An Herb is More Than its Active Ingredient


Feb 16
Professor James Duke

When I first started researching alternatives and herbs, etc, I ran across the work of Professor James Duke (pictured above), a leading herbalist. (Recently passed away at the ripe old age of 88, in December of 2017.)

In his career he’s investigated, tested, and categorized more herbs than possibly anyone. His website will stay up as long as his students survive, and his books are often recommended and quoted.

I read a short article by him that has never left me. Every choice I make in wellness is influenced by Dr Duke’s simple words. I am honored to pass his message on to you. I’m sorry that I cannot reference this article; I’ve remembered the meat, not the packaging. I’m sure the good doctor has forgiven me.

We live in a world of reductionism. The reigning demigods of science are constantly searching for a key component. In any study, “science” wants to know which factor worked. For example, I had been told for years that holism (treating the entire person, rather than the illness with everything it takes to heal body, mind, and soul) cannot be tested because we would never know “what worked.” Scientists called it “the shotgun approach.”

If a patient is healed using holism, what was it that worked? Was it this? or that? or the other? Science wants to know.

The patient doesn’t care.

When it comes to medicines, many of which come from herbs, here again we have reductionism, for the pharmaceutical industry does not use an herb, but rather the herb’s “active ingredient.”

The entire herb is reduced to an active ingredient.

Here is where Dr Duke gives (in a paper I found but did not save) a great example: the May Apple.

The May Apple is toxic, well parts of it are toxic. It has been used as a cancer cure among early Native Americans. The May Apple has also been used to protect potatoes from potato bugs. It is ground up and placed over the plant and around the plant, and potato bugs stay away.

Reductionists, or scientists as many are called, decided to hunt for the active ingredient and, as always, they eventually found it and created a powder from it, which they placed over the potato plant and around it, and sure enough, the bugs stayed away. Everyone popped open champagne bottles and celebrated.

That is until the next year.

The second year that the powder was placed over and around the plant, the bugs came back.

This did not happen when the entire plant was used, ground up and placed over and around the potato plant. The bugs do not return. Not the second year, not the third, not ever.

There is just something about an entire herb that you will not get in the active ingredient only. It is as if all phytochemicals within a plant, within an herb, within a fruit, work like a finely tuned orchestra. The orchestra plays a much more robust rendition than any solo performance, and can even drown out a single instrument.

Duke introduced me to a concept called synergy. Synergy means the sum is greater than the parts. Or mathematically, one plus one is greater than two (1 + 1 > 2).

We see it in the May Apple, and you can see it in a carrot. A carrot has many wonderful phytochemicals. A large carrot can have 4 mg of vitamin C; 13 mcg folate; 8666 IU vitamin A; .5 mg of vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol); 10 mcg of vitamin K; 4157 mcg of Beta Carotene; 2028 mcg of Alpha Carotene; 1.4 mcg of lycopene; and 149 mcg of lutein + zeaxanthin. [From the USDA web site:]

Now 4 mg of vitamin C isn’t much to write home about, or .5 mg of vitamin E. You can get a lot more beta carotene in a pill than in one carrot. But a carrot was created by, depending on your belief system, nature or God. Whether you believe in natural selection or creationism, the food we have is the best possible source of nutrition these mortal bodies need. Anything we do to this food can only bring down the nutritional value. The benefits from a carrot are more than all its parts added up. You won’t get as much as from a pill, but you will get what your body needs in the best form and the best way your body needs it. You can’t ask more than that.

And as to the studies on holism…

I used to answer the critics who bombarded me with, What will you prove? you won’t be able to prove what worked,” by saying, well, let’s compare all our unknowns to your known, and see which works better. We know the average lifespan of people on chemotherapy, so let’s just compare results. It’s that simple. And this is especially important in cancer because studies are written up all the time the point to response: did the cancer shrink. If you’ve ever paid attention to cancer studies, the shrinkage of a cancerous tumor has less than nothing to do with outcome. Most important is how many years, quality years, were added to the life of the patient?

That is the question we need to ask.