Pamela Bond's Blog

Can tiny worms prove that herbs work?

Traditional herbal remedies—some of which include 10 or more herbs in combination—provide a conundrum for scientists and consumers who want proof of effectiveness. On one hand, a Western research approach likely would dissect the herbal combination into its constituents to discover whether each piece works and how. On the other hand, the combination works because it is a sum of its parts. In other words, single herbs don’t necessarily act as well as the combination does.

Researchers at the Baltimore-based University of Maryland think they have a solution: worms. The worm model called Caenorhabditis elegans allows scientists to test mixtures and individual herbs on the worm to tease out which have benefits.

Sure, worms test well, but what do they have in common with humans? Does the research apply to us? Good questions. It turns out that we aren’t so different from worms—at least when it comes to aging, which is what researchers are investigating. Who knew?

In the latest project published in PLos ONE, a team of researchers tested two herbal mixtures: Shi Quan Da Bu Tang (SQDB), a 10-herb combo meant to address fatigue and energy as we age; and Huo Luo Xiao Ling Dan (HLXL), an 11-herb combo for joint pain. Only two herbs in the combinations significantly extended the life span of the worms: cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum cassia) from both formulas and ginseng root (Panax ginseng) from the fatigue/energy formula.

As a combination, SQDB also extended the life of the worms, but HLXL didn’t. According to the researchers, this is good news for showing that research using the worm model is applicable to humans. SQDB is meant to improve age-related fatigue, whereas HLXL is more for inflammation and arthritis not necessarily due to age. Aging is what makes us similar to worms, not joint inflammation.

Will this line of research lead to FDA-approved herbal combinations or increase sales in the supplement aisles of your store? Stay tuned to find out.

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