Alternative medicines finally get their due

October 01, 1998

The Philadelphia Inquirer said in an editorial Tuesday:

LET'S say you're healthy. You hear other healthy people sing the praises of ginseng, garlic extract, St. John's wort, echinacea, Vitamin E. You can get these things over the counter, without seeing a doctor.

Or let's say you're sick. What the doctor prescribes doesn't work. So you try another route -- alternative medicines, vitamins, herbs.

For years, established medicine ignored and decried these medicines. They were off the official radar. They were unregulated, untested, ungraced by the official stamp of the establishment.

But now science finds itself forced to take notice. More and more people are using alternative medicines, so much so that the field has grown into a $3.65 billion industry. More and more doctors are prescribing herbal remedies. And after years of contempt, mainstream science is finally doing the first thorough studies.

Healing products

Evidence mounts that some herbal products are indeed potent. Saw palmetto has been shown to shrink prostate tumors in some cases. Vitamin E, garlic, echinacea and St. John's wort have all shown promise in some clinical settings.

It's odd that so many in the medical establishment should have dismissed things people have been swearing by for 3,000 years. Odd, too, that it took economic pressures -- the reality of a vigorous market -- to nudge science to take a better look.

A conference on herbs in Raleigh, N.C., sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, is looking for the narrow path between allowing consumers maximum freedom and regulating herbal products to ensure safety.

Risky mixtures

Safety is definitely an issue. Herbal products come to us from around the world. There is no standardization, and -- thanks to the dumb 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act -- the FDA has limited power to regulate vitamins, minerals, amino acids and herbs. So your favorite herb or vitamin may contain lead, solvents or other contaminants.

And science has just begun to take a good look. More needs to be known about the benefits and risks. Who else is going to do the large-scale tests necessary, if not scientists?

Now that the book is open, science should read it thoroughly. Government should intervene only where it must. Before using any alternative medicine, consumers must exercise the caution that serves nature best.

Pub Date: 10/01/98

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