Phytopharmacology refers to research on herbs as medicines. This is NOT the research of drugs contained within plants that are often unknown even to people knowledgeable to people steeped in traditional herbal medicine. For instance, foxglove was long used as an herb for people with ‘weakened hearts” before anyone knew that the substance contained in foxglove is digitalis. There are at least a dozen varieties of foxglove, each with a different property.
Bark from the cinchona tree was known to be useful in the treatment of malaria before anyone knew that the curative substance was quinine.
In phytopharmacology, some indication of medical efficacy is known before the reason for the cure, as indicated above. Research techniques are the same as those used in traditional medicinal research. Researchers look at:
- molecular level and the effects on proteins and so on;
- the subcellular level, and the effects on membranes;
- cells, and how the herb effects the whole cell;
- organs, and how the botanical works on organs such as the kidney;
- animals, and how the whole, complete animal’s response reacts to the herb;
- clinical, studying the effects in a controlled, random trial.
There are gaps in the knowledge of commonly used herbs. Despite the fact that we use herbs to good effect, we don’t necessarily know how things work.
We know that Echinacea (that beautiful umbrella-like, droopy plant so plenteous in July and August) acts upon the immune system, but how? And what compounds within the plant cause an effect? How does valerian work on the nervous system? It does, and although an herb, it is very powerful and can be dangerous if used improperly. There has been a great deal of research done on both these plants, and there are some ideas, but nothing totally conclusive.
Evidence in both traditional and herbal medicine has been based on evidence based medicine (EBM). It relies upon case studies and practitioner observation, but one problem is that trials are done on highly artificial groups—for instance, most clinical studies are based on middle-aged white men. This doesn’t allow for observation of the effects on children or seniors or pregnant women.
In another installment, we will examine some unconvinced views of herbal (alternative, complementary) medicine.
By Gay Fifer, owner Parsley Hollow, Inc.
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