Standardization of Herbal Remedies?

Standardization of Herbal Remedies?

I read a lot in the health care literature about the need to standardize herbal remedies. This means making sure that each capsule of herbal medicine contains a standard amount of some constituent of the plant. For instance, St. Johnswort capsules are often standardized to deliver a specific dose of hypericin, one of the components of the plant’s medicine that we know to be active. Although it makes some sense on the surface, there are some problems with this approach.

First, we only have a rudimentary understanding of the symphony of chemicals that are bioactive within our bodies from even the most well understood plant medicines. We may be able to determine that, for instance, motherwort has 5 or 6 chemical compound that are active. There are many many more that we have no understanding of. We do know that the chemical constituents of plant medicines work together to create healing in our bodies. So if we’re standardizing herbal capsules to one chemical in a very poorly understood mix we don’t even know if we’re paying attention to the most important elements.

Second, we use plant medicines to heal a wide variety of health problems. For instance, motherwort can be used for general anxiety, digestive problems, and irregular heartbeats among other disorders. We don’t know if one of the chemical compounds in motherwort is more important than another in dealing with one of these difficulties in particular, or if they all need to be in a certain balance to receive a certain benefit, so standardizing an herbal remedy to one of the compounds is sort of like shooting in the dark.

Third, we end up using plant medicines prepared by others. Sometimes those others have different ways of understanding plants and the healing they can bring. Most of the time these plant medicines are gathered and prepared with profit in mind which can affect how things are done. While many of the manufacturers of herbal medicines are honorable and conscientious, we do have to trust them to do what they say they are doing and to do a good job of it.

Fourth, there is a gap between us and the plants we are using. When we use herbal medicinals that we purchase we have a direct relationship with the store we purchase them from who has a direct relationship with the manufacturer who has a direct relationship with the people who gather and/or grow the plants who have a direct relationship with the plants. Our personal connection with the plants we use under these circumstances is not close.

I think a more reasonable approach is to go local with plant medicines. We know that the chemical components of plant medicines vary with the seasons, from year to year, and from location to location. The chemical components of our bodies also vary according to these same influences. It makes sense that if we are using the plants from around us they will be growing and changing according to the same factors that are affecting us. They are more likely to carry the factors that we need at that time and place. They are more likely to be able to work in in synchrony with our bodies, minds and spirits and be uniquely suited to our particular needs. Using the plants around us is a way to tap more deeply into the harmony of the natural world that is always a part of us.

In addition, if we are using the plants around us for healing we know all the details about how they are growing, how they are gathered and how they are prepared. We don’t have to wonder if someone gathered them from a field next to a highway or toxic dump. We know they are healthy plants if we gather them ourselves. We know they are fresh, and we know how they were handled after they were gathered. We don’t have to be concerned if the correct plant was used or if something other than the plant was added to the medicine we’re using. We know everything that went into the remedy we take or give to those we love.

We have a long tradition of using plants growing around us as medicines. Before the Industrial Revolution cookbooks usually contained recipes for commonly used medicines. Every household prepared what they needed to maintain health and happiness from what grew around them. Two hundred years ago before the settlers arrived in this area it was the responsibility of mostly the mothers and grandmothers to monitor the members of their family and notice if things started to go out of balance. If someone seemed a little "off" a tea or a salve would be prepared to restore harmony before anything more serious could develop. Or maybe a little bit of a certain plant would be added to the family’s dinner to help everyone. This kind of attention is a natural part of family life, but many of us no longer know what to do about the things we notice.

A couple of weeks ago my friend, Carey Ryan, was telling me about a new garden that was being planned by some of her friends. These people were preparing for a garden of herbs and medicinal plants. They had training in Chinese herbal medicine and the Western Herbal tradition (mostly European plants), so naturally they were planning a garden with these medicinal plants. I began a little rant about how we have a perfectly wonderful pharmacopeia of Native medicinal plants that no one really pays attention to. We go to great trouble to import plants from the Far East and Africa and call our Native medicinals "weeds." Then dear Carey, an acupuncturist trained in Chinese Medicine, asked me to teach her something about our Native plants.

We arranged for her to come to my garden. I have encouraged Native plants to grow here for the last 20 years and now have over 50 medicinal and edible plants growing on my little city lot. She brought some friends and we spent the afternoon visiting with some of the plants here and sharing information. Some of the plants in my garden are even plants that she studied in her Chinese Medicine training. She had only studied them from books and dried specimens, so seeing the living, growing and flowering beings was a new experience for her. At the end of the afternoon we made a tincture of Motherwort so everyone could see how easy it is to prepare these kinds of medicines. The people here that afternoon learned about not only some medicinal uses for the plants, but also about the ease of using the ones growing nearby. They also learned something about having a direct relationship with plants and about the plants’ generosity.

More about that later.

I’m preparing to go North and spend some weeks at home, visiting with Elders, making medicinals, learning more about the green ones and helping others connect with the natural world in old ways. I will deeply appreciate these weeks away from cell phones, pavement, "news" and advertising. Pandora, here I come. And I don’t need space travel or an Avatar body.

One comment

  1. Ossin Nahke

    Wow – nice article and a great connection to the beings around us – I like this!

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