Why Should You Care About What Herbs Really Do?
Knowing what herbs do inside your body is important
Herbs are mysterious—according to herb vendors, you take their product, and are promised relief from insomnia, indigestion, low energy, or whatever—and sometimes the stuff actually works. What takes place in between taking the herb and noticing its effect? You trust the herb is doing something good. But you have no information about what happens to the herb during the time between your taking it and your perceiving an effect. Without this information, its actions seem like magic.
How herbs actually manage to affect your body is almost as marvelous as magic. Of course, you probably realize that some sort of plant bits must go to particular places in your body, and do things there, in order to have an effect. Knowing the details of these processes will do more than just satisfy your curiosity. It will help you decide between useful and useless herbs, safe and unsafe ones.
Why I care about what herbs do to you
My own fascination with herbs began early in life. In my overly ambitious child’s mind, I imagined that I might use them to acquire magical powers. I would be able to fly, become invisible, and save the world in three easy steps! My dollhouse contained a secret laboratory where I imagined its occupant happily concocting magical herbal potions. And as my mother blissfully gardened with her back turned to me, alarmed neighbors informed her that her child was eating her flowers. I vaguely recall selecting only the prettiest flowers for my entrees, and fortunately they did not make me too ill. Evicted from my experimental banquet, I was told that even pretty plants can make you sick, and they do not give you superpowers. Nonetheless, they are still wondrous things.
Part of remaining optimistic in this world requires that you set realistic goals. My goals gradually did grow more sensible over time, after spending years working in actual labs creating more mundane potions. Still unable to fly, let alone save the world, I am now content to do less sensational things with herbs, like quell my gas pains with chamomile.
But isn’t chamomile’s power to soothe your misbehaving gut still rather sensational? Chamomile may not work for everyone, but in order for any herb to affect you, its molecules have to do something to you. Now I confess that as a chemist, I am frankly in love with molecules, and plant molecules in particular. But I want to enable your familiarity and respect for them, as well. Plant molecules are produced in far more variety than plants actually need for their own survival, and may have profound physiological effects on your body. I want to know how they do this, inside your body! And are all their actions inside your body always salutary?
To answer these questions, I read as much as I could on herbs from whatever resources I could get my hands on as I grew older. My frustration grew, however, because most books vaguely stated that a given herb was “good” for a particular problem, with no mention of what “good” meant, or of what the herb was actually doing. “Milk thistle is good for the liver,” they inform you. That’s nice, but you can’t help wonder, why is it good, and what exactly is it doing in there? Is it good for all liver-possessing creatures, universally? For me, reading these books was like hearing the proverbial doctor’s dismissal, “Take two aspirins and call me in the morning.”
If you are like me, you need more information. Herbs don’t usually come with convenient, informative package inserts the way prescription and over the counter drugs do. Most products have vaguely worded phrases like, “Used to support liver function.” Your liver has zillions of different functions, so which ones does milk thistle support? If you really want to know more, there are wonderful resources out there, if you happen to be a PhD biochemist and can read them without getting dizzy. Now, I am a PhD biochemist and occasionally get light headed processing them, myself, so you have my complete sympathy. This book will finally give you that information, without all the big words, and with no degrees required.
Learn processes, which are more powerful than names
“You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird... So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing -- that's what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”
As the late physicist Richard Feynman observed, learning the name of something does not provide you real knowledge about the thing. You can know the common and Latin names of an herb, and you can even give it more impressive, scientific-sounding names like “antiinflammatory”, or "sedative", but what is it really doing to you? There are dozens of different ways I could sedate you, for example. I could slow down the activity of different areas in your brain, or perhaps bonk you on the head and give you a concussion. Obviously, some processes are better than others.
Now, learning the names of things isn’t a bad thing for you to do. It just is not enough. Really understanding the action of an herb on your body requires learning the actual process the herb undergoes to affect your body. The whole concept of naming an entity in order to gain power over it is an ancient and intriguing one, and I believe it pops up in the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin. As soon as the woman learns the name of an elf, she acquires powers over him! Naming helps give you power—it helps you communicate—but to truly understand an herb, you need to know what it does, step by step, along its journey in your body. What molecules do to your body is a topic called pharmacodynamics, but herbal pharmacodynamics has not yet been revealed in any comprehensive way to the herb-consuming public.
Scientists have recently brought to light many journeys that plant molecules take inside our bodies, but these scientists don’t have a good medium through which you can learn about these processes easily. So, herbal mechanisms have not been shared with the most common purchasers of herbs, nonscientists, in any complete, plain-spoken way. My goal is to at last disclose these processes in language that anyone can understand. I hope that you find these molecular journeys as helpful and entertaining as I do.
This information is different from other scientific facts available to you
I have found that most people who are interested in herbs do not even clearly understand what herbal pharmacodynamics really is, and it isn’t their fault. I blame this lack of understanding on the dearth of information available for nonscientists. When I talk about making available scientific descriptions of what herbal molecules do, many mistakenly think I will just be paraphrasing the results of scientific, clinical studies. But clinical studies only tell you “X percent of people who took this herb found their acne cleared up”, or “this hormone went down”, or something like that. Clinical studies, while instructive, can’t tell you how the effect was accomplished!
While many herbal mechanisms remain unclear, enough have been unearthed for me to provide you brand-new, exclusive information that you won’t find in most herb books. Those herbs that produce effects by unknown mechanisms still have interesting postulates for their activities for you to explore. Also, some herbs’ molecules apparently do not do anything useful to your body, even despite their popularity. Perhaps future research will redeem them, but in the meantime, negative data is still data, as you might as well save energy and resources by taking more effective herbs, instead.
This is an exciting time to study natural products. Although herbs have been used throughout human history, the secrets of how they work are only now being exposed to scientists. While this body of information is growing, it has not been made readily accessible to the most common consumers of herbs, nonscientists. This book does more than just regurgitate the facts of recent clinical trials. It tells you how an herb manages to affect your body.
Learning herbal processes empowers you
I’m not going to tell you what herbs you ought to take. There are enough people out there, making money doing just that. You can have more power over your health using herbs, but this power comes first from your understanding how the herb works inside your own, unique body. Understanding an herb’s precise behavior in the body allows you to custom fit an herb to your particular concern. What works well for your best friend may be a bad decision for you. For example, licorice root protects your stomach lining with the very same molecule that can raise your blood pressure dangerously. If do not have high blood pressure, then perhaps licorice is the right ulcer-calming herb for you. Peppermint oil stops the constriction of muscles surrounding the digestive tract, easing the pain of gastrointestinal cramps. However, this may allow stomach acid to leak into your esophagus, making peppermint a painful herb to swallow if you have esophageal reflux disease. A little bit of mechanistic information helps you select your herbs wisely, without painful self-experimentation.
There is nothing quite like assuming the power to take care of a problem all by yourself. The popularities of do-it-yourself, fix-it programs attest our growing delight in taking care of a situation without calling in a professional. Not only do we want to fix our cars and toilets all by ourselves, we also desire the power to fix our bodies all by ourselves, using whatever tools we have readily at hand. Because herbs are relatively unregulated they are readily available to you, it is understandably tempting to turn to them instead of going through the hassle of seeing a professional. If you can’t stop people from wanting to heal themselves, why not provide more information so they don’t get hurt?
So much healing does require expert medical help, and an ounce of common sense should compel you to make good use of it. However, you can still enjoy performing a degree of repair, prevention, and maintenance on your own, if you are careful. Before blindly choosing an herb because it is said to be “good” for a particular thing, though, you will be aided by first understanding any known mechanism behind its alleged action.
You expect reasonable explanations for the behavior of drugs, so why not herbs as well? When no logical explanations for their proponed actions can be given to you, new health trends may appear whimsical or even bizarre. What disturbed personality first felt it necessary to peddle coffee enemas, for example, when oral coffee is, I must assume, far more pleasurable? Joking aside, it is tragic that desperate cancer patients have actually died from debilitating series of this controversial treatment, which can cause fluid and electrolyte imbalances. All you have to do is tune into the latest infomercials to learn the latest herbal craze. Indeed, new fads always seem to be falling by the wayside as they are supplanted by some even newer, more fashionable herb, technique, or supplement. Just because something is fashionable doesn’t make it right. Discovering why some herbs have effects attributed to them—and why some of them do not—will free you from being an herbal fashion victim.
Herbs contain smorgasbords of molecules, which go to different places in your body and do very interesting things. These molecules are mysterious only because you can’t see them with your eyes, because they are so small. Nonetheless, they are real, physical entities, and it is my intention to help portray a vivid, and I hope entertaining picture of what scientists now know about their activities. Omitting knowledge of herbal mechanisms has negative consequences, too. It engenders your misperception that herbs produce effects by mysterious or magical means.
The absence of more comprehensive books on herbal pharmacology for laypeople is surprising. Why haven’t you been given access to these mechanisms? In teaching biochemistry to nonscientists over the years, I have come to believe that scientists have greatly underestimated the public’s capacity to understand and enjoy herbal mechanisms. Though outstanding reference books on herbal pharmacology are available for scientists, the established format for nonscientists often remains a more condescending, “take this-for-that” prescriptive approach: “Take this herb for that complaint”. But we are all, more and more, taking our health into our own hands, and are no longer satisfied with the proverbial “Take two aspirins and call me in the morning” treatment.
Now there are some truly good, helpful prescriptive books that do give you some details on how an herb acts in your body, but outlining herbs’ behavior in your body is not the primary focus of those books. As you more actively educate yourself about what health products you use, you need to know not only the names of the things that you put into your body, but what they are doing in there. The focus of this book is giving you that knowledge.
Learning herbal processes protects you
Most people mistakenly think that herbs are rigorously tested for safety, effectiveness, and truthful labels. This is not so at all! In the United States and many other countries, herbs are for the most part unregulated, which is all the more reason why you should have some idea of exactly what an herb will do inside your body before you consume it.
Before you can enjoy hobbies like rock climbing or scuba diving, you expect to be informed that there are risks involved, and you listen to expert counsel. You should demand no less for yourself, when approaching herbal medicine. Since natural remedies can be dangerous and even deadly, you need to protect yourself from misinformation, before you can enjoy the thrill of self-treatment. Taking herbs is like bungee jumping: you need to learn what risks you face.
The American government rarely jumps in when there is a problem, and it is hard to know when there really is a problem. Only after reviewing years of the American poison control centers’ Toxic Exposure Surveillance System (TESS) reports, the herb ephedra was banned, as it was associated with fatalities and suspiciously recurrent emergency calls. But there is still debate that the TESS system is the most efficient way to link supplements with a potential problem, because of the loose manner in which this information is organized.
A product can enjoy widespread popularity before you learn of any warning of its potential danger. Kava, a South Pacific plant, induces a pleasant, relaxed state. Demand for this herb grew feverishly until the FDA alerted consumers in March 2002 that kava could cause liver damage. In the United States, Germany, Switzerland, France, Canada, and the United Kingdom, kava was linked to a growing number of liver injuries, some requiring transplants. Kava is still marketed to people of all ages, even children. My stepmother’s teenage niece became jaundiced after daily cups of kava tea. My family assumed it was minor gall bladder problems. It turned out to be far more serious, and this young girl has joined the ranks of those who required a life-saving liver transplant after consuming kava. Most people do not have a problem with kava, but do you want to take the risk? The United States government leaves risk assessment up to its citizens. The 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) places the burden of obtaining information on herbs and supplements on you, the consumer.
You can find good information out there, if you know how to separate it from the nonsense. Some scientists seem to feel that providing detailed herbal information is too much of a bother, and prefer to throw up their hands and warn, “Just don’t take any herbs!” But I don’t think you can ever stop people from wanting to heal themselves. The movement among scientists to provide you honest information of the risks and benefits of current health fads has been growing steadily. Excellent resources now enable you to make your own decisions toward safely medicating yourself. Unfortunately a far greater number of commercial “resources” compete with them, and can, at the very least, deplete you of that essential vitamin M: Money.
Still, even the most trustworthy sources for consumers mainly boil the information down as to whether an herb is “good”, “bad”, or “questionable”, and only give a little bit of mechanistic information, at best. They leave you wondering, “Why have they given this herb such an evaluation?” If you learn the process the herb undergoes to affect you, you will know why scientists judge an herb as “good”, “bad”, or “questionable”.
You can learn herbal processes easily
I certainly find people are smart enough to be able to understand these mechanisms, after all, non-technical people do read books about things as complex as car repair and cosmology, and I find those things a bit intimidating at times, myself.
I think that only two issues make biochemistry seem daunting. Things in biochemistry are too small to be seen with your eyes. Do not let that bother you. You have an imagination, and if you can picture can picture a person in a story having an adventure and doing all sorts of things, you can certainly picture these tiny molecular adventures. The other issue is scientific jargon. When you are unfamiliar with a word, it tends to make your brain freeze up, and you can’t think clearly. I will avoid scientific jargon as much as possible, and define terms as clearly as possible when required.
Biochemistry should not intimidate you, if it is explained clearly and all terms are defined. I believe that if you don’t understand something scientific, it isn’t because you are stupid. It is because the idea was explained poorly. If I do my job properly, then the description of the journey of a plant molecule in your body should be no more perplexing than the description of the journey of someone who gets in their car and goes to the store and buys milk. The scale is just smaller, and instead of people getting into cars, we have things called molecules getting into things called cells. You do not need any science background in order to interpret this book. You only need a good imagination.
You don’t need to worry about “ruining the mystery”
Knowing how a tool works allows you to use the tool more appropriately, and gives you more power over the process of using it. Perhaps this is why humans derive such satisfaction over knowing how things work. But I have occasionally met people who express discomfort over the idea of uncovering how herbs work. Perhaps these people are in love with the mystery of it all, and I find that perfectly understandable. Who doesn’t love a good mystery? If you love the mysteries of nature, you are in excellent company:
"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science."
But I believe that Einstein knew that unraveling mysteries does not make the universe less mysterious. If you think that explaining mysterious natural phenomena automatically makes them more boring, let me reassure you. In my experience, the opposite is true; in science, more mysteries always appear in the answers!
Thus, it is often said that the more you know, the more you realize you have yet to learn. The most knowledgeable scientists ought to be the most humbled by their own ignorance. (Ironically, doesn’t it seem that those who proclaim to know the most actually know the least?) We do not have to worry about “figuring it all out” any time soon! Despite our phenomenal ability to explain how herbs and other things work these days, you do not have to worry about running out of these “beautiful” mysteries. The universe is full of them. We are drawn to them and long to explain them.
Have you ever had a teacher say, “This is the way things are, don’t ask why, just memorize it”? Most people can’t stand this sort of treatment. So, I am puzzled that people are willing to just accept “Milk thistle is good for the liver”, and they just take it, and ask no questions. If you are interested in herbs as I am, you ought to be full of questions. Beyond driving human development, I think curiosity is a virtue in itself. I hope your curiosity also fuels your enjoyment of this book.