Pharmaceuticals Versus Botanicals

by Dr. Sarah Goulding ND | Follow on Twitter

I am not ANTI-pharmaceuticals, but they should only be used when necessary.

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AS A PRIMARY HEALTH CARE PROVIDER, I am presented with a large array of health concerns, many of which are easily resolved with natural therapies, but a small subset of which are severe conditions that require pharmaceutical intervention.

I am not ANTI-pharmaceuticals, in fact they are wonderful tools that we are very fortunate to have access to, but should only be used when necessary! <– TWEET THIS

In North America, we are too quick to choose pharmaceuticals as a first line intervention to continually treat symptoms, when a natural therapy would resolve the underlying root cause and would save patients from unwanted side effects and a lifetime of pill-popping.

I am always disappointed when patients of mine visit a walk-in clinic and receive drug prescriptions for issues they never knew Naturopathic medicine can resolve.

But my disappointment is not because they have chosen conventional options versus having faith in natural therapies, it is more so because they have received an incomplete intervention that not only leaves the underlying condition unresolved, but often requires us to do some repair work to return the patient to their original state of health.

For example, a patient who developed an acute urinary tract infection went to a walk-in clinic and received an antibiotic prescription without performing a urinalysis (where acidity levels and other markers would better determine the strain of bacteria causing the symptoms and therefore improve the precision of antibiotic prescribed).

This antibiotic may very well kill off the infection, but it will also reduce the healthy bioflora load in the body and predispose the patient to a subsequent infection.


Pharmaceuticals are chemical compounds often derived from plants that interact with receptors in our bodies in very specific and powerful ways. So instead of the chemical compound being introduced into the body in a balanced form as found in nature, it is isolated and concentrated and therefore exerts a very precise and intense effect on the body.

Let’s take white willow as an example (Salix alba). Historically this botanical has been used by the ancient greeks, native americans and by peoples of the ancient middle east. It works to relieve pain and reduce fevers. Its most powerful active compounds are extracted for use in modern medicine – acetylsalicylic acid known as Aspirin and salicylic acid mainly used as a topical treatment for acne.

When a part of a whole is isolated, many of the balancing effects of the other compounds present are lost. The many vitamins, minerals and micronutrients that would be ingested along with the desired compound that help us metabolize it are omitted from the equation, which puts strain on our systems as we have not evolved to consume these ratios of chemicals.

Lets break plant compounds into two categories for simplicity’s sake:

  1. Those that act as keys that fit into our receptors and therefore unlock a cascade of events in our cells. For our white willow example, this would be re-directing inflammatory pathways towards anti-inflammatory pathways causing pain relief.
  2. Those compounds that could be used IN the consequential pathway, such as a mineral required for the synthesis of an anti-inflammatory molecule or a vitamin needed for excretion of the chemical’s metabolite. When we isolate a chemical from a plant we may be forcing a pathway but not giving the body what it needs to complete that pathway and eliminate the byproducts produced in the process. This can be seen clinically as the development of side effects.

In contrast to chemical pharmaceuticals, phytotherapeutics possess a wider therapeutic range, lesser adverse reactions and less interactions with other pharmaceuticals. – Eur Arch Otorhinolaryngol. 2012 February; 269(2): 389–397.


Every compound in a plant is there for a reason, whether that be protection, nutrient transport, growth, etc. We have evolved for hundreds of thousands of years in tandem with these plants, taking advantage of their active ingredients and evolving to adapt to ALL components of what we were eating.

When we ate white willow bark for pain, our bodies would be prepared to receive the “drug” component of the plant because we would also be ingesting nutrients at the same time that would help us to metabolize the entire plant.

When we consume an isolated drug in our current age, they are effective because we have evolved to have the receptors to enable them to be effective, but if we are not taking them in in natural ratio with their entire suite of compounds we are at a metabolic disadvantage and this is where we can do damage to our bodies.

Each drug requires different nutrients to process and eliminate it, so if you’re taking a long-term prescription, be sure to investigate which nutrients it might be depleting in your body.

A Google search might suffice, a trip to your Naturopathic doctor would be a more thorough step, or try a reference such as Drug Muggers by Suzy Cohen. Do your homework, and feed your cells!

About the Author
Dr. Sarah Goulding ND

Dr. Sarah Goulding is a health educator. She teaches her patients and her community about the underlying mechanisms of health and what they need to do to get and stay there. Sarah is the creator and owner of a medical clinic in beautiful Northern Ontario called Nickel Ridge Natural Health, where she also practices as a Naturopathic Doctor. She is the Director of Research & Development at BrownRoots Wellness (disseminating health information on a broader scope to a larger audience), and supports her local community by teaching yoga and practicing what she preaches at ARC Climbing YogaFitness.