Phytotherapy, from the greek root “phyt (ón)” meaning plant and therapy from the Greek “therapeia” meaning “healing” or “curing”, is a synonym for evidence-based clinical herbalism (i.e. the use of plants as medicine) and a medical modality employed in many developed countries as one of the primary means of correcting disorders in the body and restoring good health. It is distinct from homeopathy, which relies on preparations essentially lacking any active ingredients. It is also distinct from pharmaceutical medicine in that it attempts to preserve the complex chemistry of the whole plant part that is used (e.g. roots, bark, leaves, or flowers), rather than to isolate only a single molecule with a single mechanism of action. So is there anything wrong with isolating a single chemical with a single mode of action?
For one thing, the pharmaceutical approach fails to take into consideration that chronic diseases (our number one causes of morbidity and mortality in the US) develop nearly always, not through just one, but via a complex convergence of pathophysiological mechanisms, none of which are caused by a deficiency of an isolated chemical. It is worthwhile to understand that likely ever since the first animals were created, an intimate, often mutually beneficial relationship existed between plants and animals in which they relied on each other to keep themselves healthy and able to reproduce. In this regard, humans, as well, have relied on plants to keep themselves healthy for eons. It is only in the modern era, that large scale processing of foods by giant corporations has resulted in a diet largely deficient in the nutrients and phytochemicals (plant chemicals) necessary for good health. While our supply of vital nutrients in the foods we eat has thus dwindled, our body’s demand for these nutrients has continued to climb ever higher alongside the ever increasing stresses of our hectic modern lifestyle. Even our plant foods like fruits and vegetables have been selectively bred or genetically modified to preserve only the qualities we find appealing like sweetness while discarding the “undesirable” qualities like bitter compounds, many of which are comprised of phytochemicals that are actually essential to our health. Is it any wonder that we’re now facing unprecedented rates of chronic diseases in the US (epidemics of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc.)?
Unfortunately, the current curriculum in most medical schools is basically devoid of classes on herbal medicine (the use of plants as medicine) and clinical nutrition. Was it not Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, who first said: “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. With the rates of chronic diseases climbing ever higher in the US, we are now paying the price of ignoring his advice. While the western allopathic medical system is great at dealing with some acute conditions like trauma, it completely fails to address and correct the underlying causes of our leading killers (heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular disease, etc.), many of which develop over decades due to cumulative and unremitting tissue injury. This tissue injury has essentially one root cause: continuous stress that exceeds the body’s coping abilities. In today’s frantic lifestyle, stress is abundant and can come in many forms: it can be physical (e.g. physical injury, sunburns, etc.), chemical (e.g. chemical toxins found in food or drugs or stress resulting from a deficiency of nutrients that the body needs to function correctly), even psychological (e.g. emotional stress that leads to increased (chemical) oxidative stress on cells of the body).
It is noteworthy that plants have experienced these very same physical and chemical stresses and were imbued with unique and profound mechanisms to cope with them. By using plants as medicine, we can gain access to sophisticated biological defense systems that have been refined and honed beyond the wildest dreams of any genetic engineer save God Himself. Imagine for instance a simple blueberry: what makes it blue? The berry concentrates a pigment in its skin that protects its cells from the damaging UV rays of the sun. When we eat the berries, we obtain and adapt those very some cytoprotective (antioxidant) molecules to protect our own cells from damage (such as the cells in the retina of our eyes). Imagine a Ginkgo biloba tree. The tree was designed with unique cytoprotective molecules that provide it with such an incredible, indomitable defense system that ginkgo trees growing less than a mile from the 1945 atomic bomb explosion in Hiroshima, Japan were virtually the only living organisms in the area to survive the explosion, and though charred, soon became healthy again and are still alive today! Is it any wonder then, that when we use high-quality ginkgo appropriately (under the guidance of a knowledgeable healthcare professional), our own cellular defense mechanisms become activated and upregulated. Indeed, the rich array of phytochemicals in plants that make them essential to our health has such complex and profound interactions with the body that, no drug can hope to even come close to the power of plants as medicine!
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