Science isn’t just about experiments. It’s about being curious enough to question what we don’t know and humble enough to change our minds in the face of new information. This pursuit of knowledge can make our understanding of herbalism and the world so much richer.
Ever notice a divide among herbalists when it comes to herbal research methods? Some are deeply rooted in traditional age-old practices and others prefer scientifically proven studies to back up herbal claims. Many modern herbalists are able to bridge that gap and honor both sides of looking at plants… but do we need science to prove what we already know to be true and valid?
Diving into the scientific research on herbs is tricky. Sometimes, these discoveries confirm what we’ve always believed. Other times, they challenge everything we thought we knew about herbs. Some studies say one thing, others say the opposite. It can all get very confusing. So how do you navigate this, and which findings do you trust?
There are lots of things that can happen that make a study not trustworthy. There are also lots of different scientific methods for studying plants. This leads us to the whole in-vitro vs. in-vivo debate, not to mention the question of whether results from rodent studies can apply to humans.
Both tradition and science offer important insights.
Ignoring one means losing out on a treasure trove of knowledge that could make us all better herbalists.
Traditional herbalism has stood the test of time, proving its trustworthiness over millennia. But can we trust this wave of scientific herbal research?
Is all herbal research trustworthy?
If you’ve ever Googled an herb to learn more and saw lots of research papers about it, can you trust them? Herbal research is tricky since a lot of things can go wrong and right that make results tricky to decipher.
Even though understanding herbal research isn’t 100% necessary as a clinical herbalist, it can introduce novel uses of plants, and, knowing the chemistry of a herbal makes you a much better medicine maker. With a few pointers, you can learn how to tell if the scientific research you read online is trustworthy.
Is all herbal research reliable?
Conducting a scientific study on a herb takes a lot of effort, time, and money. But does this guarantee that the study’s results are trustworthy?
Science is incredible and gives us deep insights into the world, revealing amazing things.
But, it can also fail to account for some of the ways plants work that can’t be quantified or measured.
I think of this as the magical and miraculous nature of medicinal herbs. It’s the ineffable quality that makes plants work as a whole, not just as a mix of chemicals.
I’ve noticed that herbalists can sometimes split into two camps: those who follow traditional views and those who lean heavily on science. Fortunately many can bridge the gap, but I’ve also seen it lead to disagreements, with scientific herbalists scoffing at traditional ones, and vice versa.
The truth is, there’s valuable knowledge in both approaches.
By learning from each other, we can blend the best of both worlds to strengthen our herbal community.
TRADITIONAL HERBALISTS might follow practices like Western herbalism, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, or Tibetan medicine.
On the other end of the spectrum, scientifically driven herbalists focus on using plant phytochemistry to guide their practice.
I’ve noticed a strong skepticism in many scientifically-minded herbalists towards traditional methods, and an overall mentality that “nothing is true until confirmed by science.”
However, isn’t science about keeping an open mind and questioning established beliefs?
From my point of view, outright dismissing tradition until it’s scientifically verified doesn’t seem very open-minded or scientific.
Traditional herbalism has effectively treated conditions for centuries and developed over thousands of years, showing that we don’t need modern research to prove its efficacy or worth.
In today’s science-focused world, there’s often pressure to scientifically “prove” everything. However, some things are true and valuable regardless of scientific validation.
The long history of successful use is proof enough, and I don’t see a need for these herbs to undergo further lab analysis to confirm their legitimacy.
That said, sometimes research can point us in the direction of new and interesting ways to apply our plants, especially with the emergence of new diseases and the re-emergence of diseases we thought were long gone (such as the alarmingly higher incidences of syphilis and scarlet fever).
So, is all scientific research on plants trustworthy?
The answer isn’t straightforward—it depends!
Whether you lean more to a scientific approach in herbalism or come from a traditional background but want to learn how to understand scientific studies, there are some specific things you need to look out for. By familiarizing yourself with these factors, you can better assess the reliability of a study and determine whether or not the research and findings are trustworthy.
Table of Contents:
A Critical Eye
Different Types of Herbal Research
Chemical Analysis
In-Vitro Research
In-Vivo Research
Clinical Research
Design Flaws
Science and Tradition in Harmony
No, but that doesn’t mean all herbal research is untrustworthy.
The key here is learning how to decipher whether or not a particular study is trustworthy through examining biases, extrapolations, and methodological soundness.
Some studies may have been done well, but are biased by funding. Others might draw unwarranted conclusions, and some are fundamentally flawed from the start.
When reviewing herbal research, be prepared to dig deep and look beyond the surface.
Although many studies have their shortcomings, sometimes you’ll find one that expands your perspective on herbs and makes all the time and effort you spent researching feel worthwhile.
Take care,
Sajah Popham,
Founder, The School of Evolutionary Herbalism
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The School of evolutionary Herbalism Training herbalists to heal & transform lives through the power of plant medicine since 2011 Revolutionizing what it means to be a HOLISTIC HERBALIST We all want to be holistic herbalists, right? But what’s “holistic” really mean anyways? To us, it means us…