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Traditional Herbal Medicines: Centuries of Empiricism (Part 5)

Written by Bahula Roy Upton

One of the points of demarcation between the basis of evidence by which traditional and modern drugs are differentiated is empirical observation of the former and modern clinical trials of the latter. Interestingly, as in the examples of toxicity and fraud discussed above, it is only when approved drugs get into empirical use are their actual toxicity revealed. Additionally, in the US, 20% of prescription drugs are used for off-label uses, uses for which they were not specifically approved, including use in pregnancy and in children, uses for which were determined by practitioners empirically and are legally allowed. A 2006 study reported that most all of these off-label uses (73%) had little or no scientific support (Radley et al. 2006). This is most troubling as one of the primary reasons given worldwide that dissuades physicians and insurance carriers from integrating herbal medicine into national health care plans is a perceived lack of scientific evidence; yet most of what is practiced in Western medicine, including the use of pharmaceuticals and medical procedures (e.g., cesarean sections, hysterectomies, mammography and PSA screening) are not evidenced-based, or are based on very poor evidence. In other words, as with the vaccines developed against COVID-19, the true level of safety and efficacy is only revealed through empirical observation, yet, when it comes to herbal medicine, the potential veracity of thousands of years of empirical knowledge and experience is completely discounted.

Roy Upton is the founder, president, and editor of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP). He has been working and practicing professionally as a herbalist since 1981, and he trained in Ayurvedic, Traditional Chinese, and Western herbal medicine and has also studied and worked extensively with Native American and Caribbean ethnobotanical traditions. As an integral part of his work as a herbalist, he spend a great deal of time defending the rights of consumers to access herbal medicines and to see herbal medicine integrated into the fabric of both our homes and health care systems.

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