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Book Review
Earl Mindell's Herb Bible (1992)

Author: Earl Mindell, R.Ph.
Publisher: Fireside Books/Simon & Schuster, New York, N.Y.
Reviewed by: Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D.

Earl Mindell, co-founder of Great Earth Vitamin Stores, has added another biblical work to his collection (Earl Mindell's Vitamin Bible, Earl Mindell's Vitamin Bible for Kids, and Earl Mindell's Pill Bible). This new volume bears the same relationship to authentic herbal information that tales of the Old and New Testaments simplified for children have to the Revised Standard Version. Yet even that analogy does not apply perfectly, because biblical stories retold for juveniles are usually faithful to the original. This herbal is characterized by numerous sins of commission and omission, as well as by a large number of weasel words like "possible benefits," "may help," "often used," "long used," "have relied on," "touted as," "is believed." Such constant equivocation should cause a careful reader to question the validity of any of the information. Pharmacist Mindell states that he owes his lifelong interest in herbs to a college course called Pharmacognosy 101. Pharmacognosy is the science of medicines from natural sources. As a professor in that discipline, I must say it is unfortunate that he did not go on to Pharmacognosy 102.

Following an introductory chapter, the author presents brief monographs on herbs and their uses, which he classified into different chapters on the basis of their popularity, traditional use, geographic origin, recommended availability, female and male specialties, preventive application, cosmetic employment, and fragrance.

Contrary to Mindell's assertions, no substantial evidence supports the use of alfalfa tablets to relieve rheumatoid arthritis; dandelion (part unspecified) does not help rid the body of excess salt; the effectiveness of echinacea as an immune enhancer is not tied to its ability to cause a tingling sensation on the tongue; no proof exists that ginseng increases estrogen levels in human beings; silymarin is not "a flavonoid" but a mixture of flavolignans; two average-sized capsules of white willow bark will not contain a therapeutically effective dose of salicin; there is no reason to believe that yucca will relieve joint pain due to arthritis and rheumatism. His frequent failure to identify the part of the plant introduces many more errors. For example, in the "Ginkgo Tree" monograph he refers to ginkgo as an "ancient remedy." While this is true for the fruit of that plant, it does not accurately describe the leaf extract that has come into such wide usage recently.

Errors of omission are nearly as frequent. An authoritative work would have noted the effect of capsaicin on substance P and the fact that it alleviates pain only after long usage. The toxicity of nordihydroguairetic acid in chaparral is not mentioned; nor is the irritant effect of juniper oil on the kidneys. The effectiveness of nettle root in the treatment of benign prostatic hypertrophy is not discussed. Recent findings concerning the potential toxicity of skullcap are overlooked. Nothing is said about the need to maintain an alkaline urine if urva ursi is to be an effective treatment for bladder and kidney ailments. Borage is recommended without reservation, in spite of its content of hepatotoxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids.

Proper nomenclature is especially important in an herbal guide to identify with certainty the source of the therapeutic agent under discussion. But he errs still further by misidentifying cascara sagrada as California buckthorn and citing obsolete botanical origins, such as Caryophyllum aromaticus for clove, Armoracia lapathifolia for horseradish, and Cardus [sic] marianus for milk thistle. The relatively unimportant Smilax officinalis is the only source listed for sarsaparilla. Ephedra sinica is not a source of Mormon tea, nor does the latter contain ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. Chaste tree is said to derive from Verbenaceae [sic] species, a family composed of about 750 different species in some 70 genera. In fact, it is obtained from only a single species, Vitex agnus-castus L. Hawthorn is not spelled with a final "e."

Some of Mindell's comments would be amusing if they were not so woefully inaccurate. The claim that goldenseal, a native of North America, was discovered by the aborigines of northern Australia denies credit to the American Indians who utilized it extensively before transmitting their knowledge of it to the early-day settlers. After noting that guarana seeds contain up to 5 percent of caffeine, he states that the plant is "reputed" to increase mental alertness and fight fatigue. This is an instance where the ever-present qualifier could have been omitted. The author's statement that many herbs support the so-called Doctrine of Signatures (plant parts resembling a particular organ cure diseases of that organ) is without foundation. For every herb that appears to support this venerable myth, there are many that do not.

This elementary synopsis of herbal medicine is flawed still further by the inclusion of many unproven and inaccurate assertions regarding the usefulness of the plants discussed. As a sales tool for health food stores, it undoubtedly will do well. As "bible," it fails miserably. Why do you suppose a major publisher is willing to put its imprint on such a book?

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Dr. Tyler, who died in 2001, was the Lilly distinguished professor of pharmacognosy (the science of medicines from natural sources) at Purdue University. A world-renowned authority, he wrote The Honest Herbal, an evaluation of popular herbs, and was senior author of the textbook Pharmacognosy. This review was originally published in the September/October 1992 issue of Nutrition Forum newsletter.

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This page was revised on October 7, 2001.