New Zealand is a nation of pill poppers. The pharmaceutical model is so firmly entrenched in our healthcare system that we barely think about alternatives - got a headache, take a Panadol; suffering from insomnia, swallow a sleeping pill.

But scientific research undertaken over the past few decades has revealed some legitimate alternatives to Big Pharma. Used for thousands of years to treat a plethora of health problems, plant-based remedies are now being recognized as an efficacious means by which to heal some of our ills.

There have been around 3,000 randomised controlled trials in plant medicine, many of them positive results.

In a randomised, double-blind trial conducted in the Czech Republic, a freshly harvested hot echinacea drink was proven to be as effective as the "gold standard" antiviral drug Tamiflu at speeding recovery from flu.

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A number of international trials have compared St John's wort to popular anti-depressants such as fluoxetine. These studies found that St John's wort preparations were as efficacious as synthetic antidepressants, but with fewer side effects.

Various trials have shown that hawthorn preparations have the same level of therapeutic benefits with the synthetic drug capotopril in mild forms of heart failure. And a valerian/lemon balm combination resulted in significantly increase in better sleep with no side effects as compared with the sedative triazolam and placebo.

"We have learned a great deal from these trials," she says Swiss-trained medical herbalist Sandra Clair. "Not only that plant remedies are more effective than placebo confirming empirical evidence, but they can also be equally as effective as pharmaceutical drugs, with the additional advantage, that they are safe and well tolerated."

Clair is currently completing her PhD in Health Science at the University of Canterbury in collaboration with the chair for Natural Medicine of the University of Z├╝rich, Switzerland. She is drawing upon an almost 500 year old Renaissance text entitled Materia Medica written by Dr Tabernaemontanus in 1588. This text records the plant medicine wisdom from ancient Greek, Roman, Arabic and Renaissance European physicians.

"It reflects a quantified approach to epidemiology and experimentally gained medical knowledge," she says. "The work's enduring clinical information is still relevant for contemporary medical herbalism and inspired many modern drug developments such as pain relieving morphine and honey wound dressings."

She feels that first world countries tend to have a "quick fix" approach to medical care.
"The main reason plant-based medicine has so little attention paid to it is that it is part of a holistic approach to health that includes lifestyle, mental, emotional, spiritual and environmental health," she says. "This sits at odds with the pharmaceutical model and a quick fix mentality that is prevalent in our society."

Modern, pharmaceutical-based medicine is in her estimation always looking for the "magic bullet"; the active chemical in plants that can be synthesised and patented.

"In reality this is not how plants provide their healing benefits. They are incredibly complex and sophisticated organisms with thousands of phytochemicals, and we simply do not have the technology yet to understand exactly how they work. What we find with pharmaceutical medicines is that you end up with side-effects, which don't occur if you use a whole plant remedy."

Clair was born and raised in Switzerland, where plant-based remedies are the first port of call for any health issues.

"In Switzerland plant medicine is a normal part of contemporary medicine and acknowledged as the basis of modern medicine with over 2,500 years of history. In fact, 60 per cent of the medicine sold in a typical Swiss pharmacy is plant remedies."

As a child she would spend days picking herbs as a child with her parents in the Swiss mountains to transform into remedies for the family, before training with a Swiss midwife in her 20s. Here she learned the art of plant-based medicine, going on to complete a master's degree in medical anthropology at the University of Berne in Switzerland and gaining health science qualifications in New Zealand and Australia.

Her current research runs alongside her work at Artemis, a plant-based health care company she set up in Otago in 1998.

"I started Artemis because I wanted to share the healing knowledge of Western plant medicine and provide effective tools for self-care," she explains. "True medicine should live on your kitchen bench not hidden away in the first aid cabinet."

Joanne Barnes is the associate professor of herbal medicines at the school of pharmacy at the University of Auckland. While she agrees that herbal medicines can play an important role alongside pharmaceuticals, she says that this needs to be within certain parameters.
"There is a place for both herbal medicines and conventional pharmaceuticals in healthcare, but it needs to be in the context of quality, safety and efficacy, or at least, effectiveness of the product for the particular indication," she says.

And she says that some herbal medicines can also have side effects, which need to be acknowledged when debating the pros and cons of plant vs pharma.

"Herbal medicines are chemically rich, complex mixtures: they contain hundreds of different chemical compounds, and these are likely to have multiple effects in the body. Ginkgo biloba for example has several different pharmacological effects. So, just like other medicines, herbal medicines can have adverse effects."

Clair is also cautious about the use of some so-called "natural remedies", and says it's important to differentiate between properly prepared plant-based medicine and the pills that litter the shelves of our supermarkets and pharmacies.

"Plant remedies are best taken in liquid form and not as tablets, because in liquid form your body gets more of the available nutrients," she says.

She feels that use of plant-based medicine will continue to increase alongside pharmaceuticals and more research is done around the subject.

"It's not question of "either" "or", but rather when to use the appropriate medicine for what particular health issue. Most of the time, plant medicine provides the help we need without compromising our health in the long term."

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