Herbs vs. Drugs: Pros, Cons, and Controversy

In the past few years working in herbal medicine, I have heard a number of opinions on herbs versus conventional medicine, particularly pharmaceutical drugs.

Now, both herbs and pharmaceutically produced medications can technically be labeled as 'drugs'.  They are both used medicinally and can have a physiological effect on the body. For simplicities sake, I take the more common usage here, and use 'drugs' to mean medications produced in a pharmaceutical lab.

To better address the concerns and controversy of this subject, I’ve consolidated the more opposed viewpoints that I have heard over the years.

They generally fall into two categories:

Pro-drugs, Anti-herbs

Herbs don’t work. Mostly it’s snake oil salesmen trying sell you poison in a bottle, and women wearing patchouli and wool sweaters giving out jars of green vegetable oil. Drugs are the miracle of modern science. They have cured polio, calmed the HIV epidemic, and will one day cure cancer. They save millions of lives every year.”

Pro-herbs, Anti-drugs

“Herbs can cure anything that drugs can and more! They are safe, pure medicines from the earth. Drugs are poisonous, and cause more side effects, and more illness than they cure, killing thousands of people a year. They are made by Big Pharmaceutical companies just trying to make money off other peoples suffering.”

Yikes. Now, most folks that I speak with about herbal medicine and pharmaceuticals are far more reasonable than this. But the above sentences are all pretty much verbatim from conversations I’ve had with various folks over the past 10 years.  

As is often the case, it is worth exploring the grey area between opinions. There is no perfect answer, but there can be greater awareness of the subject.

Below is a short pros and cons list for both herbs and drugs. Not all of them, because I don’t want to overload the Internet, but the big ones. Please notice the use of terms like 'tend to' and 'can'.

Herbs

Pros

  • They tend to have less-strong effects than drugs
  • They tend to produce less severe side effects than drugs
  • You can grow them yourself
  • They can taste and smell amazing
  • You can get them unprocessed, with little to no additives
  • They can be more specific to different conditions and tissues in the body than drugs
  • They tend to be more sustainable long term (you can take them for longer with less chance of addiction, side effects, etc.)
  • They tend to be far less expensive than drugs

Cons

  • Sometimes they don’t work
  • They tend to have less-strong effects than drugs
  • They can occasionally cause mild-severe side effects (though less often than drugs)*
  • Sometimes they taste bad/smell odd, etc.
  • They can be inconvenient to take (taste, making a tea, taking a tincture, etc.)
  • Sometimes they take longer to be effective compared to drugs
  • Some people don’t know what they’re doing when they recommend them
  • They can have additives that cause side effects beyond the main ingredients (more an issue with processed herbs, such as those in combination products)

Pharmaceutical Drugs

Pros

  • They can sustain life in instances were herbs cannot (chemotherapy, HIV cocktail, heart medications, emergency surgery, anaphylaxis, etc.)
  • They tend to have stronger effects than herbs
  • They are often very convenient to take (pills, liquids, etc.)
  • They are often a quick fix
  • They can be produced on a mass scale

Cons

  • Sometimes they don’t work
  • They tend to be stronger than herbs
  • They can cause mild-severe side effects (though more often than herbs)*
  • Drug-drug interactions are common, resulting in complications
  • They are often a just quick fix
  • They tend to be far more expensive than herbs
  • They can have additives in them that cause side effects beyond the main ingredients (lactose, other allergens).
  • Some people don’t know what they’re doing when they recommend them

So Which to Use?

I’m an herbalist, so of course my bias is towards using herbs. They are pure medicines from the earth, which is part of why I choose to use them. In most cases for myself, I find they work better than pharmaceuticals.

As a caveat, I have never had to have surgery, never had HIV, cancer, or a heart valve problem. If I did, I would probably end up using both herbs and conventional medication, as I have had to do with clients in the past.

Also, just because herbs are ‘natural’, does not mean they are safe. . Tobacco, Marijuana, and Opium poppy, for instance, are completely natural, and just look what happened with those. Similar to drugs, some herbs require guidance to use safely and effectively.

The point in all this is that it’s not really an either/or question.

Pharmaceuticals or herbs. No one way is perfect. It doesn’t really matter what medicine you choose to use, but rather that you make an educated decision around them. The most important aspect is that each of us take responsibility for our own health. That we use our bodies and balanced perspectives to make informed decisions about what works best for each of us. 

How to Learn More

 Join us for one of our Introduction to Herbal Medicine classes, Saturday, July 25th.

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*This is based on both my personal clinical observations, and the basic information available out there on both herbs and prescriptions drugs. Rxlist.com, drugs.com, the CDC and the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database are all excellent resources for looking at potential side effects, case studies of interactions, and safety.