Bring on the studies.

 There has been a great deal of righteous hysteria over bill C51 in Canada. This bill would bring herbal remedies on par with regular medicinal treatments as far as control and regulation is concerned.

 There has always been a large segment of people who are suspicious of conventional medicines and turn to “alternative” therapies. From the old traditional snake oil salesmen of the last century to modern “alternative” therapies such as ear candling and touch therapy, there has always been some sort of scam artist pulling people away from proven therapies and into fraudulent ones. Part of the reason for this is people do not like the often blunt and realistic prognosis that they get from conventional MDs. A long and expensive course of treatment may be recommended by an MD or even a diagnosis of in-curability. People going to many herbalists and such will get optimistic prognosis and a “prescription” for some remedy.

 Despite documentaries and articles constantly exposing the fraudulent Mexican cancer clinics, cancer patients are still flocking accross the border for “herbal” and prayer treatments for their cancer. The story is almost always the same. The Mexican “doctors” will declare the patient as cured when they have determined that the patient has no more money to spend and send them home. The “cured” patient will die shortly after coming home to an indebted or even bankrupted family.

 Conventional cancer treatments are terrible to endure and still come nowhere close to a 100% cure rate. One can see the temptation to pursue alternatives after a person has been told that they will have to endure months of sickness and pain and they may still only have a 50% chance of cure for example. What people have to consider though is that the survival and recovery rate with modern cancer treatments is worlds ahead of what they were only a few decades ago. Many cancers are no longer the death sentences that they used to be and many people have been able to enjoy a lifespan lengthened by decades due to modern treatment.

 I am not lumping herbalists in general as being as terrible as the odious souls running the Mexican cancer clinics. Most principled herbalists will recommend their clients to MDs when they  appear to have symptoms of something beyond herbal therapies. What I do want to illustrate though is the danger of eschewing modern and proven therapies for some of the “alternative” therapies.

 People often like to point out that herbal remedies are safe because they are natural or organic. There are countless natural and organic plants out there that will kill a person with a microscopic dose. A plant or fungus is hardly guaranteed to be safe simply because it has grown wild in the woods.

 Another defense of some alternative treatments is to point out that some have been used for hundreds or even thousands of years. This shallow defense of these treatments overlooks how low life expectancies were only a hundred years ago. In past times, people drilled holes in people’s skulls in order to let the evil spirits out. That practice was common and accepted at the time. Shall we embrace that traditional therapy again?

 Another common defense (though we certainly don’t hear it as much now) of herbal therapies was that they have never been properly studied thus we must assume that they are effective until proven otherwise. The reason that I say we don’t hear that defense as much as we used to is due to the fact that many herbs have now had proper clinical studies conducted and they have proven the herbal remedies to often be completely ineffective.

Echinacea has been a popular purchase for many as herbalists have informed people that it is effective in warding off and treating the common cold. With a proper study however, echinacea has unfortunately proven to be completely ineffective.

Ginkgo biloba has been prescribed as a remedy for tinnitus. This herb has now had a proper study and been proven to be completely ineffective.

Black cohosh has been recommended by naturopathic “doctors” as an alternative to hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women. With proper clinical study, this herb has been found to be completely ineffective.

St. Johns Wort has long been recommended as a treatment for depression. A clinical study was conducted and the herb was found to be completely ineffective.

 Not only have many of these herbal treatments been found to be ineffective, they often can have side-effects and interact dangerously with prescription medications. St. Johns Wort in particular can have reactions from “seratonin syndrome” to nullification of oral contraceptives. I wonder how many herbalists warn purchasers of this?

 People have to understand that a product in the suppliments aisle is not guaranteed to be safe. Iron suppliments are very common but an overdose of iron can be deadly. While doctors and herbalists agree that vitamin suppliments can be very beneficial, they still can be dangerous if a person overdoses.

 The proposed government bill will require such things for alternative medicines as warnings regarding misuse as well as proper content labelling. Because herbal remedies have been under very little control, the purity and dosages of many products can vary wildly from brand to brand. While some herbs may indeed be effective, the effacy can be lost if the product has reduced purity or is of poor quality. The consumer has no way to see these things right now.

 There may indeed be some excellent herbal remedies hiding out there that can replace conventional medicines more effectively and cheaper. Until proper studies are conducted however, we have nothing but anecdotal evidence to rely on which is exceedingly shakey at best. Many people do feel better due to the placebo effect of herbal suppliments. Why pay for expensive herbs as a placebo when cheap glucose pills can be given just as effectively?

 Many in the herbal industry oppose this bill as they know that their products will never be able to withstand the scrutiny that conventional medicines are exposed to. With exposure to proper study, many products will likely leave the shelves as they are proven to be impure or ineffective. Again people, keep in mind that proper studies may make great discoveries from the herbal world as well.

 Many people have a general distrust of the medical establishment. Conspiracy theories abound about how “Big Pharma” and doctors are suppressing natural remedies for profit. Considering how overworked Canada’s doctors currently are, I really don’t think they need to resort to some international conspiracy in order to keep business booming. Conspiracy theories are convenient for many as of course you never have to prove them, you simply blame the lack of evidence on the conspiracy itself. Human nature and the volume of people involved pretty much debunk almost every conspiracy theory. It is hard to believe that hundreds of thousands in the world medical community are all part of this conspiracy.

 Bill C51 may not be perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. Consumers deserve to know what they are purchasing and what the risks/benefits may be. I find it ironic that those howling about this bill are often the same people demanding better food labelling to identify organic foods or GM foods. Why do they not want their products to be held to the same standard that they are demanding of commercially produced foodstuffs?

 The goal is to find the most effective treatments and cures for maladies in a cost-effective way. I am sorry that some backyard herbalists may be put out of business by this. If you are going to claim something, you should not be afraid to have it exposed to study.

 As I said, bring on the studies.

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