Herbs Demystified by Holly Phaneuf, Herbs Explained by an Actual Biochemist: GUS Recommended

Posted on 26 Sep 2013 18:59


There have been books written by qualified scientists before. The problem is that most of these books were written by PhD's who never had any particular fascination with herbs. Maybe they just wanted to debunk them, maybe they wanted to praise them, but did they really understand why herbal medicine is so attractive? Did they come from this sense of discovery and curiosity, or was it from a standpoint of critique alone?

Hey, there is nothing wrong with some scientific critique of herbal medicine. I do it, in my own limited way, all the time. But something I've always said is that in order to teach people, you must be able to see eye to eye with them. See, I get it. I understand the attraction. I get the fascination. I share it. And so does Holly Phaneuf, the author of Herbs Demystified: A Scientist Explains How the Most Common Herbal Remedies Really Work.

Now, I want you to understand the title. Phaneuf, in the book, is not saying that all the herbs she reviews actually "work" as advertised. If there is a chance that they do work for ailments or conditions they are commonly prescribed for, she explains what this mechanism might be, based on the evidence for it. However, what she is really does is explains what herbs do and don't do, in our bodies. This is what she means by 'how herbs work.' I hope you see the difference as it may not be the best title for such a book, and I cannot attest that she wasn't pushed into this title by the publisher (I have no idea if this is what happened). I don't want to contact her to ask because from what I've seen I will probably find her quite likeable and then will feel like I'm having a conflict of interest for linking to her book with my Amazon link.


As she says near the beginning: "This book does not insist that you take certain herbs. Instead, it provides you with mechanisms for their actions, good and bad, and it is up to you to decide whether an herb's mechanism of action is appropriate to initiate in your own, unique body." The point is that herbs come with positive and negative effects and one herb may be okay for one person but have a bad effect on you, because of your unique health status.

Most people look at herbs in absolutes. Either they work or they don't work. For instance, I might say to a diabetic that they'd be crazy to ditch their insulin for cinnamon. That could be deadly, plain and simple. But this does not mean that cinnamon is not worth looking at for a diabetic, including an insulin dependent one. What you have to ask is what the book explains: What are the mechanisms of action? What chemicals are in there and what effect might they have in my body? What are the potential good effects? What are the potential bad effects? Say I am on insulin. Would cinnamon interfere with or complement insulin therapy? Beside blood sugar control, what else might it do in the body, and at what dose do these effects become apparent? We are looking for evidence of action but not just action we would like to see.

Anyway, the thing about Holly Phaneuf is that she loves science, and she loves plants. I mean, she gets excited by this stuff, man. None of the dry, boring, technical language that plagues other "sciency" books on the subject exist here. You can tell that she has long had a fascination with herbal lore. She wants this stuff to work as much as you do! This is countered by the scientist's need for evidence and her ability to go where that evidence takes he. The result is that this book has a refreshing balance. A book on the science, or lack thereof, on herbal remedies, written by a scientist who really digs the whole herbal thing.

Fifty six of the most commonly prescribed herbs are covered in the book. Each herb's section is laid out in the a similar way with these basic sections:

  • History and Folklore
  • How Scientist Think X Herb Works
  • Good Effects…And Not So Good
  • Evidence of Action
  • What's In It (box)
  • Commonly Reported Uses for X Herb (box, including common dosages)
  • The Bottom Line (this is basically the summary of key points)

In addition there may be other sections pertaining to circumstances behind the use of an herb or additional sections. For instance, arnica has a connection to homeopathy so there is a section on homeopathy in the arnica chapter. By the way, as Dr. Phaneuf reveals, arnica is sometimes called wolf's bane or leapord's bane (also spelled wolfsbane, etc.). If you research this, you might get confused because of another plant that shares these names, called Aconitum. Just throwing that in.

Phaneuf does an entertaining and thorough job of laying out the basic facts about each herb, it's mechanisms of action, potential positives and hidden dangers. Along the way she clues us in on some scientific sounding herbal jargon that is used to befuddle us. Like this gem in the chapter on Yerba Mate:

Mateine does not exist. It's a marketing gimmick. Some mate promoters say mate has no caffeine, but a mysterious, beneficial substance called mateine. They even say it is the mirror image of caffeine. This is simlar to arguments for tea containing the mysterious "theinine," or gurana containing the mysterious "guraranine." Don't buy it. All of these molecules are the same thing as caffeine.

I like this book and I think that it is, without a doubt, worth owning. Is it perfect? Of course not. I don't play that game. No book is perfect and cannot be improved upon. I would have liked to see more illucidation in certain chapters, including more of a handhold from Dr. Phaneuf herself. But you should buy it if you are interested in herbal medicine and especially if you are tempted to use herbs for whatever reason.

From the Publisher

As researchers and consumers alike become more aware of the power of herbs, more information is readily available--and much of it is conflicting or even potentially dangerous. Yet most resources simply prescribe herbs, without explaining how the herb works. Finally, Herbs Demystified provides scientifically up-to-date explanations for what herbs really do--in a clear, concise, user-friendly way.

A lifelong fascination with herbs led biochemist Dr. Holly Phaneuf to research their properties and the cause-and-effect mechanisms of herbal molecules in the human body. Answering basic as well as complicated questions about herbal remedies, Herbs Demystified is practical, easy-to-read, and extraordinarily comprehensive, covering every relevant topic, including:

  • Echinacea's long-debated healing properties
  • Lemon balm and sage as treatments for Alzheimer's disease
  • Tea tree oil's effectiveness in getting rid of bacteria--and its cost to your cells
  • Soy versus black cohosh for the prevention of hot flashes
  • Licorice's ability to heal ulcers--and cause overdoses
  • Garlic's effectiveness in preventing blood clots
  • Wintergreen as nature's aspirin
  • Aloe vera’s two forms--and the drastically different effects of each

Exploring more than fifty of the most popular herbs, from aloe to yohimbe, the oft-used ginseng to the less well-known turmeric, Herbs Demystified also contains:

  • How scientists think herbs work
  • Lists of common ailments and recommended herbs
  • Little-known dangers and warning labels
  • History and folklore
  • Good effects…and not so good
  • Commonly reported use and dosage

About Dr. Holly Phaneuf

Holly Phaneuf teaches college chemistry and has a PhD in medicinal chemistry as well as degrees in biology and chemistry, from the University of Utah. On her blog, she invites the reader to ask her a question about how an herb, medicine, or supplement might work at the molecular level and offers to answer the question in user-friendly, nontechnical terms.

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