July 7, 2023
If I were expected to sum up the historical and modern value proposition regarding herbs and medicinal plants, the proposed bumper sticker would be, “Herbs Work!”
I first started using herbs on an increasingly regular basis in the late 1960s as I was learning how to responsibly supplement my diet with adequate non-meat protein. As a newly minted vegetarian in May 1968, I soon learned that the predominant public mindset about herbs and medicinal plants was frequently as folk medicine or old wives’ tales.
Other dismissive terms (e.g., snake oil) reflected the lack of ways to seriously consider the growing body of scientific research on medicinal and aromatic plants. Even the term “alternative medicine” had a sense of lack of respect or legitimacy until the advent of and rise in the domain of scientific research.
I have helped document many of these efforts over half a century through the American Botanical Council’s (ABC) peer-reviewed journal HerbalGram and science review service HerbClip, of which more than 9,000 have been published.
But herbs didn’t begin to “work” just because researchers were able to subject them to controlled clinical trials. This new line of research simply began a process of scientific and clinical documentation, confirmation and validation of many of the therapeutic uses that for centuries had been observed via history, ethnobotany and empirical documentation.
Is there “magic” in acknowledging what our grandmothers learned from their grandmothers and their grandmothers? Is there “magic” in Peter Rabbit’s mother giving him chamomile for an upset tummy?
Yes, the oral and written traditions are chock-full of the compelling basis for the use of medicinal and aromatic plants as medicines, especially with the increased validation of many traditional uses that are part of humankind’s vast inheritance in ethnobotany.
Whenever I have encountered a skeptic about the therapeutic values of herbs, I like to point to catnip! There’s no denying the almost immediate effect on felines. And then there’s one of my 200 favorite herbs, aloe vera. One of the easiest ways to convince someone of the healing powers of plants is to put some fresh aloe gel (from the inner leaf of the plant) onto a kitchen burn or sunburn, or a cut or other dermal disturbance. Within seconds the effect is obvious.
Space does not permit me to employ my 40-plus year rant about the decline in education in the science of pharmacognosy (the study of drugs of natural origin, usually from plants) in colleges of pharmacy in the U.S. and worldwide, and the general lack of nutrition, nutritional biochemistry and pharmacognosy courses in conventional medical schools. What we have witnessed relatively recently is a consumer-led explosion in demand for phytomedicines, and a concomitant rise in research in medicinal botanicals.
Is this the beginning of a modern herbal renaissance? From 1977 to 2007, a British research team documented an almost 700% increase in research publications (chemistry, pharmacology, toxicology, clinical trials) on herbal medicines during these three decades.
Is there “magic” in plants? Do plants have an energy that transcends the Western reductionist model of chemistry—the search for the one main active ingredient? We know that plants are natural factories of chemical complexity, producing dozens and even hundreds of natural phytochemicals necessary for the plants’ metabolism and chemical defenses. Modern pharmacological research has now begun to explore a new model of synergy where research has moved from focusing on one or more active compounds to an entire array of inherent phytochemicals acting on a variety of targets within the human body.
Many people believe in a sentient or even spiritual aspect of plants. In the 1973 book “The Secret Life of Plants,” authors Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird related the story of FBI pioneer polygraph researcher Cleve Backster, who in the 1960s “discovered” that plants have “feelings”—the polygraph showed that plants reacted to injury of a plant in another room!
But it doesn’t have to be fancy or complex. Chamomile tea for an upset stomach or even for a more restful sleep? Peppermint tea for improved digestion? Aloe gel for sunburns? Where did after-dinner mints come from?
Magic? Or just amazing herbs? Or both?
Mark Blumenthal is founder and executive director of the nonprofit American Botanical Council and editor-in-chief of ABC’s peer-reviewed journal HerbalGram, which he has been editing for 40 years.
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