Botanicals are a growing opportunity

FI sits down with herbal luminaries and ethnobotanists Chris Kilham — aka The Medicine Hunter — and Trish Flaster, of Botanical Liaisons, to discuss the issues affecting the field.

FI: Is NIH research helping or hurting botanicals? That is, is the research focusing on the wrong things? I'm thinking St John's wort for major depression — thanks for that.

Flaster: I have experience on two NIH Dietary Supplements Centers¹ Advisory Boards and some other committees. I think the work being funded by NIH is valuable. In the first years of these Centers, there were problems in plant ID and other issues, but these have been resolved and better methods adopted. NIH Centers are an asset to supporting Dietary Supplements safety and activity.

Kilham: Nobody blows a big budget on a mis-designed herbal study better than NIH (read: Not Into Herbs). Consider the study of both Zoloft and St John's wort for the treatment of grave depression. What a pitiable waste. Neither showed benefit, which is no surprise, as both are only for mild to moderate depression. And why didn't Zoloft get equally pilloried in the media? Too many cozy dinners at the Capital Grille with fat cats from big pharma? If we are going to blow tax dollars to accomplish so little, can't we just throw a party?

Flaster: The NIH research is good, we are finding out qualified data that assists us in understanding mechanisms of action. The natural products industry has made great strides in chemistry, but still need to offer more biological testing to show activity in the products, thus validating when and how to use ingredients. Isn't that what we want, products that support health?

The difficult issue is that the paradigm needs to shift from single molecule testing models. Products are multi-componential materials, even multiple plants in a formulas, so we may need to look at each component and see how they work singly and then how they work synergistically. This is expensive and time consuming. So it is an asset that NIH is raising the bar.

Most scientists have been trained in pharmaceutical models and may need to be more creative to support innovative botanical products.

FI: Is there always going to be a problem between botanicals and Western medicine because of inherent variabilities of plants and the suite of phytochemicals that is antithetical to the Rx paradigm?

Kilham: I speak to groups of pharmaceutical scientists, and they are perfectly well aware that multi-component herbs demonstrate real efficacy. The problem is that drug development is driven by patent law, and patents are easy to garner for single molecules. As long as patents drive health care, there will be a disconnect between the medical establishment and herbal science, which is broad and sophisticated. Thankfully, consumers are not waiting for dithering pencilnecks to sort out the fine points. Herbs work, and that's why people use them.

Flaster: Pharma isolates an active molecule. But in the case of natural products, the active component may not be a priority to identify if the product is effective as a whole. What may be more critical is that the plant materials are accurately identified and the test methods used to qualify the materials are confirmed and appropriate. Pharma has qualified methods more often than the natural products industry. Yes, many pharma products do not know the mechanism of action, are being sold even though they affect only 30 per cent of the population, and often have dangerous side effects little seen in traditional products. There must be a hybrid system that satisfies our consumers and regulators.

FI: Are reference standards the big issue, and will they be completed before the rainforests are cut down?

Flaster: I have been selling botanical references for more than 10 years so I am highly qualified to speak about this. There exists a huge problem that manufacturers are not willing to confront nor pay for good science — specifically, 100 per cent identity of the materials they use in their products. We have been lucky to escape the consequences. In fact, until FDA or the lawyers produce negative evidence exposing this weakness, very few voluntarily include this process in their standard operating procedures.

Would you want to buy a product that lists one ingredient but actually has another? Do you know if your testing laboratory is using good reference standards?

FI: Are there new herbs, new uses for old herbs, or new applications?

Flaster: There are so many plants that has not even entered the marketplace. As an ethnobotanist, I have spoken with numerous healers in multiple cultures that have products we in the US have not seen yet. The plants that are considered new now are those I was aware of 15 years ago. So there are many more possibilities, but there are barriers to entry that require studies to demonstrate activity and safety. These can be expensive, but not insurmountable. Good scientists, ethical researchers and labs with good R&D are working in conjunction with ethnobotanists and are refining them for the natural products industry. Often companies look for new products based on biological indications found amongst on consumers. If the general public continues maintain their unhealthy lifestyles to eat poorly and remain sedentary then we will see many new applications arise.

Kilham: I am an ardent proponent of the use of both Rhodiola rosea and cat's claw. Rhodiola is without question the single most beneficial psychiatric aid on earth. It could replace at least a third of the drugs used for depression, anxiety and stress, and deserves to be vastly popular. Cat's claw, perhaps the most beneficial plant from the Amazon, is the mega anti-inflammatory that the pharmaceutical companies long for. It should be No. 1 in every person's medicine cabinet, and is useful for pain, immune disorders, colds and allergies. These two botanicals have waited in the wings long enough.

FI: Botanical usage was wildly popular in the 1990s, then went on a downward decline but seems to be stabilising. What's the story here?

Kilham: Inevitable disillusionment with the dangers of drugs is driving people to herbs. Herbal sales may go up and down with media tides, but overall usage will continue to rise due to our need to heal and stay well. Herbs work where drugs fail. Herbs are safe where drugs can kill, and herbal science is massive and powerful.

FI: Let's say you could be a plant of your own choosing. Which would you be, and why?

Kilham: If I could be any plant, I would be Banisteriopsis caapi, the 'vine of the soul,' essential to the making of the Amazonian hallucinogen ayahuasca. This potent brew, which is not for everyone, deserves its name La Medicina (The Medicine). Beneficial for physical, mental and emotional healing, and proven useful in treating addictions, ayahuasca is a great boon to humanity.

FI: In food/drug/mass channels, garlic, saw palmetto, ginkgo are the top three sellers. In the natural channel, it's spirulina, hemp and green tea. What's with the disconnect between mainstream and mass?

Kilham: The mass-market channels serve people who are behind the knowledge curve when it comes to herbs. The natural products retail sector serves people who are current. We need mass market penetration, and we are getting it. At the same time we need new products and concepts, and the natural products industry provides shelf space for that, as it always has.

FI: Which botanical should be used much more than it currently is?

Flaster: Tibetan medicine is my interest, I have seen remarkable changes in people who have been diagnosed and treated with this traditional system of healing. I also like osha hydrosols but the plant is not cultivated so do not suggest this yet.

Kilham: Rhodiola rosea. Folks, write this down on a chalkboard 100 times, and tell everybody. Rhodiola is the most profound medicine in our healing pharmacy. It enhances the mind, reduces stress, improves memory, banishes depression, eradicates anxiety, promotes a great night's sleep, and makes you feel like a billion bucks. Everybody can benefit from a daily dose of about 400mg of rhodiola. Everybody.

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