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A little boy holds onto his father's hand as he tramps through the woods and meadows near Basel. His eyes roam curiously as he takes in the sounds and smells; later, he will say, "I was a bright boy, and I kept my eyes and ears open."
The boy is deeply impressed by nature in all its diversity. His father continually draws his attention to the plants they come across: herbs, leaves, flowers and roots. He explains the plants' qualities to the boy – those which are poisonous or harmful, those which have healing properties and what experiences people have had with them. The boy's father is an expert on plants having obtained his knowledge from his "herbalist" mother.
He doesn't just teach his son theory, but also gives him practical experience and lets him see what effects herbs have on his own body. "While we were walking, I often had to ... pick fresh plants and chew them, so that I could find out their effect on the body for myself."
The idea that made Alfred Vogel - the little boy holding onto his father's hand - into a pioneer and ’revolutionary’ of natural medicine was, in the truest sense of the word, still in its infancy at the beginning of the 20th century.
It sounds like such a simple idea – to use the fresh, whole plant – but it contradicted all the conventions of that time: Plants that were intended for healing purposes were almost always preserved by drying, after which they would be designated as drugs. People didn't know much about their content and herbal medicine was based on experience. The growing chemical-pharmaceutical industry was primarily interested in isolating and analysing individual ingredients in order to re-create them synthetically, if possible.
This was how phytotherapy became the subject of modern research methods. It was possible to identify more and more plant substances, explain their structure and prove their effects in a scientific manner.
That was a long process though, and one that still isn't over. With the increasing interest in organic chemistry during the course of the 19th century, substances such as morphine, caffeine or digitoxin (from the foxglove) were discovered. However, it would only be in the 1990s that inflammation-reducing sesquiterpene-lactones were identified as a main ingredient of arnica, for example and their exact molecular mechanism of action was only explained in 2003.
This means that a lot of what we know today was still totally unknown during Alfred Vogel's lifetime (1902-1996). Even so, the young Alfred was convinced that "each individual plant is a complete compendium of different substances that must have a particularly healing ability as a whole." Although he obviously knew about the use of dried medicinal plants describing these as’contemporary’, he had "already moved on to making compounds from fresh plants by 1925."
This was because he had already experienced as a child "how effective it can be if you eat healing plants when they're fresh and still raw" during the tastings prescribed by his father.
In a totally practical manner, he experienced the "powerful effectiveness", particularly with diuretic and appetite-inducing herbs. As well as this, by the 1920s, he had also already "seen a small piece of the world and experienced that when plants are dried, they lose certain vital substances". With this in mind, he started experimenting with fresh plants in his Basel laboratory.
This put Alfred Vogel way ahead of his time. Today, we know a lot of things that he could then only grasp intuitively. Of course, it was obvious that during the drying process, volatile ingredients such as essential oils, terpenes (found for example in peppermint and thyme) certain glycosides (in horseradish, mustard, cress) or the volatile elements of resins were either partially or completely lost.. The extent and significance of these losses were inestimable. By now it's known, for instance, that many of the valuable secondary plant substances that hadn't yet been discovered were also volatile compounds.
Based on his many years of experience, Vogel stubbornly insisted that "preparations from fresh plants have a larger efficacy radius than those made from dried plants" and "preparations made from fresh plants have a significantly faster, stronger and deeper effect than you can get from dried plant preparations".. As far back as 1953, he wrote in "Health News" that he had observed "large differences in effectiveness as well as taste " between tinctures prepared from fresh and dried plants. In addition, dried medicinal herbs often contained impurities as they are stored for long periods and transported over long distances. Insect damage, wilting or even mould have been observed.. Another source of impurities observed by Alfred Vogel was in the way they were grown: Organically grown plants have a significantly lower concentration of pesticides, environmental toxins and heavy metals (M. Tobler, head of Research and Development, Bioforce AG).
The fact that his theories had a scientific basis is now being proven in the laboratory. This is illustrated by two examples: Substances known as alkylamides are essentially responsible for the anti-inflammatory and immune-stimulating effects of the purple coneflower. They resemble cannabinoids and bind to the same receptors found on body's cells. Crucial for its effectiveness is that there are also cannabinoid receptors on the cells of the immune system and they activate the immune system. Together with other ingredients present in Echinacea purpurea, such as plant polysaccharides and protein-sugar bonds, these alkylamides are of particular interest.
Is a fresh plant far superior to a dried one? Absolutely: It was demonstrated in 1994 that a fresh plant extract from the purple coneflower contains almost three times the level of alkylamides than a product made from dried plants. (Ganzheitsmedizin 5/94).
Second example: The heart-strengthening effect of hawthorn berries, which has also been well-established scientifically, is caused, inter alia, by substances called procyanidines. They are one of the secondary plant substances, specifically the polyphenols (you can find an overview of secondary plant substances in GN 5/2013). Result of the laboratory tests: The amount of procyanidines is significantly higher in fresh berries and also remains stable, whereas it sinks over time in preparations made from dried and frozen berries. (Ganzheitsmedizin 5/94).
Complete complex versus individual ingredient It turns out that Alfred Vogel was also right with his theory about using the ’whole plant’. According to him: "It's barely ever good to tear out some ingredient from the complete plant complex". He did admit: "It could well be that the specific effect (of individual substances) is more targeted and can therefore be worked out more easily by a chemist, a doctor or a pharmacologist."
However, he was concerned with the synergistic effect, the fact that "all ingredients, even those we still don't know about" were responsible for the efficacy and the tolerability of a medication. Vogel had the opportunity to find out that he was perfectly right. Meanwhile, the clinical and medical experience is piling up, pointing to the fact that active-ingredient complexes have particular benefits, partly with regard to the intensity of their effect, but also partly due to better tolerability and resorption.
Today, research has advanced considerably compared to Vogel's day and it shows that ancillary substances like saponins or fibrils and tannins affect both the bio-availability and efficacy of medicinal plants (Ganzheitsmedizin 5/94) and that ancillary ingredients and fibre from the plant account for the efficacy and tolerability of medicinal plants (Prof. Reinhard Saller, the first holder of a Chair of natural medicine at a Swiss university).
This is epitomised, again, by Arnica montana: With her research group, Prof. Irmgard Merfort from the Institute for Pharmaceutical Biology in Freiburg examined the plant's ingredients and mechanisms of action. She noted, in particular, that aside from the above-mentioned sesquiterpene-lactones, flavonoids, chlorogenic acids and essential oil also contribute to the efficacy of arnica (Pharmazeutische Zeitung 4/2003).
It's well known that Alfred Vogel founded a production facility for medicinal plants, specialising in the production of fresh plant preparations, whose name ’Bioforce’ carries the focus of Alfred Vogel's work: the power of nature. Today, it is an established company selling herbal remedies celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013.
According to Vogel's approach: "Producing medicinal products from fresh plants is an art that requires talent and love, not just technical knowledge". This in addition to "work, care, sensitivity, complete understanding and plenty of love for the plants and a strong interest in healing suffering."
He was successful with these principles, thanks also to his staff, of whom he said, "the people who drove the company to success weren't normal types, they were a bit crazy". However, he also lovingly said, with a touch of irony: "Sometimes reality really does prove the crackpots right."
This sentence is totally apt when it comes to his ideas about the freshness and wholeness of his "good friends the plants".
Every natural law that can be observed is due to something higher, and as yet unrecognised.
Alexander von Humboldt
* Clinical studies show that alcoholic extracts, in particular, have an immune-modulating and anti-viral effect. The Expert Commission for medicinal plants at the German Federal Ministry of Health (Commission E) states that only the efficacy of the red and purple coneflowers has been demonstrated, and not for E. angus- tifolia and E. pallida, the narrow leaved and pale coneflowers. Echinacea purpurea and its mechanism of action have been intensively researched by, inter alia, Prof. Rudolf Bauer, University of Graz, Dr. Jürg Gertsch, ETH Zürich, Prof. Stephan Pleschka, University of Giessen and Prof. Michael Heinrich, University of London, to mention just a few.
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