Feb. 4, 2002 -- Pity the poor American male. He is told to master his fear of doctors' offices and his reluctance to talk about his problems. He has to learn stuff about his aging prostate. He should know by now that exercise is crucial to good health and a longer life, and that early examinations can prevent diseases from developing in the future. But his work is not yet done.
Now a segment of the health community is telling him that even if he follows all this advice, he isn't doing enough. He must master herbal medicine, too. But here is where the message gets messy, as many doctors won't recommend herbal or other natural treatments until scientists get a better handle on their safety and effectiveness.
The effects of herbal medicine are uncertain at best, since clinical trials are few, and in some cases, combinations of herbal medicines and prescription drugs can be harmful. Anyone taking them should first check with a physician, although doctors have a varying degree of familiarity with treatments not part of their mainstream.
Escalating Demand for Health Information
According to Publisher's Weekly, the number of new health-related books has more than quintupled in recent years, a result the Baby Boomer demand for information on how to significantly extend their lives. It amounts to a revolution in medical self-help and a desire to incorporate alternative therapies into traditional medical care.
Titles vary from Radical Healing to Alternative Medicine for Dummies, but the general message is that some naturally occurring substances may be good for you and, if ingested regularly, they may improve your health and quality of life.
Then the questions pop up, for men and women alike: Which herbs should we take? Are the claims true? And are these treatments safe?
There are some generally accepted alternatives to pharmaceuticals that seem to have significant effects in the body. Many doctors consider them placebos at best and, at worst, potentially harmful if taken in the wrong combinations or in too high a dosage. Other doctors point out that herbal remedies can prevent patients from taking more potent conventional drugs for conditions that, if not so treated, could become chronic. Still, doctors may recommend some herbal treatments to their patients. If more controlled studies existed, the list of recommended herbs would probably be longer.
Here's an Example
Take a condition like an enlarged prostate, for example. It's also known as benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) and starts to be a real menace to men after they reach 40. Don't confuse it with prostate cancer -- which kills approximately 40,000 Americans a year, according to the National Cancer Institute. BPH is not cancer, but it does produce unpleasant symptoms, including frequent urination. The causes of BPH are unknown, and prolonged cases often are treated with prescription drugs -- particularly finasteride -- to shrink the prostate.
But there is another approach recommended by the practitioners of alternative medicine, a natural distillation of the saw palmetto berry (Serenoa repens and other species). Saw palmetto grows wild and abundantly in semi-tropical conditions, and is available in capsule form.
The Journal of the American Medical Association last year reviewed several clinical trials of saw palmetto and reported that, although the evidence was not conclusive, saw palmetto appeared to improve urinary tract symptoms by about 25%. Interestingly enough, men taking saw palmetto were twice as likely to experience improvements as those who were taking a placebo.
After a man has tried saw palmetto, he may be more willing to try other herbs for other conditions. One of the most popular herbal remedies in America is echinacea, thought by some to significantly resist the onslaught of colds and other infections. Echinacea has many manifestations, but the three used medicinally are E. angustifolia, E. pallida and E. purpurea.
Study results differ on the effectiveness of this herb. Some tests indicate that echinacea may not prevent colds but that it does have an ability to lessen their symptoms and duration, while another study found echinacea may actually worsen symptoms of upper-respiratory infections.
Other Alternative Therapies Look Promising
While not an herb, soy may be a more potent protector. It contains isoflavones, an estrogen-like substance. The active ingredients, genistein and daidzein, block more-potent, harmful types of estrogen produced by the body, say its advocates, and it can help prevent cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis. Soy milk is an easy way to obtain the bean's benefits. Consuming soy directly as tofu is more effective than in such foods as soy "cheese" or "hot dogs."
Memory, something else of interest to men, just may be helped with ginkgo biloba, an ancient Asian remedy with loyal fans in this country. The leaf of the ginkgo tree, taken in extract, is believed by advocates to affect circulation and the nervous system. There is no evidence that it makes a man any smarter, but there are indications that ginkgo does slow memory loss in the aged and acts as an antioxidant in protecting body cells.
And that brings us to what is supposedly the most helpful, if controversial, alternative treatment, one that is supposedly good for most everything that ails us -- ginseng.
A dose of this Asian version of the ginseng root (Panax ginseng) is reputed to act as a tonic, battling fatigue, stress and cancer, and boosting the immune system by stimulating T-cells that then battle viruses and bacteria. Some practitioners even claim Asian ginseng (not the Siberian version) improves a man's potency and fertility.
Whether or not these claims are true, ginseng root simmered in hot water makes a good tea. The new, contemplative male may sip it as he weighs conventional health procedures with their many alternatives.