The research process is beautiful. And fun! You get to navigate and interact with the landscape of information about a subject, and figure out where the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities exist in our knowledge base. In the process of digging into research, you can see the origins of the rumors spread about herbs, gain some clarity about it and weed through misinformation. Certainly, botanical preclinical and clinic research is an incremental way of building undertanding, much like an ant procuring crumbs of food to bring back to the colony. And it doesn’t tell us everything: there are many rich sources of information to draw from in botanical medicine, with traditional use chief among them. The skilled herbalist exercises good judgment and critical thinking by achieving fluency in these different areas, and knows how to apply them to help people.
I’ve been in the research field for 6 years–first in anthropological research at the Center for World Indigenous Studies, then as a botanical research assistant and writer for several clinicians, and now in R&D for a medicinal mushroom company. And I’m passionate about supporting herbalists in navigating the scientific research about botanicals and supplements to improve decision-making.
Let’s use an example. Say you’ve been heard about Thyme Oil as a Powerful Natural Antibiotic on social media sites and want to dig further into it. When we’re looking for at the evidence base of a claim, we want to go to the primary research and see the studies that have actually been done. Not reviews, not news articles, but real studies.
Frame the question to structure the inquiry.
I usually make 2 columns: the first lists the substance I’m searching for. This can be a specific plant, phytochemical, or just plants in general. Use the latin name for plants (in this case Thymus vulgaris), and include potential misspellings. Then in the second column is the subject: the name of a condition, keyword, or associated biomarker (you can use the term antibiotic or antibacterial). In this case, there’s a MeSH term for anti infective agents, which would cover the territory nicely.
Get better at searching.
You can then use this basic format to search the databases. Searching MEDLINE via PubMed will be more helpful with complex searches, as you can specify which fields you’d like to search. I also like to search Google Scholar. It indexes MEDLINE as well as other databases. The search is wider and you get more results, but you can’t customize it as well as you can with PubMed. Below is the search builder on PubMed. As you can see, you can add lots of different criteria for more wheat and less chaff.
And get to know your journals–PLOS, PubMed Central, BioMed Central, and anything from the Hindawi Publishing Group is free full text. My favorite botanical/phytotherapy journals are Fitoterapia, Phytotherapy, Phytotherapy Research, and Planta Medica. The Journal of Ethnopharmacology is also a great one, but I get the feeling that it’s a bioprospecting publication.
Use reference management programs to store and organize citations.
Once you start generating citations, programs like EndNote, Papers, Mendeley (free), Zotero (free), and Sente (pictured below, my personal favorite) can store, track and organize your citations. With any software, each have their different strengths and weaknesses. For example, EndNote is great for formatting citations in a final publication, but not the best at organizing into folders, tagging, storing PDFs. Sente is my personal favorite because I can sync these libraries with research colleagues, store and annotate PDFs, and having standing searches to keep up on new search results as they come in. Mendeley is a nice free/open source program, and is a good place to start.
I have several of these programs installed. I can import and export citations as needed, depending on the project.
Going from A to B: know how to extrapolate and interpret data relevant to your inquiry.
This is where the true skill lies in research. Investigators set up replicas of reality in their labs. I can’t stress enough that research findings are specific to that setting, model, and process. Assessing the relevance of a finding is crucial. How do we translate study A to real world situation B? This takes some understanding of human biology, test methods, and the strength of different types of research methodologies and evidence (which I’ll address in future posts).
Back to thyme oil: once you complete your search, you’ll see that there is some data on antibacterial effects. Great! You have something to work with. Then the researcher should consider:
- Were these done in test tubes (in vitro), animals, or humans?
In vitro studies are done in test tubes, often by culturing cells with botanical extracts, concentrates or isolates. They’re done to investigate the mechanism by which something works, and/or to see if there’s enough of an effect for research efforts to progress to animal studies. As the body would metabolize these compounds differently than what’s done in petris, findings should be taken with a grain of salt as they’re difficult to extrapolate to real world situations.
- What kind of bacteria? What exactly were the effects?
This is very important! Just because a substance has an effect on a particular genus, species, or class of bacteria doesn’t mean that it will be effective in others. This error in applying a finding to other non-related pathogens or conditions is rampant in discussions about herbal medicine (see my post on Herbs for Ebola). Remember: this information is for a certain preparation in a certain type of experimental model. A may not always translate to B.
- Is the dose and preparation relevant to what people would actually use?
I can’t stress this enough. Many natural substances can have an effect in test tubes and animals, but getting those amounts in humans would not be feasible. If possible, a critical examination of study doses and concentrations should be part of your research toolkit.
This is the first of a series on botanical research. Please leave your questions and feedback in the comments!