Dr. John J. Mast

About the Author – This “Health Update” was written by John J. Mast, M.D., C.M.D., associate medical director, Masonic Village at Elizabethtown

Herbal medicines are the foundation of modern prescription drugs. Most medicines have roots in natural compounds, such as valerian root (valium), red rice yeast extract (cholesterol medicines), foxglove (digoxin) and white willow bark (aspirin.)

Natural medicines usually have fewer side effects and drug interactions than prescription medicines, but might also be less effective. Herbal medicines are regulated as food and because of loose regulations, there are sometimes problems with inconsistent ingredient potency, purity and quality control. Herbal pills don’t always contain what they purport to contain – sometimes prescription medicines are found to be mixed with them; however, nationally-known, reputable brands are usually a safe bet.

Commonly Known Herbal Medicines

There are some herbal medicines that have proven benefits. Gingko is widely believed to support memory during aging, though recent research has shown conflicting results. It doesn’t prevent memory loss or improve memory in all people with dementia; however, it may help some. Gingko is a blood thinner and can increase risk of bleeding if taken with other blood thinners.

Lavender is an herbal medicine used in aromatherapy. It can be calming when put on a heating pad over sore muscles or in microwaveable heat packs.
Another “hot” herbal medicine is red pepper (also known ascapsaicin), which is used to reduce joint pain and burning nerve-related pain. It works by depleting the pain chemicals from nerve endings where applied. When the pain chemicals are constantly depleted they don’t send pain signals effectively. Apply it three times a day to the affected areas, but be prepared for it to burn for a few days when first starting it.

St. John’s Wort is used for depression and has been found to be effective, although it has many interactions with prescription medicines. Be sure to tell your doctor and pharmacist if you plan to take this medicine.

Another medicine with many drug interactions is the prescription medicine Coumadin, also known as jantoven or warfarin. Many natural medicines can interact with it. If you take Coumadin, be sure to tell your doctor or pharmacist before you start any natural medicine or even if you change your diet.
Herbal medicines have a great appeal to many people, but before you start treating yourself with them be sure to talk to your doctor and pharmacist. You can safely integrate natural medicines with conventional medicines, diet changes and lifestyle changes to benefit your health.