Plants provided our first medicines. Evidence from pre-historic sites suggest and written records confirm that plants have been used medicinally for thousands of years.
Through discoveries made after the science of chemistry began in the 1800s, certain medicinal alkaloids were isolated from their source plants, including morphine, quinine and caffeine. Although many modern medicines are based on plant constituents, a rift between chemical pharmacology and the practice of traditional herbal medicines developed. The separation grew stronger over time, until recent interest in integrative medicine began to bridge the divide.
One of the factors that contributes to the new interest in medicinal herbs is the growing awareness that isolated constituents extracted from herbal plants are often less effective than they are when consumed simultaneously with all the other constituents present in the whole plant.
A living plant is a complex system with thousands of interacting chemicals, and many of them work together in synergy – creating a greater impact than the effect of consuming isolated components in single molecule pharmaceuticals.
The constituents of a whole plant, or whole plant extract, influence each other in a number of ways that effects their impact on the consumer. There are several different ways they may work in synergy. They may help stabilize each other, potentiate or enhance each other, or modify the impact of certain elements. They may help make a constituent more water soluble or protect it from stomach acids. All of these are ways that the synergies created in taking in a whole plant can produce radically different results than taking the chemically isolated ingredients.
Whole herbs or whole plant extracts are best for retaining the overall medicinal effectiveness. They provide not only the presence of each active constituent but also the relative concentration of the constituents, preserving the profile of the herb and supporting its intended action.
St. John’s Wort, for example, known for its soothing effects, acts on enzymes in the brain that influence serotonin levels. Chemists isolated the “active ingredient,” only to discover that another ingredient was also “active,” and then another. In fact, the plant has a complex chemistry, including constituents that render the active ingredients more water soluble – more accessible and therefore more easily absorbed and effective.
Herbs often offer polyvalent action –providing a number of angles for approaching treatment simultaneously, through multiple active constituents. For example, when there are multiple antioxidant constituents in a plant, they are more effective in reducing the damaging effects of oxidation.
Polyvalent action is prevalent in uses of the common wild herb plaintain. It grows extensively throughout the United States. Native Americans were familiar with its many benefits and used it for a variety of purposes. One example of its use: When bruised leaves are applied as a poultice on an insect bite or sting, the effects include: anti-inflammatory, astringent and antiseptic.
Synergy is also achieved by combining herbs to enhance or modify their effect. A formula offering whole herbs and whole plant extracts that work together to offer relief and support whole body balance can be consumed in a few capsules a day. This is much more convenient, and therefore more likely to be used consistently, than downing a host of pills offering individual nutritional components.
While scientific research has largely contributed to the rise in pharmaceutical drugs, it is also expanding our understanding of the effectiveness of medicinal herbs and how they actually, mechanically effect our body organs and systems.
The more we learn, the more we confirm that medicinal herbs used in ancient healing traditions are, indeed, healing.