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The 5 differences between plant-based medicines and synthetic pharmaceuticals

Prior to the 1930s the majority of medicines people used were natural remedies derived from plants. Historical records show evidence as far back as 60,000 years ago for the use of botanical medicines included things like ginger, preparations made from the cannabis plant, opium poppy or willow bark. One of the oldest written records of the use of medicinal plants as natural remedies, dating back to 1500 B.C.E, is the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, while the Chakara Samhita, from 700 B.C.E documented the uses of over 300 medicinal plants.[1]

Did you know that many common, modern pharmaceuticals were originally derived from plants? Here are some widely used medicines that began as botanical extracts:

  • Aspirin – anti-inflammatory (willow bark)
  • Digoxin – used for congestive heart failure (foxglove)
  • Oral anticoagulants – blood thinners (Ginko biloba L.)
  • Some antiparasitics- used to kill parasites (Garlic, Goldenseal, Anise…)

It is estimated that about 25 percent of all pharmaceutical drugs still include some plant-derived constituents. It is therefore unsurprising that botanical medicines often work in the body in similar ways to pharmaceutical drugs, often with milder side-effects, although this is not always the case.

How do they work?

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

  • Pharmacodynamics is the study of how drugs act on the human body.
  • Pharmacokinetics is the study of how the body’s systems effect the medicine.
  • This includes the:
    • time required for absorption,
    • duration of action,
    • distribution of drug in the body
    • method of excretion.

Whether we are talking about a plant-based medicine or a synthetic pharmaceutical, scientists study how the active components in a particular botanical is digested, absorbed, distributed, and metabolized in the body and then eliminated. They also study the pharmacological activity, or the effect, the botanical has in the body. All this helps scientists to understand the mechanism of action, its receptors in the body, what it does, and how that impacts the individual’s health, as well as any possible side-effects. Clinical trials then investigate whether the effects of the drug are better than chance (statistically relevant), and whether the desired effects outweigh the risks.

Of course, with plant-based medicines, rather than inventing a new synthetic molecule in a lab, the original evidence comes from ethno-botany or the study of how plants have been used traditionally and where we can find them in nature. Indigenous, folkloric or oral history provide signals through natural remedies via rituals or patterns of use, and what we call anecdotal evidence, that points to both what is used and how it is used. For instance, some plants are steeped in hot water and ingested as a tea; others were used as poultices or topically to aid wound healing, while still others were inhaled or extracted as essential oils or made into tinctures.

What makes botanical medicines tricky is the fact that unlike synthetic drugs, botanical medicines’ effects are often the sum of numerous molecules acting synergistically in what has come to be known as the entourage effect. Being unable to pinpoint what part of botanical medicine is the ‘active’ ingredient in healing is often used as a criticism of botanical medicines. However, contrary to what most people think, many pharmaceutical drugs we commonly use today, also have an unknown mechanism of action.


Here is an example of a medicinal plant 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[2] 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.[3]

What is the entourage effect?

Many botanically derived natural medicines are comprised of multiple active ingredients that act together (synergistically) to produce a response.[4] Thus, there may not be one active ingredient that accounts for all the observed effects. This synergy is known as the entourage effect.

This concept of synergy, or the entourage effect, 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 plant-based medicines and synthetic pharmaceutical drugs differ?

While botanicals are like pharmaceuticals in many ways, there are at least 5 important differences:

Botanical MedicinesSynthetic Pharmaceutical Drugs
1. Safety Wide margin of safety – think ginger for nausea, chamomile for relaxation, rosemary for the immune system, peppermint for tummy upsets, lavender as an anti-viral and anti-fungal, jasmine to reduce stress and improve mood1. Safety Narrow margin of safety and greater potential for adverse effects with overuse – think sleeping tablets like benzodiazepines for anxiety or insomnia
2. Concentration Active ingredients are diluted, often used for chronic or non-life-threatening conditions – think preparations that include magnesium for treating cramps and insomnia, found in vegetables, nuts, seeds, dried beans and grains2. Concentration Active ingredients are highly purified and concentrated (potency is greater). Best utility for acute events, like pain management during or after surgery – think synthetic opioids like fentanyl
3. Synergy Highly synergistic – dozens to hundreds of related compounds working in synergy (also contain non-active ingredients). Think Medicinal Cannabis preparations for treating epilepsy, insomnia, PTSD, MS, Tourette’s, pain and anxiety etc.3. Synergy Little synergy of action – usually a single active chemical or a well-defined mixture of active chemicals, think an anticoagulant like heparin that is made of a mixture of several polysaccharides, with the active pharmaceutical ingredient derived from pig intestines
4. Mode of Action Effect entire systems, often through improving messaging or priming receptors – think terpenes used in conjunction with other plant molecules including cannabinoids to treat a range of conditions4. Mode of Action Rarely designed to effect entire body systems – usually a well-defined, specific activity, think anti-inflammatory drugs like steroids.
5. Production & Testing Extracted from a natural plant, overwhelmingly vegan friendly and cruelty free with a long history of use5. Production & Testing Synthesised in a lab – usually must be tested on animals, as there has been no history of safety to fall back upon


Increasing use of plants in medicine

Since the 1990s there has been a growing trend toward holistic medicines, with plant-based medicines and natural remedies at the forefront. This swing back toward nature has contributed to a renaissance in the development of medicinal herbs and botanical medicines that generally have fewer risks than synthetic pharmaceuticals. The resurgence of interest in plant-derived medicines like medicinal cannabis, psychedelics and more recently terpene-rich essential oils has resulted in better production and extraction methodologies and an expectation from consumers that these products be made to the highest standards of quality.

These products, however, are often limited in what they are allowed to claim as benefits for the very reason they are from ‘nature’ and not synthesised in a ‘lab’; often there is also no single molecule responsible for all the benefits of the extract, due to the combined effect we have described above – the entourage effect. This should not, however, be a limiter to their continued use in society, or to enhance our quality of life.

About LeafCann®

Leafcann Group® is an acknowledged leader in the advance of plant-based medicines and consumer products and works hard to ensure the quality of each and every product. Our quality assurance team ensures that every stage in the supply chain upholds our standards from the choice of plant, strain, location, growing conditions, harvest, extraction, formulation and finished manufacture, ensuring all our plant-based medicines are safe, consistent and excellent value. Our Cephyra® Activated Oils™ represent the culmination of decades of experience within our team and our commitment to you the consumer to bring the best botanical ingredients to market.

About Cephyra® Activated Oils

Cephyra® Activated Oils™ are terpene-powered, edible essential oils. Every product in the range is cruelty-free, vegan friendly, made in Australia with 94%-100% of the ingredients sourced from botanicals grown in Australia and all are slavery-free. You can rest assured that each product is 100% plant-based and our essential oils are never sourced from endangered species.

To learn more about Cephyra® Activated Oils and receive a 20% discount click here: https://cephyra.com/shop-2/

[1] https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/how-long-have-humans-used-botanicals

[2] What is serotonin? https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/serotonin

[3] https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/explore-healing-practices/botanical-medicine/are-botanicals-pharmaceuticals

[4] Williamson, E.M. (2001). Synergy and other interactions in phytomedicines. Phytomedicine, 8, 401-409.

[5] Ernst, E. (2007). Herbal medicines: Balancing benefits and risks. Novartis Foundation Symposium, 282, 154-67; discussion 167-72, 212-8