Herbal and natural remedies for everything from the colds to dry skin often come with Grandma’s stamp of approval. But clinical studies are backing up some of the claims that these alternative medicines and remedies actually work.
For thousands of years, traditional healers used birch bark to treat wounds and digestive upsets. But a recent German study published by the Journal PLoS ONE found that Betulin, the main active ingredient in birch bark extract, works with molecular mechanisms in the human skin to help heal wounds faster.
The study, which tested human and pig skin, found that birch extract helped wounds heal in two phases. First, damaged skin cells release proteins that produce temporary inflammation, which then attracts phagocytes, or cells that eat dead tissue and remove bacteria, according to lead study author Dr. Irmgard Merfort of the Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences of the University of Freiburg.
“Betulin, the main ingredient in birch bark’s extract helps produce more of the proteins that produces temporary inflammation. They do this by enhancing the time stability of the mRNA of these proteins and this mRNA stay longer and can be translated for a longer time in protein,” said Merfort.
In the second phase of wound repair, Betulin and another compound, Lupeol, cause keratinocytes, the cell most commonly found on the outermost layer of skin, to move quickly to the wound and close it. They do this by stimulating proteins that are involved in the restructuring of the part of the cell that forms its shape. Changing the shape of these cells is necessary for migration, according to Merfort and her team.
Merz Apothecary, natural health store and pharmacy in Lincoln Square, offers several products that contain birch, specifically birch leaf extract, including topical body scrub and cellulite oil to encourage healthy skin.
Birch can also be found in a lot of natural diuretic products, said Merz co-owner and pharmacist Michael Winter. “It’s used as a natural diuretic so they put it in some kidney and bladders teas and things like that, that are kind of just flushing the system,” he said.
Plenty of other traditional products have been tested clinically for effectiveness. A 1981 study in the journal Pharmatherapeutica found that taking glucosamine, a chemical that occurs naturally in the body and can be found in fluid around the joints, could be used to combat degenerative osteoarthrosis disorders, a joint disorder often seen in older patients.
Other everyday plants have been proven clinically effective in the past. A 1999 study published by Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine found that aromatherapy might be effective when used as a complementary therapy to manage chronic pain.
The oil from the peppermint plant was shown in a 2007 study published by Digestive and Liver Disease to ease the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome in the abdomen.
According to findings from a 2007 National Health Interview Study on the use of complementary and alternative medicine in the U.S., an estimated 38% of adults used some form of complementary and alternative medicine, up just over 2% from their 2002 study.
Survey results also indicated that 83 million adults spent $33.9 billion out-of-pocket on costs related to complementary and alternative medicines including practitioner visits and self-care therapies.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine defined complementary and alternative medicine as “a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices and products that are not generally considered par of conventional medicine.”
Winter said that Merz Apothecary, which was established in 1875, has a reputation for credibility because of their trained staff and licensed pharmacists on hand for consultation.
“People are just fed up with all the side effects of drugs, and the costs of drugs,” said Winter who said he’s noticed an increase in younger clientele. “They’re just looking at more natural approaches towards things.”
Winter said he advises Merz customers with any serious health issues to consult their doctors before trying alternative remedies. “I will tell them not to take something in combination with a lot of things their doctor is giving them,” said Winter.
Merfort also said to exercise caution when considering natural remedies over others. “In my opinion you cannot say that natural products are always better” than pharmaceutical ones, she said. “What you can say is that sometimes natural products are better, but it depends strongly on the diseases. However, natural products have been the first remedies for the treatment of diseases and they are still an important source for finding new drugs.”
Although data on current usage of these alternative medical systems is limited, continued clinical research trials on natural and homeopathic remedies can continue as funding for these projects has been provided through NCCAM and the National Institute of Health since 1999. The projected funding for 2013 was estimated at over $120 million.