Better training could bolster herbalists' standing in medical sphere, expert says

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Image: iStockPhoto
Image: iStockPhoto

Related tags Herbalism

More specific training for herbalists as a way to bolster professional bona fides could go a long way toward burnishing the herbal industry’s image with the medical community, though it might not mean as much to consumers, a leader educator says.

Michael Tims, PhD, academic director of herbal medicine at the Maryland University of Integrative Health (MUIH), said progress has been made in translating the knowledge represented by accumulated herbal lore into a Western, allopathic mode but that much more needs to be done.

“I do think we need to figure how to better articulate traditional knowledge,” ​Tims told NutraIngredients-USA.

Personal background informs professional outlook

Tims has been instrumental in designing MUIH’s herbal eduction. In doing so, he was drawing on his own personal history in going from a practicing herbalist to a doctorate at the University of Maryland.

“I started out as a partner in a health food store in old town Alexandria (VA),”​ Tims said. In addition to running the store, Tims had an herbal practice, drawing on training he’d received from Roy Upton, founder of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia and others.

“I decided I was more interested in the plants themselves, so I went back to school and studied chemical ecology, or what the influences are that go into creating a particular ratio of compounds in the plant and therefore reflect their medicinal value,”​ he said.

Tims also did postgraduate work at the National Institute of Standards and Technology on its botanical reference standards program. Tims has also done work on developing analytical methods, in particular for comfrey, and helped develop methods for detecting toxin and metal contamination of TCM products coming out of Hong Kong.

That collective experience gave Tims insight into some of the strains in the modern marketplace, and reflects 

“Two big areas for our graduates are in clinical herbalism, setting up their own practices, or in herbal product design.  They have a strong botanical background and also have training in QA and QC.  They end up having a very strong wellness bent,”​ he said.

Translating herbs for allopaths


As herbal products slowly become more familiar to, and to some degree more accepted by physicians trained in the Western model, Tims said there continues to be a need to put information about these products into terms that these clinicians will gravitate toward.

“I think one of the biggest issues is finding ways to educate non herbalists in the allopathic medicine arena as well as consumers about what really is meant by quality herbal medicine,” ​Tims said.

“If you do a Venn diagram of traditional knowledge about herbs and evidence-based science, the overlap of these two is pretty obvious. But when you talk to doctors about this and they think, these herbalists aren’t even licensed, they don’t always get it. We are seeking to produce graduates that speak the language of science and that of allopathy and have a grounding in the long history of herbal use,”​ he said.

Quality control issues

Many of the questions raised about herbal products on the part of physicians revolve around their quality control, or lack thereof. Pieter Cohen, MD, of Harvard Medical School, has been a strident critic of the dietary supplement industry and has published a series of reports that cite the presence of dodgy ingredients masquerading as herbs in pre workout products. Tims doesn’t deny that herbs have become the disguise du jour for ingredients of dubious provenance.

“We have always had illegal drug dealers who have thought they could make as good a living in the herbal supplement market as they could in the drug market,” ​Tims said.

The solution, he said, is stronger supply chain management and quality control. But that plays into what Tims sees as a major threat for the future of the industry, that being finding a way to address those concerns while still being able to foster the entrepreneurial spirit of the business. It would be a shame if small producers were driven out of the industry because of the fallout from the actions of a few high profile bad players, Tims said.

“The smaller producer right now is under tremendous pressure. I don’t think FDA is coming out of left field with rules that make no sense. But how they inspect things, that’s part of the political arena. The things an entrepreneur has to go through to start their company is so much greater now than it used to be. Any industry lives off of its entrepreneurs,” ​he said.

Tims said more comprehensive eduction of herbal experts will help bolster the industry’s standing both with regulators and the medical community. But he doesn’t necessarily believe that a licensing scheme would mean much for consumers.

“We need to continue to work toward a strategy around how to get allopaths to explore the benefits of herbs in their practices. What’s the right amount of evidence-based science in a  hostile media environment? 

“Is it time to go ahead and get licensed? I think that could influence the clinical side of the equation. I’m not really sure it would have much of an effect in the marketplace. In this age of the Internet complex issues don’t play well,” ​he said.

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