There are at least two dramatically different kinds of herbal medicine, and the proper distinction of the two is crucially important. The first type is supported by some reasonably sound evidence and essentially uses well-tested herbal remedies against specific conditions; this approach has been called by some experts RATIONAL PHYTOTHERAPY. An example is the use of St John’s Wort for depression.
The second type of herbal medicine. It entails consulting a herbal practitioner who takes a history, makes a diagnosis (usually according to obsolete concepts) and prescribes a mixture of several herbal remedies tailor-made to the characteristics of his patient. Thus 10 patients with the identical diagnosis (say depression) might receive 10 different mixtures of herbs. This is true for individualized herbalism of all traditions, e.g. Chinese, Indian or European, and virtually every herbalist you might consult will employ this individualized, traditional approach.
Many consumers know that, in principle, there is some reasonably good evidence for herbal medicine. They fail to appreciate, however, that this does only apply to (sections of) rational phytotherapy. So, they consult herbal practitioners in the belief that they are about to receive an evidence-based therapy. Nothing could be further from the truth! The individualised approach is not evidence-based; even if the individual extracts employed were all supported by sound data (which they frequently are not) the mixutres applied are clearly not.
And this is where the danger of traditional herbalism lies; over the years, herbalists have fooled us all with this fundamental misunderstanding. In the UK, they might even achieve statutory regulation on the back of this self-serving misconception. When this happens, we would have a situation where a completely unproven practice has obtained the same status as doctors, nurses and physiotherapists. If this is not grossly misleading for the consumer, I do not know what is!!!
Some claim that individualized herbalism cannot be tested in clinical trials. This notion can very easily be shown to be wrong: several such studies testing individualized herbalism have been published. To the dismay of traditional herbalists, their results fail to confirm that such treatments are effective for any condition.
Now a further trial has become available that importantly contributes to this knowledge-base. Its authors (all enthusiasts of individualized herbalism) randomized 102 patients suffering from hip or knee-osteoarthritis into two groups. The experimental group received tailor-made mixtures of 7 to 10 Chinese herbs which were traditionally assumed to be helpful. The control group took a mixture of plants known to be ineffective but tasting similar. After 20 weeks of treatment, there were no differences between the groups in any of the outcome measures: pain, stiffness and function. These results thus confirm that this approach is not effective. Not only that, it also carries more risks.
As individualized herbalism employs a multitude of ingredients, the dangers of adverse-effects and herb-drug interactions, contamination, adulteration etc. are bigger that those with the use of single herbal extracts. It seems to follow therefore that the risks of individualized herbalism do not outweigh its benefit.
My recommendations are thus fairly straight forward: if we consider herbal medicine, it is vital to differentiate between the two types. Rational phytotherapy might be fine – of course, depending on the remedy and the condition we are aiming to treat. Individualised or traditional herbalism is not fine; it is not demonstrably effective and has considerable risks. This means consulting a herbalist is not a reasonable approach to treating any human ailment. It also means that regulating herbalists (as we are about to do in the UK) is a seriously bad idea: the regulation of non-sense will result in non-sense!