The archeological evidence points to the use of plants for therapeutic purposes as far back as the Middle Paleolithic age, roughly 60,000 years ago.1 Since the early beginnings of written human history, plants and plant extracts were used to prepare medicinal teas, tinctures, decoctions, as well as ointments, oils, and creams. Essential oils and their healing potential have been mentioned many times in the Bible, witnessing the importance of herbal medicine in Biblical times. The ancient Egyptians used the willow bark and leaf extract to reduce the symptoms of pain and fever.2 Many centuries later, a derivative of the active principle salicylic acid became one of the most widely used non-prescription drugs in the world – Aspirin.
Traditional herbal medicine is still prevalent in many countries throughout the world. Traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, Kampo, and Unani are several examples of well-developed traditional medicine systems still in place. According to the WHO, 3 an estimated 3.5 billion people (approximately 65% of the world’s population) rely on medicinal plants to meet their basic healthcare needs. It is not surprising, then, that scientific research has targeted plants as a major source of new drug candidates. To complement these efforts, the budget of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the US has increased from US$ 2 million in 1992 to US$ 113.2 million in 2003. 4
Two examples of life-saving compounds derived from plants are the potent anticancer drug Taxol (paclitaxel), isolated from the bark of the Pacific yew tree (Taxus brevifolia), and Digoxin, a cardiac glycoside isolated from the leaves of yellow and purple foxgloves, used to treat congestive heart failure and atrial fibrillation. In fact, out of 150 top prescriptions drugs marketed in the US, 118 are derived from natural sources and 87 of those 118 are isolated from plants.5
Medicinal plants have become economically very important in great part due to a wide range of biological properties exhibited by their extracts and active principles. Screening for activity using new efficient analytical assays is often the first step leading to biological analyses, and clinical studies. A report from 2008 estimates sales ranging from $1.5 to $5.7 billion annually for non-prescription medicinal plants in the US, and $24.4 billion in sales across the globe.5 The over-the-counter value of plant-derived drugs worldwide was estimated at more than $40 billion annually.6These values are projected to grow steadily over the coming years.
The majority of medicinal plant species grow wild, while only approximately 4% are cultivated. While some active principles can be chemically synthesized, others, like digoxin, are primarily isolated from their natural sources due to costly, laborious and inefficient synthetic processes. Consequently, about 15,000 wild medicinal species have become extensively exploited and threatened by extinction. 5 According to scientific estimates, we are losing at least one potential major drug every two years. Widespread conservation efforts are critical in preventing the loss of these important resources.
Plants thrive under extreme environmental conditions, and in the remotest of areas, relying mostly on their internal adaptation and protection mechanisms. Therefore, do not be fooled by the apparent fragility of some species – beneath the folds of their leaves, inside the petals of their flowers, or in the tips of their roots, they just might be hiding the key to your health.
- 1. Solecki, R.,1975. Shanidar IV, a Neanderthal flower burial in northern Iraq. Science 190:880–881.
- 2. James Breasted (English translation). “The Edwin Smith Papyrus”.
- 3. World Health Organization, 2007. WHO guidelines for assessing quality of herbal medicines with reference to contaminants and residues. WHO Press, Geneva, Switzerland.
- 4. World Health Organization, 2003. Traditional medicine. Fifty-sixth world health assembly A56/18. WHO Press, Geneva, Switzerland.
- 5. Robertson, E., 2008. Medicinal Plants at Risk. Nature’s Pharmacy, Our Treasure Chest: Why We Must Conserve Our Natural Heritage- Native Plant Conservation Campaign Report. Center for Biological Diversity, Tucson, US.
- 6. Tuxhill, J. 1999. “Nature’s Conucopia: Our Stake in Plant Diversity.” Worldwatch Paper #148. Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute.
Disclaimer: Any information presented in this blog is for informational purposes only. The author is not a medical professional, she does not condone the use of medicinal plants, and her writing should not be taken as medical advice. Under no circumstances shall the author be responsible for any loss or damage arising from the use of this blog.
J.P. Zegarac is a scientist and a freelance writer. She may be contacted with inquiries and collaboration requests.