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Distinguishing natural remedies.

Homeopathic medicine and herbal remedies are presently experiencing a renaissance of interest in America. No longer simply sold in health food stores, these natural medicines are becoming increasingly available at chain and independent drug stores.

However, along with their growing popularity, there is increasing confusion about what they are and what they each offer. Probably the most common misconception that consumers have is that they incorrectly assume that homeopathic and herbal remedies are the same thing and that they are made in a similar way. They aren't.

While many homeopathic medicines have an herbal origin, there are a significant number from the mineral and animal kingdom as well. Those homeopathic medicines made from herbs are made in a completely different manner and in considerably different dosages than conventional herbal preparations.

Homeopathic medicines are made through a special pharmaceutical procedure called "potentization," a process in which the plant, mineral or animal substance is diluted, usually one part of the substance with 10 or 100 parts distilled water. This mixture is vigorously shaken; then this process of serial diluting and shaking is reported three, six, 12 or 30 more times. Ultimately, an extremely small amount of the medicine remains. Nevertheless, this dose is very active when the symptoms of the sick person match the symptoms of what the substance causes in overdose.

The basis for homeopathic medicine is this matching process, which individualizes a medicine to a person's unique pattern of symptoms. The classical application of homeopathic medicines utilizes a single medicine for a sick person based on the various and idiosyncratic symptoms that the person feels.

For instance, a person with symptoms of a common cold, including a thin, watery and profuse nasal discharge that's aggravated in warm environments and relieved in cold ones, will benefit from a homeopathic dose of Allium cepa, the common onion. Because onions cause these similar symptoms, they can help to heal people who suffer from this unique pattern of cold symptoms. A person with symptoms of a cold with congestion, thick nasal discharge and a cough wouldn't benefit from Allium cepa but would require a different, more individualized remedy.

While there are many modern books on homeopathy that teach consumers or practitioners how to find the individualized medicine, homeopathic manufacturers often combine some of the most common remedies for specific ailments and place them in a formula for this condition. This more user-friendly form of homeopathy has enabled the category to prosper in the marketplace today. These formulas are commonly named and marketed for the specific ailment that they're known to treat.

In contrast to homeopathic medicines, herbal preparations are made from the whole leaf, bark or root of a plant. Rather than diluting these herbs, manufacturers are likely to concentrate them in powder, capsules, extracts or tinctures.

The indications for herbal preparations are determined either by longtime folk use of specific medicinal agents and/or by recent chemical analyses of their ingredients and evidence of their clinical effects on animals or humans.

The use of garlic is a classic example of this process. Garlic has long been used to prevent and treat various infections; now research has confirmed how and why it has these effects. Further, research has confirmed various cardiovascular benefits conveyed by garlic - including its ability to lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure and reduce the likelihood of blood clots.

Herbal remedies don't require the same high degree of individualization that homeopathic medicines do because herbs have chemical constituents that have specific, predictable effects. In contrast, the extremely small doses used in homeopathy require more individualization since only certain people who have specific patterns of symptoms that match the medicines' will benefit from them.

There are also important legal and regulatory differences between homeopathic and herbal remedies. The Food and Drug Administration recognizes and regulates homeopathic medicines as primarily over-the-counter drugs, while herbal products are recognized and regulated primarily as food. Because of this, packaging for homeopathic medicines is required by law to state the O-T-C indications for the products, while that for herbal products isn't allowed to carry information on specific therapeutic benefits.

While consumers can learn the indications of homeopathic medicines from the labeling, they must learn how to use herbal preparations through various books, magazines, radio and television programs and, most commonly, through word of mouth.

Some herbs have applications for simple, common acute ailments; others are known to treat chronic conditions. Examples of herbs used to treat the former include echinacea for strengthening the immune system's responses to cold and flu viruses, passion flower for insomnia and ginger for motion sickness. Examples of herbs to treat the latter include saw palmetto for benign prostatic hypertrophy, hawthorn berries for heart conditions and Ginkgo biloba for presenility states.

In contrast, homeopathic medicines are only marketed for acute complaints. While physicians and other professionals who specialize in homeopathy can learn to use the medicines for various chronic complaints, the complexity derived from the need to individualize homeopathic medicines deters consumers from self-treatment.

New research continually confirms the benefits that homeopathic medicine and herbal remedies offer.

The December 10, 1994, issue of The Lancet published a double-blind study of the homeopathic treatment of asthma. Besides showing statistically significant results, the researchers also performed a meta-analysis of two similar studies they conducted on allergic conditions. The results were so significant on these 202 patients that the researchers concluded that homeopathic medicines work or that double-blind, placebo-controlled studies don't.

Research on the benefits of herbal medicines is pouring out of medical, botanical and chemical journals. Because of this significant body of work, The Lancet just published an editorial entitled, "Pharmaceuticals From Plants: Great Potential, Few Funds." While bemoaning the fact that there aren't adequate funds available for research on herbal medicines, the editors emphasize, "Over the past 20 years interest in medicinal plants in Western society has grown enormously and at all levels of society."

The creation of "natural pharmacy" sections within chain drug store seems to be the next obvious step for retailers that want to harness this renaissance of interest in homeopathic medicine and herbal remedies at all levels of society.

Dana Ullman is one of the leading educators on homeopathic medicine. He has written four books, including Discovering Homeopathy and Homeopathic Medicines for Children and Infants.
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Title Annotation:homeopathic versus herbal remedies
Author:Ullman, Dana
Publication:Chain Drug Review
Date:Apr 10, 1995
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