CORVALLIS - For thousands of years, people have been harvesting natural products from the forests, wetlands and water to take advantage of their therapeutic benefits, but it wasn't until a few years ago that these herbal remedies really captured the fancy of the American public.
Ginkgo biloba for boosting mental acuity. Ginseng for mood enhancement. Echinacea for colds and flu.
But do they really work?
"There is a fair amount of evidence that many of these natural products - taken in an appropriate way - do have therapeutic benefits," said George Constantine, professor emeritus of pharmacy at Oregon State University. "There is less evidence pinpointing ideal dosages and long-term effects of these herbs. And, of course, you have to be aware of outrageous claims and drug interactions.
"But some herbal remedies do actually work," he added.
Constantine is the author of a new book, "Tyler's Tips: The Shopper's Guide for Herbal Remedies," published by The Haworth Press. The book outlines the pros and cons of using some of the most popular herbal remedies on the market. It was done in consultation with Dr. Varro E. Tyler, who is one of the premier researchers and authorities on the use of natural products.
The book is limited to popular plants that have a lengthy history of use or have a proven track record of safety backed up by scientific studies.
"We stayed away from those plants that are questionable," Constantine said, "and there are a truckload of them."
Twelve different sections look at herbs commonly used for: mental health, the immune system, general health (tonics), menopause and menstrual problems, prostate health, weight loss, headaches and pain, constipation, liver dysfunction, bladder problems, ulcers and intestinal problems, and skin problems and external sores.
Among the most popular herbal supplements:
- St. John's wort - Used by some people for mild to moderate depression.
- Ginseng - Used for mood improvement and to boost physical and mental performance.
- Saw palmetto - Used for non-malignant enlargement of the prostate.
- Gingko baloba - Used to improve memory and mental functions, poor circulation.
- Milk thistle - Used for liver dysfunction.
Constantine's book contains warnings against improper use. He says herbal remedies should not be used by persons with severe symptoms of diseases or conditions. Persons experiencing such symptoms should immediately contact a physician.
"These herbal remedies should not be viewed as a panacea," Constantine said. "Many of them do have therapeutic qualities that can be beneficial if taken in an appropriate manner.
"But," he added, "they are not a replacement for the professional guidance of physicians and pharmacists."
Constantine was on the pharmacy faculty at OSU for more than 30 years, teaching courses and conducting research on natural products and alternative medicines. His book, "Tyler's Tips: The Shopper's Guide for Herbal Remedies," is available at libraries and bookstores throughout the Pacific Northwest.