While “plant medicine” has come in recent years to often mean mushrooms or ayahuasca, we could well make a case for any of the 28,000 plants currently used for medicinal purposes.
That number may seem high, but it comes from good scholarship – a recent analysis from Kew Gardens in the United Kingdom. The report – the second annual – results from the research and analysis of 128 scientists from 12 countries around the world.
And the total is even a little higher; according to their findings, there are 28,187 plants “currently recorded as being of medicinal use.”
In many regions of the world, people still rely on traditional plant-based medicines for their primary healthcare. This is especially true for many rural communities in Africa, parts of Asia, and Central and South America, where plants and knowledge of their traditional use are accessible and affordable. In other countries, many of these traditional plant-based medicines are being integrated through regulations into mainstream health systems.
Though plant medicines are making their way into the mainstream, the researchers note that currently, just “16% (4,478) of the species used in plant-based medicines are cited in a medicinal regulatory publication.” Even so, they note data on drugs approved by the FDA and similar agencies:
Since 1981, 1,130 new therapeutic agents have been approved for use as pharmaceutical drugs, of which 593 are based on compounds from natural sources. Thirty-eight are derived from medicinal plants. Fifteen of the 56 natural drugs registered for the treatment of cancer since 1980 are derived from medicinal plants with a long history of traditional use.
They note, for example, that “The anti-cancerous drugs vincristine and vinblastine are derived from the Madagascar periwinkle, Catharanthus roseus in the Apocynaceae family.”
For example drugs based on Paclitaxel have been isolated from the yew tree (Taxus spp.), Camptothecin from the happy tree, (Camptotheca acuminata) and Podophyllotoxin from the May apple (Podophyllum hexandrum and P. peltatum).
Further, researchers have discovered over 1,000 species of beneficial plants since their survey last year. As Yahoo News summarized, “new plants discovered over the past year include nine species of a climbing vine used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease.”
“The report said two plants, artemisinin and quinine, are ‘among the most important weapons’ against malaria, which killed over 400,000 people in 2015,” Yahoo summarized.
According to Monique Simmonds, deputy director of science at Kew, “The report is highlighting the huge potential that there is for plants, in areas like diabetes and malaria,” Yahoo reported. “One study documents 656 flowering plant species used traditionally for diabetes, representing 437 genera and 111 families,” the report explains.
It also points out that of “only five drugs developed specifically for the symptomatic treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, two are derived from plants.”
Some particularly powerful species of plants include Fabaceae (pea and bean), Lamiaceae (mint), Euphorbiaceae (spurge), Apocynaceae (dogbane), Malvaceae (mallow), Apiaceae (parsley or carrot), and Ranunculaceae (buttercup). Their key classes of compounds are alkaloids (Fabaceae), terpenes (Lamiaceae), diterpenoids (Euphorbiaceae), cardiac-glycosides (Apocynaceae), organic acids (Malvaceae), coumarins (Apiaceae), and alkaloids (Ranunculaceae). Another highly useful plant documented in the report is Moraceae, which is used in the treatment of diabetes.
Of course, not every plant that’s used is always used correctly. For instance, using the wrong strain of ginseng (there are more than 15 different varieties), caused more than 100 patients in Belgium to require kidney dialysis for the rest of their lives.
Additionally, wild plants can be a finite resource – and overpicking medicinal plants can make them less available in the future.
“Increasing demand for herbal medicines (particularly for species covered by pharmacopoeias) threatens wild populations of many of these plants,” note the report’s author, adding that “the focus of world trade on relatively few species of medicinal plants leads to sustainability and conservation issues, which ultimately lead to other plants being substituted, with potential risks to human health.”
As popular culture continues to come around on natural alternatives, this body of knowledge will only continue to grow – and it’s up to us to make sure it grows responsibly.
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