Any gardener knows it: Plants have a mind of their own. One seedling erupts as if it were one of Jack’s own beanstalks. Another is shrunk and shrivelled and disappears within days. Likewise, the difference between the pale hydroponic tomato you pick up at the supermarket, and the robust red fruit you carry home from the farmers market.

So if neighborhood plants show a wide variety of growth patterns, traits and potencies, imagine the differences between plant-based—or herbal—medicines from around the world: same names, wide variance in potential outcomes. These alternative medicines are seductive, coming from the natural world, and many are supported by centuries of use in China and other ancient civilizations. Botanicals also offer another option to expensive prescription drugs offered by the pharmaceutical industry.

Those are just a few reasons why herbal medicines amounted to nearly a $30 billion market worldwide in 2017, and sales are expected to grow to nearly $40 billion by 2022.

But what benefits are alternative medicine seekers actually getting from the plant-derived pills, powders, seeds, tinctures, teas, lotions and other concoctions that purport to heal? And if there’s such a wide difference in potential outcomes from supermarket to farmers market, consider the variables among medicinal plants grown around the globe, and processed by companies based everywhere from Shanghai to Nairobi to Kansas City.

How to choose? How to use?

First off, don’t become overwhelmed. The sheer size of the market shows that people are being helped, otherwise it wouldn’t be growing the way it is. And the recent approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration of Epidolex, a plant-derived treatment for two forms of childhood epilepsy, demonstrates that there are indeed botanicals with verifiable healing powers.

Among the popular (but non-FDA approved) supplements: black cohosh for women’s health, echinacea to help the body battle infections and ginkgo biloba to boost memory.

Herbal preparations tend to be backed by anecdotal evidence, rather than clinical proof, so let the user beware. But there are ways to protect yourself, according to a Johns Hopkins University website devoted to herbal medicines that advises:

  1. Consult with your doctor before experimenting; many herbs are potent enough to clash with prescription medicines.
  2. Do your homework: Ideally the brand you buy will be conducting and publishing its own research, with suggested dosages.
  3. Watch for side effects and allergic reactions, to warn of potential negative outcomes.

Recent advances are giving consumers more control and certainty when it comes to complementary health treatments.

One way to consume certain plant-based medicines and speed therapeutic reactions: Inhalation via vaporizing device, which fosters quick absorption of active ingredients through blood vessels in the lungs.

You can now do a much better job of monitoring effectiveness and maintaining consistency. The Gofire ecosystem that includes a technologically advanced herbal inhaler, smart health app and community feedback on products, provides ultra-precise metered dosing and temperature control for inhalable medicines, and allows the consumer to keep track of results to best meet their personal needs and easily recreate desired outcomes.

So now it’s possible to conduct reliable citizen science on the most important test subject of all: yourself.

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