SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Jerusalem -- Do natural remedies really work?
A new Web site devised by Israeli high-tech executives hopes to answer that question by providing information on thousands of health problems and possible natural remedies.
Although there are several databases of natural remedies available online, the creators of Mamaherb say their Web site (www.mamaherb.com) is the only existing resource for information provided by and updated by users. The Web site, which was launched in January, already has 8,450 treatments listed for 512 existing conditions.
Mamaherb.com is the brainchild of Tamir Goren, 46, Elad Daniel, 33 and Orni Daniel, 31. None are health care professionals. Goren came up with the idea of tapping into the experience of millions of Internet users after his 74-year-old mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and experienced severe side effects from chemotherapy.
"After excessive research (online and medical books) I learned about wheat grass - and it seemed to work," by easing my mother's nausea and fatigue said Goren. "She passed through chemotherapy with ease. But was it the wheat grass? And if it was, how come it was so hard to find out about it?"
Goren set out collecting information on natural remedies, and found that existing literature and online databases were not easily accessible for laypeople.
"We came up with the idea to have a resource or tool where ordinary people would be able to publish natural treatments that they knew or had heard about," said Daniel, an industrial management engineer for SQLink, a data security company owned by Goren. "By making it interactive, that would allow other people to say what had helped them also."
The site allows users to upload treatments and then rate them. They can also comment on cures suggested by others, and classify them as helpful or not helpful.
Last month, various berries were highlighted as a treatment for conditions ranging from arthritis and Alzheimer's to colic and high cholesterol. Other featured remedies have included tea - green, chamomile or parsley - honey and garlic for scores of ailments.
"The accuracy of what works and doesn't comes from the people," said Daniel. "If someone sees a certain treatment that should be reported, or something that is not a treatment, we have tools that alert us that something is wrong with a post from another user."
Recently, Daniel says, a contributor from rural India spent days talking to village elders before sending traditional remedies handed down through generations.
"They've known them for centuries. The wisdom has gone from person to person and never been written anywhere," said Daniel. "Now, for the first time, it's possible for people in San Francisco, to know what works in a small village in India for treating flu."
But Daniel readily concedes that much of this information can't be checked, no tests exist for many natural remedies and there is a lack of scientific research on all but a handful of treatments. "You can't issue a patent for a lemon, so there is no financial incentive for pharmaceutical companies to carry out in-depth research for every known natural health treatment," he said.
And some critics warn that like many Web sites there can be both useful and questionable information posted.
"I think the concept has merit and could potentially grow to become the largest resource on natural health, given its structure," said Mike Adams, editor of naturalnews.com, a nonprofit group of educational Web sites about health and environmental issues. "But you got to remember these two rules about user-generated content, which every such site learns the hard way: Users generate a lot of content and 99 percent of it is junk.
"There is an enormous amount of knowledge about natural remedies out there in the world, and if mamaherb.com can do a good job on the quality review side, they could be a hugely important knowledge base for remedies that really work," said Adams.
Botanist Jim Duke, director of the Green Pharmacy Garden in Fulton MD., who is widely considered one of the world's leading authority on medicinal plants, agrees.
"I will consult it as a reference," said Duke. "There are lots of things I had not seen, and I would check all those out. For fibromyalgia (a chronic condition characterized by widespread pain in muscles, ligaments and tendons), for example, there are things I had never thought of."
Duke suggests the Web site use clearer explanations and include notes on methodology, although he likes the fact that most of the citations are based on folklore.
"I'm a great believer in folklore," he said. "It's very consistent in the dosages recommended. I didn't see anything alarming. I usually can spot a poisonous plant in a hurry. A lot of homeopathic medicines are deadly poisonous. They need to ensure they are not recommending anything that could be dangerous," he warned.
Indeed, U.S. health officials say traditional medicines used by some immigrants from Latin America, India and other parts of Asia are the second most common source of lead poisoning in the United States - surpassed only by lead paint - and may account for tens of thousands of such cases among children each year. Dozens of adults and children have become gravely ill or died after taking lead-laden medicine over the past eight years, according to federal and local health officials.
In the future, Daniel says he and his two partners hope to publish results, find natural treatments and learn from accumulated knowledge from people who have tried these treatments. For now, there are no plans to charge users or solicit ads.
"We want it to work well and for people to be comfortable using it," said Daniel. "We'll worry about making money later."
Meanwhile, Adams of naturalnews.com says that if the Israelis can install an effective in-house filter of editors vetting each contribution, their Web site could "revolutionize the sharing of information about what works in a way that's light years ahead of conventional medicine."
Users can explore Mamaherb (www.mama herb.com) according to treatment, remedy and ingredients, or simply browse its subjects from A to Z.
Users are encouraged to indicate what treatments they find helpful, add information or provide critical comments about what didn't work.