A new study released by the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London, England consolidates information from countries all over the world and has revealed some amazing discoveries that may very well blow your mind.
This year’s report states that 28,187 plant species are being used medicinally, mostly in the non-industrialized world. Since the dawn of humankind, plants have been used in this way and it’s only recently that pharmaceuticals have supplanted their use to treat human ailments. It may surprise you to learn that 25% of modern medicines are actually derived from plants or at least copy plant chemistry. (1)
For example, anti-cancer drugs vincristine and vinblastine are derived from Madagascar periwinkle, the blood thinner warfarin is derived from sweet clover, an Aspirin came from willow bark. Since 1981, 1,130 new pharmaceuticals have been approved for therapeutic use and 38 of those are from medicinal plants (over half of the 1,130 are based on natural compounds).
Unlocking the Potential of Medicinal Plants
The vast majority of medicinally used plants have not yet been studied by modern science.
Fewer than 16% of the medicinal plant species have been cited in scientific research. The practice of using plants as medicine comes from ages ago and has been passed down from generation to generation. In light of the many hazardous consequences of pharmaceuticals, additional research is being sought.
The Kew’s report names medicinal plants that are proven to treat cancer, diabetes, malaria, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, among others. We know from specific research that many more than just the plants named in the report are medicinal as well, treating ailments from sore throats to cancer.
Of all known plant species, 80% of the food we eat comes from only 17 plant families (of 416 classified). Each year, an average of 2,000 new plant species is identified (puts into perspective how little we already know). (2) Twelve of the largest plant families represent a significantly higher proportion of medicinal plants. This global plant database is called MPNS (Medicinal Plant Names Services).
The top 7 medicinal plant families are (3):
|FAMILY||COMMON FAMILY NAME||TOTAL NUMBER OF SPECIES||NUMBER OF MEDICINAL SPECIES IN MPNS||MEDICINAL SPECIES AS % OF TOTAL||KEY CLASS OF COMPOUNDS FOUND IN MANY MEDICINAL SPECIES IN EACH FAMILY|
|Fabaceae||pea and bean||20,856||2,334||11.2||alkaloids|
|Apiaceae||parsley or carrot||4,079||586||14.4||coumarins|
Also in the Kew’s report is information regarding plants’ world status, on-going research, conservation and global threats to their survival, and a discussion on international trade. You can find the entire report here.
Identifying Medicinal Plants
Knowing which plant is which can be tricky.
Plant species are often lumped together under a common label. “Ginseng”, for example, can represent 15 different species of plants in the same family, each of which is distinct in its chemistry. An issue can arise if you think you’re taking one thing but it’s really a cousin of what your body needs. Plant databases around the world cite an average of 15 alternate names for each discrete species. It can be confusing, to say the least.
When taking any herbal remedy, you need to know exactly what you’re taking. In most countries, herbal remedies aren’t regulated so it’s up to you as the consumer to read the label to see the actual plant derivative that’s in the bottle to ensure it’s the one you want, regardless of what it’s named.
“Many countries publish ‘pharmacopoeias’, which are official publications providing precise detailed descriptions and tests to identify and assess the quality of plants used in herbal drugs. The number of plants covered by pharmacopoeias, however, represents only a small percentage of the diversity used in traditional plant-based medicines,” warns one useful medicinal plant guide. (4)
In Africa and China, the use of herbal and other forms of alternative/traditional medicines and treatments are more common than the Western approach. Alternative treatments and medicines in the United States are becoming more popular, however. In 2012, 59 million people (1 in 5) employed some kind of complementary approach to medicine. This translates to almost $13 billion in expenditures on natural health supplements alone. (5) Plus, the use of herbal medicines in Europe is increasing as well.
Plants as Medicine
Because of their complicated and intricate structures as living things, the way plants work in the human body is complex. Phytochemicals work synergistically, especially with other plants, and must be thoughtfully applied to produce desired outcomes. Well-established gaps exist in the use of pharmaceuticals to treat human illness and, according to one British study, “Herbal medicines have the potential to make a significant contribution towards addressing such ‘effectiveness gaps’”. (6)
“Plant medicines are thus ideal tools to restore health and treat disease because they consist of a multiplicity of chemical components that act synergistically to make active constituents bio-available. Conversely, their constituents may combine antagonistically to buffer otherwise potentially potent active principles, thereby preventing adverse effects. Investigation into the scope and mechanisms of synergy has come to the forefront of phytomedical research in recent years.” [Ibid.]
Why it isn’t Popular
Scientific research into medicinal plants has been scarce for several reasons:
- Strict herbal medicine takes a holistic approach and considers the synergistic interactions of plants, termed “polypharmacy”. Modern scientific research usually studies one specific substance at a time. The problem is that itdoesn’t really paint the whole picture of a plant’s efficacy or bioavailability.
- As a holistic practice, the individual is part of the healing equation. A mass-produced drug can’t consider the specific needs of the person using it.
- Most pharmaceutical research is funded by pharmaceutical companies with billions of dollars to spend. An equivalent infrastructure with the financial wherewithal doesn’t exist for plant-based medicine. That’s partly because plants can be grown in your backyard, and are therefore less profitable.
- Although many pharmaceuticals are plant-derived, “active” ingredients are isolated and purified in the laboratory. Then, the rest of the plant (and any potential combination with others for more effective results) is discarded.
The evidence for the need for herbal medicine is clear, however.
As the editor of The British Medical Journal stated:
“It is a basic principle of pharmacotherapy that all drugs have beneficial and harmful effects… Unfortunately in the balance between benefits and risks, it is an uncomfortable truth that most drugs do not work in most patients.” (7)
The Pros of Herbal Medicine
A meta-analysis of studies on the use of plants individually, in combination with other plants, and in conjunction with pharmaceuticals for the treatment of critical illness was published in 2014 by the European Herbal & Traditional Practitioners Association.
They found that medicinal plant therapy is effective for the following illnesses:
- cardiovascular conditions
- irritable bowel syndrome
- skin conditions
- respiratory conditions (including asthma)
- gynecological conditions
- as an antibiotic for a bacterial infection
The study concludes:
“Many of the diseases identified in this review are instances where conventional treatments are far from satisfactory or, as in the case of antibiotics, where the potency of existing drug treatments is starting to wane…Novel approaches such as evidence synthesis (the development of techniques to combine multiple sources of evidence) can be used to integrate and interpret existing information drawn from a wide spectrum of data sources that might otherwise be excluded from the standard systematic review. This will help to illustrate areas where herbal medicine can make an immediate contribution to public health care.
“Regulatory bodies…need to adjust the somewhat restrictive requirements specifically designed to test pharmaceuticals to render them sufficiently flexible to incorporate trials that validate both herbal practice and its plant medicines…This is surely squarely in the public interest.” (8)
The Bottom Line
Kew’s 2017 report on medicinal plants puts into perspective the symbiotic relationship between humans and plants. Plants nourish and heal us effectively because we are all of the same earth. Whether labeled medicine in a bottle, grown on a windowsill or plucked from a bush in the forest, our ancestors used what was given to fix what was broken. It worked too, (fairly effectively, it seems) since we’re still here.