Herbal Medicine: How Do We Know It Works?

I often lecture in hospitals or to groups schooled in conventional medical thinking. Although they are intrigued by herbal medicine, one of the first questions they ask is, “How do you know that herbs really work?”

This is a valid question. It’s not enough to say, “Well, this herbal remedy worked for my grandparents, so it will work for me.” Although there may be validity in this way of thinking, it certainly won’t stand up to the scientific, research based approach of modern medicine. First, it’s important to understand that traditional medical systems, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Ayurveda, or the tradition of American Eclectic Medicine, are based on complex, but practical medical assumptions and theories; they are organized systems, acquired from hundreds, if not thousands of years of development through direct experience with patients.

medicinal herbs


Still, in today’s medical thinking, people want scientific proof. However, we face unique problems in proving the efficacy of herbal medicine according to these standards. Here are a few of the primary issues:

  • Clinical trials are expensive, so who is going to pay? Drug companies, hospitals, governmental agencies, or private companies have little interest unless it is based on a proprietary patent of a fractionated herbal product from which they can profit. That brings us to the next problem.
  • Herbs are very complex, and cannot be patented in their whole form. A single herb is made up of hundreds and thousands of known constituents. To complicate the issue, herbs are generally not prescribed as single herbs, but in formulas that combine several or more herbs. Compounding herbs makes the effects of that particular mixture very different from the action of the single herbs.
  • The actions of herbs in the body are difficult to measure in the format set up by modern medicine.  For example, a mixture of herbs used to improve digestion might be made up of a few bitters and some carminatives. It must be taken by mouth—where it encounters the taste buds and triggers the flow of digestive juices—in order to achieve the optimal effect. The same formula cannot be swallowed in a pill and have the same beneficial effect. This cannot be measured in a laboratory. Herbs evoke responses in our body to balance, heal and restore health, rather take control. This is what I love about them and why we should be using them. Herbs work in harmony with our innate healing response. But, this is what makes if difficult to perform clinical trials, at least based on the format used for modern drugs.
  • Herbal medicine prescribed by an herbalist is based on the constitution of the individual, their condition, and the energetic flow within—determining where a person is out of balance, and how to gently bring them into balance, or better yet, into harmony. Ten people will come to me with diabetes and all ten will receive a different combination of herbs and healing protocol. This is how herbal medicine traditionally has always been practiced. Why should it change to conform to modern medicine’s method of prescribing drugs, which does little if anything to take the individual into account?

The best way to validate herbal medicine is through carefully designed case control studies set up by herbalists and conventional physicians working together. If they are evaluating chronic conditions they will need and should be set up for extended periods of time for proper observation.  Good herbal medicine yields better results over extended periods of time because it invokes healing through an improved vital state (using tonics and adaptogens) and detoxification (enhancement of specific organs, organ systems, and cells), rather then suppressing the healing response. Adaptogens act by optimizing our ability to cope with all kinds of stress, thereby helping to conserve and restore vitality. Herbal medicine balances and restores normality by addressing states of deficiency and excess, by relaxing, contracting, soothing, stimulating—whatever is present in the individual’s constitutional state.

I think one of the problems that we face, and will always face, is the fact that herbs and healing to some degree are beyond the comprehension of the mind. I am not saying it is not possible to grasp the nature of how herbs work; I just don’t believe the mind, alone, can “comprehend” herbs.  Something else is required, something far more difficult and elusive. Do we have to be able to explain everything through the isolated intellect of our minds to believe and trust in the healing power of herbs? If we do, then we have lost much about herbs that is healing and true.

To put it another way, the desire for a relationship with God does not lie in developing a part of the mind, does it? Herbalism practiced within the framework of a traditional system involves a person-to-person (or person-to-animal) relationship, as well as a relationship to, and an energetic understanding of herbs. This requires the skill of listening to and formulating specifically for the individual. Listening is key. Herbalism practiced in this way is an integration of science, art, and religion. It is scientific, improvisational, and philosophical all at the same time, and all inseparable from one another.

Herbal Medicine is both ancient, and at the same time modern. How are we going to recognize the utmost importance herbal medicine has to offer us if we use only “reason,” “intellect,” and “logic” to believe? If we allow ourselves, and herbal medicine, to fall under this restrictive system of recognition we are going to lose the beauty and true healing love found in herbs and in all of nature. That healing love is found within the practice of herbalism in its purity, and within each of us if we are open and attentive to it.  We must be free of ego and attachments, be humble, and allow for this manifestation of love and healing.

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12 Replies to “Herbal Medicine: How Do We Know It Works?”

  1. Bravo Donnie! Well said. It’s difficult to bridge this concept to even those we know and love from our desire to help them. Western medicine has done a good job of helping us to lose our footing and our faith when it comes to true healing. They prey on fear and it should be a crime for all the harm they actaully do. Some things they do well, but others things should be left to the healer.

    1. Hi Chris – Thank you for your interest in the article and for your research and sharing of cancer information. I would be glad to grant permission to re-post in your e-journal.

  2. Mr Yance I want to thank you so much for your dedication to life and the love of natural healing. You have brought so much knowledge into my life that I have one semester to finish my Master Herbalist. My brother had been diagnosed with melanoma cancer stage 4, I found your book Herbal Medicine Healing and Cancer and as a former medical person was amazed at it. Thank you so much

  3. hello
    I am hoping to change to herbal medicines but how do I know if the medication I am taking can be replaced with a herbal one. do I need to speak to an advisor many thanks. Pamela

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