Herbal medicines, more and more, sit side by side with prescription drugs on many home medicine-cabinet shelves.
But they're not covered by insurance.
American doctors don't prescribe herbal remedies, and insurance companies do not pay for anything doctors don't prescribe.
The American Medical Association acknowledges that herbalism is common to traditional folk medicine systems and "has a long and honored history in medicine and pharmacy." A statement on the subject continues: "The problem is that many conditions for which herbalism is used are not suitable for self-treatment. With safe and effective medications available, treatment with herbs rarely makes sense."
Dr. Jerome Aronberg, a dermatologist in Clayton, noted that medical doctors are not trained in herbal medicine.
"If you come to most physicians and say you want to go holistic, we don't know what to do with you," Aronberg said. "That's not to say that some herbs aren't good or effective."
The World Health Organization estimates that 80 percent of the world's people uses herbal remedies. Outside the United States, governments regulate herbal remedies.
The U.S. government has only recently taken an interest in herbal medicine. The Office of Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, sponsors research to evaluate alternative medical practices, including herbal medicine. Established in 1992, the agency has provided grants for research on such herbal remedies as echinacea, ginkgo biloba, ginger rhizome, ginseng root, wild chrysanthemum flower, witch hazel and yellow dock.
The Office of Dietary Supplements Research just opened in December and is not yet up and running. When it is, the agency, also part of the National Institutes of Health, will be responsible for regulating herbs and other dietary supplements and deciding whether to allow manufacturers' claims for the products. If the office decides that a product presents a danger to public health, the agency will call in the Food and Drug Administration.
The Herb Research Foundation in Boulder, Colo., reports that sales of herbal remedies are growing at 12 percent to 18 percent annually. In 1992, the most recent year for which figures are available, Americans spent $1. …