I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Blumenthal, Founder and Executive Director of the American Botanical Council (“ABC”), last Friday. Mark is a big deal in the herbs industry. Not only was he a pioneer in the herbal supplements business, he also co-founded the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) as well as the Herb Research Foundation (HRF). And now, as head of ABC, he champions the cause of herbs by presenting peer-reviewed, well-supported, accurate, and reliable scientific evidence of their efficacy to the industry. Without him, there may very well not be an herbs industry. Which is why I was so excited that he consented to give me an interview…I was so happy, I didn’t even care that it was at a blisteringly early time (hey, 8am PST is the crack of dawn for me). So get ready for a LONG POST – this man has got too much wisdom to be shortchanged. We talked about everything from herbs to the FDA to advice for Moms wanting to give herbs to their children. Here are the highlights:
What led you to be interested in herbs in the first place?
43 years ago, I was graduating from college with a degree in Political Science. I had planned to go to graduate school to get a PhD to teach college. I knew I was going to get drafted for the Vietnam War, like many hundreds of thousands of young men at the time, and I became very introspective about the sanctity of human life. I’d never even liked shooting the birds and animals the few times I went hunting with my friends, let alone listening to the nightly radio broadcasts of the number of soldiers killed on each side. They reported it like they were baseball scores. So I went vegetarian as a war protest, and began helping natural food stores. They carried vitamins and dietary supplements and herbal teas on the wall. I was fascinated. I picked up all kinds of herbal literature and noticed that most was folkloric in nature, and so I started studying wild plants and herbs as a hobby. And that changed my life. I met a guy selling ginseng roots and together, we started a company. He dropped out after one year, while I stayed 12 years. We were among the first people who helped shape an incipient herb industry.
Why does it seem like everybody in Europe knows so much more about herbs (and uses them so much more) than we do in the United States?
In Europe, herbs were never considered alternative because they had been used going back hundreds of years. Their medical systems (at least the French and German ones) continue to educate about the use of herbs and how to employ herbs in clinical practice. The Europeans found a way to embrace modern medicine and still hold onto herbal traditions and recognize the value of herbs.
Back in the 60s, when I was getting ready to go to high school, I heard people talking about whether they should take Latin or German as pre-med students. That was because in those days, the leading pharmacological texts were in German. The Germans and the French developed regulations over the last 30 years that include and value herbs for self-care and health care. In fact, this led to the development of the German Commission E monographs, which I purchased and had translated into English to become the founding text for ABC.
For Moms who don’t know, can you explain what the Commission E was?
The German Commission E is like our FDA-equivalent. They put together a panel of experts in medicine, pharmacology, and pharmacognosy (the study of drugs and their natural origins) and wrote monographs on herbs that the German government then used as the basis for approving herbs (or disapproving them) for certain uses. Included in the monographs were information on plant parts, dosage, duration of use, plant origin, how to use the herb, drug interactions, and the guidelines for responsible use in Germany. They looked at 380 herbs – no other industrialized nation has ever taken on such a large project.
And what was your goal in having the monographs translated into English and published here in the U.S.?
So that people here could see what a leading industrialized nation like Germany had done as a rational approach to determining which herbs have the scientific information to justify herb claims. We wanted to give members of Congress the message that “these herbs are not necessarily exotic and unsafe.” We wanted to show them that this information is from the German government’s FDA, who looked over these herbs for the last 15-17 years, and that we in the U.S. could use it as a baseline of information – so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Oh, and by the way, wouldn’t this be an interesting model for us to consider doing?
So why didn’t our FDA undertake a similar effort regarding herbs?
We never could get an American Commission E off the ground because there was no political intent or funding. You see, the Germans approached herbs as drugs, which they are. Our FDA approaches herbs as food supplements, which they are. And that sounds like a contradiction, which it is. Until you understand that herbs fall along a continuum, and they range from spices and culinary accessories on the one end, to dietary supplements in the middle, to over-the-counter and prescription drugs on the other.
Did you know that over here, you can buy aspirin or Midol anywhere and everywhere, whether a convenience store or a truckstop or what-have-you? In Germany, you cannot buy over-the-counter medicines anywhere other than pharmacies. They just have a different regulatory system and a different cultural attitude towards herbs and drugs.
One thing I hate is that as Moms, we’re always told to tell our doctors what herbs we’re using for ourselves and our children. And it seems that our doctors always tell us not to use herbs for ourselves or our children. So what is the point of telling them?
Yes, doctors will always say, ‘When in doubt, don’t.’ And they’re the ones in doubt, because of their lack of training in this area. This is especially true of pediatricians, who have to treat our most vulnerable and youngest patients, the babies and children, who lack the liver enzymes to effectively process herbs. So this creates a situation where the pediatricians are understandably concerned and take a prohibitive stance towards herbs.
What 3 books on herbs for kids do you think should be on every Mom’s reading shelf?
- Kathi Kemper, “The Holistic Pediatrician: A Pediatrician’s Comprehensive Guide to Safe and Effective Therapies for the 25 Most Common Ailments of Infants, Children, and Adolescents.”
- Aviva Romm, “Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health.” I think there’s a chapter in there on herbs and pediatrics.
- Mary Bove, “An Encyclopedia of Natural Healing for Children and Infants.”
What is the one piece of advice you would give to mothers who want to give herbs to their children?
If a mother wants to give herbs to her children, she should try to become knowledgeable about every herb or herbal combination that she intends to use for herself or her children. Self-medication requires self-education. If you’re going to take the initiative to medicate yourself outside the domain of your personal physician (you should still tell your doctor, so s/he can at least put it in your chart), then you need to have a condition that is a) self-diagnosable; b) self-treatable; and c) self-limiting. This last one means that in most cases, it will improve whether you treat it or not. For example, colds, flus, sore muscles, aches, pains, indigestion, etc. Most OTC medications or drugs are intended to treat ailments that will improve anyway (that’s why the FDA approves these).
Let’s say you are going to use willow bark for headache instead of Tylenol or aspirin. Let’s say it persists for a day or two and you are unable to get relief from herbs or Tylenol or aspirin…it’s possible that what you have is not self-treatable because it is a brain tumor. If symptoms persist, consult a physician. You may have misdiagnosed your condition. The point here is education. The point here is to understand the parameters of self-medication.
Does that mean that every Mom has to become a herbalist in order to use herbs on her children or just not use them at all?
It doesn’t mean she has to become an herbalist, but it does mean that a mother should learn as much as she can about the herbs she wants to use on her child. For example, let’s say she wants to use Chamomile and Anise and Fennel and Catnip. It would be a good idea for her to do some reading on these specific herbs, and there is certainly plenty of information available out there.
And much of it is available through ABC, which is why as a Mom, I find my membership in ABC so useful. Thank you so much for your time, Mark.
Thank you, Mare. I enjoyed myself very much.