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Herbal Homework

Those are herbs. Herbs are good for kids.”

She must have been in her 60s, a kindly looking woman who had probably worked at the health food store since the days when East Orange, N.J., had been a place you’d expect to find a health-food store. She was talking to a small kid, but really talking to the kid’s parent, and gesturing broadly to a wall full of medicinal herbs.

I probably stared for a while as I absorbed her preposterous statement, but then went quietly about my shopping. It’s one of those head-slapping moments you remember for years because you wish you’d said something. Not to the store clerk, who was surely set in her beliefs, but to the parent. Something like: “That’s as silly as saying ‘medicine is good for kids.’ ” Or maybe “Anything strong enough to have an effect could also have a bad effect if you used it wrong.”

I thought of this little incident recently when I read an article about pennyroyal. A very strong member of the mint family, pennyroyal is often used as a pest repellant, especially in herb flea collars. It’s also known as an herbal abortifacient. As a college student, I kept a small jar of it around, and occasionally brewed myself a cup when I had a little reason to be nervous. I wasn’t the only one.

Turns out I was lucky. The article I was reading, which was in a pro-herbal medicine publication, explained that we’ve found that way pennyroyal “works,” when it does, is probably by causing liver damage, straining the liver enough that the body thinks “I can’t handle this and be pregnant!” One young woman died from ingesting a not particularly large amount. It’s only speculation, but I can also trace the onset of my supernatural sensitivity to caffeine (which is broken down in the liver) to the era of my pennyroyal use. Coincidence? Who knows.

The point is, I was a chemistry major and not a super credulous person. And yet when the herb store I visited in New York City made a point of labeling its pennyroyal as for external use only, I thought it was merely politics—specifically, skittishness about abortion. That was surely plausible. Witness, after all, how merely wanting to celebrate the inauguration and using the generic phrase “freedom of choice” has brought the anti-abortion forces howling down on Krispy Kreme.

Looking back, I can see that clearly I should have done my homework more thoroughly. But that thought is enough to make me want to hibernate until some new golden age of holistic medicine.

Thing is, homework about medicine and other health-care options is, in my experience, generally miserable and unsatisfying, full of blatant contradictions that are hard to assess without hours of reading.

On the one hand you have the medical establishment supposedly representing the forces of science and reason. The only problem is, they’re legendary for refusing to admit what they don’t know, and also for getting some pretty basic things wrong. Think infant formula, thalidomide, routine hysterectomies for “hysteria,” or “smoking is good for you.” Or look at their current economically motivated fight against home birth, which is not supported by evidence-based medicine (much like many of their birthing practices).

Among my peers I’ve discovered that most of us feel that a majority of the time we not only know more than many doctors we’ve seen about what’s going on with our own bodies or our children’s bodies, but also more about the options for treatment (even the regular medical/Western ones). We’ve caught them doing tests wrong (one doctor tried to prescribe me drugs I didn’t need based on an inappropriately conducted cholesterol test) and giving out misinformation (infants can’t be lactose intolerant, but a surprising number still diagnose it). We still need them, but the level of independent work it takes to get proper care, not to mention all the non-covered expenses, is high.

The doctors are accompanied by the proud skeptics, who feel they are responding appropriately to widespread anti- science gullibility by loudly and condescendingly pooh-poohing any “alternative” treatment that comes their way. Often they are right, since there’s plenty of nonsense out there, some of it dangerous. But I’ve also seen some of them dismiss things abut which I’ve read peer-reviewed confirmation, and plenty of others dismiss the possibility that something might work on a physical level just because proponents explain it in mystical language, not because it actually doesn’t make sense.

In fact, there are scores of “traditional” remedies that have been proven to work, even if the traditional practitioners didn’t know why. And there are others for which we don’t know why they work, but they seem to do so. Not only that, but they sometimes work when Western medicine doesn’t. The body is a complicated place that we are still a long way from figuring out.

And yet, as with the pennyroyal, there are some things we ought to call foul on, some things scientific research can tell and has told us with reasonable certainty. It’s easy to get lost in a thicket of snake-oil salesmen and well-intentioned promoters of alternative therapies that are no better than a placebo, and sometimes much worse. The perspective of the woman in the health-food store is dangerous, and all too common. Traditional doesn’t always mean good—some folk remedies involve scattering elemental mercury around your house. And “Western medicine” isn’t always bad.

Unfortunately, it seems like each of us has to navigate our way among all this information ourselves. There’s no trustworthy one-stop-shop, though I certainly put that on my cosmic wish list quite a while ago.

For now, I keep my skeptic on one shoulder and my willing-to-give-it-a-try persona on the other. Sometimes, in the midst of their constant chatter, I do make some useful discoveries. Too bad they have to feel so hard won.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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