It is a common observation amongst pharmaceutical scientists that many of the top selling drugs of all time are derived from plants. The one that is usually quoted is aspirin that was first developed by modifying an ingredient found in the bark of willow trees. Another example, though not one that has quite the high profile of aspirin, is a molecule called bisabolol with anti-inflammatory properties found in quite a few plants. It is particularly abundant in the German Chamomile, and its properties have been recognised for centuries with chamomile being a popular folk remedy for all sorts of things.
Chemically speaking it is a member of the terpene family. I have written before about how these are my favourite chemicals. They are a bunch of colourful and interesting characters who get up to all sorts of tricks. Bisabolol is no exception, not only having pharmaceutical properties but also being a useful fragrance ingredient. It isn’t really centre stage in fragrances, so I regard that as its hobby rather than its day job.
If you want to extract it from a plant you need to use an ethanolic extraction technique as it is not very soluble in water. Macerating it in alcohol is probably the best way if you want to get a decent amount out.
The phrase anti-inflammatory that I used earlier is technically correct but is perhaps a bit misleading. It doesn’t really stack up against serious anti-inflammatories like hydrocortisone and other steroids. If you have a serious flare up of your skin you will need to get to the doctor and get hold of some heavy duty pharmacology. Bisabolol is much milder, and it would perhaps be better to describe it as skin calming. I have a feeling that it would probably work better as an extract of a herb than as pure chemical. There are often hidden synergies with other components that are hard to fathom using the current state of science. By definition, I don’t have any hard proof of this.
Bisabolol is however yielding up more secrets in detailed lab work. For instance it is possible that it enhances the sensitivity of microbes to antibiotics. Given that we are facing a potential crisis as microbes become resistant to our current arsenal of anti-microbial drugs this could be a very useful property indeed. (It is also a good example of the kinds of beneficial synergies you can find with natural ingredients.) There are also indications it might have uses in treating cancer.
Sadly there is no way to tell the difference between a product that has a tip-in of chamomile or a tiny drop of bisabolol simply from looking at the ingredient list. Chemists have a thing called the Law of Mass Action which is pretty inflexible on the point that you need enough of a good thing to get the benefits. But if you see either on the ingredient list there is at least a chance that the product is going to do you some good.
Antimicrob. Agents Chemother. October 2003 vol. 47 no. 10 3357-3360 Sensitization of Staphylococcus aureus andEscherichia coli to Antibiotics by the Sesquiterpenoids Nerolidol, Farnesol, Bisabolol, and Apritone Byron F. Brehm-Stecher1 and Eric A. Johnson
Biochemical Pharmacology Volume 80, Issue 2, 15 July 2010, Pages 247–254?-Bisabolol induces dose- and time-dependent apoptosis in HepG2 cells via a Fas- and mitochondrial-related pathway, involves p53 and NF?B Wei Chena, Jie Houa, Yan Yina, Jongchol Janga, Zhongliang Zhenga, Handong Fanb, Guolin Zoua