If you’re interested in using herbs, at least in some way you research before you buy anything. You may do something simple like read an article about a health condition and how an herbal supplement may help or listen to a suggestion from a friend. You might take it a step further and consult a few different sources for information, or you might dig right in and read as many sources as you can find before making your decision to buy. Different types of consumers have different approaches.
It’s easy to start a web search on whatever herbal topic you’re interested in learning. However, searching through all the responses to find ones with reliable information can be daunting. In this article I’ll be sharing the information resources that I have found so far in learning about herbs. I’ve grouped the sources into modern medicine, herbal medicine, government, research and other sources. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I encourage you to continue looking for more sources of information.
On to the Sources
Before we get to the online sources, let’s start with your local library. It can be a great place to look for books and other free resources on herbs and herbal medicine. It’s also a great way to review a book to see if you want to buy a copy for your personal library. If your library has a healthy online presence, they may also provide you with access to different research databases related to herbs, health, science and/or gardening.
Some Modern Medicine Sources
The University of Maryland Medical Center is one of the nation’s oldest academic medical centers. On their website they have a complementary and alternative medicine guide which includes information on a number of herbs. The information they provide is easy to read and detailed.
The Mayo Clinic is well-known for medical care, research and education. They have lots of information about all kinds of health related topics on their website, and it is easy to understand. They include an alternative medicine category in each description of a disease or condition, although they tend to be very conservative when including information on herbs. Even so, if you are looking into herbal supplements for a health concern, it’s useful to have good background information on that concern as you consider your options.
WebMD offers medical news, features, reference material. Their website says that their, “…WebMD Medical Team works closely with a team of over 100 nationwide doctors and health experts across a broad range of specialty areas.” I don’t find information on their site to say how they chose the doctors and experts and what qualifies someone as a health care expert. That being said, they do have useful information on their website about individual herbs including uses, side effects, interactions and dosing.
I’ve already included these next two links in previous articles, but they are definitely worth mentioning again. Both the University of Maryland Medical Center and the WebMD websites have a drug/herb interaction tool where you can check to see if herbs you’re interested in may interact with any prescription and/or over-the-counter drugs you take.
Another worthwhile repeat is the LiverTox website, provided by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, where you can check on the potential hepatotoxicity of some herbs.
If you have a disease or condition (e.g. heart disease, cancer, etc.) and the disease or condition has a legitimate non-profit tied to it, check out their webpage to see if they have information about herbs, especially herbs that may interact with treatment medications. You should also be able to check with your specialist, if you are seeing one.
Some Herbal/Traditional Medicine Sources
Henriette’s Herbs website claims to be one of the oldest and largest herbal information sites on the web. It was created by Henriette Kress who is a herbalist in Finland. The information on this site is more geared for herbalists than for the average herbal consumers, but there is some interesting information listed under the Herb FAQs, Articles and Blog pages. The website also has a search feature.
The Tillotson Institute of Natural Health is the website of Alan Keith Tillotson who is trained in both Traditional Ayurvedic Medicine (TAM) and Western herbal medicine. He also has a book called The One Earth Herbal Sourcebook. One of the things I like about him is that he provides information for consumers on navigating the herbal marketplace both in his book and on his website. He also has on his website a list of important herbs from around the world and details about them.
The American Botanical Council is a non-profit research and education organization that strives to provide reliable herbal medicine information. They have a lot of good information, unfortunately some of it is available only by having a membership in the organization. So actually, this one falls in the free-but-not-so-free category, but it’s still worth checking it out.
Many herbal companies have websites and blogs available through their site. While it’s not usually a searchable resource, these blogs can provide lots of useful information. Some company blogs to check out are ones for Mountain Rose Herbs, Red Moon Herbs, and Gaia Herbs. There are more herbal companies out there so I encourage you to keep your eyes open for them.
Some Governmental Sources
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) is the U.S. government’s lead agency for scientific research on complementary and integrative health approaches. Herbs at a Glance is a page on their site that has a limited number of herbs listed, but it has a few of the more popular ones. You can look up the fact sheet by single herb or you can download an eBook that contains all of them.
MedlinePlus is the National Institutes of Health’s website for consumers/patients that offers reliable, up-to-date health information. Their Herbs and Supplements page has many herbs listed along with other types of supplements. The descriptions are short including a description of the herb, traditional uses, general information on studies of the herb and side effects and cautions.
The Office of Dietary Supplements is also a product of the National Institutes of Health. This site is specifically about dietary supplements and has some good general information about using supplements. The information listed in their individual dietary supplement fact sheets is also available through the MedlinePlus link.
As we have covered in past articles, the FDA oversees the regulation of herbal supplements. On their website you can find herbal supplement regulations and other information for consumers. One helpful link is for the recent list of recalled dietary supplements. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also has information for consumers related to the regulation of advertising for herbal supplements.
Some Research Sources
PubMed is a free resource that is developed and maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, at the U.S. National Library of Medicine, located at the National Institutes of Health. PubMed contains more than 25 million citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, life science journals, and online books. The up side is that you have access to results of actual research studies. If you see a study referenced in an article, you may be able to find it on PubMed. The down side is there can be a lot of scientific language that’s hard to read, and the full text (vs. the abstract) of a study may or may not be free. You may also spend a bit of time hunting through article after article trying to find relevant information.
Science Direct is another website where you can access research study results. It contains scientific, technical and health publications from 2,500 journals and more than 33,000 book titles and is geared for researchers, teachers, students, health care professionals and information professionals. In order to find the free studies, you will need to filter for “open access.” As with PubMed, these studies can have a lot of scientific language that’s hard to read, and you may spend a lot of time sorting through studies to find something relevant.
The Natural Products Insider website is produced by The Global Health & Nutrition Network which provides information for marketers, manufacturers and formulators of nutrition and dietary supplements, healthy foods/beverage, and personal care products. I find this site interesting because, as a herbal consumer, I can peek in on the industry side of things with the regular blogs and articles provided in their supplement section. Because herbal supplements are only a portion of the dietary supplements on the market, not every article relates to herbs. It’s still worthwhile to see where the dietary supplement industry is and where it’s heading.
If sitting at your computer starts to get old, maybe it’s time for a field trip. Depending on where you live, you may have an herb farm near you or at least within a reasonable driving distance. By herb farm, I mean a place where they grow herbs and/or make and sell herbal products. Sometimes they are open to visitors and may even offer presentations on herbs and such.
A Quick Word About Monographs
A monograph is a detailed written study of a single specialized subject. A herbal monograph focuses on a single herb and can provide lots of useful information such as the Latin binomial and common names of the herb, description of the plant, uses for the plant, dosage amounts and parts used, contraindications for using the plant, possible side effects, chemistry and pharmacology details as well as other information and references. Monographs can be very useful sources of information about herbs. The thing to realize is that pretty much anyone can put out a monograph – an individual, a company, a governmental entity, etc. If and when you do come across them, you will want to check on their source. Commission E is the German equivalency of our FDA and they are known for creating monographs for 380 herbs used for medical purposes. These are possibly the more well-known herbal monographs. Unfortunately it can be difficult to find free sources of reliable, detailed herbal monographs, but if you can, they are great sources of information.
So What’s a Consumer to Do?
Take the time to look into any herb(s) you are interested in using. I know there are individuals who don’t want to spend hours doing research, but even checking out a couple of reliable resources can lead to better consumer decisions. Ultimately it’s about being healthy and it’s something that’s worth an investment of time.
While this list should get you started, this is not a complete list of sources of information about herbs. Keep looking, keep your eyes and ears open, and dig in.
Next article – “Studies show. . .” – What to Know about Research Studies