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Why Herbs?

by Todd Luger, L.Ac.

Why would one want to take herbs instead of drugs to treat illness.  I don't think this is an either/or issue.  Drugs play a particular role in healthcare, one that is well recognized.  They are lifesaving, relieve symptoms, prevent serious complications of incurable diseases, etc.  Herbs also have a role to play, one that is still not completely understood at this point, I believe.  In vogue right now are herbs that can used in lieu of drugs, but essentially for the same rationale.  This is the case with saw palmetto which is prescribed for prostatic hypertrophy instead of the drug proscar or st. john's wort for depression instead of prozac.  In the former case, the herb often works better and in the latter, at least as well.  In both cases, the incidence of side effects are dramatically lessened as compared to the drugs.  Why would herbs work better and why would there be no side effects?  And can we do even better?

Why herbs may work better in some cases is a matter of speculation, so here's mine.  Herbs have multiple active ingredients, as well as vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids.  In most cases, the amount of any particular biochemical is relatively small compared to the amount of a drug dosage.  So the effects would be expected to be weaker than a drug.  Well this is both correct and not.  If one requires a highly specific effect dependent on a very large concentration of a single active ingredient, then drugs are the way to go.  This would be the case for an acute asthmatic attack or a seizure, for instance.  But consider prostate hypertrophy or depression, both mentioned above.  Whether one uses drugs or herbs to treat these complaints, it takes some time for the full effects of the medicine to kick in.  Since the patient is not to expect immediate relief, the need for a high concentration of a single active ingredient may not be as vital to therapy in such cases.

Herbs may do their magic through a combination of constituents that alter multiple physiological mechanisms simultaneously.  No single aspect of physiology is altered dramatically which reduces the chances for side effects (less primary effect, less side effects usually, too).  However, the additive effects of multiple biochemicals altering multiple pathways can perhaps summate into a large change in overall physiology.  I would also venture that this approach to therapy is more in line with natural homeostatic mechanisms in the body.  For example, if the body needs to lower blood pressure, dozens of different mechanisms come into play to achieve that end result.  The body doesnít just block all the calcium channels or beta receptors.  So that is why herbs sometimes work better with less side-effects.  The question remains as to how to identify which herbs for which conditions.  So lets get that research going, big guys.

I think we are probably at the point where computer modeling can aid in the understanding of how polypharmacy interacts with multiple biochemical mechanisms simultaneously.  I think this exercise will open a new frontier of medicine as we learn to alter biochemistry in ever more sophisticated ways.  Remember, plants refined their biochemistry for eons before animals even existed.  Evolutionary geneticists will remind us that the DNA of plants and animals is not so different.  Plants and humans even still manufacture some of the same biochemicals.  It is very possible that many animal biochemical pathways evolved from those that already existed in plants.  There may be direct relationships between plant and animal evolution or it may merely be that because bacteria and algae form the basis for eukaryotic cell function of higher plants and animals, respectively and because these primitive algae and bacteria most definitely arose from the same primal stew, that our similarities are more due to a common remote ancestor than any more recent connections.  I hold out the possibility that animals actually incorporated novel plant biochemistry into their own systems through symbiosis as is speculated for chloroplasts and mitochondria.  But perhaps the DNA that creates plant phytoestrogens was borrowed by a primitive protozoa and over time became the basis of steroid hormone production in animals.  What really matters, though, is the fact the plant biochemistry is similar to ours and of equal complexity.

Saw palmetto has short term diuretic effects and and is reputed to improve male sexual performance and fertility.  It thus makes an ideal herb for middle aged males.  This true of many herbs.  They often address both symptoms and underlying causes of illness with their broad spectrum of biochemicals.  You would think this would  be too good to be true, but this knowledge was hard won.  Only a minute percentage of plants have turned out to be of medicinal value to humans.  So the fact that one could identify a plant like saw palmetto over a period of 50,000 years of so is not so strange, really.  Lots of herbs help with restricted urination, at least temporarily or when the cause is due to infection.  But trial and error would show that saw palmetto was good in the long run, too.  But the question remains, can we do even better?

As scientists learn more about the polypharmacy of individual herbs, attention will naturally turn to something even more complex.  In Chinese herbology, patients are usually given formulae of 10-15 herbs.  This is a nightmare for researchers who want to understand the inner workings of it all.  My position is that if a plant represents a fragment of ourselves, then only a formula can truly approximate the complexity of a human being.  When I talk about a formula approximating human complexity, I am not only speaking figuratively, but I am getting to the crux of what Chinese herbology is all about.  In TCM, a formula is designed to address the patient's entire imbalance.  The whole point of multiherb polypharmacy is that no single herb can address the various parameters of illness as defined by TCM.  We can now also understand this in terms of the evolutionary complexity of a human versus a plant.  What remains unsaid is that drugs based on the single magic bullet theory can never approach the complexity of the human system in health or disease.  However, drugs based on the insights of herbal polypharmacy will open new vistas in medicine.


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