An interview with Rebecca Lazarou, Medicinal Plant Researcher at Kew Gardens; an Editor for the Journal of Herbal Medicine
Could you give our readers a little background on your professional life and what lead you to focus on medicinal plant research?
Currently I am a medicinal plant researcher at Kew Gardens, an editor for the Journal of Herbal Medicine, where it is my job to assess the most recent scientific research in herbal medicines. I also do educational talks, writing, consultancy and product formulations.
When I was younger, I realised I wanted to go into the world of medicinal plants, but it was important for my pursuits to be scientifically rigorous because of the nature of my mind. I accepted that plant medicines are a fantastic resource for wellbeing, but I needed to know why and how. So, I completed a degree in Biomedical Science- Human Biology to get a scientific understanding of the body. I then went on to complete a masters in Medicinal Natural Products and Phytochemistry at UCL and have since worked both in research and in the commercial world across cannabis, herbal medicines, and I am tapping into psychedelic research. My aim is to bridge the gap between science and herbal medicines, ultimately to empower people to take control of their wellbeing.
As someone who has done much work around botanicals, could you give insight into some of the key botanicals, their therapeutic qualities, and how these are able to synergistically interact with cannabinoids (e.g. within formulations for health & wellness products)?
It is no secret that many people are suffering with anxiety, and CBD has been shown to help some people tremendously with that. Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is also an effective anti-anxiety medicine, that was shown to be as effective as oxazepam but without the side effects. It works on the GABA receptors in the nervous system which are designed to make us relax by slowing down the firing of electricity in our nervous system and hence the franticness of our thoughts. Combining this with CBD nurturing our endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a great way to rebalance and restore the mind.
There has also been a rise in popularity of medicinal mushrooms, particularly because of their immunomodulatory effects, meaning they rebalance and optimise each immune system depending on the varying needs of people. It has a personalised affect, so they can be good anti-inflammatories but also good immune boosters. Good mushrooms include chaga, turkey tail, reishi and shitake and more. They work nicely when combined with ECS treatment as the immune system and ECS work in collaboration.
There are other plants that stimulate the ECS for example echinacea stimulates CB2 receptors, hence its immune boosting effects. Other plants include hops, lemongrass, cloves, oregano- there are many plants contain terpenes. Interestingly they say that myrcene found in mangoes makes the effects of cannabis stronger and last for longer. Unsurprising as this is one of the most common terpenes found in cannabis.
And perhaps the same question, but with a focus on medicinal treatment? To what extent do you believe pharmaceutical product creators should be looking closer at possible Entourage effects, rather than analysing individual compounds?
I believe it is imperative that scientists begin to focus research on entourage effects, rather than just focusing on individual compounds alone. One major reason for this is because the entourage effect can lower toxicity of potent molecules that are useful for medicine. It is no secret that pharmaceuticals can have drastic side effects, especially when you get into long term polypharmacy, degradation of the body in some way is almost inevitable.
Furthermore, the entourage effect can activate the efficacy of active compounds that when isolated would not work. Also, it can make small doses of known active compounds a lot more effective, whereas if they were isolated and administered in such low doses, they would have no impact. This again can give a more favourable toxicology profile and improve efficacy.
It is important to understand what molecule/molecules are “star of the show” so that we can standardise extracts and make sure that we have uniform levels of these molecules across crop. However, taking the molecule out of its natural make up can come with the risk of it becoming inefficacious or dangerous. This means we miss out on potent medicines. Plants are mysterious, no doubt. We do not know why or how some molecules work so well together. But I believe it is wise to accept that this is how nature works, and our bodies are attuned to taking plants in a natural preparation. Once we accept this, I think medicine can progress greatly. I am not saying that it is always bad to extract isolated compounds. I am saying to optimise our medical research we need to make space for both.
When looking at how some medical advancements have previously come about by studying ancient texts (e.g. malaria medicines), do you think there’s scope to replicate this with cannabis treatment for certain conditions, and why?
Absolutely, the historical study of the plants use is the only way to ensure we have a full picture of what it can potentially do. It is easy to dismiss the ancient narratives around medicine as whimsical or fantasy, simply because we do not understand the dictionary they are using to describe the human body. But we must understand that the terms they use are simply metaphors using the language they had to describe the human constituency. Of course, they do not match up to the lexicon of modern Western science, but this does not mean that millennia of observation should go dismissed because it does not fit into our modern framework.
For example, when they describe “heat” or “fire” in the body, this is simply an observation of what we today would call inflammation. There are countless medicines which have been discovered from analytical minds assessing ancient texts, the Nobel Prize artemisinin being just one of them. What was crucial about this was not only the identification of the plant, but the specific preparation method needed to make the active compounds bioavailable.
What we can potentially learn from scanning ancient texts are conditions cannabis can be used for, preparation methods of the medicine, other botanicals it can be mixed with and specific methods of administration to patients amongst other things.
We are not smarter than ancient people because we have forgotten their knowledge. We’re smarter because we have all of their knowledge along with our new discoveries and connections we have made. To turn our backs on millennia of human discovery will only be to our detriment.
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