In the marketplace, it is often more difficult to sell the general public on an herbal formula as opposed to a single herb. This is understandable, because people are usually driven to single herbs when they hear of some sensational effect associated with it.
For example, Ligusticum porteri (now available as a Planetary Herbals extract), commonly known as “osha,” has been found to lower viral count in chronic hepatitis C patients. Traditionally, the herb is considered “big medicine” by southwestern natives who widely utilize this herb in ceremonies and as treatment for a wide variety of conditions including sore throat, and all viral diseases including the flu.
In the marketplace, a typical consumer presented with the choice of capsules of pure lomatium versus capsules of lomatium blended with other herbs would most likely choose the former.
Are formulations better than singles?
Assuming that it is well crafted by an experienced herbalist, a formula consisting of two or more herbs can often more effective than a single herb. The operative word here is ‘can’ not always.
Strange how often the first things you hear on your learning path often prove to hold the greatest weight in life. My first Chinese herb teacher, a Taoist named Foon Lee Wong who operates a curio shop on the outskirts of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, once off-handedly said that herbs used together represent more than anything we find in nature — in other words, herbal formulations are ‘unnatural’ or perhaps ‘supernatural,’ as in beyond nature.
In a very real sense an herbalist uses herbs as a musician uses individual notes or an artist uses colors and shapes to create something unique and hopefully therapeutically effective.
Herbs are combined in formulas with particular objectives in mind. For example:
To complement or augment a primary intended therapeutic action: For instance, we might use more than one antiviral herb together to have a wider range of effect in treating viruses. Or we might use several complementary tonics together for a wider range of tonification.
Or, we might add some herbs because we can see the need to support an internal organic function in order to help the body achieve relief of a specific symptom. In other words, extra support for the digestive or urinary systems will help more effectively treat the underlying cause.
We might add in a smaller amount of an herb that slows down the liver’s ability to neutralize any strange substance that enters its portals. Usually this would be a small amount of a spicy herb to bypass the liver P450 enzymes. This allows the active principles of an herb to remain in circulation longer than if it were used alone.
Or we might add a small amount of an antispasmodic herb to relieve any physiological resistance to the unique qualities (taste, texture, etc.) of an herb.
However one of the most fascinating phenomena around herbal formulation is how a particular combination, even a ratio of two or more herbs can biochemically optimize the primary ingredients in the herbs themselves.
Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine includes thousands of preparations, sometimes in exact prescribed rations and amounts that have been passed down over millennia because of some unique experientially proven benefit.
Given today’s research capabilities, it is difficult enough to try to understand biochemically why some herbs do what they do. Each herb contains thousands of unique compounds. Compound this with trying to analyze an ancient traditional herbal formula containing two or more herbs, and you can see what a challenge this would be! (And that’s assuming that there is a will and funding for such research – which by and large in the West there is scant little of either.)
Over 50% of all pharmaceutical drugs were or are derived from plants. Are there miracle cures in the vast but dwindling Amazon rain forest? Absolutely, but thus far only a handful of drugs have made it to market (including quinine, codeine, morphine, and cocaine). While visiting the Amazon, I spoke with one of the leading Western ethnobotanists whose job it is to discover and send back plants to pharmaceutical companies that may have a value in medicine. He said he’s sent them hundreds but because they are unable to isolate, synthesize and therefore patent a single active constituent, all of this traditional knowledge of therapeutic plant usage goes to waste.
In the case of herbal formulas, the challenge to isolate and synthesize is exponentially greater.
Finally, research that supports formula synergy
So given all of the above, you can imagine how excited I get when I find a research paper that substantiates the value of an herbal formula over a single plant, in this case where the herbs work on each other to optimize certain therapeutic properties and effects.
While researching the effects of the Chinese herb dang gui (Angelica sinensis) as a blood tonic especially for women, I accidentally came upon a study of a famous ancient Chinese two-herb formula Dang gui bu xue tang (DBT) which consists of one part dang gui and five parts huang qi (astragalus root). This formula has a wide range of use and is traditionally prescribed alone with other herbs or in soups for anemia, uterine bleeding, post-partum bleeding, fatigue, and symptoms due to hormonal deficiency including osteoporosis.
The odd thing is that the formula is for blood deficiency but dang gui, the herb regarded as the sovereign blood tonic in Traditional Chinese Medicine, is used in a much smaller amount than astragalus root, an herb used as a qi tonic. Why?
The study “Verification of the formulation and efficacy of Danggui Buxue Tang (a decoction of Radix Astragali and Radix Angelicae Sinensis): an exemplifying systematic approach to revealing the complexity of Chinese herbal medicine formulae” demonstrated the higher therapeutic efficacy of the two herbs together with the primary herb being a one fifth the ratio to its secondary counterpart.
The researchers speculated as follows:
“The saponins may liquefy and make the primary properties of ferulic acid and ligustilde in dang gui more bio-available. When boiled it seems that the ferulic acid and ligustilide in dang gui are oxidized and degraded which is far less when astragalus is combined in the 5:1 ratio with dang gui. Finally it’s possible that the stability of the active constituents are improved by having the different plant chemicals together.”
While none of this is conclusive, it sure supports Foon’s notion that an herbal formula is more than the sum of its parts.