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Simplifying the Complexities of Herbal Medicine

By on January 30, 2017
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The use of plants for medicinal purposes has been the basis of medical treatment throughout human history.  Archaeological evidence suggests the use of plants as a therapeutic tool dates back to the prehistoric era of over 60,000 years ago. The earliest written history of herbal medicine dates back to 3000 BC.  

It was Avicenna 980-1037, a Persian philosopher and physician, whose Canon of Medicine (completed in 1025) possibly made the most profound contribution to herbal medicine. His text was used as the primary medical reference in European universities until the mid 1600s.

Today, the World Health Organization estimates that over 80% of Asian and African countries use herbal remedies as their main source of health care.  They also estimate that the basis of over 25% of modern pharmaceutical drugs have plant based origins. Among the 120 active compounds isolated from the higher plants and used in modern medicine today, 80% link their modern therapeutic use to the traditional use of the plants from which they are derived.  More than two thirds of the world’s plant species, over 35,000, are estimated to have medicinal value.

The active components found in plants are divided into 16 main groups such as phenols, saponins, alkaloids, and anthocyanins to name a few. Within these groups, the isolation of all other active ingredients is monumental as plants synthesize thousands of primary and secondary constituents, but plants that have higher levels of certain families of chemicals often have similar therapeutic effects. Take adaptogenic herbs as an example.

Understanding Adaptogens
The category of herbs referred to as adaptogens are said to stabilize and regulate physiological processes that promote homeostasis. In the case of stress they decrease cellular sensitivity to the stress response by controlling and regulating the chemical reaction within the body.  Plant adaptogens that demonstrate an effective response in just one dose, rhodiola and eleuthero (Siberian ginseng), contain high amounts of phenols particularly phenolpropane and phenolethane derivatives.  As these compounds are structurally related to catecholamines (epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine) this suggests that they may play a role in the function of the central nervous system.

Whole Herb vs Extraction 
Herbal medicine still relies heavily on traditional dried herbs from specific plant parts as the full spectrum of chemicals and plant nutrients are contained in the remedy.  However, modern day herbal supplements also take advantage of herbal extraction to concentrate particular components of a plant that are known to have therapeutic activity. Medical research often favours herbal extracts (standardized extracts or botanical concentrates) to more accurately quantify the efficacy of the plant.  The extraction process is sometimes controversial, because traditional herbal medicine suggests it is the synergistic action of all ingredients in a plant that result in the therapeutic action; rather than any one particular component that has the most benefit.

A concentrated herbal extract is often identified with an extraction ratio. For example a 10:1 ratio indicates that 10 parts of dried herb were used to create 1 part of dried herbal extract and the natural chemical constituents are concentrated 10 times.  Standardized herbs may indicate a concentration ratio, but they always measure the amount of a specific plant “marker” chemical (primary active component).

For example, NOW Holy Basil (Tulsi) is a standardized extract with a minimum of 2% ursolic acid. Although holy basil contains many active constituents, ursolic acid has proven anti-inflammatory properties allowing for numerous health benefits.  It is particularly interesting to researchers as it has been shown to inhibit cell growth and induce apoptosis (cell death) in various tumours (PubMed 2012; clinical cancer research).  The percentage of active ingredient noted in herbal supplements should represent the clinically proven, effective levels, of a specific compound.

Marva Ward is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner (CNP) and works for Puresource as the National Product Educator for the NOW brand of supplements in Canada. 

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About Charleen Wyman


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