AUTHOR WEIGHS PLANT REMEDIES BY SORTING OUT SCIENTIFIC STUDIES
Mary Beth Faller, The Arizona Republic
When Holly Phaneuf was a little girl, she wanted to make magic potions.
"I would put plants in a pot and stir them around and imagine they would make me fly," she says.
Now a biochemist, researcher and teacher in Utah, Phaneuf is still fascinated by the power of plants.
"But I have more realistic goals, like calming gas pains with chamomile rather than flying."
Plants have been used as medicine for thousands of years, but Phaneuf wanted to know whether traditional herbal remedies could really stand up to hard scientific scrutiny.
There are many studies on plant-based treatments, she says, but few of them are well designed, with a control group that uses a placebo. Many of the studies were done in Europe, where scientists are more open to the idea of alternative medicine -- "and more loose in their conclusions," Phaneuf says. And some of the good studies were done on cells in a test tube or on animals, but not people.
But Phaneuf dug through thousands of studies, in dry scientific journals, to sort through the best ones with the most significant results. The outcome is her book Herbs Demystified (Marlowe & Co., $21.95 paperback), released a few months ago.
Many people think of "herbs" as kitchen seasonings -- parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. But Phaneuf expands the term to include all plants. She covers cranberries, soy and tea along with sage, evening primrose and black cohash.
Phaneuf's book looks at what the plants do (or are purported to do) at the molecular level, written in a lively, understandable way.
"Plants make all these extra chemicals to protect themselves because they can't run away," she says. "They have to protect themselves from radiation and insects. We can usurp these chemicals by consuming them."
People think plants are good because they are "natural." "And when we think of 'natural,' we think, 'How can it hurt us?' But there's poison ivy and snake venom and things that do hurt us.
"And the line between natural and synthetic can be blurry. If you take plant chemicals and purify them, many of them are identical to the drugs we take. The statin drug Lovastatin is identical to red yeast extract."
And plants should be treated with the same care as medicine, she says. Licorice root protects the stomach lining with the same molecule that can raise blood pressure dangerously, so it should be off limits to anyone with hypertension.
Herbs Demystified covers all versions of each plant, including supplements, which Phaneuf generally avoids because they are not regulated for purity.
After poring over all those studies, Phaneuf says she really wanted to find out whether these plants worked. Some, such as soy, tea and flax, have support from good studies. Others haven't held up to scrutiny.
"Echinacea has been disappointing," she says of the cold treatment. "There are several hundred studies in people, not to mention animals and cells. When you pare it down to the very best, it all looks pretty sad.
"The most reliable thing that echinacea will do is give you a rash."
Holly Phaneuf, a biochemist, tackles common and beloved herbal treatments in her book, Herbs Demystified (Marlowe & Co., 2005, $21.95 paperback). Here is an abbreviated version of what she's researched about some of these herbs and whether they really work:
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