Herbs: Expectations vs. Reality
Herbalism is quite a fascinating area of study. Many herbalism students become educators, researchers, authors, and master herbalists. These wonderful plants are quite popular in modern times as many people are looking for alternative or complimentary ways to address certain ailments with less side effects when compared to pharmaceuticals. But, I personally feel that there is a very high expectation of herbs when it comes to the desired outcome, yet little knowledge is applied to the situation.
The general person who has not taken any formal education courses in herbalism will more than likely not have a basic understanding of how chemical constituents work within the body (or they may, depending on the individual). There are multiple aspects of herbalism that one can address in formal educational courses: pharmacology, pharmacodynamics, pharmacokinetics, phytochemistry, and pharmacognosy.
Pharmacology: the study of the interaction of biologically active agents with living systems. (Bone, 2013,)
Pharmacodynamics: the study of the effects of an agent at active sites in the body. (Bone, 2013,)
Pharmacokinetics: the study of the effects the body has on the medicine, and the concentrations that can be achieved at active sites. (Bone, 2013,)
Phytochemistry: the study of the chemical nature and classification of archetypal plant constituents. (Bone, 2013,)
Pharmacognosy: the study of the definition, description and phytochemistry of natural drugs (typically medicinal plants or preparations derived from them. (Bone, 2013,)
Let's take a look at green tea and black tea. Many people drink these teas because they are shown to be a source of antioxidants and having antioxidant activity. Green tea is a rich source of polyphenols including epigallocatechin (EGC) and epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) and other polyphenols. (PubMed - NCBI, 2011) Therapeutic properties of herbs that contain simple phenols include antimicrobial, diuretic, circulatory stimulant, analgesic, anthelmintic, anti-inflammatory, and also as an antispasmodic. (Hoffmann, 2003) Sounds great doesn't it? But, if you make your green tea preparation and decide to add milk to it, a chemical change happens to your tea. These polyphenols when mixed with milk will cause a binding of proteins which prevents the polyphenols in the tea from undergoing spontaneous decomposition in the gut which is needed so that the small antioxidant molecules can then be absorbed. (Bone, 2013).
Another reality of using herbs to address ailments is that just because they are natural, does NOT mean that they are safe. Although they can be safe when used appropriately and respectfully. A major consideration is the effect that herbs can have on pharmaceutical drugs. These effects include an enhancement of the drugs effect, an additive effect which is the most potentially toxic effect, and an antagonistic effect where exposing your body to one (or some) herbs could actually diminish the effect of your medication, or vice versa and the medication you are taking could diminish the effect desired from the herbs. (Hoffmann, 2003) If an individual is not seeing the desired outcome from an herbal preparation and they are taking a medication that interferes with the herbs, this can lead to the person thinking that the herbs are not working. It can also be dangerous and lead them to believe that more means better, which is not how herbalism works. Herbs can be dangerous when not used properly and have the potential to become toxic in the body. According to Hoffman, author of Medical Herbalism, toxicity can actually effect either one site in the body such as a specific organ, or it can be systemic toxicity in which multiple sites are effected. Hoffman also states that there is importance in the timing of symptoms:
Acute toxicity occurs within hours or days of an exposure. An acute exposure is generally a single dose or a series of doses received within a 24-hour pereiod. Subchronic toxicity results from repeated exposure over the course of several weeks or months. This is the usual exposure pattern when medicinal plants are implicated. Chronic toxicity results from cumulative damage to specific organ systems and may take many months or years to become recognizable. - David Hoffman, author of Medical Herbalism
An additional factor that could hinder the desired outcome of using herbs could be not understanding why there are so many options to choose from when it comes to preparations. Do you need capsules? Or maybe a tincture would work better? But what type of tincture do you need? Alcohol based? Glycerin based? This can get quite overwhelming if you are not familiar with herbal preparations and formulas. Especially when some health stores now a days can have a plethora of shelves full of products to choose from.
That's quite a lot of options isn't it? (One of the many reasons I absolutely adore studying and practicing herbalism) Let's say for an example, you have a headache. You have addressed all the factors you can think of and have concluded that you have a tension headache because you have been stressed over the past few days. Do you need a tea? Or maybe a tincture... but what type of tincture? Or maybe a capsule would work... For tension headaches, attributed to stress, it would be a good point to start with looking at herbs that can work on the nervous system to alleviate the symptoms of stress. With the nervous system, teas and tinctures of nervine relaxant herbs could be beneficial. Nervine relaxant herbs not only work on the nervous system, but these can also have antispasmodic properties and so they can work on the peripheral nerves and muscle tissues to help relax the muscles. Some nervine relaxant herbs include lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), and skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora). (Hoffmann, 2003) Certain herbs and certain types of preparations will have different outcomes. Knowing how the constituents of herbs work in the body is beneficial in deciding what herbs to use and how to use them.
Other factors that can play a role in an herbal product not working can be the quality of the soil the herb was grown in, weather, harvesting times, how the herbs were stored, the temperature that herbs are prepared with such as preparing a decoction, and also the individuals constitute, how healthy (or not healthy) they are such as the functioning level of their internal organs or even genetic factors. There is nothing wrong about wanting to use herbal products but not having a formal education or background in herbal medicine. There are many herbalists and other qualified practitioners, like myself, who have extensive training in herbal medicine that would be more than happy to answer questions you may have. Many of us also offer herbal consultations so we can do the work for you to make sure that what you are taking is safe for you as an individual and also to make sure that you are using the correct herbs. Interested in taking some educational courses to learn more? American College of Healthcare Sciences offers a variety of courses including degrees with a focus in herbalism.
Bone, K. (2013). Principles and practice of phytotherapy: Modern herbal medicine (2nd ed.). London, UK: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone.
Hoffmann, D. (2003). Medical herbalism: The science and practice of herbal medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
PubMed - NCBI. (2011, May 2). Antioxidant effects of green tea. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3679539/
Serafini M , et al. (1996, January). In vivo antioxidant effect of green and black tea in man. - PubMed - NCBI. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8617188