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Blog: On Health. On Writing. On Life. On Everything.

Synergy in Herbs

May 27, 2010

Tags: herbs, Aspirin, compounds - herbal, harvesting herbs, patenting drugs, patenting herbs, St. John's wort, synergy, Synergy in Herbs, toxicity

Synergy is the innate beauty in plant medicines: The whole works better than the individual parts would let one predict.

In real life, however, synergy is what drug makers are up against. One cannot patent a whole plant – because Nature made them for all of us, and not one single manufacturer is allowed to reap the profits. So, pharmaceutical firms try to take out either one constituent of a plant (the one they deem the “effective” part) or change one constituent chemically, so they can patent either as a new drug. That way, many good drugs have been developed – and still are.

On the other hand, we are losing something when we neglect the whole plant. Synergy is one of the main reasons why often herbs are so profoundly effective; the other is that plants are the keys into our ancient physiology – plants and people developed together. Plant molecules are not new, alien molecules our bodies can’t recognize; they are old molecules our bodies are familiar with – so that they can happily incorporate them into our old-fashioned metabolism.

If a plant is toxic to us, it is so because the plant developed for that purpose: to fend off predators, herbivores, that otherwise would munch on the plant. But whole plants are often less toxic than would be expected, because the plant provides counteracting “smoothing” ingredients that helps us assimilate the herb better.

If you harvest an herb, you get plants with different strengths – depending when and where the plant was grown and cut. That is an obstacle for modern medicine that needs things predictable and reproducible. For that purpose, herbs are sometimes “standardized”: Different strength extractions are combined with certain key compounds so that the result is uniform. For the longest time, St. John’s wort had been standardized to one of its “main” ingredients – until it became clear that it was not the “effective” one. It is hard to figure out a plant that might have three hundred to a thousand different compounds.

But, it is also hard to figure out single compounds. Research is still discovering new effects of Aspirin, on the market since 1899! If one single ubiquitous chemical is so hard to understand – just think how hard it will be to understand a single whole plant. Herbs are harder to use than cold water or fresh food; you might need an herbalist or a doctor trained in natural medicine to help.

That is what makes conventional medicine so nervous about herbs. For me, that makes them so remarkable and miraculous: They have worked for millenniums, they should work now, too – in our ancient bodies. People in all cultures have observed and described the effects since stone age times or longer: We can learn something from them. And then, we can do some modern research with them, to slowly expand our knowledge.
Aspen eyes, by Peggy Peters

Iguazu Falls, by Xin Liu

Alexa Fleckenstein M.D. 2012, by Lolita Parker jr.

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