In Part One of this article, I introduced a system for understanding foods, herbs, and drugs based loosely on the way certain systems of herbal medicine classify herbs. In short, at one end of the spectrum are substances that are completely benign to virtually all humans. In terms of their energetics (moisture, temperature, and other qualities), they are entirely neutral. This means they are harmless, but they also have almost no potential to correct imbalances of health. You’d find water and rice near this end of the scale.
At the other end of the spectrum are substances that are so strong or “polarized” in one or more respects that they are always damaging. This means they have huge potential to change major imbalances of health, but they tend to do so at a high price. Most chemotherapy drugs fall near this end of the scale. They might destroy all the cancer cells in one’s body, though they may kill the body in the process.
I’ll direct you again to this diagram:
If we define drugs by the same characteristics as herbs, we’d find that a drug with the main quality of being drying – like a nasal decongestant – will tend to be extremely drying in comparison with any herb, nutrient, or food. This means that it’s likely to work faster than an herb, it’s likely to be stronger than an herb, and it’s much more likely than an herb to produce side effects. When you feel “drugged” on cold medicine, it’s due to the relatively unbalanced nature of the substance. However, depending on how bad your cold symptoms are, this may be a tolerable side effect.
Besides the fact that herbs usually have a less extreme nature than drugs with comparable properties, most herbs in their whole state contain complementary compounds that make them less prone to cause imbalance, whereas drugs are usually single compounds without any built in balance. Thus, many drugs with the potential for great value, due to their strong and rapid effects, also have the worst side effects.
When we make extracts from herbs, modifying them to potentiate a certain action, this tends to shift them toward the red/right end of the diagram. Meaning, they’re generally stronger, more rapidly acting, and also less balanced with a somewhat higher potential for side effects. I used to have a patient who needed tincture of opium for chronic diarrhea, and it was quite a valuable and balanced medicine for her. It barely affected her mood and did an excellent job of slowing her bowels down. But one day, her insurance stopped paying for it, and she was required to use a cheaper and more common alternative – morphine. Whereas tincture of opium is a relatively complete extract of the seed capsule of the opium poppy, morphine is a single isolated chemical. Consequently, it’s much less mild and balanced. It didn’t work well for her diarrhea, but she became addicted to its euphoric effects. It took us years to wean her off it.
While herbs are my preferred medicines, my background is as a scientist, so I’m not one of those alternative medicine zealots who dismisses everything about biomedicine and drugs. If I happened to be one of a small group of lucky humans who survived an apocalyptic event, you can bet one of the first places I’d go would be a hospital, where I would load up on antibiotics, epinephrine, prednisone, and a few other emergency drugs for short term life-saving use.
But when it’s not an emergency (and even occasionally when it is), I almost always opt for herbs over drugs, and part of the reason is this: for any given therapeutic purpose, if we were to compare the appropriate drug to a comparable herb (or, more likely, a formula of herbs), the herbs would fall to the left of the drug on this scale. That is, they would produce the same effect, but with a much lower potential for harm. Furthermore, in the way that I use them, I expect most good herbal formulas to support one’s deeper health in a way that tends to be more lasting than the benefits of a pharmaceutical.
Incidentally, depending on the herb and the dose used, herbs can, of course, cause side effects and damage (see how far that yellow bar labeled “HERBS” stretches to the right?). Most of the herbs that we think of as poisonous also have strong medicinal properties. Usually the difference between medicinal and toxic is just a matter of dose. Also, as with pharmaceuticals, sometimes a certain degree of toxicity is considered tolerable in trade for the medicinal value.
So, think about the cost of the medicines you take. Even if you’re not experiencing side effects, remember that with longer term use there is an increasing tendency for a substance to start to push you out of balance. Next week, I’ll discuss foods – where they fall on this spectrum, and their potential to harm and heal.
Dr. Peter Borten