Herbal medicine popular in bad economy

Consumers turning to cheaper, though less proven, alternatives

January 14, 2009


— The choice between $75 prescription sleeping pills or a $5 herbal alternative is a no-brainer for Cathy and Bernard Birleffi, whose insurance costs have skyrocketed along with the nation’s financial woes.

The Calistoga, Calif., couple seem to reflect a trend. With many Americans putting off routine doctor visits and self-medicating to save money, use of alternative treatments is on the rise — even though evidence is often lacking on their safety and effectiveness.

Climbing sales of herbal medicines have paralleled the tanking economy, according to an Associated Press review of recent data from market-watchers and retailers.

One prominent example: Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market Inc. says its stores nationwide have seen an increase in sales of nutritional supplements and herbal products in the past several weeks. That’s “noteworthy” given the retail industry’s financial slump, said Whole Foods spokesman Jeremiah C. McElwee.

While winter is usually a busy time for herbal medicine sales because it’s the season for colds and flu, “more people are value shopping” now because of the economy, McElwee said.

Cathy Birleffi says she’s among them.

“The doctors are so much higher (in cost), the insurance isn’t paying as much,” said the 61-year-old self-employed bookkeeper and notary. Her husband, a retired dispatcher, has high blood pressure and seizures. Recent changes in their health insurance coverage resulted in $1,300 in monthly premiums, double what they used to be.

Until they tried herbal alternatives, including valerian for insomnia, “every time I turned around, it was $50 here, $75 there” for prescriptions, Cathy Birleffi said.

High costs of conventional health care and worries about the economy also led Kristen Kemp of Montclair, N.J., to alternatives.

“Just going to the doctor will cost me $20 per kid and I have three kids,” said Kemp, 34. Prescriptions are $20 each, too, under the family’s insurance plan, so Kemp said she’s been giving her kids tea with honey for sore throats and various Chinese herbs for colds and stomachaches. At $10 for a big bottle, the herbs are cheaper even than regular over-the-counter medicines, Kemp said.

“I’m trying to save money,” said Kemp, an editor for Cafe Mom, a social networking Web site for mothers. Her husband is in the shaky banking industry.

“Just in case something bad happens to our jobs, I want more money in the bank,” she said.

Among data reflecting the trend:

l For the three months that ended Dec. 28, nationwide retail sales of vitamins and supplements totaled nearly $639 million, up almost 10 percent from the same period in 2007. That includes a nearly 6 percent increase in sales of herbal supplements alone, according to Information Resources Inc., a Chicago-based market research firm. Its numbers do not include Wal-Mart or club stores.

l Nationwide herbal and botanical supplement sales totaled $4.8 billion in 2007, when the recession began, up 4.3 percent over 2006. That was a marginally higher increase compared with the previous year, according to Jason Phillips of the Nutrition Business Journal, an industry-tracking publication. Sales of animal oil supplements — mostly fish oils — were up 29 percent from 2006. While that was a decline from the previous year, both categories continued to show strong growth in a faltering economy.

l A government survey released in December said concerns about the cost of conventional medicine influenced Americans’ decisions to try alternative remedies. “Nonvitamin, nonmineral natural products,” including fish oil and herbal medicines, were the most commonly used alternatives, taken by almost 18 percent of Americans in 2007, the report said.

Report co-author Richard Nahin of the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine offered cautionary advice on the topic.

People taking herbal and other supplements should let their doctor know what they’re using, said Nahin, acting director of the center’s branch that oversees outside research the agency funds.

Supplements and other alternative treatments don’t require rigorous testing and government approval. They also can interfere with prescription drugs, and combined, can be life-threatening in rare cases, Nahin said.


Leslie Swearingen 9 years, 4 months ago

Stupid, stupid, stupid, just because something is herbal or natural does not make it good or safe.Just think about the natural things out there in the world that you would not want to touch or put in your mouth.

cthulhu_4_president 9 years, 4 months ago

A long term study was released last month by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) on Ginko Biloba where they tracked a group of elderly citizens who were at high risk for dementia for 6 years. There was no evidence at all that Ginko prevented the onset of dementia and memory loss. In fact, instances of dementia were higher in the Ginko group than placebo, but the difference was not statistically significant. Also, upon testing 7 brands brands on the market, 2 contained adulturated product containing less than the advertised amount of ginko, and one sample was tainted with lead!!!Lots of people don't know how “alternative” medicines can interact, also. Ginko. for example, reacts with motrin and can create lethal bleeding if not discontinued 2 weeks before surgery. The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database lists Ginko as only “possibly safe” for regular consumption (not even “probably”!) and “probably unsafe” for women in pregnancy.People can badmouth the FDA and big pharma all they want, as they should because they are imperfect entities, but if the FDA isn't approving it, then that means its production process has exaclty as much oversight and safety regulations as your local meth lab.article:”However, it’s difficult to say if that level of use is harmful or beneficial because many therapies have not undergone rigorous scientific testing to gauge their effectiveness”Actually they have, and they have failed every time.By the way, in case anyone is interested in the study I mentioned, the testing of the 7 ginko brands was a different experiment than the study by NCCAM. The testing was done by

RedwoodCoast 9 years, 4 months ago

Herbal medicine is somewhat legit. I don't agree with all of it, but I challenge anyone out there who thinks it is a total sham to go out and buy some valerian pills and take about five of them an hour or two after you have awakened for the day.Also, for skeptics, check out the book (although I doubt any of you will) "Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine" by David Hoffman. This book actually goes into phytochemicals and describes what how the major phytochemical constituents of herbs affect one's body.The only reason that the FDA has not investigated the effectiveness of herbal remedies is because you can't patent an herb. On the other hand, if they ran across a plant with a particular phytochemical that could be synthesized and have that synthesis process patented, they would pay some attention. This is kind of a pet peeve of mine. It is my belief that the FDA and major pharmaceutical companies are in cahoots with each other.Take Marinol, for example. Marinol is essentially tetrahydrocannabinol (the primary active phytochemical in marijuana) that has been synthesized in a lab. The feds won't even consider making marijuana legal, but by golly, if someone can synthesize it in a lab, patent it, and make a buttload of money on their proprietary synthesis process, then they'll consider it. With the number of Americans taking herbal supplements these days, I see it as the FDA's duty to investigate herbal medicine in an objective (probably wishful thinking) manner.

Leslie Swearingen 9 years, 4 months ago

notnowdear please go back and reread my post. I did not write one word about the FDA.

cowboy 9 years, 4 months ago

One only needs to listen to the pharma ads , side effects may include delirium , stroke , 4 hour boners , severe depression , heart attack , skin rashes , on and on . Kinda scary. I agree that pharma , insurance , and private practices are the biggest enemies of good , reasonable cost health care in this country.

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