Using Plants for Medicine

Today, one-quarter of all prescription drugs contain a useful plant ingredient. More than 100 prescription drugs are made from plants. When did the relationship between plants, people, and medicine begin?

Throughout human history, people have used and passed down information about plants that can ease pain, infections, and physical maladies. About 4000 BC, Sumerian healers engraved cuneiform characters for various medicinal plants onto clay tablets. These may have been the first herbals, or lists of healing plants. A 70-foot-long Egyptian scroll dated to 1500 BC recorded 850 plant remedies, including garlic, for preventing illness.

An Indian poem from this same era, called the Rig Veda, describes many plant remedies, including snakeroot (Rauvolfia serpentina) for snakebite. Modern researchers discovered that snakeroot contains the compound reserpine, which lowers blood pressure. A Chinese herbal from 1000 BC,the Pen Tsao, lists 375 botanicals, including opium and ephedra, that are still used as painkillers and stimulants.

Around 300 BC, Aristotle described various herbal remedies, and his student Theophrastus wrote the text Historia Plantarum. In 100 AD, the Roman scholar Dioscorides wrote de Materia Medica, in which he mentions white willow, later found to be a source of aspirin. Both books were still in use in the Middle Ages. At least one herbal written in 1250 AD includes foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), the source of a heart stimulant.

The modern era of medicinal plants began with the use of quinine for treating malaria. Peruvian Indians had long recognized the value of the cinchona tree for treating feverish patients. Bark from this tree was first advertised for sale in England in 1658. However, it wasn't until 1820 that quinine was isolated from the bark of the cinchona tree by French chemists.

The development of aspirin presents a similar story. Extracts from the white willow tree had been known from the time of the ancient Greeks to ease pain. However, the pain-relieving substance, salicin, wasn't isolated until 1829. Because salicin causes stomach problems, more research was required for the development of a buffered derivative, aspirin, which was offered to the public in 1899.

During the 1950s, drug companies began to seek medicinal plants all over the world. In 1957, scientists discovered that extracts from the Madagascar rosy periwinkle are effective against childhood leukemia. Deaths from childhood leukemia have since dropped by 80 percent. Taxol, derived from the Pacific yew and approved for medical use in 1993, is an effective treatment against ovarian cancer. So far, however, only a small percentage of the world's plants have been tested for useful medicines such as these.

Review

1. Name two medicinal plants used in ancient times and today.

2. Critical Thinking Why is it important to preserve the medicinal knowledge of indigenous cultures?

3. Critical Thinking How might the destruction of rain forests impact the future of medicine?

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Plants Keyword: HM60934

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