The Sunday Mail
The recent resurgence of plant remedies results from several factors: the effectiveness of plant medicines; the side-effects of many modern drugs; and the development of science and technology.
Several important drugs used in modern medicine have come from medicinal plant studies, e.g., taxol/paclitaxel, vinblastine, vincristine, topotecan, irinotecan, etoposide and teniposide. However, studies on plants are very limited.
Only about a third of the million or so species of higher plants have been identified and named by scientists and only a tiny fraction has been studied. Nowadays the linking of the indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants to modern research activities provides a new approach, which makes the rate of discovery of drugs much more effective than with random collection. The use of traditional medicine information on plant research has again received considerable interest.
Use of plants as medicine goes back to early man. Evidences of this early association have been found in the grave of a Neanderthal man buried 60 000 years ago. Pollen analysis indicated that the numerous plants buried with the corpse were all of medicinal value.
Ancient China is also a source of information about the early medicinal uses of plants. The Pun-tsao, a pharmacopoeia published around 1600, contained thousands of herbal cures that are attributed to the works of Shen-nung, China’s legendary emperor who lived over 4 500 years ago. The People’s Republic of China is leading in the incorporation of traditional herbal medicine into a modern healthcare system. The resultant blend of herbal medicine, acupuncture, and Western medicine is China’s unique answer to the healthcare needs of over one billion people.
Plantations exist for the cultivation of medicinal plants and the training of doctors. Active research programmes also investigate potentially useful specimens.
In India, herbal medicine dates back several thousand years to the Rig-Veda, the collection of Hindu sacred verses. This has led to a healthcare system known as Ayurvedic medicine. One useful plant from this body of knowledge is snakeroot (Rauwolfia serpentina), used for its sedative effects. Today the active components in snakeroot are widely used in Western medicine to treat high blood pressure.
The renewed interest in medicinal plants has focused on herbal cures among indigenous populations around the world. This is especially true among indigenous peoples in tropical rain forests.
Tropical rainforests cover only 12 percent of Earth’s land area, yet they are home to between 50 percent and 90 percent of the world’s species. They contain 90 percent of non-human primates, 40 percent of all prey birds, 80 percent of the world’s insects and, particularly important, over 60 percent of all known plants.
These have been studied by some of the world’s leading ethnobotanists including Richard Schultes, Mark Plotkin, and Walter Lewis, who spent time with locals learning their medical lore. Hopefully, these investigations will add new medical plants to the world’s pharmacopoeia before they are lost forever.
The past decade has witnessed a tremendous surge in acceptance and public interest in natural therapies both in developing and developed countries, with these herbal remedies being available not only in drug stores, but now also in food stores and supermarkets. It is estimated that up to 4 billion people (80 percent of the world’s population) living in the developing world rely on herbal medicinal products as a primary source of healthcare and traditional medical practice which involves the use of herbs is viewed as an integral part of their culture.
The use of herbal remedies has also been widely embraced in many developed countries with complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs) now becoming mainstream in the UK and the rest of Europe, as well as in North America and Australia. In fact, while places like the UK have a historical tradition of using herbal medicine, the use is also widespread and well established in some other European countries. The most important among many other reasons for seeking herbal therapy is the belief that it will promote healthier living. Herbal medicines are often viewed as a balanced and moderate approach to healing and individuals who use them as home remedies and over-the-counter drugs spend huge amount of money (in excess of billions of dollars) on herbal products.
This explains in part the reason sales of herbal medicines are booming and represents a substantial proportion of the global drug market. As the global use of herbal medicinal products continues to grow and many more new products are introduced into the market, public health issues, and concerns surrounding their safety are also increasingly recognised.
Although some herbal medicines have promising potential and are widely used, many of them remain untested and their use also not monitored. This makes knowledge of their potential adverse effects very limited and identification of the safest and most effective therapies as well as the promotion of their rational use more difficult.
It is also common knowledge that the safety of most herbal products is further compromised by lack of suitable quality controls, inadequate labeling, and the absence of appropriate patient information. It has become essential, therefore, to furnish the general public including healthcare professionals with adequate information to facilitate better understanding of the risks associated with the use of these products and to ensure that all medicines are safe and of suitable quality.
Since safety continues to be a major issue with the use of herbal remedies, it becomes imperative, therefore, that relevant regulatory authorities put in place appropriate measures to protect public health by ensuring that all herbal medicines are safe and of suitable quality.
The recent resurgence of public interest in herbal remedies has been attributed to several factors some of which include:
(i) various claims on the efficacy or effectiveness of plant medicines; (ii) preference of consumers for natural therapies and a greater interest in alternative medicines; (iii) belief that herbal products are superior to manufactured products; (iv) dissatisfaction with the results from orthodox pharmaceuticals and the belief that herbal medicines might be effective in the treatment of certain diseases where conventional therapies and medicines have proven to be ineffective or inadequate; (v) high cost and side-effects of many modern drugs; (vi) improvements in the quality, efficacy, and safety of herbal medicines with the development of science and technology; (vii) patients’ belief that their physicians have not properly identified the problem; hence the feeling that herbal remedies are another option; and (viii) a movement toward self-medication. Therefore traditional plant medicine will become an area of ever-increasing importance in the health-care system in the future.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Dr TB Magodora has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other healthcare professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions.
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