Gabriel MacSharry tells us about everyday cures you can find in your garden or in your pantry.
Throughout history “Old Cures” were prevalent in Ireland and still today there are people interested in seeking a person with “the cure” for various ailments. However interest has waned over the years. Today it is the conventional medical system which is the first port of call for the majority of Irish people. A patented pharmaceutical drug is the primary prescription. They are substances which are made from new-to-nature molecules.
With the dawn of the internet age, there is a significant and ever-growing cohort of the population who are highly educated, intelligent, and they desire natural medicines instead of new-to-nature medicines.
The explosion of scientific research on herbal medicines and herbal extracts has been on-going now for the last 20 years or so. It is being published on a weekly basis and featuring prominently on reputable internet media outlets, then spreading like wild fire through social networks. The recurrent theme is generally highlighting the safety and effectiveness for herbs to treat illness. Mainstream media however tends to favour herbal medicine in the headlines only when a study shows it to be ineffective at treating a health condition, which is not often. The narrative predominantly shows herbal medicines to be fringe. Yet 80% of the world’s population relay on herbal medicine for health. Maybe pharmaceuticals are fringe?
So what happened to the old cures?
The old cures were predominantly herbal-based, either as a topical or internal treatment. Though this wasn’t always the case, some were comprised of faith-based prayers or ceremonies. Old cures have not vanished; in fact they have morphed into modern day medicines. The Irish Medicines Board as of May 2012 have licenced certain herbs and herb extracts as “medicines” and have restricted availability of these medicines to a narrow list that can be sold in health shops and pharmacies. For the full gamut of herbal medicines one must now consult a medical herbalist. This brings Ireland in line with the European Traditional Herbal Medicines Directive.
The blanket statement of “there is no evidence” from those opposed to or ignorant of the benefits from herbal medicines is no longer valid. Such a position today generally reflects poorly on those stating such negativity, showing lack of ability to stay current with the very broad base of scientific literature. A truer statement would be to say, “I haven’t reviewed the scientific research in that area, maybe consult with someone who is a medical herbalist.” As a medical herbalist who practices evidence-based medicine it can be quite time consuming just staying abreast with the scientific advancements in the field. But generally, time and time again the modern research tends to validate traditional use.
The following are a few examples of some of our modern medicines in use in Ireland which were once known as “old cures.”
The current use of hawthorn for heart conditions dates back to the 17th century. An Irish doctor, Dr D. Greene from Ennis in County Clare is known to have used it extensively – though secretly – for heart ailments. After his death in 1894, his daughter revealed the famous cure to be a tincture of the ripe berries of Hawthorn.
I feel that every cardiologist should be familiar with the clinical pharmacology and overall safety of hawthorn berry, leaf and flower extract. Many experts believe that this preparation should become part of standard primary or at least adjunct therapy for patients with stage I or II congestive heart failure. Especially as Ireland has the third-highest prevalence rates of heart disease in the world. Cardiovascular disease is currently one of the leading causes of mortality and morbidity worldwide.
The increase in interest in Hawthorn as a therapeutic tool in the treatment of some cardiovascular illnesses appears justified, in spite of some ambivalent results recorded from various clinical trials. These trials – conducted on patients with diabetes, hypertension, or cardiac disorders – demonstrated numerous beneficial effects (reduction in blood pressure, increase in circulatory stress tolerance, and improvements in exercise capacity, fatigue, stress dyspnea, and palpitations). The take home message here is that Hawthorn extracts are an excellent and safe medicine for most conditions of the heart.
The perennial favourite, garlic, has been used in Irish folklore for various cardiovascular conditions and has been promoted for both blood cholesterol reduction and as a mild blood pressure reducer, in addition to its empirically documented anti-vampiral effects.
A recent review supports evidence that garlic has mild blood pressure lowering effects. Scientific research has shown that there was a significant difference between measurements of blood pressure in the garlic groups compared to placebo. The authors of the study concluded, “This systematic review and meta-analysis suggest that garlic preparations are superior to placebo in reducing blood pressure in individuals with hypertension.” This is welcome news for those who take garlic daily as a food or as a herbal preparation in capsule form.
St John’s Wort
St John’s wort is a herb that grows strongly in the wild in pockets throughout the Irish countryside. Probably the most significant systematic review to be published recently and which has gone virtually unnoticed in the media is one that supported the idea that St John’s wort could be more effective than conventional anti-depressants.
The authors concluded that the St John’s wort extracts tested in the trials were superior to placebo in patients with major depression. And also that they are similarly effective as standard antidepressants, and have fewer side-effects. Strange how this information was not communicated in the media? The take home message here is that St John’s wort is equally as effective as Prozac without the side effects and has a strong safety record.
Echinacea has received much attention in the past few years, most of it negative, based on negative results of at least one high-profile trial published in The New England Journal of Medicine. However there is evidence that using Echinacea can inhibit the development and severity of colds. Preparations from Echinacea roots need further controlled clinical trials, in order to provide a better evidence for clinical efficacy.
The bottom line appears to be that although there is still much work to be done and much confusion still reigns, there is a substantial and growing body of evidence supporting the efficacy of various types of Echinacea extract.
The Final Notes
The scientific research continues to flow in on traditional Irish herbal medicines such as nettle herb (Urtica diocia), dandelion herb and root (Taraxacum off), bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosus), meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) and elderberry and flower (Sambucus nigra) to name but a few. These traditional medicines and old cures are safe to use and effective to treat – when used in the correct form and the correct dose for the correct period of time and where they don’t interact with pharmaceutical drugs. But don’t expect to read about it much in the mainstream media unless it’s sensational, for as the saying attributed to veteran journalist Walter Cronkite goes, “A story called All the Planes Landed Safely Last Night is not a story.