History of Healing Plants

The story of healing herbs is also the story of the human race. Herbs have been used in all cultures throughout history, from ancient pre-human populations up to the present day. Indeed, in many countries herbal and other traditional treatments are the only options available to ordinary people, or remain the treatment of first choice. It is estimated that 80 percent of the world’s population relies on traditional medicines for a significant part of their health care.

Plants have always been integral to the practice of medicine. The word drug comes from the old Dutch word drogge meaning ‘to dry’, as pharmacists, physicians, and ancient healers often dried plants for use as medicines. Today approximately 25 percent of all prescription drugs are still derived from trees, shrubs, or herbs. Some are made from plant extracts, others are synthesised to mimic a natural plant compound.

It also seems that there is potentially much more to discover. Of an estimated 500,000 plants, we have studied the medicinal qualities of less than 10,000 in any depth. Norman Farnworth, Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Illinois, notes:

This illustrates the need for modern medicine and science to turn its attention to the plant world once again to find new medicine that might cure cancer, AIDS, diabetes, and many other diseases and conditions, Considering that 121 prescription drugs come from only ninety species of plants, and that 74 percent of these were discovered following up native folklore claims, a logical person would have to say that there may still be more jackpots out there.

There is a long history of herbal medicine in many different cultures, from Native American folk medicine to Ancient Indian Ayurvedia. Similarly, plants have been a central component of Chinese medicine for thousands of years. Many traditional remedies have formed the basis for common drug treatments. For instance, when one key plant in the Chinese physician’s pharmocopia, Ma Huang, was studied by modern researchers they managed to extract an alkaloid, ephedrine, which is still used in a range of different medicines, including some of those used to treat coughs , asthma and nasal congestion.

Many of our modern drug treatments have been discovered almost by accident. One story goes that a young Nigerian prince had a breakdown while studying at university in London. Since conventional treatments seemed to be ineffective, the prince’s fellow Nigerian students sent for a tribal doctor. He treated the prince with rauwolfia root, which has been used by tribal doctors in Africa to cure ‘moon madness’ for many centuries. Soon the prince was almost back to his old self. British physicians who had witnessed his remarkable recovery began to investigate rauwolfia root for themselves. This led to the development of the first synthetic tranquilliser, reserpine, which transformed treatments for the mentally ill.

Often when plants are used as the basis for a drug treatment, modern medicine tends to use purified extracts rather than the complete plant. One of the reasons for this is economic. Herbs, by their very nature, cannot be patented. Since herbs cannot be patented and drug companies cannot hold the exclusive right to sell a particular herb, they are not motivated to invest any money in that herb’s testing or promotion. The collection and preparation of herbal medicine cannot be as easily controlled as the manufacture of synthetic drugs, making its profits less dependable. In addition, many of the most effective medicinal plants grow only in the Amazonian rain forest or other politically and economically unstable areas. In addition, concentrating active ingredients is to make them more powerful, accurate and effective.

Supporters of herbal medicine would argue that the problem with this approach is that it does not consider synergistic effects – that the active ingredients in the complete plant may act together to produce a much powerful therapeutic effect than if they had been taken alone.

There are many reasons why medicines made from living plants are superior to the standardised substitutes today. I have only time to mention two. One is that the herb in its entirety is a living medium which includes the ferments of enzymes which are one of the curative factors in the herb, another is that the total herb includes the digestive factors which enable the body to assimilate the curative properties which it needs.

(Address by Mrs Hilda Leyel to The Biological Society, 1942)

Herbal treatments are often slower and gentler than conventional treatments (although this is not always the case) and herbalists argue that this is one of the main reasons for the decline in popularity of herbal medicine – today we are conditioned to rely on quick-fix synthetic drugs to provide quick relief, regardless of side effects.

In recent years there has been a revival of interest in herbal medicine, fuelled mainly by growing concern about the side effects of pharmaceuticals as well as the impersonal and often demeaning experience of modern health care practices. Many people are keen to take back control of their own health and well-being, and increasingly dissatisfied with the solutions offered by conventional medicine.

The scope of herbal medicine ranges from mild-acting plant medicines such as chamomile and peppermint, to very potent ones such as foxglove (from which the drug digitalis is derived). In between these two poles lies a wide spectrum of plant medicine with significant medical applications. One need only go to the United States Pharmacopoeia to see the central role that plant medicine has played in American medicine.

Donald Brown, Bastyr College, Seattle.