By Erika Schwartz, MD

Long before the advent of modern medicine, herbs were the main sources of remedies for most ailments.

As Western medicine developed, scientific proofs and so-called evidence-based medicine (which pretty much means pharma-run research) took center stage and moved herbalist, ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medical practices onto the snake oil or “unproven” side of the ledger.

As a result, many doctors, myself included, are not trained in the use of medicinal plants. Yet ironically, conventional medicine and the pharmaceutical industry have thrived by refining the active ingredients in many of these plants.

A perfect example is the drug digoxin, which for decades has been the mainstay in preventing heart failure. This drug was the result of concentrating and purifying the active ingredient in digitalis – the name for a group of foxglove plants – which does significantly improve cardiac function, in the right dose, of course. Since medieval times, we’ve known that giving someone a potion containing a high enough dose prompts a deadly arrhythmia and a ticket to the tomb.

Another not-to-be-ignored example of plants leading the way of drugs is the all-too-well-known and overused class of opiates, made from the poppy, that beautiful red flower. They include morphine, Vicodin and Oxycontin.

Perhaps the best-known and most widely used drug to come out of horticulture is good-old aspirin, made from the salicylic acid found in the bark of the white willow tree.

Less well-known, but gaining recognition, is the use of yam and soy oils to make female hormones.

Both contain the active ingredients phytoestrogens and isoflavones, which  can be turned into the bioidentical versions of estrogen and progesterone. (Their scientific names are 17-beta estradiol and micronized or natural progesterone.)

But you’re not going to be able to combat the effects of menopause – irregular bleeding, mood swings, hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia, weight gain, depression, loss of sex drive – along with preventing bone and heart disease by slathering your face in yam cream or drinking soy milk by the tons.

It’s only with the help of the pharmaceutical industry that these “natural,” “bioidentical” hormones can be made.

So don’t be afraid of medicinal plants or of what the pharmaceutical industry has done with them. In many cases, pharma has taken plants known for thousands of years to create drugs that save millions of lives. The industry has used old knowledge to create modern medication.

But there’s a difference between being unafraid and being foolhardy. While you shouldn’t be intimidated about taking plant-based concoctions or any drug, you should be smart in choosing. Know what you’re taking. Do your research. And above all else, work with a doctor who, too, is smart.

Smart enough to know about plant-based medicines – and smart enough not to prescribe something he or she knows nothing about.

For more information, please email Dr. Erika at

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