Dr. David Aseda Donkor

Mr. A. K visits a health facility with a myriad symptoms and signs. To mention a few are fatigue, yellow eyes, a distended abdomen, swollen feet, vomiting blood, and abdominal pain. A detailed history brings to light that he had been taking some herbal medication for his hypertension several months before the onset of the afore mentioned symptoms and signs. Elaborate investigations reveal that he has a problem with his liver. Other possible causes of chronic liver failure could not be found or elicited. The only plausible cause was herbal medication.

Among the many questions a doctor asks during the clinical inquisition to find out what ails a patient, is the very frequent “do you take any herbal medication?”. And if the response is in the positive, “For how long have you taken this medication?” and “By what route do you take said medication?” are the questions that usually follow. These questions are inescapable and many a patient may wonder why this is so and may ask themselves a question of their own “Why is every doctor I go to interested in whether I drink, inhale or even bathe a mixture of boiled leaves, roots or tree bark?”.

Across the many cultures that exist in the world today, these mixtures in their numerous forms, have been passed down from one generation to the next since time immemorial. They may have even at some point in time served as the stepping stone for what is called Orthodox medicine today. It is without that doubt that herbal medication assumes center stage in the healthcare system of many societies especially in Africa and in Ghana to be exact. This was even more so before the advent of westernization. The sick would visit a herbalist or witch doctor, whose duty aside divining the cause of the illness, was to mix the multiple components of various plant species to produce an elixir with curative properties. Their ability to do so was admired then and still remains enviable now, forever cementing their position in the healthcare system.

The purpose of this article therefore, is not to ridicule or attack the herbal sector. After all there have been a lot of success stories regarding the efficacy and potency of some herbal medications when used in the treatment of some conditions. Further credence is given to the importance of herbal medication by the introduction of herbal medicine as a course in various tertiary institutions throughout the country. Conversely this article in no way validates the inhumane and malicious use of herbal medicine as a blanket behind which substandard, havoc wreaking and health damaging local medications are sold or administered.

Also addressed within this write up is the fallacy that there is a bone of contention between the orthodox and nonorthodox fraternity. Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim of both parties at the end of the day, is to see the patient healthy, rehabilitated and reintegrated into society as a productive entity. Ergo orthodox and unorthodox medicine are different paths to achieving the same goal; a healthy patient. The ingredients and techniques used by both arms may differ at various levels but are aimed at the same outcome. Disagreements may exists on many fronts but never with regards to the welfare of the patient.

Despite this consensus, it would still be prudent to examine the differences between orthodox and unorthodox medicine in a bid to provide some clarity regarding their efficacies. Orthodox medicine has an unquestionable advantage when general safety of the populace is considered. Every medication that hits the market goes through rigorous trials at various stages of drug development all the while keeping to a well-planned timeline. With the help of carefully structured and meticulous experiments, the mechanism of action, appropriate dosages and most importantly the side effects of many medications if not all are well elucidated and documented. When medical doctors prescribe drugs for patients they are very well aware of the possible side effects that may occur if they do. In addition the medical practitioner is granted knowledge via the numerous tests run on the drug, to be able to carefully adjust the drug’s dose to reduce or completely eliminate the side effects. And if this proves difficult the medication might be changed altogether. In short, some measure of control over side effects is afforded both doctors and patients with regard to such drugs.

Herbal medications are largely prepared from the boiling of components of plants, from leaves all the way to roots. Most of these components possess substances that are potentially harmful to the human body. Alkaloids, a group of such substances, are injurious to some of the organs responsible for the elimination of toxic substances from the blood. The paucity of research regarding the mechanism of action, appropriate dosages and even side effects of most herbal medications impacts poorly on how they should be administered and what to expect by way of disease resolution and potential negative effects of such drugs. The fact that they are obtained from natural sources does not mean they are harmless. In fact they should be considered to have the proclivity of being much more harmful. Most preparatory methods of herbal medications are not able to separate the panacea from the potential toxin and hence the final product packaged for the consumer has a portion that is going to be beneficial and another that would do him harm. Fortunately, the great architect of the universe has endowed man with some organs and mechanisms that helps us to rid our bodies of the potential toxin.

Of the various organs in the body, the liver and kidney are the most unfortunate to endure the unrelenting barrage of toxic substance produced by any drug, mainly because they are the very same organs tasked with ridding the body of said substances. Like every machine, when certain parts are worked beyond their limits, the all too common cascade of wear, deterioration and eventually failure occurs. This is to say when people take herbal medications for a protracted period of time, especially the ones with a significant proportion of toxins, there is a high probability of developing failure of the liver and kidney. These organs will work tirelessly to rid your body of the harmful component of the herbal medication and after months to years lose the fight.

To reiterate, herbal medication is an integral part of our society’s healthcare system. My humble plea is to patronize it safely. The orthodox fraternity has never stood in the way of the patronage of herbal medication.  To see a patient get better as stated earlier, has always been the main goal, and if that happens via a drug bought from the drug store, a pot of boiled Neem tree bark or a concoction of bitter leaves is largely irrelevant. Keeping to the following pearls will guarantee that this goal is achieved if you choose herbal or unorthodox medication as your curative route. First, see your doctor about your decision to take herbal medication. Second, perform the basic lab tests recommended by your doctor designed to determine how your organs, most importantly your liver and kidney are functioning. That will serve as a baseline for future references. Third, commence your herbal medication at doses recommended by your doctor. Finally, frequent the hospital on a fixed schedule agreed with your doctor, for example, at every 3 or 6 months or yearly. During these visits your doctor would reexamine you just to be sure that your organs are not being affected negatively by the herbal medications and also to ascertain that the medication is effectively working. Simple steps yet lifesaving. It is worth mentioning that patients that followed these simple steps had damages to their liver and kidneys caught in time, and this damage reversed by stopping the medication for a given period. Again simple steps but lifesaving.

Remember both the medical and herbal doctor are in your corner to help you win the fight against that health condition. Exercise prudence and be safe.