BY LEAH GINN – In stark contrast to the big pharma-driven healthcare system we know in America today, there exists a long-lived, traditional medicine system that abides by this philosophical advice: “All that a man needs for health and healing has been provided by God in nature.” For multiple millennia, different cultures around the world have harvested and utilized curative plants as a primary approach to healthcare, and science is proving today that ancient healers were extremely knowledgeable in their practice. It’s interesting to explore how plant-based medicine became an integral custom throughout history, and how the revelations in plant-medicine have affected modern healthcare. It’s also important to notice the damaging effects that our increasingly industrialized society inflicts upon this system which is overflowing with well-known and potential benefits to human health.

An article located in the US National Library of Medicine through the National Institute of Health provides a useful historical review of the use of medicinal plants. The author claims that healing with medicinal plants is as old as mankind itself, and that the beginnings of medicinal plants’ use was instinctive.  The first recorded evidence of medicinal plant usage dates back to an astounding 5000 years ago: a Sumerian clay slab from Nagpur denoted 12 drug recipes referring to over 250 plant species including poppy, henbane, and mandrake. Ancient holy texts refer to plant-based treatments as well; the Indian holy books Vedas suggests medicinal uses of nutmeg, pepper, and clove. The Holy Bible focused on the use of aromatic plants, such as myrtle and incense, in accompaniment with rituals of treatment. Around 800 BC, Homer acknowledged in The Iliad and The Odysseys that certain plant species were believed to restore strength and protect health. Leaping forward in time, we find countless reports of Asia’s herbal heritage, which permeates into Eastern medicine today. The Chinese were the first to discover that the healing properties of plants depended on the interaction of the chemical compounds within them. This knowledge led to huge advances in Eastern pharmacology; medicinal herb gardens became prevalent throughout Europe and medical schools and apothecaries began to source drugs from their cultivated gardens.These traditions spread across oceans and impacted African and American healthcare as well. African folk healers documented recipes comprised of weeds and herbs for certain therapeutic effects; Native Americans recruited herbalists to sprinkle herbs over sacred fires during health rituals. As time progressed, so did knowledge regarding what plants would medicate the common cold, a headache, or sore joints. Science has only strengthened these findings, and has encouraged the implementation of plant-medicine into more the formal healthcare systems of developed countries.

A meta-analysis published in 2012 in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine reported that the World Health Organization has estimated that 80% of the world’s population relies largely on traditional remedies for health care, and there is speculation that more than two billion people may be heavily reliant on medicinal plants. While this is so, pharmaceutical corporations have sophistically incorporated plant-derived compounds into synthetic drugs over the years. Up to 50% the approved drugs during the last 30 years are either directly or indirectly from natural products, and to date, 35,000-70,000 plant species have been screened for their medicinal use (this data was published in a 2012 study, so just imagine the advances in plant-screening since then,)  It’s well known in the literature that a diet rich in plants is disease-preventative; scientists have found countless compounds in plants that kill cancer, fight degenerative disease, and promote longevity. Funding is increasingly being poured into research regarding the many health benefits contained in plants that we may even find in our back yards. The potential for finding medicinal and therapeutic properties of plants is overwhelming, but we may be stifling those efforts simultaneously.

Habitat degradation, overexploitation of natural resources and the use of harmful industrial compounds throughout watersheds and ecosystems are issues that threaten countless eukaryotic species across the globe at alarming rates. These practices have proven to have extremely detrimental consequences across a wide spectrum. Human alteration of forests and other habitats often eliminates sites rich in wild medicinal plants. This problem plagues folk healers, who then have trouble finding the plants they need for performing certain curative procedures, and also will negatively affect scientific pursuits. The Tropical Forest Network tells us that every dismantling of a unique habitat represents a loss of future drugs and medicines, particularly in species-rich habitats like tropical forests. Fewer than one percent of all plant species have been screened by chemists to see what bioactive compounds they may contain. In order to gain the most knowledge about and benefit from medicinal plants and their uses, it will be important for our society to start adopting more responsible and sustainable farming techniques and resource utilization methods.

In conclusion, plant-based medicine has played an integral role throughout the whole of human history; since the dawn of time, humanity has looked to fruits, seeds, leaves, nuts and extracts for disease resolve. There is promising reason to suspect that this practice will continue to influence pharmacology for years to come, as the number of possible therapeutic properties contained within plants is nearly infinite, and we have only explored the very tip of the iceberg. Adopting plant-based medicinal approaches may become an alternative to taking a plethora of synthetic drugs for simple and chronic diseases, many of which create more harmful effects than the illness itself.  As a future practitioner of healthcare, I feel a responsibility to not only uphold this portion of human heritage, but also to explore and implement these practices to gain a wider understanding of the benefits that plants may bring to our health.