Friday, August 19, 2011

Natural Medicine and our Planet: A Cautionary Tale

My life has been a bit chaotic and my body is letting me know. Aches and pains, tired- all I feel like doing is popping extra strength Advil and sleeping. A recent visit with my cousin has brought up discussions on healthcare and natural medicine. 

Now, to be honest, I strongly believe that we need to be careful about an extremist type of view that can crop up when talking about healthcare in yogic circles. Western medicine can be helpful and life saving when necessary. That said, as a pagan and Planet Lover, I feel like we can reconnect with our roots in a lot of ways that are easier on our bodies, Spirit and Planet.

A Recap on Pharmaceuticals and our Planet:
Canadians spent 20$ billion on prescription drugs in 2005 (not counting over the counter). Aggressively tested on animals (and reportedly on our world's poorest peoples- see "The Body Hunters" by Sonia Shah).

WASTE: Big Pharma pumps out billions of pills a year; 
Water wasted per day: 266 millions gallons (way back in 1990!)
Much of the chemicals and solvents used are considered untreatable by regular wastewater treatment systems and are hazardous. 

Pollutants spewed in our air: cyanide, VOC's and neurotoxin toluene (among many others).

Pollutants in our water: From 50 to 90% of the active ingredients aren't broken down by our bodies- they're peed (and pooped). Some of them can't be broken down by sewage plants (IF your city has one, Halifax was without for over a year. All those drugs and raw sewage straight into the ocean). Anti-seizure drugs for example. Although no research has revealed that these drugs (over 100 different kinds in the US and Europe) are having an affect on humans, estrogen from birth control pills are feminizing fish all over. (Ecoholic 2006 p. 45)

'I use only Natural, Chinese-Ayurvedic-Tibetan medicine, so I'm not contributing' you say?

It would appear that many 'Natural' medicines don't really give a crap about the environment or how the ingredients are harvested. 
(Echinacea field- credit here)

Wildcrafted herbs can be some of the worse. We think of them as being 'better' for us because they shouldn't have pesticide residue, but there is basically zero regulation regarding limits for harvesting these herbs. Ingredients like ginseng (now on the Canadian Federal endangered list), wild echinacea (endangered in the US) and lady slipper (endangered in both Canada and the US), licorice root (depleted by 60% in the wild), goldenseal (officially a threatened species in Canada) are disappearing in the wild due to overharvesting (Ecoholic 2006, p.48).

According to the WWF, of the estimated 40,000-50,000 plants used in natural medicines, most are harvested from the wild. Of course, like all large crop farming, huge plantations of herbs and popular ingredients have been pushing food crops out in countries such as China. (Ecoholic, 2006 p. 48).

Since natural medicine is also less stringently regulated, contamination can be a concern. In 2005 Health Canada issued a warning that some Ayurvedic tablets were contaminated with high levels of lead, mercury and arsenic. In 2008, a study found that of 230 requested Ayurvedic products, 20.7% contained heavy metals (all of which exceeded 1 or more standards for daily metal intake). The study is fabulous, if you're interested you should check it out: 'Lead, Mercury and Arsenic in US-Indian...'.
Adria Vasil of Ecoholic recommends that you purchase authorized natural medicine with an 8-digit Drug Identification Number(DIN), Natural Product Number (NPN) or homeopathic number (DIN-HM).

Natural Medicine Musts:
Wildcrafted: if you're interested in supplements, look up your ingredient and find out if it's endangered (Nova Scotia's Species at Risk). Check out smaller, local companies with fabulous reputations.

Organic herbs are great solutions to avoid pesticides and sustainable harvesting.

Avoid animal ingredients at all costs. So many species are being killed to extinction for benefits that have not been supported by research. Never worth it.

Eat healthy, stay physically active and most importantly: don't discount western medicine. The best healthcare would be a natural, preventative balance of both eastern and western working together.

Blessings to your and the planet's health!

article and photograph copyright of EcoYogini at


  1. I grow most of my own herbals because of the very issues you raise. It's pretty disturbing how plants like goldenseal are both over harvested and also misused on a regular basis. And furthermore, I feel more connected to the life cycle of the plants in my garden, that I have watched grow, have watered, pruned, and supported. A lot of folks seem to forget that in the rush to replace big pharma with herbals. I still think it tends to be better to use herbals for most issues, but you learn an awful lot more from the plant itself by watching and aiding it to grow.

    Even if people don't have gardens, just growing one or two of your favorite herbals in pots is worth the time and effort.

  2. @Nathan: oh my goodness, that is a FABULOUS idea. great solution :) I agree that watching the life cycle of a plant would do much to increase our appreciation and connection with the herbs we use for our health. (just like having chickens, or living on a farm would also help us connect with our food).

  3. It's a common misconception that just because something's "alternative" in one way, it must be cool in all other ways, as well.

  4. Great article, :). I didn't know that ginseng was endangered. There used to be small crops grown on the north shore (and perhaps elsewhere), but I haven't seen any in years. I have also noticed the fad that surrounded it a few years ago seems to have died away a bit. I wonder if that has something to do with it being endangered.

    I wonder if there were issues with cultivating it?

  5. This is such a major issue that I've been reading about for the past year. And don't forget Indian sandalwood - endangered! :(

    I've been so lucky to have an Oregonian herbal supplier for the business that sells many items that are wildcrafted and that buys from small farms with carefully controlled harvests. Sometimes, herbs I need simply are not available for months at a time - and I'm fine with that, because I know they are responsibly harvesting! I am also trying to grow more and more of my own - my goal to is to grow 90% of my own herbs! Someday....

    Check out Anima Healing Arts - Kiva Rose's blog. She writes about responsible plant stewardship, sustainable herbalism, etc. It's awesome.

  6. I agree with Nathan. I have garden plans to incorporate more medicial herbs and flowers in my garden. As a paganish and planet loving person, as well as someone who "suffers" from a disease, I find complimentary medicine and prevention to best option for me.


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