According to the latest data from the World Health Organization (WHO), Geneva, Switzerland, international her�bal trade now tops $60 billion. What's more, approximately five billion people use plants as medicines for conditions ranging from the common cold to cancer. In addition, plant medicines are employed by physicians worldwide and are administered in thousands of hospitals. Botanicals also serve as the source for many pharmaceuticals in use today, including taxol for cancer and the alkaloids vincristine and vinblastine, de�rived from the Madagascar periwinkle, for Hodgkin's disease and leu�kemia. Given these facts, isn't it ironic that herbs are labeled as alternative? With more people worldwide employing plant-based medicines than synthetic pharmaceuticals, the "alternative" moniker becomes more ludicrous as time goes on. One thing is clear: herbal medicines are here to stay.
The Bombproof Categories & Herbal Standouts
In the herb sector, certain categories always sell well-weight loss, brain/ mood health, energy and sexual function. The first category has been the fo�cus of intense scrutiny most recently, not only because of ephedra, but also due to overweight/obesity becoming a major health issue worldwide.
With respect to ephedra, FDA finally showed its hand in 2003 by announcing its ban of the popular herbal supplement, which officially took place on April 12th this year. Although FDA's action may have been construed as heavy-handed, it did one very good thing for the herbal industry-it demonstrated that the American public is well protected from any herbs deemed unsafe and that FDA possesses significant regulatory control over herbs. So while many companies may rue the ephedra ruling, FDA may no longer protest that its hands are tied. That fact, plus numerous other regulations concerning herbal purity, proper identification, sanitation and safety, certainly add up to significant regulation of herbs. In reality, FDA's action demonstrated that the only thing that has been lacking since the passage of DSHEA is proper enforcement.
With ephedra gone, extracts of yerba mat� (Ilex Paraguariensis) have become very visible in the weight loss category. Yerba mat� has a long history of safe use as a beverage among large populations. It suppresses appetite and possesses thermogenic and diuretic properties.
For brain function, there is no question that ginkgo sales will continue to grow unabated. There will also be a resurgence is sales for St. John's Wort (SJW), despite a study released over two years ago claiming SJW failed to treat severe depression (nothing does). Indeed, SJW has been well validated for its use in treating mild to moderate depression. Although kava has had it rough within the European Community, it will rise again over the next couple of years. Kava extract has been marketed in the U.S. since 1900, it was a registered drug for nervousness until the late 1950's, it has a 3000-year history of safe use among millions of people and Duke University has clearly stated that kava is every bit as effective as prescription drugs for treating anxiety. For these reasons and others, kava will remain a popular choice for managing stress and anxiety.
For energy, stamina and endurance, look to adaptogenic herbs, such as Eleutherococcus senticosus (formerly known as Siberian ginseng), Panax ginseng, Notoginseng, Ashwagandha and Rhodiola rosea, to take the lead in this area. All of these herbs enhance energy and stamina, boost the immune system and help improve cardiovascular and mental function. Each herb has also been extensively studied and consumed for centuries by people around the world. Extracts of these botanicals are going to become increasingly popular over the next few years.
Amidst the plethora of purported sex-enhancing botanicals, look to maca and Tongkat Ali to emerge as winners in this category. Maca (Lepidium meyenii) is a tuber found in Peru that has a long history of safe use as a food. It imparts energy and endurance, while significantly boosting libido among men and women. Tongkat Ali (Eurycoma longifolia) originates from Southeast Asia, notably Malaysia, where it has been used as a libido-enhancer for centuries. Tongkat Ali extract enjoys a wealth of scientific substantiation and human clinical studies showing significant improvement of libido and erectile function. If there is truly an herbal Viagra, Tongkat Ali extract is the top contender for that title.
Herbs for Serious Conditions
Although herbal supplements are not supposed to be marketed to treat or prevent disease, consumers are using them in part for these reasons. Considering that pharmaceutical drugs are the number four cause of death among American adults, it is no wonder that people are looking for other ways to treat health problems. As the American public continues its disenchantment with the pharmaceutical industry, expect more consumers to utilize botanicals for increasingly serious health issues, such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, arthritis and diabetes.
With approximately one million American adults dying annually of heart attack, expect a significant rise in sales of hawthorn (Crataegus species), red rice yeast (rich in cholesterol-lowering statins) and resveratrol (from Polygonum cuspidatum).
Another major health issue is stroke. Half a million Americans suffer a stroke annually and over 30% of them die. In China, the most effective drug for treating stroke and the paralysis associated with it is Lifeflower (Erigeron breviscapus). Extracts of this plant are administered either through injection or in tablet form. Lifeflower is a tremendous life-saving botanical, which holds great promise for treating stroke patients in the U.S. In any fair medical system, Lifeflower would be enthusiastically embraced by the medical community. But because this miracle medicine cannot be effectively patented by any pharmaceutical company, in the U.S. it is a dietary supplement.
The cancer rate is now rampant, with one out of every three Americans afflicted in their lifetime. Although there is no definitive plant-based cure for cancer, more cancer patients will be supplementing their therapeutic programs with Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum), una de gato (Uncaria tomentosa) and turmeric (Curcuma longa). These botanicals all possess cancer-fighting properties and may aid in recovery.
Here's another sobering statistic, by 2020 60 million Americans will have arthritis. Drugs for this condition are not always effective and frequently possess side effects. In addition, there are ex�tremely expensive. While sales for glucosamine/chondroitin products will most likely increase, look to Boswellia (Boswellia serrata), Nettle (Urtica dioica) and Devil's Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) to become superstars in this area as well.
Each year, 625,000 new cases of diabetes are diagnosed, and while juvenile (Type I) diabetes requires insulin therapy, adult onset diabetes (Type II) can often be managed by dietary means. For regulating blood sugar, expect to see increased attention paid to banaba (Lagerstroemia speciosa), Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum graecum), Gymnema sylvestre, Bitter melon (Mormordica charantia) and Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum). Of these, banaba is likely to become the top seller due to its efficacy.
Approximately 30 million American women are entering menopause these days, and with Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) now known to increase the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, women are scrambling for safer alternatives. That said, there will be a significant increase in sales of black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), vitex (Vitex agnus castus), Dong Quai (Angelica sinensis) and red clover (Trifolium pra�tense). Of these, black cohosh will most certainly be the category winner.
At the same time that women are dealing with the onset of menopause, ap�proximately 50% of American men over age 50 will be managing benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), also known as enlargement of the prostate. To treat BPH, men will increasingly look toward saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), Nettle (Urtica dioica) and Pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo). Saw palmetto is the clear winner in this category, with clinically reported efficacy equal to that of expensive prescription prostate drugs. There is also pygeum (Pygeum africanum) as well, however, this herb has been so grossly over harvested, it may no longer be considered a viable remedy.
The Dawn of a New Era
Speaking of over harvesting, most her�bal supplement companies have paid very little attention to where herbs come from, how they are harvested and how much (or little) native people get paid for their efforts. Unfortunately, this has been going on for decades and recent studies show that this oblivion could destroy the industry. Currently, numerous botanicals in trade are endangered-goldenseal, black cohosh, American ginseng, pygeum and many more-because they have been over-harvested in the wild. In addition, indigenous native people have been largely exploited in the herbal trade, paid entirely too little and offered no benefits of any kind. As a result, the herbal industry will be forced to understand the ramifications of over harvesting and put its efforts increasingly toward sustainable trade.
So what is sustainable? As sustainability relates to herbs, it includes three major components: Producing a product that imparts a healing benefit; practicing cultivation and harvesting methods that do not damage the natural environment; and being involved in trade that results in sharing profits or resources with traditional cultures. An excellent example of sustainable plant trade is being executed right now by Sambazon, which trades in the Amazonian A�ai fruit (Euterpe oleaceae). The nine thousand a�ai harvesters who work with Sambazon are paid a higher than commodity wage, the harvesting is conducted according to protective agro-forestry methods and all the ingredients harvested are certified organic.
Sustainable trade lies at the heart of the international Convention On Biological Diversity (CBD), a treaty signed by 175 nations (not the U.S.) in 1992. CBD calls for environmental protection and benefit sharing with indigenous native people. But CBD is just a wish list until companies comply.
Small companies are not the only ones pushing sustainable trade. Aveda, the cosmetic giant owned by Est�e Lauder, is actively seeking sustainable ingredients such as Australian sandalwood (Santalum album) oil and Vanuatu Tamanu oil (Calophyllum inophyllum). Its trade programs involve fair wages, environmental protection programs and community development for indigenous people. At least one processor of New Zealand Manuka oil (Leptospermum scoparium) works hand in hand with the indigenous Maori in a scheme involving fair wages and community development.
In the early 1970s, those who promoted organic agriculture were openly laugh�ed at. Well, nobody is laughing now. Sustainable botanical trade practices are long overdue and are clearly the next big issue. The days of environmental devastation and native exploitation must come to a definitive end, for everybody's sake. It makes no sense for the herbal industry to profit from ecological damage and biopiracy.
As the herbal category continues to thrive and prosper, there is a remarkable opportunity to provide the public with effective health products for a plethora of needs. At the same time, it must be insisted that herbal companies in the natural products industry engage in environmentally protective activities and actively share benefits with indigenous native people. It has already been proven that organic agriculture works, and works well. Sustainable herbal trade is clearly the next frontier.NW
About the author: Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter and the author of 13 books. He is "Explorer In Residence" at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he teaches ethnobotany. He can be reached at email@example.com.