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Return to the Dark Ages of Herbal Medicine?

Anyone entering a healthfood store or even a conventional drugstore in search of herbal or nutritional supplements might be excused for thinking that natural medicine is thriving and that all is well and safe with its continued growth in the future. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. There seems to be a semi-covert operation at work that is surreptitiously trying to undermine natural medicine, its proponents and the free accessibility of nutritional / herbal products. The campaign has many prongs - the PR machine spins dubious 'research' into half-baked scare mongering articles, which suddenly appear all over the press - even though they do not withstand the most basic methods of journalistic investigation. Yet, even the more 'respectable' press gets caught up in this blaring hype. Such campaigns are highly effective - scare tactics always work. Thus, the journal of the American Medical Association for example, can get away with suggesting that vitamin and mineral supplements could actually harm the consumer. Perhaps they could - if taken excessively, but, so could just about anything including water - which is essential to all life. (Not too long ago a young woman actually managed to kill herself by drinking excessive amounts of water in order to win some radio show contest - a case that is just too absurd for words

Meanwhile legislators, at present mostly Brusselites, are bustling and busying themselves with contriving a whole host of (mostly impractical and pointless) regulations that are supposed to control and harmonize the access and use of herbal and nutritional supplements across the EU - in order to protect the consumer, of course. (Liberties are always curtailed in the name of safety and security). But the problem starts with the bureaucrats themselves, who mostly don't have a clue about their subject matter, a fact that is painfully evident from the very wording of their copious absurd directives.

The difficulty lies in the very nature of natural therapeutics - they are derived from natural sources of course, often from common foods, vegetables, fruits or spices. When is a food a food and when a nutritional substance? When is a spice a spice and when is it a herbal remedy? As Paracelsus wisely said - everything is poison, alone the dose determines whether a substance will kill or cure. At present the diction of the various directives that producers and sellers will soon have to follow, is so vague that any substance could be deemed an illegal medicine, and the courts and legislators themselves are at odds over how to interpret the letter of the law in any given situation.

In a vain attempt to appease the alternative medicine community the UK food and drug regulatory body has been trying to formulate a procedure that accepts a set list of herbs and nutritional substances as 'traditional medicines' (without further proof of their benefit being required) for certain conditions, if the substance or herb has been known to have been used as such for at least 30 years, of which it must have been in use in an EU country for at least 15 years. However, if combined with other plants or substances the compound as a whole has to comply to the same arbitrary standard, which effectively prevents any innovation of new therapeutic compositions, lest the company has sufficient funds to subject their new compound medicine to the same drug testing procedures as is required of any synthetic pharmaceutical medicine seeking approval. This may be possible for large pharmaceutical companies, but it would be financial suicide for most of the smaller company specializing in herbal remedies.

I feel the dark ages are once more upon us. A campaign to hunt down the modern day 'witches', proponents of medical freedom and natural medicines, is under way. The new Malleus Maleficarum, taking the form of this new legislation, is still being composed, but by 2011, it will become law. If we wait until then before we take action, we may find it will be too late, and many of the remedies that we have come to rely on will have disappeared from the shelves of our health-food stores. This threat to our freedom of choice in matters of medical care is by far the worst and most serious offence of overzealous ignoramuses whiling their days in Brussels and wielding their mighty pens without any comprehension of what is at stake.

But the implications reach much further still. Not only herbal medicines but essential oils and other natural substances used in perfumery and cosmetics are also under threat. Again, taking the so-called scientific route that focuses on some suspect molecule, which in isolated concentration may be harmful to some, (but for all practical intents and purposes associated with normal ways in which cosmetics and perfumes are generally used, would pose no danger to the consumer,) legislators prefer to err on the side of caution - even to the point of making complete fools of themselves. To illustrate the point, consider the case of citrus oils - one of the most commonly used essential oils in all manner or household products and cosmetics. As John Stephen of Cotswold Perfumery points out, you can get thousands of times more limonene on your hand peeling an orange than IFRA will allow in a perfume. This is just one example. There are dozens more, if you want to delve into it. The extent of this legislative nonsense is boggles the brain. And due to such phenomenal ignorance of people in power we may lose access to many natural ingredients - not because there are any concerns about them, but because the rigours of bureaucratic procedures are simply too costly, too time consuming and tedious for suppliers to prove otherwise. And so our choices are even further reduced...

The legal war has begun and there are now several good, dedicated and persistent people and organisations who have taken up the fight for our right to choose and continued access to natural materials. Yet, it is important to remember that while these tireless campaigners are doing all the legwork, it is up to us, the consumers, to inform ourselves and to support their efforts, which in the end of the day is being fought on our behalf.

Note: While presently Europe is at the forefront of this legislative inquisition, it is clear that American users and suppliers of natural products and remedies will also be affected. Border controls for incoming shipments have already been tightened. Your favourite European supplement or essential oils may soon be legislated out of existence, or, if you sell your natural perfumes, cosmetics or herbal products to the EU you may suddenly face a whole barrage of paperwork. Many campaigners feel that this wave of change will sooner or later also pound the shores on the other side of the Atlantic.


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This Article was originally published in the Sacred Earth Newletter. The Newsletter is a FREE service containing articles, news and reviews on all things herbal and/or ethnobotanical, with an approximate publication cylce of 6 - 8 weeks. If you wish to subscribe, please use the subscription box to submit your e-mail address.


Please note that although all the references to edible and medicinal herbs are tried and tested, their efficacy cannot be guaranteed and has not been approved by the FDA. Furthermore, everybody responds differently to various plants, and adverse reactions cannot be ruled out. Historical information regarding poisonous plants is included for educational purposes only and should not be tried out at home. Everybody uses herbs at their own risk and thus must make themselves fully aware of their potential power. Any information given here is educational and should not replace a visit to the doctor should this be necessary. Neither Sacred Earth nor Kat Morgenstern accepts responsibility for anybody's home experimentation. Links to external sites are included as pointers to further resources - we do not endorse them or are in any way responsible for their content, nor do we thus verify that their content is accurate.