Pick up a bottle of medicine some time and have a look at the label. It will have two categories of ingredients; active and inactive. The list of active ingredients will typically have only one chemical substance. The inactive ingredients will comprise a lengthier list of flavorings, coloring agents, binders, preservatives etc…
Pharmaceutical companies are always on the search for new sources of drugs. They study plants, fungi, and other natural substances. When they find a plant that shows promise as a potential source of pharmaceutical agents, they analyze it in a laboratory with very precise equipment to identify the chemical in the plant that is causing the pharmacological effect they desire. After identifying and isolating the precise molecule, that in their view, is the “medicine” in the plant, they proceed to synthetically produce that compound, put it into pills or capsules, and sell it to their customers.
The precision of this process is remarkable but is also its greatest liability. You see, in nature there are no acetaminophen trees. Our bodies and the bodies of our animal friends are designed to ingest and process natural, whole substances in a natural way. The plants we ingest, whether nutritive or medicinal, have developed and been created along with us to make a perfect and natural fit.
Let’s talk about just one herb, St. John’s Wort, a humble little plant that’s been used for centuries to treat depression. Drug companies spend millions of dollars analyzing such plants and determining what the “magic bullet” is that makes this plant do what it does and then develops synthetic drugs like Sertraline and Paroxetine. The problem is that Sertraline and Paroxetine are extremely specific in their actions affecting only one type of receptor on one type of cell. If a patient doesn’t respond to the first drug, another is tried…and on and on…until the “magic bullet” is found. This is a great system if one is trying to sell more pharmaceuticals but not so great for the patient that gets to experience the expense and side effects of a half dozen different drugs before finally getting some relief from the problem.
St. John’s Wort, by contrast, contains eight fully different chemical compounds that effect the brain in a variety of ways. And those are only the ones we know about! Giving St. John’s Wort allows the body to select what it needs from a wide variety of substances on the very first dose. But that’s not all. Herbs invariably contain other substances that enhance the delivery, digestibility or function of their “active ingredients”.
I had a drug salesman come into my veterinary hospital the other day. He was busting with pride over a brand new drug his company had developed for liver problems. “It has a chemical called Sylibin in it” he said. “Sounds great” said I “but I already have a great medicine I’ve been using for liver troubles. It has Sylibin in it too. “You do? It does?” he asked looking a bit deflated. “Oh, yeah” I said. “It also has silibianin, silichristine, sterols, fixed oils, apigenin, quercitin, kaempferol, some great lignans and biogenic amines and mucilage which also help the liver and enhance the delivery and function of the main, active ingredients”. “Besides protecting and supporting the liver, it’s also a great antioxidant, stabilizes mast cells, slows inappropriate calcium metabolism and decreases the activity of tumor promoters”. “What’s it called?” he asked looking still more discouraged. “It’s called Milk Thistle” I said smiling “been around for years. It comes in a green package with dirt on the roots. You can’t miss it.”
By Patrick P. Jones, DVM,
Dr. Patrick Jones is a practicing veterinarian, traditional naturopath and clinical herbalist.