Are you one of the thousands who grab echinacea when you feel a cold coming on? You’ve probably heard that this popular herb can ward off illness. You feel good about treating your ailment holistically; after all, herbs work with the body’s defenses rather than suppressing symptoms, as do conventional cold medicines. But have you thought about who grew your echinacea, where and how it was manufactured, or even if it’s the best choice for what ails you? As with food, deciding wisely about herbs and other supplements means weighing options—and often, going local.
“I’ve become more aware of the need to educate people about where herbs are coming from,” says Joshua Muscat, herbalist and owner of the San Francisco Botanical Medicine Clinic, where he consults with clients suffering from arthritis, flu, urinary tract infections, and much else. “Often you’ll be shipping plants across the country when we have something just as good, if not better, here in Northern California. A good example is echinacea. We don’t have it in California, but we have tons of rudbeckia, an herb that does just as well for stimulating immune function.”
Muscat has been practicing Western herbal medicine for over thirteen years, using plants grown in California, many of which he harvests himself, a practice known as wildcrafting. He chose Western herbal medicine because he “couldn’t justify starting a practice where I would be shipping herbs across the world to help people with their health when I had plants available right here.”
He tallies up the inordinate use of resources involved in shipping herbs: “When you buy a bottle of Chinese medicine that came from China, those herbs are harvested and processed and then packaged into individual plastic bottles, then into boxes with cellophane wrappers, and then into larger boxes that are put into crates and sent to a distribution warehouse where they’re unpackaged and repackaged again several times before they get on the boat or plane. Consider all the fuel that’s used in getting them to this part of the world, and a person buys these little bottles that contain maybe a week or two of medicine. It’s like having the air that we breathe packaged in five inhale-by-portion disposable containers.”
With more people —approximately one in five—turning to holistic modalities, herbs now appear on chain grocery store and pharmacy shelves. Supplement companies are capitalizing on the public’s desire for natural alternatives, providing sub-par products at consumer-friendly prices. Many of these herbs are transported across the world before they find their way into your shopping cart. They may contain contaminants or something not stated on the label. For example, Pfizer, manufacturers of the erectile dysfunction drug Viagra, recently conducted its own study of over 3,000 herbal male supplements and found that nearly seventy percent contained the active synthesized ingredient found in Viagra.
In the Bay Area, Chinese and Ayurvedic herbal medicine practices dominate. How are these herbs processed? “When people talk about herbs coming from China and India, we immediately think of chemicals and metals,” Muscat says. “Chemical use is pretty widespread in China, and organics are not common. But the truth is, it’s not a huge issue—people aren’t getting sick left and right from using these herbs. For the most part, Chinese and Ayurvedic herbs are not much worse in terms of contamination than the produce at your supermarket.”
That’s not good enough for the FDA. Recently the federal agency mandated quality control testing of foods and pharmaceutical products, including herbs, under the Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) requirement, part of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Manufacturers and processors must pay for the tests, which are extremely expensive, thus favoring larger, multinational corporations over small, independent practitioners. “The FDA ultimately seeks to make it illegal for herbalists to practice medicine,” says Muscat. “The GMP requires a set of tests you must conduct on your medicines to ensure they’re not contaminated. It would cost my small pharmacy over $100,000 per year to do that kind of testing.”
The FDA also wants to tighten regulations on what consumers can purchase, prohibiting all but a few supplements which will only be permitted in very small doses. The European Union has already adopted these guidelines, known as the Codex Alimentarius.
Can herbs be dangerous? “I’m not saying people have never been hurt by herbs,” says Muscat, “but I think the confirmed cases of harm by herbs are few and far between compared to harm from over-the-counter or prescription medications. It’s such a miniscule number compared to drug side effects.” The Journal of the American Medical Association reported in 2007 that an estimated 106,000 hospitalized patients die each year from drugs that are properly prescribed and administered, while more than two million suffer serious side effects.
Muscat encourages those seeking herbal medicine to investigate how, where, and by whom the medicine was produced. “The medicine I give people, from the time it’s taken out of the ground to the time it’s given to the person, is under my careful attention,” he says. “That means the area it’s coming from has been treated well; no chemicals have been applied, the plants are healthy and are harvested or dried properly, processed correctly, and given out for the right reasons.” He suggests buying directly from people who do the harvesting and preparation rather than purchasing herbs from a store.
To make that easier, Muscat plans to launch a garden database so people can register their gardens and what they are growing. “The idea is that most people could take care of their health care needs locally,” he says. “We have the gardens and the wildlands; there is little reason why we shouldn’t use what we have. If you don’t have access to something, you can check the database and see who does.”
In an era of rising medical costs and a breakdown of health care, Muscat has his own vision. “I plan to keep on helping sick people,” he says, adding that no one is turned away from his clinic for lack of funds. He keeps consultation fees low—$25 for the initial visit, plus the cost of herbs. Clients can perform work in exchange for treatment, but if they are unable to work, Muscat will give his medicine and counsel free of charge. “The idea that a sick person would be turned away because they don’t have money is disgusting,” he says. “I feel that I have a responsibility to make this medicine available. Part of what it’s taught me is that people in health care expect too much in terms of compensation.”
Beyond his clinic, Muscat is focusing on education; he plans to conduct practitioner training to complement the database he is launching. “We need more people who can skillfully recommend herbs for simple things such as cold, flu, and urinary tract infections,” he says.
What’s the best way to find information about using herbs in your area? Muscat recommends the use of local networks, such as herb exchanges. The Sonoma County herb exchange is a membership association dedicated to sustainable and ecologically friendly growing practices; its Web site (www.sonomaherbs.com) includes an extensive resource guide, links, a forum, and a newsletter. When it comes to living a sustainable and healthful life, knowledge is power—and it’s possible that if the FDA has its way, going local may soon be our only choice.