What Is Whole Plant Medicine?
You may or may not have heard the term whole plant medicine before, but if you have a budding interest in using herbs medicinally you will hear it soon, so let me explain the basics to you. Understanding this concept will give you a wonderful framework for how herbal medicine can fit in to your wellness plan, and the approach you take with it!
When it comes to using herbs medicinally, Whole Plant Medicine is what most herbalists agree is the most effective and safest way to use herbs as medicine. I often compare using whole plant medicine to eating a whole foods diet. When you have heard the explanation, it’s hard to argue with it.
Whole plant medicine uses the whole medicinal plant, or part of the whole plant (such as the leaves, seeds, flowers or roots), to make herbal remedies.
This process is intuitive and grounded in the traditional medicine of cultures around the world, where whole plants were used to treat whole people, and careful attention was paid to choosing the right plant or combination of plants for a particular person.
Comparing Whole Plant Medicine with Standardized Herbal Products
Whole plant medicine is what you are probably imagining it is, with herbal remedies being created directly from whole plants or plant parts. For example, an herbal tea can be prepared using the leaves of a lemon balm plant, a syrup can be made from the berries of an elder tree, or a tincture (an alcohol-based medicinal plant extract) can be created using all aboveground parts of a St. John’s Wort plant.
Herbal products that are made using whole plant medicine differ from many over-the-counter capsules or other herbal products that are standardized to contain a certain amount of a specific constituent. The scientific study of medicinal plants in the laboratory has helped us to identify some of the most medicinally active components in these herbs. Standardized herbal products are made using a consistent amount of one of these constituents, which has been isolated and extracted in the lab, creating a product that has a guaranteed level of this active component. Examples of standardized herbal products are turmeric tablets that are produced to contain a standardized level of its most studied component, curcumin, or St. John’s Wort tablets, which are standardized to contain a guaranteed level of hypericin, the constituent of the herb which has been most researched and is believed to be the most medicinally active. Sure, this guarantee sounds great, but there is more to know before you make your call.
Since most herbalists all around the globe have been using herbs in their whole form for much of human history, it is worth exploring why…
The answer comes in a beautiful word that cannot help but call out to that wise place within us all—synergy
Synergy between Constituents Increases the Effectiveness of Herbs
Whole plant medicine is based on the idea that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. It offers us the combined action of many constituents working together, and most herbalists will agree that using herbal remedies made using whole plant medicine, as opposed to standardized herbal products, will generally increase effectiveness and reduce incidence of side effects.
While one individual constituent may not have nearly the medicinal activity as another individual constituent from the same part of the same herb, it may contribute to the overall activity of the herb by helping to improve the “stability, solubility, bioavailability or half-life” (Mills and Bone, 2000) of the proven active constituents.
Whole allows synergy to happen. Without all of the parts, the synergy isn’t the same—and who doesn’t want synergy included in their medicine?!
Benefits to Using Whole Plant Medicine
- Generally believed to be more effective (due to synergy of constituents)
- Fewer incidences of side effects (due to synergy of constituents)
- Anyone can make their own remedies
- Users are more likely to understand the source of their remedy and the herbs used
- Supports the local economy
- Grounded in the approach of treating the whole person, and not just isolated symptoms
How to Find Herbal Products Made Using Whole Plant Medicine
- Ask your local herbalist—they are most likely already using it!
- Ask at your local health food shop or herbal dispensary
- Take a class and learn how to make your own herbal remedies!
Tradition and Science
The intent of this explanation is not to suggest a division between tradition and science, as the blending of the two can be a beautiful thing. Some recent scientific studies have looked at synergy, and the positive interactions between the different constituents in whole plant herbal extracts. As studies continue to prove the effectiveness of this approach, hopefully more and more people will be able to use whole plant remedies to help improve their own health and that of their families and friends.
Whole plant medicine is the medicine of our ancestors, and yet it’s a valuable form of modern complementary medicine!
Do you have an herbal question for me? Send me a note through my contact page. I’m always looking for questions that I can answer in my blog—Herbal Q&A!