Over thousands of years, traditional ways of using plants have developed globally. Even after the emergence of modern medicine, plants remain the most important source of medicinal help. In fact, plants have been human mankind’s original medicines. Plant medicine, also known as phyto-therapy, is a treatment of illness using specific doses of special plants.
Not many, however, realise that several plants are used to treat modern ailments in the form of modern medicine. Plant medicine is called natural, herbal, traditional, or alternate according to the mode of application and processing of the plant. Pharmaceutical companies and govt programs routinely screen plants. As many as 50 per cent of prescription drugs sold today as modern medicines are based on molecules or active principles that are found naturally in plants. According to some estimates, half of these drugs are derived directly from plants or synthesized to replicate plant molecules. Clearly, this is a testament to indigenous plants providing invaluable healing and medicinal properties.
The traditional use of medicinal plants has been through healers, naturopaths, herbalists, ayurvedic practitioners, mid-wives, shamans and others who have understood the benefits of medicinal plants. In addition, mothers and grandmothers referred to as old wives have used their knowledge of traditional medicinal plants through generations.
Interestingly, scientists have also begun to observe what plants animals eat when they are ill. For example: Swans with injured necks eat the willow leaves and twigs, which were found to have pain killing compounds such as aspirin. Known as Zoopharmacognosy, this research area provides another means of discovering medicinal plants.
The study of plants is fast becoming a valuable medical science as new ways of using plants therapeutically are being discovered and validated by research. For example, in the mid 60s, the anti-cancer property of a bark extract from the tree called the Pacific Yew was detected by chance. An active substance called Taxol was later isolated. Subsequently, French scientists isolated a compound that was chemically similar and in fact, more effective than taxol. It is currently being used to treat breast and ovarian cancer. In this case in point is the anti-malarial drug. The traditional treatment of malaria has been through quinine, from the bark of the Cinchona Tree. Over the years, however, drug resistant strains of the parasite responsible for this illness have emerged. Recently, a traditional Chinese plant called Qing-Hao or Artemesia Annua, has been found to possess anti-malarial activity and is being used in Asia and Africa. Several plant preparations are being researched for lowering blood sugar levels, as anti-cancer medicine and for HIV treatment.
The wealth in plants clearly is immense and plays an important role in pharmaceutical industry. The substances and the active principles are complex with diverse chemical structures and are the basis of many modern medicines.
In fact, in the past few decades, highly sophisticated machines for analysing chemical substances in plants have led to significant advancement in medical knowledge. India and South East Asia are endowed with wealth of indigenous plants and herbs with healing powers. Modern medicine and scientists must continue to explore and harness power of plants for the benefit of mankind.