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Health and Medicine

Exploradio: The lore and science of herbal medicine
Medicinal herb lore has been passed down through the generations, but tradition tells us, you first need to get to know your plant
This story is part of a special series.

Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
Both the flowers and berries of the elderberry have been used since prehistoric times as a tonic to treat respiratory ailments. The elderberry is the international herb of the year for 2013, but very few studies have been done to back-up the health properties of elderberry.
Courtesy of Bob Peterson, CC
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For thousands of years, people have treated illnesses with herbs. And plants are still the source of dozens of modern pharmaceuticals. 

But many people are rediscovering traditional herbal medicine, taking extracts, capsules, and infusions to treat everything from arthritis to Alzheimer’s, often with little more than vague information to back up health claims.

In the first of a two-part Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair looks at bridging the gap between herbal lore and modern science, starting with two people who say we first need to get to know the plants themselves.

LISTEN: Exploradio herb lore and science

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The word drug comes from “drogue,” an Old French term describing barrels used to hold dried herbs.  For centuries, people relied on the drugs in herbs to treat diseases, knowledge passed down generation to generation.  The Herb Society of America is headquartered in Kirtland, Ohio. It’s a national organization that promotes herbs and funds scientific research on the history and uses of beneficial plants.

Katrinka Morgan is executive director of the Herb Society of America, and Karen Kennedy is in charge of education.

Elderberry: International Herb of the Year

We chat on the back porch of their historic headquarters, as light rain waters the herb garden. Karen Kennedy introduces the international herb of the year, the elderberry. It's been used since prehistoric times as a tonic for respiratory ailments. Both the flowers and berries are used. Flavonoids in elderberries have been shown to have anti-viral properties, but very few human clinical studies have been done.

The value of traditions
Herb lore is in the realm of tradition, sometimes backed-up by science. While the active ingredients of many herbs are known, translating effects in the lab to commercial use can be tricky. Herb cultivation often requires specific conditions that are difficult to up-scale. Concentrations of active ingredients can vary. Preparation, storage, and administration of herbal remedies are difficult to standardize.

Still, the Herb Society's Karen Kennedy believes in the potential value of the herbal tradition. She says, "if a plant has been used for hundreds of years for a particular ailment, across cultures, my guess is there's something there that's real."  

The health benefits of the whole plant
Herb Society director Katrinka Morgan laments the loss of herbal lore over the years, although she says pockets of knowledge are retained in the American Appalachians and traditional cultures around the world. She says people have always learned the usefulness of plants growing near them, the original 'localism.'

Kennedy says people need to learn about the whole plant in order to fully benefit from herbs, not just reduce them to a single chemical ingredient. She says it's important to literally "smell the roses," and experience the sight, scent, and touch of therapeutic plants, to have some "down time with your little green."

The Herb Society encourages the interest and cultivation of herbs and learning herb lore, but director Morgan warns that many herbs have drug interactions with medications that need to be monitored by your doctor. For example, the ancient benefits of elderberries come with a warning, the unripe berries are poisonous.

Next week on Exploradio we’ll continue bridging the gap between lore and science by delving into local research on the wonders of pomegranates.

(Click image for larger view.)

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