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Getting Back to Basics: Herbal Remedies for Whatever Ails You

by Thomas W. Shinder, M.D., M.C.P.

With managed care companies taking over many of the decisions which were formerly those of the treating physician, people are becoming much more wary of the diagnoses and treatments offered by their "company" doctor. Recent articles about managed care firms making treatment decisions based on cost, and physicians altering their diagnoses are leading to an ever increasing mistrust of organized medicine.

If we can't trust our physicians any longer, what can we do? Of course, if you do get sick, you have to go somewhere, to someone. If you are seriously ill you have little choice outside of seeing a physician, and hope against hope that he or she is under the "capitated" amount for that period.

The best option is to not get sick, and do everything you can to avoid seeing a physician. This explains the explosion of public interest in self-treatment with herbal remedies.

Go to any grocery store, and right next to the vitamins you'll see a vast array of herbal concoctions. Ten years ago herbs were relegated to the "fringe" and "earth people". Now, herbal treatments have gone mainstream.

Let's go over some of the herbs that have the greatest popularity at this time:


Valerian root has been used for over a thousand years as a treatment for anxiety, nervousness and insomnia. A number of studies have demonstrated that valerian root extract is beneficial on a short term basis for insomnia and anxiety. There has been no reported abuse of this herb, and it appears to be safe for those with no other significant health problems.

An interesting fact about valerian is that it has anti-tumor effects in concentrated doses, not unlike chemotherapy drugs that are used in the practice of oncology. Long term use of valerian should be avoided because of potential toxic effects that might come from its chemo-therapeutic properties. This is especially the case if you have any kind of liver or kidney problems.

For short term use, consider 400mg of valerian extract at bedtime. It's a MUCH better choice than valium, halcyon, or alcohol.

St. John's Wort

St. John's Wort has been used for centuries as a cure for a vast number of different symptoms and illnesses. You can find a reference to St. John's Wort as a treatment for just about every recognized human ailment.

While the evidence varies from non-existent to weak for most of its claimed applications, St. John's Wort is widely recognized as a powerful mood enhancer and anti-depressant herb.

St. John's Wort has been used as a diuretic in the past, which explains its popularity in a large number of weight loss preparations which are available. The herb has been shown to be a helpful antiviral agent as well. Which might explain why, after I ran out myself, I suddenly came down with a horrible cold.

Yes, I -- and many other physicians -- take herbal products, too.

Side effects of wort are mild, but can be similar to anti-depressant overdose if taken at the same time as Prozac and Prozac-like medications. Do not take this herb if you are taking an anti-depressant in the MAO-inhibitor class of medications.

You always have to be careful if you are self treating for depression. While the vast majority of cases of depression are not, sometimes depression is a symptom of another disease, such as thyroid problems, brain tumors or multiple sclerosis type diseases. If you have no personal or family history of depression, you would be well advised to check out your symptoms with a reliable physician first.


This herb has been used to accelerate wound healing and to boost the immune system. It also has been sought after to treat various forms of cancer, bacterial infections, and the flu. Does it work?

Well, it does have some "immunostimulating" properties, that is to say, it activates the immune system and sends it into action. There isn't a lot of research showing that it is effective in treating any specific condition. But it remains popular for those who have come down with a cold, in speeding the recovery time.

No significant side effects have been seen, but it is recommended that people with HIV infections or tuberculosis not take this drug for an extended period of time because it could have an adverse effect on "T-cell" functioning. It may also deplete Vitamin E in your body as well.

The dose has yet to be standardized, but .75 to 1.5ml two to five times a day has been suggested.


Ginseng is probably the most popular herb in this group we're talking about. Ginseng has been in use for thousands of years as a stimulant, and claimed to be an enemy of aging and cancer and senility. Men in the US and other countries use it to stimulate libido and performance. Some find that it reduces mental stress and helps with physical capacity.

There are many types of ginseng available over the counter. Panax or Asian ginseng is the most popular. Some say that Siberian ginseng may not be as effective and is more likely to have adverse side effects.

Ginseng is relatively safe, but not free from side effects. There is a recognized "ginseng abuse syndrome" where the side effects are skin rashes and pimples, high blood pressure, anxiety, and tremors or shaking. It can also have an estrogen-like effect on women and cause vaginal bleeding and lumps in the breasts. Both men and women who take too much ginseng can have difficulty concentrating and episodes of hypoglycemia.

If you have a family or personal history of breast cancer, you would be advised not to take ginseng, or at least get the counsel of a specialist in breast cancer first.

The typical dose of ginseng which appears to be safe is 100-300mg two or three times a day. This would give a total amount of less than 2 grams a day. Signs of the ginseng abuse syndrome have been seen with amounts in the 3 grams/day range.


Ginko is another herb that has been used for centuries to help the human condition. It has reached the US as a popular herb in the treatment of memory problems and even for helping with the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. It may also help with "microvascular" disease, which is disease of the very smallest of blood vessels. This is believed to be the problem with people who have very small strokes, as well as people who have "tinnitus" or constant ringing in their ears.

Many studies have demonstrated that Ginko has a "vasoactive" effect. That is to say, it causes the blood vessels to expand. This expansion of the blood vessels causes an increase of blood flow to the brain, which in turn causes an increase in oxygen delivery to the brain.

Ginko is relatively free from side effects, but you have to watch out if you're taking other medications that "thin the blood", like aspirin and coumadin. There have been some reports of spontaneous bleeding in the eye and brain when combined with these other medications.

The usual dose of Ginko is 60-80mg two or three times a day. It does take several weeks of taking it daily before you'll notice an effect.

Herbal treatments won't prevent or cure every ill, but these over-the-counter substances can have a place in your overall preventative medicine strategy. So, take over control of your health. Do your best to keep yourself in tip-top shape with exercise, a good diet, and herbal interventions where appropriate. For many of us, the goal today is to stay away from physicians whenever possible, because in these times of profit based medicine, Your Health Matters more than ever.

Thomas W. Shinder, M.D., M.C.P. is a neurologist-turned-computer systems engineer who practiced medicine in Texas, Oregon and Arkansas before moving to his present home in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas metropolitan area.


E-mail Thomas at:

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