There is big difference between the ways modern science and Ayurveda look at an herb. In the modern world, it is all about the chemicals present in the plant. But in Ayurvedic pharmacology, it is about the herb as a whole. Let us dive deep into these two kinds of approaches.
Modern herbal pharmacology
The moment you go to a modern pharmacologist and start talking about herbs, it is all about phyto-chemicals (The chemicals present in the plant). It is all about extraction techniques, purity, half life, etc.
In turmeric, they do not look beyond curcumin.
In black pepper, they do not look beyond Piperine.
In Vasa (Adhatoda vasica – useful herb in cough, asthma etc) – they do not look beyond Vasicine and Vasicinone.
Advantages of modern view on herbs
It helps to quantify each of the active principles of herb
They have developed extraction techniques. Hence the phyto chemicals can be duplicated / improvised in the lab and manufactured in bulk. It helps the company to be less dependent on the availability of plant. It helps in bulk manufacturing and maintaining standards.
A few famous examples of such a process leading to success are –
L-Dopa – a medicine used in treating Parkinson’s disease. It is derived from an Ayurvedic herb called Kapikacchu (Mucuna species)
Menthol derived from mint leaves – used as rubefacient. It generates heat and redness on application, thereby suppressing the pain sensation. Hence used for external application in headache, blunt injuries, arthritis etc.
Methyl salicylate (oil of wintergreen) – another rubefacient derived from wintergreen plant.
Quinine – anti malarial anti-fever medicine derived from Cinchona ledgeriana
Theophyline – A broncho-dilator ( one among the two chemicals present in famous Asthma drug – Deriphyllin) – derived from Theobroma cacao
Morphine – a potent pain killer derived from Ayurvedic herb – Poppy. Want to know a bigger list of such examples? Here.
So, when a plant chemical is extracted, and then further developed / artificially synthesized, an allopathic medicine can be derived from it. The idea and execution looks perfect. But there are some drawbacks.
The modern guys attribute the benefits and side effects of the extracts to the original plant. When they attribute benefits of the extract to the plant it is just fine. But when they attribute the side effects to the plant, there is a big problem. Let me explain.
Reserpine is from an herb called as Sarpagandha, used in treating psychosis, high blood pressure etc. Reserpine is having many side effects such as gastric irritation. But that side effect can not be fully attributed to Sarpagandha. Because, reserpine is not Sarpagandha. It is just a part of Sarpagandha. Apart from reserpine, the plant also contains isoreserpiline, ajmaline, aricine, corynanthine, deserpidine lankanescine rauwolscine, rescinnamine, reserpine, reserpiline, isoreserpine, serpentinine, and yohimbine.
It may also contain many other chemicals which are not yet discovered. It is quite impossible to extract all the plant chemicals and to know the action of each of such chemicals and then define the mode of action of the plant.
In many cases, the plant contains two chemicals which act against each other. For example, in Vasaka plant, Vasicine, which acts as bronchodilator (it opens up the constricted minute wind pipes in the lungs) is useful in asthma. Whereas Vasicinone, another chemical of the same plant has broncho-constrictor effect. Hence all the characteristics of Vasicine can not be attributed to the plant Vasa.
This is why, Ayurvedic approach of looking at the herb as a holistic entity has great value.
Ayurveda believes that the plant acts as a whole. This is the reason, we use whole herbs in our formulations. The combination of chemicals in a plant may counter-act, interact, support or depress each other but with the synergy, it brings about the said therapeutic effect in the patient. The ancient scholars of Ayurveda have used taste, qualities etc parameters to explain the action of a drug, rather than chemicals.
This has the advantage of avoiding misunderstanding chemicals as the plants. But it also has a few drawbacks.
Suppose, a plant – xyz has a,b and c – 3 active chemicals. The proportion of these chemicals vary from one xyz plant to the other, based on its growing conditions, habitat, soil conditions, seasonal variations etc. Hence it is quite difficult to standardize Ayurvedic medicine. Because, the amount of chemicals in it may vary from one plant to other.
The modern way of extracting the active phyto chemicals and developing it to a successful medicine is good, as long as they come up with safe drugs.
Ayurvedic way of using whole herbs in herbal medicine is good as long as we take effective steps to avoid total destruction of medicinal herbs in nature.