Herbal Drugs: Usage trends

Last modified: Sunday, 31. May 2009 - 4:00 pm

Scope and severity
Estimates of herbal drug use in the United States vary, depending on how the researchers define herbal drugs and what types of questions they ask in their surveys. However, all research indicates that the use of herbal drugs grew substantially during the 1980s and 1990s. Sales of herbal drugs increased by as much as 20% per year during these decades, far outpacing sales of conventional drugs. By most estimates, Americans spend more than $1 billion each year on herbal medicines. A report prepared by the Nutrition Business Journal estimates that Americans spent more than $4 billion on herbal drugs in 2000.
About 14% of the U.S. population uses herbal drugs or other dietary supplements, according to a telephone survey conducted by the Slone Epidemiology Unit of Boston University. The results of this survey, which asked participants if they had taken an herbal remedy during the past week, were published in a 2002 issue of JAMA.
Another survey published in 2000 yielded a much higher figure for herbal drug use. Forty percent of patients at a health maintenance organization (an HMO) took herbal drugs, according to a survey published in the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association. The herbals most frequently used were garlic, aloe, cranberry, and echinacea.
Age, ethnic, and gender trends
According to the Slone survey, middle-aged men and women tend to be the most frequent users of herbal drugs or dietary supplements. However, researchers found that it is mostly young men who take the supplement creatine, which is promoted as a muscle builder. Older men most often took saw palmetto and also the dietary supplement glucosamine, which is believed to combat arthritis. Older women most commonly took ginkgo.
A survey of 272 college students found that almost half, or 48.5%, reported taking an herbal drug within the past year, according to a study published in the Journal of American College Health. Echinacea, ginseng, and St. John’s wort were the most popular herbals among these college students, and the study found no significant difference in herbal drug use between males or females, or among students of different ethnic backgrounds.
Elderly Americans take their share of herbal medications, according to a study conducted by the University of Michigan and presented at the 2002 annual meeting of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry. This survey of elderly veterans with depression or dementia found that 20% of them were treating themselves with herbal drugs. Of the elderly patients using herbals, 33.3% used ginkgo, 26.7% used St. John’s wort, and 20% took other herbs.
Ethnic trends
Because herbal drugs are a relatively new phenomenon, little data exist on differences among ethnic groups in herbal drug use. However, a study published in the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association in 2000 concluded that Hispanics used herbal drugs more often than whites, and that Hispanics and whites preferred different methods of taking herbal drugs. After administering a questionnaire to patients age 65 and older at a senior health center, the study’s authors determined that 77% of the Hispanics used herbal remedies, as opposed to 47% of the whites. (The overall usage rate was 61%.) In addition, Hispanics preferred herbal teas, while whites most often took their herbals in a capsule or tablet form.
Herbals around the world
Europeans are even more enthusiastic than Americans are about herbals. Europeans spend three times as much on herbal drugs as Americans do. In Germany, two-thirds of the population uses herbal drugs, according to one poll. Herbal medicines make up about 30% of all drugs sold in German pharmacies, and German physicians routinely prescribe these medicines. Part of the reason for the greater acceptance of herbals in Germany is that the German equivalent of the FDA strictly evaluates and regulates herbal products, so consumers feel more confident about using them.
Worldwide, more than 80% of the population uses herbal and folk remedies. In developing countries where many people do not have access to modern health care, traditional folk medicine is the only option.

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