By Claire Laurant, ethnobotanist
Approximately 350,000 different species of plants have been inventoried across the planet. In the midst of all this abundance, how may we recognize medicinal plants ?80% of humans treat themselves with plants, which leads to powerful ecological pressure on certain species. Most of our chemical medicines copy molecules of herbal drugs, but are unable to reproduce the complexity of therapeutic action of a medicinal plant.
Plants belong to the vegetable realm, and all 4 realms – mineral, vegetable, animal, and human – are of the same mineral composition (carbon, silica…). Plants have the same cellular composition as humans and animals, and have similar enzymatic reactions to them. Lichens, mosses, and horsetails appeared in the Primary era…Their decomposition fertilized the soil to produce humus. Without plants, there could be no human beings on earth. Ecology is truly the interdependence and interconnection between all realms. .
Genuine chemical factories, plants are able to « bio-vegetate » or turn mineral substances into organic matter assimilable by humans or animals, who draw from them nutrients essential to their survival. Plants can synthesize carbohydrates from carbon dioxide, water and solar energy (photosynthesis). Water transports organic substances from the roots to the stem, and from there, distributes them to the aerial parts of the plant, thus enabling the exchange of minerals between the plant and its environment. Organic substances from the soil, combined with carbohydrates produced by photosynthesis, give to the plant its chemical specificity.
100 active ingredients in a single plant
In nature, a plant can not be considered ‘medicinal’. It is the human being who qualifies it as such, recognizing in it a specific effect which relieves discomfort. Currently, 80% of humans treat themselves with plants (source : World Health Organisation), which causes significant pressure on the environment. In this context, how do we obtain, produce and harvest species which are useful for human health without risking their extinction ? Some plants are overused because global demand is so high – for example, Harpagophytum (devil’s claw) originally from Southern Africa, highly effective against rheumatismal pains.
A large number of allopathic medicines are copies of molecules from the plant world :
- colchicine from Colchicum is used to treat gout,
- vinblastine from the Madagascar Periwinkle treats certain cancers,
- taxol from yew trees treats hormone-dependent cancers,
- atropine from Atropa Belladonna is an antispasmodic…
Few medicines derive from chemical molecules entirely created by humans.
On average, a plant contains approximately one hundred different active ingredients, some of which are primary, and other minor ingredients which modulate its activity. This symbiosis creates complex active mechanisms and many therapeutic properties which are difficult to understand, unlike chemical molecules, which have a specific targeted effect. Plants have a large spectrum of action in regulating and balancing physiological functions.
One action for one molecule, but an extraordinary diversity of actions for a single plant
Let’s consider the example of the Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria ou Spirea ulmaria). At the same time, at the end of the 19th century, in England and in France, two research teams isolated salicylic acid, one from willow (Salix alba), and the other from Meadowsweet : It was the first patent to be registered for a chemical molecule by a laboratory, under the patent name Aspirin®. Aspirin® relieves pains by a targeted action on specific receptors. ; However, it has certain notorious side effects, such as irritation of the gastric mucous, and the appearance of stomach ulcers after prolonged use by people at risk, when combined with an inappropriate diet and chronic stress.
When we use the plant, preferably in herbal tea, the galenic form which is most appropriate, or in low homeopathic dilutions, other active ingredients regulate the irritating effect of salicylic acid – hence the interest of using all the active ingredients rather than a single molecule. Furthermore, Meadowsweet in its global form, or « totum », has a far wider spectrum of activity than a single molecule:
- it regulates predispositions to rheumatism, osteoarthritis, repeated urinary disorders, water retention, oedema and cellulite ;
- it is also a respiratory, digestive and urogenital antiseptic (antibacterial properties) ;
- and finally, it is a blood thinner (due to the presence of acid salicylic).
A plant has many levels of action – it acts as a drainer for organs and functions, regulates predispositions… This complementarity helps to improve the terrain and thus helps to avoid relapses by balancing the physiological functions and facilitating the evacuation of the « overflow »or again, by providing minerals and vitamins where they are needed. Moreover, most plants have antioxidant properties, essential for opposing cellular aging, which is accelerated nowadays by permanent exposure to environmental pollutants and chronic stress.