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Pharmacists are returning to their roots of natural therapies

After all but abandoning herbal remedies, pharmacists are rediscovering the value of the natural therapies.

A hundred years ago, pharmacists and physicians relied heavily on plant-based medicines. The mortar and pestle in every pharmacy was used daily to compound a variety of ointments, elixirs and potions.

But by the middle of this century, pharmacognosy _ the study of medicinal plants _ was losing favor. By the 1970s, most schools of pharmacy had phased out such programs. Manufacturers were focusing almost exclusively on synthetic chemicals.

Consumers who had started eating organically grown foods and wearing natural-fiber clothing were less than enthusiastic about taking synthetic drugs, however. In the '80s, herbal products started showing up in health food stores. And by the '90s such products composed one of the fastest-growing segments of the health care market.

A recent Gallup poll revealed that about one-third of Americans take herbal products. Most say such compounds are just as effective as standard medicines and safer than non-herbal treatments.

The phenomenal interest in phyto-medicinals is no longer relegated to health food stores. The products are flying off drugstore shelves. Still, pharmacists are often ill-prepared to answer questions from the public. Unlike their predecessors, they have spent little time studying the healing properties of plants.

That might change soon. Schools of pharmacy are rediscovering their roots, and pharmacognosy studies are reappearing there.

It probably will take years before pharmacists are perceived by the public as experts on natural remedies, as previous generations were.

Products such as Echinacea angustifolia, Ginkgo biloba, Glycyrrhiza glabra (licorice), Hypericum perforatum (St. Johns Wort), Leonurus cardiaca (motherwort) and Serenoa repens (saw palmetto) seem novel to pharmacists and aging baby boomers but were familiar to their grandparents.

Until pharmacy education reclaims its history, people who wish to use herbal medicines will need to do their own research on side effects and interactions. We have prepared a brochure that summarizes important information about some of the more popular plants. If you would like a copy of "Graedons' Guide to Herbal Remedies," please send $2 with a self-addressed, stamped No. 10 envelope to Graedons' People's Pharmacy, No. E-594, P.O. Box 52027, Durham, NC 27717-2027.

The next wave of plant-derived pharmaceuticals is likely to come from Germany, where interest has been high for decades. Products such as hawthorn, myrtle, horse chestnut and stinging nettle are growing in popularity.

Other continents probably also will contribute. You can expect such things as tea tree oil from Australia and perhaps diabetes treatments from the Amazon.

Health professionals need to become more knowledgeable so they can balance the benefits against the risks.

Q: I have always loved black licorice candy.

My acupuncturist recently recommended a Chinese medicine to treat my stomach problems. The medicine contains licorice. I've also found a delicious herbal tea that contains licorice root. Is it possible to get too much licorice?

A: Glycyrrhiza glabra, or licorice, has been shown to protect the stomach's lining from damage caused by aspirin and other irritants. But it is possible to overdose. Too much licorice _ even in candy _ can cause fluid retention, high blood pressure, heart trouble, muscle weakness, and hormone and mineral imbalances.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon holds a doctorate in medical anthropology and is a nutrition expert. They can be reached by e-mail at or in care of the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.