Synergy means working together. It occurs when the combined action of constituents is greater than would be expected from a consideration of individual constituents. In herbal medicine, better results are obtained with whole plant extracts rather than with isolated constituents. For example, the side-effects of reseprine are not usually found with the crude drug of sarpagandha. If true synergy is occurring in phytomedicines, standardization becomes even more important, since the ratio between synergistic agents is critical, and small changes can make results unpredictable. If combination effects are merely additive, changes in the ratio are less crucial. It may therefore be significant to define synergy using the term 'polyvalent action'.
Synergy is deemed present if the total effect of a combination is greater than would be expected from the sum of effects. This can be expressed as follows:
Polyvalent action includes various effects of multiple active constituents acting in combination, in harmony and possible in synergy. In conventional medicine it is common practice to treat a single complaint as in cancer. This applies more to plant extracts, since combinations are already present within the plant. There are good reasons for not isolating active constituents from herbs like St. John's wort, hawthorn, hops, purple cone flower and black cohosh. In herbals like garlic and valerian, active constituents are unstable and attempts to isolate them would render the extract ineffective.
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