What Is the Role of Science in Medicinal Plants?

Historically, healing was regarded as an art. Healing was universally understood to be a complex interaction between the patient, the healer, the community of living people, the communities of plants and animals (and insects and rocks and fish), the communities of non-living people (such as ancestors, spirit guides, and archetypes), and that enigmatic movement known by so many names: Creator, Goddess, All High.

The healing arts required an in-depth understanding of human behavior, an extensive knowledge of plants, an aptitude for the dramatic arts, particularly singing/chanting and costuming/body painting, as well as a thorough knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry. (If you believe these are not arts, consider the system employed by Traditional Chinese Practitioners, which incorporates “organs” such as the triple heater and a dozen different pulses.)

Science and art are not mutually exclusive. After all, science is nothing more than the objective examination of ideas and the capacity to make sense of the perplexing relationship between cause and effect. The best of science owes a great deal to art. Art recognizes that science is left-brained, while art is right-brained, and that a complete brain combines the two.

Science, on the other hand, is not as simple with art. Science regards art as a form of superstition. Science believes that art is imprecise, illusory, unreplicable, and thus untrustworthy. (I find it interesting that the Liberal Arts University I attended – UCLA – required students to take a variety of science courses, whereas the Science College I rejected – MIT – did not.) Science defines itself as factual, whereas art defines itself as fantastic.

True great scientists recognize the importance of honoring intuition in addition to data. However, the truly great rarely rule the world. Thus, the art of healing is gradually denigrated while the science of healing is elevated. The healer spends an increasing amount of time interacting with machines, drugs, and technology, while spending an increasing amount of time with the patient; an increasing amount of time studying books, while spending an increasing amount of time learning about the strange, symbolic, provocative powers of the psyche. The healer’s emphasis increasingly shifts away from the sick individual and toward the patient’s need for wholeness in self, family, and community.

The herbalist transforms into a biochemist. The pharmacist is no longer required to be knowledgeable about botany. Herbs are dressed in green coats and sold as drugs. And the only ingredient worth mentioning is the active ingredient.

Medicinal plants. Plants with magical properties. Plants with psychoactive properties. There is a thread here, and it runs deep. At the very least, 40,000 years. According to the plants, they communicated with us all until recently. We know that our forefathers and mothers were genetically manipulating, hybridizing, and crossbreeding specific psychedelic plants forty thousand years ago. Additionally, they are used in healing. Maria Sabina, a renowned shamanic healer of the twentieth century, went into the forest as a small child and ate psilocybin mushrooms because they spoke to her. She was only able to heal with the assistance of the “little people” (mushrooms), and she healed not only the body but also the soul. In the Amazon, herbalists and healers apprentice themselves to psychoactive plants as well as to human teachers.

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the active ingredients found in plants. Numerous chuckles as product advertisements claim to have the highest concentration of this or that only to be superseded by the announcement of the discovery of a new, better, more active active ingredient.

For instance, when Consumer Reports discovered that Kyolic Garlic contained virtually no allicin (the “active” ingredient), Kyolic responded with an ad campaign claiming superiority due to the presence of a different, stronger active ingredient.

For example, the majority of standardized St. John’s/Wort Joan’s tinctures are hypericin-standardized. However, new research indicates that hyperforin is the true active ingredient!

To illustrate, a JAMA article published several years ago on the use of  Ginkgo biloba to treat dementia explained that no active ingredient had been identified among the several hundred constituents present and that the effect was most likely the result of a complex, synergistic interaction of the parts. However, a New York Times article cautioned readers against using ginkgo until an active ingredient was identified.

It happened to me: an MD with whom I was on a menopause panel informed the audience that no herb was safe to use unless its active ingredient was quantified and standardized. What do I have to say? To me, the active ingredient in a plant is the part that cannot be quantified: its energy, life force, chi, or fairy, not a “poisonous” constituent. To the healer/artist/herbalist, the active part of the plant is that which the right brain can use to actively, chaotically, and naturally “jump the octave” and perform a miracle. This active component is eliminated in standardized products, as the true active component is the messy component, the changeable component, the subtle component, and the invisible component.

Is science involved in any way? Certainly! No healer or herbalist can replicate or supersede the process of identifying specific compounds in plants, replicating them in the laboratory, and mass producing them as drugs. The preparation of standardized drugs safeguards both the consumer (in most cases) and the plants from overharvesting (although the net effect on the environment may be detrimental).

If we place everything related to measuring and certifying in the hands of science, then surely I beg science to be the guardian of the purity of the herbs we trade in commerce, knowing that art is the guardian of the purity of the herbs we gather ourselves. (An apprentice book tip: When harvesting, use only one type of plant per basket. This enables one to quickly and easily determine whether an interloper has been introduced inadvertently.)