The vegetable alkaloid reserpine (which first came to the attention of the English speaking world as rauwolfia serpentine) was first used to reduce blood pressure. Then it became a "wonder drug" in the treatment of the mentally ill. The first blush of enthusiasm was soon followed by a realization that it not only does not remedy mental disease, but that it causes a whole series of undesirable effects. This has not hindered the search for and employment of other tranquilizers, all of which have been equally disappointing and have been loaded with undesirable effects of their own. In the face of all this failure and evil it is still hoped that something really valuable may yet be found in the socalled hallucinatory drugs--peyote, mescaline, mushrooms, LSD and other such drugs to be tried. If a drug will occasion hallucinations, it must be useful in remedying mental disease. This is in keeping with the whole medical idea that in order to possess curative properties, a substance must be capable of producing disease. Herbal drugs have been called "traditional medicines," a fact which does not alter their harmful character. A Dr. Schonental of the Toxicology Research Unit of the Medical Research Council (Britain) said in an article in the New Scientist, April 16, 1965: "Toxic substances found in plants used traditionally as medicines may be responsible for some diseases prevalent in isolated and primitive communities, thought till now to have been caused by either viruses or genetic factors." He points out that many plants which have been thought to be possessed of medicinal qualities, as shown by their inclusion in herbal drugs, contain substances capable of damaging the liver.
He thinks that immediate poisoning from the use of such plants would be quickly noticed and the plants would be avoided as a consequence, but he stated that it was found only comparatively recently that there may be a "delayed-action effect" and that, as a result, liver tumors may be produced some years after the plants have been employed. He mentioned ragwort as a plant long in use and still in use as a medicine, yet which is dangerous to use. This drug is still found in some of the textbooks and he quotes the following about it from a book published as late as 1923: "Useful in coughs, colds, influenza and catarrh of the mucous membranes generally. It gives relief in sciatica and rheumatic or gouty pains in limbs. The decoction of 1 ounce in 1 pint of water is taken in wineglassful doses as desired."
If we substitute the phrase cumulative effects for delayed-action effects, we will probably better express the facts. It must be realized that the so-called "active principle" in all medicinal herbs is a poison. To say that diseases caused by their use are due to viruses is to use the original and true meaning of this word. It would not be correct to call them diseases of medical progress, as is now the custom, but diseases due to poisoning. As almost the whole of medical practice is a poisoning practice and has been so from Hippocratic times to the present, it is absurd to say that if a substance is found to be immediately poisonous it will be avoided.
There are many misguided people who think that if a poison is wrapped up in a plant, it is harmless and they continue to hug this delusion in spite of the fact that many of these plants are capable of killing quickly. These people may be temporarily upset by such revelations as those made by Schonental; but they will return to their herbs with confidence after the first shock wears off because they do not realize that for a drug to result in a so-called medicinal effect, it must be a poison. The alleged medicinal effects of drugs are the efforts of the body to resist and expel them. Instead of digesting them and utilizing them as foods, they are expelled.
There is a tendency in many quarters to laud the former employment of what are called "natural substances" as drugs, while deprecating the employment of synthetic substances. "For many years," says a magazine article, "organized medicine employed only natural elements in animal, vegetable and mineral realms for its drugs; but in the nineteenth century it began to turn to synthetic drugs."
It is true that there has been increasing reliance on synthetic products, but there has been no total abandonment of so-called "natural substances." But the implications of the language employed, that, "natural substances," being more like the elements of the body, are less harmful or more beneficial, are false. If this were always true, and it certainly was not true in the employment of gold salts, mercury, silver, bismuth, potassium, lead, etc., from the mineral kingdom, it does not follow that because a substance is less toxic, it is, therefore, more curative. It certainly cannot be contended that the animal and vegetable substances formerly so largely relied upon were harmless or that they did not give rise to untoward, even lethal side effects.
The venom of spiders, of bees and other insects, snake venom and similar animal toxins, which were so freely used as medicine and which are sometimes still used, cannot be thought of as harmless and beneficial substances. Vaccines and serums, now so freely employed, are of animal origin and are well known to be sources of severe damages, such as are subsumed under the rubrick anaphylaxis. Speedy death, sometimes following vaccination and inoculation, is dignified by the title, anaphylactic shock. In the past when an individual showed what is now termed unusual sensitivity to a drug, this sensitivity was called idiosyncrasy; today it is called allergy.
There are and have been those who rationalize the employment of so-called herbal medicines by declaring them to be foods. The physiomedicalists, who thought that drugs may "sometimes provoke the organs to do good work," contended that their drugs were absorbed and became a part of the living fabric. Thus, they dressed an old doctrine in a new gown--a doctrine subversive alike of both reason and science. If their doctrine were true, fruits would be the best remedies since they are the best foods; but in no sense can foods be regarded as medicinal. Foods are nutritive substances; medicines are substances that occasion disease.
A recent author says that, "they (herbs) are neither drugs nor poisons, but marvelous gifts of Nature herself." He attributes "healing power to them" and asserts what we know to be untrue, that this healing power "was recognized even by the most primitive peoples." He thinks that herbs are specially fruitful sources of minerals and vitamins and that "their effect we may probably ascribe to certain bitter principles which very likely sustain the alkalinity of the blood, thus aiding the combustion and elimination of the blood poisons."
With all of this pretense that they are better foods than the nonpoisonous herbs that we regularly eat as foods, he employs them in baths, poultices, compresses, in steam baths, sitz baths and in other ways that foods are not used and in which it would be impossible for them to be used as foods. In addition to these various non-nutritive means of application, he employs them as tonics, aperients, diuretics and for various other so-called therapeutic effects. His use of them constitutes a symptomatic treatment of the sick rather than an effort to nourish his patient. He lists senna leaves among those being specially vaulable, while he thinks that camomile is the finest of all herbs. He says: "The curative virtues of these are all well recognized and firmly established." He makes teas of indiscriminate mixtures of some of the herbs he specially likes and administers what he calls a "constipation tea," a "tonic tea" and a "nerve tea."
If herbs are really employed as foods, they will be prepared as foods and eaten as part of the meal, either as salads or in some other form in which we customarily take vegetables. They would not be given in doses to be taken at regular intervals for their alleged pharmacological actions. Certainly, when they are put into the bath water or in compresses (poultices), they cannot be digested, absorbed and assimilated. No man can claim that such employment of herbs constitutes their nutritive use. The obvious fact is that all the pretense that herbs are employed as foods is but rationalization. They are used as drugs or so-called medicines. They are not employed in health, but in sickness. Some of them are employed to reduce fever; some are employed to relieve pain; some are employed to occasion diarrhea; some are employed to occasion diuresis; others are employed to stimulate the patient and they are used in a variety of so-called therapeutic ways.