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          Saturday, June 23, 2018


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Herbal Medicine in the United States

In North America, early explorers traded knowledge with the Native American Indians. The tribes taught them which herbs to use to sharpen their senses for hunting, to build endurance, and to bait their traps. In 1716, French explorer Lafitau found a species of ginseng, Panax quinquefolius L., growing in Iroquois territory in the New World. This American ginseng soon became an important item in world herb commerce (Duke, 1989). The Jesuits dug up the plentiful American ginseng, sold it to the Chinese, and used the money to build schools and churches. Even today, American ginseng is a sizable crude U.S. export.

As medicine evolved in the United States, plants continued as a mainstay of country medicine. Approaches to plant healing passed from physician to physician, family to family. Even in America's recent past, most families used home herbal remedies to control small medical emergencies and to keep minor ailments from turning into chronic problems. During this period there was a partnership between home folk medicine and the family doctor (Buchman, 1980). Physicians often used plant and herbal preparations to treat common ills. Until the 1940s, textbooks of pharmacognosy--books that characterize plants as proven-by-use prescription medicines--contained hundreds of medically useful comments on barks, roots, berries, leaves, resins, twigs, and flowers.

As 20th century technology advanced and created a growing admiration for technology and technologists, simple plant-and-water remedies were gradually discarded. Today, many Americans have lost touch with their herbal heritage. Few Americans realize that many over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription drugs have their origins in medicinal herbs. Cough drops that contain menthol, mint, horehound, or lemon are herbal preparations; chamomile and mint teas taken for digestion or a nervous stomach are time-honored herbal remedies; and many simple but effective OTC ache-and pain-relieving preparations on every druggist's and grocer's shelf contain oils of camphor, menthol, or eucalyptus. Millions of Americans greet the morning with their favorite herbal stimulant--coffee.

Despite the importance of plant discoveries in the evolution of medicine, some regulatory bodies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)--the main U.S. regulatory agency for food and drugs--consider herbal remedies to be worthless or potentially dangerous (Snider, 1991). Indeed, today in the United States, herbal products can be marketed only as food supplements. If a manufacturer or distributor makes specific health claims about a herbal product (i.e., indicates on the label the ailment or ailments for which the product might be used) without FDA approval, the product can be pulled from store shelves.

Despite FDA's skepticism about herbal remedies, a growing number of Americans are again becoming interested in herbal preparations. This surge in interest is fueled by factors that include the following:

Traditional European and North American herbs are sold in most U.S. health food stores. The same is true for Chinese and, to a lesser extent, Japanese herbal medicinals. Ayurvedic herbals are available in most large U.S. cities, as are culinary and medicinal herb shops called botanicas that sell herbs from Central and South America and Mexico. The reemergence of Native American Indian cultural influences has increased interest in Native American Indian herbal medicines.

Pharmaceutical drugs are seen increasingly as overprescribed, expensive, even dangerous. Herbal remedies are seen as less expensive and less toxic.

Exposure to exotic foreign foods prepared with non-European culinary herbs has led many Euroethnic Americans to examine and often consider using medicinal herbs that were brought to the United States along with ethnic culinary herbs.

People increasingly are willing to "self-doctor" their medical needs by investigating and using herbs and herbal preparations. Many Americans--especially those with chronic illnesses such as arthritis, diabetes, cancer, and AIDS--are turning to herbs as adjuncts to other treatments.



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