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When Natural Products are More Effective than Synthetic Ones

The inner bark of the white willow was used for pain relief long before aspirin. Image:

The inner bark of the white willow was used for pain relief long before aspirin. Image:

By Larry Plesent

Most of what we call medicinal drugs are in fact synthetic versions of the healing molecules found in plants. Plants, it seems, have been fighting cancer, viruses, bacterial and insect pests for half a billion years. Since plants and people are part of the same ecosystem and share DNA with all living things, their solutions often work for us two legged critters too.

The pain reliever we call aspirin, for example, is a modern version of the ancient Gaelic recipe for infusing the inner bark of white willow in vinegar. Tamoxifen, recognized as effective in slowing the rate of breast cancer cell reproduction was originally derived from the Pacific yew tree. Quinine is another famous example of a tree bark medicine. And there are many more.

Synthesizing medicinal molecules (making drugs) is a terrific idea. First off, it standardizes potency. You always know exactly what you are getting, or at least that is the goal. Plants are less reliable in this regard. Also, synthesizing drugs may well save rare plants from being over-harvested and protect wild, remote habitat from human incursion.

A plant that is “thrivey,” (more colorful, fast growing and healthy), may be more potent than one that is not. Extracts made from the top third of a plant are often much more potent than those made from the bottom third. Sometimes herbal concentrates appear to be more effective than their synthetic counterparts. And often, eating fresh vibrant foods do much more for a body than taking vitamin pills. Since molecules are molecules whatever their source, this makes no sense from the outset. What gives? Is this a placebo effect?

The answer lies in the concept of bundles. Nature operates in a bundle and so do you. Heres how it works:

Vitamin C is essential for human health. Taking synthetic ascorbic acid (vitamin C) has some health benefits. In nature and in oranges, Vitamin C is always found associated with bioflavonoids, the stuff that makes vegetables so colorful and good for you. The thing is, your body evolved to utilize vitamin C in conjunction with its neighbors, the bioflavonoids. Ingesting pure synthetic vitamin C, even in mega doses is typically much less effective at optimizing health than eating fresh, ripe organic fruit every day.

Wormwood shoots. Image:

Wormwood shoots. Image:

When drug companies patent a medicine, they patent both its uses and the process of manufacturing it. Their aim is to create a single pure medicinal molecule they can own. But nature works differently. Take a look at wormwood (artemesia vulgaris). Wormwood contains a molecule called artemisinin, which is used around the world as a safe and effective malaria treatment and, recently, as a potent cancer treatment. But taking an ounce of wormwood tincture divided among four doses a day for three months is colloquially reported to be much more effective than the synthetic analog pills. What is going on here?

It turns out that synthetic artemisinin is only one molecule in the artemisinin bundle. It may be the Big Brother of the family, demonstrating FDA proven tumor-imploding properties; but it has a whole bunch of sisters and brothers and cousins eager to pitch in and help with the process. One form of artemisinin attacks existing capillaries feeding the tumor, and causes them to wither, thus starving the tumor. Another changes the surface of the tumor itself, rendering it more difficult for new capillaries to attach to it. Which would you rather have? A knight in shining armor to fight for you? Or that knight and her buddies and cousins and uncles fighting on your side too?

Vitamin E (the alpha or main tocopherol) has proven to have protective value for your heart and arteries. But vitamin E is never found alone. It is found with other tocopherols and with its cousins the tocotrienols. Once again, getting the entire bundle in wholesome unrefined food is far more useful for maintaining your optimum health than taking a single synthetic molecule.

This is the Soapman, reminding you that “nature operates in a bundle.” And so should you.

Larry Plesent is a writer, philosopher, part-time farmer and soap maker living and working in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Learn more at

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