You and I have lived our whole lives in a culture of "reductionism". It's almost like it's own branch of the overly mechanistic, overly male-dominated mindspace we live in today. But clearly it's not working! We have an outrageous epidemic of never-before-seen problems and diseases ranging from rampant childhood obesity to millions of people with difficult auto-immune issues.
In traditional medicine, we use complex formulas to treat complex people with complex problems,” says ethnobotanist and author David Winston, RH (AHG) founder of both Herbalist & Alchemist and the Center for Herbal Studies.
This starts with recognizing the synergies of herbal formulations. “When you are dealing with the complexities of something like a metabolic syndrome or diabetes or arthritis or any number of other conditions, taking a single herb is unlikely to deal with the multitude of issues that are occurring,” Winston says.
Specific synergies have been identified over centuries, “not just by throwing a bunch of stuff together,” he says. “When I go into a health food store, I’ll look at formulas and I’ll go, ‘Wow, that doesn’t make much sense!’ But I understand what they did. They went on PubMed, they looked up herbs that deal with a given condition. They found five herbs where there’s a clinical trial on the individual herb. They figured, they’ll throw them together. That’ll be a good formula.”
Instead, he says, looking into the traditional uses, whether traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda or others, “you will find that, behind almost every formula, there is a duo or a triplet of herbs that are almost always used in combination. There’s this idea that using herbs in an intelligent combination gives you something greater than the sum of the parts.
Even within individual herbs, there are multiple chemical compounds at synergistic play. Drilling down to singular compounds can often miss the point. Citing Dr. Bharat Aggarwal, the turmeric expert, Winston points to the now widely accepted understanding that curcumin is 30 times stronger than turmeric. But those tests were in vitro, he says. “In vivo—which is how we’re using it, we’re not giving it to test tubes, we’re giving it to people—curcumin, as an entity (without being attached to phosphatidylcholine or bioperine or other techniques that people have used to make it more bio-available) is poorly absorbed and quickly excreted, which is a terrible combination.”
Within turmeric are compounds that enhance the absorption of curcumin, Winston says. “There are studies by Dr. Aggarwal showing that a curcumin-free turmeric product had just as much anti-inflammatory activity as curcumin did. Since identifying the curcuminoids as the active constituents of turmeric, they have identified at least a dozen additional active constituents that aren’t in the curcumin products.”
Herbs are complex chemical entities, Winston says. “When we try to bring it into the drug model of having a single molecular compound or, in this case, a single constituent that is active, we often find that they don’t necessarily work as well.”
He recalls another study performed on the herb hawthorn. In it, he says, researchers tested the herb without the active constituent, O-vitexin rhamnoside, and the active constituent without the herb. Neither performed as well as the hawthorn, Winston says. “I would say what that study actually shows us is the active ingredient in hawthorn is hawthorn.
The synergy vs. reductionism conundrum goes further, too. It was reductionist thinking that brought us the antibiotic, after all. And the antibiotic that brought us the superbug.
While the implications of the dusk of antibiotics has horrifying implications, Cumberford says “the good news in this is that coevolved adapted plant-based ingredients can be effective in this. For example, goldenseal has berberene and hydrastine alkaloids that effectively shut down some superbugs’ ability to resist the effect of antibiotics.” In some cases, common plants can be effective. “Plants like garlic, which doesn’t kill off the superbugs, but inhibits their ability to recreate and transfer their resistant genes to other bacteria. So it’s a much more adaptive approach.” He compares it to the martial art aikido. “It’s about neutralizing and containing the risk as opposed to trying to annihilate the pathogen. Because in the fertile, fecund biological world we live in, that scorched earth annihilation strategy never can work fully. So, the adaptive approach of using coevolved, well recognized, traditionally backed medicines is really compelling.”