Ian Spohn, ND, is a staff naturopathic doctor for Energique who enjoys challenging the dogmas of both conventional and alternative medicine. He is a passionate supporter of the paleo diet and classical homeopathy.
The terms “evidence-based” and “trust the science” are thrown around a lot these days, as much in support of alternative treatments as to discredit them. In particular, there is an enormous, ongoing effort to apply evidence-based medicine to the world’s vast herbal pharmacopeia, to confirm or refute the traditional uses of plants that herbalists have trusted for in some cases, literally thousands of years. Authorities like Pliny the Elder, Galen, and Dioscorides wrote sweeping treatises on the virtues of medicinal plants, and many of these virtues have since been confirmed by modern science, suggesting that much of the knowledge gathered in antiquity, without the scientific method, was shockingly valid. While science can discover new uses for plants, and prove what we already know, it often seems that in the realm of botanical medicine, there is tremendous pressure to use science from a defensive position, to justify the new “alternative” practice of continuing to do something that has worked for generations. From a world-historical perspective, the bizarre modern experiment of not using plants as the primary source of our medicines is in fact the alternative practice.
It is difficult to see any real harm in using science to justify botanical medicine, and in fact it seems like a good idea, to promote its mainstream acceptance. But there is a danger in over-emphasizing the value of scientific evidence as it pertains to herbalism. For instance, it has been shown now that virtually every plant ever studied contains chemicals that arrest the growth of pathogens, at least in vitro (plants have their own immune systems – what a shock!), and even the list of plants shown to inhibit tumor growth seems endless, yet common sense and clinical experience both suggest that none of these plants is a cure-all, and in fact may not even be useful for the conditions their in-vitro properties would suggest. This is especially true when the science suggests uses for some of these plants which are at radical variance with their established traditional uses. St. John’s wort, for instance, was until recently used as a vulnerary[i], or recommended for lung and gastrointestinal complaints[ii]. Most traditional sources never mention it at all as an anti-depressant, a class of medicines which did not even exist prior to the modern phenomenon of regarding “depression” as a drug-treatable illness caused by low serotonin levels, when depression is arguably not even a real disease, as has been recently suggested by the British Psychological Association[iii]. In this case, it is possible that using an evidence-based approach to herbalism is actually destroying thousands of years of accumulating knowledge of the plant’s healing virtues, and instead leading its modern users down spurious rabbit holes which ultimately undermine the credibility of botanical treatments in general. Maybe St. John’s wort really does influence serotonin levels, but if it does, it will still never do so anywhere near as effectively as an SSRI, reinforcing what many people believe, that plants are simply weaker, inferior “alternatives” to proper pharmaceutical treatments, may be worth using in a pinch if you’re lost in the woods and can’t reach a pharmacy, but never to be taken seriously.
The ultimate harm of leaning as upon a crutch on the authority of evidence-based medicine is that it creates a systemic bias in favor of plants with single, readily-identifiable active constituents, and against those plants whose virtues seem to evolve instead from an ineffable, holistic sum of their chemical parts. We are all familiar with plants which are now seen as good for one thing only, due to the concentration of a specific chemical which is thought to act in the body in one single, specific way, as has been scientifically proven, and is therefore best employed as a standardized extract to maximize the content of this chemical, regardless of the fact that it was traditional consumed as a tea, which might not even be fully extractive of the active constituent in question. Eventually, plant medicines become nothing more than natural sources of drugs, no different than dangerous, side effect-laden treatments like aspirin, digitalis, and vinblastine. This leads many useful plants to fall entirely by the wayside, simply because their mechanism of action remains unknown or simply too complex to be analyzed in controlled isolation.
An excellent example of this is Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum multiflorum), a plant which throughout its history has been remarkably overlooked despite its amazing benefits as a musculoskeletal tonic. Native to Europe, Asia, and North America, Solomon’s seal was hardly mentioned by the herbalists of antiquity, although it does appear in Gerard’s 16th century English herbal. Although it was used in several Native American healing traditions, it was likewise neglected by the Eclectic physicians, who did so much to expand the knowledge of so many other medicinal plants. The modern use of Solomon’s seal has been spread practically by word-of-mouth, with modern traditional herbalists like Jim McDonald[iv] and Mathew Wood[v] extolling its virtues as a sovereign tonic for tendons, ligaments, joints, and even bones. Its properties have been described as amphoteric, able to strengthen and tighten loose tissues while stretching and relaxing tissues grown stiff. While its active constituents and mechanism of action are largely unknown, it has been suggested that Solomon’s seal supports the hydration of joints and connective tissue, restoring joints and tendons that have become like “old, stiff leather” to a supple condition, while soothing irritation in other tissues due to excess fluid accumulation. It has been highly recommended to support the health of tendons, ligaments, joints, and even spinal discs, as well as to promote the resolution of minor injuries to these tissues. Its scope as a tonic is so vast that practically any tissue liable to become too loose, too stiff, inflexible, or over-stretched is likely to benefit from the use of Solomon’s seal. It can truly be thought of for the musculoskeletal system as elderberry is to the immune system, or ashwagandha is to the HPA axis.
Not only are the true active constituents of Solomon’s seal still unknown, the herb is often used in very small doses, as little as a few drops per day. As is the case with homeopathic remedies, it seems to work with the body at least in part on an energetic level. While this concept is slowly being forgotten by the modern approach to botanicals, which increasingly emphasizes the importance of active constituents, it remains an integral part of many indigenous traditions that approach healing through plant spirit medicine. This quality of Solomon’s seal also makes it ideal for spagyric extraction, an ancient alchemical approach that seeks to gather into the form of a tincture the entire plant’s energy, not simply its chemical constituents. As one Energique’s many spagyric single herbal extracts, Solomon’s seal can be a useful tool to support connective tissues, which though they compose its most grossly material aspect, still need to be vitalized by the body’s energetic life force.
[i] Boericke, W. Pocket Manual of the Homeopathic Materia Medica and Repertory. Accessed online 10/1/21 at http://www.homeoint.org/books/boericmm/h/hyper.htm
[ii] Grieve, M. A Modern Herbal. Accessed online 10/1/21 at https://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/s/sajohn06.html
[iii] Bowden G, Holttum S, Shankar R, Cooke A, Kinderman P. Understanding Depression. 2020 The British Psychological Society, accessed online 9/30/21 at https://www.bps.org.uk/sites/www.bps.org.uk/files/Member%20Networks/Divisions/DCP/Understanding%20depression.pdf
[iv] McDonald, J. Solomon’s Seal. Accessed online 10/1/21 at https://www.herbcraft.org/solseal.html
[v] Wood, M. Polygonatum spp. True Solomon’s Seal. Accessed Online at http://www.matthewwoodherbs.com/TrueSolomonSeal.html
Any homeopathic claims are based on traditional homeopathic practice, not accepted medical evidence. Not FDA evaluated.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.