Polypharmacy - the Philosophy Behind The Basis Of Herbal Medicine
by Mary Boughton
Member of the British Herbal Medicine Association's Veterinary Committee
Polypharmacy is the use of more than one ingredient in a medicine. Modern medicine does not in the main use polypharmacy as most drugs contain a single active ingredient. Herbalists will maintain that it is this single element philosophy which is responsible for many of the side effects and adverse reactions common in modern medicine. Polypharmacy by contrast is the very essence of herbal medicine philosophy where combinations of plants are used, each having different compounds as well as individual properties. It is this combination of complex compounds within each plant which complement and balance the effects of another.
Herbal medicine throughout the world has, almost without exception, meant the combining of two or more herbs, with some formulations containing more than a dozen different plants. However, even single plant medicines are considered by herbalists to be polypharmacy. The basis for this is that a single plant may contain hundreds of different chemical compounds, no plant or other living thing could survive if it were composed of a single chemical entity.
Modern medicine by contrast, is either produced by development of a synthetic chemical ingredient or by identifying and extracting a specific active compound from a plant and then producing it synthetically to obtain a 'pure' form of the entity which has the desired pharmacological effect. In herbal medicine it is accepted that, even if a specific compound is identified and its action understood, it is the effect of the other supporting or modifying compounds present in the whole plant which complement the therapeutic action and minimise side effects and adverse reactions in herbal medicines. Therefore an isolated chemical compound would never be considered herbal medicine.
British Herbal Pharmacopoeia
The British Herbal Pharmacopoeia contains monographs of medicinal herbs in modern use in medicines today and we can see that many of these have similar pharmacological effects, indications and uses, so why is it necessary to include several in one product? Polypharmacy again is the answer - although several plants will have similar therapeutic effects the chemical compounds in each one will be different and it is this diversity that is the very strength of herbal medicine. In simple terms, one compound has an effect and another, either within the same or a different plant, will have a supporting effect which might for example balance any side effects or increase absorption into the system.
There is of course a correlation between polypharmacy and food. Every food that is consumed consists of many and complex chemical compounds and no-one would put forward a sound argument in support of foods being taken as single chemical entities. Complex foods are nutritious, health giving and totally beneficial. Nutritionists advocate a varied balanced diet for good health both in animals and people. A comparable situation exists with herbal medicine and it is this very use of combination products which are not at variance with nature that explains why herbal medicines maintain all round health and are effective safe treatment for many problems.
This comparison with food is very relevant as the other important factor in herbal medicines is that like foods they are based on organic plant materials, which are more readily assimilated into the system than inorganic compounds. It is for this reason that although the individual quantities of elements, such as minerals, in an organically based product may be very small, they are more readily absorbed and able to be used by the body than a much larger quantity of the same mineral that has been derived inorganically. An example of this is calcium - nearly all of the calcium obtained from milk or cheese is able to be used by the body whereas only a fraction of an inorganic calcium, such as the commonly available calcium carbonate is absorbed with the remainder being excreted. Calcium is also only absorbed efficiently when Vitamin D is present which is the reason for most supplements having this added to the product. Thus it is irrelevant to make a direct correlation between the quantities of any particular ingredient in an inorganic form and the quantity occurring naturally from an organic base. It is the amount that is able to be used that is important.
Polypharmacy is therefore the basis of herbal medicine philosophy and explains why this form of medicine depends on complex chemical compounds that naturally occur and perhaps why it is this very combination that makes it a safe form of treatment for animals and people alike.