Polytheistic Ethics: Herbal Healing

Although they are not doctors, herbal healers do need to follow the same code of ethics in regards to their healing of people. The first rule of medicine, “First do no harm” applies to herbal healers as well. However, since some inexperienced herbalists think that herbs do not harm people but that “patent” medicine does, they may unintentionally endanger their client.

Unlike allopathic medicine, herbs do not react the same way in every person’s body. Moreover, since herbs, as a rule, are not regulated by any government authority, a batch of herbs could be contaminated without the herbalist’s knowledge. Also depending on how each herb is grown, it could interact potentially ineffectively with other herbs in a potion. Dr. Stephen Barrett (psychiatrist) of “Quackwatch,” writes that “Herbs in their natural state can vary greatly from batch to batch and often contain chemicals that cause side effects but provide no benefit.” He continues, “Many herbs contain hundreds or even thousands of chemicals that have not been completely cataloged.” Then he adds, “To make a rational decision about an herbal product, it would be necessary to know what it contains, whether it is safe, and whether it has been demonstrated to be as good, or better than pharmaceutical products available for the same purpose.” An experienced herbalist will find out the possible side effects of the various herbs he uses. Also, he will inform his client of any potential problems with taking a particular herb.

Furthermore, unlike medical doctors, herbalists are not certified by a nationally recognized board. The late Dean of Purdue University School of Pharmacy, Varro E. Tyler observed that many herbalists learned their craft through lore and tradition as well as being taught by other herbalists. Dr. Tyler believed that the safety and efficacy of herbs were not always known except through hearsay. Therefore, he urged herbalists to avail themselves of recent studies on herbs. Also, he advised them to keep careful records on how a specific herb affected each of their clients.

However, inexperienced herbalists may unconsciously apply the logical fallacy of “appeal to antiquity” to their craft. (If it worked in the past or believed to work in the past, it will work in the present.) Since few records were made or scientific trials conducted in the distant past, beginning herbalists may think that the herbs that they use are always effective. For example, the herb Echinacea is believed to eliminate colds. However, recent scientific studies have demonstrated that this herb to be ineffective with colds. According to Michael Specter, “The New Yorker” science writer, Echinacea caused a rash in children who received it for colds.

A careful and ethical herbalist will understand the caveats of using various herbs. To ensure the safety of her clients, she will keep abreast of studies about herbs by scientists. The herbalist will take detailed medical histories of her clients to determine if they have problems with any herbs. By keeping accurate records, the herbalist can constantly assess the effectiveness of her herbal potions. Through these efforts, the herbalist can empower her patient to make an informed decision about his herbal treatment.

As a patient, I have a duty to guard my health and well-being. Therefore my responsibility is to inform the health practitioner of my medical history. For example, I have mold allergies, and need to be careful of any medicines that are prescribed for me. Since I had a brain bleed, I also need to know if any medicines will cause blood thinning or bleeding. As a rule, when I am meeting with a health practitioner, I give them a card with my particular medical needs. I do not use the herbalists that I personally know, because they do not know how their herbs and the powerful brain medications that I take will interact. My responsibility to myself and to the healer is to inform her of anything that will cause any adverse problems for me.

Another logical trap that an ethical herbalist avoids is “If it is natural, it is good.” This is the “appeal to nature,” which follows: “if something is natural, then it is safe and effective.” The corollary of this logical fallacy is “anything artificial is bad and hence unsafe.” However, the concept of what is “natural” can be vague since poison ivy is natural but unsafe. A diligent herbalist would know that some herbs are safe because they have no side effects, while others need to be used with care. The fact that the herbs are natural would not automatically make them safe for everyone. For example, garlic will lower cholesterol but has anticoagulant properties, according to Dr. Barrett. Therefore in my case, garlic would be problematic since there is a potential risk of my blood not being able to clot as needed. Taking any medication, whether herbal or manufactured, has a risk for any patient, which the healer would need to know about.

Another ethical breach is the “appeal to custom.” In the “Science-based Medicine Blog,” Dr. Steven Novella (neurologist) pointed out that the herb aristolochia has been used since the time of the Ancient Greeks for join pain, amongst other things. However in the 1990s, it was proven to cause kidney failure. This adverse effect became first known when several people in Belgium developed kidney problems after taking aristolochia. Because of previous faulty records, no one had made the connection between this herb and potential harm to the kidneys.

Therefore when consulting an herbalist, ask questions. Find out what his philosophy in healing is and if he has committed any of the logical fallacies about herbs. Besides knowing the limits of herbs in healing, the client also needs to know when to consult a doctor.

Works Used:
Atwood, Kimbal, “Science, Reason, Ethics and Modern Medicine” series. Science-Based Medicine Blog. Web. http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/science-reason-ethics-and-modern-medicine-part-1/.

Barrett, Stephen, “The Herbal Minefield.” Quackwatch. 19 August 2012. Web. http://www.quackwatch.com/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/herbs.html.

Curtis, Gary, “Logical Fallacies: The Fallacy Files.” Web. http://www.fallacyfiles.org/index.html

La Puma, John, “Ethics of Alternative Medicine: The Unconventional Has Its Place.” “Managed Care.” November 1998. Web. https://www.managedcaremag.com/archives/1998/11/ethics-alternative-medicine-unconventional-has-its-place.

Morningstar, Sally, “The Art of Wiccan Healing.” Hay House: Carlsbad (CA). 2005.

Novella, Steven, “Herbal Medicine and Aristolochic Acid Nephropathy.” Science-Based Medicine Blog. 11 April 2012. Web. https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/herbal-medicine-and-aristolochic-acid-nephropathy/

Singh, Amrit Pal, “Ethics in Herbal Medicine.” Southern Illinois University, Ethnobotanical Leaflets 11: 206-211. 2007. Web. http://www.ethnoleaflets.com/leaflets/ethics.htm

Specter, Michael, “Bad Medicine: Why Echinacea Won’t Fix Your Cold.” “The Independent”, 9 October 2010. Web. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/bad-medicine-why-echinacea-wonrsquot-fix-your-cold-2099551.html


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