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Herbal medicine goes mainstream: Breaking it down with Dr. Oz

April 24, 2014 at 11:40 AM ET

Video: The health guru joins TODAY to give us the scoop on herbal medicine and discusses some of the latest treatments.

Herbal medicine is moving into the mainstream at one of the nation’s top hospitals.

At the Cleveland Clinic, Eastern and Western medicine are being practiced alongside each other. The latest addition to the mix is herbal treatments, which have been used in China and other eastern countries for centuries.

“There are more ways of healing than just our conventional medicine,” Dr. Melissa Young, of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine, told TODAY. “It doesn’t have to be an either-or, and we’re seeing, I think, the best results often when we can combine both philosophies.”

Much of the research on using herbs as medicine has been done outside of the United States, but doctors at the Cleveland Clinic believe herbs can be effective when properly administered and monitored, as they can contain contaminants or be toxic if used improperly.

“I think there’s this misconception that if something’s natural, that it’s safe, and that’s not always the case,” Young said. “They really need to be under the guidance of an integrative physician who has experience and training in this field.”

At the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine, patients need a doctor’s referral to see a Chinese herbal provider, and their care is monitored by doctors. It is not covered by insurance, so patients pay out-of-pocket.

Dr. Mehmet Oz told TODAY’s Matt Lauer that he “adores” herbal medicines and applauded the Cleveland Clinic. But he stressed the importance of receiving herbal treatments from a knowledgeable provider.

“The Cleveland Clinic and other major institutions are beginning to incorporate these ideas, it makes it safer for all of us,” he told Lauer. “This is the world’s medicine. It’s been there forever. We should take advantage of it.”

The Cleveland Clinic is one of a handful of clinics around the country to offer herbal treatments, according to The Wall Street Journal, and skepticism remains. Medical experts warn that some alternative medicines can be dangerous — particularly if patients skip proven remedies in favor of something more "natural."

"The evidence base for these approaches using modern rigorous methods of randomized trials is quite thin," Josephine Briggs, director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, told the newspaper.

One of the biggest complications of herbal treatments and spices is that they can affect the prescription drugs a patient is already taking, Oz told TODAY.

“These things are powerful,” Oz said. “You need to talk to someone who is knowledgeable in this area. Not all doctors are knowledgeable in this space. So just nudge and push and shove and change the system.”

At the Cleveland Clinic, when patients meet with the herbal specialist for the first time, the provider spends an hour taking a detailed medical history, reviewing past conventional care, including any medications and supplements being taken, and discussing the patient’s symptoms, Young said.

Among the conditions that Young said are well-suited for Chinese herbal medicines are menopause, premenstrual syndrome, insomnia, chronic pain, digestive disorders, headaches and chronic fatigue.

On TODAY, Dr. Oz highlighted several popular natural treatments that he said have promise:

  • Cinnamon. Oz said this spice can help with sugar levels and that diabetics and prediabetics should be taking this spice, which can help the liver deal with insulin better.
  • Mint. Oz said mint is good for digestive health and helps increase gastric secretions and helps the intestines relax. “Mint’s wonderful for bellies,” he said. “The beautiful thing about mint is you can take it in a tea form, so it’s easy to do every single day.”
  • Sage and rosemary. When people were given sage oil and tested for word memory, Oz said, there were “dramatic improvements in their ability to process information and memorize it.” Rosemary, he said, helps improve alertness. 
  • Parsley. This herb helps protect the eyes from ultraviolet radiation and is a diuretic that can flush extra fluid from the body, Oz said.
  • Valerian root. “This is nature’s Valium,” Oz said. “It’s very powerful.”

Oz said that quality control is sometimes absent from the making of herbal treatments, and said he will discuss the issue of medicines not containing what they claim to on upcoming editions of “The Dr. Oz Show.”

Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Stacey Naggiar, an associate producer with the NBC News Medical Unit, contributed to this report.

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