Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Two Schools

By Jacob Schor, ND, FABNO

Curcumin is the principal curcuminoid of the popular Indian spice turmeric, pictured above.
Photo by FootosVanRobin via Flickr, used under the Creative Commons License.

There were two distinct schools of thought regarding the dosing of herbal medicines when I was a student at National College of Naturopathic Medicine during the 1980s, a couple of decades ago. Most of our teachers in Portland thought in terms of what I now regard as low doses of botanical medicines. We would often prescribe doses of just several drops of tincture diluted in water.

Apparently those at Bastyr University held a different view. This was brought home when Dr. Silena Heron came down to Portland from Seattle one rainy day and lectured our class. She didn’t talk of drops but instead talked of doses in milliliters and teaspoons. She was dosing herbs to get pharmacological effect while we were looking for homeopathic effects.

These thoughts are on my mind because of a study I came across recently about curcumin and cholesterol. Over the years a number of papers have looked to see if curcumin or turmeric lowered cholesterol. Some report benefit, others not. But this paper reports something I would have not predicted. Let me tell you more about it.

The paper, authored by Alwi et al., was published in 2008 in an Indonesian medical journal and looked at the effect of curcumin on lipid levels in patients with acute coronary syndrome. This is a broad term, referring to most any situation in which the heart isn’t getting enough oxygen. For a year, between May 2005 and May 2006, the researchers enlisted patients at several hospitals to participate in a randomized double blind controlled trial. They administered curcumin in escalating doses that ranged from a low dose of just 15 mg/ 3 times per day, up to 60 mg/ three times a day, on the participathing patients’ lipid profiles. The researchers tracked total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglycerides along with other common blood parameters in 63 patients who completed the study.

The researchers report that they saw lipid improvements stemming from the curcumin that varied with the doses and that in regard to, “… the effects of curcumin on total cholesterol level and LDL cholesterol level, there was a trend that the lower the dose of curcumin, the higher the effect of reduction. For HDL cholesterol level, there was also a trend that the lower the dose of curcumin, the higher the effect of increase in HDL cholesterol level.”

Let me make sure you are reading this right. They are telling us that 45 mg of curcumin per day worked better than 180 mg per day. Neither of these are particularly high doses. The smallest capsule we have on our pharmacy shelf contains 250 mg of curcumin and that product in particular claims enhanced absorption so that it is equivalent to a dose of 2,000 mg. Our standard curcumin product comes in 750 mg capsules. If we believe this Alwi study, we should divide those 750 mg capsules and spread it out over a two week period.

Perhaps we need to rethink our ‘more is better’ assumptions and even re-examine our earlier habits of using tiny doses when it comes to prescribing some botanical medicines.

The late William Mitchell would sometimes use a specific word to describe how a botanical extract affects an organism. He would say that it “informs” the body or the mind or the vital force. I don’t pretend to understand exactly what Dr. Mitchell meant by the word ‘inform,’ but I’ve taken it to mean that the particular molecules isolated from the plant bring information, that teaches or shows by example, a different pattern of behavior and function to the organism. Thus botanical medicine can act as a catalyst to change function.

We certainly have some unpleasant examples with which we might illustrate this idea. Certain addictive drugs appear to trigger permanent changes in brain chemistry after even a single exposure. Even if we aren’t talking about crack cocaine, it is not unreasonable to think that other more benign plant extracts will also cause lasting permanent changes in function. Botanical medicine, when well practiced, is perhaps more like the automatic software updates that my computer routinely downloads. They teach the system how to work better and update it so it understands how to respond to new challenges.

If we are using the analogy that herbs act like catalysts, then it makes sense that relatively small doses are all that’s needed to turn the trick. Maybe we only need the large doses when we are using herbs as drugs and not as information carriers. Perhaps drugs deliver orders to the body, while herbs deliver knowledge. [If I keep up this kind of train of thought I may have to move back to Oregon and eat granola again.]

These are the sorts of discussions we engaged in decades ago as naturopathic students. We hear these kinds of arguments less often these days. I often just reach for standardized plant extracts whose chemical actions have been multiplied by refining, distillation and concentration. More is better and stronger is better; these have become our quiet mantras. We once condescendingly attributed this type of thinking to medical doctors (especially those claiming to practice natural medicine) and considered it to be an inferior approach to treating the patient. We allowed that some one in our profession might out of necessity fall back and prescribe botanical medicine like this out of desperation but it wasn’t the preferred path of treatment, the way a real naturopathic doctor worked. We were such idealists.

Luckily many of us still are idealists and this paper on curcumin should serve as a reminder. Sometimes less is more. Sometimes what we need is a tiny nudge from something so small as to seem like magic. Or perhaps, in our rush to keep up with all the new science, we have to leave a little space in our understanding for the magic in our medicine to do its work.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad you wrote this - I've been struggling for years between the 2 philosophies. Modern scientific thought, which seems to be the direction that Naturopathic Medicine seems to be moving these days, would certainly support the idea that more is better. But my gut instinct is that this isn't always true. I prescribe in this way, and that's what seems to work for patients. Eclectic herbalism is where we started, and why I was drawn to naturopathic medicine in the first place. I really enjoyed your thoughts - looking forward to hearing you speak in Portland!!!