Sunday, 5 June 2011

Painting with the same brush: herbal medicine

Britons spend 4.5 billion GBP (60 billion GBP worldwide) on alternative medicine treatments, with the 150,000 alternative therapists in the UK being visited by one in five UK residents.

The above is a fact gleaned from the Economist, one of my favourite magazines which occupy a lofty position along with National Geographic, Nature, PNAS, and Science. They have, however, a rather interesting (and persistent) stance on alternative medicine: ‘Virtually all alternative medicine is bunk; but the placebo effect is rather interesting’.

Alternative medicine is a comprehensive term referring to a mish mash of traditional, indigenous, and unconventional medical practices such as acupuncture, aromatherapy, chiropractic, homeopathy, reflexology, reiki, and many more. Indeed, some of the practices does merit healthy scepticism. I cannot deny that there are quacks in alternative medicine and that many (if not all) do exaggerate the supposed benefits of the drugs/treatments. But then, all conventional medicine cannot be discarded as dangerous chemicals and expensive treatments which expand the bank accounts of GPs and pharmas. Neither can all unconventional medicine be discarded as outdated, bizarre, and toxic. It is up to the patient to make a well-informed decision. But it is highly debatable whether herbal medicine/ethnopharmacology should be painted with the same brush.

The Economist grudgingly admits that a few treatment (‘mostly herbs containing active drug molecules, do have proven benefits’). Yet, their conclusion is that it is none other than the placebo effect, i.e. ‘the strange and inadequately explained tendency of certain medical conditions to respond to anything the patient thinks is directed at treating them, even when the treatment in question could not possibly have a direct effect on the disease’. In other words, a treatment, per se, would have no effect on the condition, but the belief in its efficacy works wonders, resulting in somatic changes. Apparently, this works most effectively with psychological problems (or anything pertaining to emotions) such as depression and pain. And ‘the alternative-medicine industry plainly excels as a placebo delivery service’. The article concludes by pointing out that practitioners of conventional medicine could be less clinically detached, and more caring and attentive to the patient.

The fact is that many (not ‘few’ as claimed by the Economist) of the conventional medicines are/were derived from herbal products (Analgesics such as Aspirin from Salix, Morphine, Codeine from Papaver somniferum; Digitalin from Digitalis purpurea; Malarial drugs such as Quinine from Cinchona and Artemsinin from Artemisia annua; Reserpine from Rauwolfia serpentina; Physostigmine from Physostigma venenosum; Tubocurarine from Chondrodendron; for cancer-Vinblastine/Vincristine from Catharanthus roseus/Vinca rosea, Etoposide from Podophyllum, Paclitaxel/Docetaxel/Taxol from Taxus, Combretastatins from Combretum caffrum….. to state a few).

Many such herbal remedies have been used since time immemorial in indigenous medicines around the world. Indeed, adopting these remedies directly may pose the concerns of drug toxicology, side effects, and general effectiveness. It is equally likely that their effects may not be significant, whilst studies by pharmas (on their chemically synthesised products) might show significant results (one must not overlook the importance of sample size in getting significant results!). Furthermore, pharmas have more than sufficient capital to invest in large-scale research to test drug efficacy and toxicology prior to clinical trials. An ethnopharmacological research team lacks such resources.

Ma et al (2005) identified plant-derived medicines as becoming the next major commercial development in biotechnology. Their abstract states: ‘The advantages they offer in terms of production scale and economy, product safety, ease of storage and distribution cannot be matched by any current commercial system; they also provide the most promising opportunity to supply low-cost drugs and vaccines to the developing world’. Perhaps one emphatic evidence is in the form of the numerous clinical trials being conducted in the US on plant-derived medicines .

Conventional drugs too have side effects which we often overlook- after all, we blindly trust our GPs, believing that any medicine prescribed is fool-proof (reading the medicine's own fine print should throw at least some light on this). Extracting the active ingredients from a herb (thanks to coming across its usage in some traditional medicine), commercialising it and reaping the benefits, only to criticise the practice which had already identified its benefits centuries ago- a dog biting the hand that feeds?

What next? Chucking out vegetables?

References :
Ma, J. K-C., Chikwamba, R., Sparrow, P., Fischer, R., Mahoney, R., and R.M. Twyman (2005). Plant-derived pharmaceuticals – the road forward. Trends in Plant Science, Vol. 10, Issue 12, pp. 580-585.

Alternative medicine: Trust me, I've got a licence

Regulating alternative medicine: But does it work?

Medicine: There is no alternative

Image: Gingko biloba (© Creativ Studio Heinemann/Westend61/Corbis)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


By using this blog, you signify your agreement to this disclaimer. Do not use this website if you do not agree to this disclaimer.

This blog is published by Sarah Stephen and Ruth Stephen, and reflects the personal views of the contributors, in their individual capacities as a concerned citizen of this planet. The term 'Ecoratorio', as well as every graphic, opinion, comment, and statement expressed in this blog are the exclusive property of the blog publishers and contributors (© 2009 - present), unless explicitly stated otherwise, and should not be disseminated without the written consent of the author(s). The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily representative of the views of any school, college, University, company, organisation, city, town, state, country, or church where the author(s) have studied, worked, worshipped, or lived, and is not sponsored or endorsed by them.

This blog and its contents does not receive any sponsorship, financial or otherwise, neither is it aimed at generating any money.

The matter on this blog has been prepared for informational purposes only, and the reader(s) should not solely rely upon this information for any purpose nor should he/she assume that this information applies to his/her specific situation. Furthermore, the matter on this blog may or may not reflect the current and future trends/developments, may or may not be general or specific, accordingly, information on this blog is not promised, or guaranteed, to be correct or complete. The publishers and author(s) explicitly disclaims all liability in respect to actions taken, or not taken, based on any, or all, the contents of this blog. Thus, the reader(s) is/are reading the posts and arriving at conclusions about the information, or about the author(s), or otherwise, at his/her own risk.

This blog may contain weblinks, which are provided solely for the reader(s) convenience. Such weblinks to another blog or website does not imply any relationship, affiliation, endorsement, responsibility, or approval of the linked resources or their contents (over which we have no control). Accessing these links will be at the reader(s)’s own risk.

The publishers and author(s) are not responsible for translation and interpretation of content. Occasionally, the blog might contain subjects which may be considered offensive from certain individuals’ points-of-view, and the author(s) refuses to accept any liability for any psychological, physical, and emotional reactions, short-term or long-term, which the posts might generate in the reader(s). However, each post in this blog is the individual opinion of the author(s) and is not intended to malign any city/town/village, state, country, continent, faith, religion, practice, ethnic group, club, organisation, company, or individual. Neither are the publishers and author(s) responsible for any statements bound to government, religious, or other laws from the reader(s)’s country of origin.

The publishers and author(s) reserves the right to update, edit, delete or otherwise remove, the posts or any comments, the latter of which might be deemed offensive or spam. The publishers and author(s) cannot warrant that the use of this blog will be uninterrupted or error-free, or that defects on this site will be corrected. The publishers and author(s) also reserves the right to publish in print media, in whole or part, any of the posts which might be an edited version. If the reader(s) has a problem with any post, the publishers and author(s) expects them to contact them, explaining the reasons for their discomfort. However, if the reader(s) choose to communicate with the publishers and author(s) by email, the reader(s) must note that since the security of unencrypted email is uncertain, sending sensitive or confidential emails holds the risks of such uncertainty and possible lack of confidentiality.

The publishers and author(s) reserve the right to change this Disclaimer, from time to time, in their sole and absolute discretion. If the reader(s) using this website after the institution of such changes, he/she is signifying their agreement to these changes. The publishers and author(s) also reserve the right to discontinue any aspect of this website at any time.