Select Page

Phytopharmacology of Botanicals

Botanical Metabolism

Metabolism in Plants Gives Rise to Life

  • Plants are unique from other life forms in that they can convert carbon dioxide into carbohydrates under sunlight through a process called photosynthesis.
  • All animal life derives its “life energy” through photosynthesis process as their energy source come from plants.
  • The energy from carbohydrates drives the metabolic pathways to produce secondary metabolites which have therapeutic properties contained within the plant.
  • When “whole” plant medicines are used every part of the plant has value and contributes to the whole effect of the remedy.

Secondary Metabolites have Healing Properties

  • Pharmaceutical companies derive many of their drugs from secondary metabolites found in plants.
  • Secondary metabolites are known as active constituents.
  • Secondary metabolites come from a “lived plant” and contain life energy.
  • Secondary metabolites are end-products from basic metabolic pathways.
  • ex. anti-fungal isoflavonoids produced by plants after injury prevent fungal growth and resinous sap has healing and protective action.

Plant Enzymes: Catalyzing Life Reactions

  • Plants rely on co-enzymes to catalyze cellular reactions by activating enzymes that support plant function. (Note: The first enzyme isolated was a urease in 1926).
  • The most important group co-enzymes is the phosphoric acid containing adenosine & uridine mononucleotides which are able to transfer energy from ATP for biochemical reactions.
  • Another important group of co-enzymes is the dinucleoties, including nicotanamide-adenine dinucleotide (NAD) and nicotinamide-adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADP) which play a role in oxidation and reduction reactions in plants
  • used in their “fresh” state enzymes are active, they are deactivated when the herbs are dried.
  • Plant enzymes have a positive effect on body function as they help to support many of the organs and tissues in the body.

The Importance of Enzymes in Plant Remedies:

  • It is important to note that “whole plant extracts” have thousands of enzymes from the plant to assist in its biological functioning.
  • Synthetic drugs utlize only one specific enzyme which has been isolated for it’s activity.
  • Enzymes are denatured in heat (above 60oC), UV light, X-rays, and any treatment that denatures proteins.
  • Botanicals which are dried under proper conditions and preserved in water-alcohol solutions will retain their activity.

Botanical Pharmacology:

Botanicals have a wide range of physiological and biochemical effects on the body. The major phytopharmacological constituents are listed below along with their general therapeutic effects on the body. Botanicals contain one or many of these constituents in varying amounts. The naturopathic doctor will select the best botanical / botanical combination for you depending on the nature of your case.

Digestive Enzymes

  • Plant derived enzymes used to promote digestive functioning in humans and animals
  • Plant proteases including; bromelain (from pineapple plant) and papain (from fresh latex of papya) can be used as replacements for digestive insufficiency
  • Botanical actions which are indicated in the case of digestive insufficiency include:
  • Carminatives
  • Bitters
  • Alternatives
  • Demulcents
  • Nervines

Fatty Acids

  • Plants contain fatty acids – solid fat or liquid fat contains 1 molecule of glycerol and 3 fatty acid chains
  • Plant fatty acids examples include flax seed oil, borage seed oil and evening primrose oil
  • Super-unsaturated Omega 3 Fatty Acids include: alpha-linolenic acidsteridonic acideicosapentaenoic acid and docohexaenoic acid
  • Polyunsaturated Omega 6 Fatty Acids include: linoleic acidgamma-linolenic aciddihomogamma linolenic acid andarachidonic acid
  • Monounsaturated Omega 9 Fatty Acids include: oleic acid
  • Monounsaturated Omega 7 Fatty Acids include: palmintoleic acid
  • Saturated Fatty Acids include: steric acidpalmitic acidbutyric acidarachidic acid
  • Saturated Fatty Acids contain carbons joined by single bonds and are solid at room temperature
  • Unsaturated Fatty Acids: include essential fatty acids. Polyunsaturated fatty acids have more than one hydrogen bond missing from the chain resulting in double bonds occurring between any two carbon atoms in the fatty chain
  • Benefits of Essentail Fatty Acids are as follows
  • required for structure of cell membranes
  • create electrical potentials and move electrical currents from cell to cell
  • precursors to protstaglandins (hormones)
  • control ratios of HDL and LDL cholesterol by reducing inflammation
  • crucial for brain development in infants/children
  • lower risk of stroke and blood clots by reducing platelet aggregation
  • lower risk of cardiovascular disease by lowering cholesterol
  • increase absorption of calcium
  • decrease osteoporosis
  • improve insulin function in diabetics
  • regulate inflammatory response in arthritis and eczema
  • inhance immune function by increasing T-cells
  • increase oxygen transport into cells
  • promote healthy hair and skin


  • Plant esters are formed when alcohol and acid combine with the release of water
  • Esters are common products in plants and is of major constituent in volatile oils, aromatic acids, lipids, resins, balsams, and alkaloids


  • Plant sugars (carbohydrates) are products of photosynthesis
  • Plant carbohydrates are either aldehyde or ketone bodies and contain carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms (CHO)
  • Carbohydrates combine with other substances to form other compounds required for plant metabolism
  • Polysaccharides are more complex than mono or disaccharides containing hundreds or thousands of monosaccharides in a chain
  • Insulin is a carbohydrate found in the roots of plants and acts as a storage form of carbohydrate. Insulin used in patients with diabetes due to its low glycemic index score


  • Gums and mucilages are a form of polysacharides that have soothing and healing properties when used medicinally
  • Polysaccharides can also have immune stimulant, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory effects
  • Uronic acids are sugars which have been double oxidized at the terminal alcohol group are found n all gums and mucilaginous herbs.
  • Polysaccharide complexes containing uronic acid:
  • Hemicelluloses – found in cell walls with cellulose and pectin
  • Pectins – found in cell walls with cellulose and pectin
  • Algins – found in lamella cell walls
  • Agar – found in walls of brown algae
  • Carrageenan – found in red algae
  • Gums – gelling agent including acacia sterculia and tragacanth
  • Mucilages – psyllium seed and marshmallow root


  • Gums have protective role in plant chemistry
  • When a plant becomes injured it secretes gums to allow the plant to heal
  • Tragacanth Gum composed of sugar and uronic acids and is used as a suspending agent for insoluble powders and fluids. It is often used as a binding agent in pharmaceuticals
  • Acacia Gum powder used as an emulsifying agent and manufacture of tablets, lozenges. Its demulcent properties make it an ideal addition to cough lozenges and syrups
  • Guar Gum promotes gastric emptying and increases passage of contents in intestinal tract which can delay the uptake of ingested sugars. Guar gum binds to bile salts and can be used in cases of high cholesterol and atherosclerosis


  • mucilaginous herbs contain high levels of polysaccharides that contain uronic acids
  • mucilaginous herbs form a slippery gel when water is added which makes them ideal for soothing inflamed tissue
  • Acts as a protective barrier from further irritation allowing healing to take place
  • Protects against abrasion and can be used internally or externally
  • Protects against stomach acidity and helps with reflux and healing gastric tissue
  • Protects against infection, neutralizes toxins
  • Protects against sensitivities of nerve endings
  • Examples include; slippery elm bark and psyllium

Algal Agents

  • Algal agents involves sea weeds (brown and red)
  • Contains properties of being able to form into a gel when combined with water
  • Yield alginic acid used in industry as a detoxifying agent
  • Sea weeds have more mucilaginous properties than land plants as they must survive salt water and have to be very resilient

Brown Sea Weeds:

  • Laminaria and macrocystis soecis are commonly harvested
  • Alginic acid extracted by treating the brown sea weed with dilute sulfuric acid and extracting it with an alkaline solution
  • Alginic acids are highly reactive binding to metallic ions and act as a detoxifier agent
  • Alginic acid is so insoluble that the substance will not be absorbed into tissues and can be used to hold harmful particles in the bowel so they can be excreted – such as heavy metals or other products of detoxification reactions

Agar- Red Algae

  • Made in Japan for tokoroten food dish
  • Agar used as a gelling agent in food
  • In herbal medicine agar is used as a bulking agent

Irish Moss

  • grows on rocks off the beach and must survive salt water
  • Moss has a high sulfuric acid content which is used as a clarifying agent in beer and herbal medicine
  • used as a demulcent, emollient and nutritive properties
  • used as a soothing expectorant for respiratory ailments due to its affinity for the bronchial and respiratory mucous membranes


  • Tannins contain metabolic byproducts and serve as protective agents after injury and parasitic invasion
  • Hydrolysable tannins derived from simple phenolic acids which are broken down in the gut to form gallic acid – hydrolisable tannins should not be used internally for long periods
  • Condensed tannins more resistant to hydrolysis and are poorly absorbed in the gut – when treated with acids they decompose into red pigments called phlobaphens
  • Found in “galls” on trees after parasitic invasion
  • Found in un-ripe fruit and act as a source of fruit acids
  • Used in “protein precipitation” towards epithelial surface leading to its use in tanning of hides and leading to “leather leg” on skin
  • Tannins have “astringent” actions and toning effects on tissues and are soluble in water, alcohol and glycerol
  • Topical washes – used to precipitate a layer of cells forming a scab over burns and abrasions
  • Oral use inhibits secretion of gut – such as diarrhea and help in nutrient absorption
  • Anti-inflammatory actions – promote healing of inflamed membranes and used in inflammatory bowel disease
  • Peristalic reflex – decrease sensitivity to nerve endings resulting in inhibition of peristalsis (digestive moltility)


  • comarins are distributed within plants in a glycosidal form – they give an odour of mown fresh hay
  • anti-coagulant properties – competitive antagonist to vitamin K (natural coagulant)
  • photosensitvity – used in PUVA therapy which involves the administration of psoralen (comarin) in conjunction with exposure to UV light to treat skin disorders such as eczema and psoriasis
  • anti-fungal and insecticidal – kills pathogens in the body due to extreme bitterness
  • vascular tonic – supports vascular tissues


  • Anthraquinnones occur in glycosidal form in plants.
  • When ingested in teas, tablets, or tinctures they are inactive until they reach the large intestine where they are acted upon by resident bacteria in the presence of bile
  • The main functions are to increase volume of fluids in the lower bowel, stimulate peristalsis and increasing tone of tract
  • eliminatory process used as a bulking agent and laxative, bowel tonic and cleansing tonic but may produce cramps and gas
  • cause irritation to mucus membrane in gut decrease absorption of water and electrolytes
  • cause increase in cyclic AMP in colon cells lead to increase chloride levels in lumen and water follows by osmosis
  • cause leakage of junctional complexes between endotherial cells leading to reabsorption of sodium and water into lumen

Resins and Balsams

  • Resins & balsams form a large group of plant compounds which are solid and have a gummy consistency and must be extracted with solvents such as alcohol
  • Used in a wide variety of products due to their gummy consistency
  • Used medicinally in creams, soaps and other cleansing agents
  • Oleo resins – volatile oils
  • Gum Resins – are mixture of volatile oils and gums
  • Balsamic Resins – are mixed with aromatic compounds such as benzoic and cinnamic acids to have increased water solubility

Isoprene Compounds (Terpenes)

  • isoprene compounds (terpenes) contain isoprene units which are the building blocks of rubber and give rise to many different compounds such as:
  • B- carotene: carotenoids
  • rubber
  • monoterpenes: limonene and camphor
  • triterpenes: glycyrrhetinic acid
  • sesquiterpenes: zingiberene
  • squalene: steroids

Volatile Oils

  • Volatile oils can also be known as essential oils are responsible for pleasant aroma of flowers and are known as monoterpene complexes
  • Come from oil containing organs of plants such as glands, hairs and glandular epidermal scales
  • Volatile oils are mixtures of hydrocarbons and oxygenated compounds
  • most abundant of the hydrocarbons are the terpene compounds of isoprine units
  • lipid solubility – volatile oils are small, making them ideal for passage into the skin and cell membranes of the nose, vagina, rectum and stomach. Since they are lipid soluble volatile oils can be absorbed through the skin and taken up into the systemic circulation
  • anti-microbial action – combat bacterial infection and inhibit the growth of yeasts and molds – prevent food spoilage by bacteria and mold
  • counter irritant – stimulate tissues they come into contact with dilates underlying capillaries and facilitates the movement of blood to an area
  • Carminative – cause slight irritation to the mucous membranes of the gastrointestinal tract and stimulates peristalsis decreases the accumulation of gas
  • Anthelmintic – combat parasitic infections in humans and animals ex. wormseed oil
  • insect repellent – seen in smelly oils such as citronella, lemon balm, basil
  • expectorant – metabolized and partially excreted via the lungs to fumigate lung tissues by stimulating the serous and glandular cells in ciliated epithelium
  • diuretic – irritating effect on the kidney tissues causing urinary output
  • anti-inflammatory – triggers the release of anti-inflammatory substances and encourages blood to enter into the area
  • diaphoretic – stimulate the perfusion of blood in the epidermal layer of skin

Cyanogenic Glycosides

  • Cyanogenic glycosides upon hydrolysis the oils yielded prussic acid (HCN) in large quantities it is toxic, however, in smaller quantities it is therapeutic
  • Sedative and antispasmodic – treatment of spasmodic coughs
  • Cardio-sedative – increases parasympathetic innervation slowing heart rate
  • Digestive – increasing vagal tone promoting digestion
  • Cancer – cyano glycoside amygdalin marketed as “laetrile” or vitamin B17” is toxic to cancer cells


  • Glucosinalates are derived from nitrogenous compounds (amino acids) and contain sulfur
  • Vegetables from the brassica family such as cabbage, cauliflower, cale, broccoli, brussel sprouts have high glucosinalates.
  • rubfacient actions – applied topically causing irritation effect of glucosinalates which bring nutrient rich blood to the area of application causing the removal of morbid matter from areas of stagnation and congestion
  • anti-thyroid effects – depresses the thyroid function indicating the use in hyperthyroidism


  • Saponins are diverse group of plants used as detergents
  • The chemistry of saponins reveals characteristics of hormones such as estrogen, aldosterone, and cortisol and mimic sex hormones
  • Hemolytic functions – destroy RBC making them highly toxic
  • Expectorant – cause irritation of gastric mucosa
  • Steroidal saponins (tetracyclic triterpenoids) – similar to hormones produced in the body such as sex hormones, cortisone, vitamin D and are closely related to cardiac glycosidesSteroidal saponins assist in the regulation of sex hormones and are used to regulate female cycles
  • Triterpenoid saponins (pentacyclic triterpenoids) are abundant in dicot families and support endocrine system and nervous system

Cardioactive Glycosides

  • cardioactive glycosides influence the cardiovascular system by interacting with the heart muscle and arterial system
  • Cardio relaxation – dilates arterioles and causes vasodilatation, helps to tone and strengthen the vessels
  • Compete with K in the Na/K pump mechanisms – of heart cell membranes resulting in K loss and increase Ca in cells, and supports proper muscle contraction
  • Inhibit ATPase – responsible for active transport sodium out of the cell causing the accumulation of Na in the cell and increase rate of muscle contraction
  • Buffering effect – as K competes with cardio-active glycosides in heart tissue


  • alkaloids form the largest most complex group of plant constituents
  • The first alkaloid discovered was morphine
  • Alkaloids are normally white crystalline compounds which are alkaline and insoluble in water but soluble in alcohol
  • Alkaloids are derived from amino acid metabolism in plants and are very potent in their effects. For this reason they are prescribed sparingly for a very small subset of conditions
  • pyrrolidine alkaloids from the solanaceae family affects smooth muscle tissue of perhiperal nervous system causing a reduction in smooth muscle tone and acts as a bronchial dilator, inhibits bodily secretions. They are used to treat acidity and spasms in GI tract and urinary tract as well as motion sickness and Parkinson’s disease
  • pyridine and piperidine alkaloids found in tobacco, lobelia, hemlock have effects similar to nicotine – acts on chemoreceptors in the carotid artery causing reflex in breathing. Used to treat asthma
  • pyrrolizidine alkaloids compositae and boraginaceae families are derived from amino acid ornithine. They have carcinogenic, mutagenic and hepatotoxic properties and are never used medicinally
  • quinolizidine alkaloids are derived from the amino acid lysine found in leguminoseae family. Contains alkaloid sparteine which is a respiratory stimulant, coronary vasodialator, smooth muscle stimulant, vagal nerve stimulant and is also used to increase tone of uterus during labor
  • indole alkaloids are derived from amino acid tryptophan, have hallucinogenic properties and act as a sedative effects on the nervous system, cause the dilation of coronary blood vessels, reduction of blood pressure, relax smooth muscles accept uterine muscle
  • quinoline alkaloids derived from amino acid phenyl-alanine or tryptophane, stomatic, antistringent and anti-microbial properties
  • pure alkaloids derived from pruine nucleotide bases adenine and guanine includes caffeine, theobromine and theophylline found in tea, coffee, and cocoa
  • isoquinaline alkaloids derived from amino acid tyroside and phenylalanine contains the following subgroups from the poppy family:
  • Simple isoquinalines are a powerful narcotic and hallucinogenic
  • Benzyle isoquinalines haveanti-spasmodic effects on smooth muscle reducing muscle tone
  • morphine, codine, thebaine cause vasodilatation slows breathing and may induce coma
  • protopines act as analgesic and desensitize nerve endings
  • protoberberines bitter digestive, anti-microbial and CNS depressan
  • ipecac alkaloids acts as powerful emetic increases secretion of gastric juices and may induce vomiting – used for acute poisoning


  • Flavanoids biased in phenolic ring structure found in higher plants, are water soluble, act as powerful antioxidant and are absorbed best when combined with vitamin C
  • Flavanoids have a wide range of effects which include:
  • reduce capillary fragility as they strengthen vascular tissue
  • prevent fluid retention (edema)
  • reduce risk of stroke
  • protect against arthritis
  • reduce risk of atherosclerosis
  • decrease menopausal symptoms
  • protect against oral herpes infection due to the immune stimulatory effects
  • decrease risk of diabetic cataracts
  • decrease histamine response to allergen exposure due to mast cell stabilizing effects
  • reduction in ulcer problems due to the effects on gastric secretion
  • decrease inflammation after injury due to effects on healing tissue
  • antioxidant and collagen stabilizing activity
  • anti-inflammatory inhibit inflammatory mediators
  • immune modulation inhibit histamine release
  • allergies prevent allergens from entering into tissues
  • anti-viral reduces vitamin C oxidation
  • vasotonic effects treat hypertension
  • diabetic cataracts inhibits accumulation of sorbitol in retina
  • glaucoma
  • cancer treatment cytotoxic effects
  • Flavones – antispasmodic action steroidal properties and can mimic certain hormones
  • Anthocyanins – sensitive to pH levels are used to treat night blindness and capillary fragility.
  • Flavones – easily converted into chalcones found in citrus fruits
  • Chalcones and Aurones – precursor for other flavinoid pigments

Flavanolignans – milk thistle is an important liver herb with restorative properties by acting on liver cell membranes to strengthen them and to protect against toxic substances