Book Reviews

Tyler's Honest Herbal, A Sensible Guide to the Use of Herbs and Related Remedies

by Steven Foster and Varro E. Tyler

The Haworth Herbal Press, Inc. 10 Alice St., Binghamton, NY 13904-1580. Published 1999. 442 pages. Hardcover. Fourth Edition. 1999. $49.95.
(Price/availability info may have changed since original publication of review.)

and

Tyler's Herbs of Choice, The Therapeutic Use of Phytomedicinals

by James E. Roberts and Varro E. Tyler

The Haworth Herbal Press, Inc. 10 Alice St., Binghamton, NY 13904-1580. Published 1999. 287 pages. Hardcover. New Edition. $39.95.
(Price/availability info may have changed since original publication of review.)

Reviewed by Robert R. Chambers (5/1999)

These books on medicinal herbs are written with a technical approach by authors who are respected professional pharmacists. If you are interested in herbal remedies, I believe both books are worth your consideration.

Dr. Tyler was the first president of the American Society of Pharmacognosy, president of the American Association of the Colleges of Pharmacy and Professor Emeritus of Pharmacognosy at Purdue University.

Tyler points out that herbal remedies have again become popular. A century ago herbs were the basis of a large part of medicines, and until 1882 were described by The United States Pharmacopoeia. We are well aware that many commonly used pure drugs today were originally found in plants. Nevertheless the field is not entirely respected by many people because most herbs have a mixture of active ingredients, including toxics in some cases. This makes it difficult to know what level of activity an herb preparation has, or indeed what dosage is desirable. The FDA basically ignores the field and many people in the medical profession consider it fundamentally unprofessional to prescribe herbs at all.

The authors of these books admit these facts, but they are proponents of herbal therapies and do their best to pick reliable information out of a rather voluminous unreliable literature. Given the mass of useless testimonial articles handed out in health food stores, these books struck me as a welcome intellectual oasis. Still, the amount of useful information they provide is rather limited because of the lack of scientific studies. (Such studies are expensive, and there is little potential payback because the herbs are well known and not patentable.) But there definitely are herbs that have statistically meaningful benefits.

There is another side to the story. Starting largely with the application of sulfa drugs in the 1930s, the pharmaceutical industry has, with immense success. developed pure drugs that are aimed at specific conditions and in many cases provide very quick relief. However, treating the body is a little like gardening. There are a great many complications possible, especially over the long run. We keep seeing hints that it is not feasible to check for all long-term side effects of fast acting drugs. The authors admit that most herbs are not suited to conditions of acute distress. However, in terms of helping the body to develop its own defenses and adapt to various slow changes, some herbs taken in small doses over a long period may provide benefits the potent, quick-acting, pure drugs available do not. At any rate, many people seem to like the idea of treating themselves with herbs, and these books are the kind of careful recommendations I think would be desirable reading material for them. Tyler's Honest Herbal describes and comments on, often critically, over 100 of the most popular herbal remedies. The writing is good, and it makes interesting reading.

Herbs of Choice discusses various medical conditions, such as in the digestive system, respiratory tract, bones and joints, etc., and comments on herbal remedies that have been recommended. The comments are very practical and often reflect a preference for one herb over another. In addition, the authors cite cases in which a particular herb may be harmful. Not infrequently they point out that preparations made from certain species are much more active than a more common related herb sold under the same name.


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