Plants have been part of our lives since the beginning of time. We get numerous products from plants, most of them not only good and beneficial for our health, but also crucial to our existence. In this essay we will explore the connection between plants, medicine, our food, and modern science.
The use of plants to heal or combat illness is probably as old as humankind. For centuries Native peoples of various cultures have used plants as medicine for all sorts of healing. Plants were at the basis of Indian and Chinese medicine for millennia, and they still are to this day. It is from these roots that the Western pharmaceutical industry grew to be how and what it is today. Unfortunately the modern view of plants is very different from what it was. We were once connected to nature, honored and respected nature, and tapped into its greatest potential, where plants were viewed and appreciated with utmost reverence. In modern times, we are greatly disconnected from nature, where we often either fear or disregard the presence and importance of plants. Most people cannot fathom using wild edibles today, whether for food or medicine. Likewise, most cannot be bothered to grow some of their own plants for culinary or medicinal purposes.
The modern medical and pharmaceutical industry has dissected nature into its parts and along the way lost so much of the whole picture. What was once a trusted and natural approach to health thanks to plants, has today become nearly 100% synthetic. So why this great change and disconnect? After the post-war era, economies began to boom and an evermore sophisticated technology was spreading through every sector leading societies to change drastically. Our populations boomed and money and profit became the driving factors. Dabbling with plant medicines was pretty much looked upon as primitive and unscientific. Of course in order for something to be profitable today it needs a patent, and nature in its unmodified form cannot be patented. So we extracted what we wanted out of plants, synthesized it, and patented the final products as pharmaceuticals and various formulas were born. We even modified entire plants and their species, both physically and genetically, in order to make them more profitable. We were driven to meet the growing needs of the world populations, but also driven by greed.
What did all this innovation and separation from nature lead to? Within half of a century we have caused some of the most destructive damage upon this planet—its people, living beings, and ecosystems. What this all has also led to, is that we have decreased the quality of our environments and food supply and increased our rates of sickness and disease. This is why, today, a quiet, yet significant revolution is under way. More and more people, like you and I, are saying “enough!” to the madness that has swept over this planet. More and more people are rekindling their connection to nature and combining the best of ancient wisdom and modern evolution by seeking the pure and unadulterated benefits that plants can offer us.
Plants: Our Food and Our Medicine
We have so much to benefit from by returning to plants in their most natural state. The famous father of medicine, Hippocrates was quoted as saying:
Let thy food be thy medicine, and thy medicine shall be thy food.
I live and teach by these words for I know their power experientially. Within the last century not only have we sharply disconnected ourselves from nature, we have forgotten how to feed ourselves and what a human body needs to thrive. A diet for optimal health, as we know today, should be whole-food, plant-based. Given this, it makes even more sense to apply what Hippocrates was saying. Plants serve as our food. Plants also have numerable healing and health benefits. It goes to reason that plants serve an extremely significant role in the creation of our health: Healthy eating is the best preventative medicine. Numerous edible and medicinal plants can also be used to heal an illness, should we find ourselves in any such a situation.
We really should be so grateful to plants for the food, health, and healing remedies they have provided, and continue to provide us with. Plants have been used as medicine and used extensively as diverse healing modalities for millennia for anything from external to internal infections, mental and emotional imbalances, as well as for every imaginable physical illness. We have come to use them as teas, tinctures, oils, creams, and more. Everything that plants provide is geared towards both preventing and healing imbalances, be they acute or chronic. For example, we know that just by eating a diet high in plant foods, where about three-quarters of our daily food comes from plants, we can effectively prevent and/or greatly reduce and/or reverse the three main chronic diseases of our modern society: cancer, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
So what makes plants so special? A segment of our sciences has focused on deciphering their role in nutrition, which led us to learn in the past few decades about a group of compounds called, phytonutrients – beneficial compounds found only in plants that can help prevent and even heal many diseases. The cruciferous family of plants, for example, is quickly gaining status as helping to ward off cancer due to the phytonutrient groups it contains. Plants also contain outstanding vitamin and mineral profiles, and are the only sources of fiber. Finally, plants harness their energy directly from the sun and aside from the chlorophyll content in the green parts of plants, there is also living energy—Chi—that we obtain when we consume or use plants in their freshest, most unadulterated forms. All of these factors make our human organism thrive, as intended for us as living beings on this planet.
Plant Medicine and Science
While all that may sound nice and lovely, you may be wondering about what science has found when it comes to plants’ specific role in medicine. Aside from the qualities of plants referred to above, most modern science is often all too silent or ignorant of the power of plants for medicinal use. On the one hand, there are some outstanding research studies that have coherently linked many plants as being effective options for specific conditions. On the other hand, there is both a lack of proper science in this field and a resistance by many lay people to understand plants beyond the limited science. Too many of us today have given away our independent thinking skills and only rely on what the often biased and limited science tells us.
This is why when we research certain plants with respect to their healing or preventative potential, aside from holistic sources, we may be hard pressed to find quality research or information available. If there is a pharmaceutical or supplement involved, that then becomes a bit of a different story as it has a price tag attached to it and it is in someone’s best interest to try and sell us on the product.
Besides disregarding the natural potential of plants in medicine, the other side of the coin is an all-too-common backlash against plants by focusing on their dangers. Fear and doubt creeps into the minds of consumers and thus steer too many away from nature’s perfection and into the arms of corporations, who are all too eager to sell us something. It is nothing short of sadly ironic that most of us have no problem trusting and ingesting synthetic, chemical formulas of all sorts—from the common cold and flu medicines to prescription-dependent pharmaceuticals, yet discount nature’s gift to us—plants. In our separation and disconnection we neglect to understand that nature was created with supreme intelligence; there are no mistakes. Every compound and every plant has a role to play. Our job is not to fear them or dismiss them, but to learn about them and how they work, in order to access their greatest potential. There is no doubt that plants can be dangerous, when used incorrectly, but it only takes a little bit of interest and effort to learn some basics about those plants that would be of specific medical benefit to you. When people don’t have a connection to or reverence for nature or when they lack basic knowledge, it is then that they often make very poor judgments and choices related to nature’s potential. This is a good place to remind us that just because it is natural does not mean that it is safe, and just because it is chemical does not mean it is unsafe.
What does all this mean for you? If you are already open to and applying the power and potential of plants in your life, whether for food or medicine, keep going. Keep learning and strengthening your personal foundation knowing that you are on the right path. If you are just starting your journey in trying to understand the potential of plants, first and foremost, be patient. Upon your journey you will come across all sorts of sources, providing all sorts of information that at times will make the journey both confusing and frustrating. Have faith and keep seeking out quality sources and support. More than anything, we can all benefit by spending more time in nature. By observing the natural world, we come to know the natural world best. We become acquainted with its abundant species, its rhythms, and its ways. We become integrated with it and we begin to shed our fears as we come to realize that we are home.
The next few decades will see major changes in how we feed and heal ourselves. We will continue to come back more and more to the natural healing abilities of plants, whether from a preventative perspective or in times of illness. The journey ahead will offer new potential beyond anything we’ve known thus far. May you enjoy it!
Healing with medicinal plants is as old as mankind itself. The connection between man and his search for drugs in nature dates from the far past, of which there is ample evidence from various sources: written documents, preserved monuments, and even original plant medicines. Awareness of medicinal plants usage is a result of the many years of struggles against illnesses due to which man learned to pursue drugs in barks, seeds, fruit bodies, and other parts of the plants. Contemporary science has acknowledged their active action, and it has included in modern pharmacotherapy a range of drugs of plant origin, known by ancient civilizations and used throughout the millennia. The knowledge of the development of ideas related to the usage of medicinal plants as well as the evolution of awareness has increased the ability of pharmacists and physicians to respond to the challenges that have emerged with the spreading of professional services in facilitation of man's life.
Keywords: History, medicinal plants, plant drugs, usage
Ever since ancient times, in search for rescue for their disease, the people looked for drugs in nature. The beginnings of the medicinal plants’ use were instinctive, as is the case with animals. In view of the fact that at the time there was not sufficient information either concerning the reasons for the illnesses or concerning which plant and how it could be utilized as a cure, everything was based on experience. In time, the reasons for the usage of specific medicinal plants for treatment of certain diseases were being discovered; thus, the medicinal plants’ usage gradually abandoned the empiric framework and became founded on explicatory facts. Until the advent of iatrochemistry in 16th century, plants had been the source of treatment and prophylaxis. Nonetheless, the decreasing efficacy of synthetic drugs and the increasing contraindications of their usage make the usage of natural drugs topical again.
HISTORICAL SOURCES RELEVANT FOR STUDY OF MEDICINAL PLANTS’ USE
The oldest written evidence of medicinal plants’ usage for preparation of drugs has been found on a Sumerian clay slab from Nagpur, approximately 5000 years old. It comprised 12 recipes for drug preparation referring to over 250 various plants, some of them alkaloid such as poppy, henbane, and mandrake.
The Chinese book on roots and grasses “Pen T’Sao,” written by Emperor Shen Nung circa 2500 BC, treats 365 drugs (dried parts of medicinal plants), many of which are used even nowadays such as the following: Rhei rhisoma, camphor, Theae folium, Podophyllum, the great yellow gentian, ginseng, jimson weed, cinnamon bark, and ephedra.[3,4]
The Indian holy books Vedas mention treatment with plants, which are abundant in that country. Numerous spice plants used even today originate from India: nutmeg, pepper, clove, etc.
The Ebers Papyrus, written circa 1550 BC, represents a collection of 800 proscriptions referring to 700 plant species and drugs used for therapy such as pomegranate, castor oil plant, aloe, senna, garlic, onion, fig, willow, coriander, juniper, common centaury, etc.[6,7]
According to data from the Bible and the holy Jewish book the Talmud, during various rituals accompanying a treatment, aromatic plants were utilized such as myrtle and incense.
In Homer's epics The Iliad and The Odysseys, created circa 800 BC, 63 plant species from the Minoan, Mycenaean, and Egyptian Assyrian pharmacotherapy were referred to. Some of them were given the names after mythological characters from these epics; for instance, Elecampane (Inula helenium L. Asteraceae) was named in honor of Elena, who was the centre of the Trojan War. As regards the plants from the genus Artemisia, which were believed to restore strength and protect health, their name was derived from the Greek word artemis, meaning “healthy.” Herodotus (500 BC) referred to castor oil plant, Orpheus to the fragrant hellebore and garlic, and Pythagoras to the sea onion (Scilla maritima), mustard, and cabbage. The works of Hippocrates (459–370 BC) contain 300 medicinal plants classified by physiological action: Wormwood and common centaury (Centaurium umbellatum Gilib) were applied against fever; garlic against intestine parasites; opium, henbane, deadly nightshade, and mandrake were used as narcotics; fragrant hellebore and haselwort as emetics; sea onion, celery, parsley, asparagus, and garlic as diuretics; oak and pomegranate as adstringents.[10,11]
Theophrast (371-287 BC) founded botanical science with his books “De Causis Plantarium”— Plant Etiology and “De Historia Plantarium”—Plant History. In the books, he generated a classification of more than 500 medicinal plants known at the time.[12,13] Among others, he referred to cinnamon, iris rhizome, false hellebore, mint, pomegranate, cardamom, fragrant hellebore, monkshood, and so forth. In the description of the plant toxic action, Theophrast underscored the important feature for humans to become accustomed to them by a gradual increase of the doses. Owing to his consideration of the said topics, he gained the epithet of “the father of botany,” given that he has great merits for the classification and description of medicinal plants.[14,15]
In his work “De re medica” the renowned medical writer Celsus (25 BC–50 AD) quoted approximately 250 medicinal plants such as aloe, henbane, flax, poppy, pepper, cinnamon, the star gentian, cardamom, false hellebore, etc.
In ancient history, the most prominent writer on plant drugs was Dioscorides, “the father of pharmacognosy,” who, as a military physician and pharmacognosist of Nero's Army, studied medicinal plants wherever he travelled with the Roman Army. Circa 77 AD he wrote the work “De Materia Medica.” This classical work of ancient history, translated many times, offers plenty of data on the medicinal plants constituting the basic materia medica until the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.[17,18] Of the total of 944 drugs described, 657 are of plant origin, with descriptions of the outward appearance, locality, mode of collection, making of the medicinal preparations, and their therapeutic effect. In addition to the plant description, the names in other languages coupled with the localities where they occur or are grown are provided. The plants having mild effect are dominant, but there are also references to those containing alkaloid or other matter with strong effect (fragrant hellebore, false hellebore, poppy, buttercup, jimson weed, henbane, deadly nightshade).[21,22] Dioscorides’ most appreciated domestic plants are as follows: willow, camomile, garlic, onion, marsh mallow, ivy, nettle, sage, common centaury, coriander, parsley, sea onion, and false hellebore). Camomile (Matricaria recucita L.), known under the name Chamaemelon, is used as an antiphlogistic to cure wounds, stings, burns, and ulcers, then for cleansing and rinsing the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. Owing to its mild carminative action, it is particularly appropriate for usage with children. Dioscorides deemed that it had abortive action, on which he wrote, “The flower, root, and the entire plant accelerate menstruation, the release of the embryo, and the discharge of urine and stone, provided that they are used in the form of an infusion and baths.” This untrue belief was later embraced by both the Romans and the Arabs; hence the Latin name Matricaria, derived from two words: mater denoting “mother,” i.e. matrix, denoting ‘uterus’. Dioscorides differentiated between a number of species from the genus Mentha, which were grown and used to relieve headache and stomach ache. The bulbs of sea onion and parsley were utilized as diuretics, oak bark was used for gynaecological purposes, while white willow was used as an antipyretic. As maintained by Dioscorides, Scillae bulbus was also applied as an expectorant, cardiac stimulant, and antihydrotic. It is worth underscoring that Dioscorides pointed to the possibility of forgery of drugs, both the domestic ones such as opium forged by a yellow poppy (Glaucium flavum) milk sap and poppy, and the more expensive oriental drugs, transported by the Arab merchants from the Far East, such as iris, calamus, caradmomum, incense, etc.
Pliny the Elder (23 AD-79), a contemporary of Dioscorides, who travelled throughout Germany and Spain, wrote about approximately 1000 medicinal plants in his book “Historia naturalis.” Pliny's and Dioscorides’ works incorporated all knowledge of medicinal plants at the time.
The most distinguished Roman physician (concurrently a pharmacist), Galen (131 AD–200), compiled the first list of drugs with similar or identical action (parallel drugs), which are interchangeable—“De succedanus.” From today's point of view, some of the proposed substitutes do not correspond in a pharmacological context and are absolutely unacceptable. Galen also introduced several new plant drugs in therapy that Dioscorides had not described, for instance, Uvae ursi folium, used as an uroantiseptic and a mild diuretic even in this day and age.
In the seventh century AD the Slavic people used Rosmarinus officinalis, Ocimum basilicum, Iris germanica, and Mentha viridis in cosmetics, Alium sativum as a remedy and Veratrum album, Cucumis sativus, Urtica dioica, Achilea millefolium, Artemisia maritime L., Lavandula officinalis, Sambuci flos against several injurios insects, i.e. louses, fleas, moths, mosquitos, and spiders and Aconitum napellus as a poison in hunting.
In the Middle Ages, the skills of healing, cultivation of medicinal plants, and preparation of drugs moved to monasteries. Therapy was based on 16 medicinal plants, which the physicians-monks commonly grew within the monasteries as follows: sage, anise, mint, Greek seed, savory, tansy, etc.
Charles the Great (742 AD–814), the founder of the reputed medical school in Salerno, in his “Capitularies” ordered which medicinal plants were to be grown on the state-owned lands. Around 100 different plants were quoted, which have been used till present days such as sage, sea onion, iris, mint, common centaury, poppy, marsh mallow, etc. The great emperor especially appreciated the sage (Salvia officinalis L.). The Latin name of sage originates from the old Latins, who called it a salvation plant (salvare meaning “save, cure”). Even today sage is a mandatory plant in all Catholic monasteries.[23,24]
The Arabs introduced numerous new plants in pharmacotherapy, mostly from India, a country they used to have trade relations with, whereas the majority of the plants were with real medicinal value, and they have persisted in all pharmacopoeias in the world till today. The Arabs used aloe, deadly nightshade, henbane, coffee, ginger, strychnos, saffron, curcuma, pepper, cinnamon, rheum, senna, and so forth. Certain drugs with strong action were replaced by drugs with mild action, for instance, Sennae folium was used as a mild laxative, compared to the purgatives Heleborus odorus and Euphorbium used until then.
Throughout the Middle Ages European physicians consulted the Arab works “De Re Medica” by John Mesue (850 AD), “Canon Medicinae” by Avicenna (980-1037), and “Liber Magnae Collectionis Simplicum Alimentorum Et Medicamentorum” by Ibn Baitar (1197-1248), in which over 1000 medicinal plants were described.
For Macedonia, St Clement and St Naum of Ohrid's work are of particular significance. They referred to the Nikeian pharmacological codex dating from year 850, and transferred his extensive knowledge on medicinal plants to his disciples and via them to the masses.[15,19,20]
Marco Polo's journeys (1254-1324) in tropical Asia, China, and Persia, the discovery of America (1492), and Vasco De Gama's journeys to India (1498), resulted in many medicinal plants being brought into Europe. Botanical gardens emerged all over Europe, and attempts were made for cultivation of domestic medicinal plants and of the ones imported from the old and the new world. With the discovery of America, materia medica was enriched with a large number of new medicinal plants: Cinchona, Ipecacuanha, Cacao, Ratanhia, Lobelia, Jalapa, Podophylum, Senega, Vanilla, Mate, tobacco, red pepper, etc. In 17th century, Cortex Chinae, yielded from quinine bark Cinchona succirubra Pavon, under the name countess’ powder, since the Countess of Chinchon was the first one who used it, was introduced to European medicine. Quinine bark rapidly overwhelmed England, France, and Germany despite the fact that there was many an opponent to its use among distinguished physicians—members of a range of academies.
Paracelsus (1493-1541) was one of the proponents of chemically prepared drugs out of raw plants and mineral substances; nonetheless, he was a firm believer that the collection of those substances ought to be astrologically determined. He continuously emphasized his belief in observation, and simultaneously supported the “Signatura doctrinae”—the signature doctrine. According to this belief, God designated his own sign on the healing substances, which indicated their application for certain diseases. For example, the haselwort is reminiscent of the liver; thus, it must be beneficial for liver diseases; St John's wort Hypericum perforatum L. would be beneficial for treatment of wounds and stings given that the plant leaves appear as if they had been stung.
While the old peoples used medicinal plants primarily as simple pharmaceutical forms—infusions, decoctions and macerations—in the Middle Ages, and in particular between 16th and 18th centuries, the demand for compound drugs was increasing. The compound drugs comprised medicinal plants along with drugs of animal and plant origin. If the drug the theriac was produced from a number of medicinal plants, rare animals, and minerals, it was highly valued and sold expensively.[9,10]
In 18th century, in his work Species Plantarium (1753), Linnaeus (1707-1788) provided a brief description and classification of the species described until then. The species were described and named without taking into consideration whether some of them had previously been described somewhere. For the naming, a polynomial system was employed where the first word denoted the genus while the remaining polynomial phrase explained other features of the plant (e.g. the willow Clusius was named Salix pumila angustifolia antera). Linnaeus altered the naming system into a binominal one. The name of each species consisted of the genus name, with an initial capital letter, and the species name, with an initial small letter.
Early 19th century was a turning point in the knowledge and use of medicinal plants. The discovery, substantiation, and isolation of alkaloids from poppy (1806), ipecacuanha (1817), strychnos (1817), quinine (1820), pomegranate (1878), and other plants, then the isolation of glycosides, marked the beginning of scientific pharmacy. With the upgrading of the chemical methods, other active substances from medicinal plants were also discovered such as tannins, saponosides, etheric oils, vitamins, hormones, etc.
In late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a great danger of elimination of medicinal plants from therapy. Many authors wrote that drugs obtained from them had many shortcomings due to the destructive action of enzymes, which cause fundamental changes during the process of medicinal plants drying, i.e. medicinal plants’ healing action depends on the mode of drying. In 19th century, therapeutics, alkaloids, and glycosides isolated in pure form were increasingly supplanting the drugs from which they had been isolated. Nevertheless, it was soon ascertained that although the action of pure alkaloids was faster, the action of alkaloid drugs was full and long-lasting. In early 20th century, stabilization methods for fresh medicinal plants were proposed, especially the ones with labile medicinal components. Besides, much effort was invested in study of the conditions of manufacturing and cultivation of medicinal plants.[27,28]
On account of chemical, physiological, and clinical studies, numerous forgotten plants and drugs obtained thereof were restored to pharmacy: Aconitum, Punica granatum, Hyosciamus, Stramonium, Secale cornutum, Filix mas, Opium, Styrax, Colchicum, Ricinus, and so forth. The active components of medicinal plants are a product of the natural, most seamless laboratory. The human organism accepts the drug obtained from them best in view of the fact that man is an integral part of nature. There are scores of examples of this kind; perhaps they will instigate serious research into the old manuscripts on medicinal plants, which would not be observed out of curiosity about history but as potential sources of contemporary pharmacotherapy.
In present days, almost all pharmacopoeias in the world—Ph Eur 6, USP XXXI, BP 2007—proscribe plant drugs of real medicinal value. There are countries (the United Kingdom, Russia, Germany) that have separate herbal pharmacopoeias. Yet, in practice, a much higher number of unofficial drugs are always used. Their application is grounded on the experiences of popular medicine (traditional or popular medicine) or on the new scientific research and experimental results (conventional medicine). Many medicinal plants are applied through self-medication or at the recommendation of a physician or pharmacist. They are used independently or in combination with synthetic drugs (complementary medicine). For the sake of adequate and successfully applied therapy, knowledge of the precise diagnosis of the illness as well as of medicinal plants, i.e. the pharmacological effect of their components is essential. Plant drugs and phytopreparations, most commonly with defined active components, verified action and, sometimes, therapeutic efficiency, are applied as therapeutic means. In the major European producer and consumer of herbal preparations—Germany, rational phytotherapy is employed, based on applications of preparations whose efficiency depends on the applied dose and identified active components, and their efficiency has been corroborated by experimental and clinical tests. Those preparations have been manufactured from standardized plant drug extracts, and they adhere to all requirements for pharmaceutical quality of drugs.
With the new Law on Drugs and Medical Devices dated September 2007 and enacted in the Republic of Macedonia, dry or sometimes fresh parts of medicinal plants (herbal substances) may be used for preparation of herbal drugs, herbal processed products, and traditional herbal drugs. Herbal substances may also be utilized for manufacture of homeopathic drugs, which are stipulated in the current law, too. In the Republic of Macedonia herbal preparations are dispensed without a medical prescription, as “over the counter” (OTC) preparations.
Since time immemorial people have tried to find medications to alleviate pain and cure different illnesses. In every period, every successive century from the development of humankind and advanced civilizations, the healing properties of certain medicinal plants were identified, noted, and conveyed to the successive generations. The benefits of one society were passed on to another, which upgraded the old properties, discovered new ones, till present days. The continuous and perpetual people's interest in medicinal plants has brought about today's modern and sophisticated fashion of their processing and usage.
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Conflict of Interest: None declared
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