Perhaps the oldest form of medicine, the use of plants for healing is known in virtually every culture on earth. Even in conventional pharmacology about 25% of all drugs are plant based. It is generally accepted that plants make certain alkaloids and other chemicals to defend themselves from environmental harm. For instance plants that grow in moist, dark environments often create chemicals that protect them against molds and fungi that are prevalent in those environments. These plants may therefore be useful for us to take to protect us from those same molds and fungi. Although chemistry has become quite sophisticated, our greatest chemist cannot match nature’s ability to create a diversity of chemicals. The scientific study of plant medicines has begun, there is a tremendous amount of research, especially from China, Japan and Germany, yet this research barely scratches the surface on what is available in nature. Empirically we have a long history of people using plants to cure disease and many anecdotes of their effectiveness.
Are plant medicines effective in the treatment of disease? Without a doubt, many of the strongest, most effective drugs that we have such as taxol, digoxin and vincristin, come from plants. So why do so many physicians negate the use of herbal medicine? One of the main reasons is not knowing about plant derived medicines, many physicians assume that the education they received in medical school was complete and the fact that phamacognosy, the study of plant medicines, was not included was because it has no value. Most physicians learn about new drugs and effective therapies from pharmaceutical representatives that are trying to promote their products. Pharmaceutical companies have little to gain from plant medicines, as natural substances cannot be patented. There is no incentive for them to include plant medicines in studies that compare the effectiveness of various therapeutics. Without knowledge of their comparative effectiveness, there is no reason to mention herbal medicine when teaching physicians. Other concerns come from the lack of standardization of natural substances. It is argued that depending on growing conditions, the amount of various chemical constituents will vary from plant to plant so the actual dosage received could be different every time it is taken.
One of the greatest difficulties in studying plant medicines is the vast number of chemicals produced by each individual plant. Each plant produces thousands of different chemicals, so if we believe that a certain plant lowers blood pressure, scientists will isolate each chemical and test it individually for effectiveness in lowering blood pressure looking for the active constituent. Sometimes one or more chemicals are found that explain the medicinal actions of the plant, sometimes no one chemical has any therapeutic effect and in fact it is a combination of two or more chemicals that create the benefits. This of course can be very confusing for researchers and many important medicinal plants are overlooked by science. Beyond this there are the energetic effects of plants. As living, growing forms of life plants have their own energy and perhaps their own agenda. It has been suggested that some of the chemicals and medicines produced by plants are of no benefit to the plant itself, but seem to be produced for human or animal consumption and benefit. As part of the web of life all things are interdependent, interrelated and integrated. With this in mind one could be of the opinion that nature has provided us with costume made medicines which are more perfect for us as a living part of the earth than any that man could create.
Ethnobotanists study how cultures use plants for medicine or other things. Knowing how plants are used gives a lot of information to researchers that are trying to decide which plants to study. When we look at how plants are used in traditional cultures things get interesting. Shamen or medicine men combine ritual and magic with their understanding of and use of plants. In many traditional societies superstition combines with views of health. An illness may be perceived as resulting from a curse, and therefore would need a medicine that protects or frees one from the curse, In traditional Chinese medicine plants are evaluated for various properties, hot or cold, yin or yang, bitter, sweet, acrid, sour, spicy etc. They get further evaluated for their role in a formula, which must be energetically balanced in accordance with strict guidelines developed over thousands of years.
My experience in working with herbal medicines is that they are very effective in the treatment of disease. One of the basic premises of Naturopathic medicine is belief in the healing power of nature. To me that means two things, that we, humans have a tendency towards health and natural ability to heal ourselves when obstacles to cure are removed, and also that nature, (God, the universe…) provides us with what we need to cure ourselves. Because plants contain such a diversity of different chemicals, often including vitamins, minerals and other constituents, they tend to be milder than conventional drugs which generally consist of one or two isolated substances. For instance the leaves of the Coca plant are chewed on by the Andean natives for stamina when climbing the mountains, from this get receive a number of health benefits, including certain vitamins and minerals not otherwise available in their diet. Even though there is some cocaine in the leaves, they do not appear to be addictive or to cause any health problems. However, when cocaine is isolated from the plant and ingested alone it becomes a drug that creates many health and social problems. I believe that whole medicines like whole foods are healthiest. Health is a maintenance of balance. A strong medicine will often move the patient so much that rather than nudging them gently to the perfect equilibrium, they are shoved out of balance in a different direction. Plant medicines tend to be milder and more balanced within themselves than chemically produced medicines which are commonly one isolated chemical.
The processing of the plants for medicinal use is important. Commonly tinctures are made by soaking dried plant material in a mixture of water and alcohol. Some constituents of the plant will dissolve in water and others in the alcohol. Spageric tinctures are made by using an old alchemical method which strives to combine the mind, body and spirit of the plant into an elevated mixture. This is done by letting the water/alcohol mixture isolate the “mind and spirit,” of the plant. The mark, or raw plant material is then reduced to ash and added back to the final product, representing the “body,” of the plant. Essentially this adds the minerals back into the tincture, the idea is to have the mind, body and spirit of the plant elevated to a higher form in the plant medicine. My experience is that herbal medicines prepared in this manner are superior in their effectiveness and quality to conventionally processed tinctures. Very few companies take the time and expense to do Spageric tinctures. I recommend Herbalists and Alchemists and the Amazon Herb Company as two companies that do. Other factors that effect the quality and energy of plant medicines are where and how they are grown, wild plants tend to be more balanced, yet harvesting wild herbs unconsciencely can lead to their extinction. Many traditional cultures have rituals in the planting and harvesting of plants including planting in conjunction with certain moon phases, using song and prayer to raise the healing properties of plants.
Plant medicine can be used allopathically as a generally safer alternative to conventional medicine, or holistically in harmony with the body’s ability to heal itself. In my practice I utilize plant medicines with focus on their energetic and healing properties to help my patients reach a state of wellness and balance in their lives.