There has been a lot of public interest in herbal products in recent years. Manufacturers have also been quick to catch up on this craze and the market is now flooded with herbal toiletries, cosmetics, food products--herbs in all possible forms.
These are plant products used directly in raw form, as decoctions or as a finished industrial product like tablet, capsule, juice; singly or in combination.
Herbs have been widely used by communities in various parts of the world for centuries as beauty products or medicines. The World Health Organisation reports that in many parts of Asia and Africa, people still use herbs as primary care treatment.
Most of the drugs used in modern medicine are made from plants that have been in use as herbs for many years. Examples include quinine and digoxin among others.
Quinine is derived from the bark Cinchona plant, an evergreen shrub that is native to west and south America, Sao Tome and Principe, Jamaica and in some Asian countries like India and Sri Lanka. Reports show that currently DR Congo is biggest exporter of cinchona.
Apart from anti malarial effect, the bark also has effects on cardiac muscle thus used in rhythm disturbances.
On the other hand, Digoxin is a purified cardiac glycoside extracted from the plant foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) that grows in Europe and United Kingdom.
During the industrial revolution in the west, many chemical products were manufactured and put into use.
Because of the ease of use and lucrative advertisements, the public got attracted to them. The same happened for medicines.
Instead of making and consuming powders, cumbersome unpalatable decoctions, swallowing a pill or taking injection was much easier, hence making them more popular over use of conventional herbs.
But gradually over decades, adverse effects of use of chemicals in cosmetics or food items are being noticed and confirmed by research studies. Increasing incident of diseases like asthma, cancers and neuromuscular problems is linked to chemicals.
Similarly adverse effects of medicines with synthetic base, lack of any medicine offering total cure in chronic diseases like asthma, diabetes, arthritis, etc, has again drawn attention of scientists and researchers and likeminded people to use of herbs and herbal products.
The benefits associated with herbs are many and tolerance is also good. For example, Basil leaves (locally known as Umuyena) are remedy for colds, cough, allergic conditions, louse and other skin infestations.
This is because it has strong antibacterial, antifungal, anti inflammatory properties and also helps body immunity. It helps to reduce blood cholesterol, reduce high blood pressure and thus help in heart conditions, dissolve kidney stones, is stress reliever and useful in insect bite. Regular use helps remove acne and blemishes and enhances glow of skin. Because of antioxidant properties, it helps to prevent cancer.
Turmeric is a very good naturally antiseptic. For small cuts and wounds, just a paste of turmeric powder can be applied and it heals very well. Drinking hot milk with small amount of turmeric helps to cure coughs. It is also useful for improving digestion, headaches, colds, has natural cleansing properties if used over face and body and imparts a beautiful glow to the skin.
Another common herb is Fenugreek seeds; anti flatulent with anti diabetic properties as well. It is also a very rich natural source of calcium. Raw Fenugreek seeds consumed after being soaked overnight or powdered and applied to scalp directly prevents premature graying of hair.
Ginger, whether used as oil, powder, raw herb, in whatever form, is useful to treat motion sickness, vomiting, loss of appetite, back and joints pain, menstrual pain. It is also used to enhance fragrance in soaps and cosmetics.
Aloe vera seems to be currently most popular herbal product. Face cream, body lotions, soaps, herbal medicines, most of the products currently in market seem to be having Aloe vera as one of ingredients.
Aloe vera is a succulent plant and it is the juice of the leaves which is very useful. It is said to rejuvenate the skin and hence retards aging. It has strong antibacterial and anti fungal properties and is useful against skin infections and conditions like psoriasis. It also helps in curing stomach aches, constipation, radiation sickness, said to reduce blood glucose levels. Local application of Aloe vera juice heals wounds.
The list of useful herbs is very long, but just a word of caution: Herbal products are not entirely safe as believed by most people. One risk is of having allergy to some herbs, as one having susceptibility can be allergic to anything including herbal products.
One tends to develop tolerance to effect of Aloe vera if used as laxative. Then higher doses have to be used for efficacy. This carries risk of toxicity in body and potential risk of producing cancer.
High doses of turmeric carry risk of causing abortion, higher doses of ginger can cause heart burn and carries risk of bleeding. Herbs reducing blood glucose should be used with caution in diabetic patients due to enhanced risk of low blood glucose levels.
Basil leaves and other herbs which cause thinning of blood can increase risk of bleeding if used with drugs like aspirin or Coumadin which are also blood thinners.
Medicines or cosmetic products containing herbal products do not have to pass a rigorous testing as other products. Rigorous safety trials also lack for most of these products. Yet chemicals may have been used in processing, forming base, for fragrance or improving the look of the product. Thus such products would not give desired benefits and may cause side effects.
A safe course is to use herbs in their natural form after knowing very well which part of the plant is useful, use in moderation. On experiencing any discomfort like rashes, breathing troubles, severe heart burn, vomiting, use should be discontinued immediately.
Dr Rachna Pande is the head of internal medicine at Ruhengeri Hospital.