Would it surprise you to know that plant medicines are largely responsible for the development of many pharmaceuticals? Researchers scour the globe to discover healing plants, oftentimes consulting with local cultures to appropriate their ancient practices. Once researchers have a plant of interest, they bring it back to the lab for scientists to identify which specific molecules give the plant its healing properties. These molecules are then isolated or synthesized, patented and sold for a high profit. For example, Aspirin is derived from white willow bark and opiate pain killers are derived from the opium poppy.

Although this connection exists, the philosophy, strategies, and outcomes associated with drugs and natural medicine are vastly different. The following article will help you make more informed health decisions regarding western and natural medicine. Below is an introduction to their chemical makeup, unique philosophies as well as pros and cons of each modality.

Chemical Makeup

Herbal medicines are organic, lightly processed, and available in many forms. They can be cooked into food, taken as powders/capsules, teas/steams, or liquid herbal extracts. A plant or mushroom may contain hundreds of unique active compounds that act on whole systems and patterns within the body. One herb may have several different actions and benefit a wide range of issues.

In contrast, pharmaceutical drugs are synthesized in a lab to isolate a single active ingredient which is then combined with "inactive ingredients" like binders and preservatives. These fillers can vary between name brand or generic and even change over time from the same manufacturer. While considered "benign" and often overlooked, "inactive ingredients" can trigger allergies and unforeseen negative side effects in patients. People whose daily regimen includes several medications are more susceptible to these side effects.

For example, lactose, gluten and chemical dyes are common fillers used in prescription formulations. Many patients react poorly to these substances and doctors rarely discuss each specific "inactive ingredient" with patients before prescribing (1).

Safety and Healing Pace

Although natural medicine and herbalism are often referred to as "alternative medicine" we can more accurately consider them the original medicine. Plants have been used to support health and treat disease for centuries. They have stood the test of time and are generally considered safe. Plants are often subtle with a slower healing pace, taking time to deal with the system-wide and root causes of a condition. They work to alleviate symptoms while also strengthening the body and supporting homeostasis.

Pharmaceutical drugs, on the other hand, are much newer to the scene than ancient remedies. They often have questionable requirements for long-term safety testing with high financial incentive to push out new drugs. This leads to numerous recalls, drug related deaths, and class action lawsuits year after year. That being said, pharmaceutical drugs are designed to work quickly and powerfully, which often makes them effective in emergency situations.

Dosing and Purity

Because herbs are gentle and generally less potent than drugs, they usually require higher and more frequent dosing regimens than pharmaceuticals. Quality may vary from company to company while potency and purity are mostly unregulated by government agencies. It is important to note that large companies manufacturing natural medicine are restricted by the FDA in terms of recommended dosing on their labels, often listing much lower doses than are effectual. For proper dosing it is always recommended to consult a qualified herbalist rather than an FDA approved label.

Foundations and Philosophy: Symptoms as the Enemy

Modern medicine sees symptoms as the enemy. Drugs are used to target and block them without regard to the symptom's underlying cause nor the consequences of interfering with the body's natural healing processes. Furthermore, symptoms are often treated individually, without seeking to understand how they are interrelated. In these ways modern medicine is quite short-sighted.

For example, over the counter (OTC) cold medicines block the body's immune response to relieve complaints of runny nose, congestion, & cough. They can trick us into thinking we are better when we are actually still sick and potentially getting sicker. People who take OTC cold medicines to suppress their symptoms may actually increase duration of illness while making more contact with the public when they are contagious. In addition, the medication may weaken the immune response for future exposure, increasing the likelihood of re-infection down the line (2).

Symptoms as Messengers & Part of the Healing Process

Herbalists coming from a holistic perspective understand that symptoms are messengers used by the body to communicate and part of the body's natural healing process. For example, the pain of a pulled muscle or torn ligament signals that the body needs rest and reduced movement to heal. Even if we know intellectually that we should limit use of a certain body part to support healing, we may want to ignore this simple directive because of life's daily responsibilities. When not numbed with potent drugs, pain is a powerful reminder when we are pushing ourselves too hard.

Symptoms of a cold exemplify the body's healing mechanism in action. Increased mucous helps trap pathogens so that they are unable to invade the body's tissues. Coughing helps pathogen-filled mucous escape the body. Congestion increases the temperature in the nasal cavity to create a poor environment for viral replication. So while it may be tempting to reach for quick relief, blocking symptoms can often be an overall detriment to achieving wellness (3).

Fever: Friend or Foe?

Next, we can look at differing perspectives on fevers. Although spiking bodily temperatures may trigger fear, fevers are one of the body's most effective strategies for creating an inhospitable environment for pathogenic bacteria and viruses. Overuse of pharmaceutical fever-reducers has been shown in animal studies to increase the animal's viral load as well as viral shedding, making it more contagious. In another study, people who took more doses of fever-reducers stayed sicker, longer (2).

From the holistic perspective, a mild fever during a cold or flu should be allowed to run its course as a respected part of the immune response. Gentle herbal diaphoretics (sweat inducers) may also be used without interfering in the innate healing mechanism. Diaphoretic herbs like catnip or lemon balm will not only ease the fever, but also calm the nerves and support the immune system during illness. Not all fevers are due to cold or flu and proper discernment is vital. Fevers can also be a sign of heatstroke, adverse drug reaction, alcohol withdrawal, tumors, adverse vaccine reaction or auto-immune disease. It is important to understand when to seek medical care (4).

The Downward Spiral of Medicalization

Lastly, we consider the long-term consequences of pursuing the pharmaceutical model. Traditional physicians (with the exception of naturopathic MD's) have en elementary understanding of the body as a holistic complex system and focus on treating surface level symptoms. More pills are often the answer to every patient's complaint. Each pill comes with a unique set of unwanted side-effects as the body is brought increasingly out of alignment with its natural processes. The physician's solution is often a new prescription... with a new array of side effects. And the answer to that? Another prescription. And so it goes.

We see the consequences of this philosophy with many elderly patients taking twenty or more prescriptions daily. The body is no longer balancing itself but being pushed and pulled by synthetic chemicals. Prescriptions are often from multiple physicians with poor inter-professional communication, leading to potentially dangerous drug interactions. In addition, managing complex regimens leads to a high prevalence of drug-related adverse events in these populations.

In contrast, holistic practitioners support clients in building their health by maintaining a healthy diet, adequate movement, proper sleep, stress management, and proper use of natural medicine. Prescription drugs are used only when absolutely necessary and as a temporary tool rather than a life-sentence. Rather than having a different pill for every individual symptom we understand that one plant chosen wisely can address root causes and alleviate a range of complaints. Holistic practitioners rely more on supporting the body's innate healing mechanism than piling on outside substances.

In Conclusion

There are times when modern Western medicine is truly a miracle and can be utilized effectively. A broken bone, an emergency/life-threatening situation, sepsis, a kidney infection... these circumstances are best brought to medical doctors and not your local wellness coach or herbalist.

However, in cases of chronic pain or illness it is best to find a practitioner who understands how to best support the body's natural healing abilities. This can be a wellness coach, integrative medicine practitioner, or herbalist. Today, there is a growing movement of medical doctors continuing their education to become naturopathic MDs. For complex and serious conditions these practitioners can offer top of the line guidance.

Lastly, we can learn to shift the way we look at bodily symptoms. Rather than fear the fever or need to immediately block the pain, what positive role might these symptoms be filling? What message is being communicated about our state of health and what our body needs? When we learn about our bodies and how to support ourselves with diet, lifestyle, and natural medicines we truly take the power back into our own hands, where it belongs.


  1. https://news.mit.edu/2019/inactive-ingredients-reactions-study-0313
  2. https://www.businessinsider.com/cold-medicine-can-make-a-cold-or-the-flu-worse-2015-1?op=1
  3. https://foralifethyme.com/blogs/for-a-life-thyme/herbs-vs-pharmaceuticals-which-one-to-use
  4. https://blog.indieherbalist.com/an-herbal-approach-to-fever/
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