How are plants medicinal?
Plants can’t run away when animals try to eat them so they produce chemicals to deter their enemies. Just like humans, plants also need to fight disease and make babies. So they produce chemical compounds to attract pollinators (birds, bees, butterflies and bats) and kill pathogens (bacteria and viruses).
These chemicals are biologically active in our bodies. Since time began, humans have used plants to heal themselves.
Pharmacognosy (say what?) is the scientific study of plants – how they effect the human body and their potential as drugs. (a branch of pharmacology). Wild forests around the world are bursting with medicinal plants that local people rely on for good health.
Did you know in the UK we have vast areas of land for growing medicinal plants? Fields of opium poppies (nature’s painkiller) are cultivated and made into morphine for UK hospitals, providing 50% of all morphine used in the UK. (P.S. Don’t get any ideas their locations are shrouded in secrecy).
We know a nibble on the wrong plant can harm and even kill us. But a huge number of plants have positive and healing effects in humans. Many plants do both depending on dose – too much of it and you’re a goner, but a moderate amount and you’re good:
Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna)
→ can provide relief from spasmodic bowel pain but overdose and you will fall into a coma and die. But not before suffering terrible hallucinations. (click here for my qualifications and experience :))
→ opthalmologists (eye doctors) dilate pupils with the chemical atropine (isolated from Belladonna) to see the back of the eye.
→ historically, ladies put the juice of Belladonna berries in their eyes to make their pupils bigger and so appear more attractive.
Now some plants may be good for one thing but bad for something else:
Hops (Humulus lupulus)
→ good for sleep – hop pickers fell asleep in the hop fields of Kent while picking hops but it’s not a good herb if you suffer with depression
To use herbs safely as a medicine, knowledge is essential. This is where herbalists and traditional herbal medicine come into their own. Traditional herbal medicine, be it Western Herbal Medicine (UK), Chinese or Ayurvedic has been used since at least 77000 years ago and is documented in more than 8000 books. It’s all been handed down to us so we know what herbs are safe and what are not (with a little help from clinical trials and in vitro studies along the way).
(N.B. Atropa belladonna can only be prescribed by a qualified herbalist in the UK following a consultation as it is a restricted herb or by some pharmacists).