Medicinal plants that really work | Science | In-depth science and technology reporting | DW


Humans have been extracting healing properties from plants for thousands of years. Although herbal remedies are often considered unscientific, more than a third modern medicines are derived directly or indirectly from natural products, such as plants, micro-organisms and animals.

Now researchers from the Scripps Research Institute in the US state of California have found that a chemical extracted from the bark of the Galbulimima belgraveana tree has psychotropic effects it could help treat depression and anxiety.

The tree is found only in the remote rainforests of Papua New Guinea and northern Australia and has long been used by indigenous peoples as a remedy for pain and fever.

“It shows that Western medicine hasn’t cornered the market for new therapies; there are traditional medicines still waiting to be studied,” lead author Ryan Shenvi, PhD, a Scripps professor of chemistry, told reporters. Research, last week. .

What other medicines are found in plants?

The best-known example of a medicine extracted from a plant species is opium, which has been used to treat pain for over 4,000 years. Opiates like morphine and codeine are extracted from the opium poppy and have a powerful effect on the central nervous system.

Afghan farmers harvest raw opium in a poppy field

But what other ancient herbal medicines have demonstrable medical benefits, and what is the science behind them?

Velvet bean treats Parkinson’s disease

Velvet bean (Mucuna pruriens) has been used in ancient Indian Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for over 3,000 years. Ancient texts tell us how healers used bean extracts to reduce tremors in patients to treat the disease we now think of as Parkinson’s disease.

Studies now show that velvet bean contains a compound called levodopaa drug used today to treat Parkinson’s disease.

Levodopa helps stop tremors by increasing dopamine signals in areas of the brain that control movement.

The modern history of levodopa began in the early 20th century when the compound was synthesized by Polish biochemist Casimir Funk. Decades later, in the 1960s, scientists discovered that levodopa could be used as an effective treatment to stop tremors in patients with Parkinson’s disease. The drug revolutionized the treatment of the disease and today remains the gold standard for its treatment.

Velvety beans on a table

Velvet seeds contain chemicals to help treat tremors caused by Parkinson’s disease

Hawthorn could be a future treatment for cardiovascular disease

The medical properties of hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) were first noted by the Greek physician Dioscorides in the 1st century and by Tang-Ben-Cao in ancient Chinese medicine in the 7th century.

Clinical trials using current research standards have shown that hawthorn reduces blood pressure and may be useful for treating cardiovascular disease. Hawthorn berries contain compounds such as bioflavonoids and proanthocyanidins that appear to have significant antioxidant activity.

Hawthorn extracts are not yet suitable for medical use by the general public – studies are ongoing and more rigorous research is needed to assess the long-term safety of using the extracts to treat disease.

hawthorn branch

Hawthorn berries taste a bit like small apples and their extracts could help treat heart or blood diseases

Pacific Yew Bark May Fight Cancer

Yews hold a special place in medicine in European mythology. Most parts of the tree are highly poisonous, causing associations with death and immortality. The Third Witch of Macbeth mentions “yew slats cut into strips during the lunar eclipse” (Macbeth Act 4, Scene 1).

But it is a species of yew from North America, the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia), which has the most beneficial medical properties.

Scientists in the 1960s discovered that the bark of the tree contains compounds called taxels. One of these taxels, called Paclitaxel, has been developed into an effective cancer drug. Paclitaxel can prevent cancer cells from dividing, thus stopping the growth of the disease.

Pacific yew in Oregon

Pacific yew in the US state of Oregon

The wonder drug from willow bark

Willow bark is another traditional medicine with a long history. The bark was adopted 4,000 years ago in ancient Sumer and Egypt to treat pain and has been a staple of medicine ever since.

Willow bark contains a compound called salicin, which would later form the basis for the discovery of aspirin, the world’s most widely abused drug.

Aspirin has several different medical benefits, including pain relief, fever reduction, and stroke prevention. Its first widespread use was during the 1918 flu pandemic to treat high temperatures.

Willow bark on a table

Willow bark is commonly found in the northern hemisphere

Edited by: Clare Roth


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