Plants as medicine have been, since immemorial times, used by people all over the world for the prevention and treatment of disease. And this situation would still prevail had it not been halted and repressed by the introduction of synthetic medicine.
All research shows that the dark synthetic period in the history of medicine is ending now, due to its numerous failures in dealing with chronic diseases. So, welcome back, herbs!
Herbs are effective because they contain numerous healing phytochemical compounds which mediate their effects on the human body by binding to receptor molecules already present in our system. Merely copying, isolating or synthesizing these compounds does not seem to work so well in practice. And this is one of the main reasons why the use of botanical medicine is making a big comeback.
Herbs are “stationary” producers of complex organic compounds so they have special challenges for survival. In order to deal with some of these challenges they make secondary metabolites which are unique and help them overcome attacks, allowing them to interact with their environment.
Plants invest lots of energy in the production of secondary metabolites. Some of these play protective roles as antioxidant, free radical-scavenging; others defend the plant against microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses. They foster a number of symbiotic relationships, and their total chemical make-up results in incredibly effective medicines ready made by nature to balance our body, preventing and treating most diseases ailing the human race today.
Secondary metabolites are highly varied in structure and many of them come in the form of powerful aromatic substances. These are better known as essential oils that can be used externally to be easily absorved by the permeability of our skin. Essential oils can also be put into a diffuser for inhalation to affect the olfatory organs and the respiratory system, or they can be used internally, but here essential oils knowledge and expertise is necessary for safe practice.
No less than 13,000 secondary metabolites have been isolated so far; and this number is estimated to be less than 10% of the total. Many of the herbs and spices used by humans to season food yield very useful medicinal compounds too, and as such they play an important role in preventive medicine.
Herbs in history
Botany as medicine has been part of the natural development of humans for so many years, it surpasses written history with a big margin. A 60 000 year old Neanderthal burial site, "Shanidar IV", in northern Iraq has yielded large amounts of pollen from 8 plant species, 7 of which are used now as herbal remedies.
In the written record, the study of herbs dates back over 5,000 years to the Sumerians, who described well-established medicinal uses. Other great cultures like the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Indians, Greek, Romans and Persians, have all extensive records of plant use as medicine.
The continuing importance of herbs for the centuries following the Middle Ages is indicated by the hundreds of herbals published after the invention of printing in the fifteenth century. Theophrastus’ Historia Plantarum was one of the first books to be printed, but Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, Avicenna's Canon of Medicine and Avenzoar's pharmacopoeia were not far behind.
- The use of herbs to treat disease is almost universal among non-industrialized societies. In some Asian and African countries, 80% of the population depend on traditional medicine for primary health care.
- Herbal treatments are the most popular form of traditional medicine, and are highly lucrative in the international marketplace. Annual revenues in Western Europe reached US$ 5 billion in 2003-2004. In China sales of products totaled US$ 14 billion in 2005. Herbal medicine revenue in Brazil was US$ 160 million in 2007.
- In the US, the market for medicinal herbs is estimated at more than $3.5 billion, according to the Medicinal Plant Working Group. More than 60 million U.S. consumers take herbal remedies.
- 7000 or so traditional plant remedies are available today in China; they account for around one fourth of the entire Chinese pharmaceutical market. Only 230 of the most commonly used ones have been subject to in-depth pharmacological, analytical and clinical studies.
- Use of herbal medicines in developed countries has expanded sharply in the latter half of the twentieth century. Monographs on selected herbs are available from a number of sources, including the European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy (ESCOP, 1999), German Commission E (Blumenthal et al., 1998) and the World Health Organization (WHO, 1999).
Side effects and interactions of herbs
Herbal medicine must be used with care and in the right dosage, because most natural chemicals can have serious side-effects if not used properly.
Many people believe that because medicines are herbal (natural) or traditional they are safe (or carry no risk for harm). However, traditional medicines and practices can cause harmful, adverse reactions if the product or therapy is of poor quality, or it is taken inappropriately or in conjunction with other medicines. Increased patient awareness about safe usage is important, as well as more training, collaboration and communication among providers of traditional and other medicines.
Other articles in this series:
- 15 Top Herbs
- Natural health
- Herbal medicine; University of Maryland Medical Center.
- Traditional medicine; WHO
- Medicinal plants 'facing threat'; BBC News.
- Herbal Medicines Today and the Roots of Modern Pharmacology; Peter Goldman.
- Medicinal Herb Profile; Agricultural Marketing Resource Center.
- Introduction to ecological biochemistry; Harborne, Elsevier.
- The importance of using scientific principles in the development of medicinal agents from plants; Talalay.
- Animal self-medication and ethno-medicine: exploration and exploitation of the medicinal properties of plants; Huffman.
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