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Herbs vs. Drugs: Which is Better?


Herbs vs. Drugs:  Which is Better?

As an integrative medicine doctor I see clients who believe in drugs but not herbs, clients who believe in herbs but not drugs, and clients who are not sure what the difference is.  In my experience both herbs and drugs have something to offer, so the real question is which to use when?

Western medical drugs (like pain medications or antibiotics for example) tend to be both stronger and more harsh than herbal medications because even though many of them originally came from plants, they have been processed and condensed down into a concentrated single “effective ingredient”.  On the up side, if a patient is racing the clock against a deadly bacterial infection or is in severe pain then drugs are faster and more hard-hitting and can save the patient’s life and/or sanity.  On the down side, because they are so concentrated drugs can have major unwanted side effects because they are not buffered with other natural materials.  A good example of this effect is the difference between the mild topical anesthetic of chewing coca leaves compared to pure cocaine or worse, crack cocaine.  The more processed the compound the more potent (and toxic) it can be.

Herbal formulas take advantage of the fact that plant stems, leaves and roots have thousands of ingredients and mixing them correctly can maximize the desired effects while minimizing the unwanted effects.  This is not to say herbs are without risks – plants can be toxic too.  Single herbs especially can be dangerous if used incorrectly.  Herbal formulas are safer than single herbs because they use smaller amounts of multiple herbs rather than large amounts of one herb.  None of our western drugs have been tested for more than a few decades but classical Chinese formulas have been in use for thousands of years and were designed and modified for centuries specifically to maximize beneficial effects while minimizing side effects.

As a general rule of thumb, I find that western medicines work best when there is an outside force attacking the body – bacteria, fungus, trauma, etc. because these are usually temporary challenges which can be dealt with quickly.   

For chronic internal imbalance issues like asthma, allergies, arthritis, sensitive stomach, or repeat infections western medicines are usually just suppressing the symptoms, not fixing the underlying problem.  One reason herbal formulas work better for long term issues because eastern medicine is all about re-balancing the body systems so they work the way they were meant to.  Herbal formulas are also gentler and safer for long term use because they are meant to fix the underlying cause of the symptoms.

Of course, no matter what treatment is used whether it is drugs, herbs, surgery, or some other option, you should not expect long term success unless you get the nutrition right for that patient.  After all, the foods we eat are the building materials we use to make our skin, skeleton, organs, and immune systems.  You really can’t make high quality bones, skin and hair out of low quality food.  So over time just like in computers:  Garbage in = Garbage out.


Courtesy of Dr. Jona Sun Jordan,

Coddingtown Veterinary Clinic, 

2210 County Center Drive, 

Santa Rosa, CA.  95403