Playing Doctor: Herbal Medicine in A New World Economy
The car that hit me was going about 40 mph. The driver sped up as he neared the intersection; the glare from the early Colorado morning sun blinded him. He never saw my 5’6” frame curved around the wheels, gripping the handlebars of my aluminum Trek road bike passing in front of him. I saw glimmers of steel, bumper, and tire before I rolled up on to the windshield leaving it pressing towards his lap as he slammed on the brakes. I still don’t remember hitting the pavement, but my right hip has never forgotten, even almost eleven years later.
As I was lifted up onto the stretcher, I could see my shoes lying silently in the median between a flurry of early morning traffic, and the people who had carried me to the side of the road still watching in horror. The fork and front wheel of my bike had been completely severed from the rest of the frame. I could see the pieces scattered beside the crowd as the ambulance doors closed. The medic was cutting off my clothes while talking to the emergency room via two-way radio, “Possible right hip fracture, left and right ankle fractures. Trauma to head and neck….” I could hear him clearly but the shock had me feeling distant, a million miles from what was happening.
In the emergency room I finally began to feel the pain. It was limitless. X-rays revealed not one broken bone. The doctors were shocked. (I assured them it was my healthy vegetarian diet that gave me super-elastic resiliency.) My grandparents were now sitting with me, my Grandfather chiding me about how I ruined the very best golf game he’d ever played in his seventy-some years that morning. I had been so lucky, unlike my bike.
As gashes and bruises were being cleaned and bandaged, one of the doctors came into the room I had been moved to. They had noticed something unusual on the x-rays taken of my chest. Lymph nodes were highly enlarged and quite visible. Normally they should not show up on an x-ray. These were the size of half dollars. “Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is the most common cancer for your age . We’d like to do a CAT scan while you’re here, to get a better look.”
Cancer? I was healthy. There must be a mistake. I was hit by a car, that’s all. But the CAT scan revealed drastically swollen lymph nodes in my chest, over a dozen of them. My Grandparents looked terrified. I was in disbelief, distracted by the crippling pain that was just starting to settle into my bones. I saw a specialist who reviewed the CAT scan with us. They wanted to cut open my neck from ear to ear and go in for a biopsy of one of the glands. I knew that was not an option, but I listened anyhow.
On the morning of the accident I had been on my way to work at a local area health food store. I had been promoted to Floor Manager at the Happy Canyon location of a natural food discount chain in the Denver area called Vitamin Cottage. I had just been working there a few months, and it was supposed to be my first day of training for the new position. Three weeks after the accident I was able to return to work. I was still quite sore and slow, but I wanted to be doing something to keep my mind off of the looming issue in my chest. I had deflected the surgery, asking to repeat the x-rays in another few weeks. I needed time to figure out what to do.
The first day back at work, we were scheduled for a product training by an herb company. I disclosed my situation to the rep conducting the training, and he gave me several bottles of an herbal tincture made of red clover, burdock, nettle and a few other ingredients that have been closely linked with combating the “C” word. I was to take it 3-4 times per day. I went through a bottle every two days, drank the stuff like it was lemonade. Whatever it was that was happening in my chest, I knew I was not going to have surgery or chemo or anything like that. I could feel this in my unbreakable bones.
With a sense of urgency coming at me from physicians and family members, I went for another round of x-rays about 6 weeks after the accident and 3 weeks of taking the herbs. They told me it was impossible, but not a lymph node was visible on the x-ray. My ability to shock doctors was beginning to entertain me.
I’ve had several chest x-rays since the accident and never have the enlarged nodes returned. I’ll never know if it truly was cancer, but I do know for certain that once I took those herbs, something happened.
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that herbs played a role in my recovery. Herbs have been used since humans have existed. Herbal medicine was first recorded by the Chinese around 300 BCE, in the book Nei Jing. Most modern medicines are derived from natural ingredients found in the wild forests and jungles around the world. In the same way that eating certain foods nourishes (or depletes) the body, herbs work on a deeper level, from general maintenance to healing ailments like minor colds and allergies to more severe conditions like a dozen mysteriously enlarged lymph nodes that appear to be cancerous.
Around the world, holistic relationships still exist between humans and plant medicine. But America’s myopia views these systems as antiquated, unreliable and scary. It might be fit for a tribe in the Amazon, but hard working tax-paying householders need sterilized, standardized, encapsulated, regulated-but-unproven drugs that work about as well as most of the food we consume in this country that keep us “healthy.”
Recently, the People’s Pharmacy radio program discussed the topic of digestive ailments, something everyone has experienced at one time or another. One recurring theme was the number of people taking prescription medicines like Celebrex for arthritis, with an extremely common side effect of excessive heartburn causing patients to have to take an acid-blocking prescription to counter the digestive disturbances. This is not uncommon. Many household medicine chests containing prescription drugs also stock drugs to reduce the side effects of other drugs.
Pushed to market new products before critical trials are conducted, the pharmaceutical industry cranks out drugs like fast food chains launching new menu items every season. Healing was not always a bureaucratic web where the main objective is profits rather than efficacy. Just a hundred years ago, doctors were earnest knowledge seekers, working with nature to treat causes, not just temporary relief of symptoms. While life expectancy is constantly on the incline, so are the number of strange new diseases and conditions. Though people are living well into their eighties and beyond, many hobble through what should be their “golden years,” prolonging suffering and discomfort as guinea pigs for the Pill Pushers' Profits.
Perhaps the most important realization about herbs -- especially in a time of economic uncertainty -- is that almost anyone can grow them. The formula that aided in me not needing cancer treatment is full of “weeds” -- plants that can (and probably already do) grow in my yard. There is no money to be made for corporations if we all look to our gardens to stay healthy. Healthcare as an industry is the American Dream. Doctors would miss out on perks like all expenses paid “training” trips to exotic resorts courtesy of their big pharma friends if we were all drinking nettle and dandelion tea instead of taking Prilosec. This is precisely why some of these new “diseases” and their rush-to-market-pill-treatments are so sketchy.
I’ve often wondered about what my life would be like now -- if I’d even be here at all -- had I let those doctors cut me open and extract pieces of my lymph nodes. (Just being put to sleep for surgery has a real risk of death from the general anesthesia!) Like many cancer cases in this country, I had no symptoms prior to the bike accident. Routine check ups and “preventative screenings” find what we are told is a potentially life threatening disease that costs thousands of dollars to treat. Blind faith in our health care providers is an infectious disease no one seems able to stop from spreading.
Of course there are legitimate cases of cancer that are extremely serious, but with terms like “pre-cancerous” garnering the same treatment as full malignancy, it puts the cancer epidemic up for debate. The pharmaceutical and health care industries NEED us to be sick. They need diagnoses to increase every year in order to satisfy healthy corporate growth. Remember AIDS? We were all doomed. Everyone had AIDS, yet new research is now suggesting it’s only a threat in parts of Africa. And there are skeptics who have long been calling the disease a completely concocted fraud for decades. The treatments seem to kill more people than the disease. This too is often the case with cancer.
So what if Cancer is not really what it seems? Take the 7-time Tour De France champion Lance Armstrong. His “swelling from cycling” turned into testicular cancer that apparently spread throughout his body, yet still healthy, he responded extremely well to chemo and went on to win the most prestigious cycling competition in the world, in fact he even says “ without cancer I never would have won…” This serious illness is apparently also a lucky rabbit’s foot.
Is cancer a fraud? Is it possible that we don’t yet fully understand the evolution of our cellular functions? What if the body goes through some sort of metamorphosis -- an organ cleansing or growth cycle that looks like cancer? What if while there are obviously legitimately awful cases of this disease, there is also an enormous exploitation of others? And what if the treatments cause relapses that increase in severity, causing death?
Perhaps that would explain why the FDA is doing everything it can to stop the sale of herbs that have a long history of use as treatment for cancer and other illnesses.
The 1994 Dietary Supplement Health & Education Act (DSHEA) allows herbs to be sold over the counter in this country, but they cannot make direct health claims. If you’ve ever wondered why a product like Traditional Medicinals® Throat Coat Tea® claims to “support throat health” rather than state the obvious like “soothes sore throat” this is why. It’s not that the company is being casual or evasive -- they legally can only allude to effectiveness. Herbal products containing burdock, sheep sorrel, slippery elm and turkey rhubarb are generally referred to a “Essiac,” the tonic used by nurse Marie Caisse (1888-1978) that she was given by a patient who claimed it came from a Native Canadian Indian in the 1920’s (“Essiac” is Caisse spelled backwards). But it is technically illegal "to claim that Essiac cures, alleviates or prevents any disease or condition." Only drugs approved by the FDA and insurance companies (usually produced along the NJ turnpike next to oil refineries) can treat, cure or prevent disease. Herbs are “food” and there are extremely strict rules about what they can and cannot claim to do.
The ingredients in Essiac and other powerful herbs like cat’s claw and pau d’arco are being called "bogus cancer cures" even though they have a longer history of treating a number of diseases than prescription drugs, and without the side effects. The well-known site Quakwatch.com describes herbs with terms “folklore” and “lacks scientific evidence,” and my favorite, “Particularly insidious is the myth that there is something almost magical about herbal drugs that prevents them, in their natural state, from harming people.” What’s more quacky than inciting fear and doubt about proven plant medicines while sanctimoniously supporting drugs with less than 2 years of clinical studies, funded by insurance companies? Are doctors healing people or making them sick?
Herbs are becoming the marijuana of the 21st century. The government propaganda that circulated about the widely revered and respected cannabis plant in the early 1900’s (and still today) that eventually made the herb illegal is happening to over the counter herbal medicines now. We’re looking at the potential ban of dozens, possibly even hundreds of highly effective and valuable herbs. Will we need a prescription to drink a cup of peppermint tea one day? (Coke and Pepsi will still be legal, of course.)
As our economy itself is now suffering what appears to be a terminal illness, our health is perhaps more critical than ever before. In order to rally in the next phase of our species, can we really afford to be dependent on pharmaceuticals? Just as natural, psychedelic plants impart wisdom for the ages, so too do the medicines we’ve been taught to consider as unsightly weeds. Maybe there’s a reason they grow in such abundance and keep returning even after we pull them out of our manicured yards. Truth is not a weed.
However effective medicinal plants are, there are dangers --legitimate dangers -- in self-medicating. Just as mixing drugs, or a combination of drugs and herbs (one common issue is mixing the herb ginko biloba with aspirin as both are blood thinners) can be risky, so can the effects of herbs alone. The danger in misdiagnosing ourselves can lead to mistreating and overtreating. As the dietary supplement industry is barred from giving diagnostic treatment advice, consumers are left to their own judgment in administering proper amounts. Gripping our attention are media stories of pro athletes “juicing,” using herbal extracts to gain unnatural strength, or diet pill recalls where illegal doses of prescription amphetamines are being sold in OTC products. The stigma that natural equals unsafe plagues proven herbal remedies. Salmonella scares like the recent peanut outbreak send signals to consumers that sterility is ally number one in the pursuit of health.
Perhaps our Post Stimulus Nation will be rapt with faith in old ways, the traditions and practices of our ancestors. Not a return to the past, but a renewal in understanding the depth of our relationship with the natural world. If the effect of mismanaged money has taught us anything, maybe it’s that we should look elsewhere for wealth.
Check your local area for classes and events on herbal awareness or online sites like: