Botanicals v. pharmaceuticals

Many pharmaceuticals were originally derived from plants, including:

  • Aspirin
  • Digoxin (used for congestive heart failure)
  • Oral anticoagulants (blood thinners)
  • Some antiparasitics (used to kill parasites) (Fugh-Berman, 1997).

In addition, about 25 percent of all pharmaceutical drugs still include some plant-derived constituents.

So it is not surprising that botanical medicines often work in the body in ways that are similar to pharmaceutical drugs.

How do they work?

Like pharmaceutical drugs, botanical medicines adhere to principles of pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics. These are the scientific words for the study of how drugs interact with bodily systems.

  • Pharmacodynamics is the study of drugs and their actions on living organisms. This science studies how drugs act on the body.
  • Pharmacokinetics is the study of how the body digests, distributes, and excretes particular drugs. It looks at the time required for absorption, duration of action, distribution of drug in the body, and method of excretion. In other words, this science studies how the body acts on the drugs.

So, as with pharmaceuticals, scientists study how the active components in a particular botanical is absorbed, distributed, and metabolized in the body and then excreted. They also study the pharmacological activity-the effect the botanical has in the body. All this helps scientists understand the mechanism of action-where the drug goes in the body, what it does, and how that impacts the individual's health.

Like many pharmaceutical drugs, there are botanical medicines for which the mechanism of action is unknown.


St. John's WortHere is an example of a botanical with a known or postulated mechanism of action:

  • St. John's Wort extract, used to treat mild to medium depression, has been shown to inhibit the reuptake of serotonin similar to fluoxetine (Prozac) and other serotonin reuptake inhibitor drugs. Research with Prozac and other SSRIs have shown that increasing the levels of serotonin at the nerve synapse can have ameliorative effects on depression. St. John's Wort also possesses the ability to modulate interleukin-6 activity, which may also play a role in affecting mood. Other mechanisms contributing to its antidepressant actions have been suggested, including inhibition of serotonin receptor expression and catechol-O-methyltransferase, an enzyme that degrades catecholamine neurotransmitters, which, like serotonin, are involved in the modulation of mood.

Why is synergy important?

Many botanicals are comprised of multiple active ingredients that act together (synergistically) to produce a response (Williamson, 2001). Thus, there may not be one active ingredient that accounts for all the observed effects.

This concept of synergy underlines much of the modern clinical use of botanical medicines, and there is an increasing body of evidence in support of its validity.

How do botanical medicines and pharmaceutical drugs differ?

While botanicals are like pharmaceuticals in many ways, there are important differences.

Botanical Medicines Pharmaceutical Drugs
Wide margin of safety Narrow margin of safety and greater potential for adverse effects with overuse
Active ingredients are diluted Active ingredients are highly purified (potency is greater)
Dozens to hundreds of related compounds (also contain non-active ingredients) Usually a single active chemical or a well-defined mixture of active chemicals
Often have a synergistic action Usually a well-defined, specific activity