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Herbal Medicine

Prior to the advent of chemical pharmaceutical manufacturing at the beginning of the 20th century, all medicines were derived from plants or mineral salts. Even today, more than 10% of prescription medicines are still derived from natural sources. That said, there remain significant differences between using plants and pharmaceuticals therapeutically.

Plants are more than a mere collection of chemicals (even as we are more than a collection of chemicals). When plants are used to make drugs, their “active ingredients” are extracted, purified, concentrated, and sometimes chemically modified. However, when we use the whole plant, there is a synergy of literally thousands of chemical compounds that each played a vital role in the plant as a living system. And the synergy amounts to more than merely the sum of all the chemicals inside. Herbal medicines are used wisely when they are used with the aim of triggering a healing response in your body, rather than trying to control some physiological function directly. Quite frankly, pharmaceutical drugs are better suited to override and control your physiology and biochemistry. Herbal medicines are better suited to stimulate a healing response in your body, so that your body finds its own balanced health. For this reason, plants are never medicines in the pharmaceutical sense. They have different strengths and weaknesses and should be used entirely differently.

The recent explosion in genetic research is forcing us to rethink how plants affect us. To be sure, plants contain chemicals and these affect our biochemistry directly, but recent studies show that plants affect the DNA inside our cells directly, changing our physiology at its most fundamental level. Giving mice the herb Ginkgo biloba caused hundreds of genes to be activated or suppressed, especially those genes that coded for proteins affecting, memory, learning, antioxidant protection, and nerve growth. Moreover, Ginkgo biloba affected brain cells differently that say heart or liver cells, beginning to explain why herbal medicines have an innate tendency to improve certain organ systems over others. Every plant, food or nutrient will likely be just like Ginkgo biloba in that it will have a direct chemical effect on our biochemistry and an indirect genetic effect on our physiology. The intricate complexities of how plants interact with us are only just beginning to be understood. The 21st century may be the one in which herbal medicine comes into its own and rightful place as one of the most truly integrative therapies.