My cautious approach to herbal medicine

This is going to be a blog post on my approach to herbal medicine. In a pre-pandemic blog post I mentioned my maternal grandmother’s two herb books (pictured above), that I inherited. My maternal grandmother used these books all the time. My maternal grandmother, besides her interest in herbal remedies, helped run the family gas station and held various jobs outside the home, including being a school bus driver. A family member told me my maternal grandfather gathered some type of mint or something in the woods in the Pocono Mountains, where they lived, and sold it to a pharmaceutical company in Philadelphia. Along with that sort of a side hustle, he had a small gas station, was a tinkerer, who liked to fabricate things in his shop, my family said. My grandfather died when I was a toddler, so I don’t remember him.

The little red herb book shows pictures of plants, bushes and trees and provides a great deal of information on what part of the plant to harvest, what time of the year, and the medicinal properties of each plant listed. In the back of the book are lists and prices to mail order herbs and herbal remedies from the author, Joseph E. Meyer. It has a 1934 copyright, so even during the Great Depression the herbal remedy business was thriving in America. Here’s a bit of Meyer’s bio from Wikipedia:

Joseph Ernest Meyer (September 5, 1878 – March 9, 1950) was a botanist, writer, illustrator, publisher, and supplier of pharmaceutical-grade herbs and roots to the drug trade who became a prominent citizen and eventually a millionaire in Northwest Indiana. He was the founder of the Indiana Botanic GardensCalumet National Bank and Meyer Publishing (now MeyerBooks). At his death he was said to be the world’s largest distributor of herbs used in salves, cosmetics, and medicines.[1][2]

While I believe there’s a lot of valuable information in this little herbal book, since it’s from 1934 I remain open to more current scientific research. Often, research validates some of the claims with herbal remedies passed down through the ages, but sometimes research discovers health risks or discounts some of the medicinal claims. And often the research doesn’t validate or invalidate herbal medicinal claims, so we’re left with the research is inconclusive. I try to be open to listening to both sides and my usual approach is to use only a small amount of some new herbal product, after doing some research. Even most medications from doctors aren’t safe if taken in massive doses. I like teas, so often the first way I try an herbal remedy that can be ingested is steeped as a tea. Plus, whenever someone is selling an idea or merchandise, I keep that in mind as I consider their information and ideas.

There seems to be a prevailing belief system among many people who gravitate toward herbal medicine to believe herbal remedies are inherently safer, because they come from nature, as opposed to drugs produced in a lab. Here again, there are many compounds found in nature that are poisonous to humans and pets. Some herbals could be very risky administered to young children or people with various medical conditions. The mixture of some prescription and over-the-counter medications with herbal remedies can be risky, so doing more research and talking to my doctor is how I approach this. I do take some herbal supplements and I do use some herbal remedies.

As we moved around the Army, I met people from all over. One time a young woman from south Texas recommended wetting a bit of tobacco and putting it on a bee sting and I tried it, because I didn’t see any major risk from trying it. It seemed to work to me, so I have done that many times When I googled that home remedy, it said there’s no research to back up that claim. And that’s how I go about herbal and home remedies – I determine my own situation and risks. I didn’t see any great risk in sticking a bit of wet tobacco on a bee sting. Long ago, I watched a show on the history channel about how the ancient Egyptians used honey to treat injuries with the workers building the pyramids. So, of course I started doing my own bit of testing using honey on scrapes and cuts and using a band-aid to keep it on and seeing if things healed faster. It wasn’t scientific in the least, but honey sure seemed to help. I also found honey to help with coughs and sore throats. There’s quite a bit of research worldwide into honey’s antibacterial properties and other medicinal uses and there’s even medical-grade honey. Now, I do not eat honey, because it elevates my blood sugar too much, but I would not be adverse to using honey in wound care.

When I lived in Germany, I encountered a lot of recommendations for teas and other herbal remedies, including for babies. My late mother-in-law told me I needed to make fennel tea when my oldest daughter was a baby and had a lot of gas.

Of course, after the disastrous lapses with rushing vaccines and all the craziness with all of that in the past few years, many people will point and say – you can’t “trust the science.” Unfortunately, I think the mishandling of so much of the pandemic response damaged the reputation of our federal health officials in America and created a distrust of modern medicine, but that doesn’t mean we should discard all the hard work and effort that’s gone into modern medicine and medical research. Oddly, enough I suspect many of the same people online who say they refused the COVID vaccines and rush to the conclusion on every news story of deaths of athletes and healthy young people as due to those vaccines, also have no qualms about ordering antibiotics (medicine created in a lab) online to add to their prepping supplies.

I can see the benefits of having ready access to antibiotics in various extreme emergency situations, but there are a lot of health downsides to self-prescribing antibiotics. For one, different antibiotics are effective for different types of infections. Antibiotics also have a certain shelf life, so stocking up on most medications isn’t like stocking rice and dried beans, which can last for decades. Please, don’t become my grandmother who kept every packet of pills her doctor ever prescribed to her in her big purse. And finally, going the self-diagnosis/self-medicating route, believing you can skip all the medical tests and professionals, could delay prompt medical attention and lead to more serious medical problems.

There’s no way someone who reads a lot about herbalism or turns to a medical kit with antibiotics they ordered online knows as much as trained doctors and modern medical testing. I read the medical information that comes with my prescription medications and it lists the chemical composition of the drug, potential adverse side effects, testing information and all sorts of other information. There is no way my use of herbal supplements or home remedies is on the same level as the research and studies that have gone into most modern pharmaceuticals. Yes, there have been many big mistakes with prescription drugs having adverse side effects or even causing death, but when balanced against the millions upon millions of lives saved by modern medicine, I believe the scale tips very much in favor of modern medicine.

I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts that my paternal great-grandmother made a drawing salve made from pine resin, which she sent me to gather when I was a kid. There’s a lot of information online about pine resin uses in herbal remedies. I found this interesting piece at an herbal website: Pine Resin Uses & Salve Recipe. She wanted the resin from cutting off the knots of certain pine trees and she only wanted that pine resin gathered at a certain time of the year. I was often her fetcher and gatherer, where she would tell me where this or that plant grew in the nearby fields and woods, but she was too old to go traipsing around gathering them herself. Her salve was a good drawing salve, after using it on my scrapes, in my opinion, but my mother stuck to ointments and salves she purchased. I’d compare my great-grandmother’s drawing salve to a yellow salve sold by Rawleigh’s. We had a door-to-door salesman who came around selling Rawleigh’s products when I was a kid.

My mother did buy that Rawleigh’s yellow salve and the medicated ointment, which was similar to Vick’s vapor rub. She also did use some herbal remedies. My mother’s approach though was stuff like she wet a tea bag and applied it to minor burns and she told me it’s the tannins in black tea that makes it effective. My mother liked to understand the science behind something. She also remained open to new research and information, on both modern drugs and herbals, while many people steeped in herbal medicine imbue ancient remedies or home remedies our ancestors used as being natural and somehow purer and more reliable than modern medicine, while skipping the historical evidence of shorter lifespans and the high numbers of people wiped out by illnesses that today are easily treated with modern medicine.

Herbal medicinal remedies have a place in my health care choices, as I mentioned in a recent blog post, but I treat them just like modern pharmaceuticals and check into side effects, drug interactions, recommendations for usage and dosages. With herbal remedies it’s hard to figure out what amount to use and what amount is safe to use and this applies to manufactured herbal products too. I was watching a charming video online with a lady mixing up an herbal remedy and she was deciding what ingredients to mix up for a tincture she was creating. Her amounts were completely subjective and there’s no real recipe or science or standardized amounts. She had a lovely backdrop set up and lovely glass bottles and droppers and she called it her apothecary, but despite the charming aesthetic, this is not scientific in the least. This lady was charming too. I think it’s important to keep this in mind with online influencers. Doctors can’t just read a few books on medicine or watch a bunch of online videos and begin practicing medicine. They go through rigorous years of study and then they also have to do time as residents working beside trained doctors in a hospital and they have to be licensed to practice medicine. Herbalists can just start making videos and posting them online.

I think most people encounter all sorts of herbal and home remedy advice, but it’s very easy to see a lot of online content with people talking about herbal medicine and natural remedies and it’s very easy to get sold on things, so I have to remind myself to do my own research, because I do take some prescription medications. I also discuss herbal remedies or even other trendy diet and lifestyle things with my doctor first. I had been thinking about a couple trendy diet plans and my doctor didn’t think that was a good idea for me. He recommended exercising and trying to cut my carbs, but work on a more balanced diet and portion control. I also have one prescription medication that has a warning to avoid eating grapefruit, so treading cautiously with herbal medicine remains my approach.

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