Here at the Apothecary we are passionate about Herbal Medicine. We often get asked if herbal medicine is scientific. One of our missions at the Apothecary is: To create scientific awareness of Herbal Medicine.  Herbs work in the body because they contain families of chemicals, similar to compounds found in foods but also similar to compounds found in drugs. There are three ways that these chemicals act on the body tissues. This first way, is that the substances get absorbed into the bloodstream and act in the same way that drugs do being metabolised by the enzymes present inside our cells. The second way is topically, which means by coming into contact with the tissues, so either the skin, mucous membranes or the gut lining, so we can get direct contact here. The third way is by reflex, which means that the herb stimulates an inbuilt reflex causing the desired effect on the tissues, rather than by coming into direct contact. The difference between drugs and herbs is in the dosage and the chemical makeup.

A drug is by definition a single compound. It is administered in a high dose, and the safety margins are narrower than the use of modern herbals. For this reason drugs are well researched before being put on the market. Because drugs are termed as ‘medicine’ by the law, herbs cannot be. Herbs can be dispensed ‘foods’ because they already exist in nature, but by law they cannot be called ‘medicines’. It is for this reason as well that herbs are less researched than drugs, the stronger drug-like herbs are classified as ‘medicines’ and the tonic herbs are classified as ‘foods’. The herbs that were first used as drugs are now being replaced by synthetic drugs which are apparently easier to measure dosage due to plants variability in natural compounds. Herbs that are grown in different soils or in different climates can produce differing amounts of constituents, so it is much safer to use drugs in life threatening situations than herbs in these instances.

So today, we use ‘tonic’ herbs to treat the body instead, which have less of a safety concern but more of a complex biochemical result and more of a nourishing ‘tonic’ role. This is where herbal medicine today excels – we can bring about change in the body in a gentler manner but in a way that produces less dramatic side effects. One thing I have noticed with herbal medicine is how well the body responds to herbs. High doses of conventional medicine are not always needed. The nature of herbal medicines is such that they contain many constituents, so unlike drugs there are an array of chemicals that are acting on the tissues. This means we get a different kind of result and less side effects. We are complex creatures and our biochemistry is a complex too. Because of this, herbs tend to bring great therapeutic results when the right herb is chosen for the right need and results tend to be longer lasting, although slower to incite. Due to the complexity of herbal medicines though, herbs tend to be harder to study, as we need to know what the most active constituents are and how these constituents act together to cause a response in the body.

Naturopathic medicine in general is becoming more ‘evidence based’ as the evidence in relation to plant compounds including vitamins and minerals comes to light. This is especially true as lifestyle diseases are replacing infectious disease as our major killers. Science is our friend and the more we find out the better. Some herbs are very well researched and others less so. It is important to note that herbs have a long history of recorded use so we know from traditional evidence how and what they work for, but we do need more research to back this up.

At the Apothecary we are all qualified, registered herbalists which means we have studied science including the traditional and evidence based use of herbs and nutrition alongside biochemistry. We undertake constant training in the updated research and use of herbs for your benefit, so when you come in and talk to us, you know you are talking to someone skilled in the art and science of Herbal Medicine. So Yes, herbal medicine is scientific in its approach, and so are we. Kia kaha.  §

Simone Reddington is the founder of the Apothecary, a Medical Herbalist and thinker. She holds a degree in Psychology and is a professional member of the New Zealand Association of Medical Herbalists.