Sifting Herbs Morocco. Photo by Chris Kilham

About Plant Medicines

“People in the U.S. are more cranked up on pharmaceutical drugs than any other culture in the world today. I want people using safer medicine. And that means plant medicine.” Chris Kilham, New York Times

The term "herbs" refers to plants or parts of them, including grasses, flowers, berries, seeds, leaves, nuts, stems, stalks and roots, which are used for their therapeutic and health- enhancing properties. Generations of skilled herbal practitioners, researchers and scholars have refined and tested the vast science of herbology, producing thousands of plant-based remedies that are safe and effective. The proper and judicious use of herbs is often successful in the treatment of illness when other, more conventional medicines and methods fail. Herbs can be used to cleanse the bowels, open congested sinuses, help mend broken bones, stimulate the brain, increase libido, ease pain, aid digestion, and a thousand other purposes. Topically, herbs can repair damaged skin, soothe a wound, improve complexion, heal bruises and relieve aching muscles. Herbs demonstrate great versatility for the treatment of a broad variety of health needs.

While medicinal plants are the actual plants themselves, plant medicines are preparations made from those plants. Plant medicines are the most widely used medicines in the world today. An estimated eighty percent (80%) of the world's population employs herbs as primary medicines. And while drugstore shelves in the US are stocked mostly with synthetic remedies, in other parts of the world the situation is quite different. In parts of Europe, for example, pharmacies dispense herbs prescribed by physicians.

For 5.1 billion people worldwide, natural plant-based remedies are used for both acute and chronic health problems, from treating common colds to controlling blood pressure and cholesterol. Not so long ago, this was true in the US as well. As late as the early 1950's, many of the larger pharmaceutical companies still offered a broad variety of plant-based drugs in tablet, liquid and ointment forms.

Plants are the original source materials for as many as 40% of the pharmaceuticals in use in the United States today. This is to say that either the drugs currently contain plant-derived materials, or synthesized materials from agents originally derived from plants. Some medicines, such as the cancer drug Taxol (from Taxus brevifolia) and the anti-malarial quinine from Cinchona pubescens and are manufactured from plants. Other medicinal agents such as pseudoephedrine originally derived from ephedra species, and menthol and methylsalicylate, originally derived from from mentha species and wintergreen (gaultheria procumbens) respectively, are now synthesized.

Herbal Use 60,000 Years Ago

Neanderthals lived from about 200,000 years ago until roughly 30,000 years ago in Europe and western Asia. They coexisted with modern humans for most of the period but then mysteriously vanished. Physical evidence of use of herbal remedies goes back some 60,000 years to a burial site at Shanidar Cave, Iraq, in which a Neanderthal man was uncovered in 1960. He had been buried with eight species of plants, seven of which are still used for medicinal purposes today.

On September 19, 1991, one of the most extraordinary discoveries of our Century took place in Austria’s Otzal Alps, when two hikers discovered an ice mummy preserved by freezing. The analysis of samples of organic tissues has determined that the Iceman lived between 3350 and 3100 B.C.

The Ice Man died approximately 5200 years ago. At death he was between 40 and 50 years old and suffered from a number of medical conditions. He turned into a mummy accidentally almost immediately by the freezing weather conditions that turned him into the Ice Man. The Ice Man's possessions have given scientists a better look at what life was during the Neolithic Age in Europe. Perhaps the most valuable possession, according to many scientists, was his “medicine kit,” containing a lump of a birch fungus used as a laxative and as a natural antibiotic.

Patent Laws Drive Medicinal Development

The replacement of herbs with synthetic drugs is a relatively new phenomenon, less than a century old, born largely out of economic opportunities afforded by patent laws. Drug companies can't typically patent commonly used plants, but they can develop patented, proprietary synthetic drugs, often reaping billions in sales. Since the 1940's, chemists employed by pharmaceutical companies have developed novel synthetic molecules which have replaced plant medicines, and are sold both over the counter and by prescription.

Synthetic Drugs are often Dangerous

The results of this synthetic drug explosion have been unfortunate. Today, drugs prescribed in hospitals constitute the number six cause of death among American adults.

Approximately 300,000 American die each year from the proper use of over-the-counter and prescriptions drugs. This exceeds deaths due to crack, handguns, and traffic accidents combined. Add to that figure the number of adult and child deaths attributable to over the counter and prescription drugs given outside of hospitals, and the figures are even worse. By contrast, most years nobody dies from the use of herbs.

Plant Medicines, Safer and Time-tested

Plant medicines are far and away safer, gentler and better for human health than synthetic drugs. This is so because human beings have co-evolved with plants over the past few million years.

We eat plants, drink their juices, ferment and distill libations from them, and consume them in a thousand forms. Ingredients in plants, from carbohydrates, fats and protein to vitamins and minerals, are part of our body composition and chemistry.

Plants and Humans Share Similarities

Some compounds perform the same functions in plants and in the body. Natural antioxidant phenols in plants, for example, protect plant cells from oxidation, and often perform the same function in the human body. Our bodies recognize the substances that occur in plants, and possess sophisticated mechanisms for metabolizing plant materials.

Synthetic Drugs are Foreign to the Body

The same cannot be said about synthetic drugs. These agents are most often alien to the chemistry of the human body, and are separate and apart from the careful crafting of evolution. Synthetic drugs often act in the body as irritants and toxins, upsetting the balance of whole systems, producing side effects that can be lethal. By contrast, the regular and judicious use of herbs to protect and promote health and as medicines to help treat common ailments is an enlightened approach to personal well-being.

Plants Can Be Dangerous Too

Critics of herbal medicine are quick to point out that many plants are toxic. This is true. Oleander, for example, is a widely planted ornamental shrub that is highly toxic. But nobody advocates the use of oleander for any medical purpose. Poisonings, when they occur, happen when people use the branches of oleander at barbeques. The plant foxglove, which is used to make cardiac glycoside medicines, is also toxic. Chew a mouthful of foxglove and you'll be dead in a hurry. But nobody recommends such a thing. If you use any of the thousands of healthful herbs that have been utilized as traditional medicines over the past few millennia, in dosage ranges that have been determined by centuries of trial and error, you are likely to benefit without side effects.

Drugs of Plant Origin

Many valuable drugs are made from plants. By way of illustration, here are a few plants and plant ingredients used in many conventional drugs.

“If you or I want to be healthy (whether it’s our digestion, our reproduction, our skin, or anything) we have to assume greater responsibility for our wellness. One of the best ways to do that is to be familiar with and to use on a regular basis, plant medicines.” - Chris Kilham

Senna alexandrina, a shrubby perennial native to Arabia, was introduced as a laxative to Europe by Arab physicians in the ninth century. Preparations of the plant and its cathartic pods are still widely used today in popular brands of drugstore laxatives. You can find senna in many drugstore laxative products.

Mentha (mint) species are the natural sources of menthol, an aromatic alcohol which is also known as peppermint camphor. Menthol is an active ingredient in topical preparations to relieve itching and as a mild local anesthetic to soothe soreness and ease muscular tension. Menthol is commonly used in lozenges for sore throats, and is added to inhalers to treat upper respiratory disorders and open congested sinuses. Peppermint oil, which can still be found in drugstores, is a centuries-old remedy for quelling an upset stomach. Studies show that peppermint oil when taken internally can relieve irritable bowel syndrome.

Gaultheria procumbens, or wintergreen, is a source of methylsalicylate, which is widely used in topical ointments and liniments to relieve muscular pain, and for lumbago, sciatica and rheumatic conditions.

Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, yields a sap of narcotic opium, from which the potent pain killer morphine is made. Seeds and capsules discovered in the four thousand year old archaeological remains of Swiss lake-dwellers suggest the use of the plant for its narcotic juice. In the eighth century Persian caravans bore both opium and its methods of euphoric use to India and China. In 1546 a French naturalist named Belon drew European attention to widespread opium abuse among Turks. Opium dens proliferated in Europe throughout the 1800's, while the opium trade became an enormous industry. Simultaneously, opium and its products heroin and morphine established themselves among drug users and in the field of medicine. Both uses continue to this day. In modern medicine, morphine and its analogues remain unsurpassed pain killers.

Digitalis purpurea, the purple foxglove, is a popular garden plant cultivated as a source of digitoxin, a cardiac drug which increases the strength of heart beat while decreasing its rate. The plant was recommended for medicinal purposes in the seventeenth century, and has appeared in the French Pharmacopoeia since its first printing in 1818. Digitoxin is used in the treatment of congestive heart failure and other cardiac disorders. Digitalis lanata, the woolly foxglove, is cultivated commercially as a source of digoxin, a cardiotonic used for the same purposes as digitoxin.

On a trip to Burma in 1930, an Indian named M. Manal discovered that elephants in captivity were often fed a particular type of root reputed to produce a calming effect. Intrigued, Manal brought samples of the plant back to India, where he conducted tests on its properties. The plant, Rauwolfia serpentina, named after famous 16th century German physician and explorer Leonhart Rauwolf, demonstrated both tranquilizing and anti-hypertensive properties. These effects were due to the presence of the alkaloid reserpine. In 1934 Serpina, the world's first-ever anti-hypertensive drug, was launched. Today reserpine is used both as an antihypertensive and as a sedative to relieve some types of psychiatric disorders.

Ecuadorian Cinchona pubescens, a fast-growing evergreen, as well as other species of cinchona, stand among the greatest life-saving medicines of all time. According to legend this plant was brought to light in the 1620's when Ecuadorean physician Juan del Vega used a Quichua native remedy known as "quina bark" on the Countess of Chinchon, wife of the Viceroy of Peru, who had contracted malaria, a potentially fatal disease caused by a protazoan in the stomach of the female Anopheles mosquito. The Countess recovered, and "quina bark" became known as "Countess bark." Word of the cure spread, and cinchona was popularized by an apothecary's assistant named Robert Talbor in the late 1660's. Over the next 150 years a huge trade in cinchona bark developed. In the early 19th century, the Dutch established cinchona plantations in Java. In 1820, quinine was isolated from cinchona, and a successful treatment for malaria was established. Today cinchona is cultivated in several tropical regions, and the approximately 10,000 tons of bark harvested annually yields 500 tons of quinine and related alkaloids quinidine, cinchonine, and cinchonidine.

Members of Columbus' second trip to the Americas in 1493 were the first to experience curare, a poison on the tips of arrows which killed them promptly. Sir Walter Raleigh, on his 1595 voyage up the Orinoco River encountered similar poisoned arrows, and launched a legend which spawned the quest to find the source of the poison. In 1799, explorer Baron von Humboldt witnessed a shaman preparing arrow poison from a vine. Von Humboldt brought some of the poison back to Europe, where it stupefied and asphyxiated animals subjected to it. Subsequent explorers attempted to find and identify the plant, but could not do so until 1938, when an American named Richard Gill found and successfully identified Chondodendron tomentosum, the source of curare. This led to the development of the valuable drug tubocurarine, which was used as an adjunct to general anaesthesia, and in cases of spastic paralysis and plastic muscular rigidity.

In cancer treatment, the drug Paclitaxel (Taxol) a derivative of the Pacific yew Taxus brevifolia, is used in chemotherapy.

The Madagascar periwinkle Catharanthus roseus, is the source of vinblastine and vincristine, alkaloids used respectively in the treatment of Hodgkin’s disease and pediatric leukemia.

Ergot, or Claviceps purpurea, is a toxic fungus which grows on rye kernels, and yields several valuable alkaloids including ergotamine, which is used to treat migraine. Interestingly enough, ergot also yields lysergic acid, a derivative of which is C20H25N3O, or LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide). First made by chemist Albert Hofmann in the laboratories of Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in Basel, Switzerland in 1938, LSD's effects were discovered accidentally by Hofmann in 1943. LSD subsequently became the cornerstone drug of the 1960's psychedelic revolution, and one of the most influential drugs in history.

Plants and their derivatives are currently the sources for thousands of drugs worldwide. But this does not mean that they are all safe or side-effect free. Isolated principles from plants such as morphine, reserpine, digitoxin, vincristine and vinblastine are toxic, due in part to their tremendous concentration. Remember, the difference between a medicine and a poison is often the dose. A small amount of any of these compounds, properly employed in a clinical setting, can benefit health. Too much of any of these compounds can lead to death.

Plant medicines remain indispensable to modern pharmacology and clinical practice. Much of the current drug discovery and development process is plant-based, and new medicines derived from plants are inevitable.

On this website, you will encounter a great deal of information about the non-pharmaceutical side of plant medicines. Today, you can acquire botanicals at pharmacies, natural product stores, and supermarkets. You will also learn about a plethora of safe, effective plant medicines. In this way, you will become better informed, to more fully appreciate the critically important role that plant medicines play in health and culture.