Whenever I teach class, I begin by showing the students a remarkable image called an electromagnetic flow visualization. This colorful diagram depicts the intricate, symmetrical flow patterns created by the various arrangements of electrons which vibrate around atoms in a molecule. I ask the students to imagine this image coming alive: humming and sparkling in three dimensions as it vibrates, rotates, and drifts along through the tiny realms of intermolecular space. Conventionally, we’re not taught to think about it this way; but if we could actually ‘see’ a molecule, we might be surprised by how exotically and curiously beautiful it is. We might see colorful, blooming, interlaced patterns of perpetually moving energy which nevertheless retain a stable spatial relationship with each other. I like to say that rather than thinking of molecules as tiny objects, we might better conceptualize them as being patterns of energy in relationship. This way of visualizing phytochemicals introduces the intriguing possibility of perceiving them as fluid expressions of a plant’s energy or spirit. We might also realize that these phytomolecular entities can interact with the entities/energies/molecules of the human system to bring about biological change – potential healing in the case of medicinal molecules.
In most books and academic programs, however, phytochemicals are depicted in a much more pedestrian manner. We use simple line drawings to suggest which kinds and numbers of atoms are present and how they are bonded together to form the overall pattern of a molecule. I think of these chemical structure drawings as being like hieroglyphs: rather esoteric, minimalist markings that can nevertheless convey significant information to those who learn how to interpret their symbolic visual language. When we dig into the details of molecular structure drawings in the rest of this handbook, keep in mind that we are examining the map and not the territory. The territory – the actual living, changing molecule itself – is far more weird and wonderful than we could ever depict with lines and letters on paper. I also like to keep in mind that the medicinal herbs really do make these phytochemicals – they’re not something we invented in the lab. In addition, consider the implications of the fact that these compounds are very often the original inspiration for many of those synthetic imitations we call drugs.
The Origins of Phytochemical Synergy
Many herbalists acknowledge that one of the main differences between whole herbs and traditional extracts on the one hand, versus individual vitamins, minerals, isolated phytochemicals, or conventional single-molecule drugs on the other hand, is the principle of synergy. Synergy can be defined in a number of ways, but the underlying idea is that complex interactions among the many constituents of an herb give rise to its unique characteristics, personality, and healing properties. To borrow a concept from physics, the very complexity of a living plant – which contains perhaps thousands of interacting chemicals – gives rise to emergent behavior: activities and effects which could not have been predicted from what is known about the individual components of the system. In other words, the whole herb is far more than the sum of its constituents.
Since we humans also have very complex physiological systems, it seems to be common sense that we would respond to plants as healing entities. Tradition expresses this idea as the ‘wisdom of Nature’: since humans and plants are made from the same elemental substances, and share a number of fundamental biochemical and energetic similarities, we should respond in a more ‘natural’ way to whole plants than to isolated chemicals. From a scientific perspective, the theory of co-evolution provides a modern explanation for this intuitive concept.
The co-evolutionary theory points out that the various organisms within any ecosystem have continually evolved and adapted to one another over a long period of time. For example, medicinal herbs have developed their particular array of constituents as a response to the pathogens (bacteria, viruses, fungi), predators (insects, herbivores), and symbiotic organisms (mycorrhizae, beneficial insects, pollinators) that share their environment. In other words, plants have not evolved in isolation, but rather in responsive and adaptive relationships with their companion organisms.
As an illustration of the co-evolutionary principle, imagine the case of a plant species which is routinely infected by a particular kind of bacteria. Over time, mutations naturally arise within the plant species which cause it to produce a higher concentration of a phytochemical compound, X, that kills the bacteria. As a result, the X-producing mutants survive and reproduce while the plants lacking this compound gradually die off. This is the process of natural selection: the bacteria which share the environment with the plant selects for the survival of the high-X strain of the species. However, bacteria are even more genetically nimble than plants, and so they would rather quickly develop resistance to compound X. The X-resistant bacteria could then infect the plant species again, and once again become significant pathogens. And so, in order to prosper, the plant must come up with a new antibacterial compound.
This cycle repeats over thousands of years of co-evolution, until the plant has developed a whole bag of tricks – a complex mixture of synergistic antibacterial phytochemicals – to deal with the continual evolution of resistance in the bacteria. Now consider that the plant has been adapting not just to one species of bacteria, but to many other organisms as well; it is not difficult to see how this would lead to the development of numerous different phytochemical constituents with various physiological activities. In essence, the plant species has invented the strategy of synergy as a way of maintaining its place in its environment. Fortunately for us, many phytochemical substances developed as ‘medicines’ for the plants themselves are active for humans as well; and so we reap the benefits of phytochemical co-evolution in our medicinal herbs.
Join our Herbal Constituents Intensive, October 17-21, 2016 in Boulder, Colorado at the Colorado School of Clinical Herbalism. You can find registration information here!