Pharmacognosy covers a broad spectrum of biological, ranging from botany, ethnobotany, medical anthropology, marine biology, microbiology, herbal medicine, chemistry and pharmacology.
The field itself is often divided into several subsets:
· medical ethno-botany: the study of the traditional use of plants for medicinal purposes;
· ethno-pharmacology: the study of the pharmacological qualities of traditional medicinal substances;
· the study of phytotherapy (the medicinal use of plant extracts); and
· phytochemistry, the study of chemicals derived from plants (including the identification of new drug candidates derived from plant sources).
What would normally seem a benign field has become quite controversial in recent years, as varying forces in the pharmaceutical and nutraceutical markets square off as to what is really effective and what is dangerous.
Commercial pharmaceutical research often tries to discover the active ingredient in a natural substance that shows medical effect. The goal of the research is to purify the ingredient to amplify the effect or to synthesize it. In both cases the pharmaceutical companies spend tens of millions of dollars to standardize the “active” ingredient to create a high-profit commercial drug product.
Exponents of pharmacognosy argue that it is the synergy of all the ingredients in a substance is what makes it effective and most often safe. Every medically active plant or microbe is made up of thousands of chemical components that interact. Its effectiveness is often due to this interaction, not from the effect of one or two chemical compounds. (That’s why it is thought a fresh orange has far more health benefits that a dose Vitamin C. As researchers try to distill the supposed “active” ingredients, they often reduce the medicinal impact or so highly concentrate it as to make it dangerous.
While the evolution of the pharmaceutical industry has contributed to the health of in some aspects of the health our nation, the pursuit of high profits can sometimes overlook how effective a medicinal plant can be when simply left alone to do its work.