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Herbs As Medicine: What You Need To Know

Herbs are used medicinally all over the world. For instance, morphine comes from the Poppy plant, aspirin comes from Willow Bark, digitalis comes from Fox Glove, taxol an important cancer drug, comes from the Yew tree. The list goes on.

It is ironic that doctors in the U.S. don’t learn about the healing powers of plants given that many powerful medicines are derived from plants. As a traditionally-trained Ob Gyn I was taught to prescribe a lot of medicine —  hormones, antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), to name a few.

The problem is that many of these medicines have pretty hefty side effects.  NSAIDs are prescribed widely for menstrual pain and heavy bleeding, but prolonged use can cause GI bleeding. The three month injectable progestin shot, medroxy progesterone acetate (aka: “Depo”) works very well to prevent pregnancy, but at the expense of bone density.  It is well established that Depo users sustain a decrease in their bone density while taking the shot, but long term outcomes were not known until relatively recently.  According to a 2015 Cochrane review, we now we have evidence that postmenopausal women who took Depo in the past have increased risk of bone fractures.  

After practicing in the traditional model for many years, and being concerned about these types of side effects, I began to wonder, “what other choices do we have?”  This quest for more options to offer my patients led me to pursue an Integrative Medicine Fellowship, where I received extensive training in herbal medicine. I can tell you for certain that herbs are a wonderful addition, and sometimes replacement, for traditional pharmaceuticals.

3 Ways Herbs Outperform Standard Medicines

  1. Lower dose and less toxicity — The medicines I listed above — morphine, aspirin, digitalis and taxol — are all made from an active ingredient that has been isolated, extracted, purified, and packaged in a highly potent form. With high potency, comes increased risk of toxicity and side effects.  When you consume an herb in its natural form (root, leaf, bark) you are often getting lower doses of the active ingredient, which are often less toxic.  Still, even herbs can have side effects and can interact with other herbs and medicines that you might be taking.  It is important to be well informed about these potential side effects and interactions.
  1. Herbs are multi-faceted — Most medicines have one active ingredient whereas each plant has multiple active ingredients that work synergistically. There can be hundreds of distinct compounds in the plant that potentially contribute to its medicinal properties.  Sometimes these compounds work together to make the herb more efficient.  

For example: Red Yeast Rice, the fermented product of a fungus, Monascus purpureus, is known to contain monacolin K, which is lovastatin, a commonly prescribed cholesterol lowering drug. Many studies have proven that Red Yeast Rice also lowers LDL cholesterol by 30%. Some wonder how Red Yeast Rice, which has relatively low doses of monacolin K, can result in such great clinical outcomes when compared to the typical dose of lovastatin.  

Likely the answer resides in the fact that monacolin K is not the only compound in it.  Red Yeast Rice contains eight other monacolins, plus other plant compounds with beneficial health effects such as sterols, isoflavones and monounsaturated fatty acids.  

A word of caution: it is important to do research to find a reputable brand of herb to take because there is also the unfortunate practice of cutting herbal products with both active drugs (Red Yeast Rice can be spiked with lovastatin), heavy metals, or the opposite problem of not having enough active ingredient.  Working with a good Herbalist or Healthcare provider who is trained in herbs is essential.

  1. Less Side Effects — There are numerous examples of herbs that have fewer side effects than conventional medicines. St. John’s Wort (SJW) is a perfect example.  We often recommend SJW for mild depression. It has been extensively studied and found to be safe and efficacious. There is even a Cochrane Review (traditional medicine’s gold standard of evidenced-based medicine) that evaluated 29 studies of over 5,000 patients and concluded that SJW is more effective than placebo, as effective as other antidepressants with fewer side effects.  A word of caution, however: SJW can interfere with some medications (like birth control pills, antidepressants, coumadin, digoxin, cancer therapies, immunosuppressive agents) so ALWAYS check with your provider before taking it.  

Herbs are worthwhile additions to your medicine cabinet. Unfortunately, herbs are not well understood, particularly in places like the United States, where traditional medicine is the norm. Over the next few months I will be writing an informational series highlighting some of my favorite herbs for women’s health. Keep your eyes peeled!

Live in our neighborhood and want to learn more about using herbs for women’s health? Make an appointment with Dr. Fitz!  In her practice at Blum Center for Health she takes a multi-pronged, holistic approach, a combination of medical and lifestyle considerations, to address, diagnosis and treat your condition. For more information, call 914-652-7800.

Meet Dr. Fitz:  Bronwyn Fitz, M.D. is a board certified Obstetrician Gynecologist who is fellowship trained in Integrative Medicine. In her practice she melds traditional medicine with non-Western approaches, nutrition, botanicals, mind/body therapies and lifestyle interventions to help women address their gynecological and reproductive health concerns. Her interest in mindfulness and meditation led her to pursue a two-year Fellowship at The Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, under the leadership of world-renowned Integrative physician, Dr. Andrew Weil.