Herbs for Health: What’s the Cost to the Environment?

herbs.jpgEditor’s note: As part of his editorial internship with Green Options Media this Spring, I asked San Francisco State senior Oscar Cardenas to create a blog series that we could publish at the end of the semester. Oscar choose medicinal herbs and the environment for his broad topic — this post is the first of two on the subject. We’ve really enjoyed working with Oscar this Spring, and wish him well. The second post will be up next Monday.

If you’re a college student looking for an internship this Summer, we’re looking for web publishing and marketing interns.

A 2007 study of health practice trends cited in an issue of Alternative Therapies estimated that nearly 1 of 5 Americans reported using herbals for treatment of health conditions or for health promotion (Gardiner et al., “Factors Associated with Herbal Therapy Use by Adults in the United States,” 22-29). This translates to a multi-billion dollar industry that will probably only grow as public education and the cost of medicines continue to rise. This trend, which spells good news for herbal therapy retailers and users, does not come without its share of potentially negative environmental consequences.

At-Risk American Herbs

The rise of herbal medicine intake in the United States has led to threats to the native floral populations that make up those medicines. In 2004 the World Health Organization listed five American plant species including American ginseng, black cohosh, echinacea, goldenseal, and slippery elm as “at risk” for endangerment. A brief description of these herbs and their characteristics shows why they’re in such demand:

  • American Ginseng. Also called Panax quinquefolius, American ginseng shares many indications with its Asian cousin ranging from use as an aphrodisiac to enhancing stamina; however, common usage of ginseng is as an adaptogen to return one to a healthy state after exposure to a stressor. This plant grows wild in the eastern and southern United States.
  • Echinacea. The darling of the herbal healing trade, three species of echinacea (angustifolia, purpurea, and pallida) represent the bulk of herbal remedy sales in the U.S. accounting for over a hundred million dollars-worth sold in 2006, alone. Multiple studies have shown echinacea to have an impact on the severity and duration of cold symptoms. This plant is native to the eastern and central United States.
  • Goldenseal. Hydrastis canadensis grows wild in the eastern U.S. and parts of Canada. Used by Native Americans for centuries to paint skin and treat disease, goldenseal is touted to assist with coughs as an expectorant (induces coughing) and to treat minor wounds. (Note: despite rumors to the contrary, there is no proof that goldenseal clears urine of drug evidence.)
  • Black Cohosh. Cimicifuga racemosa, or black cohosh, has been in use for years to lessen menopause symptoms and fluid retention. The verdict is still out on this one and women who are or may be pregnant should avoid this one altogether. Use caution when mimicking hormonal activity with any substance. This plant is a native of the eastern United States.
  • Slippery Elm. Ulmus fulva (sometimes ulmus rubra or red elm), the slippery elm, is used to coat the lining of the stomach to soothe digestive irritation or topically to soothe irritated skin. There is still not much scientific documentation to support these claims, so be careful. This tree grows in the central and southern United States.

Many of the above medicinal herbs are not just in demand locally but across the world, as well. This demand will increase as public knowledge about their benefits increases. Efforts should be made to enlighten harvesters and consumers of the plight of these plant species in order to foster responsible consumption.

Also in the Green Options Media blog network:

Eco Child’s Play: Herbs for Kids

Eco Child’s Play: Homeopathic Pink Eye Relief

Image credit: Eggybird at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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