Herbolomics Explained

Words: Dr Ramakrishna V HOSUR

Modern biology and medicine, in the context of healthcare, can be summarily described as the study of interconnections among Genome-Transcriptome-Proteome-Metabolome, in that trickle down the order, in any given species. Research in the four areas may be collectively termed as ‘OMICS’ research.

Diseases are analysed in terms of disturbances in these OMEs, and typically monitored by changes in the metabolome. This is applicable to both the animal world, humans and the plant world, which includes the herbs. The study of interplay between the plant world and the animal world from the healthcare point of view may be termed as ‘Herbolomics.’

Herbal medicines, which essentially represent components of different herbal, or plant, extracts have been used in India for thousands of years in the Ayurvedic form of medicine for treating a number of ailments; they have much less side-effects, compared to modern [allopathic] medicine. Herbal preparations have many other constituents too which presumably work in a synergistic manner and influence many different, apparently uncoupled, metabolic pathways at the same time and, thus, a particular preparation is able to cure many seemingly unrelated diseases. Because of the complex coupling of the metabolic pathways, such research would also encompass Systems Biology [SB] and Systems Medicine [SM]. This will naturally integrate modern medicine and Ayurvedic medicine of ancient India.

Holistic Medicine

Although herbal treatments have proved successful, their understanding has, till date, been largely holistic in nature. Detailed scientific and mechanistic investigations with proper controls, quantitation, and precise descriptions of the variety of herbal preparations that are being used empirically and traditionally by the various vaidyas [practitioners of herbal treatments] are, however, lacking. Even so, the principle of individual specific treatment [personalised, or bespoke, medicine], based on the individual’s so-called prakriti, defined in the Ayurveda [one-size does not fit all] is getting recognised in recent years by the modern medical community. Every individual has a characteristic prakriti; this represents a combination of three constituents of the body, namely, vata, pitta and kapha in definite proportions. In Ayurveda, diseases are interpreted in terms of disturbances in the proportion of the three components in the ailing individual; this is the counterpart of OME disturbance in the allopathic form of medicine. Ayurveda emphasises on a holistic treatment of the immune system by proper balancing the three elements in any individual.

It is, therefore, imperative to provide for the Ayurvedic line of treatment and the missing links using modern scientific tools and advances, and delineate functioning mechanisms of herbal products, so that the two kinds of practitioners, Ayurvedic and allopathic, can speak in a mutually understandable language. This may, thus, allow further improvisations and combinations for better results. Many groups have been indulging in such research, worldwide. In our own group, the multiple effects of triphala, a mixture of three fruits, have been demonstrated using a variety of biophysical and biochemical techniques.

Triphala: Multiple Effects

Triphala was found to inhibit fibrillation of a-synuclein, a protein responsible for a number of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease. It did so by not allowing b-structure formation by the protein. b-structure formation is crucial for the self-association of the protein. A radically different observation was triphala abrogated cancer cell proliferation — triphala altered the secondary structure and assembly characteristics of the microtubules inside the cells. Several other plant metabolites also have properties of inhibition of a-synuclein fibrillation and their mechanistic details have been elucidated. The above effects of triphala speak the language of modern medicine.

Triphala, in Ayurvedic parlance, is a well-known rasâyana — a rasâyana is defined as a therapeutic measure which promotes good health and mental faculties, increases memory, and imparts protection and immunity against diseases. Triphala rasâyana is prescribed for balancing of vata, pitta and kapha [referred to as three doshas in Ayurveda] in individuals. Hence, triphala is also referred as tridoshic rasâyana.

Nearly 1,500 triphala-based formulations have been described in Ayurveda for different health benefits.  They need to be investigated by advanced scientific tools available today to make a connection with the language of modern medicine.

This will surely invoke concepts of synergy, systems biology and coupling of metabolic pathways, and throw light on the simultaneous effects of the formulations on the many different diseases. India is rich in Ayurvedic knowledge and resource. The onus, therefore, is on the Indian scientific community to provide global leadership in this exciting field of study, which will benefit the health care system, worldwide.

TAGS: Ayurveda, herbs, OMICS research, herbolomics, prakriti, vata, pitta, kapha, triphala, rasayana, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease.

Dr RAMAKRISHNA V HOSUR, PhD, is Director, Centre for Excellence in Basic Sciences, Mumbai, and Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Department of Biosciences and Bioengineering @ IIT [Bombay]. A Padma Sri Awardee. Dr Hosur lives in Mumbai, India. This article [Key to Integrative Medicine] was first published in Annals of Ayurvedic Medicine, 2021; 10[3] 201-203, under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License 4.0.

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