Herbal Remedies Vs. Modern Medicine
Why use herbal remedies? It isn’t that long ago that some of these words like herbal remedies, holistic wellness, and alternative medicine would have been considered snake oil or witchy nonsense in the western world. However, in recent years many people have turned to herbal remedies as an alternative to modern medicine. Let’s take a look at a comparison of both.
In modern medicine a single compound is isolated out. Why? Well, in western medicine when a plant shows bioactivity in humans, that effect is attributed to a single, predominant compound in the plant. It is labeled as the “active principle,” isolated, synthesized, and a pharmaceutical is created from it. Then, often, the plant is forgotten about. The other compounds aren’t studied. We see this in the hemp plant. CBD is very well known and often isolated but the other compounds like cannabinoids and terpenes are forgotten about. However, research has shown they work better together.
So why, in modern medicine, is this isolation preferred? Well two reasons.
- It makes research much easier. Single compounds can be manufactured in pure, standardized dosages, which simplifies clinical trials. (However, we are seeing recently that technology has mostly solved this problem. Modern growing and processing methods make it possible to produce standardized, complex, whole-plant-based medicines. It is becoming especially popular in Europe.)
- It makes drugs incredibly more profitable for the pharmaceutical companies. When a single molecule is isolated and synthesized the company can patent that molecule. And making just a slight chemical modification allows it to be patented further. This can be worth billions, while the whole plant offers less opportunity for profit.
In general, herbs are much cheaper and much more available than the chemicals used to make modern medicine like pharmaceuticals. Plants grow all over the Earth. It’s the knowledge of how to use the herbs that is not as common.
To give a cost comparison:
A herbal remedy for sleep costs on average $30-$40 for a month
While sleeping pills from the pharmacy cost on average $17-$60 a week
Expensive as it is to the consumer, this faith in “single-agent” drugs would make more sense if far better results were yielded. But the fact is, the natural, whole plant often have both benefits and safety that put the isolated compounds to shame.
“About 2,460 people per week are estimated to die from drugs that were properly prescribed, and that’s based on detailed chart reviews of hospitalized patients,” says Light, who is a professor of comparative health policy at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford, New Jersey. That’s 137,280 people a year. From taking their prescriptions correctly. This is nearly five times the number of people who die by overdosing on prescription painkillers and heroin. As we can see there are some serious risks to pharmaceuticals.
Medicinal plants contain a wide array of chemical compounds. To the human eye, this looks like chaos, but further investigation unveils a definite order. Natural selection encourages a plant to “try out” variations on molecules in order to enhance the plant’s odds of surviving stressful environments. So, yes, one molecule is present in the greatest amount and has the most dramatic effect in a human body, but along with it are variations of that molecule in the same plant.
For example, for Andean Indians, whole coca leaf is the number one medicinal plant. They use it to treat gastrointestinal disturbances; specifically, for BOTH diarrhea and constipation. Both? In western culture we know the isolated compound of coca – Cocaine. Cocaine stimulates the gut, it increases bowel activity, so it might be a good treatment for constipation, but for diarrhea it would only make it worse.
However, if you look at the coca leaf’s molecular array, you will find 14 bioactive alkaloids, with cocaine in the greatest amount. While cocaine acts as a gut stimulant, other coca alkaloids can have precisely the opposite action, they inhibit gut activity.
This means that when you take the whole mixture into the body, the potential is there for the action to go in either direction. So, then we might ask what decides it? Well, the state of the body, which is a function of which receptors in the gut’s tissues are available for binding.
To sum it up, whole-plant remedies are quite different and, some may even argue, more effective in treating illness. In Western medicine, the body is often given no choice. It uses single compounds that pretty much shove physiology in one direction.
Now sometimes, this is exactly what is needed. If the body is seriously out of balance and needs to get back to balance quickly. For example, if someone is going into anaphylactic shock, there isn’t time for the body’s receptors to select specific effects, so a drug such as pure epinephrine is often lifesaving.
But, more often than not, especially with the many chronic, degenerative diseases of modern society, there is time to allow the body to participate, to choose just what it needs. As it slowly heals, it can develop a new balance; a dynamic equilibrium that helps it cope with stress in the future.
**No statements here are meant to treat, cure or prevent any disease. Always consult with your doctor.