There’s no denying that those of us who prefer a holistic perspective of healthcare tend to be all up into herbs. And there are all kinds of outside opinions about just why that is. Those damn hippies and their herbs, eh?
But the truth is there’s more to the love of herbs than some dogmatic loyalty to our hippy ways. So let’s dive right in. Why do we love herbs so much?
This simple truth is essential because if herbs didn’t do anything for us, they’d be a pretty poor alternative to conventional medications. Scientific research on the effects of herbs is growing, and we’re finding a lot of traditional uses of herbs confirmed. Those herbs are being put up against pharmaceutical meds used for the same purpose, and in a lot of cases they’re coming out at least equal to the meds. It makes sense that herbs have effects on our bodies because they’re made of chemical components, some of which our lab-created drugs are even based on. (Like salicylic acid, or Aspirin, that originates from the active ingredient in willow extract.)
The flip-side is that not every traditional use is confirmed in these studies. But that doesn’t mean that the herbs don’t do anything. It just means that we have to learn what each herb actually does, and what it doesn’t do. Sort of like how putting an anti-itch cream on a painful cut probably won’t help your pain, even though it could help your itching.
They contain multiple variations on their active ingredients.
If you’re talking to a skeptic who has managed to get past the myth that herbs don’t do anything, the next go-to argument is that herbs can’t realistically be used as medicine because we can’t isolate an active substance. It boils down to an issue of control. When pharmaceutical companies base a drug on something from an herb, they find a single chemical compound in that plant that has an effect. They synthesize it in the lab and then patent and sell it.
It’s thought that this control is critical to making sure the substance will be effective and that it can be dosed reliably and safely. On the one hand, it’s actually possible for growers to control consistency to a decent degree these days. But it also turns out that natural selection has our backs when it comes to the many substances found in plants. Over thousands of years, plants change, adding more and more molecules, some slight variations of molecules they already contained. These molecules develop because they work together brilliantly to benefit the plant.
It turns out they also work together brilliantly to benefit us. If you look at the coca plant (the plant cocaine comes from), we can see this cooperation of substances. Cocaine is just one of fourteen substances in coca that act on the body. Andean Indians use the coca leaf medicinally for digestive issues. This makes sense, given that cocaine stimulates digestion, making the plant an effective laxative.
What makes less sense from a western medical perspective is that these same people use coca to treat diarrhea. It seems like it would just make it worse, but some of the other molecules in the plant actually slow digestion. The state of the body determines which substances can bind to the intestinal cells, so the plant ends up being able to give either effect. Modern medicine dismisses things like this as weaknesses because they’re harder to control, but they’re actually incredible advantages for the body.
They tend to have less side effects.
So plants are effective (as long as we use them for the right things) and are made of a whole bunch of substances that work together for us in amazing ways. But there’s one more huge benefit that comes up time and again in the research on herbs. It’s actually a major reason the herbs are being studied in the first place, and it’s that the plants tend to have way less side effects than the drugs they’re being compared to. Side effects are just effects a substance has on the body that aren’t the ones we want. It makes sense that herbs would also have other effects, since we know they do affect the biology of our bodies.
But plants are repeatedly being found to have far fewer side effects, and far less severe ones, than pharmaceuticals. This is great news, as hardcore side effects of many drugs are some of their biggest drawbacks. These range from minor annoyances that last as long as you’re on the drug to fatal diseases to the likelihood of addiction. It’s safe to assume that the gentler effect of herbs is due to the dosage including the variety of substances we talked about, instead of larger portions of one active substance.
The truth is there are a lot of good reasons to love herbs, and their correct medicinal use is evidence-based, effective, and often gentler and safer than conventional medications. Nope, it isn’t just a hippie thing. It’s a human thing. We’ve been turning to plants as medicine for centuries, and there’s no good reason for us to stop now.