Podcast 101: How Herbs Are Different From Drugs

Herbs differ from pharmaceuticals in important ways. Understanding how they’re different helps us make better choices about what to take, and how to take it, to get the effect we’re looking for. It also helps us avoid common misunderstandings about herbs and herbalism – like thinking that the effect of an herb can be reduced down to the action of its “active ingredient”. And, knowing how herbs are different from drugs lets us set expectations clearly, and recognize that not all preparations of an herb are equivalent.

No one would say that aspirin is “synthetic willow”, but people often talk about willow as “natural aspirin”. In our cultural context we have some understanding of aspirin as a painkiller and fever-reducer. Because willow can relieve pain and reduce fever, and because some of its constituents are similar to aspirin, you can see why it’s common to talk about them as if they were nearly equivalent. But this is misleading, because the herb is actually very different from the drug – it doesn’t have the same side effects or safety profile, and there are certain actions each one has that the other lacks. So taking willow and expecting aspirin-like effects is going to set you up for disappointment.

In this episode we explore three specific ways herbs are different from drugs:

  • Their makeup: drugs seek specific uniformity, herbs express synergystic complexity.
  • Their targets: drugs act on molecular receptors, herbs act on tissues, systems, and patterns.
  • What determines your response to the substance. For drugs, this may include dose and form, along with your digestive and hepatic function and your genetics; for herbs, it starts with the live plant and its environment, on through harvesting & handling, processing & preparation, formulation, dose, and your own personal constitution and current state.

Along the way, we’ll show how the systemic approach and paradigm of herbalism differs from that of the pharmaceutical model of medicine. And we’ll explain how simple principles of holistic herbalism protect us from mistaking herbs for drugs, and give us a solid place to stand when learning new information about plants & health.

If the elements of phytochemistry in this episode caught your attention, you might be interested in our Basic Phytochemistry course! It’s not scary or overcomplicated – we worked hard to keep this material clear, accesible, and relevant to real-world herbalism. Check it out and see for yourself!

As always, please subscribe, rate, & review our podcast wherever you listen, so others can find it more easily. Thank you!!

Our theme music is “Wings” by Nicolai Heidlas.


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