"Scant" scientific evidence of herbal benefits? More like SCADS of evidence

Parrot Jungle

Lazy reporters!

You could fill a football stadium with lazy reporters who just parrot general impressions about dietary supplements.

A recent Wall St. Journal article about herbal supplements claims that “there is scant scientific evidence to support their health benefits.”

Scant? More like SCADS of scientific evidence.

The reporter actually points out that more than $250 million in grants for herbal research has been has been distributed through the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) over the past eight years.

Does that sound “scant” to you?

Of course, not all the resulting evidence has supported health benefits, and most of the positive results will never make headlines. But little by little the landscape of dietary supplements is more brightly lit every year.

The WSJ article contradicts the “scant” claim again by directing readers to medlineplus.gov for information about herbal supplement research. And when you get there, what do you find? A ghost town with a few scant tumbleweeds blowing down a deserted main street?

More like Broadway at rush hour.

Superior grades

Did you hear that Echinacea is useless in fighting colds?

That’s one of the favorite lines parroted by lazy reporters.

But when you go to Medline Plus, a chart titled “Uses based on scientific evidence” tells a different story.

A grade of B–which indicates “Good scientific evidence for this use”–is given to these two Echinacea categories:

  • Prevention of upper respiratory tract infections (adults and children)
  • Treatment of upper respiratory tract infections (adults)

How about St. John’s wort? “No better than placebo,” is the phrase you’ll see again and again. And the WSJ article goes one better, noting that this popular herb failed to treat ADHD symptoms in children and teens.

What’s NOT mentioned? Medline Plus gives St. John’s wort a grade of A–“Strong scientific evidence for this use”– for treating “mild-to-moderate depressive disorder.”

To be fair, the WSJ article does mention these two clear successes from NCCAM research: 1) chamomile extract was better than placebo in reducing anxiety, and 2) milk thistle is effective in interfering with the life cycle of the hepatitis C virus. But then ginkgo biloba, we’re told, “does not prevent heart attack, stroke, or cancer, or stem memory loss.”

But wait a second. Before you ditch your daily ginkgo supplement, you might be interested in the Medline Plus grade of A for treating dementia, a grade of A for relieving claudication (painful legs from clogged arteries), and a grade of B for improving blood flow to the brain to reduce cerebral insufficiency (defined as poor concentration, confusion, absent-mindedness, anxiety, etc.).

Want more? Bring it on!

Pcynogenol gets two B grades–one for treating asthma, and one for relieving chronic venous insufficiency (leg swelling and varicose veins).

Ginseng gets a B for boosting immune function, a B for lowering blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetics, and a B for heart healthy antioxidant effects, which include the reduction of LDL oxidation.

Red yeast rice gets an A for lowering LDL and triglycerides.

I could go on and on, because Medline Plus goes on and on. And not just for herbs–vitamins and minerals are included in the grading system too.

Meanwhile, the WSJ article does share one more very important detail: Close to $40 million has just been awarded to several research centers that will devote those funds exclusively to herbal supplement research over the next five years.

Bring it on!

To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson

“Herbal Supplements Face New Scrutiny” Laura Landro, Wall St. Journal, 9/14/10, online.wsj.com
“Herbs and supplements” Medline Plus, Medlineplus.gov

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