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Garden Wise: Nature's pharmacy: plants that heal

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Throughout history, people have turned to the world of plants to cure their ills. To our ancient forebearers, plants had power, both medicinal and magical. Old world literature is replete with stories of plants with the power to heal and to kill. Plants could make us fall in love, drive us insane, lead us to wealth and power, prevent or cause pregnancy. The story of Leah, Rachel and Reuben in Genesis reflects the widely held belief in antiquity that the mandrake had the power to cure barrenness. No wonder that knowledge of plants was prized in all ancient cultures. The Bible tells us that the celebrated “wisdom of Solomon” included knowledge of the plant world, that Solomon “produced manuals on botany, describing every kind of plant, from the cedars of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows on walls. (NET 1 Kings 4:33)

In times past, the local doctor was likely to be an herbalist, who treated ailments with plant-based potions and extracts. Recently, the World Health Organization estimated that, even now, 80 percent of people worldwide rely on herbal medicines for at least part of their health care. In the west, we credit those early herbalists as the forerunners of our modern physicians. The concoctions they developed — lotions, teas, extracts and powders — gave way over time to the modern science of pharmacology.

In the evolutionary history of life on earth, plants faced a unique challenge. While animals developed elaborate “fight or flight” skills to stay alive in a hostile environment, “flight” was not an option for plants. To “fight,” plants used chemical warfare. They developed compounds that could sicken or kill predators, attract enemies of natural predators, make themselves unattractive to predators, attract pollinators, anything that could help them compete in their environment.

Out of this chemical arsenal have come many extracts which we use today to improve health. Plant-based products line shelves of drug stores and supermarkets. Aloe vera gel is widely used to treat sunburn. St. John’s wort and valerian extracts are popular as anti-depressants as is saw palmetto for enlarged prostate in older men.

Herbal teas are often drunk for health benefits: echinacea and rose hips to ward off colds and flu, chamomile, kava and valerian as anti-anxiety tonics and sleep aids, ginger as a digestive aid. Green tea contains a concentration of polyphenol compounds credited with significant health benefits. These include heart health, cancer prevention and weight loss. Chocolate (from the cacao plant) is a rich source of flavonoid antioxidants. Eaten in moderation, dark chocolate is often recommended as part of a heart-healthy diet.

Turmeric, whose yellow-orange roots provide color, pungency and flavor to Indian curries, has undergone a meteoric rise in scientific interest over the last couple of decades. It has shown therapeutic potential for treating some of man’s most challenging threats: cardiovascular disease, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease.

Out of nature’s pharmacy have come many modern drugs. Ancient cultures, the Sumerians, Assyrians, Egyptians, used the opium poppy for pain relief. Much later, the derivative morphine was isolated and from there the whole range of opiates, so important in the management of pain today but so devastating when its use is out of control.

Willow bark was used in many primitive cultures for inflammation, pain and fever. Hippocrates (460—370 BC), the father of modern medicine, advised patients to chew willow bark to relieve fever and pain. Much later, scientists, doing a chemical analysis of willow bark, isolated the glycoside salicin which led later to the development of aspirin, one of the wonder drugs of modern medicine.

Another powerful plant-based glycoside is digitalis derived from the foxglove (Digitalis purpurea L.) Digitalis is used to treat fluid retention (edema) associated with such heart conditions as congestive heart failure and atrial fibrillation.

When our teenage daughter Adriana was diagnosed with advanced Hodgkin’s Disease, a form of lymphatic cancer, one of the drugs that saved her life was vincristine, from the Madagascar periwinkle (Vinca rosea). This periwinkle contains two powerful anti-cancer alkaloids, vincristine and vinblastine. Both alkaloids remain in the arsenal of anti-cancer drugs in use today.

The drug Paclitaxel (Taxol), a derivative of the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia), is used to treat ovarian, breast and lung cancer. According to the NCI, Taxol is now the best-selling anti-cancer drug in history.

Our health is tied to plants. For decades, scientists worked to isolate vitamins and other essential nutrients and package them as supplements. Research, however, has shown these supplements to be generally ineffective. Now, most doctors and nutritionists encourage us to skip the supplements and get those nutrients by following a plant-based diet. In so many ways, science is leading us back to the world of plants, nature’s pharmacy.

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