The Art and Science of Botanical Medicine: whole plants for whole people.

Traditional Western herbalism is an integral part of Naturopathic medical training and the treatment form that I’ve found to be the most profoundly effective. The use of herbs for medicine is an ancient practice where every culture on every continent has recognized and utilized their healing power in some form. It is perhaps the only unbroken medical tradition throughout the course of human history. It has been suggested that 80% of the peoples on earth use herbal medicine as their primary form of medicine.

Medicinal plants contain several hundred different compounds (chemicals) that serve the plant in its growth and other biological functions, in adaptation to its environment and for protection from predators (fungi, insects, mammals etc). The totality of this complex array of compounds, which have been shaped by nature over centuries, is what gives medicinal plants their magnificent potential and utility.

It is said that 25% of modern pharmaceutical agents (drugs) are single chemicals extracted from plants and another 25% of them are synthetically derived to mimic the compounds originally discovered in known medicinal plants. When individual compounds are isolated away from the plant, the drug may become more physiologically active but also maximizes the adverse effects and takes one giant leap away from that natural design and toward the unpredictable.

Traditional herbal medicines are thought to be effective because the whole plants are used and are generally unadulterated. These compounds are thought to interact in synergist ways, meaning that the biological effects of the whole plant are greater than can be anticipated by using individual parts. In this tradition, plants are respected as living, balanced and potent entities. By contrast, modern herbalism asserts that a single active compound within the plant best confers the biological effect. Once determined and accepted through rigorous scientific trials, then extracts are created to heavily favour this one compound (called ‘standarized extracts’). At this point the difference between a ‘standardized’ herbal product and a drug is blurred. Here is where the science and art of botanical medicine begin to separate.

My approach to herbal medicine is a traditional one. It is my art form. I have great respect and appreciation for the plants as they have evolved highly complex chemical constituents for the sake of their own survival. This degree of complexity makes them unsuitable for scientific validation, as it is not one compound but hundreds that act in unpredictable ways on various biochemical pathways within the body. I feel that their healing potential lies in this complexity which only nature can formulate over massive stretches of time. For this reason the primary form of botanical medicine that I use are whole-plant extracts, called ‘tinctures’.

Technically speaking a tincture is the liquid preparation produced by macerating the plant material into a mixture of alcohol and water at room temperature over some time, which is then pressed and filtered to yield a fluid into which a broad range of active constituents of the herb have dissolved.

When formulating a tincture for a patient, several plants (with similar properties) are combined to specifically address the needs of that individual. Picking from an ever-growing shelf of plant extracts, each tincture is custom-designed to best match the custom-needs of my patient. As no two humans are the same, nor should to two tinctures.

 

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