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Excerpt from Complex Herbs - Complete Medicines

What is an herb? In botany the understanding of herb is a plant with a fleshy rather than a woody stem, which, after the plant has bloomed and set seed, dies down to the ground. However, the word “herb” has other meanings that expand the concept. The word is derived from the Old Sanskrit bharb, meaning “to eat;” this eventually became the Latin berba, used for “fodder.” The early English used the word herb as synonymous with vegetables. Later, this was restricted to parts of vegetables that grow above ground. In medicine an herb refers to a plant whose properties allow its use therapeutically. Some are also used as seasonings. In the culinary arts, compared to spices herbs are mild fresh or dried leaves, while spices involve more pungent seeds, roots, fruits, flowers, and bark. Generally, an herb is a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory, or aromatic properties. In all of these cases, an herb is a fresh or dried plant or its useful part. Herbs descriptions all involve the intact substance of the plant, including its Fiber but sometimes excluding the water. A plant extract is not an herb.

What is a drug? The term drug has different meanings in different times and contexts. Legal definitions and common understandings vary. Most people consider drugs as medicines or substances of abuse, as nonfood items that affect function and sometimes behavior. Herbs and their products are caught in the middle of this web of nomenclature. In the following discussions of herbal medicines, confusion may arise as to the proper designation of these products. A brief explanation is necessary to help guide the reader through this maze. The word ‘drug’ was derived from the Dutch work droog, meaning “dried,” and from the Anglo-Saxon drigan, indicating “to dry.” As recently as 100 years ago in the pharmaceutical profession, drugs were understood as the dried herbs from which medicinal extracts were produced. This is apparent in the many quotations taken from writings by the president of the American Pharmaceutical Association at that time, the Eclectic pharmacist John Uri Lloyd.

During this same period naturopaths were calling themselves drugless practitioners and using common dried herbs and their water extracts, considering them as foods. By naturopathic reckoning, toxic herbs, alcoholic tinctures, concentrated extracts and isolated compounds from botanical remedies were drugs. This belief was supported by the fact that during this time botanical agents comprised half of medications listed in the United States Pharmacopoeia (USP), the official American drug compendium. In addition, the USP contained many isolated compounds derived from plants. In the naturopathic context most nonaqueous derivatives of herbs used as official drugs were undesirable. Synthetic medications, referred to as “coal tar derivatives,” were anathema.

With the passage of time, many alcoholic extracts became accepted by naturopathic doctors as also providing in large part the desirable complex nature of the whole herb. Such preparations as juice, teas, and tinctures can be considered native extracts. Native extracts are liquid fractions prepared by simple extraction procedures from the fresh or dried herb and consumed without further alteration of this form. Another term often used to describe these native extracts is “crude extracts.” Nontoxic herbs and their native extracts are no longer considered as drugs, and their use remains commonplace among the general public. Ultimately, they became so popular that a law was passed to assure continuing access to these and other nutrients. In 1994 the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) included herb products under the official designation as dietary supplements in the United States. Herbs and their derivatives are now being included in the National Formulary, a publication of the USP Convention, even though they are not considered as drugs.

The past 50 years has seen an increased medicalization of American culture, along with an increased reliance upon synthesized pharmaceutical medications. Those botanical derivatives that are now officially designated as drugs in the USP are almost exclusively concentrated subfractions or isolated components, many of which have been altered at the molecular level for patent purposes. Even the use of concentrated extracts remains rare in American medicine, compared to European nations and Germany in particular. The emphasis on pharmaceutical extracts of botanicals in Europe has led to increasing clinical studies of these concentrates and has allowed for their official approval there as drugs. These phytopharmaceutical drugs are often concentrated subfractions of native extracts, produced by multiple purification steps using toxic chemical solvents. Yet, when these products are imported to the United States, they qualify under the DSHEA regulations as dietary supplements and are referred to as herbs. Such concentrated fractions for all intents and purposes are increasingly like conventional pharmaceutical drugs, the isolated compounds typically preferred in American medical practice.

The reduction of an intact complex herb to a native extract using water and/or ethanol represents the first level of fractionation of botanicals. A diminished complexity results, but these traditional selective liquid extracts are quite appropriate for specific conditions. The reduction of a native extract to a concentrated fraction allows a lower dose in exchange for even more limited activity. The final stage of reduction to a purified chemical compound provides a greater selective strength. Typically, an isolate is more rapidly absorbed and reaches greater tissue concentrations, but the greater bioavailability and potency is often associated with elevated risks as well.

Each person is confronted with important life choices each day. When it comes to health care and medicinal agents, such choices abound. Each individual must decide whether their preference should be for the greatest nutrient and phytochemical complexity as found in the whole herb and in a somewhat reduced content with native extracts. Or, are the concentrated fractions or their isolated drug constituents more desirable? It becomes more confusing when the extract is called a herb and the fraction is referred to as an extract. It is exasperating when the fraction is marketed as an herb. Dried herb, extract, fraction or isolate, each at some time likely to be called a drug, all have a living plant as their source. How close to the source do you want to be? This book provides information to help understand the differences, so that decisions can be made with a better grasp of the issues involved.

The second part of this book looks at examples of herbs whose products are popular in America. The uses of the different types of product forms are discussed from a historical perspective. This is intended to show both how our understanding of the herb, its extracts, and its fractions and isolated components has developed and how the uses of the various forms are in some ways similar and in other ways different. Emphasis on the acknowledged activities and uses for each of the forms provides a means for recognizing the unique features of each. While each form has some features that are similar, each also needs to be understood in terms of its own peculiar nature to appreciate its optimal applications in health care. Since the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, the potential found in the living plant remains the basis for each different form.

by Francis Brinker, N.D.
This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.