Why Medicinal Plants Matter: 3 Top Insights

Throughout history, plant medicine was the cornerstone of medication until the chemical revolution and the enactment of the Pharmacy & Medicine Act. This revolution brought us many essential medical drugs, but contemporary scientific research now underscores the indispensable role medicinal plants still have to play in modern healthcare, highlighting three crucial dimensions: medical drugs derived from plants, the efficacy of plant medicine comparable to conventional drugs, and the role of plant medicine in preventative healthcare.


Medicinal Plants as the Origin of Medical Drugs

The first dimension of medicinal plants is in the origins of pharmacotherapy, which reveals a significant number of effective pharmaceuticals that trace their lineage back to plants, showcasing the symbiotic relationship between traditional and modern medicine.

Two vital medical drugs, of over a 100 drugs used today that are from plants, are digoxin from Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), a vital heart stabilizing drug, and metformin, derived from the chemical galegine in Goat’s Rue (Galega officinalis), that is used in diabetes management. Both discovered because of their traditional use in plant medicine.

This historical continuum enriches our appreciation of medical interventions and fosters a deeper understanding of drug development mechanisms.

Other examples of medical drugs from plants include: Autumn Crocus  (Colchicum autumnale) which gives colchicum used for gout, fever and rheumatoid arthritis. Chilli (Capsicum annuum) which gives capsaicin, an approved NHS prescription topical analgesic. European Scopolia (Scopolia carniolica) which gives scopolamine used for motion sickness. Hemp (Cannabis sativa subsp. sativa) which gives cannabidiol, a sedative anticonvulsant. May Apple (Podophyllum) gives the epipodophyllotoxin derivative etoposide used in cancer treatment (lung and leukaemia). And White willow (Salix alba) and Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria which give aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid, a derivative of salicylic acid), the worlds most widely used drug, for inflammation, fever and pain.

Medicinal plants are the origin of many more medical drugs.


Medicinal Plants as Efficacious as Drugs and for some even safer

The second insight is the role of medicinal plants in medicine, when they are used as whole plant extracts – containing a number of active chemicals, and taken at a medicinal level.

Scientific evidence increasingly highlights the therapeutic efficacy of plant-based interventions, often rivalling and even surpassing single drug medication in efficacy, while presenting a safer medicine with few if any side-effects such as addiction.

There are now controlled trials that show that a number of plant medicines are as effective as their prescription drug equivalent, with minimal side effects.

For example a Valerian, Passiflora, & Hop plant medicine was found as effective as Zolpidem for insomnia, but without the ataxia, daytime sedation and addictive potential of Zolpidem.

Marshmallow extract (1%) was studied versus Hydrocortisone (1%) for atopic dermatitis in children, and there were significantly better results in the marshmallow group.

When a Melissa & Fennel extract was tested versus Citalopram (a serotonin reuptake inhibitor) and placebo for quality of life in postmenopausal women with sleep disturbance, there were better results in plant medicine group, without side-effects such as nausea, sleep changes, sexual disfunction and weight changes.

And crucially – with respect to antibiotic-use led resistance, cranberry was as efficacious as Fosfomycin for urinary tract infection, with the wellbeing of the cranberry group higher than that of the Fosfomycin group on day 7 of treatment.

Plant medicine as a complement or alternative to conventional pharmaceuticals can optimise therapeutic outcomes and prioritise patient safety and well-being.


Medicinal Plants as Preventative Medicine

Thirdly, beyond treating conditions, edible medicinal plants offer potent preventative medicine benefits, a vital and more fiscally beneficial strategy in today’s healthcare planning.

Consuming phytochemicals is associated with a reduced risk of several chronic diseases, partly due to their antioxidant and free radical scavenging properties, but many are also rich in range of other protective compounds.

Epidemiological studies show that those who regularly consume fruit juice, walnuts, and curry have lower cognitive decline, and those who consume apples have a lower cancer incidence than those who do not.

For example: Artichoke controls cholesterol and blood pressure, supports liver health, and treats hangovers. Beetroot improves exercise performance and blood pressure control. Blueberry enhances cognition, memory, vascular function, and lipid status.

‘Why should a man die whilst sage grows in his garden?’: Including a range of herbs in our diet is vital too. For example, our European sage has been shown to improve mood, cognition and memory, control blood sugar and lipid status, and is also a powerful antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. Using European sage as a preventative tonic was established by humans hundreds of years ago.

Many other European herbs are preventative medicines, including elderberry, which is antiviral, helping prevent infection in winter, and hawthorn (haws) which works through several actions to support cardiac health. And there are many others worldwide such as Middle-Eastern nigella seed and south East Asian turmeric root.


For many people, just knowing what the medicinal plants actually do is enough to stimulate eating them more, growing them more, and using them as medicine.

‘An apple a day keeps the…’? Apple is immunostimulant, controls hyperglycaemia, supports cardiac health and reduces inflammation. Apples (and other fruits and vegetables) can often be found cheap at the end of the day at market stalls – red are more beneficial and the skin is high in the protective phytochemicals.

What to Takeaway? We used to consume a diverse range of plants when we lived rurally and grew our own. If you’re not able to grow them, you can gain the same preventative medicine benefits through the many accessible garden centre and supermarket fresh herbs and dried spices – such as turmeric powder. Turmeric root is a powerful anti-inflammatory and shown to clinically lower pain and improve memory and mood, and it also contains anticancer chemicals.

Education on Nutrition, that includes medicinal plants, must now been seen as important as maths and science. If you take anything away from reading this, be aware of safer alternative to drugs, and simply add more of a range of herbs & spices to your food everyday, just adding more black pepper for example helps the absorption of the protective phytochemicals present in what we eat.

Caution: Don’t forget to first consult a registered medical herbalist first before taking any plant at a medicinal level if you have any medical condition or allergy, are pregnant or are taking any medication; and do not stop taking any medication you have been prescribed. Always be sure of the identify of your plant, and source plant products from a reputable source only.

Copyright 2024 Dr Nicolette Perry Dilston Physic Garden.

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