Most medicinal herbs contain many natural compounds that play off one another, producing a wide variety of results. Even medical science does not always understand how the compounds work together, or even exactly what they all are. As botanist Walter Lewis, Ph.D., and microbiologist Memory Elvin-Lewis, Ph.D., put it in their book Medical Botany: “Nature is still mankind’s greatest chemist, and many compounds that remain undiscovered in plants are beyond the imagination of even our best scientists.”
Some herbs that regulate the body almost seem to have an inner intelligence, with the ability to perform many different functions, depending upon what the individual needs. For example, ginger can raise or lower blood pressure, depending on what needs to happen to bring an individual’s blood pressure to a healthy level. And tonic herbs do more than clear up immediate, acute symptoms-they have the more general effect of renewing strength and vitality. Marshmallow, for instance, strengthens your digestive system and improves the functioning of your immune system while relieving your stomach distress.
Although 80 percent of pharmaceutical drugs are based on herbs, these drugs are generally based not on the whole herb but on one “active ingredient” derived from a plant. Modern medicine has become captivated by what it calls a “magic 0bullet”-a single substance that zeros in and destroys a germ or relieves a symptom. Whenever possible, the chemical structure of the active component found in an herb is duplicated in the laboratory and produced synthetically. This enables a drug company to produce formulas of consistent quality and strength and avoid the hassle and expense of collecting plants in the wild. (Not incidentally, it also enables them to patent the remedy and charge more money for it.)
These magic bullet drugs have several problems. First, they treat only specific problems. Well-known plant researcher and botanist James Duke, Ph.D., points out that “the solitary synthetic bullet offers no alternatives if the doctor has misdiagnosed the ailment or if one or more ailments require more than one compound.” Herbs, on the other hand, can cover many bases at once.
Also, magic bullets don’t give the body a chance to find its own solution. Dr. Duke theorizes that our bodies take fuller advantage than we realize of the complex chemistry in medicinal herbs. He believes that each herb contains hundreds of active compounds, many of which act “synergistically.” That means that all these compounds somehow combine to produce a greater effect than each has alone, and that the body extracts the compounds it needs and discards the others. One possible reason that scientific studies sometimes fail to confirm an herb’s traditional use in healing is that the studies often focus only on the isolated compound, not on the whole plant.0
Years ago, researchers extracted an active compound called silymarin from the herb;milk thistle and turned it into a pharmaceutical drug to treat liver damage. Only later did German scientists discover yet another compound in milk thistle betaine hydrochloride-that may be equally important.
The popular immunity-enhancing herb Echinacea has a similar story. For years, complex carbohydrates from Echinacea were thought to be its sole active ingredient and were extracted to produce a drug. But then a team of German researchers headed by Dr. Wagner discovered that;echinacea contains other compounds that enhance immunity.
In the case of the sedative herb valerian, medical researchers found that two compounds-valeric acid and essential oils-caused its calming effects, but for some time they remained unaware of still a third set of highly sedative compounds called valepotriates. And ginkgo, which is used to boost brain functions and circulation, has been found to be more effective when used in its whole form instead of its isolated active compounds.