Conducting Herb Research –
Friend or Foe?
The principles of “complex” therapeutic agents are exemplified by herbal decoctions. In Chinese herbal medicine, prescriptions commonly have multiple ingredients which are boiled down in a process that often takes 1-2 hours.
Herbs within a formula are classified as the chief, deputy, assistant, and envoy. Each act in a distinct and inter-supporting role.
The “chief” is the main herb used to treat the disease.
The “deputy” enhances the primary effect or addresses secondary disease patterns.
The “assistant” further reinforces or detoxifies the decoction.
The “envoy” often integrates and harmonizes the whole set of herbs or directs the effect to a region of the body (“Formulas & Strategies,” Bensky & Barolet).
This concept of complex agents has its roots in holistic medicine, or should I say, holistic medicine has its roots in the complexity of life. So my curiosity is aroused when people or institutions make judgments on single herbs.
I know an elderly couple who volunteered to be subjects for a study on gingko biloba and its effect on memory. It was conducted by a prominent Western medical university, I’ll just say it was local one.
I’ll admit, I have not read the study; however, what matters was the reaction of my elderly friends who after taking some doses of ginkgo, where observed over a short period of time (maybe as little as one week or one weekend). The test results? No change.
My friends were harsh: Gingko was a waste of money and had no beneficial effects, don’t waste your time with such nonsense.
I was taken aback by their attitude. A Foe attitude for sure.
This happened maybe over 10 years ago, at least before I studied Chinese medicine. But… I have to shake my head in wonder about a study that resulted in subjects taking on a hard attitude over an herb.
From 1919 to 1927, an American named Carl Rehnborg worked in China for Carnation promoting canned milk.
Through sincere interest in the people and keen observation of the culture in a malnourished society, he began serious the study of nutrition. He even studied Chinese language and learned to speak it fluently during his stay.
Understanding nutrition and how to help people overcome the maladies of poor diets became his life pursuit. A significant aspect of his intellectual arousal were the Chinese herb shops where he would observe the daily decocting of herbs for medicinal use.
He later changed careers and founded one of the most successful food supplement companies in the world.
That’s an example of an open-minded person. Friend.