By Sara Altshul
Updated: September 23, 2010

alternative-herbalIstockphotoI've been reporting on the wild world of alternative medicine since the mid-nineties. I've gone to herbal seminars held in rustic, remote lodges. I've attended lectures at Columbia and Harvard about acupuncture, qigong, Reiki, aromatherapy, healing touch, and even the power of prayer. I've ventured to Cuba, Italy, Costa Rica, and Germany to discover that in countries other than ours, doctors who use "natural" medicine are more the rule than the exception.

I'm not just an observer of alternative medicine, I'm also a user—especially of herbs. When I feel a cold coming on, I reach for echinacea and it usually stops symptoms in their tracks. I've learned not to loathe the musty taste of valerian, an herb proven (scientifically and personally) to help induce sleep. I swear it's also the reason I have such interesting dreams: Last night's featured Clint Eastwood in a supporting role. And I'm about to start dosing with ginkgo: There's scientific evidence it improves circulation to the brain and may buck up my fading memory.

My experience has taught me that everyone reacts differently to herbal medicine. I took black cohosh for a year or so to chill out my menopause symptoms, and was thrilled when it slashed my hot flashes from several a day to one or two. But when I recommended it to my BFF Duston, it gave her terrible headaches. She ended up taking Prozac, which she says worked just fine.

From the weird to the wacky
When I found myself at the Natural Products Expo East—a trade show featuring 2,100 exhibitors offering thousands of herbal supplements—in Boston last weekend, it reminded me yet again how tricky it is to choose a good herbal product. There were herbs in every possible incarnation, including practically handmade medicines from veteran herb companies like Herbalist & Alchemist and Herb Pharm Inc. There were weird and wacky products: herbal detox kits illustrated with disgusting photos of the ropey green gunk you excrete after use, and herbal foot pads that supposedly draw toxins out of your system through the soles of your feet.

So it seems timely to offer some guidance about selecting a good herbal medicine. Here are few tips I've learned after years of consorting with experts.