Interest in medicinal herbs is on the rise again and the interest is primarily from the pharmaceutical industry, which is always looking for ‘new drugs’ and more effective substances to treat diseases, for which there may be no or very few drugs available.
Considering the very long traditional use of herbal medicines and the large body of evidence of their effectiveness, why is it that we are not generally encouraged to use traditional herbal medicine, instead of synthetic, incomplete copies of herbs, called drugs, considering the millions of dollars being spent looking for these seemingly elusive substances?
Herbs are considered treasures when it comes to ancient cultures and herbalists, and many so-called weeds are worth their weight in gold. Dandelion, Comfrey, Digitalis (Foxglove), the Poppy, Milk Thistle, Stinging nettle, and many others, have well-researched and established medicinal qualities that have few if any rivals in the pharmaceutical industry. Many of them in fact, form the bases of pharmaceutical drugs.
Research into the medicinal properties of such herbs as the humble Dandelion is currently being undertaken by scientists at the Royal Botanical Gardens, in Kew, west London, believe it could be the source of a life-saving drug for cancer patients.
Early tests suggest that it could hold the key to warding off cancer, which kills tens of thousands of people every year.
Their work on the cancer-beating properties of the dandelion, which also has a history of being used to treat warts, is part of a much larger project to examine the natural medicinal properties of scores of British plants and flowers.
Professor Monique Simmonds, head of the Sustainable Uses of Plants Group at Kew, said: “We aren’t randomly screening plants for their potential medicinal properties, we are looking at plants which we know have a long history of being used to treat certain medical problems.”
“We will be examining them to find out what active compounds they contain which can treat the illness.”
Unfortunately, as is so often the case, this group of scientists appears to be looking for active ingredients, which can later be synthesized and then made into pharmaceutical drugs. This is not the way herbs are used traditionally and their functions inevitably change when the active ingredients are used in isolation. That’s like saying that the only important part of a car is the engine – nothing else needs to be included…
So, why is there this need for isolating the ‘active ingredients’?
As a scientist, I can understand the need for the scientific process of establishing the fact that a particular herb works on a particular disease, pathogen or what ever, and the need to know why and how it does so. But, and this is a BIG but, as a doctor of Chinese medicine I also understand the process of choosing and prescribing COMBINATIONS of herbs, which have a synergistic effect to treat not just the disease, but any underlying condition as well as the person with the disease – That is a big difference and not one that is easily tested using standard scientific methodologies.
Using anecdotal evidence, which after all has a history of thousands of years, seems to escape my esteemed colleagues all together. Rather than trying to isolate the active ingredient(s), why not test these herbs, utilizing the knowledge of professional herbalists, on patients in vivo, using the myriad of technology available to researchers and medical diagnosticians to see how and why these herbs work in living, breathing patients, rather than in a test tube or on laboratory rats and mice (which, by the way, are not humans and have a different, although some what similar, physiology to us…).
I suspect, that among the reasons for not following the above procedure is that the pharmaceutical companies are not really interested in the effects of the medicinal plants as a whole, but rather in whether they can isolate a therapeutic substance which can then be manufactured cheaply and marketed as a new drug – and of course that’s where the money is…
The problem with this approach is however, that medicinal plants like Comfrey, Dandelion and other herbs usually contain hundreds if not thousands of chemical compounds that interact, yet many of which are not yet understood and cannot be manufactured. This is why the manufactured drugs, based on so-called active ingredients, often do not work or produce side effects.
Aspirin is a classic case in point. Salicylic acid is the active ingredient in Aspirin tablets, and was first isolated from the bark of the White Willow tree. It is a relatively simple compound to make synthetically, however, Aspirin is known for its ability to cause stomach irritation and in some cases ulceration of the stomach wall.
The herbal extract from the bark of the White Willow tree generally does not cause stomach irritation due to other, so called ‘non-active ingredients’ contained in the bark, which function to protect the lining of the stomach thereby preventing ulceration of the stomach wall.
Ask yourself, which would I choose – Side effects, or no site effects? – It’s a very simple answer. Isn’t it?
So why then are herbal medicines not used more commonly and why do we have pharmaceutical impostors stuffed down our throats? The answer is, that there’s little or no money in herbs for the pharmaceutical companies. They, the herbs, have already been invented, they grow easily, they multiply readily and for the most part, they’re freely available.
Further more, correctly prescribed and formulated herbal compounds generally resolve the health problem of the patient over a period of time, leaving no requirement to keep taking the preparation – that means no repeat sales… no ongoing prescriptions… no ongoing problem.
Pharmaceuticals on the other hand primarily aim to relieve symptoms – that means: ongoing consultations, ongoing sales, ongoing health problems – which do you think is a more profitable proposition…?
Don’t get me wrong, this is not to say that all drugs are impostors or that none of the pharmaceutical drugs cure diseases or maladies – they do and some are life-preserving preparations and are without doubt invaluable. However, herbal extracts can be similarly effective, but are not promoted and are highly under-utilized.
The daily news is full of ‘discoveries’ of herbs found to be a possible cure of this or that, as in the example of Dandelion and its possible anti-cancer properties. The point is, that these herbs need to be investigated in the correct way. They are not just ‘an active ingredient’. They mostly have hundreds of ingredients and taking one or two in isolation is not what makes medicinal plants work. In addition, rarely are herbal extracts prescribed by herbalists as singles (a preparation which utilizes only one herb). Usually herbalists mix a variety of medicinal plants to make a mixture, which addresses more than just the major symptoms.
In Chinese medicine for example there is a strict order of hierarchy in any herbal prescription, which requires considerable depth of knowledge and experience on the physicians part. The fact that the primary or principle herb has active ingredients, which has a specific physiological effect, does not mean the other herbs are not necessary in the preparation. This is a fact seemingly ignored by the pharmaceutical industry in its need to manufacture new drugs that can control disease.
Knowing that medicinal plants are so effective, that these plants potentially hold the key to many diseases, are inexpensive and have proven their worth time and time again over millennia, why is it that herbal medicine is still not in the forefront of medical treatments, and is considered by many orthodox medical professionals and pharmaceutical companies as hocus-pocus…. hmmm.