Healing herbs or just flavorings?

June 02, 2003|By ANDREA ROWLAND

Cramps? Try eating some garlic.

Though some medical professionals strongly advocate further scientific study to prove the medicinal value of garlic and other herbs and spices, others tout the health benefits of herbal remedies that for centuries have been used for healing in other countries.

Proponents of herbal medicine say these natural remedies are safe, effective, inexpensive, easy to incorporate into diets and free from the harmful side effects caused by some prescription drugs.

"In Europe and elsewhere, there is a considerable amount of inclusion of medicinal herbs into primary health care," says Dr. Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the Texas-based American Botanical Council, a nonprofit education and research organization that releases science-based information to promote the safe and effective use of medicinal plants and phytomedicines.


Blumenthal says there's "no question" that an increasing number of U.S. medical practitioners are starting to accept herbal medicine as a viable way to treat and prevent illness.

"Any doubt is probably based upon a lack of education," he says. "There's a growing and compelling amount of research confirming, corroborating and underscoring the historical medicinal uses of herbs and spices."

Ancient Egyptians used spices in medical and embalming practices. The Ebers Papyrus, which was written in Egypt about 1500 B.C., mentions the medicinal use of such spices as coriander, cumin, fenugreek and mint. The Old Testament mentions a holy anointing ointment that tradition says consisted of myrrh, cinnamon, cassia and calamus in olive oil. During biblical times and for centuries afterward, pepper-spiced wines were used to treat stomach pain and congestion.

And herbs and spices have been used for healing in China and India for thousands of years, Blumenthal says. Indians developed curry spice not to flavor food, but as a medicine to aid in digestion and reduce toxins. The ancient Egyptians often paid their slaves with garlic, which was revered for its healing properties, Blumenthal says.

Garlic mildly displays a host of benefits that range from battling bacteria to lowering cholesterol and fat in the bloodstream, he says. Garlic is used in Europe as an approved remedy for cardiovascular conditions, especially high cholesterol and triglyceride levels associated with risk of atherosclerosis. Garlic is also generally regarded as a preventive measure for colds, flu and other infectious diseases.

One German study tested garlic's medicinal value on patients with atherosclerosis - plaque buildup on the arterial walls - which increases the chance for high blood pressure and stroke. The buildup was reversed in patients who were given 900 milligrams of garlic per day for four years, Blumenthal says.

"This is a significant finding," he says. "If it's confirmed in subsequent studies, it will be very good news for garlic eaters."

Chinese research shows that garlic helps reduce the risk of cancer - particularly in the gastrointestinal tract, Blumenthal says.

Clinical studies - which generally test higher concentrations of herbs and spices than most people would use for cooking alone - also support the use of ginger to suppress nausea and motion sickness, and point to that root's role in inhibiting tumor growth, he says. Like ginger, research also suggests that the curry spice turmeric is a potent anti-inflammatory agent and might be valuable in fighting cancer.

"Turmeric's medicinal value has been fairly well-documented in modern science," Blumenthal says.

For example, Harvard Medical School researchers in 1993 published results of laboratory tests of a new method of screening for potential AIDS drugs. They found that curcumin - a chemical found in turmeric - inhibited a repeat sequence in HIV that is important for viral activation. A group of Japanese researchers last year published results of a study that suggests curcumin may suppress production of a protein that spurs tumor growth.

Such studies are "validating what other cultures have known for centuries," says Dr. Steven Sinclair, a naturopathic doctor and acupuncturist in Frederick, Md. "Turmeric, ginger, these aren't just ways to flavor food."

But Dr. P. Gregory Rausch, a Frederick-based oncologist who serves as president of the Maryland/D.C. Society of Clinical Oncology, says that "a lot of herbal preparations ... can be beneficial ... (but) a lot more good, controlled research" needs to be done before conclusions can be drawn about the more potent potential medical benefits of herbs and spices.

"Much of this so-called 'scientific research' is suspect," says Rausch, who credited study inconsistencies, in part, to lack of federal government oversight.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates dietary supplements - including herbal supplements - under a different set of regulations than those covering conventional foods and prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, the dietary supplement manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that a dietary supplement is safe before it is marketed. The FDA is responsible for taking action against any unsafe dietary supplement product after it reaches the market. Manufacturers generally don't have to register with the FDA or get FDA approval before producing or selling dietary supplements, according to the agency's Web site.

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