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The Honest Herbal.
by Varro E. Tyler, Ph. D. Third Edition, 1993. The Haworth Press, Binghamton, NY. Softcover, 375 pp. $25.95. ISBN 1-56024-287-6 Hardcover, $44.95. ISBN 1-56024-286-8. Available from ABC Books, item # BOO5.

In recent years, few books have had as great an impact on the herb scene as The Honest Herbal. First published in 1982, then as a second edition, The New Honest Herbal, in 1987, this title has been quoted by more journalists than any other herb book. A printout of herbal titles from the FDA's library reveals that it is their most important herb reference. Of the dozen or so titles they rely on, The Honest Herbal is the only one for which three copies appeared on their list. What makes this different from all the other herb books out there is that the conclusions on safety and efficacy are often negative rather than positive -- or so it was with the two previous editions.

The new edition of The Honest Herbal is a welcome update of recent advances in research on many medicinal plants, while reflecting the need to look at these plants and their products for what they are. Tyler approaches the subject from the perspective that there is nothing magical or mystical about the properties of herbs. Rather, regardless of the regulatory status or legal advantages of calling herbs something other than "drugs," Tyler views herbs as therapeutic substances which, by definition, are drugs. He takes the position that they must be administered in proper doses, over a specified period of time, in order to attain therapeutic benefit, Each herb must be considered on an individual basis. Some, according to Tyler, are safe and effective. Some are neither. And, as is the case with all medicines, there is a risk-benefit ratio, that is, herbs may produce undesirable side effects. The author recognizes the explosion of interest and research in herbs over the past ten year s, with scientific advances occurring mostly in Europe, where products sold as health foods here have legal status as accepted drugs.

Admittedly, the author writes, "If it errs, it errs on the side of conservatism because its author believes that drugs of any kind, natural or synthetic, prescription or self-selected, should improve the consumer's health, not cause it to deteriorate. That is what herbal medicine -- or any kind of medicine -- is all about."

Some readers of the book may have an adverse emotional reaction to a statement such as, "Deficiencies in activity, safety, and quality all make scullcap a good herb to avoid." However, it is impossible to argue with that statement from a scientific perspective, given the absolute void of modem studies on the plant, associated toxicity, and difficulties in ascertaining the true source plant in the market. Indeed, Dr. Tyler is correct.

The new edition of The Honest Herbal has chapters on over 100 of the most commonly used herbs and their therapeutic uses. Six new monographs, not included in previous editions, have been added on cranberries, ephedra, ginkgo, milk thistle, suma, and tea tree. Other monographs, such as those on echinacea, chamomile, feverfew, ginger, and goldenseal, have been substantially updated to reflect new scientific research on these herbs.

The Honest Herbal is exactly that -- the honest assessment of one of America's leading natural products scientists, and one of the leading advocates of the rational, safe, and effective use of herbs as drugs (and not just as single isolated compounds). It doesn't matter whether you agree with Dr. Tyler's conclusions or not. If you are involved in any aspect of herb use for health, this book is on your required reference list.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By Steven Foster