These wintry days – awaiting the “grandiose silence of the snow” – I am venturing upon a “dietary supplement” to ward off wheezing and sneezing. The list of ingredients suggests a witch’s brew.
Complementary and alternative medicine may be based on traditional cures, folk knowledge, spiritual beliefs, or newly concocted approaches to healing. They share many characteristics, including a focus on treating the whole person, promoting self-care and self-healing, and recognizing the spiritual nature of each individual. In addition, they tend to focus on good nutrition and prevention. Unlike mainstream medicine, such approaches often lack experimental and clinical studies to support their claims.
The use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in developed countries appears to be increasing. In the United Kingdom, a report ordered by the House of Lords and published in 2000 suggested that “…limited data seem to support the idea that CAM use in the United Kingdom is high and is increasing.” This is typical of countries in the global north. In developing nations, access to essential medicines is severely restricted by lack of resources and poverty and traditional remedies may comprise the only form of healthcare available.
Research conducted for the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in 2009 showed that 26% of adults in the UK had taken a herbal medicine in the previous two years, mostly bought over the counter in health-food shops and pharmacies. Commonly used ingredients already registered include Echinacea (used against colds), St John’s wort (used for depression and anxiety), and valerian (which is claimed to ease insomnia).
However, in May 2011 new European Union rules came into force banning hundreds of herbal remedies. The laws are aimed at protecting consumers from potentially damaging “traditional” medicines, which is a setback for this burgeoning sector. Under the directive, herbal medicines now have to be registered and products must meet safety, quality and manufacturing standards, and be accompanied by information outlining possible side-effects.
Reading the label of ingredients in my dietary supplement, the usual suspects include rosemary (a member of the mint family), which has a very old reputation for improving memory and has long been used as a symbol of remembrance for the dead. Shakespeare has Ophelia say, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance” (Hamlet, iv. 5.). Recent studies suggest that carnosic acid, found in rosemary, may shield the brain from free radicals, lowering the risk of strokes and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.
Next on the list is turmeric (a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent); ginger (renowned for its stomach-settling properties); holy basil (which may have a beneficial effect on blood glucose and cholesterol levels); green tea (which contains what may be a promising anticancer compound); hu zhang (used for conditions of the heart and blood vessels); Chinese goldthread (used to improve digestive functions); barberry (which has been shown to inhibit the growth of bacteria in test tubes and may help the immune system function better); and oregano (which Hippocrates used as an antiseptic and as a cure for stomach and respiratory ailments).
Last, but presumably not least, the oddly named Baikal Skullcap, which sounds like a heavy metal rock band. The subject of numerous studies, Baikal Skullcap, which has beautiful flowers (right), inhibits bacteria and viruses, is diuretic, and lowers fevers and blood pressure. In China, it is used to treat hepatitis. The herb is native to Eastern Russia and parts of China, Mongolia and Korea, but it is cultivated in many other regions including Europe, Canada and the United States. The roots of three to four year-old plants are used for medicinal purposes. They taste bitter and contain antioxidants that help allay acute asthmatic attacks as well as allergic eczema.
Many people swear by these and other supplements. But, whatever one thinks of complementary and alternative medicine, Mark Twain’s malicious caveat is still worth bearing in mind: “Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.”