chromium III Picolinate Dietary supplement Genetic damage
Essence of Hyssop  Dietary supplement Pinocamphone Nerve poison
Essence of Sage Dietary supplement Camphor Convulsions
Chaparral Jin-bu Huan Germander Dietary supplements Menthofuran Pulegone Liver, heart failure
Scutellariae Radix Medications Birth defects
Comfrey Tea Medications Pyrrolizidine alkaloids Cancer
Russian Comfrey Medications Pyrrolizidine alkaloids Liver cancer
Madder Root Kidney stones Cancer
Rhus Coppallina
Diospyros Virginiana
Sassafras Albidium
Medications Cancer
Aristochia Dietary supplement Kidney cancer
Euphorbia Virgata
Medicine Cancer
Ginkgo Memory loss ginkgolides bilobalide None known
Ginseng Memory loss ginsenosides Hypertension, sleeplessness
Kava Sedative Kavalactones None known
St. John's Wort Antidepressant Hypericin Cataract formation, possible photo toxin
Source: Skeptical Inquirer, January/February, 2001

God Has Not Prescribed Herbs

One of the problems in this discussion is that many people feel that there is some kind of a biblical mandate to use herbs and that conventional medicines are somehow from the world. It may be that some of the unfortunate hostility toward science by some believers has impacted this area of concern.

 God told man in Genesis to "subdue the earth. have dominion. take care of the earth." Man is to take care of the earth and use it in a constructive way. Using materials God has given to treat disease or problems we have is right and logical--whether they are herbs or other materials. The trick is to do no harm, and herbs can harm as well as help. Paul said, "take a little wine for thy stomach's sake" (1 Timothy 5:23). Wine is not something you pick up off the ground. It is a product of man using what God has created. Over the years, mankind has found ways to change wine from a substance that can be helpful to a highly destructive recreational drug. Most recreational drugs are plant (marijuana, for example) or fungus materials (most hallucinatory drugs). It is rather inconsistent to condemn recreational drugs and condone all herbal remedies in the same breath.

Your Brain Must Be Engaged

Do you always eat everything that is put in front of you--no questions asked? I hope the answer to this question is an emphatic "no!" It is important that we know how long the food has been unrefrigerated, how well it has been cooked, how clean the preparer and kitchen was, what has been added to it, and a variety of other more specialized questions. We all know places we would not eat in.

 No one should take any drug or remedy without asking questions. Conventional drugs have been tested and a long list of possible side effects are attached to them. Some herbs do this and some do not. It is important to consult an herbal directory before taking any herbal cure and find out what materials are there and what they can do. Some materials are very hard on the kidneys. Some can irritate sinus areas. You can check out these things; and if you do not know what the possible side effects or negative reactions can be, do not take them. The same is true of conventional medicines.

 Many wonderful substances exist on this planet that can help us feel better, give us solutions to illness, and improve our overall wellness. All of them originally come from natural sources in one way or the other. There are many good herbs and many good conventional medicines. Do not get stampeded into only one mode of helping your body stay well. Herbs and conventional medicines can be a cure or a curse. We determine which they will be.

--John N. Clayton

Back to Contents Does God Exist?, SepOct01.