Holobiont: Human + Plant Microbiomes
Plants, like humans, depend on beneficial bacteria to survive. Bugs have an interest in keeping their plant or human host alive—and will overcome trillions of biochemical obstacles to do just that. This relationship between the host and its microbiome is called the holobiont.2
Both human gut microbiomes and plants’ microbiomes govern much more than just species survival, although that seems to be their main objective. Microbes can help regulate plant and human immunity, digestion, growth potential, biochemistry, and even our behavior (and to some extent plant behavior), as shown in the quickly growing field of psychobiotics.1-5
In one study, bacteria closely associated with ginseng roots have been found to significantly support cognitive health. Ginseng is known to attract a bacterium called rhizolutin in its root system, where they enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship. Ginseng is known as a brain and nerve tonic, and it may glean some of its unique brain function benefits from its friendly root bacterium rhizolutin.5,6
Studies shows rhizolutin supports the body’s natural defense against accumulation of plaque and tau proteins in the brain that can lead to the death of nerve cells, nerve inflammation, brain atrophy, and cognitive losses.5,6
Why Whole Herb Supplements?
When shopping for herbal supplements, few people realize the differences from one brand to the next. New evidence provides deep insight into the differences between herbal extracts (which, although they have their place, are mostly sterile) and naturally dried organic whole-herb products. Whole herbs that have not been sprayed are loaded with bacteria and can provide pro- and prebiotic benefits, supporting greater microbial diversity in the gut, which supports greater gut immunity.7,11-13
Because plants, herbs, fruits, and vegetables are derived from the earth, they are rich in a variety of microbes and need to be monitored by agencies like the FDA. To ensure your whole herb products are free of undesirable microbes, make sure they are manufactured in an FDA- and GMP-certified facility, where, by law, all plant materials are tested for total aerobic microbial counts. You will see this printed on all LifeSpa product labels.
Extracts have been considered a more concentrated, and therefore more potent, bang for your buck, based solely on the biochemistry of the extracted herb. Emerging science suggests the effectiveness of an herb is not solely based on the concentration of its chemical constituents. There is a growing understanding of the synergistic relationship between the therapeutic effects of the herb and its associated microbes, in the same way ginseng roots attract the extremely beneficial bacterium rhizolutin.5,6
In fact, based on microbial counts, unprocessed, organic herbs may potentially be up to 1000x more potent, delivering a more holistic effect than herbal extracts that are mostly sterile.7
LifeSpa Whole Herbs Out Front!
The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA)7 has standards for total plate counts, or maximum allowable microbes, in both unprocessed herbs and herbal extracts:
- Herbal extracts: Allow up to 10,000 CFU/g (colony-forming units per gram) of natural microbes on each plant. Most herbal extracts rarely reach these levels, as the alcohol or glycerin used to extract the herb mostly sterilizes it.
- Unprocessed whole herbs dried naturally, ground, and capsulated: Allow up to 10,000,000 CFU/g of microbes. That is 1000x more than allowed in extracts.
Based on AHPA standards, unprocessed, dried herbs are allowed to have a minimum of 1000x more pre– and probiotic microbes than sterile extracts!7
Extracts Play an Important Role in Herbal Medicine
The message here is not that herbal extracts are bad. They are in many cases more potent and effective than whole herbs. In my practice, I use extracts (LifeSpa HP Line) as medicines for the short term to elicit a therapeutic response. I also use our Whole Herb line to elicit a therapeutic response, but with more of a focus on encouraging the body to do the job.
The more biochemically powerful extracts will get a patient out of harm’s way. Then I follow up with whole herbs to reset function and restore the appropriate seasonal microbes and biodiversity in the gut.
Microbe-Based Herbal Intelligence
We all avoid non-organic foods and herbs because of pesticide exposure, but an equally important reason to avoid them may be that many of the beneficial microbes on conventionally processed foods, herbs, and herbal extracts are either dead or missing.
Herbal extracts, the majority of supplements sold online and in health food stores, are made using alcohol as a solvent. Alcohol kills many beneficial microbes, rendering the herbal extract mostly sterile and permanently altered from its natural state.
It’s important to note that much of the herbal intelligence and possible benefits of herbs may have to do with microbial content. Remember, each plant seems to attract a certain set of beneficial microbes that works in synergy with the traditionally understood benefits of the plant.1-6
New research out of Stanford finds the gut microbiome of the last remaining hunter-gatherer tribe changes with the seasons.8 Previous studies found microbes in the soil dramatically change and surge from one season to the next.9
While chemical constituents of plants have been the focus of scientific investigation into the potency of herbal supplements, new research suggests the microbiology of plants could offer a more subtle, and perhaps more potent, therapeutic signature.
Emerging science suggests microbes coexisting with the plant kingdom may in fact be conscious, delivering a type of intelligence: something Ayurveda has called herbal intelligence for thousands of years.10
This research suggests herbs may not only work in a biochemical fashion, but may also deliver a homeostatic effect of restoring balance to the body, combining pre- and probiotic, biochemical, and quantum effects.1-10
The holobiont, or host-microbe relationship, is a new frontier in understanding plant function and determining new medicinal botanicals. Microbes first appeared on earth ~3.5 billion years ago, while plants appeared only ~450 million years ago, suggesting diverse microbial interactions were strong drivers for the evolution and survival of multicellular plant and animal life.1-6
The lesson here is: when choosing your supplements—don’t forget about the bugs.