When Studies Show That Herbs Don't Work, Here Are Two Reasons Why!

doctor holding clipboard with graphs on it, studies show concept

You’ve undoubtedly heard the claims before… herbs don’t work. Studies have proven that herbs are ineffective. They’re a placebo, at best. You’re wasting your money.

This post explains a couple of shortcomings with testing herbs as if they were pharmaceutical drugs.

Evaluations of pharmaceuticals are conducted using double-blind, placebo-controlled (DBPC) studies. Simply put, this means that neither the patients nor those administering the drugs know who is getting the medication or a placebo. This approach works very well when investigating if Medication A is effective in treating Condition B. It is also very effective at identifying side effects.

Does this work with herbs?

Only sometimes. The natural question is then, why not always?

To answer that, let’s look at how conventional medicine treats conditions. It’s a symptom-based approach. It pays very little attention to what is actually causing the symptom. There’s a simplicity to this system. A symptom with myriad causes can be effectively suppressed, regardless of the cause.

Foundational herbalism doesn’t target a symptom and pick an herb to suppress it. It looks at the dysfunction or imbalance that’s causing the symptom and then which herb(s) will prompt changes. To the trained eye, there’s a simplicity to this system. It doesn’t worry about symptoms, per se, but rather which imbalanced states may be causing the symptoms.

Let’s take a real-world example to illustrate why double-blind, placebo-controlled studies don’t necessarily work well with herbs. Take a person with poor brain function, aka brain fog. The DBPC approach would be to take an herb - say ginkgo Biloba - and measure improvement in brain function while taking it. Such studies have been done and have had mixed results. The way in which ginkgo works is by increasing circulation to the brain. If your brain fog is due to poor circulation then you should see improvement while taking ginkgo.

However, if your brain fog is due to other conditions that we identify in foundational herbalism that can cause brain fog - dehydration, oil-dryness, lax tissues leaking fluids, immune dysfunction, being stuck in a constant sympathetic state… just to name a few - the success of the study will depend on the luck of the draw in having the right people receiving the supplement. In other words, researchers are evaluating the herbalists’ tools in a way that doctors would use them, which is not necessarily the way that herbalists use them. Ginkgo is used to help the brain function when certain conditions are present and those conditions aren’t taken into account when designing the studies.

In fact, mixed results are what one would expect and, in an ironic way, actually validates this critique. Otherwise, we’d expect to see more consistent results. Herbs that work more like medications do produce medication-like results in DBPC studies. St. John’s wort and milk thistle are good examples.

There is another reason why it’s difficult to evaluate herbs with a DBPC study. Foundational herbalism is as much art as science. When we are addressing tissue states in the body, we are affecting things that can’t always be measured. How do you measure excessive dryness, coldness, or laxity in the body? Doctors successfully use a subjective pain scale so it’s not the lack of an objective measurement that is the difficulty. Ask a person how dry or lax they feel and you’ll get a blank stare. An herbalist can assess the severity of the imbalance by the severity of the signs. And, we can see results as the signs of these states begin to correct. I have seen some very impressive changes in peoples’ health when this happens.

Finally, the third reason that herbs may not fare well in studies is that it is very rare to use a single herb. Take brain fog again. A person who is oil-dry is often also water-dry. This could be a diet/lifestyle issue but it also could be due to a poorly functioning GI tract. It could be due to lax tissues that are not retaining fluid properly. In either of these cases, a recommended course would include multiple herbs. And multiple herbs are going to be the rule, not the exception. Testing a single herb is simply not going to replicate the conditions in which herbs are generally used by herbalists.

It’s not that herbs can’t withstand a rigorous, scientific study. It’s simply important to understand that studies rarely take into account the way in which herbs are actually used.

If you’d like to personalize it for your situation, we can set up a time to meet for a complimentary consultation, either in-person or by phone or video chat. It takes about 15 minutes and will give you a general idea of how I would approach your issues.

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Larry Leach, Herbalist, Evergreen Health Clinics

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