"So, don't take this the wrong way," my boyfriend says. "But how would you becoming an herbalist make you any different than a snake oil person?"
It's true. Becoming an herbalist is something I've wanted to do for a long time. Not particularly as a profession (yeah, I'm way to champagne taste for that lifestyle), but as a hobby and interest. As you well know, being a chemist means I'm fascinated with the interactions of the human body and how we use substances to alter it. Once upon a time, I was going to be a pharmacist I loved it so much. But being a pharmacist these days is often far from the "Chemist" role they used to play and I took another path.
Even so, I feel strongly supportive for the natural medicine world. But "How is it different from the Snake Oil person world?" is a good and valid question. If herbs are so good, why aren't you prescribed herbs instead?
Evidence. It's always evidence. You want demonstrable fact that the substance you're placing in your body has an effect which is known and desired.
And is it really so hard to acknowledge that plants can make that possible? There's a reason marijuana, mescaline, and magic mushrooms are illegal to possess. Not all natural products known to produce effects are bad though. From willow bark we obtain aspirin and from yew bark we obtained Taxol, one of the first cancer fighting drugs. In fact, most of our antibiotics from Penicillin onward come from natural products with natural product research being one of our primary means of new antibiotic discovery. Pharmacognosy, the study of natural products, remains an important field of research and the National Institutes of Health supports it and other alternative forms of medicine with the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
And yes, I realize it's not as if we prescribe you to go out and chew yew bark rather than take actual Taxol. We take the compounds we find in nature and modify their delivery to better suit our purpose. In doing so, we make them a very important thing to drug companies -patentable. While improving the method of delivery helps to improve efficacy of the drug, it's also the thing that turns a natural product into a money making source of good. Adding even just one, provable atom to a chemical turns it into a different compound, and if you can prove you're the one that makes it a consistent process, you get a patent. And here's where I become wary. How much of a difference is that one atom worth? How much more efficient does it make the compound? How much more expensive?
That's a lot of data we don't have, and I don't know if I trust the drug companies to give it to me. If I have a drug that's 10 times more bioavailable than the natural compound, I need to know what the price of that drug is to find my breakeven cost. Maybe it's much cheaper to take the natural product instead of the patented pill version. Would the drug company tell me so? As with all medical care, I'm not sure a for-profit model ensures the greatest care to the greatest number. Which is why I'm glad there are a few impartial parties in this fight.
Germany has an advisory board called "Commission E" which evaluates and instructs the methods of traditional herbal use. They fall under the German version of the food and drug administration, and if you go to a pharmacy in Germany, it's not unlikely they'll prescribe you herbs instead of medicine for certain (mostly minor) ailments like cold and flu or upset stomach support. The World Health Organization also has a division for the research of effective traditional remedies. And finally, my favorite, the Cochrane Collaboration is an independent network of healthcare professionals throughout the world who perform meta-analysis of healthcare data identifying successful practices and screening out items with unsupported or insufficient evidence. You always see the hot, clickbait articles "A new study says this is good for you! A new study says this is bad for you!" I'd only trust the results of one study if it had a good hundred thousand people. Unfortunately, that's not manageable from a financial standpoint so most drug studies aren't that big. Cochrane takes all the related studies it can find -in this case of studying the flu vaccine use, 69 studies for a total of 70,000 people- and analyzes all of them to determine actual findings or contradictions. If you want to know whether or not eating eggs is actually bad for you, I'd go to one of their systematic reviews.
I like data and I love science. I love that with diligence and experiment we can sort through beliefs to find out what improves our lives. Skeptical of natural medicine? I totally get that. If I weren't a biochemist who can read all of these insane papers and figure out if this nutbag actually knows what they're talking about or not, I'd be intimated and scared too. People can be mistreated by the medical industry because they're fearful and vulnerable and don't have the information they need to make a decision. Or maybe they do have the information, but it's too complicated for them to understand and they get confused. I believe in herbal because I do the legwork to study what works, and
Now, the question is just, what herb school do I go to?
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Just a Woman in STEM finding her way