Day 84 - On wholeness
I’ve always had an interest in natural and traditional medicine. I remember a particular moment in pharmacy school where my pharmacology professor challenged my view. He undermined my statement that I’m interested in using plants as medicine. He scoffed at this, saying the only use of plants medicinally is for extracting, purifying, concentrating specific ‘active’ constituents to get a particular, measured, desired outcome. According to this narrow view, we have to actively control exact constituents and dosages in order to get a therapeutic outcome.
At the time, I listened quietly and didn’t respond. He was so sure in his view, and for a second I considered that there’s some truth to his statement. But over time, my initial opinion (feeling, intuition, belief) solidified and shaped who I am. How could any isolated part, no matter how great and beneficial, be greater than the sum of all the parts in the whole? That’s like saying that having the ‘vital’ human organs is all that matters, while the rest of them can be discarded as ‘non-essential’ for life. The theory just doesn’t hold up!
Traditionally, indigenous cultures all over the world (Indian, Asian, Tibetan, Celtic, Native American, etc.) have used plants in their whole form as medicine. Over time, either instinct, observation, or experience have taught people (willing to learn) which parts of plants to use, in what form (tea, tincture, topical preparation) and application (external/internal), and what dosing (for efficacy and safety). The knowledge has been passed down, preserved, and improved upon later generations. But in recent decades, exacting probing ‘science’ has been skeptical of traditional uses. The obsession with mechanism of action and isolating extracts overshadowed the healing effects shown by millennia of use.
Unfortunately, science can’t always get to the bottom of how or why plant medicine works. About 30% of pharmaceutical drugs have been extracted or derived from plants, which goes to show that plants really do provide measureable benefit. But not all the benefits are clear-cut, and often a lot of constituents and phytochemicals within a single plant work together in synergy to produce a therapeutic effect as well as ameliorate side effects. In this way, whole plants provide a medicine with a much wider therapeutic index (window between therapeutic and toxic dosage). As long as the plants are either grown or wild-harvested from healthy ecosystems (without pesticides or other toxic sprays/pollution), and used in the way shown to be traditionally safe and beneficial, they can in fact provide superior medicine compared to isolated extracts or chemically synthesized counterparts.
In summary, I believe that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Plants teach us to live in harmony with and accept the gifts of nature. We are not above nature, and we aren’t here to manipulate everything; we are here to coexist, learn and evolve, together.