The Tricky Thing About Those Store-Bought Herbal Remedies Of Yours
Why “taking lavender and valerian for sleep” can be just as hit-or-miss as playing the lottery
When it comes to finding safer and healthier alternatives to chemical drugs, we are well and truly only at the beginning of realizing the potential of the medicinal application of plants.
Whilst we know certain things to be true, like: plant-based diets can be used to prevent and reverse chronic disease, and that bedtime teas can sometimes be helpful for putting us to sleep — there is so much we have yet to fully, scientifically comprehend.
Recent investigations into the variability and effectiveness of herbal remedies have found that the extent to which a plant actually works as intended to help an individual — whether that may mean to sleep better, increase energy, or reduce anxiety — can vary completely if the chemical fingerprint of the specific plant extract is unknown.
What Is Chemical Fingerprinting And Why Is It Important?
Chemical fingerprinting is really just a complicated term for collecting data that allows us to understand the complete biological profile of any given plant.
Fingerprinting — also known as high performance liquid chromatography, or HPLC — is widely accepted by organizations such as the WHO as a successful method for the chemical evaluation of herbal medicines (1).
In other words, between different species, batches, methods of extraction, active compounds, as well as external factors such as time of harvest, location, and storage conditions, the therapeutic properties of a plant can differ completely.
By fingerprinting plants, however, researchers (and therefore users) can better account for any external influence that may have impacted the ratio of active compounds within a particular extract (2).
This, among other reasons, is why blindly taking an extract labelled just “valerian,” “lavender,” or any other blanket name of plant genus (the category above species) can be so hit-or-miss.
It’s because variables like the ones listed above can a have huge impact on the specific molecular mechanisms being targeted by the plant, and one that alters the physiological effects of the drug entirely.
This is why lavender will work for some people, some of the time, but not others, all of the time. It’s because just as a specific batch and species of medicinal plant is unique, we as humans are too — and increasingly so!
In fact, I have a historical example that illustrates this beautifully.
William Withering And The Problem Of Accurate Dosage
*This story is paraphrased from an excerpt found in the book Plants, People and Culture by acclaimed ethnobotanists, Dr. Michael J. Balick, and Dr. Paul Alan Cox. Their newest edition is out now; a book I highly recommend for all botanists, anthropologists, and herbal-remedy hobbyists alike :)
In 1775, physician and botanist, William Withering, finally succeeded in tracing the active ingredient of a herbal remedy he was investigating at the time to the dried leaves of the foxglove plant.
After careful observation, Withering recorded that foxglove, “has a power over the motion of the heart, to a degree yet unobserved in any other medicine.” As a result, he quickly began prescribing it to his patients suffering from dropsy — a condition where the heart fails to pump blood around the body at an adequate rate.
Prior to his “discovery” of this missing piece of the puzzle, foxglove had been used by folk healers and indigenous practitioners of medicine for centuries, but had not yet been isolated for purposes of scientific testing. In this case (like it so often goes with natural medicines), is it certainly not Withering who is responsible for discovering the healing effects of foxglove — rather, he just happened to be the first one to report his findings in a Western, scientifically standardized way.
In his research, however, he writes about the repeated difficulty he seemed to have in accurately estimating the dosage, having a frequent tendency to over-medicate the same people he was trying to treat.
That is, until he realized the importance of knowing when exactly to pick his plant medicine (3):
“[The leaves] I had found to vary much as to dose, at different seasons of the year; but I expected, if gathered always in one condition — when it was flowering late — and carefully dried, that the dose might be ascertained as exactly that of any other medicine; nor have I been disappointed in this expectation.” — William Withering
As it was, Withering was learning the big impact that factors such as time of year, season, and other environmental and preservation details can have on the dosage strength and overall effect of the drug.
Again, it’s the notion that without compiling a detailed chemical profile of the plant in question, herbal remedies are just as effective for improving chronic conditions and ailments as buying a lottery ticket is for winning the lottery — meaning there’s a whole lot of random luck involved.
Just like Withering came to realize, knowing exactly what you’re getting with your plant, and when to get it, can make all the difference between curing people (or sometimes doing the opposite).
I hope you found that this short explanation helps…
Now onto the chemically fingerprinted herbal remedies!
Alexandra Walker-Jones — October 2021
- Guidelines for the Assessment of Herbal Medicines, World Health Organization, Munich, 28.6.1991, WHO, Geneva, 1991.
- Hawrył, A., Hawrył, M., & Waksmundzka-Hajnos, M. (2019). Liquid chromatography fingerprint analysis and antioxidant activity of selected lavender species with chemometric calculations. PloS one, 14(7), e0218974.
- Balick, M. J., & Cox, P. A. (2021). Plants, people, and culture: The science of ethnobotany. New York: Scientific American Library.