I am often asked about singular herbs having a good effect for certain skin disorders, and whether I thought it would be okay for people to try these singular herbs on their own. My response is always the same- Chinese medicine is based on poly-pharmacy or multiple herb formulas. Using a singular herb approach to treatment is relatively rare in the practice of Chinese herbal medicine, and doing so may not illicit the best results. So for this blog piece I thought I would write about some of the reasoning behind why poly-pharmacy is much better than singular herb, or even singular isolated chemical drug, therapies. The best way to explain this is probably through the newer modes of science based on “systems biology”.
I can actually credit my Teacher Mazin Al Khafaji for sharing the concept of systems biology with me during his latest visit to Vancouver. He brought it up in regards to the newer trends in understanding how the body works, and as a method to better understand how herbal medicine works. Systems biology, as defined in Wikipedia, is “a biology-based inter-disciplinary study field that focuses on complex interactions in biological systems, claiming that it uses a new perspective (holism instead of reduction).” Systems biology studies the “interactions between the components ofbiological systems, and how these interactions give rise to the function and behavior of that system”, and is in direct contrast to the reductionist viewpoint, which concentrates on a singular biologic event using a singular chemical compound to affect it.
In other words, systems biology involves the ability to understand how several active medicinal ingredients can work together to affect many different bodily systems to achieve superior healing. This is different than the older method of conducting research whereby one chemical compound was investigated to work on one biologic target. To me this newer level of scientific analysis more closely represents the true nature of our human body as being a complex whole with many interrelated parts, rather than just a simple electric circuit composed of light bulb, power source, and off/ on switch.
The December, 2006, issue of the British Journal of Pharmacology states, “The development of systems biology has led to a new design principle for therapeutic intervention strategy, the concept of ‘magic shrapnel’ (rather than the ‘magic bullet’), involving many drugs against multiple targets, administered in a single treatment. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) offers an extensive source of examples of this concept in which several active ingredients in one prescription are aimed at numerous targets and work together to provide therapeutic benefit.”
The traditional methods of preparing multiple herbs together are of special interest to researchers, as they have noticed that not only are newer chemical compounds with positive therapeutic value created during the cooking process, but even the toxic elements of some herbs are eliminated or reduced. An article in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology (October, 2009) found that “proper processing and multi-herbs formulation can reduce the level of toxic components. This also explains that in Chinese Materia Medica, some herbs, such as Aconitum and Ephedra species are never used as a single herb for intervention and that aconite is only used when it is processed and in combination with specifically matched other herbs. The formulation principle of multi-herbs intervention strategy is a systems approach for the treatment and prevention of disease. In this light, the role of systems toxicology in the safety and quality of Chinese herbal medicine is proposed as a promising method.”
So, although many research studies I present on this website have been shown to be effective for such and such a skin disease, the truth is that multiple herb formulations work better. The true art of Chinese medicine is truly in, firstly, the diagnosis- looking at the body through the lens of pattern differentiation, and secondly, the building of the multi- herb formula (tastes horrible but works great!). This is one of the many reasons it is important to see a a properly trained and qualified Doctor of Chinese medicine, who actually has specific training in the area of health that needs fine tuning.
Dr Trevor Erikson