Why bother doing research?
Research into herbal remedies and why they work is a topic close to my heart. Some people believe that the fact that most of the herbs we take have been used traditionally for hundreds of years means that we don’t need to know why or how they affect the body. However, scientists are constantly discovering new things about herbs and their actions in the body. This can lead to new potential uses for herbs, or better ways to take them. For example, research into the way that Vitex agnus castus affects hormone release in the body and the differences caused by high and low doses can help herbalists make better decisions about when and in what dose to prescribe it.
Who does it?
Humans are by nature curious and that is what fuels the pursuit of knowledge about the world we live in. I’m not happy with accepting that herbs work by magic and, while for some people the healing process is more effective through belief in supernatural events, I’m a logical person who is interested in why. This is the reason I am currently studying for a Masters degree in medicinal natural products and phytochemistry at UCL. One of the many interesting things I have learnt while doing the course is that lots of people are interested in the healing power of plants without studying to become a herbalist. There are people dedicating their lives to figuring out how and why plants affect our bodies and health just for the advancement of knowledge, which is an inspiring thought; particularly since the numbers of people who are able to afford to study a degree in medical herbalism is dwindling in the UK.
Homegrown herbal research
A problem that worries me is that the scientists doing research aren’t communicating with the herbalists prescribing the plants. Yes, there are scientists carrying out ethnobotanical research into the way tribes from far off lands utilise plants, but not many of them are analysing the place plants have in Western societies. Only a small proportion of research papers address the use of herbs in the UK, despite the use of herbal medicine being common. There is a fascination with the exotic, but research into the potential of common weeds growing in our gardens isn’t very exciting. However, the most sustainable medicines are those that grow faster than we can weed them out! One of the problems with drug discovery from natural products is the issue of making medicines from unsustainable sources. Therefore, using rare, slow-growing or hard-to-source plants doesn’t make sense, while using weeds has the potential for truly sustainable medicine.
Weeds as food
Not so long ago, it would have been common for us to pick salad to go with dinner on the way home, with plants such as sheeps sorrel, chickweed, wild garlic and dandelion leaf. The rampant Japanese knotweed, which is considered such a pest plant that its presence brings down house prices, actually makes a tasty addition to a meal. The young tender shoots apparently taste a little like rhubarb and are high in beneficial nutrients such as resveratrol and vitamin C. It may be that the loss of some of the diversity in our diets from foraged foods like these has diminished the number of beneficial plant chemicals and increased the risk of chronic health problems.
There may be many more benefits to our local UK plants than just a good addition to a health diet, but we’ll never get to the bottom of it unless more people are inspired to study the plants around us.