History of Herbal Medicine
Originally, herbal medicine in Europe was primarily a women’s art. The classic image of witches boiling herbs in a cauldron stems to a large extent from this period. Beginning in about the 13th century, however, graduates of male-only medical schools and members of barber-surgeon guilds began to displace the traditional female village herbalists. Ultimately, much of the original lore was lost. (So-called traditional herbal compendiums, such as
, are actually of fairly recent vintage.)
Another major change took place in the 19th century, when chemistry had advanced far enough to allow extraction of active ingredients from herbs. The old French word for herb, “drogue,” became the name for chemical “drugs.” Subsequently, these chemical extracts displaced herbs as the standard of care. There were several forces leading to the predominance of chemicals over herbs, but one of the most important remains a major issue today: the problem of reproducibility.
Herbal Medicine’s Greatest Problem: Reproducibility
When you purchase a drug, you generally know exactly what you are getting. Drugs are single chemicals that can be measured and quantified down to their molecular structure. Thus a tablet of extra-strength Tylenol contains 500 mg of acetaminophen, no matter where or when you buy it. Although a vitamin, not a drug, the same is true of a vitamin C tablet, provided that it is correctly labeled.
Herbs, however, are living organisms comprised of thousands of ingredients, and the proportions of all these ingredients may differ dramatically between two plants. Numerous influences can affect the nature of a given crop. Whether it was grown at the top or bottom of a hill, what the weather was like, what time of year it was picked, what other plants lived nearby, and what kind of soil predominated are only a few of the factors that can affect an herb’s chemical makeup.
This presents a real problem for people who wish to use herbs medicinally (as opposed to, say, for taste or fragrance). Since so much variation is possible, it’s difficult to know whether one batch of an herb is equivalent in effectiveness to another.
The desire to overcome this problem provided the main initial motivation for finding the active principles of herbs and purifying them into single-chemical drugs. However, by now most of the common herbs that possess an identifiable active ingredient have long since been turned into drugs. Today’s popular herbs do not contain any known, single active ingredients. For this reason, there’s no simple way to determine the effectiveness of a given herbal batch.
This difficulty can be partially overcome by a method called “herbal standardization.”
In this process, manufacturers make an extract of the whole herb and boil off the liquid until the concentration of some ingredient reaches a certain percentage. Contrary to popular belief, this ingredient is not usually the active ingredient; it is merely a “tag” or “handle” used for standardization purposes.
The extract is then made into tablets or capsules or bottled as a liquid, with the concentration of the tag ingredient listed on the label. This method is far from perfect because two products with the same concentration of tag ingredients may still differ widely in other unlisted or even unidentified active constituents. Nonetheless, this form of partial standardization is better than nothing, and it allows a certain amount of reproducibility. For this reason, we recommend that whenever possible, you should use standardized herbal extracts. Even better, use the actual products that were tested in