Jun 24

Plants or Pills? Turmeric vs. Curcumin

Most people assume pills are more effective than plants. The underlying assumption is “Plants cannot be THAT therapeutic. It is not scientific. There must be active ingredients that are working. Let’s extract them, making them pure and precise and more concentrated and thus more effective.” Sometimes this assumption is true. Many pharmaceutical drugs are simply isolated compounds extracted from plants. The modern manufacturing process made those compounds more effective, affordable and convenient. A recent example is the discovery of artemisinin as the active ingredient of Qinghao. This anti-malarial drug saved millions of lives by making an effective herb more potent, reliable, convenient and affordable.

However, it may surprise many people to learn that, generally speaking, using whole plant as medicine are more effective in most cases. A lucid example is turmeric vs. curcumin. Turmeric is a very popular spice commonly found in Indian food. It has amazing anti-inflammatory properties. Curcumin is considered to be THE active ingredient in turmeric and has become a popular herbal supplement. Yet, studies shows that turmeric as a whole is WAY more effective than curcumin alone. So much so that turmeric WITHOUT curcumin is still more effective than curcumin alone!

So the whole concept of active ingredient is simply a projection of our “one drug=one ingredient” mentality which is often unfounded. It is an extension of our desire to view our natural world as something to be controlled and manipulated. Our mental models are so simplistic and so reductionistic that we do not accept things as wholes. We forgot that when we put things together, the results are usually not simple additions but integrations and multiplications.

For people who studied Chinese herbal medicine, this is not something new. Traditional Chinese Medicine has always accepted and used medicinal plants as whole and views these plants as if they have idiosyncrasies. Not only that, when practicing herbal medicine, one is encouraged to use herbs in formulas like chef using foods in recipes. It recognizes that combinations of herbs have synergistic effects.

When Communists took power in China, traditional medicinal herbs were systematic researched with revolutionary fervor, as part of the plan to modernize China. The zeal was to uncover the mystery of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The goal was to find the active ingredients in these herbs that make them so effective. Strangely researchers found something they did not expect. Except in few cases, herbs used in traditional ways are much more effective than extracted “active ingredients”. Herbs used in traditional formulas are exponentially more effective over extracted compounds. Not only that, patients quickly developed tolerance to extracted compounds like they would to pharmaceutical drugs, leading to increasing dosage over time.

Instead of finding “active ingredients” as miracle drugs, Chinese researchers found that there are more than one way of looking for cures in medicine. The conventional single active compound model of modern medicine is just one of the ways to treat diseases. Human body is very complex, and diseases rarely have single origins. Just like the complexity of real world often require teams of people working on solutions, complexity of diseases can also require teams of herbs. Currently the new generations of Chinese researchers have moved beyond the search for active ingredients and have adopted a more holistic outlook that is much aligned with the view of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Chinese government has also evolved with funding those researches and allowing patents to be filed for herbal combinations. With the growing popularity of Traditional Chinese Medicine, hopefully we can expect new trend in modern medical research that is more holistic.

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  1. February 13, 2017
    You have beautifully expressed what I have been trying to tell people about the powers and gifts of plants. Thank YOU! Reply

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