So, you’re curious about herbal medicine. Is there any truth to this stuff?
Uncle Howie tells you that he read in the National Enquirer about an herb that has better antibacterial effects on cuts and scrapes than Neosporin ointment — never mind that Neosporin is composed of three different antibiotics that come originally from bacteria themselves.
So you set out on a quest to purchase some of this herb, known colloquially as goldenseal. When you go to your local Whole Hippie Dump-a-Load-of-Cash Emporium you find goldenseal alright, in about twenty different forms. On one side of the aisle are containers with loose, crushed up leaves and roots that look like medical marijuana. On a shelf, you find see-through capsules that seem to contain a powdered version of the herb. Down the aisle a bit you find boxes of blister-packs containing a proprietary extract of free-range goldenseal from the Appalachians harvested under moonlight by bare-breasted virgins. The same company also makes an ointment, allegedly procured the same way.
A scraggly young man with a rainbow-colored Whole Hippie tam comes by and says, “Dude, can I help you?” As you wave away the cloud of patchouli oil and three days of body odor, you ask him, “So, this goldenseal — which one should I buy?”
Hippie Boy looks both ways down the aisle and motions with his finger to come close.
“Dude, all this expensive stuff is just a ploy by The Man trying to make a buck with their fancy scientific words and processes. What you want is the whole herb, man — the stuff given to us by the sprites and spirits. Those capsules miss the point. Part of the magic is missing. You pay extra to get less.”
“But, dude,” you say. “I want to try the ointment, you know, for cuts and scrapes. How do I use this herb?”
The fine young man then explains how to make a poultice, an old-fashioned decoction of plant material that one wraps on a cut — sort of like collard greens.
This really seems like more trouble than it’s worth. You’re about a millisecond away from just heading down to the Done-Rite Drugs, Liquor, and Tobacco to buy a simple tube of Neosporin. But hey, it’s an experiment and you’re curious.
While you’re checking out from the health food store, a local scientist friend is in line at the next register, checking out your stash of goldenseal.
“You know, you should really go read Science-Based Medicine to get the straight dope on that stuff.”
And so, here you are. And I’m here for you.
[Note to readers: Apologies to my hippie friends. I love you all. No hippies were harmed in the drafting of this blogpost.]
Is there any scientific evidence to support a common herbalist claim that whole plant materials are “better” than semi-purified extracts or pure, individual chemicals made by the plant?
And I can tell you this — it depends.
But as long as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is in existence, this is the exactly the kind of work that should be supported by this arm of the US National Institutes of Health. In a recent paper to appear in the Journal of Natural Products, Dr. Nadja Cech and colleagues from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Dept. of Chemistry & Biochemistry, used traditional separation chemistry and cutting-edge analytical chemistry techniques to address this very question.
[Update: I neglected to note at the time of posting that Catherine M. Cooney wrote Junio HA, Sy-Cordero AA, Ettefagh KA, Burns JT, Micko KT, Graf TN, Richter SJ, Cannon RE, Oberlies NH, & Cech NB (2011). Synergy-Directed Fractionation of Botanical Medicines: A Case Study with Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis). Journal of Natural Products PMID: 21661731