On its face, the concept of receiving therapeutic treatments from whole natural sources such as plants or concentrated food sources makes intuitive sense. After all, observational studies and general sound nutritional recommendations support eating a balanced whole food diet. Receiving our nutritional needs through this natural and simple approach really seems to benefit an individuals health.
Additionally there is a long historical precedent for the use of botanical and animal substances to treat and alleviate maladies. The history of human culture is replete with mention of the use of medicinal herbs and plants, as well as animal organs, bones, and other accessory appendages for the treatment of many varying afflictions.
Why not then, use substances that combine these concepts, such as utilizing herbal treatments, or animal parts that contain a plethora of elements that work together "synergistically" to heal? Seems sound- until you take a closer look.
Unfortunately, there is a wide chasm between the superficial perception of botanical and animal therapeutic use and actual reality. There is also a lapse in critical observation as an illogical thread is created between the use of many of these substance and efficacy. In essence, as beautiful as these concepts may be, they are tenuous mirages of ideas that seem to take on the trappings of a belief system more than a treatment practice.
Consider the observation that in times when herbal, botanical, or animal products were widely used there was no measurable improvement in general human health. Mortality and morbidity for 19th century cities were in general the same as those of preagrarian societies. This life span hovered at around the mid thirties in spite of plant and animal therapies. In other words, Paleolithic societies had the same life expectancy as the many diverse cultures and societies that followed until the advent of scientific methodologies in the 20th century.
Another important observation is that these botanical and animal products would seem far more attractive to many of the other archaic practices in existence in those times. Treatments such as blood letting provided a harsh back drop and powerful impetus to search for other more benign forms of therapy. Knowledge of disease etiology, pathology, and biological infectious processes were basically unknown to healing practitioners of these times and treatments had largely random results that focused on symptoms more than treating the cause of disease. It's no wonder that the "more benign" herbal or whole medicinal approach took root. It is easier then to trace and better understand the origin and enduring popularity of today's botanical, herbal, and animal therapeutic products.
The problem though, is that things have changed since these prescientific days. The 20th century discovery and implementation of scientific theory was a true "medical enlightenment" that gave light to a dramatic shift in general populational health and longevity. A new branch of medical practice began to pin down what worked and what did not. Many ancient practices were discarded, others refined, and still others incorporated into a new armamentorium of therapeutic practice. This robust process continues today as our understanding of biology, physiology, and genomics sheds more light on disease and how to treat it.
Although many herbals, botanicals, and animal products may have several different kinds of physiological qualities including anti inflammatory, antibiotic, and hormonal effects they are often broad and difficult to pin down. It is important to realize that the source of these products are from animals and plants that are evolutionarily geared for the survival of their own kind. The sum total of a plant or animal contains the constituents that favor there unique biological needs.
Many of these substance are toxic or noxious to humans. That we, as human healers, can find beneficial compounds or elements in the environment is a function of luck. How these substances actually interact with our own physiological make up will vary. In other words, using a whole plant product for treating human disease implies that there may be indeed be some therapeutic action, but there are likely toxic elements to consider as well. The scientific foundation of evidence based medicine provides a consistent methodology that effectively considers these issues.
The history of medicine is replete with archaic, harsh, and brutal therapies due mostly to the fact there was no method to discern knowledge of disease from opinion, myth, and magic. Rumblings of modern medicine can be found in the idea of botanical, herbal, and animal product usage, though it is for the most part archaic. Modern pharmaceutical practice, in many ways, can be reasonably considered a refinement of this ancient practice.
Some thoughts and concerns about using herbal, botanical, and "whole" animal products
When considering some of the problems with many "whole" herbal or animal products, three important general concerns are:
1) Using "whole" products. There is some evidence supporting the idea that there are synergistic and buffering actions when using unpurified extracts of plants for example. However, these are limited observations making it difficult to generalize to all products. In addition, many products are not tested for consistency and active ingredients. The companies that do these tests still use ingredients that do not have evidence based efficacy, or that have limited and anecdotal efficacy. (This does not even broach the subject of toxicity and adulterated products)
2) Combining herbs, botanicals, and animal products. Again, the concept of synergy and buffering is claimed to produce a potentiated effect above what only one substance could produce. This concept has roots in the idea that the cause of many diseases were unknown and many "whole" therapies focused on symptoms rather than causes. Again, there is little evdence to support these claims. Today, many treatment approaches are discouraged as pharmaceuticals are often very specific and well targeted to the problem.
3) Diagnosing disease. Many "whole" product practitioners use archaic or unproven alternative practices that focus more on belief, magic, and opinion than a true problem solving science based diagnostic methodology. These diagnostic modalities often focus on generalities such as "toxins", "stressed organs", or accumulations of noxious materials in the gut instead of an actual pathology.
These practitioners also often encourage the concept of eating wholesome foods, exercising, and avoiding unhealthy habits- all sound recommendations. The problem is many diseases require an actual diagnosis to be properly addressed and the illusion of the placebo effect can lead to inappropriate treatments beyond general healthy advise.
In general, the advances of modern evidence based medicine has been able to discern and understand the process of disease much more clearly than in the past. Many older treatment concepts have passed the critical eye of modern medicine while many others have been discarded. This process continues today.
Many ancient and archaic healing practices that have little evidence based efficacy have waxed and waned in popularity even before the advent of modern medicine in the 20th century. The practice and use of "whole" herbal, botanical, and animal products has roots in prescientific history where other harsh ineffectual methods were in practice.
That these therapies seemed benign then contribute to their popularity today. Combined with the gentle and "holistic" promise of today's alternative medicine, they remain popular. However, our present day understanding of biology, physiology, evolution, and pharmacology brings more questions and doubts than answers regarding any place for these products in today's medicine.
Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine Considered. Ramey, D, Rollin ,B. Blackwell Pub. Iowa. 2004