Herbal medicine or phytotherapy
Advantages of phytotherapy
Medicinal herbs and drugs
Complex activity spectrum of medicinal herbs
Disadvantages of phytotherapy
Safety rules to follow when using herbs
Treatment of various diseases with the help of medicinal plants is called phytotherapy or herbalism (herbal medicine). The use of various herbs in the therapy of gastrointestinal disorders has a long history and it is quite widespread. This is largely due to the fact that herbs are simple to use and they have the ability to directly influence the very organ affected by disease (stomach, intestine, pancreas, etc.). However, phytotherapy provides actual result only when it is clear what should be treated, that is when the disease is diagnosed correctly.
There are quite a number of advantages associated with the use of medicinal herbs and plants as opposed to the use of pharmaceutical preparations:
- Low risk of side effects – most herbs are well tolerated by patients and cause fewer unwanted effects than pharmaceutical drugs. Thanks to this positive feature herbs can be used for a longer period of time than medicines;
- Long-term use of herbs causing no significant side effects as well as their compatibility with each other and chemical medicinal agents are also of great importance. Herbs go well with each other, they can be used in combination with any other treatment method available to modern medicine and that helps achieve fast and effective recovery;
- Herbs can safely deal with chronic diseases – the incidence of side effects caused by drugs is 3-5 times higher than when taking herbal preparations. That is why nowadays medicinal plants continue to be a valuable means used to treat and prevent exacerbation of chronic course of many diseases;
- Low price – it is another advantage of traditional medicine. Medicinal plants cost much less than drugs;
- Wide availability – you don’t need to have a prescription or gather herbs in a field or forest to get the plants you need. Everything you need to do is to visit the nearest pharmacy.
At present, when the number of synthetic drugs is constantly increasing and they become more and more effective, the interest in herbal medicine continues to grow. In some cases when there are no signs of acute process, phytotherapy may be the main form of therapy; it is essential during the recovery period and is used to prevent recurrence of the disease during its chronic course.
Taking into consideration all that has been said above one should not overestimate the abilities of phytotherapy and ignore synthetic medicines.
Medicines have to be used when treating:
- Acute forms of diseases (for example, infectious diseases like pyelonephritis or pneumonia);
- Acute exacerbations of chronic processes.
In such cases drugs are the main means of treatment and herbs play an important but secondary role.
However, doctors are extremely wary of the ‘cocktails’ containing drugs and herbs and they do not recommend experimenting with such combinations. Thus, if you don’t want to fall asleep while walking never combine calming herbs with antiallergic drugs. You must not take together St. John's wort and tetracycline, St. John's wort and sulfanilamides – their combination increases skin photosensitivity and, therefore, may become the cause of burns.
Tonic agents like, for example, ginseng are incompatible with coffee and caffeine containing medications. Intensifying the effects of each other, they can cause increased nervousness and irritability.
The scientists from the University of Chicago have found out that some herbal remedies by no means can be taken before surgery, because they may unpredictably change the effectiveness of anesthesia, the surgery result and postoperative course. Thus, doctors recommend giving up garlic and ginseng about a week before planned surgery, because in ordinary life they prevent blood clots from forming. During the surgery that may considerably increase the risk of bleeding. The same applies to the preparations containing St. John's wort – they affect how our body reacts to other medicines. Harmless valerian may increase the need for anesthetic drugs, and preparations containing Echinacea may have negative effect on the treatment involving immune drugs as well as impede wound healing.
At the same time the importance of herbal medicine increases in the periods when it is necessary to consolidate the results achieved during the treatment (when acute manifestations of pathology are subsiding) or promote prolonged maintenance of remission, i.e. to prevent exacerbation of the disease. In most cases the latter objective can be achieved by means of phytotherapy.
In his clinical practice gastroenterologist should use the opportunity to combine synthetic drugs and herbal remedies, thus, increasing the effectiveness of the treatment of patients with gastrointestinal disorders and reducing side effects caused by the long-term use of synthetic drugs. But, at the same time, he should take into consideration possible complications induced by phytopreparations.
The action spectrum of every medicinal herb is very broad, and proper combination of various herbs may intensify or emphasize certain curative properties of the main herb in the mix of medicinal plants. Herbal teas or tisanes are the mixture of several kinds of minced, less seldom – solid, herbs sometimes mixed with salts or essential oils. Tisanes are composed of various parts of plants: roots, bark, leaves, flowers, seeds, fruits, etc. Ready-to-use tisanes should be kept in large glass jars closed with plastic lids. Each time when using it, tisane should be thoroughly mixed with a spoon, because when herbal teas are stored their components may separate into layers.
Depending on the components contained in tisanes, either herbal infusions or decoctions should be prepared. If a mix contains odoriferous plants then, as a rule, an infusion should be made; boiling is not allowed, because essential oils are volatile substances that evaporate together with water. Herbal teas contain various bioactive compounds that, together with treatment of the main disease, also enrich the body with additional variety of vitamins, minerals and other herbal components that have beneficial effects on the central nervous system, promote increased body resistance, improve the process of blood formation, neutralize waste and help remove it from the body. In this case physiological processes are influenced by natural organic substances. Allergic reactions are less common if the disorder is treated with tisanes rather than synthetic drugs.
In addition to organic substances, herbal teas contain macro and micronutrients. Micronutrients are involved in metabolism - they are in functionally interaction with enzymes, vitamins, hormones and other bioactive substances. Thus, copper, manganese, iron and molybdenum promote electron transport in living cells. In very low doses manganese, copper,zinc, cobalt stimulate the production of antibodies and improve body resistance. Copper, iron, zinc and cobalt reduce biological membrane permeability.
One of the advantages of the herbal remedies use in the therapy of gastrointestinal disorders is the complex activity spectrum of the bioactive substances contained in various dosage forms (the effect can be - coating, antispasmodic, calming, alleviant, anti-inflammatory, laxative, astringent, antiflatulent, styptic, reparative, etc.).
The specificity of herbs action is defined by both the diversity of the substances contained in herbs and complex interrelation system between these herbs and the body. This interrelation is manifested in the so-called ‘shrapnel’ effect , i.e. the influence is exerted on various body organs and systems simultaneously. The variety of causes provoking gastrointestinal disorders requires complex as well as gentle therapeutic impact which is characteristic of herbal medicine.
Proper selection of herbs helps provide complex influence upon the whole body, treat not the disease but the patient and get the maximum effect with minimum complications.
Main indications for phytotherapy in treatment of gastrointestinal disorders are as follows:
- Functional gastrointestinal disorders (functional non-ulcer dyspepsia, dysfunctional disorders of biliary tract, irritable bowel syndrome, etc.);
- Aftercare after acute manifestations and exacerbation of chronic digestive disorders (after acute pancreatitis or acute gastritis);
- Prevention of possible recurrences of the disease;
- Restoration of the disturbed metabolic processes in stenoses, postcholecystectomy syndrome, etc.;
- Phytotherapy can be used to reduce side effects of drugs;
- Restoration of the reduced body responsiveness caused by bad ecological factors;
- Normalization of function of vegetative nervous system, which regulates the activity of the main parts of gastrointestinal tract.
Disadvantages of herbal medicine include the following:
- Herbs are good not for all diseases – modern medicine using diagnostic methods and computed tomography treats a lot of diseases that cannot be treated by means of folk medicine, for example, stroke, heart attack, fractures, etc.;
- Wrong impression that phytotherapy is 100% safe and can be used without any limitations and medical supervision. There are many toxic herbs. All plants and herbs can be a remedy or a poison, it all depends on the dose, the time when they are taken and the condition of the patient at the moment when they are used. Toxic substances can be contained in the whole plant as well as in its certain parts;
- High risk of poisoning – if you gather herbs on your own, then you should remember that it’s pretty risky. You should be an expert in medicinal herbs to be able to do it safely, otherwise there is a great chance to incorrectly identify a plant and as a result – get poisoned;
- Interaction with drugs – many herbs can interact with various drugs and that is not always good for the patient. If you take any drug and decide to improve the effect by, for example, using herbal infusions, then be sure to discuss it with your doctor;
- In general, there is no government regulation of herbal preparations similar to the regulation of pharmaceutical products. Usually, when taking herbal remedies, patient cannot count on the quality control for these preparations. Their quality depends on the conscience of a particular manufacturer.
Although complications caused by phytotherapy are rarer than those induced by synthetic drugs, but still there are some, and any doctor should always keep them in mind and inform his patient on the subject. Uncontrolled use of herbal preparations can be dangerous!
Thus, long-term use of the following herbs may cause:
- Wormwood (Artemisia) – convulsions, hallucinations, psychogenic disorders;
- Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) – irritation of the renal parenchyma;
- Hop (Humuluslupulus) may cause nausea, vomiting and stomachache if overdosed;
- Yarrow (Achilleamillefolium) – dizziness, skin rashes;
- St. John's wort (Hypericumperforatum)–increase in blood pressure, sexual dysfunction, etc.;
- Foxglove – it is used to treat chronic heart failure and various arrhythmias. But when taken in large doses, the cardiac glycosides from foxglove may cause nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, diarrhea, headaches, depression, acute bradycardia or atrioventricular conduction slowdown. Toxic doses may cause cardiac arrest.
Whether a certain herbal preparation will be good for your health or vice versa harmful depends on your individual peculiarities and EXACT dosage.
There are no absolute contraindications to phytotherapy, but there are some use limitations:
- Allergic reactions can be considered as contraindications, but in such case all you need is more thorough selection of herbs. It is better to avoid polyherbal mixtures starting with monoherbs taken in small doses and gradually increasing the number of the used herbs. In nature there are certain herbs with desensitizing effect, such as chamomile, hawthorn, elder-berry, licorice, yarrow, bidens, violet;
- Acute life-threatening conditions and diseases that require urgent treatment;
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women should be very cautious with phytotherapy;
- Increased caution is required when herbs are used by people with hypertension and cardiovascular diseases. If you have low blood pressure, you should not take lemon balm, hawthorn, peppermint and chokeberry;
- Some herbal remedies may easily stimulate chronic diseases. Those who suffer from inflammation of the kidneys and bladder, haemorrhoids or uterine bleeding by no means can take fresh aloe juice. Raspberries, guilder rose and sorrel are harmful for those with urolithiasis;
- People with kidney disease and those with stomach diseases may be harmed by onion. Also those suffering from kidney disorders should avoid garlic, horseradish and salvia. Cranberries may provoke exacerbation of gastric and duodenal ulcer disease.
There are several precautions and basic rules to follow when using herbal preparations:
- Never start your treatment with potent medicinal herbs;
- It’s better to use herbs au naturel, so that the complex of their bioactive substances when turned into remedy changes as little as possible;
- It is not recommended to administer complex polyherbal preparations, although there are no well-grounded recommendations concerning the number of medicinal herbs to be contained in tisanes;
- Herbal medicine requires long-term use (at least 3-4 weeks or even more). Inefficiency of the herbal treatment in many cases is caused by the failure to comply with this very rule;
- Never practice self-treatment – in spite of the fact that in general medicinal herbs are safe, any use of herbal preparations should be confirmed with your doctor in order to avoid possible complications or adverse reactions;
- You should not treat serious diseases using only medicinal herbs. In many cases phytotherapy can be used as an adjunctive treatment;
- Never exceed the dosage – natural preparations do not provide great effect at once, but their overdose may in some cases lead to serious consequences;
- Never buy herbal plants from people who you do not know or trust – you will never know the true composition of the preparation you’ve bought;
- If you gather medicinal herbs by yourself, never pick those near roads and highways, farms, factories or polluted water reservoirs;
- It’s better to get rid of the expired herbal preparations – they are useless;
In general, herbal medicine is a very powerful therapeutic means that requires serious scientific approach. Self-treatment with herbal plants is dangerous! Doctor, unlike a man without any medical training, is able to recommend herbal remedies basing not only on their main indications (and almost all medicinal herbs have their own indications) but also on their contraindications. If you take herbal preparations in large doses or when you have no indications for their use, then even most reliable and proven herbs may cause serious harm.