Technical Terminology Defined
One of my main goals is to provide useful information you can relate too and easily implement into your life. I realize the subject of herbalism and the human body can be very complex. That’s why I wrote this article to clarify some important, and frequently used terms that I get questions on.
I hope you enjoy this article, and as always, if you have questions, please reach out as I am happy to help.
Mechanisms of action: Every herb, food, nutraceutical, and drug have both direct and indirect effects on the functions and systems of the human body.
When I speak of an herb’s mechanism of action, I am referring to how it supports and affects the body to achieve the end goal. When we look at mechanisms of action it is important to understand what cascade needs to be nourished in order to support a healthy healing response.
For example, I am sure you have read articles about how curcumin is good for many conditions. Well, it is not because curcumin directly affects these specific conditions but because it modulates the inflammation cascade. In turn, that mechanism of action affects a wide range of conditions. Therefore, the end result is that curcumin indirectly effects the conditions through directly affecting the healing response via modulating the inflammatory response.
Modulate: When I speak about the modulating effects of herbs, I am referring to the herbs ability to strengthen, tonify, modify or support the way specific systems responds to an issue and support the body in order to restore a proper healing response.
In simple terms, modulate means to balance (whether it be to stimulate or calm). For example, let’s look at medicinal mushrooms like maitake. Medicinal mushrooms are extremely well studied to support a healthy immune system response. Mushrooms are immune system modulators. If you have looked at the human studies on maitake mushroom, there are some that say it has stimulated an underactive immune system response while others said it calmed down an overstimulated immune system. Because maitake is a modulator, it has the ability to do both because the function of a modulator is to bring balance to an imbalanced system.
Cascades: When i use this term, i am referring to the steps in which the body takes to respond to a stressor. There are 2 important factors that occur during a specific response. First, is the the order in which a response (inflammation, detoxification or stress) occurs. Second is what a healthy response looks like versus an unhealthy one. All responses in the body are a series of steps. If it is a “healthy” response, then all parts of that response work together in order to keep the body into a state of balance while responding to that stressor.
Healthy inflammation / stress response: In order to understand why I use these terms, it is important to first understand what is meant by a “healthy response”. As I have spoken about in both my books and several articles in the blog, a small amount of inflammation is not only healthy but, necessary for our bodies to respond to trauma correctly.
The issue becomes when you have daily bouts of “low grade” inflammation from food / environmental allergies, stress or bad lifestyle choices. In time, this turns into chronic systemic inflammation because the body is overwhelmed by the daily assault. A healthy response (in regards to inflammation) would be that inflammation does its job in responding to a trauma and then, in a short period of time resolves.
The inflammation response did its job to support the healing process in a healthy way by not over stimulating a specific response in the body. When I speak about herbs and food, I often discuss that based on their mechanism of action, they have the ability support a healthy inflammation and stress response.
Targeted approach: When I use the term targeted approach, I often show the relationship of all the factors involved when using an individual herb, a formula of herbs or, a mixture of herbs and food for a very specific end result.
With a targeted approach, it is all about the small details. This includes but is not limited to, time of day, how often it is used, the form in which the herb and food are being used and what is added to it in order to enhance the effects. A targeted approach is about supporting a specific function in a balanced manner.
Reductionist: The term reductionist refers to someone with a very isolated point of view. This type of thinker only sees the parts and never the whole. Most conventional medical doctors and scientists are taught to think like a reductionist. Modern research is set up using a reductionist point of view.
This is why whole herbs and food struggle to get the respect they have earned and deserve. In order to understand the whole, you need to see all the mechanisms working together and not as separate entities.
Nothing works as an individual entity.
There are many wonderful examples of reductionist thinking when looking at some of today’s “hot topics”.
One that comes to mind is the recent discussion about lectins.
While much of what you have read is (for the most part) true, the issue is its application to everyday life is not so accurate. What you have been taught to believe is that how lectins work in the body as an isolated constituent is the same as how they work as a part of the whole food.
This is reductionist thinking 101.
If someone has a low-grade inflammation response to a food they have eaten, it is not because the lectins worked alone to produce that response. As a matter of fact, because the lectins don’t work alone, it is almost impossible that is was caused by that one single entity. I think a more likely understandable explanation would be related to a person’s inefficient digestive system and unbalanced microbiome.
As a Master Herbalist, I have seen this type of thinking give beautiful herbs pretty bad reputations. The biggest one that comes to mind is the herb comfrey leaf and root.
There were some rat studies done many years ago which claimed that one specific constituent found in comfrey causes liver cancer. Well, they were both right and wrong. When they isolated that specific constituent and gave it to the rats as an individual compound in very high doses, it did, in fact, produce tumors in the liver of those rats. That specific constituent was never meant to be ingested alone.
Not long after another study was done using the whole leaf and whole root. The results were quite different from the original study. The end-result was no tumors or negative effects. It was also estimated that it would take eating pounds of comfrey every day for an entire year to come close to building toxic levels in the body (http://www.herballegacy.com/Comfrey.html). This same example applies to lectins. If they were isolated and ingested then yes, of course, the effects would be very different compared to how they are used when eating a whole food.
Why I choose human over animal studies: First, I want to state that I only use research in order to clarify a point. I do believe that most research is done to justify a reductionist point of view and most often does not look at the whole picture.
On that note, something I do appreciate about research is its ability to clarify mechanisms of action. With that said, my preference for first sourcing human over animal studies is, there are too many inconsistencies in regards to comparing the human body to an animal’s body.
The greatest issue is the size and function of the digestive tract. An example is an animal with a shorter digestive system. They will digest and absorb things at a faster and more efficient rate which (depending on the compound being studied) can give very inconsistent toxicity results.
Next, different species respond to different compounds in different ways and to translate that information from one species to another, is not showing a level of consistency.
Finally, there are many animal studies which talk about using injection or IV as there method of ingesting the substance being studied. This can in no proper way be compared to oral administration.
Take home message: All of the information above was shared for the sole purpose of bringing clarity to educational material. So, the next time you read one of my articles please take note of the information I am showing you with a very specific purpose. The complex terms in my articles are used for the sole purpose to bring clarity to a confusing subject.