Natural Foods Merchandiser

"Medicine hunter” Chris Kilham talks herbs

Plants are nature’s oldest, most effective medicines, so why do we still consider them “alternative,” asks Chris Kilham, ethnobotanist and explorer in residence at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Kilham travels the world—Siberia, Malaysia, Peru, the South Pacific, etc.—researching medicinal plants, many of which he says offer side-effect-free relief from chronic symptoms and illness. “We don’t have drugs that do the stuff plants do,” he says.

In fact, more than 5 billion people worldwide use plants as primary medicine. Many of those remedies have been in use for thousands—even tens of thousands—of years. Yet few people die from herbs, while around 300,000 people die from prescription-drug-related illness every year.

“We have coevolved with plants—not with single-molecule synthetic drugs,” Kilham says. That’s not to say that we should discount prescription drugs altogether, he says, citing the efficacy of antibiotics and some vaccines. Still, the question remains: What’s really “conventional” and “alternative”? And though herbs are an untapped goldmine for treating symptoms such as depression, sexual disfunction, sleeplessness, and arthritis virtually side-effect-free, he says there are serious challenges for plants worldwide.

  • Over-harvesting: Extreme population growth is putting pressure on wild stocks of herbs—especially those like Rhodiola rosea that when harvested, the plant dies. Nearly 10,000 of the 50,000 medicinal plants used today are in danger of extinction. Solution: Ask suppliers where they get their plants. If they come from endangered plants, find another source.
  • Misidentification: The World Health Organization reports that many companies aren’t getting what they think they are. This is an issue because consumers “don’t forgive and they don’t forget.” If you recommend an herb that doesn’t work (because it’s not actually what you think it is), the customer is much more likely to turn to prescription medication. Solution: Ask manufacturers where they source their herbs. Test and grow your own.
  • Contamination: Environmental toxins and industrial pollution is on the rise and are contaminating plants. This is especially prevalent in China and India where plants are often contaminated by heavy metals. Solution: Again, manufacturers should test their herbs for contaminants.
  • Poverty wages: The challenge is to increase the cost of goods that typically demand a pittance but require a lot of work to harvest. Solution: Ask where herbs are harvested and how the local people are treated. Ask about wages.
  • Environmental devastation: The Amazon is being deforested for timber and cattle, yet only 3 percent of plants there have been investigated for their medicinal properties. Solution: Avoid buying products (such as palm oil) harvested in endangered places.
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