Read this article to learn about the use of medicinal plants in the treatment of diseases.
The use of plants as the source of remedies for the treatment of many diseases dates back to prehistory and people of all continents have this old tradition. Plants continue to be a major source of medicines, as they have been throughout human history. Up to 80% of the world population, South Africa population use medicinal plants as remedies for various ailments.
Plant species serve as a rich source of many novel biologically active compounds, although very few have been thoroughly investigated for their medicinal properties. Apart of the 30% and 40% used in today’s conventional drugs, other plants are used as herbal supplements, botanicals and teas.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 4 billion people, or 80% of the world population, presently use herbal medicine for some aspect of primary health care. Herbal medicine is a major component in all indigenous peoples’ traditional medicine and is a common element in ayurvedic, homeopathic, naturopathic, traditional Oriental and Native American Indian medicines.
WHO notes that of the 119 plant-derived pharmaceutical medicines, about 74% are used in modern medicine in ways that correlated directly with their traditional uses as plant medicines by native cultures.
The uses of some medicinal plants vary a lot according to regional and cultural aspects. Their use is often associated with witchcraft and superstition, because people do not have the scientific insight to explain or predict the curative action of plants.
One example of such an irrational concept is the Doctrine of Signatures (elements of which are found in many of the healing cultures of the world), which is based on the assumption that the appearance of plants may give clues to their medicinal properties.
Medicinal plants typically contain mixtures of different chemical compounds that may act individually, additively or synergistically to improve health.
A single plant may contain bitter substances that stimulate digestion, anti-inflammatory compounds that reduce swelling and pain, phenolic compounds that act as antioxidants and venotonics, antibacterial and antifungal tannins that act as natural antibiotics, diuretic substances that enhance the elimination of waste product and toxins and alkaloids that enhance mood and give a sense of well-being.
The importance of plants lies not only on their chemotherapeutic effect, but also in their role as a source of model compounds for drug development. In addition to plant constituents being used directly as therapeutic agents, they can be utilized as starting material or templates for drug synthesis.
In addition to active ingredients, the plant’s bioflavonoids and other substances are important in supporting its medicinal properties. These elements also provide an important natural safeguard. Isolated or synthesized active compounds can become toxic in relatively small doses; unlike whole plant which reaches a toxic level only when taken in large quantities.
Medicinal plants are also important for pharmacological research and drug development, not only when plant constituents are used directly as therapeutic agents, but also as starting materials for the synthesis of drugs or as models for pharmacologically active compounds.
Major pharmaceutical companies are currently conducting extensive research on plant materials, gathered from forests and other habitats, for their potential medicinal value. Rather than using a whole plant, scientists identify, isolate, extract, and synthesize individual components, thus capturing the active compounds.
There are over 750,000 plant species on earth, but relatively speaking, only a very few of the healing plants have been studied scientifically.
Because modem pharmacology looks for one active ingredient and seeks to isolate it to the exclusion of all the others, most of the research that is done on plants continues to focus on identifying and isolating active ingredients, rather than studying the medicinal properties of the whole plants.
Herbalists, however, consider that the power of a plant lies in the interaction of all its ingredients.
Plants used as medicines offer synergistic interactions between ingredients both known and unknown. Despite the remarkable progress in synthetic organic chemistry of the twentieth century, oyer 25% of prescribed medicines in industrialized countries are derived directly or indirectly from plants.