Herbal supplements gain popularity as alternative treatments

By Xinyi Zhang
Medill Reports

Herbal supplements as alternative and complementary medicines continue to gain popularity as consumer health products. Approximately 80% of the world’s population depends on them for some form of primary healthcare.

Along with the considerable growth in the global intake of herbal treatments, their safety is currently shrouded in prejudice and misinterpretation, according to Kaysie Lingo, an acupuncturist at Anatomy & Alchemy Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine, 70 E. Lake St. in Chicago.

But, despite increased consumption, the efficacy of many herbal treatments is considered untested by western medical standards. This is one of the main reasons that the public remains skeptical about herbal alternatives.

Advocates of herbal remedies emphasize that these treatments originate from nature, assist in green therapy, and show fewer negative side effects.

When people consume herbal supplements, they are typically not getting only one herb, but several herbs altogether, which creates a  mild and balanced way to help the body function properly, said  Lingo.

Herbal supplements haven’t been tested under western standards, “but they have been used for more than 2,000 years in Asian culture,” Lingo said.  Pharmaceutical testing times don’t match that record, Lingo noted.

Supporters of herbal medicine believe that plant-based remedies help fight illnesses. Surveys show that participants associate herbal remedies with good health and natural healing.  Despite the biases against traditional medicines, many users believe in their positive impacts.

A lot of acupuncture clinics in Chicago have been using herbal medicine for clinical treatments for a long time. According to Lingo, the most commonly used herb is cinnamon. Of course, there have other herbs to mix with cinnamon to treat upset stomach or diarrhea depends on what herbs go with the cinnamon.

“Some herbal medicines use cinnamon as the main supplement. What harm can cinnamon do to a body?” said Cheryl Kujawinski, an acupuncturist at Anatomy & Alchemy.

Kujawinski also mentioned the pharmaceutical industry has a lot of power to control the market. “They got a lot of money – there are a lot of lobbyists [ for them] in our government. But things are starting to change in the realm of acupuncture,” she said. “People are more comfortable with it, I think herbs will soon follow,” said Kujawinski. “People don’t want to be on the pill for the rest of their lives, but they are kind of trained to think that’s the best they have,”

A customer who has been treating sinus issues with herbal supplements from Anatomy & Alchemy for over a year said that he used to depend on pills. Now, with the supplements and acupuncture treatments, he said he does not take pills anymore.

Lingo suggests that if people are taking pharmaceutical medicine, they  should talk to their doctor first before adding an herbal remedy. She and her staff are able to adjust the ingredients of the herbal supplements based on the doctor’s suggestions, she said. And there are situations when people should not choose herbal medicine.

“Patients with an acute medical situation shouldn’t choose herbal medicine over modern medicine.” However, patients with chronic diseases may consider adding an herbal medicine, said Chongzhi Wang, associate professor with Tang Center for Herbal Medicine Research at the University of Chicago.

Wang also said to check with your doctor before adding an herbal supplement.

The World Health Organization (WHO) introduced guidelines for the practice of alternative traditional medicine. The agency states, “A few herbal medicines have withstood scientific testing, but others are used simply for traditional reasons to protect, restore, or improve health.”

It called for extensive scientific studies on herbal medicines to curb the perceived threat to human health. Continued research on herbal medicines will improve their effectiveness and probably attract even more users.

Photo at top: A shelf is full of traditional herbal medicines that staff at Anatomy & Alchemy use in their treatments. (Xinyi Zhang/Medill)